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Thomas Piketty in America

  • Nicolas Barreyre (a1)

This essay proposes a reading of Capital in the Twenty-First Century from a perspective rooted in the nineteenth-century United States. It explores some of the ways that Piketty’s book and its American reception could lead to a reconceptualization of US history. In a feedback loop, this exploration in turn suggests elements that extend and qualify some of Piketty’s conclusions, especially regarding the role of politics in the processes responsible for the growth of inequality under modern capitalism.

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1. Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 2014).

3. Krugman, Paul, “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age,” New York Review of Books, May 8, 2014, 15–18 ; Summers, Lawrence H., “The Inequality Puzzle,” Democracy Journal 3 (2014): 91–99 ; Schuessler, Jennifer, “Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment,” New York Times, April 19, 2014 .

4. Concerning changes in worldwide economic thinking, see Rodgers, Daniel T., Age of Fracture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 41–76 .

5. On this privileged youth, see Khan, Shamus Rahman, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

6. Josephson, Matthew, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1934 ). For the history of this expression, see John, Richard R., “Robber Barons Redux: Antimonopoly Reconsidered,” Enterprise and Society 13, no. 1 (2012): 1–38 .

7. Fraser, Steve, Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 23–38 ; Weil, François, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 143–79 .

8. Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1873).

9. Edwards, Rebecca, John, Richard R., and Bensel, Richard F., “Forum: Should We Abolish the ‘Gilded Age’?,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 8, no. 4 (2009): 461–85 ; Edwards, Rebecca, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865–1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 ; repr. 2011).

10. Payen-Variéras, Évelyne and Barreyre, Nicolas, “Revisiting the ‘First’ Gilded Age: Business and Politics in the Late Nineteenth-Century United States,” Transatlantica 1 (2013):

11. Teachout, Zephyr, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Cole, David, “How Corrupt Are Our Politics?,” New York Review of Books, September 25, 2014, 45–48 .

12. A life-story Carnegie delighted in telling himself: Carnegie, Andrew, Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920). For a recent biography, see Nasaw, David, Andrew Carnegie (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).

13. Barreyre, Nicolas, Gold and Freedom: The Political Economy of Reconstruction, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), chap. 2.

14. Higgs, Robert, The Transformation of the American Economy, 1865–1914: An Essay in Interpretation (New York: Wiley, 1971); Atack, Jeremy, Bateman, Fred, and Parker, William N., “The Farm, the Farmer, and the Market,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, ed. Engerman, Stanley L. and Gallman, Robert E., vol. 2, The Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 245–84 .

15. White, Richard, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 109–18 ; Miller, George H., Railroads and the Granger Laws (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971).

16. Hoogenboom, Ari, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865–1883 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961); Sproat, John G., The “Best Men”: Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968); Slap, Andrew L., The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

17. Ritter, Gretchen, Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Antimonopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America, 1865–1896 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

18. Nelson, Scott R., A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012); Stanley, Robert, Dimensions of Law in the Service of Order: Origins of the Federal Income Tax, 1861–1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

19. Irwin, Douglas A., “Tariff Incidence in America’s Gilded Age,” Journal of Economic History 67, no. 3 (2007): 582–607 ; Williamson, Jeffrey G., “Watersheds and Turning Points: Conjectures on the Long-Term Impact of Civil War Financing,” Journal of Economic History 34, no. 3 (1974): 636–61 . It must be noted that these figures concern American holders. Since a large part of the debt had been refinanced in Europe after the Civil War, a proportion of the capital was in fact making the annuitants of the “old continent” wealthy.

20. Piketty, Capital, 348 sq .

21. Barreyre, Nicolas, “The Politics of Economic Crises: The Panic of 1873, the End of Reconstruction, and the Realignment of American Politics,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 10, no. 4 (2011): 403–23 .

22. Mehrotra, Ajay K., Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics, and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877–1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Huret, Romain D., American Tax Resisters (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 78–172 .

23. Bourdieu, Jérôme, Ferrie, Joseph P., and Kesztenbaum, Lionel, “Vive la différence? Intergenerational Mobility in France and the United States during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 39, no. 4 (2009): 523–57 ; Pope, Clayne, “Inequality in the Nineteenth Century,” in Engerman, and Gallman, , Cambridge Economic History, 2:109–42 ; Atack, Jeremy, Bateman, Fred, and Parker, William N., “Northern Agriculture and the Westward Movement,” Cambridge Economic History, 2:285–328 .

24. Shammas, Carole, Salmon, Marylynn, and Dahlin, Michel, Inheritance in America: From Colonial Times to the Present (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987); Shammas, , A History of Household Government in America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002).

25. Piketty, Capital, 158–62.

26. Einhorn, Robin L., American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Baptist, Edward E., The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

27. Concerning these elites, see Fraser, Steve and Gerstle, Gary, eds., Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

28. Meinig, Donald W., The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, vol. 2, Continental America, 1800–1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 3–218 ; Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 701–91 .

29. For that matter, this subject is (surprisingly) only rarely studied by historians. Concerning the fur trade, see the classic work by Wishart, David J., The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807–1840: A Geographical Synthesis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971 ; repr. 1992).

30. Lears, Jackson, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 57–71 .

31. Carnegie, Andrew, The Gospel of Wealth (London: F. C. Hagen, 1889).

32. Zunz, Olivier, Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

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Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales - English Edition
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