Originally posted at The New York Sun,
With all that has been written in respect to Thomas Piketty's new book, “Capital,” you would think that someone — Paul Krugman, say, or Jonathan Chait or David Brooks or Hendrik Hertzberg; we’re not worried about who it might be so much as someone among the liberal intelligentsia — would have remarked on an odd coincidence of timing. We’re speaking here of the timing of the rapid rise of the blasted inequality over which Professor Piketty is so upset. After all, this inequality has become the cause celebre of the season for President Obama and his entire political party. It’s the issue of the hour. Yet when it comes to the timing at which this phenomenon presented itself, nada. Omerta.
Well, feature the chart that Professor Piketty publishes showing inequality in America. This appears in the book at figure 9.8; a similar version, shown alongside here, is offered on his Web site. It’s an illuminating chart. It shows the share of national income of the top decile of the population. It started the century at a bit above 40% and edged above 45% in the Roaring Twenties. It plunged during the Great Depression and edged down in World War II, and then steadied out, until we get to the 1970s. Something happened then that caused income inequality to start soaring. The top decile's share of income went from something like 33% in 1971 to above 47% by 2010.
Hmmm. What could account for that? Could it be the last broadcast of the “Lawrence Welk Show?” Or the blast off of the Apollo 14 mission to the Moon? Or could it have something to do with the mysterious D.B. Cooper, who bailed out of the plane he hijacked, never to be seen again? A timeline of 1971 offers so many possibilities. But, say, what about the possibility that it was in the middle of 1971, in August, that America closed the gold window at which it was supposed to redeem in specie dollars presented by foreign central banks. That was the default that ended the era of the Bretton Woods monetary system.
That’s the default that opened the age of fiat money. Or the era that President Nixon supposedly summed up in with Milton Friedman’s immortal words, “We’re all Keynesians now.” This is an age that has seen a sharp change in unemployment patterns. Before this date, unemployment was, by today’s standards, low. This was a pattern that held in Europe (these columns wrote about it in “George Soros’ Two Cents”) and in America (“Yellen’s Missing Jobs”). From 1947 to 1971, unemployment in America ran at the average rate of 4.7%; since 1971 the average unemployment rate has averaged 6.4%. Could this have been a factor in the soaring income inequality that also emerged in the age of fiat money?
This is the question the liberals don’t want to discuss, even acknowledge. They are never going to get it out of their heads that the gold standard is a barbarous relic. They have spent so much of their capital ridiculing the idea of honest money that they daren’t open up the question. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. from MIT or Princeton, however, to imagine that in an age of fiat money, the top decile would have an easier time making hay than would the denizens of the other nine deciles, who aren’t trained in the art of swaps and derivatives. We don’t belittle the skills of the top decile. We tend to view them the way we view great baseball players or violinists — heroic figures. Neither do we make a totem out of economic equality; in inequality, after all, are found incentives.
In terms of public policy, though, we favor honest money. It works out better for more people. And there is a moral dimension to the question of honest money. This was a matter that was understood — and keenly felt — by the Founders of America, who almost to a man (Benjamin Franklin, a printer of paper notes, was a holdout), cringed with humiliation at the thought of fiat paper money. They’d tried it in the revolution, and it had been the one embarrassment of the struggle. They eventually gave us a Constitution that they hoped would bar us from ever making the same mistake.
There is an irony here for Monsieur Piketty. It was France who gave us Jacques Rueff, the economist who had the clearest comprehension of the importance of sound money based on gold specie. He was, among other things, an adviser of Charles De Gaulle. It was De Gaulle who in 1965, called a thousand newspapermen together and spoke of the importance of gold as the central element of an international monetary system that would put large and small, rich and poor nations on the same plane. We ran the complete text of Professor Piketty’s book “Capital” through the Sun’s own “Electrically-operated Savvy Sifter” and were unable to find, even once, the name of Rueff.