Marketing And Classic Music

Ever since the review of Mr. Mark Swed, the classic music critic for the Los Angeles Times, or rather, his description of her now-infamous orange mini dress (“…was so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult) worn at a Hollywood Bowl concert in 2011 ignited a firestorm both on and offline and prompted a debate on what constitutes proper attire for a classic musician, Curtis-educated pianist Yuja Wang has become known as much for her wardrobe as her virtuosity.

At her recent concert at the Bowl on July 18, 2014, it appeared that her choice to do two, instead of the standard one concerto was almost as much about pushing the envelope on her fashion choices as showing off her dazzling techniques and musicality.  When she first appeared in a short, revealing black sequin number, the audience erupted in some good-natured chuckles, and the laughter grew louder when the close-up on the big screens throughout the amphitheater showed even the conductor, Mr. Esa-Pekka Salonen could not conceal his amusement either. When Ms. Wang appeared in the second half in a midriff baring outfit, the audience audibly gasped as she moved to the center stage in a one-shouldered top and a long skirt with a high slit, that Mr. Swed helpfully pointed out that “reached the legal limit.”

This was the first time I saw Ms. Wang play, and her technique is spellbinding – it’s pure fireworks during the fiery passages.  I also admire how she markets herself by having fun with her wardrobe.  She is a young woman with a petite figure (she, in stiletto, is about the same height as Mr. Salonen, who can’t be taller than 5’7” – I know because I stood next to him having my photos taken with him at a Walt Disney Hall’s inaugural concert in September 2003 when he was the artistic director of the LA Phil), and she looks good in these dresses, so why not creating a buzz to get people to talk about her and even lure some to the concert halls just to find out what she is going to wear next?  Worldwide piano competitions discover hundreds of fresh, young talents every year, and if you find a way to set yourself apart from the pack, you will get more engagements that help build towards your maturity as a musician.

When I look at the typical demographic of people attending classic music concerts, it’s almost like an AARP convention.  So if Ms. Wang creates excitement by demonstrating her superior techniques and appearing in controversial outfits, she may just help attract younger, new audience members.  And that’s what matters in the end.

Los Angeles Times Review

Salonen leads Yuja Wang, L.A. Phil through Russian turmoil

Mark Swed

July 19, 2014

There have been changes at the Hollywood Bowl since Esa-Pekka Salonen’s last appearance at the amphitheater six years ago as the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director.

That meant Thursday night the now L.A. Phil conductor laureate met for the first time the flashy high-definition video screens, sound system and new furnishings, to say nothing of the flashy Yuja Wang. The Chinese pianist has become a Bowl sensation ever since her debut in the amphitheater three years ago in a small orange dress.

Taking into account Wang’s penchant for Russian piano music, Salonen put together a clever and illuminating echt-Esa-Pekka program of the first two symphonies and piano concertos by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

As expected, Wang dressed for the occasion. A tiny, tight sparkling black number suited Shostakovich. A slinky long teal gown, with partially bare midriff and a slit up the side that reached the legal limit was for Prokofiev. The video cameras, though, were more cautious about how much they revealed than in the past, treating the pianist respectfully. She returned the favor to the composers.

What Salonen’s program revealed, though, was the way the two most important 20th century Russian composers got their starts contending with confusing artistic and political times. Both composers began as early 20th century radicals, full of wild spunk, who too quickly had to face political realities.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 — written in 1911, when Russia was in revolutionary fervor — is the work of a 19-year-old with unbounded spirit and of a fearless pianist ready to change the world. Six years later, with Russia in turmoil at the time of the October Revolution, Prokofiev pulled back from radicalism and wrote what appeared to be a comfortably reactionary “Classical” Symphony in the style of Haydn.

What Salonen’s program revealed, though, was the way the two most important 20th century Russian composers got their starts contending with confusing artistic and political times.-

Though 15 years Prokofiev’s junior and reacting to different political and artistic issues, Shostakovich followed a similar trajectory. His first symphony, a 1925 student work by a 20-year-old, picks up on the Russian Constructivist impulses of the early 20s. By the time of his First Piano Concerto seven years later, he was still pushing boundaries, but also needed to watch his step. Stalin was in power, and the Soviet imperative was no longer boldly experimental but nervously populist.

Salonen began the program with Prokofiev’s symphony. The piece is, on the surface, an easygoing delight and no threat to Bowl picnics. An old Haydn hand, Salonen relishes Haydn’s symphonic wit. But it was an exceedingly dry different wit that he brought to Prokofiev.

His attention here was on everything that wasn’t “Classical,” on the rhythms that don’t always conform, the startling jumps in register that are a Prokofiev trait, the citric acid squirted into otherwise conventional harmony. The “Classical” Symphony suddenly turned sly, sounding under Salonen like a buoyant distortion of the Classical style as apt musical representation for a revolutionary Russia in which there was no turning back. Shostakovich’s concerto, which followed, is for piano, trumpet and strings. This was Wang’s first time performing it, and she used a score, turning pages in virtuosic flurry. She was, though, uncharacteristically cautious.

Shostakovich begins with a jazzy, almost nose-thumbing nerve, turns wildly sarcastic in the second movement and then gets deep, solemn, agitated, angry and finally furious in the later movements. He was a neurotic composer, and you can feel the tension, the turnaround from simple experimental thrills.

Salonen made a feisty recording of the concerto with Yefim Bronfman and the L.A. Phil in 1999. Here he went for a more considered approach, possibly in consideration of Wang. Her trademark confidence and zeal were apparent. She brought a fine lyric reserve to the slow movement and loved getting into an exciting rhythmic groove at the end, which is the kind of music in which she excels.

She stole the show, of course. This kept L.A. Phil principal trumpet Thomas Hooten a little too much in the back seat. But he is a naturally reserved player, and he did contribute a fine melancholy to the slow movement.

For Prokofiev’s concerto, Wang was fully in her element. No longer quite so deferential to Salonen, she took off like a rocket, all glitter and rhythmic sass. The slow movement is a marvel, revealing already at 19 that Prokofiev was capable of the bittersweet strangeness that would mark his greatest music. This, too, Wang takes to with expressive ease. It was an impressive performance.

So, too, was the Shostakovich First Symphony, which closed the program. Just as Prokofiev had been himself at that age, Shostakovich was already Shostakovich by the time he reached 20. That, however, meant he was looking over his shoulder a lot more than the older composer and was a much bigger mess of a symphonist.

The First is all over the place, and Salonen allowed it its manic-depressive swings between exuberance and severity but without insisting on order when there isn’t any. But he let nothing get out of hand.

The orchestra was in top form. This is a symphony of solos, at times almost a concerto for the L.A. Phil’s outstanding pianist, Joanne Pearce Martin. There were also terrific moments from concertmaster Martin Chalifour, cellist Robert deMaine, timpanist Joseph Pereira (this kitchen-sink symphony is a timpani concerto, too, at one point) and clarinetist Burt Hara.



Income Inequality Series: Introduction

The “income inequality” topic is arguably the subject du jour, and will remain a politicized one during the incoming mid-term and 2016 elections. This is my attempt, though admittedly limited and rudimentary, to take a humanizing look at the so-called “99%” and “1%” respectively, and I hope it serves as an encouraging invite to engage all of you to start a spirited and nuanced debate.

Income Inequality Series: Part I Select Personal Accounts of Members of the 99%

My first job out of college was working as a courier for China’s biggest national transportation company, which at that time served as an agent for the United Parcel Service.  My office was on the 12th floor of the first skyscraper in Shanghai that housed the first wave of some of the Fortune 500 companies.  The job was deeply dissatisfying, and I grew restless.  I remember one day sharing laments with a fellow recent college graduate working for a neighboring company.  He asked me what I wanted out of life, and my reply was: “I want all the material trappings, plus visits to the Carnegie Hall.”  He was floored.  A year later, I became one of the 30% of the applicants lucky enough to get a much coveted student visa from the U. S. Consulate.  To come up with my first semester’s tuition, I exhausted my parents’ lifetime saving, which took an unfavorable hit when the official exchange rate adjustment caused the local currency to depreciate 20% without warning just two weeks before my trip to the US.  At one time, I had seventy five cents in my bank account after paying for my tuition and rent and investing in a ten-year-old Cavalier so that I could work off-campus.  After I graduated, I sold my Cavalier, bought a one-way ticket to California, paid my dues, worked my way up and never stopped relentlessly bettering myself.

At a family function a few years ago, I met a compelling, elegant Dr. Richard Rice, an ivy-league educated psychiatrist and sculptor, who 50 years ago went through the same struggle I did.  In 1904, his grandparents, who were Jewish and not wealthy by any means, had the foresight and tenacity to escape Ukraine and Poland to reach the US.  Had they stayed, they most likely would have perished during the Holocaust.  His father owned a small clothing store.  Growing up in Miami, where his fellow school children were into crocodile and snake, he was decidedly different.  His mom urged him to attend the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, and he knew he had to fight for his chance to get in.  He was a top ranked swimmer in the state of Florida, smart, hard-working, and had excellent grades.  He demonstrated the same feistiness as his grandparents did and won himself a scholarship to UPenn.  Most of his UPenn classmates came from rich families, and he really wanted to fit in with his fraternity brothers.  During one college football bowl game season, he returned to Miami, sold peanuts and soda at the Orange Bowl, saved enough money, and bought himself a brand new Haspel suit.  According to Haspel’s web site, “for the last century, Haspel has defined a uniquely American style, pioneering the seersucker suit and making preppy looks de rigueur at Ivy League campuses throughout the country.”  He thought that with the addition of the suit, he would feel better about himself, only to find out that the father of one of his classmates actually owned the Haspel company, which made him feel worse.  Fifty years later, Dr. Rice now has a thriving practice, a Harvard-educated architect wife, two high-achieving sons, and when I met him, was going to have a re-union with his former classmate Mr. Haspel – life really has a way of coming to a full circle.

People from all over the world – some even risking their lives – come to America to seek economic prosperity and political freedom.  I submit that America still offers more mobility than any other industrialized nation.  If you work hard and apply yourself, upward mobility is within everyone’s reach.

To be continued…

** With special thanks to Dr. Richard Rice, who graciously gave me permission to utilize his story “anyway I see fit.”  Your story personifies the tenacious, individualistic, pragmatic spirit that makes America America.

Haspel suit


Income Inequality Series: Part II Stories of the 1%

An acquaintance of mine begrudgingly complained that Mr. Donald Bren, the wealthiest man in Orange County, California, contributes only 400 million dollars a year to charities, which represent a smaller percentage of his net worth than his do.  He then went on to predict that Mr. Bren’s children would engage in an acrimonious fight for their inheritance shares upon his passing, so he thought Mr. Bren should be more generous with his giving when he’s still alive.

To put 400 million dollars in perspective:  The National Endowment for the Arts for 2014 is a paltry 146 million, to be distributed to all the art institutions in the whole United States.  The CEO of one Orange County cultural organization said though he got some grant, he could actually use all of that 146 million to support his ambitious programming initiatives.  Since art institutions in the US do not receive much, if at all, any government funding, they must rely on the generosity of wealthy individuals and entities to underwrite their productions.  The current contentious negotiation between the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and its unions gives a glimpse of how indispensable these contributions are. The Met has an annual endowment of 200 million dollars, which represents 2/3 of its total operating budget.  The Met is considered one of the world’s most prestigious cultural establishments, and half of Mr. Bren’s annual donation can single-handedly support it.

Mr. Alfred Mann, the legendary billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, is known for founding and investing in companies with cutting edge technologies.  He once owned a battery company that partnered with my former employer, a lithium-ion battery start-up.  Currently, Mr. Mann oversees several electronics and medical device companies, providing much needed funding for research and development of life-changing breakthroughs that are going to improve millions of patients’ quality of life.  Growing up in a family with musician mom and brother, he tends to not only open up his check book – he is on the board of the Los Angeles Opera – but also open up his home (and heart) by providing backdrop to the star power that only Mr. Placido Domingo, director of the LA Opera, could produce for its Artist-in-Residence program. Mr.

Milan Panic, former Prime Minister of Yugoslavia now living in California, is actively involved in arts and charities.  I was at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s 2005 gala held at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach where he was honored as its “Person of the Year.”  To thunderous applause, Mr. Panic movingly recounted his story of coming to America with little money, and went on to build ICN, a pharmaceutical empire.  Acknowledging that his success was only possible in America, he thanked the United States of America and American people for accepting who he is and giving him the opportunity of his lifetime.

F. Scott Fitzgerald says: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”  I don’t pretend to be able to even remotely fathom the rich’s behaviors or thought processes in their daily business dealings, where millions or people’s livelihood are on the line, and like you, I followed the breathless reporting when Mr. Bren’s two out-of-wed-lock children sued him for back child support, and sneered when Mr. Panic’s second wife finally had enough of his philandering and divorced him.  I am however, dissatisfied with the current media landscape that one-sidedly accuses the super-rich of being greedy and evil.  This overly simplistic, one-dimensional take does not advance this all-too-important discussion on “income inequality,” and only contributes to the already dangerous polarization.  All I am attempting to do is giving a humanized look at the working class and the rich, and to remind everyone that in capitalist America, upward mobility is still a possibility.


Income Inequality Series: the Chinese Perspective

While the debate on income inequality rages on in the US, do you ever wonder how the rest of the world feels about this issue, or what this hand wringing says about us in particular?

Though I can’t speak for the rest of the world, I certainly want to share the sentiment from the country I left behind.

When Los Angeles pulled out the red carpet and closed down a section of the Grand Avenue in downtown to celebrate the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s inauguration in September 2003, protesters were angry that some of the homeless people had to be “displaced.” I was for the most part happy that I could attend without limping – three weeks prior, I was in an automobile accident that landed me in an emergency room and had to wear crutches for two weeks – and shared a dinner table with four obviously very wealthy individuals.  In the backdrop of gourmet Patina catering, free flowing champagne and designer gowns, I brought up the plight of the homeless, and lamented the stark contrast of the haves vs. the have-nots.  To my surprise, one brooding guest shared my sentiment and predicted that there was going to be a revolution if the gulf failed to narrow.

In October 2011, I visited Washington D. C. en-route to a family wedding in Virginia, and found myself in the midst of the Occupy D. C. crowd.  Passionate demonstrators included students and union workers, and their leaders gave stirring speeches.  It was peaceful and exciting, and certainly brought back memory of the two epic pro-democracy movements I experienced as a high school and college student in 1980s in China.

When Mao was in power, there was no perceived income inequality in China.  Everybody worked for the state, and there was not much salary difference between a doctor and a blue-collar worker.  When Deng ushered in the reform policy, it allowed private enterprises to flourish.  While this limited form of capitalism raised most people’s standard of living, an income gap inevitably emerged.  What infuriated people the most was how widespread it was for government officials to abuse their power for personal gains.  In 1989, when the idealistic students converged at the Tiananmen Square to demand political freedom and pleaded to the central government to eradicate corruption, they singled out the unfair practice of communist cadres who obtained raw materials’ prices at below cost thanks to their connections and flipped them at market prices.

Even though the government eventually eliminated the loophole – though not before sending troops and tanks to crush the movement and killing thousands – new forms of graft became rampant.  In recent years, officials in rural areas routinely grab farm lands and sell them to real estate developers, pocketing huge sums.  Farmers who lose their lands have no voices, no recourse, thus nothing to lose.  Human rights groups estimate hundreds of violent confrontations occur on a daily basis, and some turn deadly.   Things are no better in the cities either.  Pollution, unsafe food and water supplies, escalating housing prices, soaring health care costs, crackdown on dissenting voices, declining morals are driving up crimes and pushing people to the edge.  Ordinary citizens don’t see their way out of this misery, and resent bitterly those who use their political clout to amass fortunes while sending their family members overseas to gain foreign citizenships and live in luxury.

The communist government is keenly aware that such deep resentment is brewing and will reach boiling point if unchecked.  The Chinese history is full of populists who rose up and succeeded in regime changes when capitalizing on people’s hatred towards those in power.  The one thing the leaders fear the most is that if history repeats itself, they will be ousted and lose their monopoly on privileges and wealth.  Therefore, they implore that “stability supersedes everything,” and have started a crusade to prosecute corrupt officials to try to convince people that they are serious about fighting corruption, though most citizens believe it’s just a show and the campaign is merely a tool to eliminate political rivals.

Even the US has its own share of problems, to most Chinese, it is paradise (the words United States of America mean “beautiful country” in Mandarin).  They believe ordinary Americans have access to clean air and reliable drinking water, generally safe food sources, affordable housing, the best health care system in the world, elected officials who actually answer to their constituents, and above all, a just and moral society.  They wildly admire luminaries like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett not only for their hard work, innovative spirits and sound investment strategies, but also for their philanthropic pledges to leave most of their wealth to charity, and they scoff at their own nouveau riche for flaunting their flamboyant life styles without engaging in civic-minded matters.  Whereas in China, examining the roots of social and economic injustice can be labeled as inciting discord and land you in jail, the fact that in the US, politicians, academia and average citizens participate in a spirited and data-driven debate about the so-called “income inequality”, and the fact that there are open forums for everyone to voice their opinions without fearing being shot at or run over by tanks, shows that there is a genuine commitment from all to addressing this issue and it says a lot about the character of this country and its people.  Contrary to some people may want us to believe, in most Chinese people’s eyes, the US still has not lost its moral authority.


Income Inequality Series: Follow-Up July 20, 214

Comment: Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would collapse and be replaced by communism.  One of the premises he based his theory on was that there be no international trade.  Since globalization has been way of life for centuries, capitalism has not shown any sign of abatement and is here to stay. Karl Marx must be rolling in his grave now when the voice calling for income redistribution has never been louder since the failed experiment called communism ended in a spectacular fashion in 1989, the author of this article contends that “international trade has drastically reduced poverty within developing nations.”

The irony is not lost on me, who was indoctrinated with the so-called virtues of communism growing up.

New York Times Article:

Income Inequality Is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.

Income inequality has surged as a political and economic issue, but the numbers don’t show that inequality is rising from a global perspective. Yes, the problem has become more acute within most individual nations, yet income inequality for the world as a whole has been falling for most of the last 20 years. It’s a fact that hasn’t been noted often enough.

The finding comes from a recent investigation by Christoph Lakner, a consultant at the World Bank, and Branko Milanovic, senior scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center. And while such a framing may sound startling at first, it should be intuitive upon reflection. The economic surges of China, India and some other nations have been among the most egalitarian developments in history.

Of course, no one should use this observation as an excuse to stop helping the less fortunate. But it can help us see that higher income inequality is not always the most relevant problem, even for strict egalitarians. Policies on immigration and free trade, for example, sometimes increase inequality within a nation, yet can make the world a better place and often decrease inequality on the planet as a whole.

International trade has drastically reduced poverty within developing nations, as evidenced by the export-led growth of China and other countries. Yet contrary to what many economists had promised, there is now good evidence that the rise of Chinese exports has held down the wages of some parts of the American middle class. This was demonstrated in a recent paper by the economists David H. Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, David Dorn of the Center for Monetary and Financial Studies in Madrid, and Gordon H. Hanson of the University of California, San Diego.

At the same time, Chinese economic growth has probably raised incomes of the top 1 percent in the United States, through exports that have increased the value of companies whose shares are often held by wealthy Americans. So while Chinese growth has added to income inequality in the United States, it has also increased prosperity and income equality globally.

The evidence also suggests that immigration of low-skilled workers to the United States has a modestly negative effect on the wages of American workers without a high school diploma, as shown, for instance, in research by George Borjas, a Harvard economics professor. Yet that same immigration greatly benefits those who move to wealthy countries like the United States. (It probably also helps top American earners, who can hire household and child-care workers at cheaper prices.) Again, income inequality within the nation may rise but global inequality probably declines, especially if the new arrivals send money back home.

From a narrowly nationalist point of view, these developments may not be auspicious for the United States. But that narrow viewpoint is the main problem. We have evolved a political debate where essentially nationalistic concerns have been hiding behind the gentler cloak of egalitarianism.To clear up this confusion, one recommendation would be to preface all discussions of inequality with a reminder that global inequality has been falling and that, in this regard, the world is headed in a fundamentally better direction.

The message from groups like Occupy Wall Street has been that inequality is up and that capitalism is failing us. A more correct and nuanced message is this: Although significant economic problems remain, we have been living in equalizing times for the world — a change that has been largely for the good. That may not make for convincing sloganeering, but it’s the truth.

A common view is that high and rising inequality within nations brings political trouble, maybe through violence or even revolution. So one might argue that a nationalistic perspective is important. But it’s hardly obvious that such predictions of political turmoil are true, especially for aging societies like the United States that are showing falling rates of crime.

Furthermore, public policy can adjust to accommodate some egalitarian concerns. We can improve our educational system, for example.

Still, to the extent that political worry about rising domestic inequality is justified, it suggests yet another reframing. If our domestic politics can’t handle changes in income distribution, maybe the problem isn’t that capitalism is fundamentally flawed but rather that our political institutions are inflexible. Our politics need not collapse under the pressure of a world that, over all, is becoming wealthier and fairer.

Many egalitarians push for policies to redistribute some income within nations, including the United States. That’s worth considering, but with a cautionary note. Such initiatives will prove more beneficial on the global level if there is more wealth to redistribute. In the United States, greater wealth would maintain the nation’s ability to invest abroad, buy foreign products, absorb immigrants and generate innovation, with significant benefit for global income and equality.

In other words, the true egalitarian should follow the economist’s inclination to seek wealth-maximizing policies, and that means worrying less about inequality within the nation.

Yes, we might consider some useful revisions to current debates on inequality. But globally minded egalitarians should be more optimistic about recent history, realizing that capitalism and economic growth are continuing their historical roles as the greatest and most effective equalizers the world has ever known.

Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University.

Income Inequality Series: Follow-Up July 24, 2014

Comment: Calling all my European connections living in the US: is it really true that “there is less economic mobility in America than in class-conscious Europe?”

I do however, agree with this observation: “Much of America’s inequality is the result of market distortions, with incentives directed not at creating new wealth but at taking it from others.”  Market distortions are the result of regulations, created by politicians in bed with special interest groups.  To me that is the very definition of crony capitalism, an incestuous union of money and power.  While some people are outraged that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor, they fail to dig deep to examine the root cause of this phenomenon.  They don’t engage in civic matters or policy debates.  USA is said to have the lowest voter turnout in the entire industrialized world – to those who don’t participate in political discourse or voting, remember, Plato said this thousands of years ago: “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”

New York Times Article

July 24, 2014

An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality

By Nicholas Kristof

We may now have a new “most unread best seller of all time.”

Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that that honor may go to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which reached No. 1 on the best-seller list this year. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Piketty’s book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages.

The rush to purchase Piketty’s book suggested that Americans must have wanted to understand inequality. The apparent rush to put it down suggests that, well, we’re human.

So let me satisfy this demand with my own “Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.” Here are five points:

First, economic inequality has worsened significantly in the United States and some other countries. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Oxfam estimates that the richest 85 people in the world own half of all wealth.

The situation might be tolerable if a rising tide were lifting all boats. But it’s lifting mostly the yachts. In 2010, 93 percent of the additional income created in America went to the top 1 percent.

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

Certainly, the nation grew more quickly in periods when we were more equal, including in the golden decades after World War II when growth was strong and inequality actually diminished. Likewise, a major research paper from the International Monetary Fund in April found that more equitable societies tend to enjoy more rapid economic growth.

Indeed, even Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, warns that “too much … has gone to too few” and that inequality in America is now “very destabilizing.”

Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised. That has been a classic problem in “banana republic” countries in Latin America, and the United States now has a Gini coefficient (a standard measure of inequality) approaching some traditionally poor and dysfunctional Latin countries.

Third, disparities reflect not just the invisible hand of the market but also manipulation of markets. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote a terrific book two years ago, “The Price of Inequality,” which is a shorter and easier read than Piketty’s book. In it, he notes: “Much of America’s inequality is the result of market distortions, with incentives directed not at creating new wealth but at taking it from others.”

For example, financiers are wealthy partly because they’re highly educated and hardworking — and also because they’ve successfully lobbied for the carried interest tax loophole that lets their pay be taxed at much lower rates than other people’s.

Likewise, if you’re a pharmaceutical executive, one way to create profits is to generate new products. Another is to lobby Congress to bar the government’s Medicare program from bargaining for drug prices. That amounts to a $50 billion annual gift to pharmaceutical companies.

Fourth, inequality doesn’t necessarily even benefit the rich as much as we think. At some point, extra incomes don’t go to sate desires but to attempt to buy status through “positional goods” — like the hottest car on the block.

The problem is that there can only be one hottest car on the block. So the lawyer who buys a Porsche is foiled by the C.E.O. who buys a Ferrari, who in turn is foiled by the hedge fund manager who buys a Lamborghini. This arms race leaves these desires unsated; there’s still only one at the top of the heap.

Fifth, progressives probably talk too much about “inequality” and not enough about “opportunity.” Some voters are turned off by tirades about inequality because they say it connotes envy of the rich; there is more consensus on bringing everyone to the same starting line.

Unfortunately, equal opportunity is now a mirage. Indeed, researchers find that there is less economic mobility in America than in class-conscious Europe.

We know some of the tools, including job incentives and better schools, that can reduce this opportunity gap. But the United States is one of the few advanced countries that spends less educating the average poor child than the average rich one. As an escalator of mobility, the American education system is broken.

There’s still a great deal we don’t understand about inequality. But whether or not you read Piketty, there’s one overwhelming lesson you should be aware of: Inequality and lack of opportunity today constitute a national infirmity and vulnerability — and there are policy tools that can make a difference.