Thomas Denney

The French Economist Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty’s work on income inequality is much cited and discussed; he is considered one of the most influential living economists. I’ve seen his name crop up a lot recently, especially in articles about the economy after coronavirus. However, there’s just one problem: journalists can’t seem to resist mentioning that he’s the “French economist Thomas Piketty”.

The fact that Piketty is French doesn’t particularly matter to most articles that introduce him this way: granted some of his work focused on the French economy and most of his books and articles were published in French before English translations, but this rarely affects the context.

Even Piketty's own publisher couldn't resist the phrase in a review on the back cover of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Even Piketty’s own publisher couldn’t resist the phrase in a review in a review on the back cover of Capital in the Twenty First-Century.

For a while I had a hunch that Piketty was introduced more frequently by his nationality than other economists, so I collected data on the matter. Using a list of the “15 most influential living economists” from The Economist in 2014, I used Google search result counts for the exact phrase “Nationality economist Person” to determine overall ratios.1 I have also included Adam Smith, Keynes, and Marx for reference.

Economist Nationality Total With Nationality Ratio
Robert Shiller American 567,000 12,300 2.17%
Thomas Piketty French 2,080,000 37,500 1.80%
John Maynard Keynes British 2,470,000 43,400 1.76%
Jeffrey Sachs American 1,040,000 8,420 0.81%
Laurence Kotlikoff American 58,400 442 0.76%
Kenneth Rogoff American 552,000 3,170 0.57%
Alan Blinder American 167,000 694 0.42%
Martin Feldstein2 American 370,000 833 0.23%
Joseph Stiglitz American 1,720,000 3,560 0.21%
Paul Krugnman American 3,340,000 4,460 0.13%
Karl Marx3 German 20,500,000 22,980 0.11%
Adam Smith Scottish 17,200,000 15,500 0.09%
Larry Summers American 1,400,000 907 0.06%
Daniel Kahneman4 Israeli-American 3,200,000 879 0.03%
Justin Wolfers American 222,000 4 0.00%
Simon Johnson British-American 592,000 3 0.00%
Jonathan Gruber American 244,000 1 0.00%
Ernst Fehr Austrian-Swiss 148,000 0 0.00%

Shiller, Piketty, and Keynes are clear outliers. The dominance of Americans both in the list and in the field perhaps suggests that economists are considered American by default by most journalists (and perhaps readers too). Nevertheless, the bottom half of the list comprises those of dual and other nationality. The inclusion of a more international pool of economists might reveal a different trend, although we would expect significantly fewer references to them.

Next, I restricted my search to references to these economists on The Economist’s own website. This ought to reduce false positives in the data too, as references to these names are more likely to be to the economists rather than other individuals of the same name. I suspected that The Economist was particularly prone to this trend.

Economist Nationality Total Economist mentions With Nationality Ratio
Thomas Piketty French 2,530 125 4.94%
John Maynard Keynes British 2,970 3 0.10%
Adam Smith Scottish 5,200 4 0.08%
Paul Krugnman American 3,900 1 0.03%
Karl Marx German 4,050 1 0.02%
Larry Summers American 2,580 0 0.00%
Robert Shiller American 1,430 0 0.00%
Daniel Kahneman Israeli-American 1,150 0 0.00%
Joseph Stiglitz American 1,030 0 0.00%
Jeffrey Sachs American 892 0 0.00%
Kenneth Rogoff American 888 0 0.00%
Simon Johnson British-American 859 0 0.00%
Martin Feldstein American 764 0 0.00%
Alan Blinder American 585 0 0.00%
Justin Wolfers American 567 0 0.00%
Jonathan Gruber American 209 0 0.00%
Laurence Kotlikoff American 95 0 0.00%
Ernst Fehr Austrian-Swiss 4 0 0.00%

Amongst Economist articles Piketty is an even more extreme outlier. I’ve found no evidence in The Economist Style Guide that the publication requires the use of nationality or profession when introducing individuals, and the data show this is true of other economists. In conclusion, I’ve absolutely no idea why the newspaper so frequently introduces him as the “French economist Thomas Piketty”, but they certainly refer to his nationality and occupation a great deal more than they do of his peers.

  1. This list was criticised on publication (not least by The Economist itself a few days later) for including no women and being overly academic.↩︎

  2. Died after the list was written.↩︎

  3. Totals include the professions economist and philosopher.↩︎

  4. Totals include the professions economist and psychologist.↩︎