Thomas Piketty, author of ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century,’ speaks about income inequality at seminar Wednesday

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Thomas Piketty, bestselling author and professor at the Paris School of Economics, admonished the contemporary surge in economic inequality before a packed UC Berkeley audience of more than 300 people at an economics seminar Wednesday.

Piketty argued that economic inequality will continue to balloon without the intervention of a global wealth tax. He expands on this theme — based off of nearly two centuries of data collected with campus economics professor Emmanuel Saez — in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” currently on the New York Times and Amazon bestselling lists.

“I’m primarily trying to offer some interpretation of data and make history widely available in a readable manner,” Piketty said at the talk.

In his zesty symposium peppered with puns, he explained that income generated by capital grows more quickly than income generated by productivity or work. Sans intervention, Piketty said this will lead to a gross disparity that could deepen over time. In order to curb the trend, he proposed that big economies impose a global tax on wealth.

UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff commented that Piketty’s findings have important implications for higher education. Though formal higher education is often thought of as a gateway to potential success, elite universities tend to be more available to people of wealth, promulgating a cycle of inherited wealth.

“The danger in cutting resources from public universities is that it makes them more inaccessible,” Lakoff said.

Piketty underscored that wealth inequality is a natural result of unfettered capitalism and argued that cataclysmic 20th century events — namely, the Great Depression and two world wars — effectively sheltered burgeoning economies from the negative effects of capitalism. According to Piketty, these events obliterated substantive amounts of wealth and also spurred governments to form economic policies that would consciously redistribute wealth.

He said, however, the past 30 years have begun to sing a different tune. Technological advances, slowed industrialism and population growth have welcomed a return of unchecked capitalism — leading to a rise in capital and income inequality.

Though pundits have likened the unbelievability of Piketty’s success to a “bad joke” — one unlikely story in which Americans have fallen enamored with an intensely progressive Frenchman whose policies are more Marxian than not — his claims have garnered serious attention.

Robert Reich, campus professor of public policy and former U.S. secretary of labor, said on Facebook that Piketty and Saez’s data provided a basis for his movie “Inequality for All” but argued that Piketty was “far more pessimistic” about the possibilities for political reform.

Still, Reich agreed with Lakoff that Piketty’s findings are important for modern economic thinking.

“Piketty’s research provides a fundamental change in the industry of economics,” Lakoff said.

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.