Putting Distribution Back at the Center of Economics: Reflections on Capital in the Twenty-First Century


Abstract: When a lengthy book is widely discussed in academic circles and the popular media, it is probably inevitable that the arguments of the book will be simplified in the telling and retelling. In the case of my book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), a common simplification of the main theme is that because the rate of return on capital r exceeds the growth rate of the economy g, the inequality of wealth is destined to increase indefinitely over time. In my view, the magnitude of the gap between r and g is indeed one of the important forces that can explain historical magnitudes and variations in wealth inequality. However, I do not view r > g as the only or even the primary tool for considering changes in income and wealth in the 20th century, or for forecasting the path of income and wealth inequality in the 21st century. In this essay, I will take up several themes from my book that have perhaps become attenuated or garbled in the ongoing discussions of the book, and will seek to re-explain and re-frame these themes. First, I stress the key role played in my book by the interaction between beliefs systems, institutions, and the dynamics of inequality. Second, I briefly describe my multidimensional approach to the history of capital and inequality. Third, I review the relationship and differing causes between wealth inequality and income inequality. Fourth, I turn to the specific role of r > g in the dynamics of wealth inequality: specifically, a larger r – g gap will amplify the steady-state inequality of a wealth distribution that arises out of a given mixture of shocks. Fifth, I consider some of the scenarios that affect how r – g might evolve in the 21st century, including rising international tax competition, a growth slowdown, and differential access by the wealthy to higher returns on capital. Finally, I seek to clarify what is distinctive in my historical and political economy approach to institutions and inequality dynamics, and the complementarity with other approaches.