The big inequality news this week has been the publication of Thomas Piketty’s monumental book about the subject, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I weighed in with my review in The Washington Monthly here; you can also read a trio of responses at The American Prospect, as well as Dean Baker’s Huffington Post critique. Paul Krugman offers a discussion of some of the book’s technical points here.
This book is making a huge splash, for excellent reasons. Let’s start with its technical apparatus. Piketty, a French economist, has assembled a formidable database on wealth and income from various nations that in some cases goes as far back as the eighteenth century. This has enabled him to conduct a far more rigorous and systematic analysis of the history of inequality than previous generations of researchers.
What’s also exciting about the book is its ambition and moral seriousness. Give the man props for his sheer chutzpah, if nothing else. Piketty has written a 700-page book that offers a grand theory of the dynamics of inequality and capital accumulation and traces it through history. In doing so, he picks up a project much of the rest of the economics profession abandoned long ago. Not since Simon Kuznets and his “Kuznets curve,” a 1950s era model that held that inequality first increased, then decreased as economies grew, has a mainstream economist undertaken such a thorough investigation of inequality.
Certainly, Piketty is more responsible than any living economist for returning the question of distribution back where it belongs: at the center of economic analysis. It is the research of Piketty and his colleagues, such as Emmanuel Saez, who first demonstrated the depth and scope of the economic inequality problem. They also identified the crucial fact that spiraling inequality is mostly being driven by the richest 1 percent of the income distribution. According to Piketty’s most recent data, in the United States, the top 10 percent earned about half of all income, and the top 1 percent earned over one-fifth. Income inequality in this country has reached the highest level in at least 100 years.
It’s well worth noting that during the same decade, while inequality continued to soar, the best-selling economics book of the era, authored by an acclaimed, award-winning young economist, proudly devoted itself to topics no more momentous than cheating Sumo wrestlers. Well, that’s the American economics profession for you.
That Capital tackles a subject that could hardly be more urgent is part of what makes it so welcome. And that Piketty’s unusually lucid writing makes the book so accessible to the general reader—no ugly academic jargon! no impenetrable math!—is especially admirable.
What’s most impressive of all, however, is Piketty’s powerful analysis. The argument of the book, in a nutshell, is this: you know that period of declining inequality we experienced throughout much of the twentieth century, that some of us assumed would last forever? Well, it turns out that period was actually a major exception to history, rather than the norm.