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Piketty the Socialist

Piketty the Socialist

Thomas Piketty is everything that France would like to be. He is a charismatic, spontaneous anglophile intellectual, an unlikely "rock-star economist" as New York magazine puts it, and a thought leader with alternate views on economic growth, namely, fiscal policy. 


A former supporter of the French left, Piketty has risen to international stardom after his most recent book, "Capital in the 21st century", sold nearly a million copies globally. Siding with Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, his contribution comes at a time when socialist discourse is incapable of restoring a sense of confidence, leading to what seems like an ever-increasing success for conservative governments worldwide.


Yet, on the first day of the year 2015, Thomas Piketty did not make new friends in the already-troubled Parti Socialiste de France, refusing the distinction of the Légion d'Honneur. 


The French president and his team, Piketty told AP, "would do better to concentrate on reviving economic growth in France and Europe". It may seem strange that a voice that's risen to the spotlight in 2014 thanks to the praise of this intellectually starved left would undermine his own people in this way. 


The Hollande disaster


Make no mistake, the French socialist party is socialist only in name; as is the case in many countries throughout the world, Hollande and his supporters have demonstrated time and again that they systematically prefer populist rhetoric and measures to the tougher act of a real, thorough fiscal and budgetary overhaul. Having been a supporter and advisor to Hollande in the campaign that defeated Nicolas Sarkozy, Piketty is now contemptuous of the French president whose presidency he dubbed, in a recent Guardian interview, "a disaster". 


Unable to stand against free-riding tax thieves like Luxemburg, or to preserve the progressive tax imposed (as a populist mesure) on income above 1 million euros repelled at the end of 2014, Hollande was a lame duck president from day one, and even his fellow socialists are calling for a change at the top. "An open rebellion", wrote BusinessWeek in August 2014. 


Indeed, in the midst of this incompetence, the elections held in 2014 have opened the way to Marine Le Pen's far right party earning as much as 25% of the national vote. A party whose political philosophy Piketty describes as looking to "find other people responsible for our problems" instead of peaceful domestic solutions to social welfare and income inequality, an alternative boasted principally by a lack of alternatives. 


A new Tocqueville


It is ironic that the new face of economic theory would come from a country whose economy is so blatantly weakened by what seems to be an endless series of bad decisions taken by bad governments. But despite the miserable state of the economy in his home country, Piketty's ideas have found an echo in the ranks of American institutions like CUNY, Harvard, as well as the Democratic party. 


The Guardian has reported that, in the wake of the 2009 global financial crisis, "newly elected US president Barack Obama used the graphs of the economist and his team". As we were reminded recently of the outstanding performance of the American economy since the Democrats regained power in 2008, one cannot help but see the contribution of redistributive economics on the well-being of Americans, and thus, of some of Piketty ideas indirectly applied to the world's largest economy. 


All minds on deck


As he refused the Légion d'Honneur on January 1st 2015, the French economist reportedly argued that it shouldn't be the State's prerogative to determine who is honorable. This stand against the politicians he helped elect is coherent with his aim: to democratize economic knowledge and to generate change from below, informed by proper understanding of the mechanisms that produce and spread wealth throughout the world. 


But to do so, he argues — and that goes against the grain of contemporary left-wing rhetoric — more citizens must participate in fiscal life, through what The Economist describes as "a contribution sociale généralisée, a non-progressive social charge paid by all". An idea that partly echoes German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk's recent series of controversial essays on what he calls "state kleptocracy", which he proposes to abolish and replace with voluntary donations based in philanthropy.


An "Anthropology of taxation", no less. 


No doubt, these matters are complex, and some have devoted their entire lives to think about how fiscal policy, inequality, and economic growth are interdependent. But through his writings, and more recently, his media appearances, Thomas Piketty is heightening the debate.


And that is always a good thing. 


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