Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. The Tragedy of Thomas Piketty

 

PikettyThe latest Pikettian response to Giles’s and Giugliano’s assertions regarding the quality of Piketty’s data and research is to accuse Giles and Giugliano of being “dishonest.” (Hat tip in comments here.) I suppose this means that Piketty’s is employing a classic I-am-rubber-and-you-are-glue defense, but there is little substance to the accusation; at best, Piketty can assert (without evidence) that the flaws found with his data do not change his conclusions, and that other studies find widening inequality “by using different sources.”

The response to this is (a) there is, in fact, plenty to suggest that the flaws in Piketty’s data change his conclusions (see my original post and my follow-up for more on this issue), and (b) just because other studies find widening inequality “by using different sources” does not mean that they are right or that, even if they are, Piketty is justified in finding widening inequality through a flawed data set. It is worth noting that Piketty issued a reply via the Financial Times that sought to address Giles’s and Giugliano’s concerns, but, as Tyler Cowen pointed out, Piketty’s reply “was quite weak. Maybe he’s not to be blamed for what was surely a rapid and caught-off-guard response, and perhaps there is more to come, but it doesn’t reassure me either.”

Beyond all of these accusations and counter-accusations, there is a deeply unfortunate phenomenon at work here. Irrespective of how inclined or disinclined I might have been to believe Piketty’s claims, I wanted to think that he would be a worthy and formidable interlocutor for those on the opposite side of the wealth inequality debate. I had hoped that Capital in the Twenty-First Century would be an influential book on the issue of wealth inequality (though I also hope that it won’t be the only one) — a book that would be good enough to force Piketty’s intellectual opponents to bring their A-games in debating him. In any consequential debate over policy and politics, each side should be represented by serious, smart, well-informed and ethical champions; people who care about the data and what it means. That’s about the only way any of us are going to have a decent and meaningful debate over the consequential issues of the day.

Instead, we have a situation in which Piketty’s data has been rendered suspect and his reputation for honesty may have taken a hit. It is one thing to debate findings, opinions and political philosophy; no one expected Piketty to write a book that converted every single critic into a fan and left no detractors. But Piketty does not merely stand accused of having failed to convert every single participant in the wealth inequality debate over to his side. He stands accused of having committed both “fat-finger errors” and mistakes that may indicate fraud and dishonesty on his part. There are plenty of people who are willing to give Piketty a chance to substantively answer his critics and show that he is indeed a serious player in the wealth inequality debate. I count myself as one of those people because I don’t like thinking the worst of others, but it is increasingly difficult to avoid concluding that, at best, Piketty is out of his depth.

As I mentioned in my initial post concerning l’affaire Piketty, I remain willing and eager to read his book. Maybe by the time I finish reading it, the debate over his honesty and competence will have been substantially resolved in his favor. But things don’t look good for Piketty right now, which means a diminishment in the wealth inequality debate as a whole.

There are 6 comments.

  1. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Pejman Yousefzadeh:

     … a diminishment in the wealth inequality debate as a whole.

    The “debate” stands on false premises (that inequality in wealth is bad), so it was always a political stunt.

    We need to change the debate back to the stuff that matters: show how freedom leads to a rising tide. This has real data, and is at the core of why we are conservatives.

    Wishful thinking on my part. But let’s not be distracted by this stupid stuff.

    • #1
    • May 27, 2014, at 7:41 AM PDT
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  2. Last Outpost on the Right Inactive

    iWc:

    Pejman Yousefzadeh:

    … a diminishment in the wealth inequality debate as a whole.

    The “debate” stands on false premises (that inequality in wealth is bad), so it was always a political stunt.

    We need to change the debate back to the stuff that matters: show how freedom leads to a rising tide. This has real data, and is at the core of why we are conservatives.

    Wishful thinking on my part. But let’s not be distracted by this stupid stuff.

    iWc has nailed the crux of the problem: that we are debating the facts of a nonsensical solution to a non-existent problem. Wealth inequality exists, and changes over time, but that is not a problem. In fact, it is critical to innovation and prosperity.

    • #2
    • May 27, 2014, at 8:33 AM PDT
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  3. Eric Hines Inactive

    iWc and LOR–what they said.

    A small aside on Piketty’s error rate: that’s what peer reviewers, fact checkers, editors, even copy editors are for. It’s hard to believe Piketty’s error rate accidentally got through all those layers of checking.

    From Piketty’s Introduction:

    Let me say at once that the answers contained herein are imperfect and incomplete. But they are based on much more extensive historical and comparative data than were available to previous researchers….

    Without precisely defined sources, methods, and concepts, it is possible to see everything and its opposite.

    It’s too bad Piketty seems to have chosen not to honor that promise.

    Eric Hines

    • #3
    • May 27, 2014, at 12:37 PM PDT
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  4. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge

    I’m really enjoying the episodic foot-shooting that’s going on in the World of the Left lately. Bernie Sanders defending the status quo of the VA, an organization he has oversight responsibility for – then a week later calling for an investigation of it. Barry’s serial screwups are finally starting to impact his approval ratings, and he keeps stumbling over the same issues.

    Then, Barry’s “Squirrel!” distraction, income inequality, is exploded in his face courtesy of either an idiotic or lazy author (or both).

    Income inequality is a feature, not a bug. Income mobility is the critical metric, because if someone at the low end used to make 20K per year, and now makes 40K, but the person at the top used to make 100K and now makes 200K, is the person at the bottom worse off because the person at the top also doubled their money?

    No. The inequality thing has been debunked, effectively, when other factors are added in, too.

    So it’s less tragedy than it is schadenfreude. Enjoy.

    • #4
    • May 27, 2014, at 5:22 PM PDT
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  5. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m with Eric. iWC and LOTR said it all.

    • #5
    • May 27, 2014, at 7:04 PM PDT
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  6. Sal Member
    Sal

    Inequality is disturbing but I don’t see what governments can really do about it. In fact government promotes inequality by forcing inner city kids to attend failing schools run by its union cronies. Government also taxes working people to subsidize posh universities that working people cannot attend. At the very least governments should do no harm to the income distribution. When government tries, as Piketty proposes, to levy heavy taxes on income and wealth to punish the rich and high earners the left actually believes such draconian measures have no effect on economic growth. They don’t believe in “incentives”. They think entrepreneurs will gleefully continue to risk what is left of their wealth tax-diminished capital completely ignoring the confiscatory income taxes that will sap the returns of successful ventures. They further believe that the UN is just as capable of wealth creation as Peter Thiel or Elon Musk. How many improbable things can a leftist believe before breakfast?

    • #6
    • May 27, 2014, at 7:24 PM PDT
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