Books I do not want to read (the curmudgeon I become on alternate Thursdays)

Thursday, 25 May 2017, 10:45 | Category : Uncategorized
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Stories about dying relatives
Divorce stories
Self-justifying political/military/legal/business/finance/showbiz memoirs
Chattily written biographies
Biographies in general
Social history
Books with big explicit sex scenes
Books about Trump
Winner stories
Loser stories
Snide and sophisticated comic novels
Fantasy with no coherent fantasy physics, chemistry biology, sociology
Books about moving to the Mediterranean, learning how to live from colorful natives
Books that pretend to be war histories but that are really about oppressed minorities
Victimhood books
Enduring in the wild stories
Detective novels
Social protest science fiction about revolutions that aren’t going to happen
Science fiction based on bad science
Science fiction based on bad economic premises
Political conspiracy novels
Phony political conspiracy exposés
Uplifting religious stories
Religious conspiracy novels
Coming of age novels
Books with limited vocabulary
Books in dialect
Improbable first-person child novels
Novels with no ideas
Novels with fashionable ideas
Religiously tendentious books
Existentialistically tendentious books
Novels with no characters I’d like to meet
Any kind of clumsy writing
Lefty revisionism
Righty revisionism
Cynical love stories
Sentimental love stories
Hip insider internet books
Sports writing
Prizewinning collections of free verse poetry
Almost anything reviewed in the NYT Book Review or the NYROB
War books without detailed maps
Metrically incompetent long poems
Bad translations
Books in Deconstructionese
Books in Heideggerese
Books that leave me as ignorant as I was before I started reading them
Books about the harm done by family secrets
Books with no triumphs
Books without tragedy
Books with nothing witty or funny
Books about exploring places that have already been explored
Food books (unless they contain some ideas)
Garden books (unless they contain some ideas)
Books about animals that are palpably trying to make you help preserve them
Historical fiction in which the characters speak in modern English
Where they speak in fancy overblown English because the author thinks it sounds old
Books, especially poetry books, that try to make you think the author is a good person
Books that try to make you think the author is mysteriously profound
Books that try to make you feel guilty
Books in which the prose sounds like the excerpts read euphoniously on NPR
Books that expect you to be as fond of the author’s relatives as the author is
Travel books by people who don’t have expert knowledge of the places they write about
Travel books that implicitly sneer at you if you haven’t been there
Books that even today try to shock you

On the Virtues of Brutal Dictators and Trumpist Realpolitik

Sunday, 23 April 2017, 18:13 | Category : Uncategorized
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One of the things that happened to us in the course of our paroxysm of anguish and grief and fury after 9/11 was that we found out that there are worse things than brutal dictators. We had thought we were living in a post-historical world that would be governed by ideals of democracy, pluralism, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Our disagreements would be over how much to hamper the markets to provide help for the underprivileged and weak.

And then something out of some horrible old story of war and massacre happened to us, and in the center of our safest, most pluralist, most democratic sanctuaries. There it was, surreal as Bosch or Grunewald–the twin towers blazing up to heaven, like some apocalyptic artist’s vision out of the Thirty Years’ War, the destruction of the tower of Babel.

Our memories were very short, of course. Or selective. The horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag were in another continent, and already seemed hundreds of years ago, like the Napoleonic Wars—and in any case were an aberration, a black swan, a tumor upon the body of modernity. It couldn’t happen here and now.

So for a while we became an insane scourge upon the world. Not altogether a bad thing: maybe the world needed to be reminded that a liberal and peaceful democracy is the most dangerous thing in the world if it is attacked, and people seemed to have forgotten Hiroshima. Don’t tease the animals.

Our biggest mistake was to blame 9/11 on brutal dictators. Ironically, if Afghanistan had had a brutal dictator, 9/11 probably wouldn’t have happened. The terrorists had to get out of Saudi Arabia, with its very effective brutal dictators, to be able to act freely. In any case, we overthrew, or caused to be overthrown, a whole series of brutal dictators—Saddam, Khadafi, Mubarak, etc, and tried to do the same to Assad and Khomeini.

We thought the people in those countries wanted freedom—after all, thousands of their population were trying to get into the land of the free. But we didn’t notice that millions were staying, opting to keep their brutal dictators. Why? Because they wanted to keep their cultural, religious, feudal, and tribal identities, and be protected by their brutal dictator from their neighbors in the next valley with different sheiks and mullahs and rituals and accents.

The point about brutal dictators is that to get to be one you have to act in a monstrously immoral way, and get used to being without a sense of divine restraint. You are at heart secular, having pursued the way of violence and power rather than obedience to God. So you basically have no ideological axe to grind, and as long as you have your army under strict control, and can get modern weapons by selling your natural resources, you can remain in power, and your State will not fail. You may even adopt human rights reforms, as did Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran or Mubarak and Assad did in Egypt and Syria: to do so seemed to increase national prosperity and thus your own wealth. You can crush the dissent of your sectarian or ethnic populations by extermination, as the Assads did in Hama and Aleppo, or Saddam did with the Shiites in the marshes of Mesopotamia. Erdogan in Turkey has got the message.

If your country is ethnically and religiously fairly homogeneous (not a state drawn on a map by some bright colonial administrator with no anthropological knowledge at all) you might have the luck to have a priest-king instead of a brutal dictator. Members of ethnic and religious minorities might even be better off in their dhimmitude than they would be under a secular dictator. But on the other hand you’d be ruled by someone with no pragmatic restraints on his behavior. There is no brutality like religiously-commanded morally sanctified brutality. Your access to the course of moderate reform and gradual modernization would be curtailed. And sooner or later your mad Mahdi will do something idiotic on principle that a more prudent brutal dictator wouldn’t, and that calls down the catastrophic wrath of the rest of the world.

Let’s look at this from the point of view of one of the people that didn’t want to escape to the Land of the Free. If you are a religious bigot, you can’t trust the other religious bigots because you know they are just as much on a mission from God as you are, and God told them that you must be destroyed, just as He told you that they must be destroyed. But you can trust your brutal dictator who wants you to be working and paying his taxes rather than exterminating the spawn of Satan on the other side of the city. The dictator is the only one allowed to do any exterminating, and he’d rather not endanger his taxes.

So far I’ve been couching all this in the context of the Middle East today. But I could have changed the proper nouns a bit, and it would have been quite clear that I was talking about the European religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before we get all shocked about how awful these religious struggles in Asia and Africa are, we should realize that Europeans slaughtered each other for four hundred years in exactly the same way: think of Savonarola burning the paintings of Botticelli, the St Bartholomew massacre, the Spanish Inquisition, and the depopulation of Germany as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch.

In comparison with this, brutal secular dictators were a blessed relief. We have forgotten the wisdom of Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, who were well aware of what moral right-thinking people will do to each other when there is no superordinate pragmatic coercive power to restrain them. For these thinkers, issues of rule of law and consent of the governed were irrelevant until that central coercive power is absolute. And it takes a people a long, long time to get used to being able to trust the existence of that central power, a habit whose preciousness is much undervalued.

I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Arab Spring, much to my shame. I naively thought that the Middle East could leap from feudalism and theocracy to enlightened tolerant democracy in a year or two. I should have realized that the slow process of modernization under the relative stability provided by Khadafi, Mubarak, the Assads, Saddam, and the Saudis was about the best that could be expected. It took England 600 years to get from the Magna Carta to the Reform Act of 1832, a process that included the wars of the Roses, the dissolution of the monasteries, the horrors of religious persecution under Mary and Elizabeth, the bloody Civil War, Cromwell’s brutal dictatorship, the genocides in Ireland, the American revolution, the disenfranchisement and persecution of Catholics, and much rioting and legal abuse on the way.

Maybe instead of trying to overthrow the brutal dictators of the Middle East we should have heaved a sigh of relief that at least they weren’t religious lunatics. And we should have realized that even having religious lunatics in charge is better than a failed state and civil war, which is the worst thing in the human world and the seedbed of unutterable horrors everywhere. Looking further north, imagine how much worse Russia would be as a failed state and 7,000 nuclear weapons; or what a shambles Iran would have been if the Green movement had had the same success as the Arab Spring. At least they’re not Syria or Yemen or Somalia or Libya. China thanks God for Kim Jong Un for the same reasons and would hate to have to give him up. The Russians love their brutal dictator.

All this said, we may be able to glimpse something of what Donald Trump has in mind for his foreign policy. As a predatory businessman, he already inhabits the world of the brutal dictator, firing taking the place (importantly) of murder and mayhem. In his illiterate way he has seen realities that are closed to enlightened and decent people. I think he would say something like this to himself, though in words of one syllable:

“Recognize that in a world of unscrupulous and ruthless self-interest the “high road” is just another piece of rhetoric, but one which is deeply and sometimes catastrophically destabilizing to the bargaining medium. Your international rivals, especially the most brutal and selfish ones, will be more comfortable with a predictably extortionate, self-interested, and threatening bargainer than with a truly high-minded, empathetic and generous one whom they do not understand or trust. They’re unnerved by well-meaning honest people, because they’re always wondering what their ulterior motive is, and suspecting that they’re being suckered. Hence they’re less willing to make bargains. They’d rather have another bruiser in the ring than a self-appointed umpire who won’t let them do what they’re good at. They may even do good deals under the table before the bout.

“Brutal dictators are a precious resource, because they can carry through what they promise in a deal, and shut up their own dissenting voices. If what they promise is in their own interest, they will do it, even when pretending they aren’t. Their own interest is not a mystery like theology or ethics, but measurable in money and acreage and control and weapons. So you can trust them.

“Be perfectly clear that safety takes priority over principle. The whole world is safer if the US and Russia are in agreement, because they control 95% of the nuclear weapons. Keep your potential enemies closer: you will have a much better chance at stymying them if you can bribe or flatter them into enterprises that will ruin them. Or maybe they’ll become huge profit centers in terms of trade and leverage. Nixon went to China: Trump will go to Russia. If Russians are foolish enough to want someone in charge like Putin, who will keep them poor but feed their self-esteem, why discourage them?

“Ally yourself with the toughest and most brutal dictators, because (to play on the patriotism of their own oppressed people) they’ll be happy to take on the expensive and bloody business of keeping order in the failed states, civil wars, and messianic theocracies of the world. Stay out of these yourself and make money for yourself and your country from the conflicts, while weakening your unsavory allies and draining their resources by war. Brutal dictators are addicts of power; if you’re their supplier and dealer, they’ll eat out of your hand. And they’ll do all your dirty work for you.

“Win by ‘losing.’ Pretend to fight for possession of something worthless or harmful to your own side. Then allow yourself to ‘lose.’ With Russia, for instance, hand them the tar-baby of the Middle East, which is of little value (now that fracking has destroyed OPEC) and hugely expensive in terms of money, lives, and prestige. Make this look like a concession to Putin, when actually it’s a poison pill that will destroy him. North Korea is the perfect tar-baby to give to China. Let Iran take on the happy task of uniting the Shias and the Sunnis, and welcome to it. We will weep crocodile tears at the terrible things that the brutal dictators will have to do, and look like the good guys by contrast.”

An Amazing Review

Tuesday, 28 February 2017, 11:47 | Category : Uncategorized
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Those who read Fantasy-Faction, the cutting-edge fantasy discussion blog, will know Dan Hanks’ perceptive and useful reviews. He did me the honor of looking at my new epic SF poem Apocalypse–and here is his review.

“Apocalypse is an epic poem about humanity’s struggle against the end of the world. When I was first pointed in its direction, and began reading, I was a little conflicted about potentially reviewing it here as it seemed to be too straight sci-fi for our little fantasy corner. However, there has always been crossover appeal for readers of these genres. And on finishing this magnificent work, I think it contains enough futuristic fantastical goodness to warrant serious consideration for your TBR pile.

So if you’re up for an adventure told in blank verse, written by a winner of the Levinson Prize (Poetry magazine’s highest honour), read on.


When the Earth becomes a maelstrom of storms and rising sea levels due to catastrophic climate change, some want to give up and call it a day for humanity. Yet there are also those heroic few who are determined to take action and do something about the impending apocalypse. These are the geo-engineers—men and women of creativity, knowledge and drive—who will do whatever it takes to save the planet. They will take on the challenge of bringing the planet back into balance. They will fiercely protect their work from the belligerent navies of two large nations— even if this means risking life and limb in a major sea battle. And with a new dawn of artificial intelligence on the horizon, these valiant few may make the difference between a future of human and A. I. enlightenment or a dark age of never-ending terror.


Apocalypse is strange and brilliant and possibly one of the most magnificent pieces of writing I’ve yet come across.

I’ll freely admit there is another level of intelligence at work here I could not fully appreciate in a single read through. As a Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas—and having acknowledged on his website that he is “philosophically interested in time, evolution, and self-organising complex systems in game theory and economics”—it is not surprising to find the author has been able to craft a complex, richly detailed story that may only reveal all after numerous re-reads.

His writing is also something else. In one passage, a seemingly mundane passage about salmon becomes a beautiful tale of a journey that is ‘powered by desire, drawn by mad love’. While exploration of universal themes that have long held mankind’s thoughts, offers us gifts such as ‘Time doesn’t only happen by the push of what is past, but by the pull, the draw of some unfinished absence in the future’.

There is also a passage about the deepest pain of humanity near the halfway mark that I’ll probably return to time and again as I get older, because it is encapsulates so well the beauty of life and the struggle we have with death.

A standout among the characters is the omniscient, fourth-wall breaking narrator, Nemo. He helps give the writing a raw, almost documentary feel, as opposed to the Orwellian window pane we’re used to with other prose epics. He documents (almost) everything that happens, from complex theorising in classrooms, to Antarctic sea battles between nations. Perhaps best of all, he’s a narrator with intense subjectivity for those he’s talking about, and not a little self-doubt when times get tough. In other words, he’s human.

And his exploration of humanity is perhaps the key focus of the poem. Through his eyes, we are constantly provided with hope that the team of characters assembled by our hero, Noah Blazo, can save the world, then doubt as to whether it is even worth saving—given the hostility and suffering they face from the people they are trying to save.

Because there are (of course) political factions who work against them. And although the author acknowledges this rival party of legislators might be made up of those with noble intentions, he also makes it clear they are driven by a desire to centralise their power. They see Noah’s solution driven by human enterprise as a risk to the control they currently wield.

As such, the constant frustration of decent, smart people trying to do good, while facing the hateful idiocy inherent in humanity—in order to save humanity—cut a little too close to home to be an easy read in our current political climate. But it was worth the shivers to experience an adventure that opens the mind in spectacular ways and builds to a conclusion that is at once poignant, uplifting and thought-provoking.


I am generally not a reader of poetry—or at least I’m not a good reader of poetry. So it took me a while to get beyond the writing itself and settle into this story. It also didn’t help that we jump about at the beginning a little too much, introducing new characters without really getting to know them properly just yet.

The overall narrative is also a touch uneven. The first half of the poem is relatively slow, as it painstakingly moves between characters to weave a complex plot over a small period of time. We then spend the second half of the book up against a whole new (worse) threat spread over a couple of generations, in a jam-packed, faster-paced and conceptually more exciting adventure into the unknown.

Just a little more of the second half and a tighter first half would have made for a more cohesive read, I think.


Apocalypse is a wondrous science-fiction epic, written in beautiful blank verse, exploring ideas of humanity, memory, death, hope, and extraordinary scientific thought. To quote Nemo near the end:

“The work of epic is to blaze new trails. Mark territories so that others may explore and map them, love and farm and garden.”

This epic poem does all that and more. This was less a read and more an experience. Even if you’re not a big reader of poetry, I promise this is a blazed trail you should follow.”

A guest blog from my brilliant agent, Sara

Wednesday, 7 December 2016, 12:08 | Category : Uncategorized
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Welcome to the Apocalypse!

My name is Sara Megibow and I’m the literary agent representing Fred and his amazing epic science fiction poem, APOCALYPSE. Nice to meet you all!

Fred emailed me in May 2016 to present APOCALYPSE which he called, “something you’ve never seen before.” He was right! Somewhere on page 1 my jaw dropped open in awe and somewhere on page 2 I cancelled two days of meetings to stay home and read the book. It’s been an honor working with Fred on this project and we’re happy to announce APOCALYPSE is now available in ebook, hard cover and paperback.

Why am I writing to you all today? Sometimes in art we come across a work so unique, so special that we pause and admire. Other times, we pause, admire and then want to shout to the masses. For me, APOCALYPSE is a work of genius that inspires my shout-to-the-masses response.

David Brin called APOCALYPSE a, “brilliant future-epic poem.”

Kim Stanley Robinson said, “I loved the blank verse, so supple and expressive.”

Fred’s Hollywood agent said, “WOW…just WOW!”

When talking to publishers I said, “this story is about a group of misfit scientists who collude against the government to save the world from climate annihilation.”

What will you say about this book?

Please help us spread the word! Here is the direct link to APOCALYPSE via Barnes & Noble:

And here is the direct link to APOCALYPSE in ebook via amazon:

Thank you to Ilium Press and Baen Books for their amazing publications and thank you – our beloved readers – for supporting great art!

Very sincerely,
Sara Megibow
KT Literary
on twitter @SaraMegibow

Apocalypse Is Here, And It May Be More Fun Than You’d Think

Thursday, 14 July 2016, 12:24 | Category : Uncategorized
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Science fiction is on the verge of becoming the mainstream genre of serious literature, and it needs one more step: the natural connection of SF with the ancient global epic tradition. It’s making this connection that has been my life work. The Odyssey, the Japanese Heike, Beowulf, the Mayan Popol Vuh, the Indian Mahabharata, the African Mwindo all chose the vitality and economy of the narrative action poem to carry the core myths of their societies.

My new tale Apocalypse is a hard science fiction epic poem that takes on the greatest challenges we face in this century, envisages a set of ingenious technological responses to them, paints a picture of a global military conflict, and recalls the finest as well as the darkest moments in human history.

“I have read never anything like this before” sums up the reaction of the science fiction writers Kim Stanley Robinson, David Brin, the poets Jan Schreiber and Emily Grosholz, and the SF critics Chris Pak and David Crossley.

Feeling thirty years ago that the SF genre was not yet ready for epic poetry, I published my first two epic SF poems, The New World and Genesis, with traditional highbrow literary presses: Princeton University Press and Saybrook (a Norton imprint). For poetry (which is a small world these days) they were best sellers; they’ve recently been reprinted in second editions by Ilium Press, and are still selling. Genesis, the Mars terraforming epic, was adopted by NASA’s long range futures group as recommended reading, and I was a NASA consultant for some years.

But the connection I wanted hadn’t been made. Science fiction writers read them (and celebrated them) but the science fiction readers that I loved, with their hope and imagination, had been burned too often by unreadable subjective free-verse stuff, and largely missed my work.

But thanks to three visionary book people, my e-editor Tony Daniel (Baen Books), my print editor John Lemon (Ilium Press), and my amazing agent Sara Megibow (KT Literary), and two of the greatest living SF writers, Kim Stanley Robinson and David Brin, the puzzle that had haunted me, of how to bring together the fragmented parts of our literary culture, may have been solved. By means, I might add, that would have been science fiction four decades ago when I first began to write in the genre.

What’s happening is this. On July 15th 2016, tomorrow as I write this, Baen Books, the brilliant, rambunctious cutting-edge unashamed SF/Fantasy press, will start a ten-week electronic serialization of the poem on its very popular subscriber website , one epic “Book” at a time. At the end of the serial, Baen will publish the whole book as an ebook. And—here’s the kicker—Ilium will simultaneously issue the book in inexpensive but handsome hardback and paperback editions. It’s going to be something of a first in publishing history: an epic poem that is fast-paced science-based speculative fiction, published in both the new media and the old and by two different but complementary presses.

Apocalypse is my best work: I think I’ve mastered the combination of easy idiomatic hard-hitting narrative with the poetic resources of passion, image, songlike flow, and richer philosophical significance. I hope you will read it.

PS I’m going to be at WorldCon 2016 (MidAmerCon II) this summer, August 17-21. I’ll be on some interesting panels:
Space and Human Speciation
Futuristic Crime Investigations
Mars Needs Poets
Oh, Goddess!
Science Fiction as Epic

Creating vs. Translating Poetry

Monday, 8 September 2014, 10:38 | Category : Uncategorized
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Creating poetry is very hard at its source, since it means sinking the arms of one’s rationality deep into the tangled, murky and sometimes stinging slough of one’s dreams and creative imagination, and dragging something out. But once one has put in one’s 10,000 hours of work on poetic form, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, shaping that something into words is not so hard.

In translating, on the other hand, the original grab is easier: someone else guides one’s arms and places one’s hands on the right beastie down there. But now the hard part starts: to somehow become the other poet’s voice, to replicate the verse form and twists of implication that are easy for him (or her) but that one must invent in oneself, as a dramatist invents a character.

The Epic of Clair

Monday, 1 September 2014, 15:41 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’ve just read an engaging “Young Adult” long poem about a post-apocalyptic Minnesota-St. Paul in which the consequences of a major economic collapse are imaginatively evoked. The scenario is more convincingly devised than the ones seen in the Hunger Games movies and in Divergent, and it makes room for a fascinating variety of characters and ideological groups. The heroine, Clair the runner, is quite captivating, and I was charmed by her sweetness, toughness, and heart. It’s by Eric Charles Hanson, just out with Ilium Press.


Thursday, 7 August 2014, 17:43 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’m turning into a sort of connoisseur of lies: the lofty legalistic generalizations of Israeli politicians that skate over the ugly facts of what they are doing, the blatant lies of the terrorists that actually are a kind of boasting, the slick imitations of pious responsible journalism by the toadying Russian press, the amateurish version in the Ukrainian press (where little islands of truth poke up naively amongst the garbage), the self-serving lies of the Gaza street, which cooperates in putting its children in the line of fire to make propaganda, the deliberate promulgation of conspiracy theories by the middle eastern intelligentsia, the systematic murderous lying of Hamas where lying is a consistent policy even when it does not serve their interest (the general damage done to reason and logic is worth a bit of friendly fire), the uttermost lie to oneself that has been committed by the suicide bomber, the cowardly lies of nations like the US who are too afraid to be of any help, the sanctimonious lies of the religious Jews in the Settlements who are exempt from military duty, the convenient masquerade of measured responsible policy in European nations that are addicted to Russian and Arab oil, the two-faced bland lies of the Arab nations that would be happy to see Israel do their dirty work for them, the malignant lies of the Jew-haters and the Arab-haters, the half-truths and prevarications of the diplomats, the shocked hypocrisy of the highbrow press, the “moral equivalence” lie by apologists for the terrorists and separatists… The only people who are not lying, it sometimes seems, are the most evil of all–the jihadis of ISIS, which is sincerely committed to bringing about hell on earth and doesn’t care who knows it.

Really a merry cavalcade. But they are shitting on something that I love and honor, which is language, the sacred material of poetry.

More on the Wealth Tax

Friday, 27 June 2014, 9:05 | Category : Uncategorized
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A couple of postscripts to the last post, to try to answer the question why it would be such a bad thing for money to lose part of its meaning as naming the difference between the benefits provided to the public by the possessor of the money, and the benefits received by the possessor from the public at large.

Going back to Steve Jobs, it is clear to me that when I bought his products (with the exception of the Newton!) I was getting very much the better of the deal. I didn’t exactly cheat him, but the extent to which they have transformed my life in a mostly beneficial way far outweighs whatever benefits in terms of teaching, writing, and so on that my money names. Part of the reason why this imbalance didn’t impoverish him (and reduce back to peasant famine conditions the Chinese urban workers he employed) is the use of money itself, with all its necessary adjuncts such as banks, fraud laws, and so on. If my iPhone used the technology of ENIAC,IBM’s early computer, it would weigh around five million tons, take up around 300 million square feet of floor space, and cost about 67 billion dollars, by my estimate, for its memory and processor alone. The change this represents, the staggering increase in human welfare, was driven by the fungibility and stability of money and its role of naming and providing knowledge to the marketplace.

If money were to lose its meaning–by widespread theft, corruption, state or private currency manipulation, sumptuary laws, legally-permitted rent-seeking, or high levels of taxation–then that benefit would be lost. And the wealth that Piketty hopes would be shared would simply go elsewhere, to a sounder currency–as it does in any country where vendors at borders buy and sell hard currency. And if all national currencies would lose their naming value, then the wealth would go into something else, far less fungible and available for use by the many–airline miles, precious metals, real estate, bitcoin, works of art from Sotheby’s, or class markers like the accent one gets in a finishing school. Wealth would then become sequestered and the velocity of its exchange would be slowed, resulting in ossified sociopolitical structures. Arguably, the feudal systems of Europe, and its present persistent class systems, were precisely the result of a flight from the Roman Denarius because of its misuse.

A sensible international inheritance tax would avoid many of these problems, it seems to me. The only bad effect might be to diminish the sense of duty one has to one’s ancestors, and to render less reliable the extent to which any person could represent, stand for, or be the agent of another.

What Piketty Leaves Out

Thursday, 26 June 2014, 13:09 | Category : Uncategorized
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The more money a very rich person has, the smaller the percentage of his or her wealth such a person can actually spend and consume. You can’t eat a hundred meals at once or drive a hundred cars at once or get a hundred PhDs. So the wealth has to go somewhere, i.e. to other people in one form or another, as wages, investment capital, or lower bank interest rates. Even if you just hide your money under the bed, that constitutes an interest-free loan to the Treasury and to us, the people. In other words, rich people are already paying a wealth tax, i.e. all the capital they did not manage to destroy by consuming it.

If justice were to be served in terms of reward for services rendered, someone like Steve Jobs should have been able to consume a million times as much stuff–clothes, entertainment, information, food, etc–as the average person. But he probably couldn’t consume much more than about ten times as much. What he did for others was so much more valuable (in terms of the demand) than what others could do for him that it would have been hard for him to find anything equal to it for himself to consume. Maybe he could look at lots of great works of art, but the rest of us do have museums. Maybe he mightn’t be as stressed as someone working hard at a repetitive job. But like all humans, he had plenty of stress already, like dying of cancer.

A world wealth tax would be a bad idea, because money is an illocutionary act or performative statement, in this case an act of naming. An amount of money is a name for the amount by which the bearer of the money has done more good for other people (in their opinion) than they have done for him or her. A wealth tax is a way of falsifying that act of naming, as if a meter or a pound or a liter or a degree of temperature were by law bigger or smaller for rich people than for poor ones, or as if, having been taxed at say 50% by the government just for being rich, every dollar of his represents twice as much benefit to others and half as much benefit to himself as does the poor man’s dollar.

Where Piketty may have a point might be with inheritance taxes. I certainly owe Steve Jobs much more money than I have ever spent on Apple products, but I don’t feel that I owe his heirs anything at all. I am willing to concede some transferred obligation to them because of my respect for his will, but not much. And as for their heirs, very little at all. I think the obligation implied by money, let’s say, is not very transferable to a representative or beneficiary. So an inheritance tax would actually reinforce the illocutionary force of money, rather than damaging it.