Thomas Piketty Capital en français

Thomas Piketty, Racism, and Why Your Uncle Is Being a Jerk

Eric Garland Culture Trends 2 Comments

As ambitious as it seems, I am about to deliver a Unified Field Theory about why your uncle is acting like a complete jerk, or alternately, why racism has reared its ugly, naked head in this very intense moment of American life. Strap in, and go review Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Pryor, Dave Chapelle, and a new French dude on the scene, Thomas Piketty.

I don’t think it’s news that black Americans keep getting shot up in all sorts of horrible ways, sometimes by law enforcement, sometimes by other black folks, and sometimes by a virulent scrotal fungus in South Carolina masquerading as a human being for the purposes of murdering people at church. Rough week, rough year, rough four centuries. But it seems like things are getting worse of late. I would like to explain the broader strategic situation using the remarkable work of a superstar French economist, strangely enough.

I’m staring at my well-worn copy of “Le capital au XXIe siècle,” my incredibly pretentious way of describing the fact that I have read Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” in the original French, just to be a douche at dinner parties in Washington. My intolerable pretentiousness aside, this book on the wealth of nations provides insight around the awful, idiotic, defensive, clueless commentaries regarding the murder of decent human beings a few days ago. Piketty took fifteen years (!) and researched the major macroeconomic data in the world’s largest empires and nation-states since the year 1700. All 900 pages of work can by summed up fairly succinctly: the 20th century was an unusual period of time in which wealth reversed its tendency to concentrate in a very few hands, and due largely to the impact of World War 2, flowed more money into the households of wage earners, whose wealth increased in a historically-significant way. Then, in about 1980, that phenomenon stopped, and wealth went right back to pooling in the hands of a few people. Moreover, it shows no signs of going back to the statistically-unusual situation of our younger days.

Cliff’s Notes: The rich always get richer, except for a little while in the 20th century because of the labor movement and a big war that required higher wages. But now that’s over. Sorry, suckers.

America’s mythical narrative of “work hard and you’ll get what you deserve” was by and large true for the broad masses of European Americans and many immigrants during the past centuries of rapid expansion, Manifest Destiny, and then especially in the 20th Century, when the World War laid low nearly every economic competitor in the whole world. African-Americans, encumbered by iron shackles and then by Jim Crow, never had the same results, but in the 20th century even their households accumulated wealth. That was until the 1980s, when everyone’s wages began retreating and capital made progress against labor year after year.

Since the Predictable and Criminally Stupid Recession of 2008, this retrenching of capital versus wages has accelerated at ludicrous speed. The stock market may be up, but fewer people are in it. The basics cost more year over year, including housing, education, and healthcare, and wages are flat or down except for a small sliver of “talented” workers in specific fields such as information technology, intellectual property law, or the management of global corporations. Everybody else – in *every* racial and socio-economic bracket – has been losing ground.

Now we arrive at your uncle who’s having a temper tantrum on Facebook. A broad mass of people know that something significant has changed about American life, though very few people put it in the strategic-level context of the basic function of the economy. It is much, much easier to point at some out-group that “must” be sabotaging an otherwise logical universe than it is to realize that we’re returning to the statistical mean when it comes to wealth accumulation.

More simply put, it’s easier to say, “Those people over there are trying to get free stuff!” In this simplistic mindset, it’s not that the system has changed, it’s that the poor ruined it, or the African-Americans are trying to get undue privileges (such as not being shot dead for no reason), or that immigrants (who come here and work three jobs) are a “drain” on “us,” or that unions (whose memberships are down) are sapping the life blood from the nation. There has to be some group of people who ruined the game, and not coincidentally, they tend to be people who otherwise have very little influence, money, or power – as opposed to those who have been hoarding significant amounts of all three, who receive relatively little critique in the public sphere. Also not coincidentally, the media tends to do a great job of massaging this point of view.

I just chatted with an otherwise bright, educated older man who was convinced that Illinois’ state budget is in such bad shape because unionized government employees are making *$1.5 million each* by getting “multiple pensions.” State employees are the one-percenters, in his mind. I read some racist tripe that was sure that non-whites are about to become the statistical majority in America, as if white people are literally disappearing instead of continuing to be 66% of the population and the proprietors of the vast majority of its wealth and positions of influence. I’ve heard people in rural areas complain that the cities, full of brown people, are draining America of its economic vitality, despite the fact that cities produce 87% of the GDP here and that rural areas – especially in the South – are net receivers of social assistance through federal programs. Basically, when faced with complex economic shifts, most Americans are deplorably shitty analysts, seeking powerless villains instead of rooting out the real causes which would require a prolonged conflict with entrenched, truly powerful interests.

So as for the racists and their temper tantrums, neither of which are in short supply, I say that you should offer them a tiny amount of pity for their woeful misunderstanding of their own fate. Then tell them to hush up and go read some Thomas Piketty instead of trying to excuse mass murder as a way to cover up for the insecurity they feel about their retirement account. If they want to find out why America changed, it’s all in the numbers.