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The Great Income Inequality Sham

When it comes to Thomas Piketty’s Income Inequality Good-Time Jamboree, helping people is not really the point. Feeling better about yourself—and maybe even mentally positioning yourself as a victim now and then—is.

money income inequalityby Heather Wilhelm

If you’ve ever met a Texan, you know that Texans love bragging about their state. You’ve probably heard the endless list—the bigness, the freedom, the trucks, the barbeque, the pride, the football—and, like many others, you’ve probably rolled your eyes. So please forgive me, for as a new-ish resident of the Lone Star State, I’d like to add one more item to that long, rambling list: No one in Texas seems to be talking all that much about Thomas Piketty.

If that name rings a bell, it’s because you’ve been reading the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or basically anything on the Internet for the past few weeks. Piketty, described by the Times as “the latest overnight intellectual sensation,” is a French economist whose new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”—you know, as opposed to the Kapital that Marx wrote about—bemoans income inequality, exposes various flaws in our global economy, and calls for confiscatory global wealth taxes in order to stop Richard Branson from having all that fun.

The good news, especially if you think that last part sounds a bit absurd—or, if you’re more ideologically inclined, you think it sounds a bit like stealing—is that Texas isn’t the only place that seems to be meeting Piketty’s inequality angst with a stare, a shrug and an over-the-shoulder spit. As Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institution notes, the hotbeds of Piketty’s popularity are, well, pretty much exactly where you’d expect: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, California, Maryland, and, far and away, Washington, D.C.

These places tend to be pretty well off. Rich people are certainly not strangers to New York or California. The Washington metropolitan area, in fact, is home to six of the richest 10 counties in America. So what gives? Why is a money-bashing, tax-the-rich book so popular in money-flushed circles?

In his recent piece on “the Piketty phenomenon,” columnist David Brooks described the envy-dappled backdrop for this updated, soft-hued Marxism lite.

“If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand,” Brooks wrote. “But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich.”

Frustrated up-and-comers, he notes, mix and mingle with the wealthy, brushing elbows at cocktail parties, facing the constant indignity of having other people’s privilege shoved in their faces: “You wait in line at the post office,” he writes, “but they have staff to do it for them.”

Once you look past the patent silliness and First World problems of the almost-rich mentally scapegoating the already-rich, it becomes increasingly clear why income inequality has become the anxiety of choice for the upper-middle-class left. If you’re mad about your neighbor’s private jet, after all, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to ignore the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who was just denied access to a quality charter school—thanks, of course, to the charter-blocking policies of the politicians you voted (and perhaps raised funds) for.

“There is little doubt,” the New York Times wrote in a recent profile, “that Mr. Piketty has written the big-think book of the moment.” I don’t think so. For a certain brand of concerned—but not too concerned—left-leaning citizen, he’s written the feel-good book of the year. The real reason for the Piketty craze, at least among certain elite circles, is this: It’s a lot more fun to pretend that some archetypal rich guy is the problem than to admit that the problem might actually be you, your friends, and your priorities.

It’s quite timely—and telling—that Donald Sterling, the inarguably horrible man at the helm of the L.A. Clippers, was scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles NAACP this month. Despite being outed as one of the most over-the-top racists in recent American memory, Sterling had donated sizable amounts to the civil rights group. It probably made him feel good.

There remains no substantial evidence that taxing rich people, confiscating their wealth, or forcing them into hiding would really do anything other than pass along some extra cash to a somewhat smug cabal of upper-middle-class bureaucrats. Unfortunately, when it comes to Thomas Piketty’s Income Inequality Good-Time Jamboree, helping people is not really the point. Feeling better about yourself—and maybe even mentally positioning yourself as a victim now and then—is.

Somewhere, you see, there might be a rich man kiteboarding right now off the coast of his private island. It is not confirmed, but he may have a supermodel riding on his back. One thing is sure: He does not have to go to the post office. We must stop him. Things like embarrassingly horrible government schools, and the kids trapped in them, can wait.

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Heather Wilhelm is a writer for Real Clear Politics.