The Real Piketty Scandal (Is Right-Wing Deception)

Richard Eskow

Conservatives in all corners of the globe must have felt their hearts sing, if only for a moment, when the Financial Times ran a piece entitled “Piketty findings undercut by errors.” Sadly for them, the FT’s claims proved untrue. But if you think that put an end to the accusations against the French economist and his findings on inequality, you don’t know today’s conservatives.

We’re not going to relitigate the charges against Thomas Piketty, whose book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” has galvanized the global debate on inequality. The case for the defense has already been made rather conclusively – by Mike Konczal, Paul Krugman, Mark Gongloff, and Piketty himself.

The Guardian’s Peter Mason went so far as to suggest, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that the FT’s poorly-constructed attack might have something to do with a Times advertising supplement geared to the 0.001 percent. Wrote Mason: “if (FT author Peter) Giles is right, then all the gross designer bling advertised in the FT’s How To Spend It can be morally justified.”

Needless to say, conservatives seized on the FT’s overhyped charges without any evidence that they paused to consider the argument they were endorsing. Even before the FT’s mistakes were brought to light, it was apparent to the attentive reader that its critique addressed only a minor aspect of Piketty’s findings. It had little to do with the central thesis of an author the paper called a “rock-star economist.”

Then it turned out that Piketty’s online appendices addressed many of the paper’s concerns, and that the Financial Times itself made some mistakes (including relying on untrustworthy survey data). What was left were “questions,” rather than “errors,” as Piketty observed.

It’s true that we need more and better data on inequality, as Piketty and others acknowledge. (That’s one of his arguments in favor of a global wealth tax.) But there were no math errors, no typing mistakes, and no spreadsheet errors – only a compelling thesis that effectively compiled data from a number of sources, and whose calculations and assumptions were made readily available.

Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

That’s not to say that journalists and critics shouldn’t question the work of economists and other technical experts, whether they’re “rock stars” or not. In that sense, the FT was doing its job. The FT’s mistake was in sensationalizing its findings and promoting them as something they were not. That’s an irresponsible thing to do – especially in a world where extremists and powerful special interests will seize on any scrap of information, however inaccurate, to discredit facts which undercut their arguments.

The FT’s over-hyping may have sold some newspapers, but it did not burnish the paper’s reputation.

The Right wasted no time seizing the opportunity the FT gave them. By the time the FT’s mistakes and exaggerations had been pointed out, a number of conservatives had embraced the article and were pushing it aggressively. They felt no responsibility to amend what they had written when new information came to light.

As a result, the lie lives on in the hard right. Even now the right-wing Twitterverse features a seemingly unending stream of snide comments about “Piketty fraud” and “Piketty errors,” despite the fact that neither phenomenon has been discovered in the real world. “What is interesting about #Piketty,” said one recent tweet, “is to observe those prepared to defend the condescending fraud.” Another says “Thomas Piketty is a fraud. Was proven a fraud just days ago.”

There have even been snide right-wing comments comparing Piketty’s work to that of the climate-change scientists the Right has worked so hard to discredit. That was predictable – nearly as predictable, in fact, as man-made climate change itself.

There are, in fact, parallels between the false Piketty “scandal” and the Right’s phony climate change conspiracy theories. In the cynical world of bought-and-paid-for public policy thinking, there are politicians, pundits, and think tanks that are all too happy to engage in a kind of “pay to play” debate. These pay-as-you-go partisans have managed to convince a minority of the American people that thousands of scientists are engage in a secret conspiracy to deprive them of certain rights – like the right to bankrupt themselves with gas-guzzling vehicles.

They are joined in this effort by easily excitable, emotionally-driven partisans who find it somehow satisfying to stick it to an imaginary “liberal elite” by echoing the same extreme and erroneous arguments. While the people these groups manage to persuade are (and probably always will be) a minority, it’s often a sizable enough minority to make effective problem-solving difficult.

Economics is not a hard science like climate research. Nevertheless, there are certain facts which reputable members of the profession do not dispute. To be a denialist – to deny the existence of evidence that is right in front of you – is to engage in a kind of fraud.

There are honorable ways to disagree, and there are dishonorable ways to disagree. When the FT published its Piketty broadside, the honorable approach was taken by Patrick Brennan of the National Review. To be sure, I consider Brennan’s conclusions misguided at best. I also think he exaggerates the problems with Piketty’s normalization of data from multiple sources. But at least Brennan had the integrity to deny the overheated charges of “fraud” coming from so many on the right. Good for him.

The dishonorable approach was taken by righty outlets like the Power Line blog, where one writer responded to the FT report by comparing Piketty’s work to the “Piltdown Man” hoax. There have been no corrections or retractions of this statement. Similarly, British blogger Thomas Fraser claimed that the FT had uncovered “corruptions in (Piketty’s) data” which was “shocking because the errors are so basic,” and that “on this, Piketty has built a manifesto for all kinds of tax rises.” Fraser expresses outrage toward Piketty’s publishers at Harvard University Press for failing to spot these “errors” and “corruptions.”

All of these claims have now been conclusively disproven but, as of this writing, Fraser has not issued an update or correction either. (One is tempted to chide his “publishers” at the Spectator website.)

Thomas Piketty is not above criticism. We had a few points of disagreement with him in our own review of his book, and we interviewed Dean Baker about his disagreements with Piketty. Robert Kuttner explored “what Piketty leaves out,” and Thomas Frank noted that Piketty missed the historical effectiveness of organized workers in reducing inequality. (That said, I imagine that all of the left-leaning critics listed above appreciate Piketty’s many contributions to the inequality debate, both in this book and in earlier research.)

Conservatives aren’t obligated to accept the defenses of Piketty, either, however persuasive many of us find them. But to ignore them altogether, to hype the FT’s attack and omit such exhaustively researched and data-rich rebuttals, is to conduct an indefensible cherry-picking of both facts and arguments.

And that, ironically, is what the Financial Times wrongly accused Piketty of doing.

Conservatives can claim that the progressive solutions which worked so well in the past won’t work today. They can argue, as libertarian Garrett Jones does, that “the best way to defuse the situation is to teach tolerance for inequality. ” They can even continue to promote the disproven theories that got us into this economic mess, as a new book from Arthur Laffer et al. does. (It won laudatory blurbs from Dick Cheney and Phil Gramm, if that tells you anything.)

That’s how honest debate works – or should. We should all be willing to hawk our wares in the marketplace of ideas. But to distort the facts or make false accusations is to poison that marketplace with tainted goods. When conservatives do it as a matter of routine – on economics, climate change, and so many other issues – it also sends the subliminal message that they don’t believe they can win an argument on its merits.

Encouraging more conservatives to engage in honorable debate may seem like an overly ambitious goal. But, hey, they got me to say something nice about the National Review, so anything’s possible.

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