Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Inequality Is the Root of Social Evil": The Piketty Debate

I was glad to note yesterday that Chris Morley and and Jerry Slevin brought up Thomas Piketty's best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century in a thread here. I've been saving Piketty links to recommend to readers here, and Chris's and Jerry's mention of the book spurs me on to share them with you now:

At Creative Commons last week, John Queally notes that the book is now sitting atop the best-seller lists of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the New York Times — and this is giving the political right fits:

This week, Piketty's book sits atop the best seller lists of, Barnes & Noble, and the New York Times (to name a few), something rather unheard of for a 700-plus page economic treatise draped in extensive data,  literary allusions, and scholarly research.

Queally's take:

As a book by French economist Thomas Piketty has soared to the top of U.S. best seller lists and the public discourse surrounding inequality has popularized the once rare term "oligarchy" in recent weeks, the American rightwing appears flabbergasted about how to respond to the seemingly red-hot rise of the idea that modern capitalism has become a failure by creating a permanent ultra-rich ruling class to the detriment of the overall economy and everyone else.

As Queally notes, Paul Krugman recently pointed to the precise problem that's giving the political right fits re: Piketty's book: 

No, what’s really new about “Capital” is the way it demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we're living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved. 
For the past couple of decades, the conservative response to attempts to make soaring incomes at the top into a political issue has involved two lines of defense: first, denial that the rich are actually doing as well and the rest as badly as they are, but when denial fails, claims that those soaring incomes at the top are a justified reward for services rendered. Don’t call them the 1 percent, or the wealthy; call them "job creators." 
But how do you make that defense if the rich derive much of their income not from the work they do but from the assets they own? And what if great wealth comes increasingly not from enterprise but from inheritance? 
What Mr. Piketty shows is that these are not idle questions. Western societies before World War I were indeed dominated by an oligarchy of inherited wealth — and his book makes a compelling case that we’re well on our way back toward that state.

And the response of the political right to Piketty's analysis? In Krugman's view, it has been, up to now, entirely insubstantial:

So what’s a conservative, fearing that this diagnosis might be used to justify higher taxes on the wealthy, to do? He could try to refute Mr. Piketty in a substantive way, but, so far, I’ve seen no sign of that happening. Instead, as I said, it has been all about name-calling.

If nothing else, “Capital” will finally bring questions of "who gets what" back to the center of economics. Economists will no longer be able to couch tax cuts for the rich behind a veil of jargon, disguising power relations as mere economic efficiencies. We forget, if we ever knew, that the earliest economists were philosophers and historians first — and that economics was always considered to be a question of politics. 

It is the particular rules governing society that determine who amasses a fortune and what part of that fortune is passed on to heirs. The wrong-headed policies promoted by libertarians and their ilk, who hate any form of tax on the rich, such as inheritance taxes, have ensured that big fortunes in America are getting bigger, and they will play a much more prominent role in the direction of our society and economy if we continue on the present path. 
What we are headed for, after several decades of free market mania, is superinequality, possibly such as the world has never seen. In this world, more and more wealth will be gained off the backs of the 99 percent, and less and less will be earned through hard work. 
Which essentially means freedom for the rich, and no one else.

The ability of money to win what it wants is the defining characteristic of our politics—one exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon, and Citizens United before that. A reflection of this power, and a not-so-silent partner in the ethical crimes it perpetrates, is the manner in which demonstrable bullshit is able to dominate our political discourse and thereby mask all of the above behind ideological assertion and meaningless cliché. In his discussion of Piketty, Krugman recalls Upton Sinclair’s famous observation that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Thanks to the simultaneous corporatization and conglomeratization of our media apparatus, that category now includes almost every credentialed political pundit in America. (On this topic, congratulations to ABC News on the hiring of both William Kristol and Laura Ingraham for its Sunday-morning show This Week With George Stephanopoulos.)

With this astonishing spectacularly-miss-the-point retort from Deacon Jim Pauwels of Chicago at the dotCommonweal site, in response to Chris Loetscher's sane observation that Francis is implying that "[free-market capitalism isn’t good news for the poor, captive or oppressed":

As a path out of poverty, it is, short of banditry, the only option we have.  Our public responsibility as followers of Christ in today's world is to determine how to make the material blessings that flow from the marketplace available to those who are excluded, while ameliorating its corrosive tendencies.

And so it goes,  the debate between those who love to employ theologically loaded words like "bless" or "blessings" to speak of the operations of the free market, no matter how much the "free" market grinds up and spits out everyone but the super-rich, and those who think it's theologically obscene to speak of the accumulation of super-wealth at the top of society (and the treatment of everyone else by the super-wealthy) as "blessing." I've offered you only a few teasers from several good articles I've read about Piketty's work — a book I myself have not yet read, but definitely intend to read.

I hope these teasers will be enough to pique your interest in the book and this important debate. The future of . . . everything . . . seems to me to hinge on the debate.

The photograph of Thomas Piketty is by Thomas Platiau of Reuters, by way of The Nation.

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