A new book by French economist Thomas Piketty has been causing quite a stir in academic circles over the past year. Now, with the translated publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that fervor is about to spill out of the ivory towers and onto the streets. Piketty’s book ambitiously tackles the topic of economic inequality. His central thesis, in absolute simplest terms, is that the very rich are getting richer and the poor are staying put. Those who rely on wage income for their wealth (the middle class and the poor), Piketty argues, are not likely to see their lot improve in the near future. The very rich, who do not rely on wage income because they have capital in the form of real estate, financial assets, businesses, or patents, will continue to see their wealth skyrocket into the twenty-first century. Ultimately, if capital growth continues to exceed overall economic growth, Piketty worries that this striking imbalance will cause the breakdown of democratic institutions and the social fabric of society.
Whether or not one agrees with his final premise, Piketty has done his fair share of research and is well respected within the economics field. While studying at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and subsequently while teaching at MIT, Piketty began to collect historical data on income and wealth, something that economists at the time neglected to do. Although Capital in the Twenty-First Century was written for a global audience, Piketty has the data to back up his findings, though it has not gone without criticism. Most of Piketty’s harshest critics paint him as Marxist or Communist, when in reality he is merely challenging certain aspects of the current free market system – the part that contributes to a great deal of economic inequality. But any work that deals with inequality is bound to get political. And as Piketty notes in an interview with the New York Times, he is welcoming the debate.
Piketty’s ideas for solving this rising inequality are perhaps the weakest part of his argument. In his book he calls for a global tax on wealth that is at best impossible and at worst extremely out-of-touch with the political realities that frame any worthy discussion of policy prescriptions in developed countries. But we should not shrug off his work because of his ideas on policy. Piketty succeeds in collecting and presenting decades of historical data on an issue that has come to define the early twenty-first century. Working as an economic archaeologist, Piketty has made some fascinating discoveries. He has dug up a set of evidence that captures in a new light the increasing economic inequality today. His work is best read as a challenge to our current paradigm of economic inequality, not as a revolutionary tale of two cities.