Apr 30th 2014

The Right’s Piketty Problem

by J. Bradford DeLong

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Assistant US Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

BERKELEY – In the online journal The Baffler, Kathleen Geier recently attempted a roundup of conservative criticism of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The astonishing thing to me is how weak the right’s appraisal of Piketty’s arguments has turned out to be.

Piketty’s argument is detailed and complicated. But five points seem particularly salient:

1. A society’s wealth relative to its annual income will grow (or shrink) to a level equal to its net savings rate divided by its growth rate.

2. Time and chance inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively small group: call them “the rich.”

3. The economy’s growth rate falls as the low-hanging fruit of industrialization is picked; meanwhile, the net savings rate rises, owing to a rollback of progressive taxation, the end of the chaotic destruction of the first half of the twentieth century, and the absence of compelling sociological reasons for the rich to spend their incomes or their wealth rather than save it.

4. A society in which the rich have a very high degree of economic, political, and sociocultural influence is an unpleasant society in many ways.

5. A society in which the wealth-to-annual-income ratio is a very large multiple of the growth rate is one in which control over wealth falls to heirs – what Geier elsewhere has called an “heiristocracy”; such a society is even more unpleasant in many ways than one dominated by a meritocratic and entrepreneurial rich elite.

Now, even in thumbnail form, this is a complicated argument. As a result, one would expect that it would attract a large volume of substantive criticism. And, indeed, Matt Rognlie has attacked (4), arguing that the return on wealth varies inversely with the wealth-to-annual-income ratio so strongly that, paradoxically, the more wealth the rich have, the lower their share of total income. Thus, their economic, political, and sociocultural influence is weaker as well.

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, echoing Friedrich von Hayek, has argued against (4) and (5). The “idle rich,” according to Cowen, are a valuable cultural resource precisely because they form a leisured aristocracy. It is only because they are not bound to the karmic wheel of earning, getting, and spending on necessities and conveniences that they can take the long and/or heterodox view of things and create, say, great art.

Still others have waved their hands and hoped for a new industrial revolution that will create more low-hanging fruit and be accompanied by another wave of creative destruction. Should that happen, more upward mobility will be possible, thus negating (2) and (3).

But the extraordinary thing about the conservative criticism of Piketty’s book is how little of it has developed any of these arguments, and how much of it has been devoted to a furious denunciation of its author’s analytical abilities, motivation, and even nationality.

Clive Crook, for example, argues that “the limits of the data [Piketty] presents and the grandiosity of the conclusions he draws...borders on schizophrenia,” rendering conclusions that are “either unsupported or contradicted by [his] own data and analysis.” And it is “Piketty’s terror at rising inequality,” Crook speculates, that has led him astray.

Meanwhile, James Pethokoukis thinks that Piketty’s work can be reduced to a tweet: “Karl Marx wasn’t wrong, just early. Pretty much. Sorry, capitalism. #inequalityforevah.”

And then there is Allan Meltzer’s puerile accusation of excessive Frenchness. Piketty, you see, worked alongside his fellow Frenchman Emmanuel Saez “at MIT, where...the [International Monetary Fund’s] Olivier Blanchard, was a professor....He is also French. France has, for many years, implemented destructive policies of income redistribution.”

Combining these strands of conservative criticism, the real problem with Piketty’s book becomes clear: its author is a mentally unstable foreign communist. This is an old tactic on the US right, one that destroyed thousands of lives and careers during the McCarthy era. But the depiction of ideas as being somehow “un-American” has always been an epithet, not an argument.

Now, in center-left American communities like Berkeley, California, where I live and work, Piketty’s book has been received with praise bordering on reverence. We are impressed with the amount of work that he and his colleagues have put into collecting, assembling, and cleaning the data; the intelligence and skill with which he has constructed and presented his arguments; and how much blood Arthur Goldhammer sweated over the translation.

To be sure, everyone disagrees with 10-20% of Piketty’s argument, and everyone is unsure about perhaps another 10-20%. But, in both cases, everyone has a different 10-20%. In other words, there is majority agreement that each piece of the book is roughly correct, which means that there is near-consensus that the overall argument of the book is, broadly, right.

Unless Piketty’s right-wing critics step up their game and actually make some valid points, that will be the default judgment on Piketty’s book. No amount of Red-baiting or French-bashing will help.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."