French economist Thomas Piketty’s talk on inequality draws overflow crowd

April 29, 2014
By: Kathleen Maclay

A standing-room-only crowd squeezed into Stanley Hall on Wednesday to hear French economist Thomas Piketty, whose work tracing rising global income and wealth inequality – often conducted with UC Berkeley economics professor and MacArthur Foundation Fellow Emmanuel Saez – has made him one of the world’s most prominent economists and a bestselling author.

Berkeley economics professor Stefano DellaVigna (left) and Thomas Piketty survey the crowd at Piketty’s talk on economic inequality. Photo: Hulda Nelson

Piketty visited campus to talk about “Capital in the 21st Century,” which is also the title of his 700-page book, which has sold 80,000 copies since being released in English last month. The book, which first came out in French last year, tracks empirical economic data about income and wealth that is largely assembled from income-tax records from 20 industrial countries and dating back to the 18th century.  

“Piketty’s book comes at the perfect moment when American society is seriously concerned about inequality, in part thanks to evidence patiently accumulated over the years by scholars like Piketty,” said Saez.

Berkeley economics professor Stefano DellaVigna said that several months ago he invited the professor from the Paris School of Economics for a small departmental seminar of about 60 people. Then, he said, Piketty’s book came out, and as word about the talk spread, interest in attending quickly grew. The venue changed twice to accommodate the interest, with the 300-seat Stanley Hall the final site, said DellaVigna.

“We could have had 600 people,” said economics department chair James Powell. “We were turning people away at the door.”

He noted that “for an economist, Piketty is relatively plain-speaking,” and presented his work with understandable data and simple algebraic terms.

The auditorium at Stanley Hall filled fast for the talk by the French economist. Photo: Tomas Eduardo Monarrez

Piketty’s talk drew faculty members and students from a range of disciplines. Among those posing questions afterward was Robert Reich, a public policy professor and a former U.S. labor secretary who was featured in the documentary Inequality for All. Reich asked Piketty how conditions could be changed to make more people demand more equitable distribution of wealth while accepting additional taxation.

“The incredible turnout illustrates the great interest in inequality across many departments at UC Berkeley,” said Saez. “It made us economists realize that many other disciplines, from political science and sociology to public policy and history, share a deep interest in the topic of inequality. It is not that often than an event brings together such a wide range of scholars.”

Saez, who heads up the Center for Equitable Growth, said the event brought him face-to-face for the first time with colleagues like linguist George Lakoff and sociologist Loic Wacquant, who are deeply interested in issues of inequality.