Best-selling business books typically tell you how to get rich — either by becoming a better worker or investor, or perhaps by learning the secrets of successful entrepreneurs.
And in 2014, readers could find plenty of books promoting pluck and hard work, such as MONEY Master the Game and The Innovators.
But three books broke the pattern, generating headlines and big sales by focusing on unfair aspects of wealth creation.
A decade ago, unfairness “was an underground topic; no one cared about it,” says Branko Milanovic, a leading scholar on income inequality at City University of New York.
But since the 2008 financial crisis, “that has definitely been changing,” he says. Writers now want to explore income inequality and economic unfairness. “It is such a big wave; it’s not going away,” he says.
These books rode that wave:
Each book sets out to reframe debates about how rich people get ahead. Each argues that a fundamental lack of fairness generated wealth inequality.
Alexander Field, a Santa Clara University economics professor who studies inequality, says that in the wake of the Great Recession, legions of academics and authors have started exploring questions about unfairness of process and inequality of outcomes.
“Tremendous wealth has been created for individuals, but has it contributed to a social gain?” Field says is the question being pondered.
He says the United States enjoyed “a golden age” of rising income equality in the decades following World War II — an era when good factory jobs and corporate expansions allowed average Americans to advance quickly. But in more recent years, factors such as increasing automation and globalization have given rise to more inequality, he says.
“That change creates fertile ground for Piketty and others who want to explore inequality,” Field says.
Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist and scholar on inequality, agrees that readers can expect to see far more books on inequality in coming years.
Traditionally, “Americans were less interested in these issues than other people” in Europe and elsewhere, he says. But Deaton says that since 2008, he has seen “a huge surge of interest” in understanding why so many people are falling behind.
“A lot of people, including me, are worried that inequality will lead to bad things.”