Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

Are the “inequality” charts simply tracking tax code changes?

| September 7, 2016

The main historical argument made by inequality scholars such as Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman asserts that the income and wealth distributions of the United States follow a U-shaped pattern across the past 100 years. According to this narrative, the century began at very high levels of inequality. Intervening events such as the adoption […]

New evidence is undermining the ‘Inequality Scare’

| March 16, 2016

Almost two years have passed since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and the larger genre of economic research on the distribution of wealth has exploded since that time with complementary arguments being advanced by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, as well as economic popularizes on the left including Paul Krugman and […]

Quick thoughts on the new Piketty-Saez-Zucman Income Inequality Study at AEA

| January 6, 2016

The American Economic Association held its annual meeting in San Francisco this week. Consistent with the recent surge of interest in inequality research, one of the papers generating the most buzz was a new income inequality time series by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman. The paper itself has not been released yet, but its […]

Inequality studies before Piketty

| December 31, 2015

Whether one agrees with its findings or not, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has had a profound impact on the study of inequality in the United States. Partisans of the work hastily embraced his suspect empirics as confirmation of exploding inequality, and this endorsement has largely filtered into the political discourse where it is […]

Fed economists attempt to piketty their own U.S. inequality data

| December 26, 2015

Earlier this month the St. Louis Federal Reserve published a new briefing paper by economists William R. Emmons and Lowell B. Ricketts, in which they claimed to find recent evidence of the growing inequality trends predicted in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. As asserted in the Fed paper: “Data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances […]

Saez-Zucman, the “Forbes 400,” and a new round of inequality data oddities

| October 18, 2015

When Thomas Piketty’s main inequality chart for the United States came under scrutiny from myself and others over the last year, he was largely non-responsive despite his mounting of a vigorous defense of other areas of his data. (My step-by-step deconstruction of the chart may be found here for reference. Similar criticisms figured prominently in my article […]

How to manufacture rising inequality, Piketty-style

| April 7, 2015

Since quite a few of Thomas Piketty’s followers are still convinced that he has empirically demonstrated a rise in wealth inequality in the past 30 years, I put together the following breakdown which illustrates how he constructed the famous “U-shape” in his Figure 10.5. As may be readily seen, neither the Kopczuk-Saez (2004) series nor of the […]

Taxes, Taxes, über alles!

| February 6, 2015

In a previous post, I noted that one of the stranger characteristics of the larger body of inequality literature produced by Thomas Piketty and two of his frequent collaborators, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, seems to be a tendency of their arguments to invariably end up at the same place: a call for high progressive taxation. This was […]

Irreplicable Wealth Inequality in the UK

| January 27, 2015

Most of my work on Capital in the 21st Century, including the new paper in the Journal of Private Enterprise, has concentrated on data problems in Thomas Piketty’s consideration of the United States. This was an editorial decision made out of space limitations and the U.S. focus of much of the discussion around the book. Since Chris Giles’ […]


| January 22, 2015

My previous posts on the data problems in Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century have focused almost entirely on errors contained within his data charts and files. But what happens when one tries to reconstruct those files? To find out, I conducted a simple experiment using Piketty’s Figure 10.5 – the widely cited depiction of […]