THE BLOG

Is the Era of Big Ideas Over?

08/14/2014 11:53 am ET | Updated Oct 14, 2014

Is Thomas Piketty a rock star? To read the news, you'd think he were Mick Jagger and Pharrell Williams rolled into one. For those who eschew 700-page macroeconomic tomes, this is the guy who all the way back in April was going to change the world. His book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, analyzed hundreds of years of data from 20 countries to prove that economic inequality was the ineluctable truth of our modern system (specifically that as long as the rate of return on capital -- generally five to seven percent -- is greater than the rate of GDP growth -- currently one to two percent -- over the long term, we will continue to see our present concentration of wealth, and instability).

People hailed it as the greatest disquisition since The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes and the left claimed it as proof that the wage gap was the issue of our times. Curious then that a mere four months later, the Piketty brand appears to have cooled off -- at least in the United States. The French and English versions have sold approximately 130,000 printed copies and over 13,000 e-books; Harvard University Press expects to sell an additional 200,000 copies. But that's paltry when you consider that a similarly au courant book like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point sold over two million copies in the United States alone. These days, Piketty discussions happen mostly in the blogosphere (I see more mainstream coverage in Europe and Asia these days). And he's been all but absent recently from the stateside talk show circuit.

Of course that shouldn't be surprising when you consider the sheer volume of media noise that even the grandest pronouncements must contend with. Literally, big ideas don't stand a chance in our media environment. According to a study by the University of California, San Diego, the amount of info we receive on our mobile devices and at homes everyday takes about 15 hours to consume. That's 6.9 million-million gigabytes of information, or nine DVDs worth every single day. How can we possibly think back to April when our queues are so overstuffed with the mayhem and amazement of this week? It's left us with a paradox: we have more media channels than anytime in history and yet ideas can't get out of the gates the way they used to.

It seems almost quaint then to think of the speed and force with which ideas used to travel. In his magisterial 1983 book about nationalism and diaspora, Imagined Communities, Cornell professor Benedict Anderson writes movingly about how the printing press allowed Martin Luther to launch the Reformation with a speed that would make the average tech entrepreneur giddy.

The Reformation... owed much of its success to print-capitalism. Before the age of print, Rome easily won every war against heresy in Western Europe because it always had better internal lines of communication than its challengers. But when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his theses to the chapel-door in Wittenberg, they were printed up in German translation, and 'within 15 days [had been] seen in every part of the country.'

In 20 years, Anderson reports, Luther was central to tripling the number of books printed in German.

His works represented no less than one third of all German language books sold between 1518 and 1525. Between 1522 and 1546, a total of 430 editions (whole or partial) of his Biblical translations appeared.

It's important to realize that Luther was much more than a religious reformer:

Inevitably, it was not merely the Church that was shaken to its core. The same earthquake produced Europe's first important non-dynastic, non-city states in the Dutch Republic and the Commonwealth of the Puritans.

All from one pamphlet. Is that still possible or are we just liable to forget in a week or a month? Some say Piketty may still change the way we think. But maybe not for the simple reason that the media universe is too stacked against him.

Perhaps the answer is to focus on the long game when it comes to advancing new ideas. The new model for memes works by accretion. This week, we had a report by rating agency Standard & Poor's lend its weight to the Piketty argument: "The widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has made the economy more prone to boom-bust cycles and slowed the 5-year-old recovery from the recession." According to the report, the top 0.01 percent's average earnings have jumped by a factor of seven since 1913; the bottom 90 percent of Americans have seen average incomes after inflation grow by a factor of just three since 1917 and it's declined for the past 13 years. Interestingly, S&P doesn't agree with Piketty (which is healthy for the debate) on the fix, dismissing his idea of a wealth tax in favor of more education: S&P estimates that the U.S. economy would grow annually by an additional half a percentage point -- or $105 billion -- over the next five years, if the average American worker had completed just one more year of school.

Whether you agree with it or not, Piketty's is a big idea and it would be a shame if it were squeezed out by our media cacophony. Piketty's argument gets even better when you realize that it isn't normative ("Inequality is not a problem per se," Piketty has said) but instead wants to show us the way things are, backed up by scads of data. For those of us born between 1945 and 1973, it's important and poignant to know that we lived through an aberration in human history: an economy heated by the octane of the baby boom and tempered by worldwide shocks (two world wars, the Great Depression) that leveled the playing field. This century won't be like that, Piketty says. It will be more like the early 19th or even the 18th centuries. Now that's something worth listening to.