The French economist Thomas Piketty is arguably the world’s greatest chronicler of economic inequality. For decades now, he has collected huge data sets documenting the share of income and wealth that has flowed to the top 1 percent. And the culmination of much of that work, his 2013 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” quickly became one of the most widely read and cited economic texts in recent history.
Piketty’s new book, “A Brief History of Equality,” is perhaps his most optimistic work. In it, he chronicles the immense social progress that the U.S. and Europe have achieved over the past few centuries in the form of rising educational attainment, life expectancy and incomes. Of course, those societies still contain huge inequalities of wealth. But in Piketty’s view, this outcome isn’t an inevitability; it’s the product of policy choices that we collectively make — and could choose to make differently. And to that end, Piketty proposes a truly radical policy agenda — a universal minimum inheritance of around $150,000 per person, worker control over the boards of corporations and “confiscatory” levels of wealth and income taxation — that he calls “participatory socialism.”
So this conversation isn’t just about the current state of inequality; it’s about the kind of policies — and politics — it would take to solve that inequality. We discuss why wealth is a far more accurate indicator of social power than income, the quality of the historical data that Piketty’s work relies on, why Piketty believes the welfare state — not capitalism itself — is the most important driver of human progress, why representative democracy hasn’t led to more economic redistribution, whether equality is really the best metric to measure human progress in the first place, how Piketty would pay for his universal inheritance proposal, whether the levels of taxation he is proposing would stifle innovation and wreck the economy, why he believes it would be better for societies — and economic productivity — for workers to have a much larger say in how companies are governed, how Piketty thinks about the prospect of inflation and more.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.