Friday, January 2, 2015

Piketty Declines Legion of Honor

Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century has declined a nomination to the French Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor is a big deal. It's described as an "order," and was founded in 1802 by Napoleon. The structure of the order is rather militaristic (no surprise). It has ranks, medals, and elaborate rules. This from Wikipedia:
Wearing the decoration of the Légion d'honneur without having the right to do so is an offence. Wearing the ribbon or rosette of a foreign order is prohibited if that ribbon is mainly red, like the ribbon of the Légion. French military members in uniform must salute other military members in uniform wearing the medal, whatever the Légion d'honneur rank and the military rank of the bearer. This is not mandatory with the ribbon.
Here's the list of recipients. I scanned it, and it's quite a cross-section of humanity, including Desmond Tutu, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ravi Shankar, Louis Pasteur, Sharon Stone, Alexis de Tocqeville, Paul McCartney and Jerry Lewis (a bastion of French culture, in case you didn't know). Who would not want to keep company with Ravi Shankar, Desmond Tutu, and Kristin Scott-Thomas? Piketty, apparently. And it's not like he didn't have good contemporary company. His fellow nominees were Jean Tirole (Economics Nobel Prize 2014) and Patrick Modiano (Nobel Prize for Literature 2013). So, what's Piketty's problem? He's quoted (in translation) as follows:
I just found out that I had been proposed for the Legion of Honor. I reject this appointment and I do not think it is the role of government to decide who is honorable. It would be better that it be devoted to recovery growth in France and in Europe.
Now I'm really confused. I got the idea - perhaps mistaken - from Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that Piketty viewed unfettered market outcomes as seriously deficient. Society could be destroyed as the result of capitalism run wild, or some such. Is he now telling us that there is a market for honor? If you want a reward for your good deeds, you should write your own 700-page tome, and see if it meets the market test, perhaps? Maybe he has found religion, and thinks that honor is found in heaven. Inquiring minds want to know.

My suggestion is that we run an experiment. Anyone with any power to decide such things should nominate Piketty for their award, and we'll see which ones he takes, if any. I would be happy to put him up for the Hillcrest Neighborhood Holiday Season Light Display Award. I'll have to convince the neighborhood association to waive the usual rules, but that could fly.

14 comments:

  1. I love that quote from Piketty. It's really anti-elitist. It basically means the Government and glitterati and literati should stop their hobnobbing with each other and get down to solving real problems for real people.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So you think we should have no recognition for good work? Ravi Shankar, Louis Pasteur, Jean Tirole, etc., indeed did useful things for society - they were solving real problems for real people, in their own ways. Should society just ignore their contributions, and say: "You elitist folks were already rewarded by the market. That's enough."

      Delete
    2. Should society just ignore their contributions, and say: "You elitist folks were already rewarded by the market. That's enough."

      To the contrary society should award to those contributions the market has not recognised. Tirole does not need another prize. Moreover, people like Newton are known for gravity, Bach for the practice of harmony and counterpoint in the tonal system, Plato for the Republic, and Keynes for the General Theory and ideas about how to fight the Great Depression. They are famous for what they did, not for a prize. Often these prizes end up being awarded by the influential and powerful to the influential and powerful and cement existing power regimes, including those for ideas. Evaluating contributions are likely to be especially problematic in the humanities and social sciences. Also knighthoods and other such national medals and prizes end up going to bankers and civil servants simply on account of their influence.

      Sometimes yes, awarding unrecognised work and raising its profile through such prizes can be valuable, but I think they should be limited in number and concentrate on the unsung heroes.

      Delete
    3. "...they should be limited in number and concentrate on the unsung heroes..."

      The key questions would be: limited by who, and who is to decide who is sufficiently "unsung?"

      I think prizes and ceremony play important roles. Nobel prizes, weddings, retirement gifts, funerals. Those things all matter. With prizes, it's a public statement of merit, and society pays attention when one of these things is awarded (look at the attention Piketty's refusal is getting). It becomes an incentive device, and the prize becomes a focus for demonstrating who the good models for behavior are. Take the Nobel prize in economics, for example. The people on the Nobel committee put a lot of work into soliciting opinions about potential prize-winners from the profession and thinking about how to award the prize. And the profession pays attention to who gets it. Economists love to make Nobel predictions, and they're certainly not short of opinions concerning the winners. You might say that the potential for winning a Nobel prize can't be much of an incentive for the average economist. Most of us won't come within shouting distance of the thing. But it can still motivate us. For example, I think we get something out of recognition for someone we know, and for work that is related to our own research. So, for the Nobel in economics in particular, I think there is net social benefit.

      Of course, we can always rebel against ceremony, by foregoing an ostentatious wedding, or opting for cremation rather than taking up valuable space with our remains. We can even turn down prizes, if we want. In Piketty's case, if the issue is resource costs (time, or whatever lavish festivities are thrown for the Legion of Honor folks), I didn't notice any complaints from him during his U.S. book tour, which must certainly have involved some consumption on his part, and hobnobbing with various elites. It seems to me he should lighten up a bit.

      Delete
  2. Agree that there is some irony here, although maybe Piketty is not implicitly relying on a market for honor.

    The mindset may fit this pattern:
    a. status for businessmen takes the form of profits; since the market distribution of profits is morally arbitrary and does not reflect true merit, the government should not hesitate to re-allocate in this area.
    b. status for intellectuals takes the form of renown and prestige (among peers?); since the distribution of intellectual prestige reflects true merit, the government has no moral right to intervene and re-jigger this sacred ground.

    Here is what Sartre said when he rejected the Nobel Prize: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1964/dec/17/sartre-on-the-nobel-prize/

    ReplyDelete
  3. Whenever Williamson becomes obsessed with somebody it is usually a progressive economist. But don't forget, Williamson is a self-proclaimed socialist. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Be quiet John.

      Delete
    2. My name is not John and I love it when right-wingers have issues with free speech. :D

      Delete
    3. You cannot fool me, John D., I know who you are. Your crazy is not needed here.

      Delete
    4. No better entertainment than economically incompetent, paranoid right-wingers. :D

      Delete
  4. This is has got beyond ridiculous, and now surely we can all say enough is enough.

    http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jan/19/global-wealth-oxfam-inequality-davos-economic-summit-switzerland

    "80 people owning the same amount of wealth as more than 3.5 billion people"

    This is Neo-Marxian divergence, not Neo-Classical convergence. We can start the global wealth tax by imposing it on those 80 people, to be deposited at an account at the World Bank to be used for labour intensive agricultural production targetted poverty reduction programmes in Africa.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This article by the way is the front page of the today's Guardian print edition.

      Delete
  5. Thomas Piketty is simply grandstanding. Grinding out a few more copy sales....


    Wow, this blog is SPAM hog heaven. Where is the Miele vacuum cleaner?

    ReplyDelete
  6. This post makes no sense.

    Piketty simply said that it isn't the role of government to decide who is 'honourable'. It does not follow at all from this that it is the role of 'the market' to decide who is 'honourable'.

    I can't see any logic in this post. It just expresses an irrational hostility towards Piketty and nothing else.

    ReplyDelete