Hi, I’m David Brooks, and like a fine wine, that fact only improves with age. As I noted, again, in one of my past editorials, I teach a course at Yale, and I only pointed it out to establish, again, my humility and vast, cavernous knowledge. I also recently wrote about this Picketty person, who responded to me in some online second-tier news publication. Of course, being French, he had to choose a publication called Salon. But let’s get to the point. I argued irrefutably, as I’m sure you recall, that Picketty absurdly assumes slow growth for a long period of time, to which he says:
“I do my best to respond to them in the book. As a general response, let me say that I don’t know what the future value of the growth rate and the rate of return will be. It could be that we manage to get a lot higher growth that we’ve had in the past. It could be that we are all going to have so many children, and we are all going to be making so many new inventions, that the growth rate will be 4 or 5 percent, and will be as large as the rate of return. . . . You know, this could happen. But it would really be an incredible coincidence.”
You know what an incredible coincidence is? Students arriving at Yale and finding my course still has an opening. In any case, I read the entire introduction to Capital, and it’s clear that this is yet another Frenchman pontificating about abstract generalities. For instance, as I wrote about Africa last week, it’s obvious that once you get really, really productive, massive growth just follows. Piketty says there aren’t any “natural forces” that will bring us high growth and wealth for all, but he forgets the magic of capitalism, which only slows down when you start taking taxes away from wealthy people like me. Why tax the rich when you can use that money to promote growth? There’s no clear evidence that supply-side economics doesn’t work, and the more I have, the more likely I am to hire poor people to clean up my enormous lawn. What creates all of this fantastic growth in places like Africa is not increased taxes, nor is it a fair distribution of wealth. No, it’s the deep inter-connectivity created cell phones. Sure, developing nations may be a tad bit different than other nations that have already gone through that phase, and maybe Nigeria’s birthrate is growing while ours, like most advanced countries, is declining, but who needs babies, or even direct experiences, when you have an iPhone, which is not all that different from actually having a baby.
Piketty then blathers on about evidence: “a lot of evidence suggesting that even if we try to promote innovation as much as we can, and even if we try to increase growth rate as much as we can – and I am certainly in favor of any policy going in this direction – that even if we do that, that’s not going to bring us to a 4 or 5 percent growth rate. We are still going to be somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, at least for productivity growth.”
In response, I would point to this evidence: simply by looking up some statistics about Africa on Wikipedia, which is how I prepare for my Yale courses, his whole case is destroyed. Now he may be an economist, but he is French, and as I pointed out a while back, that makes him introspective, puerile, and lazy.
It’s true, I do sometimes worry that we (and by ‘we’, I mean incoming college Freshman at UCLA) are too focused on economic success rather than having a rich inner life. Certainly, the declining moral ecology of stoner single-mothers is a great cultural warning sign. I’m sure, however, that along with the fantastic productive increase in places like Nigeria and China, the populations are finding the time and desire to read great books, contemplate big ideas, and spend nights in rapturous conversation while trying hard not to urinate, just like we all did, college grads and factory workers alike, in the golden age of America. Never mind that taxes were high, college was cheap, productivity was increasing, and economic inequality was lower back then. The point is that Piketty, for all of his French intellectual powers, cannot understand that there is no great contradiction between a single-minded focus on productivity and a deep intellectual life, or that technological advances surely mean a hard and rising growth for all, such that one can have one’s Johnson and eat it too.