A prime reason for subscribing to the New York Times -- a cultural misdeed for which I regularly beat my breast -- is that of tapping into the Times' tips concerning what real, bona fide Forward Thinkers are thinking at a given moment. Like now, when opinion leaders are lining up to assure us the return of Robin Hood economics is way overdue.
To a talkative redistributionist -- the young French economist Thomas Piketty -- the Times turned over a whole page of its Sunday Business section, allowing the subject to make the case for what the reporter called "a progressive global tax on real wealth (minus debt), with the proceeds ... redistributed to those with less capital."
Piketty (pronounced, according to the Times, "pee-ket-ee") explains, "We just want a way to share the tax burden that is fair and practical." His thick new book, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," has vaulted onto the Times' best-seller list, hailed by Paul Krugman -- redistributionist, Times columnist and Nobel laureate in economics -- as maybe the decade's most important economics book.
Forward Thinkers want it understood that the rich make too much money and that, what's more, voters need to know it. Congressional Democrats have taken to talking about it all the time. Old Clinton hands Stan Greenberg and James Carville, in a recent memo, urge the party, instead of talking about the painfully slow economic recovery, to bash the 1 percent. Along comes M. Pee-ket-ee to provide the bashers with intellectual armament.
Redistribution sounds to many Forward Thinkers like good politics, and it may be. As economics, it's pretty bad. We know this because we know the redistributionist impulse -- the "leveling" impulse, as it was once called -- to be historic and the consequences of following the impulse to be, well, unsatisfactory. That would be a good generic word for something that never works out as planned.
Would-be redistributors perennially predict a day of equality and warm sunshine once redistribution is accomplished. They think they will create a static situation. Unfortunately for their way of thinking, static situations never occur. Life is dynamic; there's constant reshuffling of the deck, despite attempts to stack it. New opportunities and discouragements arise. Old ones fade. Invention and ingenuity reshape prospects. Did the railroad barons -- the Huntingtons, Goulds and so on -- foresee Henry Ford? Did Ford foresee Soichiro Honda? Capitalism is a kind of economic Magnificat: "He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted the humble and meek." Some rise; some fall.