Author of Capital in the 21st Century writes a brief clarification. WSJ publishes a disingenuous claim that he’s backtracking. Lesson emerges.
One of the sensations in the economic world last year (if economists can, in fact, be sensational) surrounded the book Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.
If you haven’t read the book, keep in mind that I do recommend it, while I realize it’s not for everyone. Piketty explores historical government data to reach a few very basic conclusions about the accumulation of capital in a market economy. His main conclusion is that the rate of return on capital typically outpaces the rate of growth of any given economy (which he summarizes with the formula r>g) thus creating a long term wind of accumulation that creates unsettling wealth disparities. In the book, he also is very clear that the long term wind can easily be overcome by shorter term shocks; and, he refers to the world wars and their effects on old line wealth in Europe as an example.
Piketty’s book implies that, instead of relying on global conflict and political upheaval, it might be better to have a policy answer to leveling wealth disparity. It’s not a bad idea. It might not ever get out of the economist’s classroom, but still…
It’s an interesting read; and, Piketty’s proposal of a tax on wealth is actually quite compelling in theory. It does, however, have a sort of “belling the cat” feel to it when one looks at the world as it is.
However, this article isn’t about reading, it’s about being a discerning listener even when you don’t read.
This week, I came across an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Robert Rosenkranz.
Here is your LINK to Rosenkranz’s piece. I encourage you to read it…with a grain of salt (I’ll explain).
In it, Rosenkranz states that Piketty, who drafted and released a paper in December essentially restating his conclusions but ensuring that popular discourse didn’t caricature them improperly, is “backtracking.”
Here is your LINK to that paper (beware the link opens a PDF of an academic paper…Don’t open it if such things burn your eyes). It’s an interesting read and actually a fine distillation of many of the conclusions of the book.
I do not know Mr. Rosenkranz or his profile; but something struck me…To anyone who reads this stuff and has a sense of the backstory, Rosenkranz’s article is fantastically disingenuous.
Mr. Rosenkranz, like so many others with a microphone these days, is depending on the probability that very few of his readers have actually read Piketty’s book. So, he takes a paper where Piketty restates the fundamental conclusions of Capital and comes up with this (my emphasis added):
“Now in an extraordinary about-face, Mr. Piketty has backtracked, undermining the policy prescriptions many have based on his conclusions. In “About Capital in the 21st Century,” slated for May publication in the American Economic Review but already available online, Mr. Piketty writes that far too much has been read into his thesis.”
He also takes a statement in Piketty’s “new” paper and positions it as a “new” conclusion. To wit:
“Instead, Mr. Piketty argues in his new paper that political shocks, institutional changes and economic development played a major role in inequality in the past and will likely do so in the future.”
Nevermind that Piketty is simply restating arguments of his book. Rosenkranz, who doesn’t even link to Piketty’s “new” paper, seeks to discredit the economist by claiming he has “backtracked” and “consigns his famous formula to irrelevance” and that Piketty is “walking back” his views.
Piketty is doing nothing of the sort. His paper is simply a reminder that the book had a lot of angles and to take only one angle and politicize it would be malpractice. Unfortunately, Mr. Rosenkranz takes that exact tack.
Sleight of hand such as that employed Mr. Rosenkranz brings to the forefront a major issue in the popular press today: The dependence of writers and speakers on the ignorance of their audience.
One need only look at the comments on the WSJ.com article to see that (1) very few people have actually read Piketty and (2) all Rosenkranz really did was engage in an extended ad hominem.
That, my friends, is demagoguery at its finest; and if it’s in the Wall Street Journal, imagine what others are doing.
The lesson on this is not “be a fan of Thomas Piketty” or “Piketty is right.”
I, personally, believe that massive intergenerational wealth is something to beware of. To engage in a little demagoguery of my own: Any red-blooded American ought to have the same wariness.
The lesson is that intermediary authors like Rosenkranz can and do distort and attack in order to provoke. They do so even when the provocation is actually detrimental to healthy discourse.
These distortions happen on all sides of any argument, which, I suspect, is why Piketty felt the need to publish a few pages of “clarification.”