What to read on inequality?

A friend asked me: “Which book on inequality should I read? – And I won’t read more than one”. I try to answer:

 

If you don’t want to read much – he said one book – I think it is even easier than reading an entire big book on inequality. Read a couple of good, concise articles and look at the empirical evidence yourself.

There are 2 big books that currently dominate the discussion on inequality – here is what they are about and what to read instead:

 

Thomas Piketty’s – Capital in the 21 Century

  • Piketty did a great job of improving our understanding of the long-term trends of inequality – by having the simple but very fruitful idea to rely on tax records to reconstruct inequality data for the time that governments make their citizens pay income taxes. The book also discusses the growth of incomes and crucially the distribution of wealth.
  • What to read instead: Read a good review and look at the data yourself.
    • Branko Milanovic – himself an expert on economic inequality – wrote a early review of Piketty’s book which is also a great summary of the big book: Here it is.
    • The data on top incomes is easily accessible at the World Top Incomes Database – you can also visualize it there! The other data presented by Piketty is available at Quandl here.

 

Tony Atkinson’s – Inequality – What can be done?

    • Tony Atkinson’s is currently dominating the discussion. He is the world’s foremost scholar of inequality and published on the topic for decades. His latest book has a detailed discussion of how inequality has evolved, but is focusing on what we should do about the high levels of inequality in case we would actually decide to do something.
    • What to read instead:

 

Personally I think there is too much focus on what has happened at the top of the income distribution. My colleagues at EEG and I are trying to understand what is happening across the entire distribution – and crucially what is happening at the bottom. Similar research is done at the OECD and they just published their third big report on inequality. To go through their work (latest report here) is my final addition to this inequality reading list.

On OurWorldInData you find a series of data visualizations and a list of data sources so that everyone can study what is going.