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Coffee House

Ten handy phrases for bluffing on Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’

29 April 2014

3:03 PM

29 April 2014

3:03 PM

71EzL0pAsPL._SL1500_How do you sound clever and au courant in 2014? Easy. You talk knowingly about Capital in the 21st Century, the seminal, magisterial, definitive, landmark, pick-your-coverblurb-adjective book by French academic Thomas Piketty.

It’s all about the growing gap between rich and poor, you see, and inequality is all the rage. No wonder: it’s fun to get all hot under the collar about the ‘mega-rich’ — especially if you’re secretly cushioned by the knowledge that you’ve got a bit tucked away yourself. Piketty (who must himself be making a mint) even topped the Amazon.com bestseller list last week, not bad for a such a big book on such a heavy subject.

But really, who is going to trudge through 700-pages on economic theory? Even the media primers — the ‘everything you need to know about Piketty’ blogposts and review round-ups — can be quite exhausting to read. Here instead is a primer’s primer, ten things to say about Capital in the Twenty-First Century for the average web-surfing neanderthal who has no intention of ever picking up the book.

  1. ‘There’s nothing terribly new about Piketty’s thesis, per se. It’s his data that is groundbreaking.’ Data is the bluffer’s best friend — the trick is to realise that you don’t actually need to know or understand anything. Just talk with confidence about Piketty’s ‘data-sets’ and ‘metrics’ being quite unlike any that have come before.
  2. ‘If the 20th century was essentially about labour and capital, the 21st seems to be about income and wealth.’ Warning: not one for the unconfident. Stare your conversationalist dead in the eye as you say it. At the same time, cover yourself by emphasising ‘essentially’ and “seems’ — so as to show you know such statements are sweeping.
  3. ‘Inequality will be the defining feature of our time.’ Look tense when you say these words, as if you can see trouble ahead.
  4. ‘We are not even talking about the 1 per cent any more but the 0.1 per cent.’ Useful filler. Use in the context of ‘oligarchy’, the ‘super-rich’ and ‘global elites’.
  5. ‘It’s been brilliantly translated.’ If successful, this will suggest you’ve read Capital in both French and English— and throw any other faux experts off their guard.
  6. ‘Anyone who doubts Piketty’s brilliance should look closely at the “technical appendix.’ Piketty has managed to convince the world he is a great polymath. This remark enables you to ride on his coattails.
  7. ‘One slight problem is that Piketty uses “wealth” and “capital” as interchangeable terms — when of course they are not.’ This shows that, while you applaud Piketty’s argument, you can see its flaws. You’ve obviously read other equally important books.
  8. ‘Taxing capital has always been a fault line between left and right’. This establishes your wider understanding and shows you realise the ideological significance of Piketty’s work.
  9. ‘The question we need to ask is not “Is Piketty right?” but “Why do we all think Piketty must be right?” What’s known as an ‘above-the-frayer’. This remark puts you beyond the left-versus-right guff and suggests you’ve been around long enough to have heard it all before.
  10. For advanced bluffers only. Discuss Piketty’s key equation, the one that ‘everyone’ is talking about — ‘r > g’. This translates as ‘return on capital is greater than economic growth’ but don’t worry about that; just remember the r and the g and say something else about them. Try ‘I always thought one couldn’t be so reductive about r, especially in relation to g.’ Then leave the room before anyone can ask what you mean.

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