Thomas Piketty’s book Capitalism in the Twenty First Century is all the rage, notably for its 700-page rationale of a very simple formulation: r >g. In this formula, “r” stands for return on capital and “g” stands for general economic growth. Having read a few fairly painless selections from the celebrated tome, and a host of reviews, here’s what I have gathered: the idea seems to be that capital gains, rents, and other forms of moneymaking in which you don’t have to break a sweat, all grow faster than the general economy. We are thus condemned, should the status quo prevail, to a world in which the rich get richer and the poor get only marginally less poor. Hmmm. Sounds oddly familiar. Almost like reality itself. Nevertheless, bourgeoisie liberals are simply stunned, absolutely gob-smacked, by the revelation of the apparent inequality of the capitalist model. Who’d have thunk it? Reformist liberals across the political spectrum are hurrying back to their greatest-model-of-wealth-creation handbooks for reassurance.
But does any sensible person really doubt that capitalism is a battle between labor and capital, where the enrichment of one is had by the dispossession of the other? Or perhaps this is underground knowledge, known only to deranged leftists and free-range libertarians. (At this point in our story a Lilliputian academic in oxford-cloth cornflower blue materializes to claim that economics is a nonzero sum game, brandishing Wealth of Nations and The Road to Serfdom, but never bothering to note the declining-rate-of-profit mechanism that instances dispossession in the first place. A philosophical “externality”, perhaps.)
No matter. It appears Piketty has produced a post-hoc data-set for what Citigroup announced back in 2005 when its brightly titled report, “Plutonomy” and the much-anticipated sequel, “Revisiting Plutonomy” were unfortunately leaked to the rabble. These signal reports essentially divided the world into “the Plutonomy and the rest,” the rest later adopting the more dramatic moniker, “the Precariat.” Unfortunately, Citigroup hastily attempted to suppress its reports when it was discovered their authors had been so dreadfully honest about everything. Nor did Citigroup provide any colorful illustrations of its two-tiered world, as it might have done. Perhaps some Raphaelite vision of a high cloud populated by mincing dandies in horse-drawn carriages, while far, far below a burning wasteland of scavengers, tramps, and thieves collected the crumbs that overspilt the cloud of plenty. Such a rendering might have popularized the reality Citi was describing. Instead, nobody read the text-heavy communiqués from on high. Thus poor Piketty was left to labor away trying to transform his awe-inspiring mountains of data into an exceedingly simple three-symbol formula, the better to demonstrate to the myopic ivory tower and the huddled masses just how our destinies diverge. (John Calvin has already usefully explained why they diverge.)
But, of course, ivory towered academia already knows all this, too. What are the words “market efficiency” but a description of a good scenario for capital and a bad one for labor? What is the word “liberalization” or “labor flexibility” but descriptions of a good scenario for capital and a bad one for labor? What is the suspicious absence of the word “externality” from the logic of the invisible hand but an absent-minded oversight for capital and a life-debilitating elision for labor?
So, is Piketty preaching to the choir? The rich know it. Academia knows it. The people know it. But at least the people don’t respond with shock and awe when the findings are released. “Same old, same old,” they might reply. (I recall a former Obama canvasser relating how hard it was to convince rural African-Americans in the Deep South that Obama represented real change.) Needless to say, those who perpetuate the system trade despairing glances over bottles of Pinot Noir and fret about “such a troubling book”, before ordering a second bottle and laying the whole problem at the foot of those insufferable Republicans. Some well-intentioned reformers will weigh in. Perhaps a little tinkering on the periphery of the system is in order? Might we innovate a few public-private partnerships to ameliorate the general misery? Possibly charter a new NGO to replace our collapsing institutions? Or might we simply rely on the largesse of billionaire philanthropists? In any case, we can all agree it is possible to “do well by doing good”, can’t we? Cheers to that.
Probably Piketty’s book soon will die a painless death as it is swept into the great dustbin of progressive causes. Obama might mention it in passing, decrying the inequalities that keep him awake nights. He’ll then announce that, using his incrementalist approach, we should achieve full employment by 2250. A hasty Republican rebuttal will claim this is far too ambitious a plan and would dampen small business initiative, thereby harming the very people he had hoped to help! (Note to filmmakers: These Republican monologues are best filmed in the Russell Rotunda, which lends an air of gravitas to the proceedings with its columned grandeur and marbled decorum. Nicely contrasts the sophistic blather of whatever rep you’ve shoved in front of the camera. Also, aides can be seen scurrying in the background, providing a false sense that something is actually being accomplished.)
Meanwhile, Odessa burns. The pivot to Asia is on, boys. First prize—Ukraine. And you thought it was just another throwaway Slavic backwater on the edge of the Black Sea? Anything but. Just ask George H.W. Bush’s Defense Secretary, snarling Dick Cheney. Just ask the doyen of geopolitical statecraft, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Ask former President of the World Bank itself, Paul Wolfowitz.
First, we slow-drip five billion dollars into the country, fomenting unnecessary unrest. Then the Wicked Witch of the West Victoria Nuland descends on Kiev reciting various odes to democracy. Cue the midnight putsch, which forces Viktor Yanukovych to flee for his life as Parliament empties. (Through the flames some glimpse Nuland’s private jet soaring in the direction of Versailles.) Then CIA Director John Brennan visits Kiev for a friendly chat with the new Nazi-sympathizing government. Then Vice President Joe Biden visits Kiev for a friendly chat with the new Nazi-sympathizing government. Cue the fascist thug brigade, which promptly wrecks a tent city of pro-Russian protestors in Odessa, harrows them into a nearby building, and sets it aflame (while diligently executing those inside who don’t catch fire). A few dive to their death. A few try to make a run for it, but soon succumb to the Louisville Sluggers on the sidewalk. Afterward, Obama gravely affirms Kiev’s right to calm any civil disturbances in the eastern Ukraine, and then mutters something about Russia being “just a regional power.”
Just as he finishes his speech on the White House lawn, Secretary of State Kerry touches down in Helicopter Gunship One. Bedraggled and sleepless, Kerry informs the President that Israel-Palestine negotiations didn’t exactly work out. He staggers into the White House still clutching David Ben-Gurion’s lofty memoirs. An aide flails after him, exclaiming, “Secretary Kerry, I’ve finally discovered what a ‘Bantustan’ is!” Obama follows them in, shaking his head with a wry grin, “John Kerry, reporting for duty.”
Somewhere on the Grand Place in Brussels, Thomas Piketty is flogging his 700-page behemoth to EU bureaucrats, but they are too busy consorting with visiting IMF cohorts—over growlers of Chimay and Orval—loosening their ties and putting the finishing touches on the newest loan installment for Ukraine, to be dispatched once a hefty list of “prior actions” are set in motion by the neoliberal-fascist cabal merrily ruling the roost in Mariyinsky Palace. Eventually, Piketty piles his remaindered lot into a wheelbarrow and quietly moves off into the crepuscular night. The bureaucrats order another round, and continue to parley the fate of nations with their clever data-sets. After all, they know what we know: what’s ours is ours and what’s yours is negotiable.