French economist Thomas Piketty has been picking up a lot of attention in the rest of the English speaking world – well mainly the US – thanks to the publication of an English translation of his recent book Capital in the 21st Century. Never heard of him? Don’t fret about it – neither had I until I quite serendipitously came across this article in the Guardian a couple of days ago.
The subject of Piketty’s book is obvious from the title. More specifically, it deals with the growing inequality in wealth – and income – distribution which is becoming entrenched in the global economy. At 650+ pages it’s obviously going to be a substantial read when (or perhaps if) I finally get my grubbies on a copy but from what I’ve seen so far probably worth the effort.
Quite a few overseas media outlets besides the Guardian have covered Piketty’s book including The New Yorker, The Nation and Forbes, purveyor of ‘Information for the World’s Business Leaders’ (here, here and here). The Forbes articles all disparage Piketty’s ideas but as Piketty holds the ‘World’s Business Leaders’ responsible for rising inequalities in wealth that hardly comes as a surprise.
Locally, Piketty is only just starting to pick up attention: at the time of writing this article by Sam de Brito in the SMH is the most recent. Earlier local coverage includes this syndicated article in WA Today and this again from the SMH, no by-line probably syndicated. The closest I’ve come so far to finding any local journos and commentators actually talking to Piketty is this Radio National spot where Jonathan Green and a three member panel talk about Piketty’s ideas.
So, what has Piketty said that’s got so many people across the political spectrum into a bit of a lather? This review in the Financial Times gives a good indication:
…the book is built on a 15-year programme of empirical research conducted in conjunction with other scholars. Its result is a transformation of what we know about the evolution of income and wealth (which he calls capital) over the past three centuries in leading high-income countries. That makes it an enthralling economic, social and political history.
Among the lessons is that there is no general tendency towards greater economic equality. Another is that the relatively high degree of equality seen after the second world war was partly a result of deliberate policy, especially progressive taxation, but even more a result of the destruction of inherited wealth, particularly within Europe, between 1914 and 1945. A further lesson is that we are slowly recreating the “patrimonial capitalism” – the world dominated by inherited wealth – of the late 19th century.
Unlike quite a few of the other linked articles I think it’s safe to assume that the review is based on an actual reading of Capitalism in the 21st Century rather than reflexive reaffirmation of the orthodox wisdom based on second hand reports or just plain name dropping on the other side of the argument. It’s going to be entertaining to see how the scholars in our local campuses of the Chicago School of Economics respond when their common room slumbers are finally disturbed by the ructions elsewhere in the world.
Update: you can hear Piketty in conversation with Geraldine Doogue here.