“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Three Years Later

The following is an excerpt from After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by J. Bradford DeLong, Heather Boushey, and Marshall Steinbaum and published by Harvard University Press:

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which we will abbreviate to C21, is a surprise best seller of astonishing dimensions.

Its enormous mass audience speaks to the urgency with which so many wish to hear about and participate in the political-economic conversation regarding this Second Gilded Age in which we in the Global North now find ourselves enmeshed.1 C21’s English-language translator, Art Goldhammer, reports in Chapter 1 that there are now 2.2 million copies of the book scattered around the globe in thirty different languages. Those 2.2 million copies will surely have an impact. They ought to shift the spirit of the age into another, different channel: post-Piketty, the public-intellectual debate over inequality, economic policy, and equitable growth ought to focus differently.

Yet there are counterbalancing sociopolitical forces at work. One way to look at Piketty’s project is to note that, for him, the typical low-inequality industrialized economy looks, in many respects, like post–World War II Gaullist France during its Thirty Glorious Years of economic growth, while the typical high-inequality industrialized economy looks, in many respects, like the 1870–1914 Belle Époque version of France’s Third Republic. The dominant current in the Third Republic was radically egalitarian (among the male native born) in its politics, radically opposed to ascribed authority—especially religious authority—in its ideology, and yet also radically tolerant of and extremely eager to protect and reinforce wealth. All those who had or who sought to acquire property—whether a shop to own, a vineyard, rentes, a factory, or broad estates—were brothers whose wealth needed to be protected from the envious and the alien of the socialist-leaning laboring classes.

Underlying Piketty’s book is a belief that this same cultural-ideological-economic-political complex—that all those with any property at all—need to band together to protect any threats to the possession or the profitability of such property—will come to dominate the twenty-first century political economy, in the North Atlantic at least. It will thus set in motion forces to keep the rate of profit high enough to drive the rise of the plutocracy Piketty sees in our future.

Two years ago we editors would have said, “Maybe, but also maybe not.” In the wake of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, however, Piketty’s underlying belief looks stronger. While we will not repeat the cultural dominance of property of the 1870–1914 Belle Époque French Third Republic, we do look to be engaged in the process of echoing many of its main characteristics.

It is important to note that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election thanks to the electoral college and not because he got more votes. But he got a lot of votes, and he got them in some places that have historically voted Democratic but faced extreme economic dislocation in the recent past. Moreover, Hillary Clinton failed to achieve the margins among young voters and racial minorities that Barack Obama did, plagued as they are with historically low employment rates, despite the record-high student debt they were promised would lead to security in the labor market. And so Piketty’s analytical political-economic case looks to us to have been greatly strengthened by Trump’s presidential election victory.

Thus we believe our book is even more important now. And so we have assembled our authors and edited their papers to highlight what we, at least, believe economists should study After Piketty as they use the book to trigger a focus on what is relevant and important.

More from After Piketty

Extracted from After Piketty edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong & Marshall Steinbaum published by Harvard University Press, $35. Copyright @ 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

End Notes

1. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century,  trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).

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