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EEC: Documentary Studies

Experts and listeners on this month’s film, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

The Econ Extra Credit Team Jan 21, 2021
Heard on:
EEC: Documentary Studies

Experts and listeners on this month’s film, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

The Econ Extra Credit Team Jan 21, 2021
Heard on:

On “Marketplace Morning Report,” we explored two moments that jumped out for David Brancaccio from this month’s documentary choice, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” 

We spoke with James Manyika of McKinsey & Co., author of a study mentioned in the film, which found two-thirds of people in advanced countries are on track to be poorer than their parents. Manyika called the finding “staggering,” particularly because just a decade earlier that statistic would have been just 2%. That’s how fast the concentration of wealth has shifted. “One of the things that has declined dramatically over the last 20 years especially is the amount of investment we make in public goods,” Manyika said. “Public goods is education, infrastructure and so forth, that allows people to participate in the economy. I think we have to focus there.”

We also interviewed psychology professor Paul Piff, who speaks in the film about observing people playing a rigged game of Monopoly. One player (the “rich player”) received twice as much money as their opponent at the outset and benefitted from other advantages throughout the game. “We found that rich players, despite winning the game through really very little effort … still acted as if they deserved to win and that the poor player deserved to lose,” Piff told Brancaccio. 

That way of thinking can propel “people who are winning at the game of life — who have more money, who have more privilege, who have more power — to think about their resources as things that they deserve [and to] be less likely to think that inequality is a problem … and as a result, be less willing to do things about it,” Piff said. This is one of the reasons inequality is so hard to fight.

And now we turn to you …

Your thoughts

Thanks for writing in to share your reactions to January’s selection, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” We love hearing from you! Here’s a selection of the responses we received.

“Great, but disturbing, documentary.”
— John R.

“Depressing but it made so many [of the] changes I’ve been reading and hearing about since the start of the pandemic all fit together.”
— Jackie M.

“I now understand more about how things have changed and why, and what has cycled back around (and why). I have felt for some time now that there will be widespread uprisings if the wealth distribution isn’t evened out more. Akin to the landed gentry and what that led to. I think we are in a very similar place to that period of time.”
— Carrie H.

“I read ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ a few years back, then watched the film a couple months ago. I’m now within a hundred pages of finishing Piketty’s follow-up book, ‘Capital and Ideology.’ My main takeaway is the inexorable accumulation of wealth by the owners of large amounts of capital at the expense of the rest of us. In the second book, Piketty demonstrates how power, and the ability to dominate political systems and culture, accompany this wealth. Importantly, he points out that historical pathways are not inevitable: Different, more democratic choices can be made. Piketty suggests rather technocratic solutions to the problems of ever-increasing inequality. Because these solutions would require redistribution, a dirty word in most quarters, and the sacrifice of sovereignty by nations in order to prevent capital flight, I do not feel hopeful.”
— Ken W.

“’Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ is well worth the time. What are the chances we can get all members of Congress to watch it?”
— Judith C.

Next newsletter, we’ll preview our February selection in this“Econ Extra Credit” documentary film series.

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