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Inequality in the 21st century

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A critical analysis of Piketty’s work

Thomas Piketty’s (2014) Capital in the XXI Century aims to analyze distributions of income and wealth and their determinants, in a set of developed countries from the nineteenth century to the present. The objective is a bold one, made even more so by the fact that Piketty pursues it not only from a theoretical, but also, from an empirical point of view. The task is particularly impressive not only because of the enormous effort required in collecting and organising data, but also because the work entails attaching a deterministic interpretation to facts and figures from radically different countries over a time span that covers almost two centuries, thereby forcing comparison between numbers coming from clearly incommensurable contexts. These difficulties are not lost to Piketty, who states that “[w]ithout precisely defined sources, methods, and concepts, it is possible to see everything and its opposite.” (Piketty, 2014, pp.2-3) This study argues that the empirical ‘methods and concepts’ adopted by Piketty are not always consistent with those coming from his reference theoretical framework, nor from National Accounts (United Nations, 2009).