This morning, Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of Free State University, posted the following message on Facebook: ‘Dear students, your education will be incomplete unless you all read Pikkety’s new book Capital in the 21st century. What he discovers about inequality over time, and how to remedy it, might just save our country from social and economic doom. Required reading!’
Thomas Piketty, and his thesis, has certainly taken the world by storm. Paul Krugman called it ‘an extremely important book on all fronts’, Mervyn King called it a ‘serious, thought-provoking book’, and Tyler Cowen argues that the book aims to ‘answer a basic but profoundly important question’. This is true. Capital in the Twenty-First Century makes an important contribution to our understanding of inequality. But it is also voluminous and, to be honest, translated from the French edition, not wonderfully eloquent. It is a publishing sensation (it reached number one on Amazon!), but I doubt that many will actually finish it, especially given that the main thesis is better explained in the excellent reviews cited above. It will certainly not appeal to the average undergraduate student, given that many struggle to read a 5-page chapter in a textbook. As someone on Twitter noted, ‘Now the Thomas Piketty book has hit the mainstream I’d like to make it clear I knew about it and didn’t read it before you didn’t read it’.
Yet the book addresses one of the most fundamental challenges of our time – inequality. While inequality has reached the global policy agenda only recently (owing to the rapid increases in inequality within countries, even though inequality between countries is on the decline), it is an economic and social problem that South Africa has had to deal with for a long time. Professor Jansen is correct in asserting that we – students of the social sciences – need to spend more time thinking about the economic causes and consequences of inequality, even if it is not entirely to ‘save our country from social and economic doom’. (Mental picture: Knights in shining armour (Servaas, Murray, Haroon?) fighting the dragons of Nkandla.) But here is an alternative suggestion, prof Jansen: Why not recommend your students to study Economics? If we believe that poverty, unemployment and inequality are serious economic issues, why do we not encourage more students to understand (and transform!) the nature of the beast? Why recommend a book written by a French economist when it should be our best and brightest who, given our own long road to (economic) freedom, tell the world about the pitfalls and paradoxes of economic inequality?
South Africa desperately needs more economists – not more people who have read a book about inequality. Economists are trained to not only construct plausible hypotheses but to also test these hypotheses using empirical data and statistical techniques, and to contextualise these results. It is a field that accommodates many interests: development economists think about policies to alleviate poverty, trade economists identify constraints that allow South African businesses to find export markets, macroeconomics attempt to understand the business cycle and prescribes policies to reduce fluctuations around it, and economic historians, like myself, believe, much like Piketty, that the past has useful knowledge that will allow us to make better policies in the present.
We have excellent departments of economics in this country who deliver a steady supply of well-trained economists (who, incidentally, find work with relative ease). But we are not exempt of blame. We often talk to ourselves, mostly in economist-speak, and avoid forums where public opinion takes shape. (For example, how many South African economists can you name? But I’m sure many have heard the names of Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz or Tim Harford.) I am also convinced that we do not do enough to encourage our best students to consider a PhD in Europe or, preferably, the US. On my brief visit to the US last year, I was surprised by the high number of PhD students in Economics from countries much poorer than South Africa. Close to 70% of all economics PhDs awarded at American universities are to foreign-born students. Very few of them, I fear, were South African.
We cannot improve as a discipline if we only train ourselves. (Piketty, even though he is French, studied at the London School of Economics and worked for two years at MIT.) My advice to any (bright) student who wants to tackle South Africa’s greatest challenges is to do a Masters-degree in Economics at a South African institution (preferably with a strong dose of mathematics and econometrics), and then enrol for a PhD at a US university. (Note: this need not be a PhD at an Ivy League university. Even the 50th best US university is likely to deliver a better, or at least different, product than South African universities.) But these programmes are not for everyone; there is a strong bias towards mathematics. (Piketty warns of its overuse, but in South Africa we are still on the wrong side of this distribution.) And this is not to say that South African PhDs are not worth pursuing: they can be equally valuable (and much more affordable) if they offer students exposure to international networks, workshops and conferences. So, does this PhD-thing sound tempting? There’s some good advice online. Start here, then go here, here and here.
Lindiwe Mazibuko’s decision to do a Masters-degree at Harvard is an excellent example of someone who realises the many positives of a foreign education. She will be an example to many of our brightest students. Let’s hope, to save our country from social and economic doom, some of them return with PhDs in Economics.