Only once in a very great while does a dense 700-page economics book capture the public imagination. But that is what happened this spring with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, his treatise on inequality’s causes and cures that is easily the political book of the year. We knew the book was going to be big (although we didn’t know it would get this big). That’s why we asked Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and Harvard president and one of America’s most distinguished economists, to review it for us.
Our delight that Summers agreed was soon matched by our pleasure at the quality of his review. Summers has his criticisms of Piketty, arguing, for example, that the return to capital diminishes more quickly than Piketty assumes. But Summers also recognizes that the book is one of those rare debate-shifters, taking an issue (inequality) that has always been a second-order concern for economists (whatever that says about the economics profession) and putting it front and center. And he puts forward some of his own ideas about how inequality can be addressed.
One issue of keen interest to us around here is the potential for reform within the Republican Party. As the GOP has lurched rightward and become the Party of Stupid, there have in fact been a few conservative intellectuals who have tried to say to their ideological brethren, “Hold on a minute.” Since many of these would-be modernizers are our counterparts on the right, we’re naturally pretty interested in the question of whether they’re making any progress.
In a recent issue, our editorial committee members William Galston and Elaine Kamarck assessed some of the reformers’ efforts. [“The New Politics of Evasion,” Issue #30] Now, our editorial committee chairman—the well-known Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.—weighs in with his own verdict on the group he calls “the Reformicons.” He’s impressed by some of their efforts, but he observes that they have yet to challenge deeply held conservative orthodoxies in a way that will really rattle the cages of Republican elected officials. “The Reformicons,” he writes, “can be part of the historic correction the conservative movement badly needs—or they can settle for being sophisticated enablers of more of the same.”
National service, another preoccupation of this journal, is a topic we’ve previously addressed in different forms. In this issue, in conjunction with the Franklin Project, we’re proud to publish Gen. Stanley McChrystal and former Senator Harris Wofford explaining why America needs a much broader national-service program than we now have. With the publication of this symposium, which also features articles by Clive Belfield and Shirley Sagawa—and which comes out at the same time as a major conference on service taking place in Gettysburg—we aim to do our part in bringing service forward on the national agenda.
Another issue just elbowing its way into the national conversation is whether we need to shrink our military. Michael Cohen emphatically says yes, and he lays out the reasons why in a compelling fashion. On a number of indices, he writes, we simply aren’t fighting as much anymore, and the idea of a great-power ground war seems almost inconceivable today. Cohen argues that our Reserves and National Guard can shoulder a lot more of the work.
Immigration is an issue that’s been at the center of our debates for years, but with Cristina Rodríguez’s feature, we take things in a fresh direction: Rodríguez argues that in the absence of a national consensus, perhaps immigration federalism is the way we ought to let things play out for a while. It’s a provocative and well-made argument.
In the book section, alongside Summers, Paul Starr assesses Al From’s memoir of his years in politics and the legacy of the Democratic Leadership Council, while Todd Gitlin feasts on the latest takedown of the overclass by the incendiary journalist Matt Taibbi.
We offer two Responses in this issue. Rachel Kleinfeld doesn’t really disagree with Brian Katulis’s argument against progressive neo-isolationism; in fact, you might say she violently agrees, and argues that if anything Katulis lets progressives off easy. Diana Carew shares Richard Kahlenberg’s concern about community colleges but posits that their biggest problem is that they’re not preparing their students for the jobs that exist.
Finally, we’re happy to have in our pages again Bernard Schwartz, our publisher and one of Democracy’s most important benefactors. This issue’s Recounting is taken from Bernard’s new memoir, Just Say Yes, and it’s a wise lament about what’s happened to our corporate culture from one who knows that world as few do. No one has been more important to this journal behind the scenes. We’re delighted to welcome him to occupy a more public place.