One of the jarring figures in Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-first Century shows the population fraction over time that inherited more money than the average laborer earns in a lifetime. This fraction is larger than I expected -- roughly 5-10 percent in France.
Piketty's grande idée is very simple: if returns to capital r exceed GDP growth g, and if ownership of capital is concentrated, then runaway inequality will result. He argues that throughout most of history, r > g. His solution: redistribution via a wealth tax. (Don't most countries already have inheritance taxes? Perhaps they just need to be tightened up.)
See also The Normaliens.
New Yorker: ... Piketty, who teaches at the Paris School of Economics, has spent nearly two decades studying inequality. In 1993, at the age of twenty-two, he moved to the United States to teach at M.I.T. A graduate of the élite École Normale Supérieure, he had recently completed his doctorate, a dense mathematical exploration of the theory behind tax policies. Plenty of bright young European scholars move across the Atlantic, of course, and many of them end up staying. Piketty was not to be one of them. “It was the first time I had set foot in the United States,” he recalls in the introduction, “and it felt good to have my work recognized so quickly. Here was a country that knew how to attract immigrants when it wanted to! Yet I also realized quite soon that I wanted to return to France and Europe, which I did when I was twenty-five. Since then, I have not left Paris, except for a few brief trips.”See figures here and here.
... much of the economics that Piketty encountered at M.I.T. seemed arid and pointless. “I did not find the work of U.S. economists entirely convincing,” he writes. “To be sure, they were all very intelligent, and I still have many friends from that period of my life. But something strange happened: I was only too aware of the fact that I knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems.”
... Eventually, Piketty says, we could see the reëmergence of a world familiar to nineteenth-century Europeans; he cites the novels of Austen and Balzac. In this “patrimonial society,” a small group of wealthy rentiers lives lavishly on the fruits of its inherited wealth, and the rest struggle to keep up. For the United States, in particular, this would be a cruel and ironic fate. “The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion,” Piketty writes, “and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century’s globalized economy.”
... Some people claim that the takeoff at the very top reflects the emergence of a new class of “superstars”—entrepreneurs, entertainers, sports stars, authors, and the like—who have exploited new technologies, such as the Internet, to enlarge their earnings at the expense of others in their field. If this is true, high rates of inequality may reflect a harsh and unalterable reality: outsized spoils are going to go to Roger Federer, James Patterson, and the WhatsApp guys. Piketty rejects this account. The main factor, he insists, is that major companies are giving their top executives outlandish pay packages. His research shows that “supermanagers,” rather than “superstars,” account for up to seventy per cent of the top 0.1 per cent of the income distribution. ...
... Defenders of big pay packages like to claim that senior managers earn their vast salaries by boosting their firm’s profits and stock prices. But Piketty points out how hard it is to measure the contribution (the “marginal productivity”) of any one individual in a large corporation. The compensation of top managers is typically set by committees comprising other senior executives who earn comparable amounts. “It is only reasonable to assume that people in a position to set their own salaries have a natural incentive to treat themselves generously, or at the very least to be rather optimistic in gauging their marginal productivity,” Piketty writes.
... Income from capital has always played a key role in capitalism. Piketty claims that its role is growing even larger, and that this helps explain why inequality is rising so fast. Indeed, he argues that modern capitalism has an internal law of motion that leads, not inexorably but generally, toward less equal outcomes. The law is simple. When the rate of return on capital—the annual income it generates divided by its market value—is higher than the economy’s growth rate, capital income will tend to rise faster than wages and salaries, which rarely grow faster than G.D.P.
... Piketty takes some well-aimed shots at economists who seek to obfuscate this reality. “In studying the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it is possible to think that the evolution of prices and wages, or incomes and wealth, obeys an autonomous economic logic having little or nothing to do with the logic of politics or culture,” he writes. “When one studies the twentieth century, however, such an illusion falls apart immediately. A quick glance at the curves describing income and wealth inequality or the capital/income ratio is enough to show that politics is ubiquitous and that economic and political changes are inextricably intertwined and must be studied together.” ...