Thomas Piketty’s scholarly treatise, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, became an unlikely sensation in the United States last year. Famously arguing that inequality, already staggeringly high, is likely to rise higher, the book resonated deeply with a populace that has come to believe, according to Pew, that income disparities are a major problem. Piketty’s remedy is a global wealth tax, so it is perhaps unsurprising that elites, too, have been seized by the subject: inequality was presented as the world’s “most significant trend” in a recent World Economic Forum report, and was a major theme this year at Davos, where the forum meets.
An abridged list of the reasons these concerns may not soon translate into transformative action, at least in the United States: progressive turns have typically drawn on appeals to patriotism or religion, yet both those forces seem to bind Americans more weakly now than in the past; social unrest is vastly less prevalent than it was in the age of either Roosevelt, and the specter of communism haunts no one; the power of the rich over politics has only grown in recent decades, while organized labor lies comatose; and mistrust in government is at a historic high.
Even so, a few signs of piecemeal reform have begun to appear. Walmart, Aetna, and McDonald’s recently raised wages well above the minimum, and Starbucks expanded the college-tuition-reimbursement plan it began last summer. A tighter labor market, and with it a renewed focus on retaining workers, surely explains some of this behavior. But all of these companies also described their actions as efforts to take greater social responsibility.
The problems and excesses of the Gilded Age settled deeply into the American consciousness during the devastating recessions of the late 19th century; that consciousness remained even as growth returned, and society found the confidence to begin fixing its worst problems—thus was the Progressive Era born. Perhaps some faint echo of that process can be heard today.