What happens if you have a landmark discussion of the origins and persistence of wealth inequality, and nobody understands it? That was the deflating spectacle of the past few months that came to be known as the “Piketty phenomenon.” In March, a Paris Spring of sorts nearly broke out in the midst of America’s national non-conversation on wealth inequality, with the unexpected critical and commercial triumph of French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. A copiously documented and persuasively argued study of the implacable upward consolidation of wealth across national boundaries and historical epochs, Piketty’s treatise neatly distills its grim findings into a simple fact: The accumulation of capital can reach a lift-off point after which it may reproduce itself indefinitely, without any “trickling down” or “rising ides.” And as capital ratchets upward, the clustering of resources at the top means that basic social goods, such as publicly subsidized education, healthcare and housing, suffer.
When workers gained a larger share of the Western economic pie after the 20th century’s two world wars and Great Depression, the great reverie of a kinder, gentler regime of “human capital” — i.e. an economic order that rewarded the broader disbursal of knowledge and skills rather than the brute accumulation of wealth — seemed faintly plausible. Not so now. Even amid historic productivity gains created by technology, Western workers’ share of national wealth and income flags, while capital’s surges. The coupon-clipping rentier class, which looked to be headed for oblivion in the wake of the Keynesian macroeconomic revolution of the 20th century, is now on a clear course of economic dominance.
Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and other high-profile economists of a sensibly leftish disposition hailed Piketty’s breakthrough work for what it was: a long-overdue reckoning with the hard facts of our top-heavy political economy, in which workers are penalized and nonproductive manipulators of paper fortunes are lavishly rewarded.
But such figures are not the agenda-setting thought leaders of our neoliberal world. Over at the New York Times—which employs Krugman in a ceremonial minority report capacity, but virtually no one else inclined to call an economic oligarchy by its true name — a round-robin of Piketty dismissal took hold. David Brooks, the chirpy wise man of the Timesian Right, denounced the “angry progressivism” of Piketty’s analysis and urged, contra Piketty’s proposal for a global tax on capital, a slogan-friendly but content-free plan of skooching up inheritance taxes while “lifting people up from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down from the top.”
Meanwhile, Brooks’ theoconnish colleague Ross Douthat prophesized in an Easter Sunday column on Piketty that “Marx Rises Again” and cited some caviling research from the conservative Manhattan Institute to ply the message that things aren’t as bad, or as unjust, as Piketty makes them seem. And in any event, Douthat stressed, as all orations from the professional culture-war-making caste must, that the real perils of capital’s triumph involved “cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — more than economic security.” David Leonhardt, the economics reporter captaining The Upshot, the paper of record’s ballyhooed Big Data outlet of insufferable online explanatory journalism, primly announced in the New York Times Magazine that Piketty’s battery of data didn’t constrain the good old American spirit of can-do individual advancement. Inequality, after all, is “less an inevitability than a choice,” he announced. “Just as societies have conquered many of the challenges of the natural world … we can alter the course of inequality, too.”(Never mind that it’s stupendously poor timing to be hailing the conquest of the natural world at the moment that the Antarctic ice shelf is melting away.)
Sure, Piketty documents that only the calamities of world wars and depressions have made any sort of appreciable dent in the modern saga of steadily mounting inequality — but what about that mighty tsunami of human capital known as education reform, Mr. Smart Guy French Economist? After a recession-driven slump in the awarding of college diplomas, graduation rates are picking up, Leonhardt proclaims. What’s more, “charter schools and schools that have tried to introduce more accountability” are revamping the performance of the country’s long-troubled public education system.
Leaving that last howler aside — charter schools have produced negligible upticks in academic performance, while creating a new policy playground for corporate fraud — Leonhardt’s enthusiasm for cultural-cum-educational innovation shows that, like his op-ed colleagues, he couldn’t have paid very close attention to Piketty’s own findings. Assessing the relationship between education attainment and social mobility, Piketty finds no “greater mobility in the long run” in the “intergenerational correlation of education and earned incomes.” Put simply, the drag of inherited capital wealth has captured the educational system; access to education is conditioned by wealth and inheritance.
Indeed, Piketty finds that “in recent years, mobility may have even decreased” in developed capitalist economies — and the U.S. economy is an especially egregious case. As a new society with cheap land and scarce labor, America initially promoted fairly robust upward mobility, but for most of the 20th century and beyond, “social mobility has been and remains lower in the United States than in Europe.” And access to higher education has followed this overall trend: “Research has shown that the proportion of college degrees earned by children whose parents belong to the bottom two quartiles of the income hierarchy stagnated at 10-to-20 percent in 1970 – 2010, while it rose from 40-to-80 percent for children with parents in the top quartile. In other words, parents’ income has become an almost perfect predictor of university access.”
In still other words: The wifty personal education-and-innovation agendas that David Brooks and company champion are false solutions to the inequality crisis. Piketty hints at the reasons behind this vacuous posturing in his brief against America’s peculiar brand of “meritocratic extremism” — “the apparent need of modern societies, and especially U.S. society, to designate certain individuals as ‘winners,’ and to reward them all the more generously if they seem to have been selected on the basis of their intrinsic merits rather than birth or background.” Of course, the dogmas of meritocratic extremism can also be readily refuted by pondering the gap between the educational achievement of David Brooks (University of Chicago, 1983), Ross Douthat (Harvard, 2002) and David Leonhardt (Yale, 1994) and the demands of basic reading comprehension.
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