Issue #251

Inequality has been going on forever, but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable

Economist Thomas Pilketty wrote


We have been living with rising income inequality for so long—in good times and bad, under Republican presidents and Democratic ones—that it has come to seem inevitable. It is no longer news that the affluent did better than everyone else during the booms of the 1980s and ’90s and through the mediocre growth of this century’s first years. Or that the rich have recovered from the financial crisis far better than the rest of country. But with exquisite timing, one of the most ambitious (and best-reviewed) books on the subject in years—Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”—appeared this spring to argue that rising inequality wasn’t merely a feature of our times. It has been the historical norm, writes Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics. Inequality has risen throughout much of modern history, he writes, with the notable exceptions of wars, depressions and their aftermath, when everyone was forced to rebuild from a more equal place. And inequality is likely to continue increasing for decades, he says. Ultimately, we could end up with a society in which the rich separate themselves from everyone else, perpetuating their wealth from one generation to the next, as nobility of past centuries did. That prospect sounds depressing, but it doesn’t necessarily have to turn out that way. To say that something is likely, or even natural, is not to say that it is inevitable. David Leonhardt, New York Times, 5-2-14.