7 Days of Piketty: Monday, or “The Geography of Populist Discontent.”


I’m publishing seven days of links to web material about Thomas Piketty and his book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Prior to reading the book, my friend Brandon warned me that it wouldn’t improve my mood.

He was right.

Pitchforks, anyone?

We continue with a consideration of inequality’s contribution to populist discontent.

The Geography of Populist Discontent, by Richard Florida (CityLab)

“There are times when rational, well-educated societies lose a sense of perspective,” says urban scholar Josef Konvitz. The global populist backlash represents one of those times.

 … The current discussion focuses primarily on stagnant or declining real incomes, and hence on widening disparities between most people and the top 1 percent or 5 percent by income. Productivity is increasing at a lower rate. And, as Robert Gordon argues, we seem to be living off innovations that are decades old. Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, both published in 2013, emphasized a long historical perspective, the importance of cultural values, and the impact of meta-events, usually overwhelming catastrophes, that separate one phase, often lasting decades, from another. These studies, however, look at large social categories and the unit of the nation-state, ignoring spatial variations within countries or in the distribution of social and cultural groups.

The decline of the middle class and the broken escalator of social mobility are no fiction. Before the 2016 U.S. election, Le Monde published maps about the geography of disparities in the U.S. Did you know that the size of the middle class shrank by more than 7 percent between 2000 and 2013 in New England, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona? Some of these were red states, others blue. But the trend shaped the political narrative.

Another map showed that the chances of a child born into a family at the lowest level of poverty ever reaching the upper level of income were under 6 percent in virtually all parts of the South, as well as much of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

The spatial perspective comes into sharper focus when we look at indirect measurements such as the higher cost of rental housing, declining real incomes, the burden of debt for home ownership, the cost of commuting by car, pressure on infrastructure capacity—things that matter in daily life and for which people have no elasticity, meaning that they cannot find better or less expensive ways of doing things. Pressures build up. These indirect indicators highlight how the organization of housing and work in particular places can generate problems that accumulate. As Jane Jacobs famously said, when this happens, problem solving has broken down.