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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Friday, April 25, 2014

PIKETTY, PIKETTY, PIKETTY


As a philosopher, I am trained to view Being sub specie aeternitatis, but as a blogger [even an obscure one] I am expected to have the attention span of a Mayfly, so you will perhaps forgive me if I continue to go on about Piketty.  Today's Op Ed page of the NY TIMES features dueling columns, one [printed on the right] by Paul Krugman, the other, printed on the left, by David Brooks.  [OK, so the compositors at the TIMES have no sense of decorum.]  Brooks' column is, in a small way, a triumph.  It actually manages to make Ross Douthat's column on Piketty sound thoughtful.  Brooks exhibits an insularity so profoundly self-referential as to give narcissistic personality disorder a new lease on life.  His thesis, if I may call it that, is that the popularity of Piketty derives from the envy well-off professionals feel for the much richer.  Here he is describing the life experiences of the mildly lefty young professionals whose admiration he secretly craves but somehow cannot manage to earn.  "If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand.  But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down toward the poor; it's inequality up, toward the rich.  You go to fundraisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around."

Never mind the rest of the column.  You can read it here if you have a mind to.  What mesmerizes me is Brooks' casual assumption that the world in which he travels is the world of "young professionals" -- which is to say, medical techies, adjunct college instructors, and high school teachers [yes, they really are "young professionals," at least if they are young] -- very few of whom, I venture to say, run into hedge fund managers when they go to parents' night at their child's public elementary school.

Let me quote Brooks' concluding paragraph.  "The reaction to Piketty is an amazing cultural phenomenon.  But it says more about class rivalry within the educated classes than it does about how to really expand opportunity.  Of course, this perspective could just be my own prejudice.  When it comes to cultural analysis, I, like Piketty, am quasi-Marxist."

Now, if you can stop gagging on those last five words, pause for a moment to reflect on what a victory this is for those of us who are genuinely on the left.  When the David Brooks' of this world feel that they must lay claim to quasi-Marxism in order to get some street cred, I begin to think there is hope for us yet.

Quick responses to some comments.  Tom Llewellyn suggests that "Eminent professors (and talking heads) are surely in the top 10%, and maybe in the top 1%."  He is quite right.  In 2012, $114,000 a year would get you into the top 10%.  $161,000 got you into the top 5%, which includes virtually all the senior professors at elite universities and many at lesser schools.  You needed $394,000 to make the top 1%, which certainly includes "talking heads" on Television, and the best paid professors as well [never mind speaking fees and book royalties.]  In case anyone is wondering, my pensions and social security and royalties put me comfortably in the top 10%, and in a really good year I might sneak into the top 5%.  I am what in the good old days was referred to as a "class traitor."

Ian J. Seda Irizarry, who was trained in the best Marxist Economics Department in America [by some of my old colleagues at UMass], offers this comment:  "A dear friend had the following description of all that is happening and I agree: "piketty not the first to notice basic story. he is the first person to have noticed AND be noticed by liberal wonks"

Ian and his friend are of course correct.  I take this as a victory.  When the liberals start plagiarizing the ideas of the Marxists and claiming them for their own, we have won!  I share the desire to wave my hands and yell "Hey, Hey!  We have been saying this for years!!"  But sufficient unto the day. 

And let us remember, Piketty does not just take a page or two from Marx's playbook, he adds a massive accumulation of data, elegantly analyzed.  That really does pay homage to old Marx.  It was Marx who chose, in his hauptwerk, his magnum opus, to devote more than a hundred pages to a detailed description of life in the new capitalist factories, drawn from his years in the British Museum reading the Reports of the Parliamentary Factory Inspectors.  Piketty has done exactly what Marx would have recommended he do, and if Piketty needs to ritually separate himself from Marx in the process, so be it.

6 comments:

Seth said...

Brooks' snark about affluent liberals vs the rich is not actually wrong, annoying as he is about it. I found his proposed agenda more informative:

"First, acknowledge that the concentration of wealth is a concern with a beefed up inheritance tax."

Wow! He didn't even call it a death tax. Maybe Piketty is shifting the Overton window a bit.

"Second, emphasize a contrasting agenda that will reward growth, saving and investment, not punish these things, the way Piketty would. Support progressive consumption taxes not a tax on capital."

Diversion. Taxing consumption won't do much to address the problem of large patrimonies which throw off more income than the owner needs even for a lavish life style.

"Third, emphasize that the historically proven way to reduce inequality is lifting people from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down the top. In short, counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift."

Give me that old time religion! Keep dreaming of when you too will live in the big plantation house instead of working in the cotton fields. But one can't expect affluent people to advocate revolutionary violence after all. We'd better keep hoping the lottery system -- the "So You Wanna Be A Millionaire?" Reality TV America -- to keep working people's noses to the grind stones.

I don't expect a lot to come of this Piketty boomlet apart from maybe a little less dominance by tea party rhetoric in DC. And that only for a little while.

Chris said...

"When the David Brooks' of this world feel that they must lay claim to quasi-Marxism in order to get some street cred, I begin to think there is hope for us yet."

This is maybe the best line I've ever read not only on your blog, but any blog in general.

I can claim to be a young professional, and I can safely say the richest amongst my students are those who are not taking on massive student loan debt. The poorest are those who are drowning in debt, and if they do not pass my class, will be (possibly) removed from the college, and sent him to sell their labor power for a minimum wage, if they're lucky. So far as I can tell I fraternize with the indebted and the vulnerable, not the well-to-do. Ergo, Brook's is a myopic buffoon.

In regards to: ""Hey, Hey! We have been saying this for years!!""

I think we can apply that truism to left-liberals, but also to the new capabilities theorists (of which we've spoken about before).

Art Goldhammer said...

James Poulos is even more obtuse than Brooks. I take him on here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/26/poulos-gets-piketty-and-tocqueville-wrong.html

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am very grateful to you for visiting this blog, Professor Goldhammer. Your translation of Piketty's work is a marvel! Thank you so much for making it accessible to all of us here on this side of the Atlantic, as well as for your many other contributions. Having read your take-down of Poulos, I shall spare myself the pain of reading him. There are limits to what I will do for scholarship. :)

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Prof. Wolff, You never fail to leave me with a smile on my face. Your wit is truly marvelous. I guffawed heartily when I read your line about Brooks making Douthat sound thoughtful!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you! It is very important to me not merely to instruct but to amuse.