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Piketty in One Graph

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Written by Colin Gordon   
Friday, 06 June 2014 09:52

This graphic summarizes the key inequality and policy trends (for the U.S.) traced in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Scrolling through the inequality metrics suggest the key themes in Piketty’s examination of the U.S. case: the now-familiar “suspension bridge” of income inequality, dampened only by the exceptional economic and political circumstances of the decades surrounding World War II; the growing share of recent income gains going to the very high earners (the 1% or .01%); the stark inequality within labor income (see the top 1% and top 10% wage shares) generated by the emergence of lavishly-compensated “supermanagers”; and a concentration of wealth that fell little over the first half of the twentieth century and has grown steadily since then.

Scrolling through the policy metrics suggests some of the causal forces at work: a precipitous decline in the top inheritance and income tax rates (lifting the ceiling on high incomes); and the collapse of labor standards and bargaining power (lowering the floor for everyone else). I have added here one data series—the trajectory of union density—on which Piketty is curiously silent (his chapter on income inequality uses the minimum wage as a surrogate for bargaining power more generally).

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