Book Review

A Blind Spot Full of Billionaires

June 18, 2014

Multiple Pages
A Blind Spot Full of Billionaires

One of the surprises in Thomas Piketty’s best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century is how grating the Frenchman’s prose style turns out to be.

Granted, Piketty has valid reasons for being perpetually outraged at his fellow economists’ ignorance and cupidity. In this post-1968 era in which the left has lost interest in the working class, the rich are getting richer a lot faster than anybody else is. But most economists haven’t been in a hurry to talk about this; after all, they primarily get paid by the wealthy. As Adam Smith might say today, “It is not from the benevolence of the economist, the econometrician, or the expert that we expect our rationalizations, but from their regard to their own interest.”

On rare occasions we see an economist using his awareness of the law of supply and demand to point out that, say, “immigration reform” is actually a cheap labor policy benefiting the upper class.

For example, the obscure economics professor David Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) last week, in part by denouncing the incumbent’s alliance with Facebook zillionaire Mark Zuckerberg to pound down the salaries of American computer programmers with higher H-1B visa quotas.

But when the better-known economist Tyler Cowen of the Mercatus Center and the New York Times got around to discussing “What do I think of David Brat?,” he quickly changed the subject to how Brat violated the new World War T protocol against referring to a transsexual by both before and after first names.

“Key policies of broadly successful economies typically include tariffs and immigration restriction. But Piketty won’t consider learning any lessons from East Asia.”

So Piketty’s peevishness is hardly unreasonable. But across 685 pages his irritability and arrogance start to sound like a 2002 Jonah Goldberg parody of Gallic intellectual stridency (perhaps mixed with Teutonic pedantry). To pick an example at random, on p. 85 Piketty dismisses some dubious bit of Information Age hype with his characteristic overkill:

“The plain fact is that this argument is often used to justify extreme inequalities and to defend the privileges of the winners without much consideration for the losers, much less for the facts, and without any real effort to verify whether this convenient principle can actually explain the changes we observe. I will come back to this point.”

You will, Thomas, indeed you will.

The rare occasions when Piketty attempts to sound modest are comic in their insincerity and didacticism:

“To be frank, I know virtually nothing about exactly how Carlos Slim or Bill Gates became rich, and I am quite incapable of assessing their relative merits. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Bill Gates also profited from a virtual monopoly on operating systems …”

(By the way, Piketty appears to believe that Slim, who is the second largest shareholder of the New York Times, is a victim of “Western ethnocentrism.”)

At first I assumed that the problem with Piketty’s prose was the fault of his hard-pressed translator: rendering anything into English quickly is a challenge. Four decades ago, for instance, the first U.S. releases of Solzhenitsyn’s books tended to be fairly dire due to an understandable haste, but eventually superior British translations would filter into the American market and repair a bit of the damage that had been done to the great Russian’s literary reputation.

Yet Piketty’s translator, Arthur Goldhammer, one of only two or three dozen full-time book translators left in America, is a distinguished stylist. He has four times won the French-American Foundation’s annual prize for nonfiction translation, such as for his acclaimed Library of America edition of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. So if Piketty sounds like a guy who can’t come to bed because someone is wrong on the Internet, well, that’s probably how he wants to come across.

And it seems to be working for him. It’s an ironic illustration of the winner-take-all tendency of modern moneymaking that Piketty is currently monopolizing the market for left-of-center economists almost as thoroughly as Bill Gates monopolized operating systems back in the 1980s.

The lack of panache in Piketty’s prose is especially noticeable when Capital in the Twenty-First Century is compared to the more amusing books of another heterodox economist, Cambridge’s Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism and Kicking Away the Ladder. The genial yet waspish Chang, the son of a South Korean finance ministry official, has modeled his persona on the suave Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who exchanged so many witticisms at Gstaad dinner parties with his frenemy William F. Buckley.

Like Galbraith (or Pat Buchanan), Chang enjoys pointing out that most rich countries didn’t get rich by following the dogmas of laissez-faire economics. Chang is, not unreasonably, proud of his civil servant father’s contribution in helping to build South Korea’s economy on what I might call “national capitalist” principles. South Korea would appear to have achieved a reasonable balance of growth and equality, but that potential role model for the West is not mentioned in the index of Piketty’s book.

Key policies of broadly successful economies typically include tariffs and immigration restriction. But Piketty won’t consider learning any lessons from East Asia. On page one of his book he declares that his policy recommendation—some kind of European or perhaps global superstate that hunts down and taxes all wealth (but don’t worry, Piketty’s will be a democratic empire)—is aimed at “avoiding protectionist and nationalist reactions.”

Yet Chang has noted that if Swedish bus drivers get paid, say, 50 times more than Indian bus drivers, it’s not because the Swedes are 50 times more productive at driving buses. It’s because the government of Sweden would use physical force to stop enough Indians from moving to Sweden to equalize wages. Chang observes:

“Our story of bus drivers reveals the existence of the proverbial elephant in the room. It shows that the living standards of the huge majority of people in rich countries critically depend on the existence of the most draconian control over their labor markets—immigration control. Despite this, immigration control is invisible to many …”

Piketty is one of the oblivious. Immigration is barely mentioned in his massive tome. When Piketty finally gets around to discussing immigration on p. 538-539, his analysis is romantic at best:

“Immigration is the mortar that holds the United States together, the stabilizing force that prevents accumulated capital from acquiring the importance it has in Europe …”

Piketty doesn’t seem to be aware that American plutocrats, both in the robber baron era and today, have overwhelmingly put their money on the side of more immigration. Billionaires who have donated toward more immigration include Gates, Zuckerberg, Charles and David Koch, Michael Bloomberg, Sheldon Adelson, George Soros, and Rupert Murdoch.

And that representative oversight helps explain why Piketty’s prose isn’t as fun to read as Chang’s: he simply isn’t as perceptive.

 

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