Piketty and the oubliette of the French language

The French word for “forget” is “oublier”. An oubliette is a French dungeon in which you are dumped to be forgotten.

Thomas Piketty‘s book on Capital is discussed in the capitals of the world, but this is only because of the English translation. The original French “Le capital au XXIe siecle” of August 2013 received a cold reception by the intellectuals in Paris itself (David Priestland, Guardian May 7, and Peter Vermaas, NRC Handelsblad May 31). Priestland: “Interestingly, in his native France, where readers prefer philosophy and abstraction over numbers and equations, his book has been met with a massive Gallic shrug.”  Please note though that Piketty rejected the mathematical approaches at MIT and returned to France to include historical methods in his work. Thus Piketty is already quite French, but for his compatriots apparently not French enough.

Except for that translation, his work might as well have been dumped in the oubliette that is formed by the French language itself. The French bureaucrats in Brussels may have such low esteem of their native French economists that they apply the art of oublier as well.

Another piece of evidence for this oubliette of French is this: In 2011 Piketty together with Camille Landais and Emmanuel Saez put out a book in French that describes a fiscal revolution with more progressive taxation. The book on Capital mainly forms the statistical base for the earlier policy discussion on taxation. We thus observe a delay of 2011 to 2014 because of the French language drag. The list of titles of earlier publications by Piketty suggests that the drag is even larger. American readers who now regard Piketty as a world star in economics will be wondering how this gem has been hiding so long.

If you recall, there is an economic crisis since 2007. Wouldn’t more progressive taxation on income and capital have helped to restore government finances and economic prospects in the countries of Europe ? Thus the proper question is: Why didn’t France lead Europe in taking this road ? Why did we allow capital flight from Greece instead of having the rich Greek return parts of their gains ? See my earlier text What Greeks do to each other. As Christine Lagarde, now at the IMF, is also mentioned as a potential President of the EU Commission: isn’t she French, isn’t she known from the Lagarde List, and wouldn’t she have known about Piketty’s analysis on inequality and advice on taxation: so why the drag since say 2010 ?

It is conventional wisdom that the bureaucrats in Brussels speak both English and French. It may be more likely that they speak German. It used to be the strategy by Charles de Gaulle to entangle Germany and the rest of Europe within Brussels, and then let the French bureaucrats rule from Brussels. His scheme fails because the French bureaucrats aren’t so competent anymore. The Germans are taking over, reports Jan Tromp in Brussels lies in Germany (Dutch Volkskrant April 14). Since France cannot balance Germany anymore, it would seem wiser to select a native English speaker for the next President of the EU Commission.

I haven’t read any of Piketty’s work, only some summaries. A Dutch report is here. I don’t think that I am going to read his Capital, since the summaries show that there actually isn’t real news. The argument for progressive taxation on income, wealth and inheritance has already been made in the 1800s (see J.S. Mill for pro’s and con’s). Piketty’s book with his statistics apparently is mainly a contribution to economic history. The policy issue is known and will be decided upon by requiring wider models.

Note that Piketty’s advice on progressive taxation received nominal support by François Hollande who won the elections of 2012 but who apparently got cold feet when he discovered that he had to make the French economy more attractive to international investors. Will this be an argument in favour of European integration, with a common tax base, and progressive taxes on the richer North to support the poorer South and East ?

Before you decide on all of this, you still need some mathematics and the analysis in DRGTPE to complete the picture, with:

  1. the solution approach to unemployment (e.g. if you worry about inequality, note that unemployment affects it)
  2. the tax void (that affects people at the bottom of the income distribution, with the benefit burden for the richer)
  3. the dynamic marginal tax rate (that is important for efficient and fair taxation)
  4. an Economic Supreme Court (that allows policy to be based in science instead of fads and fashions)
  5. and a review of James Galbraith’s book on inequality Created Unequal.

While the French language is an oubliette, the Dutch language is an even bigger dungeon. Let me refer to my earlier text on Spinoza and the Crazy Centuries, about the loss of a lingua franca.


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