The American Right’s Piketty problem

Brad DeLong has an interesting blog post about the feebleness of right-wing criticism of Thomas Piketty’s book. Drawing on Kathleen Geier’s very useful round-up of conservative reviews, he concludes:

But the extraordinary thing about the conservative criticism of Piketty’s book is how little of it has developed any of these arguments, and how much of it has been devoted to a furious denunciation of its author’s analytical abilities, motivation, and even nationality.

Clive Crook, for example, argues that “the limits of the data [Piketty] presents and the grandiosity of the conclusions he draws…borders on schizophrenia,” rendering conclusions that are “either unsupported or contradicted by [his] own data and analysis.” And it is “Piketty’s terror at rising inequality,” Crook speculates, that has led him astray. Meanwhile, James Pethokoukis thinks that Piketty’s work can be reduced to a tweet: “Karl Marx wasn’t wrong, just early. Pretty much. Sorry, capitalism. #inequalityforevah.”

And then there is Allan Meltzer’s puerile accusation of excessive Frenchness. Piketty, you see, worked alongside his fellow Frenchman Emmanuel Saez “at MIT, where…the [International Monetary Fund’s] Olivier Blanchard, was a professor….He is also French. France has, for many years, implemented destructive policies of income redistribution.”

Combining these strands of conservative criticism, the real problem with Piketty’s book becomes clear: its author is a mentally unstable foreign communist. This revives an old line of attack on the US right, one that destroyed thousands of lives and careers during the McCarthy era. But the depiction of ideas as being somehow “un-American” has always been an epithet, not an argument.

Now, in center-left American communities like Berkeley, California, where I live and work, Piketty’s book has been received with praise bordering on reverence. We are impressed with the amount of work that he and his colleagues have put into collecting, assembling, and cleaning the data; the intelligence and skill with which he has constructed and presented his arguments; and how much blood Arthur Goldhammer sweated over the translation.

To be sure, everyone disagrees with 10-20% of Piketty’s argument, and everyone is unsure about perhaps another 10-20%. But, in both cases, everyone has a different 10-20%. In other words, there is majority agreement that each piece of the book is roughly correct, which means that there is near-consensus that the overall argument of the book is, broadly, right. Unless Piketty’s right-wing critics step up their game and actually make some valid points, that will be the default judgment on his book. No amount of Red-baiting or French-bashing will change that.

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