Like Malayalees, who appear to speak all languages in Malayalam, the French appear to speak all languages in French. So, when the celebrated economist Thomas Piketty spoke in Mumbai a few days ago his huge audience could not entirely grasp his English. A day later, when he addressed a gathering again, he became the first Frenchman ever, probably, to apologise for his English. But the substance of his arguments was clear to all and familiar to his admirers.
Inequality, according to him, is an effect of the rate of return on capital growing faster than broader economic growth. His villains are chiefly the very rich, especially those who have inherited their wealth and would pass it on. Even though he does not believe his advice would be taken seriously he strongly recommends that governments tax wealth heavily.
When he popularised his views in 2013 in the form of a fat book, Capital in the Twenty-first century, Piketty became a modern hero because it was a time when most of the world, including mere millionaires, were beginning to feel like losers. The extremely rich were prospering at an alarming rate and they were showing in plain sight what money could buy. Also, around that time there was rising contempt for the greed of the top castes of capitalism, like bankers, that had put whole economies in crisis.
Piketty explains inequality through data, chiefly European and American tax records. As a result, there is a type of abstract inheritance that he does not get into — the inheritance of class and clubs that gives such a head start to its beneficiaries it operates almost like the inheritance of physical assets. Salman Khan, for instance, is such a beneficiary. As in the case of most Hindi film heroes, his stardom was sexually transmitted. He had to simply grow to a certain height.
On the other end of the spectrum of fortune decided by the lottery of birth are those pale bodies that sleep on the grey pavements of Mumbai. In 2000, when the mambo singer Lou Bega visited the city he told me that on his way to the hotel from the airport he saw those bodies lying on the pavements and thought they were giant dogs. It did not immediately occur to him that they might be humans.
Khan would not have had such confusion when the vehicle he was in ran over four people sleeping on a pavement, killing one and injuring the rest. He was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and speeding at the time of the incident but last week he was acquitted of all charges by the Bombay High Court.
The court reprimanded the police for shoddy investigation. There is a good reason though why the police are incompetent. Most of the time the force does not have to take the trouble to conduct a thorough investigation to frame charges. It achieves much by suspending the human rights of the accused, who are usually nobodies, to extract the truth or incriminating statements. It is an efficient process, when it works, that keeps the middleclass and the rich safe. In practice, inequality in India is a daily assault on, to borrow an expression from Khan’s merchandise, ‘being human’.
In the time that the case has progressed, Khan has created the perception that he is a philanthropist, a category of good people who do not impress Piketty much at all. Khan was always the type of man who would give away loose change to some cause, but after he got into serious trouble he converted his charity into organised philanthropy.
Piketty is suspicious of philanthropists, chiefly American billionaire philanthropists, because he feels they use their philanthropy to argue that they have a moral right to evade tax. But Khan, as tax-payer, would impress Piketty, assuming that the actor is not fudging his income at all. In recent times, Khan has been among the highest advance tax-payers in the film industry. In Piketty’s eyes the best philanthropy any citizen can do is pay taxes. Actually, a lot of taxes.
When I asked Piketty, now that he is a rich man, whether he has any new sympathies for the rich, the only thing he had to say about the matter was that he pays 60% in taxes and that he would like to pay 90%. A moment later he said he would like to pay 95%.
It is perilous to be a righteous public intellectual. Success brings with it some unfair and enjoyable privileges and one has to submit to minor hypocrisies. Isn’t it time we accept hypocrisy as a fundamental right?
The former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, who is a lover of Marxism and deplores the scaffolding of hierarchies on which capitalism is built, is a man who leads a somewhat affluent life by European standards, not just Greek. He probably pardons himself by being embarrassed of the fact. In a lecture he delivered in 2013, he said: “Some moneyed outfit had invited me to give a keynote on the European crisis and had forked out the ludicrous sum necessary to buy me a first class ticket. On my way back home…I was making my way past the long queue of economy passengers, to get to my gate. Suddenly I noticed, with considerable horror, how easy it was for my mind to be infected with the sense that I was ‘entitled’ to bypass the hoi polloi. I realised how readily I could forget that which my left-wing mind had always known: that nothing succeeds in reproducing itself better than a false sense of entitlement.”
I have not stopped wondering why Varoufakis did not exchange tickets with a tired old woman. Somehow I forgot to ask Piketty if he had.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Twitter: @manujosephsanThe views expressed are personal