Good News for Progressive Economics: Big Thinkers Like Piketty Are Back in Vogue

May 2, 2014Felicia Wong

Thomas Piketty's success is no fluke; he and other progressive thinkers have redefined the public debate around inequality.

Inequality suddenly is the topic of the moment. Last weekend the French economist Thomas Piketty – whose recently published Capital in the 21st Century is now #1 on the Amazon best seller list, shocking for a 690-page macroeconomic tome – was not only the subject of dueling Paul Krugman/David Brooks op-ed columns in the New York Times. Piketty was also top of the fold in the Times’ Sunday Styles section (headline: “Hey, Big Thinker”), which made note of his “boyishly handsome” looks. Clearly, something is up.

At Boston Review, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal provides an excellent overview of the response to Piketty from both left and right. (You can also listen to him discuss it with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.) Much of the commentary seems to have gone, in only two or three weeks, from economic and policy questions (about his core formula, r>g, or about whether his recommendation of a global tax on capital is actually realistic) to observations that he is a “sign of his times.” In my view, this observation is absolutely right. Piketty’s argument about increasing returns to capital, relatively weak returns to labor, sluggish growth, and the overall rise of both income inequality and wealth inequality, is in fact perfectly in tune with our political and economic concerns today. 

However, I would go much farther than to say that Piketty is merely a sign of his times. I would say that he and other economists have actually defined these times — or at least helped create today’s environment. Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez have been developing their top incomes database for the last 15 years, and publishing results along the way. Since 2003, Piketty’s data, based on an exhaustive review of tax records, has been setting the agenda and driving a tremendous amount of research. I first encountered the data in Winner-Take-All Politicsalso a best-seller, by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. 

Moreover, a number of those involved credit Piketty’s data with sparking the fall 2011 rise of Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent framing, which remains a central part of our national conversation. (Credit, according to many others, also goes to Roosevelt Institute’s Chief Economist Joe Stiglitz and his widely read April 2011 Vanity Fair piece, “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%.” )

My point is this: Big Thinkers, whether Thomas Piketty or Joe Stiglitz or others, are not just reflections of the times. They are creating today’s debate. Ideas really matter.

In congressional testimony on inequality Stiglitz gave three weeks ago, he noticed a real change in attitude among senators, who are open to everything from a carbon tax to changes in corporate taxation, carried income, and the like. 

We are at a unique moment, thanks to Piketty, Stiglitz, the Occupy Wall Street organizers, and many others. Think tanks like Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center have a window within which these ideas and arguments can make a very big difference – in the media, in Congress, and, I hope, in cities and towns nationwide. We are pushing hard here to create to a new normal in our understanding of the political economy. Our argument: you can increase economic growth and decrease inequality simultaneously. 

But forces are also arraying against us. The conservatives have yet to fully organize their arguments against Piketty, but already the American Enterprise Institute is arguing that he is promoting the end of capitalism. (He isn’t.) Moreover, I am hearing from Washington sources that over the next year, and especially leading into the midterms, destroying any burgeoning inequality agenda is a central goal of the right wing.

If we want a new normal in our understanding of inequality, we need to be ready to go on the offensive – strategically and systematically. We have solutions. Recent evidence shows they can work. Now: can we put muscle behind the ideas?

Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter at @FeliciaWongRI.

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