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Thomas Piketty : The Economics of Inequality

Which economic policies combat social inequality? What is the optimum class size for scholastic success? CNRS bronze medal winner Thomas Piketty believes that there's proof in numbers.



© F. Jannin/CNRS Photothèque

Getting an appointment with Thomas Piketty is no easy task, due to his very busy schedule. Upon arriving in his office on the Paris-Jourdan campus for a one-hour interview –sandwiched between two meetings–he checks his e-mail, voice mail, and apologizes for the non-stop pace brought on by his numerous responsibilities. “Right now, I am working full time managing research for the development of new programs, obtaining funding... I would love to be able to once again train PhD students, to have time for them, to write articles... In other words, to become a researcher once again–that is what I like most,” he says. And Piketty also has a full schedule when it comes to awards: He received the Le Monde newspaper's Best Young Economist award and the CNRS Bronze Medal in 2001. Quite a record for a 34-year old. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin recently chose Piketty to lead the new École d'économie de Paris, a campus for research and higher education intended to rival major American universities.


Piketty's extraordinary career started in high school with his gift for mathematics and an early interest in history, social issues, and economics. At the age of 16, after receiving his French Baccalaureate, Piketty took intensive classes to prepare for the entrance examinations for French scientific schools. But during his studies at the prestigious École normale supérieure in Paris–which he entered “at a fairly early age,” he humbly adds (he was only 18, two years short of the usual 20)–he took courses in law, logic, and even “dabbled” in Arabic. “That was when I realized I had always wanted to be a researcher, but not in mathematics. I opted for economics.” He obtained a post-graduate degree in “Economic analysis and politics” (he manages that very program today), and received a PhD in Economics from the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) and the London School of Economics. His thesis, which he defended in 1993, was on the theory of the redistribution of wealth.

After teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became a researcher at CNRS from 1995 to 2000, and then was appointed researcher and professor at EHESS. His research carried out while at CNRS resulted in the 2001 publication of his referential work on income inequality in France between 1901 and 1998.1 “I wanted to try and understand the major transformations in wealth in France over a century. I had to study all the historical archives on taxes since the creation of the progressive income tax (1914) and the inheritance tax (1901). This long-term research project would not have been possible without CNRS,” he acknowledges.


What is the impact of taxes on the transmission of wealth over several generations? Which public policies are able to combat social inequality? These major questions enthrall the economist, who tries to understand the mechanisms linked to the inequalities both in income and inheritance. But he also investigates other types of inequalities, such as those present in the education system: “We need to assess the impact of class size on the academic success of children from different backgrounds,” says this Robin Hood of economics who tracks inequalities in order to better combat them. “What interests me is not doing applied mathematics, but seeing what economic research can deliver: a better response to both economic and social issues. The science of economics is not a magic formula, but it can help focus public debate on the right questions. I have always wanted to be socially useful,” he says.

His next major project is a two-volume book on income and inheritance inequality in France and twenty-five other countries over a century. Yet another ambitious project for Piketty's slate...


Lætitia Louis-Hommani


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Notes :

1. Thomas Piketty, “Les hauts revenus en France au xxe siècle: inégalités et redistribution, 1901-1998,” Paris: B. Grasset. 2001.

Contacts :

Thomas Piketty


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