Saturday, April 26, 2014

Navel-gazing mush

I swear I'll stop writing Piketty posts soon, or at least try to pause to read Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century myself, somehow, but it's going to be really hard if these conservatives don't give it a rest. There are just so many of them, just sufficiently stupider than me as to be not worth the attention of any actual economists (though Krugman couldn't resist a brief shout-out to Brooks this morning), and it gives you such a rush to realize you really do in a simple and straightforward sense know more about economics than Ross Douthat or Megan McArdle or—what's this? James Poulos?

Do any of you all recall James Poulos, an Edroso candidate for the title of worst writer working in the English language, whom I had the opportunity to cast as the logorrhoeic slave Lucky in an imaginary production of Waiting for Godot? Yeah, that James Poulos.

He's still around, it seems, still a colossally bad writer, and getting gigs with the Daily Beast, so you don't have to feel sorry for him, and apparently he too has been driven to write a [jump]
 Piketty Panic piece, in response to something that appeared last March in The American Prospect, remarks by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (authors of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class), who incautiously characterize Thomas Piketty as an Alexis de Tocqueville "for today":
another Frenchman with a panoramic vista—and far more precise evidence—wants us to think anew about the progress of equality and democracy. Though an heir to Tocqueville’s tradition of analytic history, Thomas Piketty has a message that could not be more different: Unless we act, inequality will grow much worse, eventually making a mockery of our democratic institutions. With wealth more and more concentrated, countries racing to cut taxes on capital, and inheritance coming to rival entrepreneurship as a source of riches, a new patrimonial elite may prove as inevitable as Tocqueville once believed democratic equality was.
This drives poor young Poulos clear out of his mind:
Tocqueville, not Piketty, is our best guide to the problem of inequality in America. Tocqueville, not Piketty, is a resource both our elites and our ordinary folk can understand.
In spite of the fact that Tocqueville completed his research in 1832 and has been dead for 155 years. You might insist that death would have given him a certain distance from the issues at hand, ensuring his objectivity, but then he hasn't published anything since he died, so it doesn't really make a lot of difference.

Poulos feels that Hacker and Pierson have misunderstood Tocqueville in some important respect:
the Tocqueville they present in their glowing appreciation of Piketty is so dramatically bogus and false that they must either be lying to their readers or deluding themselves.
That's the authentic Poulos, complaining that it's not just bogus but dramatically bogus, and not just dramatically bogus but false as well, and so much so that it's probably not true, whether they are aware of this or not.

Then again, they're wrong, unlike all decent persons, about Thomas Piketty as well:
Sadly for Piketty, his explanatory socialism is a nonstarter for every American except a handful of media, academic, and policy elites. In an ominous example of just how out of touch those elites have become, two of them have produced a wildly mistaken assessment of Piketty’s work—and haven’t raised so much as a peep of objection.
Yes, Hacker and Pierson have not yet objected to themselves, even though they've had six weeks to find the flaws in their analysis, or maybe if Poulos could have just wrestled that grammar to the ground in time he would have said the handful of elites haven't objected to them, and to explanatory socialism (as exposed to expository socialism, argumentative socialism, and I guess lyrical socialism, which could be more of a starter or less of a nonstarter, as the case may be). That's pretty ominous.
Video of the young James Poulos.
So what exactly have they done wrong? Apparently it's that quote above about how Piketty's message "could not be more different" and without countermeasures "inequality will grow much worse":
The apparent ignorance behind this thesis is so extreme that it causes Hacker and Pierson to see Piketty as the real genius—while even an undergraduate level of engagement with Democracy in America would reveal, in virtually every chapter, that Piketty is not only wrong but glibly and perilously so.
Ah, there we go! It's because if you think Piketty is a genius, that means you must think Tocqueville wasn't a genius, whereas anyone who was ever engaged with Tocqueville as an undergraduate would know that Piketty is not just wrong, here we go again, but glibly wrong, and not only glibly but perilously, which is kind of odd, because as far as I can remember Tocqueville never said a word about the relationship between the return on capital and the growth rate, though my engagement may not have been long enough, since it didn't come in chapters, although the book did. Possibly Poulos's mom cruelly rationed his adverbs when he was a little tyke, and he's never gotten over it.

But how extreme is that apparent ignorance, then, or for that matter how apparent is it? Is it actually true that Tocqueville's and Piketty's messages could be more different? Well, yes, evidently:
Rather than leading into a navel-gazing mush world, Tocqueville’s logic-driven analysis leads him to conclude the exact opposite of what Hacker and Pierson say he does. Sitting there for all to see, right in the middle of Democracy in America, is a whole chapter titled “How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry.”
Mush gaze at navel, navel gaze right back. You see, Tocqueville and Piketty actually came to the same conclusion, which proves that Tocqueville was right and Piketty is wrong, and not merely wrong but glib and perilous as previously noted. Which may sound like a contradiction, but that's only because it's only the same conclusion for this part of Poulos's argument, and he sweeps it away for the next part, where it turns out that America won't create an aristocracy because Winter is Coming, I think:
Much like Game of ThronesDemocracy in America incessantly attests that aristocracy is unglamorous, uncomfortable, and bound up in concepts today’s rich people have no time or respect for, like an honor of bloodlines that transcends the fleeting interests of the mortal self.
So just as Queen Daenerys and King Stannis resolutely refuse to be aristocrats because it's such dirty work, so will Bill Gates and Paris Hilton in our own times, as precisely prophesied by the gentle Frenchman, turn the job down. As long as they don't take up an honor of bloodlines (is that a collective, like a murder of crows or a fleet of hacks?), at least, and how likely is that?

Well, there's quite a lot more, and I'm really not going to try to argue with it, because mush is mush, whether it's gazing at navels or not. I'll just note that it winds up, as you might have expected, with Tocqueville advising
sharply limiting the scope of centralized government. That, of course, really is the opposite of what Piketty’s fan club desires. And sure enough, it leaves in place the repugnant arrogance and ostentatiousness of the worst of America’s fake aristocracy. Tocqueville knew that would rankle us, too. “What is wanted is not the sacrifice of their money,” he sighed, “but of their pride.”
It's just fate. If you think limiting the scope of government will limit that repugnant arrogance and ostentation, you're just going to end up rankled. Like everybody else. Unless, of course, he meant the opposite, but then the opposite of what? Frankly, reader, I sighed too.

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