Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century went on sale in the US this week, and its central message can seem like a prophecy of doom. It is that capital tends to accumulate faster than the economy grows in the long run; wealth thus concentrates in the hands of a few; and the egalitarian, upwardly mobile America of the mid-20th century was more a historical aberration than the natural order of things. Through their research into income inequality, Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez provided the “1% vs the 99%” narrative that drove the Occupy Movement.
But what’s often missed, as Quartz’s Tim Fernholz found out when he talked to Piketty, is that the 42-year-old French economist is actually rather optimistic. To those who say that a global wealth tax, his proposed solution to inequality, is something that Americans would never accept, he retorts that nobody in 1910 thought the US would ever have income taxes, or more recently, that Swiss bank secrecy could ever be broken. A wealth tax, he suggests, could replace a tax on property, making it popular with middle-class homeowners and giving politicians a lever to push it through.
But whether Piketty’s optimism is misplaced, or even whether he is right, matters less than the fact that, by framing the problem in these clear terms, he has enabled a public debate. “Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to,” wrote Paul Krugman, who knows a thing or two himself about changing economic discourse. Another legendary economist, Paul Samuelson, once said, “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, or crafts its treatises, if I can write its economics textbooks.” If Piketty’s work influences the terms in which politicians fight their battles, he too may end up having more influence than many of them.—Gideon Lichfield
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
The epic battle for the cloud. Christopher Mims explains why Amazon may have already beaten Google for dominance of the mass of internet-connected servers where a growing share of IT services are going to live. Meawhile, Zach Seward explains how a court battle over internet TV provider Aereo is really a trial about the cloud itself.
Ferries are still safer than planes. Hundreds of lives were likely lost when the Korean ferry Sewol went down this week, even as searchers were still looking for traces of Malaysia Airlines 370. Gwynn Guilford shows that, passenger for passenger, air crashes are both more frequent and more fatal than maritime accidents.
Why quantum computers are so hard to figure out. They could completely overturn computing, but their workings are so mysterious that scientists are up in arms over whether the biggest quantum computer ever built actually is one. Leo Mirani and Gideon Lichfield help you get your qubits straight with this (relatively) jargon-free explainer.
Calculate your remaining microlives. How much harm does a “hazardous” level of pollution actually do? Using a rough rule of thumb, Adam Pasick and David Yanofsky have cooked up the Quartz microlife calculator. Plug in your city’s PM2.5 level and it will tell you how much time you’re taking off your sojourn on earth.
How many houses your house in London will buy you. Assuming, of course, that you’re fortunate enough to have a house in London, Jason Karaian has put together some charts showing you what it’s worth elsewhere in the UK and the world. (Hint: It’s two-and-a-half houses in Scotland, and four in Atlanta.)
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
San Francisco vs. the startups. Anger in the city against tech companies and their high-paid employees isn’t news, but this mammoth analysis in TechCrunch by Kim-Mai Cutler slips picks apart the complicated intersection of interests and trends behind one of the most unequal—but upwardly mobile—cities in the United States.
The problem with environmentalism: no sense of beauty. In a (beautiful) meditation on Japan’s short-lived cherry-blossom season, Rebecca Giggs in Aeon argues that Western conservationism has become so obsessed with measuring benefits that it has lost touch with one of the key reasons to care about nature: aesthetics.
Bringing New York to Osaka. Staying with the Japan theme, Tom Downey in the Smithsonian meets Japanese who, in their quest to become Brooklyner-than-thou, have “copied American culture and made it better,” with cutting-edge takes on bourbon, burgers, casual fashion, and jazz.
How Americans die. In this exceptionally well-made interactive from Bloomberg, Matthew Klein teases apart mortality statistics to show with shocking clarity the impact of AIDS on American men (especially black men) in the 1990s, and two of the fastest-growing killers of today: drugs and suicide.
Silicon Valley is cashing in on cannabis. Bringing a new meaning to “high tech,” Mat Honan in Wired meets the nerds trying to disrupt an industry dominated by “hippies and gangsters” with the scientific breeding of medical marijuana strains, online weed-comparison services, cannabis logistics software, and of course, the iPhone of vaporizers.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, cherry blossoms, and vaporizer designs to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.