I am not an economist. Although I appreciate data of all kinds, especially the economic variety, as a useful tool for driving policy, I’m not into hard number crunching as a form of amusement. I leave that in the capable hands of experts such as Nate Silver, Nobel Prize-winning guru Paul Krugman and others who may interpret the statistics through a liberal lens, but abstain from playing games with the raw facts.
The aforementioned Krugman has referred to the 2014 “it” text of economic circles across several of his Winter and Spring New York Times columns. I’m speaking of course of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In Krugman’s March 23 piece, “Wealth Over Work,” he describes Piketty’s book as doing “more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent.” Just prior to this description, Krugman labels Piketty’s work the most “important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade.”
They don’t go around handing out Nobel Prizes for nothing, so when Krugman speaks in these terms, sensible people (real ones, not the Paul Ryan pretenders) tend to listen. And predictably, the right wing cottage industry that is dedicated to undermining Krugman and others who argue that their much vaunted “job creators” aren’t generating much besides personal wealth, have to articulate and repeat some sort of disingenuous response.
Enter Ross Douthat, Krugman’s ideological adversary at The Times. On Easter Sunday, the pundit offered “Marx Rises Again,” in which he is careful to label Piketty a “social democrat” (you can almost see and hear the ensuing spit take of disgust). Douthat goes on to offer his own description of Piketty’s work, one infused with a derisive, elitist, Modernist tone which suggests that any text widely read must be garbage. The columnist characterizes the book as “that sweeping interpretation of modern economic trends recently translated from the French, and the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.”
I’m not sure why, but reading this passage immediately brought to mind a frustrated and sneering John McCain pointing to his opponent, Barack Obama, during the 2008 Presidential campaign debates, then referring to him as “that one.” Maybe it’s because the circumstances are somewhat similar.
An idea that has popular support and which contradicts the exclusive, anti-populist platform of today’s GOP must be rejected and ridiculed to the point of anger. After all, how could the unwashed proletariat fail to see that what’s good for the one percent is good for the ECONOMY?! Nevermind recent painful memories of pesky incidents like the burst of the housing bubble, the 2008 stock market crash, the collapse of the auto industry and the virtually jobless economic recovery from the Great Recession. Like some sort of fantastical Jedi Mind Trick, Douthat and his cohorts (he is far from the worst) would still have us believe that the only problem with free markets is regulation. Even after all we have seen with our own eyes and felt through our own broken American Dreams.
Douthat and his fellow partisans can keep insisting that the playing field remains level, but it’s insulting and absurd. He offers “Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess.” But assess he does anyway, as though a lack of fact mastery has ever stopped anyone on the right from offering an”expert” opinion.
Climate change. Female reproductive rights. The social safety net. Inequality. These forces, and the need to recognize them, are real. And I would caution conservatives to recall history. When great empires are brought down by the ignorance and greed of the few, everyone fails together. There are no survivors. The little white lies you tell yourselves and feel the need to repeat to the rest of us won’t offer you any protection when it all comes tumbling down.