French Economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer, and it has made quite a stir. Paul Krugman’s review is probably the best, and Matt Yglesias’s is the best “TL;DR” version. To summarise briefly, Piketty studied wealth (capital) growth in the nineteenth and twentieth century and has concluded that without considerable government intervention the 21st century will look a lot like the Gilded Age. That is, wealth will continue to accrue only a very select few at the top of the wealth curve (the “.01%” you could say), and that eventually elites will inherit all of their wealth, with little chance of a change in social status between generations. Piketty says this undermine democracy and turn society into an oligarchy, if it already hasn’t.
What does this have to do with transportation? Well, capital and wealth accumulating to only a few is scary enough, but I think it also helps explain one of my pet subjects, the decline in infrastructure across the United States. Public infrastructure is capital as is any other. With all wealth accumulating to just a few, there’s less money left over for big public infrastructure projects, which is why the interstate system could be built in the middle of the 20th century, but a project of that scale is completely unimaginable today. Piketty does not go into any detail on this subject, nor does any of the commentary on the book, but it’s worth keeping in mind as an explanation for why it’s so difficult to even keep public buses funded.
As an aside, I do recommend Capital in the Twenty-First Century, even though it’s not the easiest read.