Deirdre McCloskey: a lamb in wolf’s clothing

In my previous post I ended by saying that I needed to find someone expert enough to take Thomas Picketty properly to task.

In November 2014 the Rogge Lecture at Wabash College was delivered by Deirdre McCloskey. This was just a few months after the English language edition of Thomas Picketty’s book was published, and she tackled it head on. Please note that last pronoun. She tackled it more than she tackled him. Yes she disagreed with him and destroyed much of his case, but her approach to him was always courteous and professional.

This is worth noting, because debates across this particular philosophical line are so often absurdly acrimonious. Burnt into my memory is a picture I saw on line a few years ago of a Tea Party gathering where a young man was wearing a placard bearing just the words, “Whatever I say you will call me racist.” Though it is possible that some advocates of low tax and small government could be racist, to equate them is nonsense; but smear machines always swing into action on these occasions. That placard was no doubt shown to be justified.

McCloskey, taking the side that is so often idly portrayed as unfeeling, is wearing little discernible makeup, her hair is in a fairly severe style (she sometimes wears it down) and her trademark gravelly voice completes the image of one who is not planning to take prisoners. No one could accuse her of superficially trying to soften her case, even though the gentle gleam of her smile creeps out occasionally.

(In fact her case does not need softening, because it very quickly emerges that she is wholly concerned with helping those in poverty.)

No one could accuse her of giving a damn about anything except what she is saying, and that’s one of the things I like about her. It is the mindset I drill into my trainees: if you are concerned solely with your message so will your audience be. Do you suppose that her audience gives a damn, for instance, when at 5:54 she scratches at a mark on her skirt? It’s only people like me who notice that sort of thing, and I notice only because it indicates the right mindset. It is relevant that she is a professor not just of economics but a great many other things including communication.

McCloskey knows the anti-inequality arguments very well, because she used to be a Marxist (her life has often changed direction); so no one is better equipped to knock the arguments down. It would be impertinent of me to try to précis this speech, particularly as you can watch it for yourself and I hope you will, but for my part …


… is no more than an argument in favour of saving.

While dismantling Picketty’s arguments she points out that in his anti-capitalist rhetoric he omits mention of human capital, whence come ideas and innovation – the real drivers of progress. When researching her for this posting I watched another of her speeches which focussed even more strongly on this point, and I would have covered that one today had we not been already locked in to Picketty.

One day I will write a post on that other one, because in the first couple of minutes she said something that made me want to hug her. Like in this speech she was shooting from the hip, and in her opening she brought up the subject of her stutter.  She said that if she were to read the speech her stutter would be considerably worse. My regular readers will know why I smiled in agreement.

In every respect she is my type of speaker.

Thomas Picketty didn’t play the piano

Early in 2014 French economist Thomas Picketty published a book on economics, entitled CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century. The book was a sensation. It rocketed to the higher reaches of the Best-Seller lists and stayed there a long time, assembling all sorts of awards. I have to confess to not having a copy of my own, although I have read several reviews of it …

… actually, because I have read several reviews of it.

Late in 2014 Picketty delivered a TED Talk.

How well I remember, all those years ago at school, our French teacher was exasperated at our attempts to wrap our Anglo-Saxon tongues around French vowel sounds. He would thunder at us that it was thoroughly ill-mannered to attempt to speak a language without applying at least as much effort to pronouncing it properly, so the better we could converse the worse the impression bad pronunciation would give. I remember his words every time I hear French people speaking English. The Hollywood actor, Maurice Chevalier, regarded his French accent as not just his professional trademark but part of his charm to such a degree that I believe while living in California he used to visit a dialogue coach to preserve it.

With my rhetor hat on I couldn’t care less about accents unless they impede intelligibility. Picketty’s accent impedes his intelligibility. So does the speed he speaks. Speaking subjectively,  I have to say that so does his subject matter.

r>g where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy.

If you are still awake I regret to inform you that this entire speech (and, for all I know, his book) is devoted to inequality of wealth, inequality of income and what can be done about it. At no point in the speech, though he may have slipped something in while I was dozing or admiring the piano behind him, did I notice him even bother to address why inequality matters.

I know that many people do get exercised that there is wealth inequality, though I don’t share their concern. I have met a few people with huge amounts of money, and they never seem to be particularly happy. I have also met many highly cheerful souls with very little. We are all much richer than our ancestors. And anyway, wealth isn’t just things.

There is only one cast-iron guaranteed way of ensuring that everyone has the same, and that is if everyone has nothing. As soon as any wealth is created, some will have more than others. The greater the overall wealth, the greater the inequality. Show me an unequal free society and I’ll show you a rich one. The richer a free society the richer the poorest in it, and that’s all that matters. How much more proportionately rich the richest have become in the process is irrelevant. Please don’t bleat to me about ‘trickle-down economics’: it doesn’t exist. Free market transactions enrich all their participants. Zero-sum transactions, where one man’s gain is another man’s loss, occur almost exclusively with theft and its derivatives.

Picketty seems to assume that inequality is self-evidently bad, because at 14:45 he begins to address “what can be done about it”; and all his remedies are varieties of institutionalized theft. At 15:10 he explicitly lists “expropriation” which he dismisses only because it is “inefficient”. It doesn’t seem to concern him, or even occur to him, that it is theft.

Proper economists are probably rolling their eyes while reading my clumsy attempts to make a case on the basis of my (at best) sketchy understanding of the science, so I think I had better shut up and go looking for a speech from an expert who can take Picketty properly to task. Watch this space.

Picketty must have made a lot of money from his book. Good luck to him. I wish him well, because I don’t resent another man’s success. I would wish him better if he had played that piano, because it couldn’t fail to have been more entertaining.

Douglas Carswell could be brilliant

Published on YouTube on 17 February, 2016, was a speech by Douglas Carswell as part of Daniel Hannan’s “Time to Leave?” series of speech-fests.  We have seen several of these before – here, here, here, and here.

Now it is the turn of Douglas Carswell who is not only UKIP’s single member of parliament but also co-author with Daniel Hannan of The Plan. They published it a few years ago, and my copy is shabbily well thumbed, unlike my copy of his The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy which is in my kindle. Carswell is also a prolific blogger. Nevertheless we are here to explore not his writing but his speaking.

My pleasure at his excellent bald opening is quickly reduced by the realization that he has notes on the lectern and that he is using them, over-using them. Speech notes exert a tyranny: the more you use them, the more you perceive a need for them. That need inhibits your capacity fully to engage your audience, and also your ability to shed your opening nerves. I am expecting nerve symptoms to show for longer than they should.

At 0:31 he utters the tautological “Who still believes that any more?” It is a minuscule syntactical error, but he wouldn’t have made it usually. He staples the otiose “any more” on the end to buy time to look at his notes, because he is still too nervous to pause.

At 1:50 his nerves have reduced enough to allow a pause, and he sinks into one that is too long and completely unnecessary while he searches on the paper for the words “estate agents and bankers”. That pause would have been no longer if he’d fished those words out of his memory, and would have felt shorter to us if he had been looking at us.

Every time his eyes go down to the lectern my heart sinks a little, because we in the audience are being just a tiny touch alienated by his being more concerned with that paper than he is with us. And he does not need to do it. I am a quarter of a century older than he is, and have reached that age when I regularly have to ask my wife to remind me of things like names, yet I would not need those notes. None of my trainees would be allowed them. He doesn’t need them either – he just thinks he does.

At 6:48 he seems to make an error of terminology, an error which he keeps repeating. He speaks of the EU and the Single Market as being synonymous. As I understand it, they are not synonymous, though they overlap. The Single Market is part of the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement which includes the EU, but the latter takes matters further into a Customs Union. It is the Customs Union, with its busybody bureaucracy, control-freakery, authoritarianism and anti-democracy, from which Brexit would cause Britain to withdraw. Being already a signatory to the EEA Britain would still have membership of it and therefore, with some realignment during the two-year period specified under Article 50, remain in the Single Market for as long as it chose to do so. That is my understanding. If I am mistaken no doubt someone will correct me.

I have a different sort of problem with Carswell’s terminology later, and this is one of those things that I drum into my trainees – simplicity of words. At 11:28 he says, “This country is Germany’s biggest single export market”. OK, yes it is, but this is bureaucrat language, just as a couple of sentences later words like “principal beneficiaries of trade”. It’s not that we don’t understand those words – as bureaucratese goes, it’s quite mild –  but I invite you to imagine how much more powerful would be his argument if he called Britain “Germany’s biggest customer”. Everyone, as well as bureaucrats, is familiar with the concept of “a customer”, and will readily relate to the argument that it’s unlikely you would kick your biggest one in the teeth.

As often happens on this blog when I am dealing with a good speaker, I have been rather picky here.  Carswell is good: of course he is, he has the votes to prove it. I just think he could easily be brilliant.

Sheila Bair takes on the bullies

On September 19, 2013, Sheila Bair addressed the University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business.

My having supplied a link to the biography page on her own website, and the fact that the video begins with an introduction from Frank Navratil, the Dean of the School, should provide all the background you need. Nevertheless, if you come from my side of the pond and you still may need persuasion to watch the video at all, it’s worth just mentioning here that Ms Bair occupied the Chair of the US Federal Insurance Deposit Corporation from 2006 to 2011, her incumbency spanning turbulent times for the economy of the USA and indeed the planet. The FDIC insures depositors in US banks, so we are about to hear from one who saw the entire drama from centre stage.

We kick off with Navratil’s introduction which is nearly five minutes long and crammed with information. He delivers it all with suitable competence, though it is difficult to get much sex appeal out of a catalogue of achievements and awards. Having done a little research on Ms Bair I find myself astounded that she can have achieved so much, and still published several children’s books. Also my mischievous instincts are amused when told that Forbes Magazine, in 2008/9, named her the world’s second most powerful woman after someone whose name Navratil then has to look up – and mispronounce. I’d sometimes like to forget that other name also.

The story Ms Bair proceeds to narrate, being the inside track on the financial crisis that we all remember more clearly than we might want, is riveting. It therefore seems impertinent for one such as I to be critiquing her delivery of it. Nevertheless there is something  interesting here that I’d like to mention.

Her eyes are as often as not on the lectern, yet she is not reading. Those words she speaks are not read words: they are spontaneously spoken words – I’d stake much on that assertion. So why is she looking down for so much of the time?

Sheila Bair is shy. It is not unusual for brilliant people to be shy: I have worked with very many such. What is unusual is for them to be comfortable enough with it not to struggle to hide it. That hint of vulnerability, in one so very smart, makes her human. Yet another reason to hear what she has to say.

So now I invite you to settle down to listen to her account of that interesting time. She hands over to Q&A at 46:35. Perhaps, like me, you will then want to read her book.

Lew Rockwell: a wise head, but a talking one.

At the end of January 2016 in Houston, Texas, the Mises Institute hosted a conference at which one of the speakers was the Institute’s founder and Chairman, Lew Rockwell.

I quite often receive, from past trainees, panic emails about the pitfalls involved in introducing important speakers. They are right to be concerned, because it can be a minefield, but I shan’t burden you here with all the guidelines. There is, though, one very simple principle. The more important the guest, the shorter should be the introduction. Jeff Deist, President of the Mises Institute, clearly knows this rule. He’s gone inside 20 seconds.

When Rockwell begins it takes even less time for me inwardly to groan, because he is reading a script. I may one day devote here an entire post to why speakers should never read a script, but for the moment let me list some aspects of audience-engagement which are damaged by script-reading: credibility, fluency, perceived sincerity, comprehensibility, flexibility, nerve-control, and perceived command of the subject. How’s that for starters? Also – and I admit this is counter-intuitive – if you know what you are doing paperless speaking is safer, much safer, and I’ll defend that opinion to anyone.

Rockwell is a good writer, and I’d love to read this speech, but writing and speaking are completely different disciplines and it is ridiculously hard work listening to it. And this opinion comes from a maverick-by-nature who agrees with nearly everything that Rockwell stands for.

From his own site I found my way to a podcast on which he was interviewed. I was not in the least surprised to find that – shooting from the hip – he was expressive, fluent and coherent to a degree that was unrecognisable from this agonisingly stilted talking-head reading. Furthermore in that podcast he sounded relaxed and at ease, whereas in this speech I am picking up stress symptoms almost to the end.

So why is he reading a script? The answer, in this context, is ironic. He is conforming to an established, top-down, opinion-moulded orthodoxy. Thou shalt write and read thy speeches! The Mises Institute, this conference, this speech, indeed Lew Rockwell himself are all about resisting established, top-down, opinion-moulded orthodoxy. Do you understand therefore why I tear my hair in frustration? One hour over a video-link would be more than enough for me to set him free from that paper tyranny.

A conference from the Mises Institute is nevertheless a treat for me.  I shall stick with it, and pray that another speaker actually speak to us.