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.

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