Thomas Piketty and his Critics

In the 1790s, Frederick Eden, concerned about the economy and the realities of the poor, went into the British countryside and began to collect data on household budgets for poor agricultural laborers. He collected budgets himself, got additional data from “respectable clergymen,” and hired others to get even more. The results were published in a major, groundbreaking work, The State of the Poor, in 1797. In the end, Eden had eighty-six families worth of data.

It is easy to overlook the achievement of Thomas Piketty’s new bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as a work of economic history. Debates about the book have largely focused on inequality. But on any given page, there is data about the total level of private capital and the percentage of income paid out to labor in England from the 1700s onward, something that would have been impossible for early researchers like Eden to assemble or comprehend. Capital reflects decades of work in collecting national income data across centuries, countries, and class, done in partnership with academics across the globe. But beyond its remarkably rich and instructive history, the book’s deep and novel understanding of inequality in the economy has drawn well-deserved attention and criticism. By understanding the initial debate over the book, we can examine what is at stake in how Capital is understood.

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