Picking on Piketty

Posted: 16 January 2015 in Uncategorized
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I didn’t attend the most recent American Economic Association/Allied Social Sciences Association meetings in Boston. But, according to Chuck Collins, several sessions focused on the sensation of French economist Thomas Piketty and his 2014 book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

As an outsider to academic economics, I was struck by just how compartmentalized and smug the field appears. At one point, [Gregory] Mankiw even put up a slide, “Is Wealth Inequality a Problem?” Any economist who ventures across the disciplinary ramparts will, of course, find a veritable genre of research on the dangerous impacts of extreme inequality.

We now have over two decades of powerful evidence that details how these inequalities are making us sick, undermining our democracy, slowing traditional measures of economic growth, and turning our political system into a plutocracy.

Mankiw, at another point in his presentation, had still more embarrassing comments to make. Piketty, he intoned, must “hate the rich.” Piketty’s financial success with his best-selling book, Mankiw added, just might lead to self-loathing.

These clearly well-rehearsed quips, aimed at knee-capping the humble French economist, fell flat. Mankiw’s presentation, entitled “R > G, so what?,” came across as little more than an apologia for concentrated wealth.

And Piketty’s response?

Piketty’s one poke back at the nitpickers came in response to their unanimous support for a progressive consumption tax as an alternative to any other progressive income or wealth tax. “We know something about billionaire consumption,” Piketty observed, “but it is hard to measure some of it. Some billionaires are consuming politicians, others consume reporters, and some consume academics.”

Comments
  1. gjreid says:

    Compartmentalization, fencing off one’s mind, and ad hominem attacks are of course among the methods false consciousness and ideology work. As a ‘lapsed’ economist who once – in the 1960s – worked at the OECD I am appalled at the way much of economics has become a dogmatic ideology – disguised under complex veil of jargon and spurious mathematical precision – in the service of the most retrograde vested interests and how – Mankiw is a prime example – intellectually and morally bankrupt so many economists have become. The “Ricardo Equivalence” in its contemporary a priori form – is one of my favorite examples of intellectual sleight-of-hand.

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