In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty tries to find an economic driver of structural inequality that might be amenable to policy control; he finds that capital income contributes strikingly to increasing inequality and that, potentially though not easily, its effects can be reduced by tax policy. Most discussions of his book focus on his academic work of data gathering, analysis, and theory-building.
A second intention gets less attention. This is the intention to engage directly in public discourse: not simply informing public discourse, nor simply a written form of public speaking, but seeing himself and his work as direct participants in a marketplace that includes ordinary, not-scholarly, not-official people and, presumably, their language and ideas. “Social scientists, like all intellectuals and all citizens, ought to participate in public debate…. It is illusory, I believe, to think that the scholar and the citizen live in separate moral universes, the former concerned with means and the latter with ends.” For me, the charm and importance of his work, well beyond the competence of his (and his team’s) data-gathering, analysis, and theory-building, derives from this engagement, unabashedly personal, with a systemic moral universe that includes the scholar and the citizen.
I started reading Piketty’s Capital around the same time that I read the transcript of Marilynne Robinson’s conversation with Barack Obama, and immediately promised myself that I would write this post, because Robinson and Obama’s conversation has the same quality of ranging outside the lines of conventional or official categories. In a back-and-forth that comfortably meanders from careful phrases to sentences that try to capture a truth so intensely they immediately reveal their own limits, then on to rambling words strung together thinking-out-loud, Robinson and Obama discuss the importance and meaning of Christianity in Robinson’s life and writing, the language and role of Christianity in contemporary politics, the gap between ordinary decency and mean-spirited politics, and race in the US, among other things. It’s not that such discussions are unusual or that the content is extraordinary; what is remarkable is the ease with which Robinson and Obama make the ordinary* commute with intellectual, author, President, in a public conversation.
So, why am I writing this post? Because I was invigorated by Piketty’s, Robinson’s and Obama’s smudging beyond the boundaries of expertise and the lines of disciplinary language. I loved their engagement beyond the professionalization of their, and our, lives. In his book and in their conversation, these three people – Piketty, Robinson, and Obama – bring intellect into direct contact with ordinary life, in the public sphere. I hear their words bringing to the fore, in a wonderful way, an obvious but usually subdued understanding: that all people – social and political beings, whether “intellectual” or not – have equal stake in the moral universe that human society necessarily is.
* here a noun
Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama chat on Sept 14, 2014
Part II of Robinson and Obama Chat