Jonah Goldberg writes Mr. Piketty’s Big Book of Marxiness in the July issue of Commentary.
Well, no. In fact, the Billy Zane character was an entirely fictional creation of James Cameron’s imagination (and the proper spelling of his name is Hockley; Cameron invented Caledon Hockley’s name by joining the names of two towns in Ontario, where he spent some time in his youth). Still, let us concede that there were some rich jerks on the actual Titanic. So what? Many of the richest people on earth were passengers on the Titanic, including Isidor and Ida Strauss (owners of Macy’s), mining heir Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor IV (the wealthiest man on the ship). They, and numerous others, refused to get in lifeboats until all the women and children, including the poor women and children, got on first (Ida Strauss refused to leave her husband, preferring to die in his arms). After helping other passengers escape, Guggenheim and his secretary changed into their evening wear, saying they were “prepared to go down like gentlemen.” Meanwhile the most famous real-life cad on the ship was George Symons, a crewman who refused to let anyone else on his lifeboat even though there were 28 empty seats. Money, it seems, doesn’t tell you everything about a man.
This Titanic business on its own is trivial, but it demonstrates how Piketty sees the super rich as an undifferentiated agglomeration—a single static class bent on protecting its own collective self-interests. But the rich are not a static class, any more than capital can be reduced to a homogenous blob. Fewer than 1 in 10 of the 400 wealthiest Americans on the Forbes list in 1982 were still there in 2012. (Lawrence Summers notes that if Piketty was right about the stable return on capital, they should have all stayed on the list.) Of the 20 biggest fortunes on the Forbes list in 2013, 17 (85 percent) were self-made. Of the three remaining entries, only one—the Mars candy family—goes back three generations. The Koch brothers inherited the business their father created, but they also greatly expanded it through their own entrepreneurial zeal. The Waltons of Walmart fame inherited the family business from Sam Walton, a self-made billionaire from quite humble origins.
This distinction between objective, or absolute, poverty and subjective, or relative, poverty doesn’t matter very much to Piketty. In real life, however, it matters a great deal. There’s a significant difference between not being able to feed your family and not being able to feed your family as well as a wealthier man might. A millionaire might be poor in a world of billionaires, but he would not be a pauper.