Piketty: “My new book is about long-term history and describes the system behind income inequality. If you read one of my two books, read this one. It’s much better.” A presentation then follows that provides an enormous amount of information. Several things are notable: income inequality fell in recent centuries. Since the 1980s, it has steadily risen again. He also explains in fairly simple terms that Communism did not prove the solution. “In Russia, tax for everyone is thirteen percent. Whether you earn a hundred or a million roubles.” And: “If you ever want to spend your money somewhere, you’d be better off going to Communist China than to the free market economies of Taiwan or Japan.”
Twenty-six graphs and four tables later (the short version of this presentation, according to his website), Bas Jacobs gives the sign that Piketty has one minute left. Piketty: “Five will be enough.” “But then we won’t have time for questions,” replies a slightly desperate Jacobs. Piketty: “Yes we will, we’ve got another quarter of an hour. Be nice.” The room sniggers. After a final appeal for transnational guidelines for tax and interest, progressive income tax and investments in education, he concludes with: “Sorry I’ve been here so long.”
Flirt with socialism
The audience gives him a thunderous applause. Despite the streamlined organisation, the throwable microphone that you throw around the audience doesn’t work. The students who were allowed to ask Piketty a question therefore have to do it as loudly as possible. This might explain why a question about the ideological aspect of his book is answered by a story about investments and education.
It doesn’t spoil the fun, and after the third question and applause, students and other visitors make their way to the stage and Piketty. Alumnus Wouter Fontaine (IT-Auditing) has just had his book signed but has mixed feelings about the presentation. “He’s got interesting ideas, but they won’t work. There will always be tax havens where people can evade the system.” He found some of his theories verging on socialist ideas. “I’m not keen on that flirting with socialism. Socialism delivers too many corpses.”
Piketty on the ceiling
Student Irving, who doesn’t want his surname mentioned, had a different interpretation of Piketty’s argument. “You don’t need to agree with his political ideas, but his approach to the problem is interesting in itself.” A student next to him adds: “It’s interesting because he’s a political economist. He looks at history and explains what happened.” She points to Irving: “He even asked for a photo!” Irving laughs: “I’m going to enlarge it and stick it on my ceiling.”
Yanna in ’t Veld, board member of student association Aeclipse (which organised the debate with Erasmus School of Economics) wasn’t a fan before today. “But having had the chance to have a cup of tea with him, I am now. He’s a genuine and interested person.” She was responsible for Piketty throughout the day. The highlight? “In C-hall, there’s a poster of Nobel Prize Winner Esther Duflo, who’s a good friend of his, so we took a selfie. He immediately sent it to her! Things like that are really life goals.” But she has to leave. “It’s time to collect Piketty and put him on the train.”