One way of getting a feel for the concentration of wealth that Piketty highlights, I find, is to reflect on how many American billionaires there are of whom I had never heard. It used to be that I had some sense of who the Richie Rich's were: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, the Koch brothers, the Walmart clan. But lately, every time I raise my head from my blog and take note of what is happening in the world, I discover that another billionaire has popped up. Sherman Adelson? Donald Sterling? Who are these excrescences? According to Wikipedia, there are 492 billionaires in the United States [and 152 in China].
A study done in 2000 estimated that between 1998 and 2052, more than forty trillion dollars will be passed from one generation to the next. I have noted on this blog that the total endowments of charitable foundations and colleges and universities combined come to a bit more than one trillion dollars, so we can, I think, confidently conclude that almost all of that 40 trillion will be passed on to heirs who, although not having earned any of it, will find themselves unimaginably rich.
There have been a number of critiques of Piketty's work from more or less establishment economists questioning whether the fateful gap between the rate of return on capital and the growth rate will continue, producing what Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism. That is a technical question I am not competent to answer. But this enormous transfer of wealth is already in the works and is taking place every day. The Walmart heirs, four of the richest ten people in America, are trust fund babies, as it were, beneficiaries of the estate of Sam Walton. It would not surprise me if, like Lilianne Betancourt, whom Piketty identifies as the richest person in France, they "have not worked a day" in their lives. As time goes by, more and more and more such folks will sit atop their bags of money, commanding vast sums of accumulated capital created by the labor of hundreds of millions of working stiffs.
It is enough to make an old socialist's heart beat just a bit faster.