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Door Wouter Koolmees
Last month, French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the best-selling tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century,
made a guest appearance in the Dutch Parliament. Having been on the receiving end of this visit, I can safely say that it was a truly surreal experience. Mr. Piketty’s visit brought to mind images that are more often seen in connection with a Justin Bieber concert than with a parliamentary briefing from an economics professor at the École d'économie de Paris. I myself had not seen so many photographers and cameras together since the presentation of the Dutch Cabinet. One of the Members of Parliament stood in line to score an autograph from the star economist. And did I mention that mp was from the conservative VVD?
In the newspapers it seemed like the 70s and 80s were back. De Telegraaf
headlined that “The hero of the Left” was in the Netherlands, to plea, like a modern Robin Hood, to confiscate money of rich people, to share with the poor. “A Rock Star without Rock Music”, said Trouw.
“Thomas Piketty on tour!”, said the NRC.
As is the case with Lord Voldemort, just mentioning his name will create a storm of emotion and discussion in financial and political circles.
But what about the book itself ? Well, it especially states that in the United States income and wealth inequality has significantly increased in recent decades. Moreover, Piketty argues that the return on capital in the future will be higher than the growth of the general economy. This means that an increasing share of “the cake” will end up with owners of capital and thus will lead to increasing inequality.
The theory, of course, is very interesting. But even if Piketty’s “law” were true, it still begs the question whether or not it will turn out bad for the Netherlands. That’s because of one distinctive Dutch fact: our strong pensions. Through our collective pension funds, we have built up a monument of collective power. Because of this, we are collectively able to invest globally, which in return means that we take advantage of the fact that elsewhere additional returns on capital are made. In Piketty’s terms, that means that at least in the Netherlands, everybody is a capitalist. And studies indeed do show that when it comes to inequality in the Netherlands, the gap between the so-called 'haves' and 'have- nots', both for income and capital, is limited.
Reading Piketty from front to back takes quite a while, but I found it to be worth the time. It paints a picture more nuanced than some newspapers and blogs might suggest. Piketty again and again argues that forming larger governments is unwise, that government spending will not create heaven on earth, and that investing in education is the best remedy to combat inequality. Especially in a globalized world where capital is volatile and plants are relatively easy transferred to lower wage countries.
As a social-liberal, I share the bulk of his analysis, and the bulk of his remedies. Because in the end, equality of opportunity is what trumps all.
is a Member of Parliament for D66.
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2014: A Divided World
, en is te vinden bij het onderwerp ongelijkheid.