Piketty Under Attack

Piketty is under attack by the Far Right. They argue the data , or imply he is a hidden Communist.

Thomas Piketty published the English translation of his Capital in the Twenty First Century (C21) and pulled his massive open database into the bright light of fame. Reviews started arriving in March; praise came from economists in the political moderate center to central left. The far left think it is incomplete, it ignores important things. The strongest pushback, though, has been from the fringe on the political right. A small sampling of responses:

Positive: Eduardo Porter3 reviews from economistsJennifer SchuesslerSteven Erlanger,   Paul Krugman.

Negative:  James Pethokoukis,  David BrooksClive Crook (neg)Thomas EdsallChris Giles,  plus the Scott Winship and Russ Douthat (their comments below).

C21 is incomplete:   Clive Crook (pos)  later version.
Modern left of center thought
(Andrew Mackay).    Adviser to President Neil Irwin.
There are many more that say C21 has incomplete solutions than in this tiny sampling

The LastTechAge review of C21 is here.

The Attack

Suddenly, the economic trends illuminated by 100 years data are universally available. The charts are easy to use; trends visually correlate with recalled events (if we are old enough).
Suddenly, the outlandish proposal for a global progressive tax enter cocktail party conversation.

The far Right must not leave Piketty be. The point of his analysis is nearly intuitive, too hard to miss, dangerous to discount. Many successful decades of rightist achievement could be undone.

The first strategy is to paint Prof. Piketty as a communist. He is French & susceptible to mutual Yankee/French distrust – commie commie commie ought to work. Second, attack C21 as flawed over as many categories as possible. This worked against the right in 2013 when the Reinhart-Rogoff proof that government debt varies inversely to growth was demolished by outside analysis (Herndon-Ash-Pollin, Krugman).

So the two fronts in the Piketty attack are Name-Calling and Doubt-Casting.
Click any figure for full resolution image

Paint Him Communist


Fig 1 Russ Douthat, NYT Columnist

One attack came from Russ Douthat’s 2014 Apr 19 New York Times Op Ed column, Karl Marx Rises Again. Douthat uses ‘Marx’, ‘Karl’ or ‘USSR’ 13 times in his scree of 14 paragraphs. This does not count calling the book “Capital,” as in Das Kapital. Douthat’s column indicated that his was not the first to imply that Piketty is a French communist.

The idea is to imprint nasty commie into your brain whenever you hear “Piketty.” Douthat …

Piketty himself is a social democrat who abjures the Marxist label. But as his title suggests, he is out to rehabilitate and recast one of Marx’s key ideas…

Hmm, “…as his title suggests…“? We revisit this next section. Russ continues – Dr. P observes that normal market forces mean that the acquisition of new wealth by the currently rich must naturally suck out the income reserves of the poorest part of society. Piketty does indicate this with the observation that the ratio of wealth-rate-to-income converges to the ratio of savings-rate-to-growth rate, and the implication of what happens when earnings (r) from invested wealth exceeds growth rate (g).

He tries to convert this into a Piketty dogma. We have discussed this many times, starting with our post Zero Sum Game. This is not an ideological postulate, Russ, it is a data observable stretching back over 200 years (France) and 100 years (US). Other industrialized country data vary as to when their records began. These are matters of economic record. If Douthat denies this, he must assume the robes of the old Soviet censors, expunging and rewriting history.


Fig 2: Scott Winship

Douthat quotes a Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute (a right edge group founded in 1978 by William Casey + Anthony Fisher, funded by Koch Family Foundation and others).

Winship’s review is pretty cool. He starts by charging that on page ONE (Introduction), C21 quotes from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

Winship: that Declaration says “… to the effect that all inequality should be viewed as suspect.”


Fig 3 Start up of the Introduction

What he does not explain – the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was written in 1789 as a foundation of the French Revolution. Benjamin Franklin helped write it and it is about as communistic as the American Declaration of Independence.

Golly! What an indictment, Scott! The rest of Winship’s writing is about as accurate so we will move on.

Both efforts were pretty sad, but Winship seems to have read the book and tries to glean snippets to attack; comments similar to his attack on the Rights of Man. Douthat, though, appears to have not read C21. In passing: Clive Cook’s April comment (link at top of post) starts with bust of Karl Marx labeled “This guy wrote a manifesto, too”.

This kind of name calling ‘with intent to damage’ works for Limbaugh and others – why was it not swallowed whole by the American public? My take: By the 1950s, the USSR was recognized for the terrible dictatorship it was, operated by the nomenklatura aristocracy. There were always a few American true-believers and a few U.S.S.R. spies, but, the by 1960s, most communist penetrations succeeded by appealing to base greed. Two decades after the fall of the USSR, communist agitators do not threaten our Republic.

Fig   Simon Kuznets

Fig 4 Simon Kuznets, Kuznets Curve

Actually, Piketty is highly sarcastic about dogmatists/ideologues of the last several centuries, Marx included.  He dismisses Marxist thinking, praises Simon Kuznets‘ data analysis but says the Kuznets Curve used too short a timeline and drew faulty inferences.  (Rightists use the  K-Curve to justify unregulated capitalism.)

Piketty (C21) says that going from Marx to Kuznets is like going from “Apocalypse to Fairy Tale.” Even so, Piketty repeatedly calls Kuznets his intellectual predecessor.

Why pick on Piketty personally?


Fig 5 Capital In The Twenty First Century 2014

You cannot attack a data base unless you have one, too.  So destroy the person.

The flow of capital has not been something American economists have spent much time on since WW-II.  Do capital flow research, get branded “commie.”   Also, the publisher designed a bright, clean arresting cover, which happened to cause knee jerks on the Right. Think of the cover as red-meat bait for attack dogs; this one is a doozy.

The actual title is 6 words: Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The layout makes it appear simply Capital. But a subtitle would have been a standalone phrase like “Economics in the twenty-first century.” The red border gives it a manifesto-look of flaming rhetoric.  These were traps the that caught Russ Douthat.    The actual book is careful analysis of data, not a flaming manifesto of any sort

Even the New York Times Sunday Review of Books got caught. Here are two C21 descriptions from 2014 Jul 6.

BestSellers listingA French economist’s analysis of centuries of economic history predicts worsening inequality and proposes solutions.

Separate display caption on image of top sellers “Piketty’s neo-Marxist account of capitalism and inequality is No.3 in its 11th week…

‘BestSellers’ isn’t too bad. But Piketty does not “…predicts worsening inequality”, he uses data and demonstrates it happened. Most people picture economists as mathematicians, priests, shamans, horoscope readers. Dr P. says the opposite, that economists are more like archeologists than physicists.

‘Display Caption’ fell into the trap. This could have been written by a Heritage Foundation Spin Meister trying to sound neutral.

As Steven Erlanger points out (see top section), Piketty takes on all economists who work from dogma. Erlanger says Piketty’s work is a challenge both to Marxism and laissez-faire economics, because “both count on pure economic forces for harmony or justice to prevail.”

If you hear someone say Piketty’s ideas are a “soft Marxism” you know that he/she is frustrated over the lack of concrete critical points.

Database Integrity


Fig 6: Chris Giles, Financial Times

There have been a few lists drawn of discovered faults. Near the end of May Chris Giles, the financial editor for the UK based Financial Times, published his broadside (ref at top of post) → there are many structural issues with C21.

Giles’ points are in the reference at the top of this post. Piketty’s response was on the same day. Read both for details. A good summary of this is by Neil Irwin. Highlights – The data files are open and on-line, not hidden. They are diverse and heterogeneous, requiring assumptions to be usable. The assumptions are described many places, and are the team’s judgement calls. Anyone is free to use their own . Since everyone lies about income, why use tax data?   Piketty:  tax data may be the most reliable source, since people lie for all ways to gather income data.

And so it goes. Name calling may work on Talk Radio or Fox TV, but not with the kind of audience that follows Inequality issues.  If the well-funded, right-wing gnomes are going to refute the C21 trends they must present analytical facts that stick. Their candles for midnight work are still lit, but the game keeps enlarging as Piketty, Saez and others publish newer and newer analyses that continue to validate C21.


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2014 July 12
Listed under Economythread Economy > Inequality
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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3 Responses to Piketty Under Attack

  1. I think my article is being wrongly categorized. Firstly, it’s not a negative review. Hell, I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. It is an excellent work, a great example of how social science can shake up the academic and social order. A critique is not a pan. A critique is how academic discourse evolves. If you wish to put it as a negative response, you can, but know that I, as the author, think nothing of the sort. I am not ‘attacking’ Piketty. An error is claiming C21 deserves only praise. It is not a perfect work, nothing is.

    Secondly, I’m not a representative of “modern far-left thought”, which you sometimes capitalize Far Left. Socialism is only far-left if you use the American scale, where neoliberal conservatism is the norm, especially on foreign policy and tax policy. Without a socialist critique, we are dealing with a set of solutions that Piketty works in, which take capitalism as not only a constant, but an absolute good. That is a small subset of all possible solutions to the issues that Piketty spends so much time and talent showing.

  2. LastTechAge says:

    Yes. I agree that you are basically positive in your C21 review, which was a very good one. I think I had not fully considered how to slice and dice the left side of the political aisle. A person can be left of center and not be socialist but if they have socialist leanings they are definitely well to the left, or “Left.” It is hard to capture nuanced discussion in a single adjective. I corrected the reference here.

    I did not mean to put people with strong socialist sympathies into the same category as I (personally) classify neo-Marxist thought. I am pretty sure that people funded by the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute would not conceptualize this way though. I know that I have a hard time separating Libertarian thought from the ancient John Birch dogma. The Koch family were leaders in both and I think that they are both fronts for our ultras, our top 0.01% of the income earners. Thanks for your comment and your efforts on your own blog site. I recommend that everyone to read what you are saying.

    • It is important to view responses to Piketty in the prism of contemporary politics. Many conservative and libertarian critiques (or attacks, in more severe circumstances) are expected and part of the point-scoring system. Piketty is tied to present political figures like Barack Obama, and thus is an instrument of propaganda. Piketty as an instrument, not as a thinker.

      Critiques, including those by Jacobin which are highly recommended due to their detail, are not trying to score points for Team Red or Team Blue. Piketty is a social scientist, who emphasizes that in the introduction and conclusion. There is a group who do not wish to twist what Piketty says, or try to find significant errors because that would somehow discredit the whole idea of inequality. There is another that takes Piketty as a whole, and treats his work as the academic treatise that it is. Ultimately, I try to work off of Part Four, because Parts One, Two, and Three are solid.

      Of course, one has to figure out whether a conclusion of “incomplete” is separate from positive or negative. All detailed positive reviews are “yes, but also”. The ones listed have reservations. Incompleteness is not a fatal flaw, it is a reservation. People praise and pan incomplete things all the time.

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