On April 17, 2014, in New York City, Public Books and the Institute for Public Knowledge hosted a panel conversation with Thomas Piketty, Julia Ott, David Stasavage, and Frédéric Viguier on Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the 18th century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.
Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality—the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth—today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says, and may do so again.
Thomas Piketty is Professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics. He is the author of numerous articles and a dozen books. He has done major historical and theoretical work on the interplay between economic development and the distribution of income and wealth. In particular, he is the initiator of the recent literature on the long run evolution of top income shares in national income (now available in the World Top Incomes Database). These works have led to radically question the optimistic relationship between development and inequality posited by Kuznets, and to emphasize the role of political and fiscal institutions in the historical evolution of income and wealth distribution.
Julia Ott is Assistant Professor of History at the New School. Her book, When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy (2011) tells the story of how financial markets and institutions—commonly perceived as marginal and elitist at the beginning of the 20th century—came to be seen as the bedrock of American capitalism and how stock investment—once considered disreputable and dangerous—became a mass practice.
David Stasavage is Professor and Chair of Politics at NYU. His current research explores the birth of public debt in Medieval Europe. He is the author of States of Credit: Size, Power, and the Development of European Polities (2011) and Public Debt and the Birth of the Democratic State: France and Great Britain, 1688–1789 (2003).
Frédéric Viguier is Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU’s Institute of French Studies. His forthcoming book, La cause des pauvres, examines the “cultural turn” in the representation of the popular classes in France that occurred during the second half of the 20th century.
This event was co-sponsored by NYU’s Institute of French Studies and NYU’s Department of Politics.