One Man's Radical Plan to Solve Wealth Inequality

It didn’t sound like the hottest ticket in Paris: a debate on the theme of “property” between two of the city’s economists, Frédéric Lordon and Thomas Piketty, on a January night in a dingy hall at the Bourse du Travail, the old Labour Exchange. Just to be sure, I arrived 10 minutes early to get a good seat—only to find every one taken. Dozens of disappointed fans filled the pavement outside.

Wired UK

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

Piketty’s 753-page book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2013, sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and helped put inequality on the global agenda. But his latest, the even thicker Capital and Ideology, may prove still more influential. The book is nothing less than a global history of inequality and the stories that societies tell to justify it, from premodern India to Donald Trump’s US. It arrives just as anger about inequality (some of it generated by Piketty’s work) approaches a boiling point, and was channeled by a contender for the White House, Bernie Sanders.
Capital and Ideology builds on Piketty’s long-standing argument that inequality has soared across the world since 1980. It proposes strong remedies. Piketty wants to slap wealth taxes of 90 percent on any assets over $1 billion, and he waxes nostalgic about the postwar decades when British and American top marginal income-tax rates were over 80 percent.Much of Piketty’s information comes from the World Inequality Database (WID), which he created with colleagues. A free website, to which over 100 researchers have contributed, it claims to include “series on income inequality for more than 30 countries, spanning most of the 20th and early 21st centuries, with over 40 additional countries now under study.” The WID’s coverage keeps getting more international, as more material from Asia, Africa, and Latin America is added. The site is now trying to expand its focus from income to the even harder-to-chart terrain of wealth.
The WID has advanced the entire field of inequality economics. “If you are working on trends on equality over time, especially if you are comparing countries, you are probably working with his team’s data,” says Mark Stabile, a professor of economics at the INSEAD business school outside Paris.In an era when technology platforms are arguably concentrating wealth in the hands of a diminishing number of people in the Valley, Piketty’s advocacy of much higher taxes has attracted the attention of both progressives and radicals around the world.
Thomas Piketty was born in 1971 in a suburb of Paris, to parents who hadn’t graduated from high school but were shaped partly by the 1968 student revolution. Trotskyist militants for a while, they always remained leftists. For three years they raised goats and sold cheese on markets in southwestern France, though his mother later became a primary schoolteacher and his father a research technician. “My father comes from a perfectly bourgeois family where they were all very right-wing, but my mother has a much more lower-class origin,” Piketty tells me when we meet in his 12-square-meter office on an unfashionable boulevard at the southern tip of Paris. Forty-eight years old, he exudes energy and data, sighing with impatience at any question he considers stupid, and speaking in rapid sentences that fall over each other, in near-perfect English with an almost cartoonish French accent. “To be honest, when I was 15 or 20, I was not very convinced by the leftwing activism of my parents in the 70s, which did not bring them much success in their professional trajectory.”
He was close to his grandfather, chief executive of the ancient family quarrying firm, Piketty Frères. “Very right-wing but a nice character,” he reminisces. “They were taking stones from the ground in the Paris region to build roads—the Paris métro was built in the interwar period using a lot of this stone. It’s like Obelix [the stone-quarrier in the Asterix stories] if you want. He was always very proud of himself, proud of bringing workers from Italy or somewhere else to give them better wages. The only reason why I was upset against him is that my grandmother was very unhappy. She was supposed to stay home and take care of the kids. She had been put in a position of permanent domination, and that's the worst part of this ideology of the breadwinner CEO.”