Robert Jacob Hamerton, illustration from Punch, 29 July 1843
No, I haven’t had a chance to read Thomas Piketty’s book yet. But I’ve just finished my end-of-semester grading. So, soon…
In the meantime, Thomas Frank [ht: ra] offers a few things to look out for, such as:
1. Piketty’s critique of the discipline of economics.
One of the best things about Piketty’s masterwork is his systematic demolition of his own discipline. Academic economics, especially in the United States, has for decades been gripped by a kind of professional pretentiousness that is close to pathological. From time to time its great minds have grown so impressed by their own didactic awesomeness that they celebrate economics as “the imperial science”— “imperial” not merely because economics is the logic of globalization but because its math-driven might is supposedly capable of defeating and colonizing every other branch of the social sciences. Economists, the myth goes, make better historians, better sociologists, better anthropologists than people who are actually trained in those disciplines. One believable but possibly apocryphal tale I heard as a graduate student in the ’90s was that economists at a prestigious Midwestern university had actually taken to wearing white lab coats—because they supposedly were the real scientific deal, unlike their colleagues in all those soft disciplines.
Piketty blasts it all to hell. His fellow economists may have mastered the art of spinning abstract mathematical fantasies, he acknowledges, but they have forgotten that measuring the real world comes first. In the book’s Introduction this man who is now the most famous economist in the world accuses his professional colleagues of a “childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation”; he laughs at “their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.” In a shocking reversal, he calls on the imperial legions of economic pseudo-science to lay down their arms, to “avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, and political scientists”; the six-hundred-page book that follows, Piketty declares, is to be “as much a work of history as of economics.”
2. His lack of knowledge of U.S. history.
Whenever Piketty moves away from numbers and tries to describe life in the United States, things go wrong in a hurry. The worst example first: Piketty tells us that, unlike the French, Americans feel “no nostalgia for the postwar period” because our economy didn’t grow rapidly in those years. In fact, American GDP often grew by 5 and 6 percent in the ’50s and ’60s and Americans have felt intense sweet wistfulness for those days ever since “American Graffiti” came out in 1973. To be fair, Piketty corrects himself several hundred pages on, but then not because he’s looked around and noticed the four decades of ’50s-revival crap Americans have so eagerly consumed, but because of a stray nostalgic remark by his fellow economist Paul Krugman. It’s all moot, I guess, because before long and without any explanation he reverts to his original position of nostalgia denialism.
Piketty’s command of American political history is, quite simply, abysmal. He announces that the U.S. “never became a colonial power,” which would be news to the people of the Philippines, not to mention the Sioux. He describes Herbert Hoover as a “liquidationist” though that was Hoover’s own term for the policies that Hoover rejected. About the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt—ordinarily an important period for students of inequality—Piketty seems to know almost nothing, except that FDR used wage and price controls during World War II. At one point, he comes close to denying the existence of Rooseveltian liberalism altogether, writing that for we benighted Americans “the twentieth century is not synonymous with a great leap forward in social justice.” As for the great right turn of the Eighties, he asserts repeatedly and with virtually no documentary evidence that it happened because America was falling behind Germany and Japan in economic growth—in other words, that the galaxy of nutty anxieties that fuel modern right-wing politics can be easily deduced from a few lines on a graph.
3. And Piketty’s blind spot when it comes to unions.
Turning to the problem of income inequality here in the United States, there is an even simpler solution, by which I mean a more realistic solution, a solution that builds on familiar American traditions,that works by empowering average people, that requires few economists or experts, that would involve a minimum of government interference, and that proceeds by expanding democracy and participation rather than by building some kind of distant and unapproachable global tax authority: Allow workers to organize. Let people have a say on the basic issues affecting their lives.
Piketty’s biggest blind spot is that he has virtually nothing to say about labor unions. He starts Chapter 1 of “Capital” with an anecdote about a bloody strike in South Africa and he returns to that same tragic episode at the very end of the book, but in between he addresses the matter almost not at all. Piketty talks a good game about democracy, but like other economists who have made inequality their subject, he prefers solutions that are handed down from the lofty heights of expertise.
The best remedy for inequality, however, is the one that comes up from below. Economists may not think very highly of those hardened people in SEIU t-shirts—some of them smoke too much, some are suspicious of “free trade,” some of them (gasp!) didn’t go to college—but the fact remains that in nearly every particular they represent the obvious and just about the only social force on the ground in America that might bend the inequality curve the other way.
In all honesty, one can go even further than Frank. Letting people have a say on the basic issues affecting their lives means more than forming unions. It means letting them having a say in the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed in their workplaces. Now, that’s a solution to the battle between capital and labor that has been going on since the mid-nineteenth century.