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Capital in the 21st Century is the bestselling book on Amazon

Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, in its hardcover edition, is currently the #1 best-selling book on Amazon. Perhaps a bit tellingly, the Kindle edition is only the #23 book in the Kindle store. That indicates to me that demand for a handsome volume of a widely discussed book to sit on your shelf is perhaps a bit higher than demand for actually reading the book. So if you've bought the book to sit on your shelf and want to be able to discuss it intelligently without reading it, I would suggest our short guide.

Meanwhile, Piketty's best-seller status — though well-deserved — also highlights one of the drivers of contemporary economic inequality. Superstar effects.

People like to buy great books and listen to great songs and watch great movies and TV shows. But people also like to be part of the "in crowd" and "the conversation." So when certain things reach a certain level of popularity, other people check them out precisely because everyone is talking about them. That means that being the book on economic inequality is much more lucrative than being the fourth-best book on economic inequality.

These kind of disproportionate rewards for superstars have probably always been with us. But as the number of people who could conceivably buy a book grows — because of a mix of population growth and economic progress in poor countries — the returns to being the superstar grow disproportionately fast and inequality rises.

Conservatives often point to these kind of superstar effects as an example of a benign reason for inequality to increase. After all, Piketty hasn't done anything underhanded to earn his bestseller status. The other way of looking at it, however, is that these superstar effects compound other problems with overly strong copyright protections. In a world of strong superstar effects we should be liberalizing intellectual property rules. Instead, the United States government — under the influence of Hollywood and others — is using trade policy to try to make them ever-stronger.

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