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Thomas Piketty signing autographed copies of his bestseller. Paulo Slachevsky/Flickr

Piketty vs. Piketty

The central thesis of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that the recent concentration of wealth and political power is simply the normal behavior of a capitalist economy. Yet Piketty's own behavior since becoming a celebrity suggests that he doesn't believe it.

BERKELEY – In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the French economist Thomas Piketty highlights the striking contrasts in North America and Europe between the Gilded Age that preceded World War I and the decades following World War II. In the first period, economic growth was sluggish, wealth was predominantly inherited, the rich dominated politics, and economic (as well as race and gender) inequality was extreme.

But after the upheaval of WWII, everything changed. Income growth accelerated, wealth was predominantly earned (justly or unjustly), politics became dominated by the middle class, and economic inequality was modest (even if race and gender equality remained a long way off). The West seemed to have entered a new era. But then, in the 1980s, these trends seemed to start shifting steadily back to the pre-WWI norm.

Piketty’s central thesis is that we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Our reversion to the economic and political patterns of the Gilded Age is to be expected as the economies of North America and Europe return to what is normal for a capitalist society.

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