Saturday, April 26, 2014

How Can You Expose What’s Already in Plain Sight?

Many of the recent posts on this blog have been book reports. Maybe I am just getting book fatigue, but I wanted to explain why I do not plan to read a new book that’s being recommended by none other than one of my usual heroes, Paul Krugman:

Krugman praises a new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty apparently goes over a lot of old ground, explaining the worsening income inequality in a world sold on the ideology of economism. What he then does especially well, says Krugman, is documenting the fallacy of the idea that somehow, the One Percent have earned their incredible wealth through hard work and smarts. He shows that just as the rich in the pre-World War I era were overwhelmingly those born to wealth and privilege, today’s wealth is gained much more by inheritance than by anything resembling “earnings.”

Krugman is so big on Piketty’s book apparently because it has gotten the knickers of the right-wing pundits in a knot. The usual response to income inequality from the economism-friendly think tanks is first to deny the data, saying that the rich are poorer and the middle class are wealthier than it seems. Once they get over that lost cause, the next chestnut they pull out of the fire is how the rich made all their money because they are such brilliant entrepreneurs (as we all know, they are not wealthy, they are “job creators”). For some reason which I’d presumably find out if I read the book, Piketty makes it much harder than in the past to trot out this rationalization. So the right-wingers are reduced to name-calling, accusing Piketty of being a Marxist—which presumably you are these days if you believe that social classes or income inequality exist.

I can’t quite bring myself to get excited about reading this book because, just as Krugman admits that previous authors have already “done” income inequality, I had thought that it’s already been pretty widely shown that the rich-are-better ploy is a crock as well. Of the books that I cite in The Golden Calf, Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God first comes to mind here, but other authors have certainly also addressed the question.

It cannot be very hard to show that the wealth of the super-rich cannot possibly be explained in this manner. If the really rich were 10 or 20 times richer than me, then I’d be willing to grant that they may well be 10 or 20 times smarter or work that much harder than I do. But when they are 300 times richer than me, or more, it is really hard to argue that it must be a matter of pure merit.

If, on the other hand, we are in the throes of economism, and cling to a quasi-religious faith that the rich are rich because it’s God’s will and they are the subject of divine favor, then I suppose it all makes perfect sense.  Too bad the right-wingers can’t say out loud what they believe in their hearts; it would same them a lot of mental gymnastics.

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