Thomas Picketty is the poster-boy of a certain sort of left-wing, numerate social scientist: the author of at least one thick book (which may not be much read at p 3) and many articles on income distribution, making arguments that flatter the views of many contributors to Fairfax/Nine, ABC, Guardian and Conversation threads, and not a few of the content producers.
Picketty has re-packaged some familiar, and fairly old-fashioned ideas: chiefly, that income and wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the few. This is something which has been the conventional wisdom on the left since the days of Marx, Engels and the Webbs. More surprisingly, it has now spread to become the conventional wisdom of many of those calling themselves ‘National Conservatives’, as well as other discontents such as Patrick Deneen, on the Right: one might have thought them less likely to be attracted to such arguments, but then it fits a certain ‘policy elites’ v’s ‘the ordinary people’ (Quiet Australian?) narrative.
Picketty himself is appealingly accessible, even if his books aren’t: fans of EconTalk may recall this talk.
The problem with this sort of thing, as with so much argument in economics, is that however good, the arguments tend never to be entirely settled, and that as time passes, odds are someone else looks at the data and comes to a different conclusion. And so it would appear to be with Picketty.
Greg Mankiw has linked to an interesting paper which suggests that Picketty’s ‘laws of history’ may not be quite as robust as has been suggested. Now, of course, Auten and Splinter could be wrong; but their work shows that, when picking ‘laws of history’, it is worth checking your data first.
Link to the underlying paper.