David Marchese in The New York Times:
In 2013, the French economist Thomas Piketty, in his best seller “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a book eagerly received in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, put forth the notion that returns on capital historically outstrip economic growth (his famous r>g formula). The upshot? The rich get richer, while the rest of us stay stuck in the mud. Now, nearly a decade later, Piketty is set to publish “A Brief History of Equality,” in which he argues that we’re on a trajectory of greater, not less, equality and lays out his prescriptions for remedying our current corrosive wealth disparities. (In short: Tax the rich.) If the line from one book to the other looks slightly askew given the state of the world, then, Piketty suggests, you’re looking from the wrong vantage point. “I am relatively optimistic,” says Piketty, who is 50, “about the fact that there is a long-run movement toward more equality, which goes beyond the little details of what happens within a specific decade.”
In the time since “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” was published, there has been a huge proliferation in the number of American billionaires. Something like 130 new ones were added between 2020 and 2021 alone. That happened in the context of growing public discussion — and anger — about economic inequality. So what the hell happened? What enabled the ultrawealthy to flourish in the face of such widespread antipathy? Let me put this very clearly: I understand that each year and each decade is tremendously important, but it’s also important not to forget about the general evolution. We have become much more equal societies in terms of political equality, economic equality, social equality, as compared with 100 years ago, 200 years ago. This movement, which began with the French and U.S. revolutions, I think it is going to continue.
Of course there are structural factors that make it difficult: the system of political finance, the structure of media finance, the basic democratic institutions are less democratic than they should be. This makes things complicated. But it’s always been complicated. The Supreme Court for decades made it impossible to create a progressive income tax. They were fine with the racial segregation, but having a progressive income tax was unconstitutional. In the end, it took 20 years to change the Constitution, but then it happened and contributed to reduced inequality.1