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.

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