Thomas Piketty: The French economist US liberals love

French economist Thomas Piketty appears at a lecture in Berkeley, California, on 23 April, 2014. Thomas Piketty has been compared to a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville

If you want to mingle with the educated elite this weekend, you need to know a little bit about French economist Thomas Piketty and his surprise best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Mr Piketty uses tax data from a variety of Western countries to tackle the question of income inequality in today's society. He focuses in particular on the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite few - the much-talked-about "one percent".

Here's how New York Times columnist Paul Krugman describes Mr Piketty's "big idea" in the New York Review of Books:

Start Quote

Whether or not Piketty's grand unified theory is exactly correct, he's moving the popular conversation in the right direction. ”

End Quote Jordan Weissmann Slate

We haven't just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we're also on a path back to "patrimonial capitalism," in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.

This is happening, Mr Piketty writes, because the rate of return on capital has been outpacing the rate of economic growth. In layman's terms, the rich are getting richer.

To halt this "drift toward oligarchy", Mr Piketty calls for new a progressive tax on capital - preferably a global one, to prevent wealth from being moved to low-tax nations.

Commentators and columnists on the left have embraced Mr Piketty's book as a landmark treatise that encapsulates what they see as the challenge facing modern US society.

Prof Jacob S Hacker of Yale and Prof Paul Pierson of the University of California - Berkeley call Mr Piketty a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, presenting a new "panoramic vista" of US democracy and society.

"Like Tocqueville, Mr Piketty has given us a new image of ourselves," they write. "This time, it's one we should resist, not welcome."

Slate's Jordan Weissmann says that Mr Piketty has handed liberals a "coherent framework that justifies the discomfort that they probably already felt about the wealth gap".

"Liberals, instead of nebulously arguing that they're fighting for the middle class, now have a touchstone that clearly argues they're fighting against the otherwise inevitable rise of the Hiltons," he writes.

"Whether or not Mr Piketty's grand unified theory is exactly correct," he concludes, "he's moving the popular conversation in the right direction."

To give an appreciation for just how much of a conversation topic Mr Piketty's book has become, it was the subject of two columns in Friday's New York Times - one by liberal Krugman and the other by conservative columnist David Brooks.

Start Quote

The soft Marxism in Capital, if unchallenged, will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape”

End Quote James Pethokoukis The National Review

Krugman writes that Capital "demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we're living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved".

Brooks counters that the buzz over Mr Piketty's book is due to the fact that professional liberals often rub elbows with, and are increasingly jealous of, the super-wealthy.

"The reaction to Mr Piketty is an amazing cultural phenomenon," he writes. "But it says more about class rivalry within the educated classes than it does about how to really expand opportunity."

Capital's point, Brooks writes, is that "inequality is not driven by young hip professionals who arm their kids with every advantage and get them into competitive colleges; it's driven by hedge fund oligarchs."

"Well, of course, this book is going to set off a fervour that some have likened to Beatlemania," he concludes.

The National Review's James Pethokoukis worries about the consequences if Mr Piketty's "economic agenda" is successfully "pushed by Washington Democrats and promoted by the mainstream media".

"The soft Marxism in Capital, if unchallenged, will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape on which all future policy battles will be waged," he writes.

"Who will make the intellectual case for economic freedom today?" he asks.

In the Wall Street Journal Daniel Shuchman calls Mr Piketty's book "less a work of economic analysis than a bizarre ideological screed".

He says that Mr Piketty appears to be more preoccupied with inequality than with actual economic growth.

"He assumes that the economy is static and zero-sum; if the income of one population group increases, another one must necessarily have been impoverished," Shuchman writes. "He views equality of outcome as the ultimate end and solely for its own sake."

Mr Piketty's 685-page opus has started a legitimate debate in US political circles. More surprisingly its best-selling success indicates that this conversation is spilling into backyard barbeque and pub table discussions, as well.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    qot @201

    There is no law but of the jungle, in the jungle
    The jungle is ours, of fear, greed & corruption.

    Known to the philosopher, tempting the crook
    Calculated the respect for ownership in fraud.

    Little the respect we deserve and can expect
    Failing to seek to know to agree our equality.

    What profits it a man to overtake an enemy
    If in doing so he leaves behind his friends?

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    #195 Magic

    "Find me some business people who think this guy's ideas have merit."

    `Business is an establishment that gives you the legal, even though unethical, right to screw the naive--right, left, and in the middle.´

    W.C. Fields

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    "He that by usury and unjust gain increases his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor."

    Conscience salved as donations to charities continue ... but what when conscience is seared and donations dry up?

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    #197 cont
    We have different groups -
    The 'poor' which basically includes most of the middle class & the old working class & the poorest the work broken underclass.
    The 'fat cats' who are rich by ordinary standards (> £1 to 5 million) but not 1%er's - can loose their wealth.
    The '1%er's' - Truly stupendously rich. On paper often poor (pay no tax) but most actually worth over $10 billion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    #197 Lucien

    "It all started here & spread from the UK to the US"

    --Feudalism by another name --that smells as sweet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    #193 geot2
    You put it perfectly. They create this myth of their own superiority and superior worth & then use it to justify outlandish insane salaries - often for a barely adequate job.

    It all started back with Thatcher - the original yuppie philosophy -
    Keep the rich working by paying them more,
    & keep the poor working by paying them less.
    It all started here & spread from the UK to the US

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    ".. rate of return on capital has been outpacing the rate of economic growth." US stats: GDP at $16.2 trillion, however, the corporate tax contribution of $277 billion (consistently just 2% of GDP) on $2.9 trillion of revenue tells the whole story. Joe public is paying the tax bill not the corporations; who are sitting on $trillions in cash: hence "Use it or lose it!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Find me some business people who think this guy's ideas have merit.

    you quote the fraud Krugman who would have the U.S become like Greece with an overdose of public spending and people on the dole.

    none of these people have work a job where your merit is judged in a real manner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    ´A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.´

    W.C. Fields

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    The thing that intrigues me most about this book is not the book itself, of which I'd love to own a copy. It is that people need to be told. Like in the old civil rights days; those struggling had inevitably swallowed a bit of the notion of superiority of whites. And the ruling class, then as here, naturally believe in their own superiority too. It will be aweful, but bless the beginning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Politics etc aside, a Society only lasts/strong when "Reciprocity" [marcel mauss "The Gift"] enables all to exchange resources so all thrive, all survive.
    No rocket science:politics confound issues. Truth is simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    There is no shame in people having lots of money.
    They all put a lot of effort into making lots of money.
    Just wish all of them would accept that donating money to any Political Party is a complete waste of money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    If Warren Buffett's son and daughter get an inheritance they don't merit, as a result of Berkshire Hathaway's holdings and employment of several hundred thousand people in good jobs, I can sleep well. In the future when there remains only a single human being earning less than minimum wage, the liberal outrage will still be denying the global improvements in economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    ambrosia @188


    We come this way but once, and upon a planet such as Earth?

    Childish in the extreme to pretend other the reality forever ours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    187. All for All...escape to the stars beyond us.

    Of course it would be childish to pretend that we can abuse the planet/ economy and somehow a future technological miracle will save us.
    However as JGB's Drowned World widely uses the subconscious he could've meant a new thinking, or at least out-of-box.
    Creative ed. gives flexible but solid thinking.
    That's why Cen./N. Europe work better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    USAperson @181
    all types of work
    and workers"

    Alien archaeologists might one day name Dead Earth the planet of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: but such need not be 'our' fate, if only 'we' can pull together before too long and past the tipping-point, with even escape to the stars beyond us. JG Ballard published in 1962:

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    ambrosia @185
    "not on HYS home page"

    Some thoughts In Our Time, also hidden away:

    "They order these things better in France". None perfect!

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    56. Chris A
    Glass Staegal was repealed in stages- mostly Reagan.
    Thatcher in UK.
    Med. Europe followed.
    That’s the main cause of recession
    UK/US powerful media sideline this rather than trying to disprove it as with most facts inconvenient to their corporate owners.
    As JP Ziegler’s world best sellers, tr in many languages- strangely, many not in English.
    And this thread isn’t on HYS home page

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    His main sin seems to be he is looking at the "Big Picture," or taken an over all look at our present situation, rather than come up with a few band aid gimmicks to keep the plebs happy and at bay..
    One of todays problems is the ability of corporations and families to move money around and avoid tax due?
    One of the others is the willingness of out political leaders to assist in these operations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Income inequality in the U.S. is not an issue made up by Democrats, not any more than the war on women (e.g., the attack on women's reproductive rights in Republican states). America's grossly inequitable distribution of wealth, the worst in the developed world, is a matter of statistical demonstration. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison warned of this eventual threat to our democracy.


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