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The One-Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Distribution of Wealth for the United States

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  • Richard C. Sutch

    () (Department of Economics, University of California Riverside)

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 the continuing rise in inequality in the twenty-first century. Those predictions were derived and justified by reference to the historical data, so it is helpful to assess the robustness of the historical evidence presented. Here I examine only Piketty’s U.S. data for the period 1810 to 2010 for the top ten percent and the top one percent of the wealth distribution. I conclude that Piketty’s data for the wealth share of the top ten percent for the period 1870-1970 are unreliable. The values he reported are manufactured from the observations for the top one percent inflated by a constant 36 percentage points. Piketty’s data for the top one 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 very tenuous information about trends 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. The reversal of the decline in inequality during the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent sharp rise in the 1980s is hidden by a fifteen-year straight-line interpolation. This neglect of the shorter-run changes is unfortunate because it makes it difficult to discern the impact of policy changes (income and estate tax rates) and shifts in the structure and performance of the economy (depression, inflation, executive compensation) on changes in wealth inequality.

Suggested Citation

  • Richard C. Sutch, 2016. "The One-Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Distribution of Wealth for the United States," Working Papers 201602, University of California at Riverside, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucr:wpaper:201602
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Steckel, Richard H. & Moehling, Carolyn M., 2001. "Rising Inequality: Trends In The Distribution Of Wealth In Industrializing New England," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 61(01), pages 160-183, March.
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