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[updates below]

That’s what political scientists Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson call him in a TAP forum, “Piketty’s Triumph,” on the publication this month of his Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), which has been taking the US by storm. It’s really something the gushing attention that’s being showered by the American chattering class on a 700-page book by a left-wing French economist—who could write his own ticket in American academia but prefers life in Paris—and the English version of which is a translation from French. I’ve been familiar with Thomas Piketty’s work and perspectives for a while, as he has been writing for and speaking to the larger public on economic issues since early in the last decade—he had a regular economics column in Libération for several years, entre autres—, and was an economic adviser to successive Socialist party presidential candidates. I haven’t yet read his latest book; I’d normally get a copy here in V.O.—it was published last September by Editions du Seuil—but as the English one was translated by my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer—and who no doubt improved on the original French version—, that’s what I’ll read.

Even if I had read the book, though, I wouldn’t offer a review of it, as there are countless others more competent to do that than I. Here are links to good stuff I’ve read (or watched) of late on Piketty’s magnum opus:

One of the best is Emily Eakin’s April 17th article in The Chronicle Review, “Capital Man.” The lede: Thomas Piketty is economics’ biggest sensation. He’s also the field’s fiercest critic.

Paul Krugman—who’s been singing Piketty’s praises on his NYT blog—has a review essay on the book in the NYRB (issue dated May 8th), “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age.”

Bill Moyers, on his TV show Moyers & Company, had a great 20-minute interview last night with Krugman on Piketty’s book, “What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know.” Make sure to watch this one.

On Tuesday the Tax Policy Center—of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution—had an hour-and-a-half forum, at the Urban Institute in Washington, on Piketty’s book, with Piketty presenting his argument and then commentary by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (liberal-left) and Kevin Hassett (co-author of the 1999 best-seller Dow 36,000) of the American Enterprise Institute (conservative). A good, highbrow debate. Watch it here.

On Wednesday the CUNY Graduate Center hosted an event on the book, with Piketty, Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Steven Durlauf, and moderated by Janet Gornick and Branko Milanović. I wish I could have attended that one. A recording will soon be available on the Graduate Center’s YouTube channel.

For those who can follow French, here’s Piketty debating Emmanuel Todd last September 6th on France 2′s Ce soir ou jamais, on the occasion of the book’s V.O. publication.

The New Republic’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 17th), “The Economist Was a Rock Star.” The lede: Thomas Piketty isn’t just a brilliant economist; he’s a fantastic storyteller.

À propos, see the dispatch in yesterday’s NYT, “Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment.”

In The Observer (April 13th) is a commentary by Andrew Hussey entitled “Occupy was right: capitalism has failed the world.” The lede: One of the slogans of the 2011 Occupy protests was ‘capitalism isn’t working’. Now, in an epic, groundbreaking new book, French economist Thomas Piketty explains why they’re right.

For a critique of Piketty’s book from the left, see economist James K. Galbraith’s “Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?” in the Spring issue of Dissent. Entre autres, Galbraith sniffs that Piketty’s policy views “reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal.”

See also Dean Baker’s critique, “Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th,” on the Huff Post Business blog (March 9th).

For a slew of other reviews of Piketty’s book (by e.g. Brad DeLong, Doug Henwood, John Cassidy…), go to this post on the CEPR website.

I had a blog post three years ago in which I made reference to a book Piketty co-authored (with Camille Landais and Emmanuel Saez) that detailed a progressive proposal on how to reform the (impossibly complex and perverse) French tax code. Among the intended recipients of the plan were PS presidential candidates, who would be in a position to take it up in the event one of them were elected in 2012. So has François Hollande adopted the Piketty et al plan as his own? Yeah, sure.

UPDATE: Columbia University Ph.D. student Timothy Shenk has a lengthy essay in The Nation (May 5th issue), “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.” The lede: Capitalism’s new critics take on an economics run amok.

2nd UPDATE: Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (conservative)—who asked the final question in the Tax Policy Center forum linked to above—has a critique of Piketty in Forbes (April 17th), “Whither The Bottom 90 Percent, Thomas Piketty?” He thus begins: “While not quite inducing Beatlemania, French economist Thomas Piketty’s visit this week to America has inspired the Washington analog of teenage frenzy.” This looks to be the first in a series of pieces Winship will be publishing in Forbes on Piketty’s book.

3rd UPDATE: Robert Solow, laureate of the 1987 Nobel Prize in economics, has a review essay on the book in TNR (April 22nd), in which he says that “Thomas Piketty Is Right.”

thomas piketty_capital in the twenty first century

Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Maxppp)

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, European Parliament, Strasbourg (Maxppp)

There has been a torrent of tributes of late to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who has announced that he will not be running for reelection to the European Parliament next month, signaling, in effect, his retirement from electoral politics. I am, needless to say, a big fan of Dany’s, adhering to his political positions 93% of the time and to his values, world-view, and spirit a full 100%. He’s great, c’est tout ce que je peux dire à son sujet (for those on the hard left who despise him—who call him a sell-out, or worse—, they can just go bugger off). Cohn-Bendit has been a fixture in the European Parliament for the past twenty years—elected with the German Die Grünen 1994 and 2004, with Les Verts/EELV in 1999 and 2009 (his heading the French lists causing their scores to spike)—, the veritable conscience of that body, and a fierce defender of the European project. Le Monde, in an online piece on Wednesday on DCB’s two decades as MEP, linked to videos of some of his more memorable interventions in recent years during plenary sessions in Strasbourg. They’re great. As the LM piece will eventually disappear behind the paywall, here are the vids:

Dany giving his farewell speech on Wednesday.

Dany reprimanding Martin Schulz in 2010 for voting to approve the Barroso Commission—and telling him ta gueule! i.e. STFU, while he was at it (no hard feelings from Schulz, who is a good guy himself).

Dany verbally pummeling Victor Orbán in 2012 and to his face.

Dany giving President Hollande a hard time in 2013, and addressing him in the familiar form.

Dany letting Jean-Marie Le Pen have it in 2011, after the latter’s scandalous reaction to the Utoya massacre in Norway.

Dany in 2012 telling the Earl of Dartmouth—UKIP MEP—a few home truths (and in English).

Daniel Cohn-Bendit is sui generis. As I’ve already said twice, he’s great. Brussels and Strasbourg will be diminished without him.

France: Quitting the euro?

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[update below]

Pascal Riché has an important article in Rue89 on the growing debate in France over quitting the euro and the arguments for and against, and which he advises people to familiarize themselves with—”Entraînez-vous au débat qui déchirera vos dîners dans quelques semaines” he says—, as the debate will no doubt rise to a fever pitch during the election campaign for the European Parliament (May 25th in France). Riché notes that, until recently, most French critics of the ECB’s monetary policy and the SGP nonetheless argued that the euro was a net plus for France and that exiting from it was unthinkable. The only ones arguing otherwise—that France should and must quit the euro—have been the Front National, souverainistes like Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, extreme left groupuscules, and a handful of economists (the usual suspects on this subject, e.g. Jean-Jacques Rosa, Jacques Sapir). But Riché now observes that the arguments for leaving the euro are going mainstream, noting in particular the revirement on the question by the high-profile Keynesian economist Bernard Maris, an irreducible partisan of Europe—he voted ‘oui’ in both the TEU and ECT referendums—, but who has regretfully come to the conclusion that France has no hope of increasing economic growth and lowering unemployment so long as it remains in the single currency dominated as it by Germany. I was indeed surprised to hear Maris—of whom I am a fan—make this argument last Friday in his weekly debate on France Inter with the libéral/free-market economics journalist Dominique Seux, and equally surprised to hear Seux’s tepid counter-argument, in which he conceded many of Maris’s points (listen here). And this morning on France Inter I listened to invited guest Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who argued for six minutes straight why the euro has been disastrous for the French economy and that the only salvation for France is to exit from it. Some of Dupont-Aignan’s points were exaggerated or simplistic but he is exceptionally well-spoken and his argumentation is coherent (listen here); and it will certainly be convincing to many citizens who are otherwise not right-wing Eurosceptics or nostalgics for a Gaullist golden age.

IMHO the arguments for staying in the euro are still stronger than those for leaving—the consequences of which could indeed be calamitous—but my convictions on this are becoming shaky. It is, however, clear that the single currency was an error—and that having it run according to German conditions was a double error. I cannot imagine for a second that President Hollande or any of his credible successors would ever make such a fateful decision to leave the euro. But if the euro remains overvalued and France continues to privilege deficit reduction over economic growth, then the economic and social situation in this country is going to get worse, and with political and social consequences one can only imagine.

À suivre.

UPDATE: French News Online informs me—in the comments below—that they had a story back on Feb. 7th on how “The French want out of the euro.” In other words, FNO scooped me and by a long shot. J’en prends acte.

Simon Worou, Saint-Juliette-sur-Viaur (Photo La Dépêche.fr/DDM J.-L. P.)

Simon Worou, Saint-Juliette-sur-Viaur (Photo: La Dépêche/DDM J.-L. P.)

The France 2 news last night had a report (scroll to 26:34) on the newly elected mayor of Saint-Juliette-sur-Viaur (population: 577) in the Aveyron—way down in the Midi-Pyrénées—, the 43-year-old Simon Worou, who hails from Togo. This village is about as France profonde as one can get. Worou—a technicien supérieur by profession in nearby Rodez, the prefecture of the Aveyron—arrived in France in the mid ’90s to train with the French air force, landed in the village soon after, married a local girl—of farmer parents and whose grandparents had never seen a black person in their lives—, took French nationality, and—not insignificantly in that part of the country—joined the local rugby team. He encountered a fair amount of racism, as mentioned in the France 2 report (and here and here), but integrated into the life of the village and became an upstanding member of the community. And now he’s the mayor, his list winning 62% of the vote in the first round of last month’s municipal elections.

As it happens, Worou is not France’s first mayor of Togolese origin, that distinction being held by the better known Kofi Yamgnane, who was mayor of the Breton village of Saint-Coulitz (Finistère) for 12 years from 1989 and served as a junior minister in the governments of Edith Cresson and Pierre Bérégevoy (1991-93).

Somehow I have a hard time imagining a recent immigrant from, say, Ghana or Nigeria settling in a village in Kansas or Montana and being elected mayor…

Isn’t France a great country?

Ilo Ilo & A Simple Life

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster

This is a gem of a film from Singapore I saw last September, when it opened in Paris, and that a stateside friend informs me is currently playing in the US (he saw it and liked it). The film—29-year-old Anthony Chen’s directorial debut and for which he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year (and to a 15-minute standing ovation)—is set in Singapore during the 1997 financial crisis and centers on a middle-class couple going through a rough patch—the office employee husband (actor Chen Tian Zen) having lost his job, which increases the already existing tensions in their relationship—and who hire a live-in Filipina housekeeper and nanny, named Terry (actress Angeli Bayani), to tend to their turbulent, headstrong 10-year-old son, Jiale (played by the remarkable Koh Jia Ler, in his first role), while his working mother (actress Yeo Yann Yann) sees through her pregnancy. The parents cannot cope with the bratty, undisciplined Jiale, and who torments Terry when she joins their household. But Terry is patient with him and the two eventually bond—and which arouses the jealously of Jiale’s mother, who was already cool toward her. As the couple’s financial difficulties mount they decide they can’t afford to keep Terry—and despite the important, stabilizing role she plays in Jiale’s life—, so she returns to the Philippines.

The film, as Kenneth Turan put it in his (stellar) review in the L.A. Times

quietly demonstrates that in the right hands [of director Anthony Chen] even the familiar stuff of everyday life can move us deeply. (…) Created in a sensitive, neo-realistic style, “Ilo Ilo” deals with how emotional connections are made and frayed, with the different ways individuals become important to us and how that dynamic plays out in the lives of children who are essentially powerless over their personal situations. (…) The great joy of “Ilo Ilo” is that, aided by naturalistic acting by all concerned…everything is allowed to happen believably in its own space and time, pulling us gradually but deeply into these people’s lives. It is difficult to overstate how real and touching all this feels and how much it ends up affecting us.

Yes, absolutely. The story was inspired by the director’s own childhood experience, of his family’s live-in Filipina maid until he was 12-years-old and to whom he was attached. She was an important person in his early life—he called her Aunt Terry—but the family lost touch but with her, remembering only that she came from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines (thus film’s international title; the Chinese title translates as “mother and father are not home”). Reviews of the pic have been tops across the board, in both the US—e.g. see Stephen Holden’s in the NYT—and in France. The trailer may be seen on the film’s website.

Similar to ‘Ilo Ilo’ was a film from Hong Kong I also saw last year, ‘A Simple Life’ (en France: ‘Une vie simple’), by director Ann Hui, about a 40ish film producer named Roger (actor Andy Lau) and his lifelong domestic, Ah Tao (actress Deanie Ip), who has served four generations of Roger’s upper middle class family over six decades. Roger, who’s a bachelor, is the only one left in the house, as his siblings have long married and moved out, his father has passed away, and his mother lives abroad, so Ah Tao tends exclusively to him, cooking his meals and all. But she’s in her late 60s and suffers a stroke, so obviously has to stop working. Roger wants to hire a caregiver for her at home but she insists on going to a nursing home, so he accedes to that. She’s been Roger’s family’s domestic all his life—and most of hers—and has become an integral member of the family—and to whom he is closer than he is to his own mother. And the situations are now reversed, with him now taking care of and tending to her.

I loved this movie, as did the friend with whom I saw it (it made my Top 10 list of 2013). It is so moving and touching, well-acted and just all around excellent. The relationship of Ah Tao to Roger and his family is at the center of the film but it also depicts, more generally, a world that is disappearing, of middle class families in Hong Kong—and other societies—and the domestics who worked for them, who were engaged by the families as children and served them for a lifetime. In Hong Kong, poor families who sent their children to be domestics with well-to-do families often named them “Chun” or “Tao,” to the point where these names came to be associated with domestics. There’s a great scene in the movie where Ah Tao, before she moves into the nursing home, is interviewing a job applicant to replace her. She informs the young woman of what will be expected of her, of how she is to tend to Roger—fussing over him, giving him massages, and all—, to which the applicant responds to the effect of “I’m not going to do that shit! Fuck that!” and then gets up and walks out. Lower class women in today’s Hong Kong are no longer available for that kind of work (as in Western societies, where housekeepers and nannies are invariably immigrants). As it happens, the film is based on the real life story of its producer, Roger Lee. Reviews were tops in France and in the US (see, in particular, this 4-star review by the late Roger Ebert). Trailer is here.

a_simple_life

Patrick Seale R.I.P.

patrick seale

[update below] [2nd update below]

He died yesterday. At 84, from brain cancer. Patrick Seale was one of the premier Middle East journalists of the past five decades. I was, as I wrote in a post exactly two years ago, a decades-long admirer of his work, despite his decades-long apologetics for the Syrian Ba’athist regime and disagreement with a number of his views on and interpretations of Middle East geopolitics. His 1965 classic The Struggle for Syria: A Study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958 is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the Middle East (it’s unfortunately out of print; I liked this one so much that I read it twice, and then bought a copy when Yale University Press briefly brought it back in print in the late ’80s). And his weighty biography of Hafez al-Assad, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, is also up there with the best (this one is still in print). His massive biography of Riad el-Solh I haven’t read. Un de ces jours…

Though I admired his work I probably would be writing this post if I didn’t know Patrick personally. We first met in 2008, here in Paris, where he lived for many years. He invited me to his well-appointed flat in the 8th arrondissement and I invited him in turn to speak in a graduate-level class I was teaching on the modern Middle East. The students greatly appreciated his talk, so they told me, and found him engaging and amiable, which he was.

Seale was naturally best known for his writing and commentary on the Middle East but less so for that on France. À propos, he was a co-author of a book on the May 1968 events that I consider to be the best on the subject in English, and to which I have devoted a blog post.

The Lebanese journalist Michael Young, learning of Seale’s terminal illness, had a fine—though not entirely uncritical—tribute to him a week ago, that one may read here.

UPDATE: Historian Bruce Maddy-Weitzman posted this comment on my FB page

Young’s review pointed to an important point – Seale’s increasing penchant, as time went on, to emphasize conspiracy theories to explain events. One of the worst examples is in the Asad biography, where he explains the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a case of a brilliant Israeli deception by manufacturing a crisis to lure Nasser into Sinai so that his army could be smashed and Israel could grab territory. It was such a brilliant ruse, he said, that even the Israeli public believed that it was in mortal danger. This was the classic explanation in the Arab world after the war about what had happend – Arab governments have no agency and no responsibility for what happens.

It was indeed the case that Seale had a penchant for conspiracy theorizing, at least in regards to Israel. E.g. Michael Young mentions Seale’s suggestion that Abu Nidal may have been an Israeli agent, which, to put it mildly, didn’t make a lot of sense—and which no serious observer of the Middle East took seriously. À propos, Martin Kramer related an anecdote to me several years ago of Seale’s visit to Jerusalem circa 1995, during which Kramer asked Seale if he really, honestly believed what he wrote in his 1992 book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, about Abu Nidal doing Israel’s bidding, to which Seale smiled and shrugged, indicating that he either didn’t take his speculation too seriously himself or had no evidence whatever to back up it—apart from what Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), his principal informant for the book, told him—, so wouldn’t insist. In 2008 I asked Seale himself about some of what he wrote in the Abu Nidal book but he had forgotten the details.

A particularly vicious, mean-spirited, mendacious “obituary” of Seale posted on a blog called Syria Promise has been making the rounds since yesterday, in which it is claimed, among other things, that Seale knew no Arabic. This is bullshit. Seale’s books on Syria each contain six pages of bibliographic references in Arabic. There is simply no way he could have written those books—and particularly The Struggle for Syria—without a good command of Arabic (reading at least). And he spent the first 15 years of his life in Syria—where, it stands to reason, he would have acquired at least some knowledge of the language—and was a student of Albert Hourani’s at Oxford, under whose stewardship he would have no doubt perfected his linguistic skills (on this, see the obits in Al-Arabiya and The Guardian). As for this Syria Promise blog, it has but one post—the nasty one on Seale—, indicating that it was created specifically for this purpose. And the blog’s author gives no hint as to his or her identity. What an abject, cowardly S.O.B.

2nd UPDATE: Martin Kramer has a remembrance in Commentary of “Patrick Seale in Israel.” As it happens, the anecdote I recounted above was a little off on the date and place.

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Just after the June 2012 legislative elections I had a post on “deputies of diversity“: of the six new Maghrebi/Muslim/African-origin deputies elected to the National Assembly—all PS—, the first-ever to issue from post-colonial immigrant communities. One of the noteworthy stories of last month’s municipal elections—but which went absolutely, totally unreported in the national media, including in newspapers like Le Monde (in their hard copy, at least)—was the first-ever election of a mayor of Maghrebi/Muslim origin in a municipality of over 30,000 inhabitants in metropolitan France: Azzédine Taïbi, age 49 and of Algerian immigrant parents, who was elected mayor of Stains—a commune in the heart of the Seine-Saint-Denis (le neuf-trois)—on the PCF-headed Front de Gauche list. This is not an insignificant event IMO, but which the media did not bother to report—and with Taïbi and his party engaging in no publicity on it, as if the first-ever election of a mayor of Maghrebi/Muslim origin in metropolitan France were such a banal event—which it is not—as not to be worthy of particular mention (except in online only dispatches).

One should mention, for the record, the election last month of Algerian-origin Samia Ghali as mayor of Marseille’s 8th sector, though this only counts somewhat, as mayors of Marseille sectors, which group two arrondissements each, are, in effect, sub-mayors and with limited powers (like mayors of Paris arrondissements). And when it comes to “diversity” mayors, I do not count Rachida Dati, who was re-elected mayor of Paris’s upper bourgeois 7th arrondissement (Eiffel Tower, Invalides, Rodin Museum…). Pour mémoire, in the 2008 municipal elections Mme Dati was—at President Sarkozy’s instructions—parachuted into the 7th—where, needless to say, she had no roots whatever—as head of the UMP list; and as the 7th is as safe for the right/UMP as one can get, there was not a chance she was going to lose.

In smaller communes, the Muslim/Mauritanian-origin Marieme Tamata-Varin was elected mayor of Yèbles (pop. 700) in the Seine-et-Marne and fils de harki Mohand Hamoumou was re-elected mayor of Volvic (pop. 4,000), of mineral water fame, in the Puy-de-Dôme (pour l’info, the published version of Hamoumou’s doctoral thesis—his directrice de thèse having been the prominent sociologist Dominique Schnapper—was one of the first academic studies of the Harkis—and which I thought was quite good when I read it some two decades back).

All in all, the number of conseillers municipaux of non-European immigrant origin, according to La Gazette.fr, went from 1,069 to 2,343 in this election, i.e. 6.7% of the total. That is not an insignificant increase. L’intégration est en marche.

One rising “diversity” politician of note is Karim Zéribi, an EELV MEP from Marseille, whom I’ve been hearing about off and on since the late ’90s, when he was a chevènementiste—il a mangé à presque tous les râteliers de gauche—and up-and-coming Marseillais politician of Maghrebi (Algerian) origin, though who has yet to acquire a national reputation. Two nights ago he was interviewed sur le plateau on the Europe Hebdo news magazine of LCP/Public Sénat (French C-SPAN)—watch here (I love his Midi de la France accent)—on the negotiations underway between the EU and USA over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership/Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TTIP/TAFTA), which Zéribi argues would be terrible for Europe. He was good. And quite certainly correct in his critique of the process, as there is no way that the US government (and Congress) will ever agree to such a deal if it does not enhance the position of US corporate interests, which are in contradiction with those of European consumers and states on numerous points (for more on this all-important issue, see this article by the redoubtable Lori Wallach—whom I’ve previously discussed—in the December 2013 Le Monde Diplomatique; et en français ici). One can only wish Zéribi well in his campaign against the TTIP/TAFTA in the European parliament and hope that he gains stature in the coming years.

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