Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
We live in the so-called “information age.” Mid-way through my recent hippie wedding to my brilliant and beautiful hippie wife, the cold hard facts of the times in which we live broke through the fuzzy math of our timeless love. The scents of lavender and rosemary wafted through the wooden ceilings and floors of the quaint nondemoninationalinterfaithseriouslyanyidentityiscool chapel. A founding editor of Sick Papes — z/s/he who must not be named — arose to give a rousing, heartfelt testimonial of our incontrovertible goodness-of-fit. I was moved to tears. Then, our fearless editor let drop some critical supplemental material regarding the woman who was moments away from becoming my betrothed. “But there’s one thing you should just accept right now. Your wife,” z/s/he deadpanned. “She is a data monster.”
Now my liberal arts hippie education had taught me that the roots of our modern world lie in white supremacy, patriarchy, and the cultural hegemony of the West. But a new life of knowledge lay ahead of me. From now on, to paraphrase a t-shirt I once bought at South New Jersey’s Cowtown Fleamarket, if you ain’t a data fan, you ain’t shit.
Luckily, my wedding coincided with the release of a sick book about a data-driven approach that I can get behind. In his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Francophone Thomas Piketty dances the gavotte with a trove of data so sick, so monstrous, so exhaustive and so beautiful that even the usually irascible Paul Krugman had to just be like, ‘Imma step back and let you finish.’ As though forged from the consummation of all my intellectual and spiritual obsessions, the themes of the book and its reception also bear more than a passing resemblance to rock and roll heroes, anti-heroes and feuds of the twentieth century. This is an issue that I will get to in a moment.
But first, here’s one way to describe the basic argument. Essentially, insatiable data séducteur Piketty marshals centuries of wealth and income records from France, Britain, the United States, and occasionally a few other Northern European countries, to demonstrate some disturbing tendencies of capitalism. In particular, his data show that inequality has grown significantly since the industrial revolution in the West due to the observed reality that the rate of return to wealth has generally been much greater than the rate of growth in an economy.
There are actually a lot of arguments in this book. Coming in at over 600 pages, one might suspect Piketty is afflicted by logorrhea. Or maybe he’s trying to overwhelm his critics with the sheer volume of his words/figures/publicly accessible excel spreadsheets. But you know what? Sometimes that’s just how a data monster rolls. So here’s the summary slide in layman’s terms: if you own capital (things like real estate, financial stock, and industrial equipment) then you will get much richer, much quicker than if you rely on the income you expect from being a working man/woman/Z. This is because the growth of jobs is, in the bigger scheme of things, highly dependent on the growth of the economy as a whole, while growth of capital is dependent on other things such as accessing returns to production using existing capital, which can be relatively or even totally independent of labor.
As a side note, one of the twists on this argument, especially in the United States, is that there is also a major divergence in income inequality. Especially with respect to the top 1% and even the top .01% of earners, this is because of the emergence of a new class of so-called “supermanagers.” This term can mean one of two things. Either A) there is this new class that is just so fucking good at raking in cash for their companies that there is no way they could not be deserving of astronomical salaries and bonuses, hundreds of times the earnings of the average employee in a given firm. Or B) this group of “supermanagers” is actually a group of “super-board-packers,” and ensure that the people who decide to hire them, give them raises and bonuses, are their fuck buddies who get titillated by — or are willing to pretend to get titillated by — all the nasty butt speak in option A.
Anyway, these findings are all well and good, but Sick Papes is first and foremost a highly relevant cultural blog as I had understood it. So I’ll leave the economic crap for now. Instead, it has come the time for me to reprise a question that I last asked regarding Kanye West almost ten years ago. Is Thomas Piketty the new Bob Dylan?
Let’s examine the evidence. This French novelist-inspired, surrealist economist draws on the traditions of counter-cultural folk economics (eg. Karl Marx aka the Woody Guthrie of the social sciences), upends accepted mores with state of the art technologies of the field (eg. Stata aka the Stratocaster of data computing), and yells “va te faire foutre!” to the data haters while the guardians of the neo-classical flame try to cut off his mic with an axe (eg. the Financial Times aka Pete Seeger).
Hold up. The Financial Times? Let me explain. Indeed, Piketty is now engaged in a cultural battle last witnessed almost a half century ago when Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young went head to head on rock radio airwaves. Arguably, Young fired the first shot, releasing a stinging, and highly empirical condemnation of racism in the southern United States in his song, ‘Southern Man.’ Here’s a typical verse:
I saw cotton / and I saw black, tall white mansions / and little shacks / Southern man, when will you pay them back? / I heard screamin’ and bullwhips cracking / How long? How long?
Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd responded not with empirical research of their own, but rather with a distinctly emotional and objectively foul appeal:
In Birmingham they love the guvnah / Now we all did what we could do / Now Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you? / Tell the truth
Tell the truth indeed. Racist scum. This song is one of those instances where I feel like white people really become “those people.” As Merry Clayton, one of the black back-up singers on this song, said recently about the recording session for the song, “We knew it was “Sweet Home Alabama.” And we didn’t actually want anything to do with Alabama at that time in our lives.” [Little wonder that in 1971, Clayton released a furiously funky version of Young’s “Southern Man.”]
Well you know who else became one of “those people” last week? The aforementioned economics editor of the Financial Times. Suddenly, he claimed that, most explosively, Piketty had ignored a dataset that seemed to indicate that inequality had actually been dropping in Britain to levels that would make the UK even more egalitarian than Sweden. Then the FT splashed this “finding” across the front page of the newspaper in what basically amounts to academic cyber-bullying, that is, publication without peer-review.
Those people. Leeching off of the hard work of others and claiming their right to journalistic handouts. SMH.
Piketty took six days to release his ultimate smackdown. In this 4000 word response, he elucidates a very clear statistical methodology that also exposes just how erroneous the Financial Times’ approach was. Even the new data set upon which the FT’s case rests is self-described as “experimental.” And not in the good way. I suspect Piketty must have been listening to a recent album by liberal arts-educated hip-hoppers Das Racist. Piketty essentially said to the Financial Times, “Sit down, man. It’s time for a global tax on the wealth of all of these uncivilized wealth-hoarders.” I suspect he hit “send” on his review, and then went out to buy a Shure SM57 microphone just so he could drop it like the economic bad-ass that he is.
As Bruce Springsteen once sang, “we learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.” Well, I sure learned a hell of a lot from these extracurricular experiences this past month. First, I learned to comprehend in such a profoundly joyous way the love that surrounds me and my lovely wife, the “data monster.” And, soon afterwards, when I finished this sick treatise, its last words resounded deep in my soul:
“It seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists, and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.” (577)
Shout out to my editor on this piece, aka sickest pape writer ever, aka “the data monster,” aka my wife.