‘Capital in the 21st Century:’ Too Big to Tweet

A homeless at Penn Station in New York City.

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A homeless at Penn Station in New York City.

In that extended conversation about “The Great Gatsby Curve,” the fact that income distribution in modern-day America roughly equals the way money was held in 1928, Thomas Piketty hasn’t yet become the household tweet that political leaders favor lately.

President Barack Obama has tried to make income inequality, and what his party can do about it, a driving theme of the 2014 midterm elections. Yet with any semblance of true tax reform dead on Capitol Hill this year — and most likely for the next two years if Republicans have their way in Senate elections — the fact that a family in the richest one percent has almost 300 times the wealth of a family of median income will remain just that, a fact.

Income inequality had been subsiding in the U.S. since the Great Depression. And, as      reported in January, Piketty noted that this was “a nice theory for the golden age of growth.”

Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of E
conomics. started during the 1990s applying to his own country’s tax records the approach that Simon Kuznets, a Nobel Prize-winner in the U.S., had taken with American records in charting the narrowing of the income gap.

Then, with Emmanuel Saez, another French economist working at the University of California, Berkeley, Piketty applied the work to modern-day U.S. records, as Brendan Greeley wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek on Dec. 12. In 2003, they reported that income inequality had started to rise in America in the early 1980s. By 200,7, they were “able to show that the income share of the top 1 percent had reached a level not seen since 1928, the Jazz Age of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby.”

“In 2012 the top 1 percent of American households collected 22.5 percent of the nation’s income, the highest total since 1928, as The New York Times’ Steven Erlanger notes. “The richest 10 percent of Americans now take a larger slice of the pie than in 1913, at the close of the Gilded Age, owning more than 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. And half of that is owned by the top 1 percent.”

It was in January that Thomas Edsall wrote about Piketty’s new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” in an op-ed essay in the Times. Picketty and partner, with the help of powerful computers, had taken a long historical look at the history of income and found that the profits of capital investment now are outpacing the growth of the world’s economy.

In other words, the wealth of nations is accruing most to those wealthiest whose income flows from investment.

The book had been published in France four months before and was due out in English this month.  Now it’s topping Amazon.com’s nonfiction best-sellers list, and the paper in various articles this past weekend dubbed him an economic “rock star,” ranking his work among the pantheon of the greatest economic treatises of all time, in a league with Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

But where is Piketty on Twitter?

Katrina vandenHuevel had it at The Nation in February:

The Daily Beast touts a piece about Piketty in The Nation’s May 5 edition among the “best longreads” (#longreads being a term of Twitter art).

Bill Moyers tweeted it during the Easter weekend wave:

Some are even calling it a sexy read.

Yet, at this stage in the great notice this 700-page book is drawing, we haven’t seen the likes of Harry Reid or Organizing for America weighing in. We haven’t seen Eric Cantor or @Team_Mitch offering the counterpoint that more conservative commentators are contributing: That this a treatise certain to throw logs on the fire of liberal tax reform — economist Paul Krugman is all over it — yet offering no practical political solution to the disparities it documents.

The book atop the Times’ bestseller list is all about the ways in which the system is “rigged” for the richest and most powerful investors, Michael Lewis’ “Flash Boys.”

The ultimate recommendation of Piketty’s work — that the world’s richest should face dramatically higher taxes than what they’ve come to accept in the aftermath of the Reaganesque tax cuts for the wealthiest and the subsequent shavings of capital gains taxes — isn’t likely to go over well on the Twittersphere where congressional leaders live. Not in an election year. Not anytime soon.

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