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April 27, 2014

A new Gilded Age? Economist takes grim view of wealth gap

Q&A: A French economist's grim view of wealth gap

NEW YORK (AP) — If you’d like to live in Downton Abbey, the good news is that our economy has entered a second Gilded Age of opulence and elegance.

The bad news is that you’ll likely end up among the vast majority stuck sweating in the kitchen.

In a new book, Thomas Piketty, the French economist who helped popularize the notion of a privileged 1 percent, sounds a grim warning: The U.S. economy has begun to decay into the aristocratic Europe of the 19th century. Hard work will matter less, inherited wealth more. The fortunes of the few will unsettle the foundations of democracy.

The research Piketty showcases in his book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” has set the economics field ablaze. Supporters cite his work as proof that the wealth gap must be narrowed. Critics dismiss him as a left-wing ideologue.

Digging through 300 years of economic data, tax records, 19th century novels and modern TV shows, Piketty challenges the assumption that free markets automatically deliver widespread prosperity. Instead, he writes, the rich will get richer, and everyone else will find it nearly impossible to catch up.

Investments in stocks, bonds, land and buildings — the “capital” in his title — almost always grow faster than people’s wages. By its nature, capitalism fuels inequality and can destabilize democracies, Piketty argues.

Economists once viewed the three decades after World War II as proof of capitalism’s ability to build and share wealth. Piketty counters that the period was a historical outlier, a result of two world wars and the Great Depression leveling the fortunes of the old establishment.

In 2012, the top 1 percent of U.S. households received 22.5 percent of the nation’s income, the most since 1928. Piketty thinks higher taxes on wealth can curb inequality’s spread. He also thinks that sending more people to college and sharpening their skills through training could help slow the “inegalitarian spiral.”

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