Nobody Actually Reads Piketty

I live a life of keeping secrets. It is exceedingly rare, and sometimes provides a story with a message, when I get to tell a secret. This is one of those times.

I’m a life member of the storied Council on Foreign Relations. Have been, for the past 23 years. My entering class included people a lot more important than me, like Sandra Day O’Connor. I snuck through the membership screening in the fall of 1990 at the age of 35 because Dick Neustadt and Arthur Schlesinger thought that I held out political promise. They were wrong, but that’s entirely another tale.

cfr_pocketfolder_detail-featureAt the CFR we operate strictly on our version of the Chatham House Rule. Our meetings are held “on a not-for-attribution basis to encourage frank and candid discussion. This means that participants are welcome to make use of the information received at the meeting, but neither the identity of the speakers nor that of any other participant may be revealed, nor may anyone cite a CFR meeting as the source of the information.”

Institutional circumspection and strict privacy have resulted, of course, in the Council’s centrality in every wackadoodle conspiracy theory imaginable. These include a couple in which I am assigned a role—yeah, that’s fun to contemplate until it happens to you on the Internet.

Recognizing this dynamic, a few years ago the CFR decided to hold some open meetings. Not open to the public, but broadcast on C-SPAN and with media invitees in attendance. Then they go on the web.

You may see where I’m headed with this. Council members socialized to private, freewheeling frank discussion in an environment of intellectually elite peers sometimes tell blunt truths that they would never otherwise admit in public.

Then when a CFR meeting is open, that socialization of openness and candor could still prevail. Which is exactly what happened in a rare instant on May 7 here in Washington, three weeks ago.

The beauty is . . . because it was an open meeting and with apologies for that lengthy setup . . . I can tell you about it here.


Alan Greenspan

Alan Greenspan was our luncheon speaker. Our event host—“presider” in CFR-speak—was a brilliant dynamic Washington insider named Diana Farrell, global head of McKinsey’s Center for Government.

The third player in this petit drama was Mitzi Wertheim, whom you met here on Algonquin Redux last June in my post Book Launch: Six Stories. Mitzi and I go back decades. We met when I was her pilot in 1978, a young naval aviator flying around a couple of Carter administration Navy Department civilians only a few years older than me. The other one was a guy named Jim Woolsey who went on to head the CIA. Now Mitzi runs special projects for the Naval Postgraduate School and holds one of Washington’s most exclusive salons at her home.

You can begin to see now how those CFR conspiracy theories germinate. But I digress.


Diana Farrell

Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve and a CFR stalwart, was discussing worldwide prospects for economic growth. He is so well known among us Council members that the event was entitled simply “A Conversation with Alan Greenspan.” A load of international media was there too, spiral-bound notebooks and laptop computers out, Klieg lights and cameras on. Farrell expertly guided the discussion with a deft, humble touch. It was wide-ranging, deeply intellectual, provocative, eye-opening, penetrating, humorous—everything you’d expect from Greenspan, who even at the age of 88 is still at the top of his game. Really.

Once Farrell and Greenspan were through, the audience of CFR members got to ask questions. Mitzi Wertheim’s hand shot up. She was seated up front, and clearly wanted to ask the Chairman something pressing. Diana Farrell nodded to her.


Mitzi Wertheim

Mitzi’s question was about Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which is of course the “it” book of the moment, especially among political and economic liberals. Had Greenspan read it? What did he think?

“Wait a second,” Diana said, stepping in. “Before you answer, let me ask all of you . . . How many of you have read it? Show of hands, please.”

Now think about this for a moment. 170 Washington-based members of the Council on Foreign Relations and a major complement of US and international press corps—economic reporters—are in the room. Listening to Alan Greenspan.

Arguably the most august assembly of economic policy elites that it is possible to assemble in America.

How many of them actually read Piketty?

I looked around and counted four hands. Mitzi’s was one of them. Mine was not. Neither was Alan Greenspan’s.

“OK,” Farrell continued. “How many of you have read some review or commentary about it?”

You guessed right. Every hand in the room went up.


Thomas Piketty and Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Here’s the lesson behind this story: There have always been books whose impact and significance—particularly in high-literary and politico-cultural spheres of influence—are about their act of publication rather than their content because nobody reads them.

We’ve all suspected that this is the case.

Rarely do we get real empirical proof.

Show of hands please, who’s actually read Naked Lunch? Finnegan’s Wake? The Gulag Archipelago? Or in another category entirely, Mein Kampf? The original Kapital?

Much as I disagree with him—well, at least from what I’ve read—I genuinely and deeply admire Thomas Piketty, because people are buying his book.


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Today is Scott Turow’s final day as president of The Authors Guild, coincident with the close of Book Expo America 2014. I want to thank him here publicly for his stewardship, grace, and service in our interests as writers. Scott, they don’t come any better as novelists, public leaders, lawyers, friends, and men. Now that you have a little more time on your hands, maybe Norb Vonnegut and I can convince you to guest blog for us here on AR.