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The One Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty's Data on the Concentration of Wealth in the United States

Abstract

This exercise reproduces and assesses the historical time series on the top shares of the wealth distribution for the United States presented by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty's best-selling book has gained as much attention for its extensive presentation of detailed historical statistics on inequality as for its bold and provocative predictions about a continuing rise in inequality in the twenty-first century. Here I examine Piketty's US data for the period 1810 to 2010 for the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution. I conclude that Piketty's data for the wealth share of the top 10 percent for the period 1870 to 1970 are unreliable. The values he reported are manufactured from the observations for the top 1 percent inflated by a constant 36 percentage points. Piketty's data for the top 1 percent of the distribution for the nineteenth century (1810–1910) are also unreliable. They are based on a single mid-century observation that provides no guidance about the antebellum trend and only tenuous information about the trend in inequality during the Gilded Age. The values Piketty reported for the twentieth century (1910–2010) are based on more solid ground, but have the disadvantage of muting the marked rise of inequality during the Roaring Twenties and the decline associated with the Great Depression. This article offers an alternative picture of the trend in inequality based on newly available data and a reanalysis of the 1870 Census of Wealth. This article does not question Piketty's integrity.

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