Here Are Five Reasons To Keep Picking at Piketty

Piketty_in_Cambridge_3_crop copyIn the continuing debate on inequality, there are many who continue to point to Thomas Piketty as a kind of secular prophet who can offer words of wisdom. The French economist certainly has plenty of words that can be found in his worldwide bestseller, a weighty 700-page work called Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Whether these words contain wisdom is another matter.

However, for those on the left, Piketty’s arrival on the scene represents a searing indictment of modern economy and a life raft to liberal thinkers bereft of original ideas. Rave reviews call the work the most important economic book of the decade. They point to his painstaking research and numerous charts as proof positive that something must be done now to equalize wealth lest the old days of “patrimonial capitalism” return.

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Once one sorts through all the hype, it does not take long to perceive there are plenty of problems with Piketty. There are many reasons to take off the kid gloves and start picking on Piketty.

 

Here are five major reasons to pick on Piketty:

1. The first one is that he uses taxes as a weapon and not as a source of revenue for government. Piketty proposes an 80-percent tax on incomes over $500,000 solely as a punitive measure. He acknowledges that it “would not bring government much in the way of revenue” but would tend to put an end to such incomes and their accompanying estates.  He also affirms (without any real proofs) that this policy would not discourage entrepreneurs. It would not reduce growth but rather more widely distribute the fruits of growth. Piketty follows the dangerous path of economic policy based not on prosperity but ideology.

2. The second reason is related to the first. Realizing that taxing the super-rich will not raise significant revenue, Piketty aims at those less rich – those making more than $200,000. Hit this much larger pool of taxpayers with a tax rate of 50-60 percent and he sees significant income streaming into the public coffers. Such revenues, of course, will be channeled into the trillions now spent so as to further develop what he calls “the meager U.S. social state and invest more in health and education.” To him, big government needs to get bigger.

3. The third reason to pick on Piketty is his attitude toward property and its legitimate use to sustain oneself. He views any rent, royalty or dividend as “undue and unjustifiable income.” The only legitimate income is that for which one works directly. He says that “rent is the enemy of modern rationality and must be eliminated root and branch by striving for ever purer and more perfect competition.”  He rejects this form of income even though he acknowledges the fact that a huge number of people (both rich and poor) rely upon it.

4. The fourth reason is that he rejects any moral considerations about economy. Echoing the statement of Proudhon who claimed “property is theft,” he moderates his condemnation by saying that all property probably involves some theft. Piketty claims any discussion about the just acquisition of wealth establishes “a futile debate about the moral hierarchy of wealth.” Since both outright theft and absolute merit are rare, it is better to avoid the messy moral issues altogether and impose upon everyone a consistent and progressive tax on capital that will expose “large fortunes to democratic control.” Robin Hood could not have said it better.

5. Finally, Piketty does not practice what he preaches. He claims he is an economist that respects and incorporates the social sciences into his conclusions. He even uses the inexactitude of the social sciences as an explanation of why his figures and conclusions are “by nature tenuous and deserve to be questioned and debated.” However, his central thesis that capital will tend to concentrate to a very high degree in the coming years is affirmed so categorically that it appears neither questionable nor debatable. In Piketty’s ideal world, the uncertainties of history are conveniently ignored and the social sciences made to conform to his thesis.

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There are other reasons to pick on Piketty but these should suffice. While the media raves about Piketty as if he was the greatest thing since sliced bread, they forget that it is stale bread. Like all ideas emanating from the left, his are but reformations of old errors.

 

 As published in the Spero.

 

Related Articles:

Piketty’s Bland New World

Fencing with Piketty

Piketty’s Tower of Jell-O

 

 

 

 

The Fear of God and Just Price

The Fear of God and Just PriceWe find the concern and passion for justice reflected in a conversation between Saint John Bosco and a simple blacksmith who supported the saint’s works and began the following conversation:

–“Do you know what my biggest worry is?”

–“Surely it must be to live and die in the grace of God.”

–“No, I’m not worried about death. I take care, though, to be prepared for it when it comes. My biggest worry is this: I am a blacksmith, and I am very much troubled when after finishing a job I have to decide on the price I must charge. As I enter the charge in my book I ask myself: Will the good Lord write down the same amount? If I charge more, won’t that be a charge against me? To play it safe, I always charge 20% less than the ordinary rate”

(Giovanni Battista Lemoyne,The Biographical Memoirs of St. John Bosco, ed. Diego Borgatello, New Rochelle, N.Y, Salesiana Publishers, Inc., 1965, 1: p. 230).

Subscription8.11Obviously not all tradesmen can or should take such a position. However, the fact that this simple and prosperous blacksmith and many others like him showed such a great concern for justice can only have created an atmosphere favoring commerce in general.

The above story was adapted from the book, Return to Order.

Why do Our Comedians Kill Themselves?

640px-Robin_Williams_picture copyThe tragic suicide of comedian Robin Williams contains many lessons. Everyone is quick to point out the contradictions of his life. Here was a man who had everything the world had to offer to fill his life—money, fame and an entertaining lifestyle. And yet far from satisfying him, he was left with an emptiness that led to two failed marriages, drugs, depression, bankruptcy and finally despair.

The contradiction becomes even more striking by the fact that he was a comedian. He made his living by making people laugh. His job was to mock, ridicule and make light of everything. Nothing was sacred or spared from his jibes. On the outside, he may well have laughed and joked, but only to escape from the sorrows on the inside where he wept and sobbed.

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The Robin Williams tragedy does more than just highlight the futility of fame and wealth. The vanity of such pursuits has been known from time immemorial. Rather, this tragedy points to more profound problems that haunt and plague postmodern man in his futile search for meaning.

What went wrong was not only the failure of an individual but of a culture. It reflects the organization of a life of material comfort, far from the spiritual or metaphysical realms that force men to take life seriously. It indicts a superficial worldview, which skims the surface of things without desiring to make the effort to look at things more profoundly. In such a whirling fast world full of stress and anxiety, Williams’ death points to the rejection of the psychological repose found in tranquility, recollection, and true leisure in favor of the exhaustion of constant fun and games.

The suicide of Robin Williams calls to mind the condition that Saint Thomas Aquinas calls acedia, which he defines as the weariness of holy and spiritual things and a subsequent sadness of living. As a spiritual being, the man afflicted with acedia denies his spiritual appetites. “He does not want to be what God wants him to be,” notes philosopher Josef Pieper, “and that means that he does not want to be what he really, and in the ultimate sense, is.” This refusal to consider the spiritual cannot help but bring sadness, listlessness and even despair.

And that is what is seen today. Those things that can satisfy the soul—beauty, sublimity or sanctity—are rejected or at least sidelined. They are replaced by the frenetic intemperance of the times, where sensation, immediacy, and impact rule. In such a culture, the comedian is the high priest who questions everything, derides authority and officiates at the performance of a great comedy.

In this great comedy, life becomes a big party on the outside, while inside so many heartsa_great_sadness_over_the_nation bleed. Actors mask the great sorrows that afflict them and invite all to laugh with them. And the spectators mask their own personal tragedies, and play their role by heartily laughing. Thus, actors and spectators all form part of a single grand spectacle fraught with contradiction. With each new act, the jokes become flatter and crasser.

Few have the courage to speak up and denounce this farce. They prefer to play along with the comedy and pretend that everyone is happy. Only shocking tragedies, like the suicide of Robin Williams, serve to briefly unmask the travesty until the next act inevitably gets under way.

There are lessons to be learned from the Williams’ suicide: happiness is not found in material comfort or endless entertainment. Indeed, despite the outward appearance of the great comedy, real happiness eludes the present society and a great sadness has descended upon the land.

Yet another lesson is that some degree of happiness can be found by taking a contrary course. This is done when individuals look beyond self-gratification and seek to be true to their own nature. This happens when they harmoniously satisfy both material and spiritual appetites by searching for things of excellence, beauty and sublimity. They start looking towards higher principles, the common good, or ultimately towards God, thus giving meaning and purpose to their lives.

Then the great comedy is replaced by the great pageant of history, a spectacular dramaSubscription8.11 that gives rise to works of art, fabulous cultural achievements, great feats, and acts of religious piety. This drama has the capacity of inciting sentiments of loyalty, dedication, and devotion that can fill the vast emptiness left by the tragic comedy.

 

 

 

 

 

As published in the Spero

Capitalism Does Not Exist…

Capitalism Does Not Exist…With all the talk against capitalism, it would be helpful to have a good definition of the term. However, such a definition does not exist. The term’s origin comes from enemies of the free market.

Jesuit economist Bernard Dempsey notes:

The answer is that there is no such thing as capitalism. The word is Subscription11.1incapable of scientific definition; it exists only in the Marxist dream world. It should be used ‘only with great reluctance since it is largely a creation of [the] socialist interpretation of history.’ ‘Capitalism is what Marxists are against’ is the only definition that will cover all cases. The term is no more than a socialist dirty word for use in the rough-house of agitation. Only a very foolish general accepts battle on terrain of his adversary’s choice” (Bernard W. Dempsey, S.J., The Functional Economy, The Bases of Economic Organization, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1958, p. 162).

What Has Happened to Community?

charityIn modern society, there is no longer the sense of communal space where conversation and leisure normally took place. There is no longer a feeling of community where people sense the satisfaction of being together.

That is not to say people do not gather in crowds. There are plenty of places where large numbers of people congregate. However the rules of communication have changed dramatically.

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Psychologist Sherry Turkle claims that people can be together, but more often than not they are alone together – each isolated as in a bubble in the midst of the crowd. She writes: “In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a café, or a park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. Each is tethered to a mobile device and to the people and places to which that device serves as a portal.” (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, New York, Basic Books, 2011, p. 155)

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This is a topic that is discussed at length in the book, Return to Order. Order your book now!

My “Return to Order” Dinner

dining-room-103464_640As the author of the book, Return to Order, I am constantly looking for examples of organic solutions for today’s complicated problems. It is one way I can practically illustrate so many of the ideas found in the book. I look for spontaneous expressions of culture that are often destroyed by today’s mass standardization. I search out that missing human element in society that makes all things warm and inviting.

During a recent visit to Miami, I chanced upon one such example when invited to a good Spanish-Cuban restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana section of town. The place was Spanish enough to represent a taste of all Hispanic countries and Cuban enough to have some connection with the local Cuban community. I unexpectedly found the experience to be one of those “Return to Order” moments where you sense something of what a truly organic Christian society was and might still be.

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All too often in restaurants, especially chain restaurants, the food does not reflect the people who originally created it. There are Chinese, Italian, Mexican or so many other ethnic restaurants that offer their distinctive foods, mostly to those outside their communities. And while such dining experiences may represent a change of pace to the cosmopolitan diner, there is no real connection between the food and the person. It’s just another tasty and interesting place to eat.

However, this Spanish-Cuban restaurant was different. No only did the food reflect the people who created it, but also those who ate it. Entering the restaurant, I felt immersed into a Hispanic world where people were enjoying and reveling in their own culture. While not Hispanic myself, I sensed a special connection that resonated and united all and communicated a joy which extended even to me.

I was impressed by the authenticity of the place. Much care was taken to create an atmosphere that spoke of tradition and quality. The walls were full of customary plates and jugs. There were pictures and paintings of hunt scenes and country life. The waiters were actually Spaniards, polite and chivalrous, given to efficient and elegant service. The food was excellent and spicy. The table, with its fine cloth tablecloths and napkins and subdued lighting, invited one to wonderful conversation.

But what really made this dinner special was the overall tone of the place. There was the exuberant conviviality that comes from being Hispanic that permeated the room. Unlike so many places, where each table is as if in a sealed bubble, people connected with one another. One high point in the meal was when three musicians arrived in Spanish garb. One played guitar, another a high-pitched mandolin and the third a tambourine. They played and sang Spanish, Cuban, Mexican and Colombian songs. And the audience sang along with them peppered with cries of “Ole!” As the musicians exited the room, the tambourine man collected donations from satisfied patrons.

In other words, the restaurant satisfied not only our physical appetites but our spiritual ones as well. It created a warm human atmosphere full of marvels and beauty that delighted the soul. It presented a unique menu full of flavor and nuance beyond the standardized fare that makes the eating experience bland and boring. It offered not just distinctive dishes but courtesy, respect and affection to those who entered. In such an atmosphere, the person is invited to excellent conversation with others. The establishment was the expression of a culture and not only that of a bottom line.

While not perfect, the restaurant represented something of that organic Christian society Subscription11that is essential for a return to order. There was a notion of that close interrelationship that should exist between producers, inhabitants, and the locality to the point that producer and consumer become “co-creators” of goods. There were still remnants of that turning inward by which a people use their own local resources to make products suited to their tastes and oriented towards the perfection of their society.

Above all, there was that human element that delights the soul and makes of an ordinary meal a “return to order” moment.

Return to Order Is Getting Around

1168056_at_workA good friend of mine reported on a meeting of local conservatives that she attended in St. Louis, Mo.

She reports:
“At the end, I held up a copy of Return to Order, and told about the book. Several folks were interested, and asked questions at the forum. I gave the president of the group a copy to read and suggested they invite you to speak.

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“Another lady, whom I had given the book to yesterday, brought her copy to the meeting and suggested I hold up the book and tell about it (I was just going to talk quietly to the president after the meeting). That I did, and then a man whom I didn’t know, stood up and said, “I am also a fan of this book!” I was shocked!”

Thanks to the efforts of so many people, the ideas found in Return to Order are getting around.

Return to Order: Organic Remedies and Upright Spontaneity

Friston_The_Toy_Seller

 

(The Imaginative Conservative website has published the following excerpt from the book, Return to Order by John Horvat II)

A second element of organic society involves the manner in which remedies are found. In searching for solutions, we must carefully observe the fact that organic solutions cannot be imposed upon a people as if they were machines. We must avoid the modern mechanistic systems of order and rigid planning. Instead, counting upon God’s grace, we must recognize and respect the organic nature of man, full of vivacity, spontaneity, and unpredictability. This is the essence of a truly organic—that is, living—society.

 

To read the entire article click here

 

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Immigration And the Kind Of Nation We Need To Be

border-patrol-car-patroling-on-border_w725_h483The immigration crisis brings to the forefront many issues that have long festered in the body politic.

It involves the future of an order inside a nation, which today is fragmented and polarized without a clear course ahead. What is at stake is not just the composition of who makes up the nation, but the very idea of what kind of nation we want to be.

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And so, in the face of the immigration crisis, we need to ask what kind of nation do we want to be? There no longer is a single response.

There are those who simply do not want to be a nation at all. In postmodern times, they consider the nation-state outdated. Across the political spectrum, many want to be free from the restraints of belonging to an organized polity. To these, America should be what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction.” Any notion of a common good or identity is rejected outright.

Those favoring this non-nation America see immigrants as just more “individual wills” meeting in pursuit of happiness. They believe that if life is a universal global party, then all must be invited. Every barrier should be leveled and border opened. Some claim markets will ensure all get their opportunity to live for their own satisfaction. Others trust more in government programs and entitlements.

Clearly this vision that sees no need for an American identity is not what America should be.

There is a second group of people who want to be a nation modeled on a co-op or shareholding company. To them, the nation represents advantages for which they are willing to work. Like a shareholding firm, the American co-op is full of legitimate benefits with distributed risks, voting privileges, few liabilities, and plenty of recreational opportunities. As long as an atmosphere of well-being and happiness exists, members renew their membership with great enthusiasm. But when times are rough, many withdraw their support and become bitter and critical of the nation.

In good times, this group sees immigration as something that brings more shareholders into the system and they are welcomed. But in bad times, immigration is a threat to the well-being of the co-op. It threatens to overwhelm the system and put everyone’s future in jeopardy. These Americans are torn by the contradiction of being the sons of needed immigrants and the foes of unneeded ones. They are left confused and guilty.

Such a model of self-interest that shrinks from adversity is also not what America should be.

There is a third group that wants to be a nation that is modeled as a people. This sector has nothing in common with nationalist incarnations that deify the nation and distort its meaning. Rather, these are people that sense that America is not just “a meeting place of individual wills” or a prosperous cooperative venture with legitimate benefits. America is more like a family, where all share its inherent responsibilities, duties and privileges. They understand it is not our massive economic power but our moral fiber that makes America great. These Americans perceive that the foundations of our American order are based upon institutions from our Christian past like the rule of law, representative government and the norms of justice and charity.

These same Americans also realize that this order is under attack on all sides and express a willingness to sacrifice and fight, even to give their very lives, so that it might not falter. They love America and ask that God bless her.

For these Americans, immigration represents a challenge. Their generous hearts haveSubscription8.11 always welcomed immigrants, but they ask in return that those who come respect our institutions and contribute to the moral fiber that makes America great. Let them not be criminal elements or those who do not follow the rule of law. They must desire to become members of the family, distinct yet fully integrated into our ways. Let them love this country and join in the ranks of those who fight for our threatened order.

Such sentiments should be the basis of a sound immigration policy. This kind of America can confront a crisis. This is the nation that we need to be.

 

Related Articles: We Must Resist the Temptation to Secession

Piketty’s Bland New World

City Without a SoulIf it were to fall upon me to rename Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I would call it Bland New World. My choice might seem strange since it is so far removed from the purely economic considerations that dominate the debate on this book. However, it does express the worldview found throughout its 700 pages.

Far be it from me to say that economic considerations are not important in the present debate…but life is not all economics.

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And that is what is wrong with Piketty’s massive tome. His world is a materialistic and secular world where happiness is measured by equality of per capita income, Facebook friends and iPhone apps. It is devoid of any real spiritual aspirations. Rather, his is an avowed egalitarian utopia that proposes a new nanny-like social state supported by a tax-burdened meritocracy. It is incredibly bland.

It is bland because Piketty does not really understand equality. He is confused by the fact ACC_1955_058_11that all men are equal by nature and yet unequal in their abilities and characteristics. Things like virtue, talent, beauty, strength, family and tradition naturally generate a wide range of inequalities—including economic inequalities—that are just and according to the order of the universe.

To Piketty, these inequalities are unjust and must be leveled out. He fails to consider that when we act in sync with our nature, virtue and reason, these inequalities generate a rich, exuberant and immense variety of possible human actions from which spring forth unique systems of art, styles of life, socio-political institutions, and economic models. These inequalities make life supremely interesting and “unbland.”

But building such a vibrant and virtuous culture naturally presupposes accumulation, even great accumulation, of wealth—and this is something good. If we want true prosperity, we should encourage, not suppress, the full spectrum of development at all income levels. However, Piketty’s rigid and soulless formulas and his one-tax-fits-all-rich-people solutions propose precisely the contrary.

Another part of the work’s blandness consists in the fact that it is so hopelessly outdated. The author clings obsessively to the old liberal assumptions that self-interest is the sole motivation for the actions of men. One can almost imagine him in a faded tricolor cap shouting out adapted slogans from the French Revolution or propagating the hackneyed ideas from the Enlightenment at an ancient salon.

His perspective cannot conceive of anything but a purely materialistic world, officially stripped of its spiritual elements. Self-interest drives everything. As Irving Kristol once stated, from such a world we can expect “no high nobility of purpose, no selfless devotion to transcendental ends, no awe-inspiring heroism.”1

When life consists of maximizing our every material comfort and minimizing every physical suffering, it is indeed a bland world where we are not allowed to dream beyond progressive tax rates or pension fund liabilities.

Man Does Not Live by Cars AlonePiketty and his liberal friends fail to realize that there is something beyond self-interest that motivates us to act. There is the love of God, honor and country, which one often must defend at great costs. There is the quest for that which is good, true and beautiful that inspires so many of the arts. There are those sublime acts of self-denial that are the stuff from which heroes and saints are made. All of these selfless acts tower above mere self-interest.

However, these things too require accumulated wealth so that we might better pursue marvelous deeds and dreams. These are tremendously powerful and attractive aspirations that are good and virtuous. Indeed, from the virtue of fortitude comes magnanimity, which is the virtue that inclines one to perform great and splendid acts worthy of honor. Also part of fortitude is the virtue of magnificence which leads one to undertake splendid and great projects without being discouraged by their magnitude, difficulty, or expense. These are companion virtues that are incompatible with self-centered mediocrity and presuppose noble and lofty souls.

Subscription8.11I suppose what I want to say is that there is nothing sublime about Piketty’s new world order. As the author of the book, Return to Order, that addresses this sublime and spiritual side of economy, I was astonished to find a book that so concisely demonstrates a contrary thesis. That is why I suggest Bland New World as one possible title, but I fear it hides the dangers contained in the book. Perhaps Anti-Return to Order might be better.

 

1 Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 178.