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Piketty and the Zeitgeist

PRINCETON – I get the same question these days wherever I go and from whomever I meet: What do you think of Thomas Piketty? It’s really two questions in one: What do you think of Piketty the book, and what do you think of Piketty the phenomenon?

The first question is much easier to answer. By sheer luck, I was among the earliest readers of the English-language version of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s publisher, Harvard University Press, had sent me the pre-publication galleys, hoping that I would contribute a blurb for the back cover. I did so happily, as I found the scope, depth, and ambition of the book impressive.

I was of course familiar with Piketty’s empirical work on income distribution, carried out jointly with Emmanuel Saez, Anthony Atkinson, and others. This research had already produced startling new findings on the rise of the incomes of the super-rich. It had shown that inequality in many advanced economies has reached levels not seen since the early part of the twentieth century. It was a tour de force on its own.

But the book goes far beyond the empirical work, and narrates an intriguing cautionary tale about the dynamics of wealth under capitalism. Piketty warns us not to be fooled by the apparent stability and prosperity that was the common experience of the advanced economies during a few decades in the second half of the twentieth century. In his story, it is the un-equalizing, destabilizing forces that may be dominant within capitalism.