By the time he began working on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he had an advantage over previous writers on inequality: an unprecedented historical database on taxes, incomes and wealth, mostly on the US and a few European countries. “The main particularity of my thinking is that I can base my analyses on data series up until today,” he says. By contrast, he remarks sympathetically, Karl Marx had “very thin data.”
In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty marshalled his data to show that the rate of return on capital has usually exceeded the rate of economic growth. This means that owners of wealth will get steadily richer than ordinary income-earners—unless extraordinary shocks or high taxes destroy wealth.
Shocks and taxes explain the one halcyon period of relative equality in western history, 1914-1980. World wars, communist revolutions and inflation combined with high taxes to decimate rich people’s assets. Franklin D. Roosevelt and European social democratic parties, desperate to dissuade workers from Bolshevism, oversaw a redistribution from rich to poor. From 1932 to 1980, top marginal income tax rates averaged 81 percent in the US and 89 percent in Britain, Piketty calculated. Rich Americans also paid state income taxes, and higher inheritance taxes than wealthy Europeans.
But from 1980, Reagan, Thatcher and their acolytes, as well as post-communist regimes in the former USSR and China, restored the trend to inequality. Stabile says that in most countries this trend tailed off in about 2000. However, inequality only became an urgent item on the political agenda after the 2008 financial crisis, when anger grew about the “1 percent” (a concept popularized largely by Piketty).
Capital in the Twenty-First Century spoke to post-crisis rage. Piketty’s writing was engaging, clear, and speckled with vignettes on historical wealth from Balzac and Jane Austen. Improbably, it reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. (Still, not everyone got through it. Jordan Ellenberg, mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, has shown that all five passages that readers highlighted most on Kindle were in the book’s first 26 pages.)
Few academic economists in their 40s spend their scarce research time writing lengthy books, when it is generally papers that advance their careers. Philippon of NYU believes that Piketty’s choice was peculiarly French. “We French have a fetishistic respect for books,”he says. “We think books are cool, even if it’s not clear that it’s the best use of our time or that the academy wants it.” And when you write a book, he adds, you often return to topics that fascinated you at school, before you entered your field. In Piketty’s case, that was Balzac.
Philippon notes something else French about Piketty’s work: whereas many American academics are happy in the ivory tower, “if you’re French, you think it’s your job, if it’s feasible, to participate in the public debate.” Because Piketty has prioritized reaching the general public over impressing his peers, the first economics Nobel for inequality research may go instead to his friend Saez.
The sales of Capital in the Twenty-First Century turned Piketty into a one-percenter himself. How did this affect him? He shrugs: “As a professor I was already, like, in the top five percent of the income distribution, and with copyrights I moved to the top one percent or 0.1 percent, so it’s not as if I was very low to begin with. I would have liked to pay 90 percent tax on my copyright. I paid about 60 percent but I think this is not enough. First, books are also speculative markets, so when you sell 2.5 million copies, it doesn’t mean your book is 1,000 times better than someone who sold 2,500 copies. I’m not naïve about that. I know how everybody at some point wants to read the same book—or buy the same book. I also know that this book was a product of a collective research project. I benefited from a public education system, from the work of hundreds of researchers who did not all get copyrights for this. Had I kept just ten percent of the copyrights, it would already have been a serious tick to my academic wages. There’s really no point giving more than that.”