Economist and bestselling author Thomas Piketty discusses wealth inequality with diverse experts

Thomas Piketty

Intense curiosity and a bit of professional envy imbued the fourth annual NYU/UCLA Tax Policy Symposium, held at NYU Law’s Vanderbilt Hall on October 3. Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, was the guest of honor, and the daylong event featured five presentations by academics analyzing the book from economic, legal, historical, political science and philosophical perspectives as well as responses from Piketty himself. The amiable French economist has become a runaway international celebrity after publication of his wonky, 700-page book. As Deborah Schenk, Editor-in-Chief of the School’s Tax Law Review put it in her welcoming remarks, “There isn’t an academic in the room who doesn’t wish they were in his shoes.”

Setting jealousies aside, the presenters were respectful and probing. That so many disciplines could be represented in discussion of Piketty’s work was testament to one of its great triumphs, regardless of debate over his findings: he has succeeded in tearing down the barriers between specialties, and has brought an unprecedented level of collaborative focus to issues of inequality—and what to do about it—in academic and policy circles.

Columbia economist Wojciech Kopczuk opened the day with a discussion that illuminated one of the vexing issues at the heart of Piketty’s work that might best be put this way: Not all inequality is created equal. In other words, some forms of inequality we should welcome, such as those that provide the incentives so crucial to the entrepreneurial ethos at the heart of western capitalism. Take away the prize at the end of a high-risk entrepreneurial gambit through redistributive high marginal tax rates, he offered as an example, and you might snuff out the flame of entrepreneurialism itself.

Stanford’s Joseph Bankman and NYU’s Daniel Shaviro were the day’s oxymoron: a comedic duo of welfarist tax scholars. But they were serious about their topic, praising Piketty’s critique of the undue moralizing of “ability” as an explanation for high-end wealth concentration and exploring the constitutionality of a national wealth tax in the United States. (Piketty’s response to the latter: “I realize that this is unconstitutional, but constitutions have been changed throughout history. That shouldn’t be the end of the discussion.”)

Wojciech Kopczuk asking Piketty a question from the audience

Economic historian Gregory Clark of the University of California at Davis presented findings that seem to contradict one of Piketty’s main arguments, that when the return on capital exceeds economic growth rates, inequality increases. In a study of English families with rare surnames from 1799 through 2012, Clark found no inherent tendency for capital to accumulate faster than income, in large part because inherited capital tended to be consumed rather than accumulated. Where family wealth has persisted over time, he found, the reason tends to be because new wealth was created, not because of the forces of inheritance. (In yet another comic interlude, Clark shared his findings on how much the loss of family wealth through daughters who marry was mitigated by wealth gained via new daughters-in-law. The not-so-surprising conclusion: “Rich people marry rich people.”) Piketty responded that there is not yet a convincing case that Clark’s findings can be generalized into statements about national wealth accumulation and consumption trends, in France, Britain or elsewhere.

Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler followed Clark with a discussion of how the US political system has promoted equality and inequality over time, with the somewhat depressing conclusion that while the American political system is full of obstacles to responsiveness to the majority of citizens, it is more easily permeated by and responsive to powerful vested interests. But it was a presentation imbued with the possibility of change, charting as it did the numerous historical examples through which the political system did indeed work to mitigate inequality.

The final presenter, NYU legal philosopher Liam Murphy, mused on the moral questions underlying our views on inequality, from the nearly universally-agreed upon right to social equality, or equal respect, to the much more debatable questions of economic inequality, and when society should have reason to be concerned with it—e.g., when it interferes with democracy or when it impinges on social equality.

Trevor Morrison, Thomas Piketty, and Daniel Shaviro

It was a lot to take in. But even the man in the hot seat, Piketty himself, fielded all questions about his findings with breezy responses and an obvious desire to continue the discussion. When asked what he thought of the day’s events, his response was pure Piketty—a subjective review with a caveat of objective caution: “By and large, the problem you run into when economists or law professors study inequality is that they’ve benefitted from rising inequality. They’re not in the top 1 percent, but they’re surely in the top 2 or 3 percent. I’m not going to say that determines their entire view, but you can’t say it has no impact. That makes them generally positive about the US economy, how it rewards talent, and what they think of wages. Those academics that have come to the US from abroad, too, are proof of the promise of the American Dream, or at least that one part of it is working well. So a conference like this is very important, because it helps us all take a step back and try to remove ourselves from our frame of reference.”

And that, it seems, is the most important achievement of Piketty’s remarkable book: it has brought unprecedented amounts of attention to a topic of great concern to a great many people, and sowed the seeds for further scholarship and debate.

PIketty, center, with Dean Trevor Morrison, far left, and the three organizers of the fourth annual NYU/UCLA Tax Policy Forum: Joshua Blank LLM '07, Daniel Shaviro, and Deborah Schenk LLM '76

Posted October 7, 2014

Watch the talks from the symposium, or view the YouTube playlist.

Wojciech Kopczuk (56 min):

Joseph Bankman (48 min):

First response by Thomas Piketty (42 min):

Gregory Clark with response by Thomas Piketty (41 min):

Suzanne Mettler (51 min):

Liam Murphy (49 min):

Final response by Thomas Piketty (29 min):