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Thomas Piketty’s changing views on inequality

Summary:
From Steven Pressman and RWER issue no.92 Thomas Piketty established his professional reputation by using income tax returns to measure income distribution over long time periods in several nations. Long before Capital in the Twenty-First Century (hereafter C21) appeared, Piketty (2001; 2003; & Saez, 2003) showed that, in many capitalist countries, income flowed to the top 1% (really the top .1%). C21 made two new contributions – a theory to explain this phenomenon, r>g, and a policy solution, taxing wealth. Surprisingly, C21 became an international best seller. Nonetheless, it was criticized by a broad array of economists. Heterodox economists objected to the economic theory Piketty used to explain rising inequality. Neoclassical economists disliked his policy proposal and understood

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from Steven Pressman and RWER issue no.92

Thomas Piketty established his professional reputation by using income tax returns to measure income distribution over long time periods in several nations. Long before Capital in the Twenty-First Century (hereafter C21) appeared, Piketty (2001; 2003; & Saez, 2003) showed that, in many capitalist countries, income flowed to the top 1% (really the top .1%). C21 made two new contributions – a theory to explain this phenomenon, r>g, and a policy solution, taxing wealth.

Surprisingly, C21 became an international best seller. Nonetheless, it was criticized by a broad array of economists. Heterodox economists objected to the economic theory Piketty used to explain rising inequality. Neoclassical economists disliked his policy proposal and understood that neoclassical economics didn’t support Piketty’s explanation of rising inequality. And many economists criticized Piketty’s data and his interpretation of the distributional facts (see Pressman, 2016).

Piketty’s follow up, Capital and Ideology, was published in France last fall; an English version appeared in March of 2020. There are many similarities between the two books. Both are massive tomes,1 well-written and packed with economic data. Both use the term “capital” when really talking about wealth. Finally, literary references abound to support key points.

Despite these similarities, there are many changes. Gone are r>g and any analysis of inequality that rests on neoclassical economic theory. Capital and Ideology contains a different perspective on the causes of inequality. As its title proclaims, it is our beliefs that are crucial. Piketty undertakes a broad sweep of history to argue that the degree of inequality we get depends on how people see inequality and that this varies from time to time and from place to place. A progressive ideology, leading to greater equality during the 20th century, ran out of steam by the end of the century. It was replaced by the view that markets increase human well-being. There is also a new policy proposal – broader representation on corporate boards.

This paper examines Piketty’s changing views on the causes of inequality and the policy solutions needed to remedy the problem. Section 2 provides a brief overview of some general perspectives on understanding income inequality. Section 3 focuses on how C21 views the causes of inequality. Section 4 then discusses the causes of inequality according to Capital and Ideology. Section 5 looks at key policy proposals to reduce inequality in both books. Section 6 concludes.  read more

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