Friday, March 28, 2014


Earlier this week I linked to a column by Paul Krugman discussing the work of French economist Thomas Piketty. His most recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, details rising income inequality in capitalist states and offers both theories for this accelerated inequality and suggestions to help ameliorate it.

Piketty's book has been getting a lot of attention, both in the economics community, and, somewhat surprisingly, in the more mainstream press. Part of this attention seems to stem from the fact that Piketty's data is extensive, and part from his compelling argument that economics and politics are inextricably linked (seems obvious, I know, but the "natural laws of the market" crowd seems to have had an awfully long run). It also seems that Piketty has created a bunch of really easy-to-understand charts that cast our rising economic inequality into high relief.

Over at the New Yorker, John Cassidy distills down Piketty's book for those of us without an economics background using six charts from Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cassidy's longer piece in this week's issue is also worth a read, but I really think the charts are a great way to illustrate the issues Piketty is bringing to the fore.

Piketty's Inequality Story in Six Charts

The first chart is a simple one, and it concerns the United States alone. It tracks the share of over-all income taken by the top ten per cent of households from 1910 to 2010. Broadly speaking, it’s centered on a U shape. Inequality climbed steeply in the Roaring Twenties, and then fell sharply in the decade and a half following the Great Crash of October, 1929. From the mid-forties to the mid-seventies, it stayed pretty stable, and then it took off, eventually topping the 1928 level in 2007. (The chart shows the share of the top decile falling back a bit after the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008. New figures for 2012 from Saez, which came out too late to be included in Piketty’s book, show the line hitting another new high, of more than fifty per cent.)
The more we can get away from the notion that immutable laws of markets control our economic destiny (and, gosh, those laws just happen to privilege the already wealthy and powerful), the better off the majority of us will be. It seems like this new book is forcing a broader conversation on just this topic. Plus, how fun is it to say "Piketty"?

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