Biden's billionaires tax is 'better than nothing,' says leading wealth inequality researcher Thomas Piketty

Biden's billionaires tax is 'better than nothing,' says leading wealth inequality researcher Thomas Piketty
French economist and academic Thomas Piketty, poses in his book-lined office at the French School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), in Paris May 12, 2014.REUTERS/Charles Platiau
  • French economist Thomas Piketty is one of the world's leading researchers on wealth inequality.
  • In a new interview with The New York Times, he discussed taxing the wealthy and a movement towards equality.

French economist Thomas Piketty literally wrote the book on inequality.

Piketty is the author of "Capital in the 21st Century," which chronicles how inequality has grown under capitalism, using data that goes back to the French Revolution. Now, Piketty is preparing to release another book — and he's weighing in on recent proposals to tax some of America's wealthiest.

In an interview about Piketty's upcoming book, "A Brief History of Equality," The New York Times' David Marchese asked the economist about President Joe Biden's proposal to tax billionaires' incomes — including the rising value of assets like stocks.

Piketty said that it would've "been better" for Biden to propose it prior to his election: "If you had told the American public before the elections that he wanted a wealth tax — which again is something that is very high in opinion polls — this would have been much easier," he told the Times, since that would've made Congress "take a stand."

Piketty said that it's "more complicated" today. "But if it works, it's better than nothing."


Biden's proposal, which the administration calls the "Billionaire Minimum Income Tax," would target households with over $100 million. It would institute a minimum income tax of 20% on billionaires — and that income includes what's called "unrealized gains."

The Biden administration is defining income not just as paychecks that the ultrawealthy might be getting from work, but as the value their assets — like stock or real estate — rise during the year. Since the ultra-wealthy amass more of their fortunes from these assets, rather than a salary, they pay a lower effective tax rate than most working Americans.

Piketty helped coordinate the 2022 World Inequality Report, which busted the myth of "trickle-down" — that tax cuts for the rich will eventually "trickle down" to the poorer classes below — by exposing just how extreme the divide is between the richest and poorest. That report used four years of data and research to show that the top half holds about 98% of the world's wealth, with even higher concentrations the further up you rise in tax brackets — the top 10% alone holds 76% of the world's wealth. That leaves the bottom half with 2% of the world's wealth.

Piketty and fellow inequality researchers experts Lucas Chancel, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, argue in the report that "inequality is a political choice, not an inevitability."

And Piketty's newest book, which the Times interviewed him about, shows that "we have been moving toward greater equality" over time, according to the book's description. While that may be seem at odds with Piketty's research, he points out the popularity of higher taxes on the wealthiest.


He also noted that America's "period of maximum prosperity" was when the top-income tax rate reached around 80 and 90% in the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, the US also had a leg up in terms of educational attainment (something which is increasingly harder to afford, with the student loan crisis still mounting).

When asked about his optimism for moving towards greater equality, Piketty told the Times that he remembered talking to Elizabeth Warren in 2014 about a potential progressive wealth tax on billionaires of 5% or 10% annually.

"She looked at me like, Wow, that's too much," Piketty recollected to the Times. Warren is currently a leading proponent of an outright wealth tax, proposing a 2-3% tax on America's wealthiest.

"Joe Biden today, a centrist Democrat — who voted for the Tax Reform Act of 1986 — is coming in with a wealth tax," Piketty told the Times. "Things can change pretty fast."