January 21, 2015 by Michael Winship
Much of the buildup to President Obama’s State of the Union address made it sound as if he was going to read chapter and verse from French economist Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century –
you know, last year’s 700-plus page best seller, the one that was unexpectedly all the rage as it argued that vast economic inequality is as much about wealth (what’s owned) as it is about income (what’s earned). That one.
Matt Schiavenza explained it in The Atlantic, “Applying data gathered across several decades throughout the world, Piketty argued that when income derived from capital exceeds income derived from work, inequality necessarily widens. Or, in non-economics speak: The easiest way to get rich isn’t to make a lot of money. It’s to have a lot of assets in the first place. Better yet to inherit it.”
Not that anyone really expected the president to address Congress like a tutorial in global economics, but the Piketty meme took hold in a lot of the media. “Echoes of Piketty in Obama Proposal to Address Income Inequality” read a headline in The New York Times previewing the address just hours before it was delivered. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog predicted, “President Obama finally has his Piketty moment.” The paper’s Matt O’Brien wrote, “The state of the union is pretty good, actually, but President Obama has an idea to make it better: taxing Wall Street and the super-rich to make middle-class work even more worthwhile. It’s Piketty with an American accent.”