The decision to host the Department of Economics’ 2019 Susan Bies Lecture on Economics and Public Policy at the Kellogg Global Hub seemed rather ironic. The 415,000-square-foot glass building, which cost the University $250 million — a small percentage of the nearly $4.5 billion raised by the We Will. campaign so far — welcomed on Thursday French economist Thomas Piketty, who presented the lecture “Rising Inequality and Globalization.”

For more than an hour, the Paris School of Economics professor lectured on economic inequality and how it might affect political orientation and access to higher education to a crowd that filled the White Auditorium. Presenting the results of his latest comparative research on France, Britain and the U.S., Piketty argued that education is an important indicator of inequality.

“Is this the best we can do? Is it possible to do better?” Piketty asked. “I think this is a set of questions we are finally starting to understand. We have a huge inequality of education everywhere in the world. But from the comparative data that we have, inequality in access to education is particularly extreme in this country.”

Graph by Thomas Piketty

The economist also pointed out that in the U.S., college attendance rate is directly related to family income.

“Some people not only have a smaller chance to attend college, but, when they are able to, they rarely go to the same schools than the people on the other extreme of the income rank,” Piketty said.  

Piketty, who was previously affiliated to MIT and the London School of Economics, gained recognition in the English-speaking world after the publication of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013. In nearly 700 pages, the economist argues that inequality will continue to rise and advocates for progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth. The book reached number one on the New York Times best-sellers list. It also gained recognition among renowned economists. In 2015, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman referred to Piketty’s work as “the most important economics book of the year—and maybe of the decade.”

Before the publication of Capital, Piketty was already seen as a promising economist. In 2002, he received the Best Young Economist of France Award, and between 2005 and 2007 he served as the director of the Paris School of Economics. In 2015, Piketty rejected France’s Legion D'Honneur, the country’s highest honor. He argued that the government should concentrate on “reviving growth” and that it was not up to politicians to decide “who was honorable or not.”      

In his introduction of the speaker, Department of Economics Chair Lawrence Christiano said the decision to invite Piketty to campus has to do with the fact that “economics as a discipline is becoming much more focused on the important questions to the society as a whole.”

“This is a time of intense change in economics,” Christiano said. “Actually I think it’s possible we could say that we are in the middle of a revolution in economics. Today, inequality is obviously of great interest to society as a whole. We can see it everyday in the newspapers. It’s a fundamental part of our political discourse.”

Christiano also highlighted the role of the research being conducted at the Department of Economics, which U.S. News ranked seventh in the country in 2017, in addressing the issue.

“We have researchers who have studied the opium epidemic, gender bias effect on people and the quality of their preschool education, climate change, poverty and globalization,” Christiano said. “And most relevant to the discussion this afternoon, inequality.”