By now, nearly everyone has heard of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Thomas Piketty. That book, to say nothing of Piketty himself, has become a phenomenon unrivaled in at least the last half-century of U.S. political discourse. The book arrives at a moment when the economics profession, in large part driven by Piketty’s earlier body of work (co-authored with his frequent collaborators Emmanuel Saez and Peter Diamond), has finally started to allow discussions of economic inequality to tiptoe back into polite conversation.
The book’s seismic impact, which has by now been felt far beyond the narrow world inhabited by academic economists, derives mostly from the public’s growing discomfort with the Gilded Age level of inequality that has returned to the United States and many other wealthy countries. This has led many center-left, and even some center-right, politicians and economists to begin to question more aggressively the idea that taxes are always bad, with some already considering seriously the idea that our system needs to impose much higher taxes on both upper incomes and large concentrations of wealth.
We are, in short, witnessing a sea change in our political conversation. And this has conservatives in a panic. In the past, when confronted with any mention of inequality, they could confidently smirk, mutter something about “class warfare,” and count on all but the most committed liberals to retreat with their tails between their legs.
Now, however, conservatives find themselves needing to say something in response to the broadly positive reception to Piketty’s arguments. Beyond the importance of Piketty’s book itself, therefore, there is much to be learned from the early responses by those on the political right to the emergence of the first signs in several decades of a seriously progressive political moment, a moment that is all the more threatening to conservatives because it is accompanied by top-flight social science and historical research.
Conservatives, especially in the United States, are simply not accustomed to being on the defensive. Watching them react is instructive. And what we are mostly seeing, at least thus far, is a somewhat erratic attempt to find some traction with two lines of attack on Piketty. One line of attack is political, in the classic sense of ascribing evil political motives to those who stray from a strict conservative line. The other, however, is both personal and sociological, taking the form of an attack on the personalities of liberals, rather than on Piketty’s arguments themselves.
There is nothing inherently wrong about questioning the motives or investigating the background of one’s opponents. In doing so, however, some conservative commentators have revealed more about themselves than they have about Piketty or his allies, as I discuss below.
Who’s Baiting Whom? The Predictable Cries of “Marxism!” and “Communism!” from the Right
Piketty’s central policy recommendation is that the governments of wealthy countries should, if possible as a group, tax large accumulations of wealth to a degree sufficient to prevent the further concentration of wealth in the hands of a “patrimonial class.” He believes that this is necessary, because his historical and economic analysis leads him to conclude that wealth will concentrate ever more dangerously in the hands of a tiny elite, rather than trickling down to society as a whole.
Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with the political culture in the U.S. and the U.K. could have predicted that this argument would provoke howls from the right. The various right-leaning media organizations, their affiliated political groups, and nearly everyone in the Republican Party today all claim to believe that any form of progressive economic policy amounts to “punishing the rich.” Moreover, there seems to have been no embarrassment among conservatives when President Obama was attacked as a “communist,” “socialist,” “Marxist,” “collectivist,” and so on.
On cue, the usual suspects went into full attack mode against Piketty. The ultra-conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal invoked Stalin in attacking the book. Even supposedly mainstream, more “respectable” conservative groups found themselves in the midst of the red-baiting frenzy, one example of which I discussed in a recent post on Dorf on Law. In last Sunday’s New York Times, a political cartoon illustrated some of the funnier red-baiting comments on Piketty’s book posted to Amazon’s website.
To a large degree, this was not merely predictable, but actually invited by Piketty. He has spent enough time in the United States to know that merely being French was going to make him the target of right-wingers. And not only did he dare to use the word “capital,” but the book’s cover makes that one word appear to be the entire title of the book. Given that the English-language version of Karl Marx’s classic Das Kapital is simply called Capital, this could hardly be more provocative. And it surely must have been deliberate.
In short, it is easy to imagine that Piketty foresaw the hysterical response that would surely come from the right, and he decided to stoke that fire rather than attempt to minimize the reaction.
Whether or not that was the conscious strategy of Piketty (or his publisher), however, what we are seeing are some encouraging signs that shouting “commie” is losing its impact. It says good things about the state of our political discussion—as degraded as it is, in so many ways—that Piketty and his defenders can now say, in essence: “Do you have the red-baiting out of your system now? Can we move on to an actual discussion of the issues?”
Such an adult discussion may never come, of course, but at least we are seeing some evidence that likening Piketty to Marx is simply not working for conservatives. Which means that they need a fallback argument. Unfortunately for them, what they have offered so far is extraordinarily weak—and certainly revealing.
The Conservatives’ Armchair Sociology: Attacking Piketty’s Allies for Being Jealous (or Something)
With a book that is already as influential as Piketty’s, it has become all but required for conservative commentators to attack it. Most such commentators, however, are simply unqualified to attack it on its merits. Yet some apparently feel uncomfortable joining in the red-baiting frenzy that I described above. Lacking the ability to understand the arguments, yet too sophisticated to descend to neo-McCarthyism (or, at least, to do so too obviously), some commentators have instead decided to turn this into an occasion to attack not Piketty himself but the people who agree with him.
Two prime examples of this strategy come from the two most conservative columnists on the op-ed page of The New York Times. Both David Brooks and Ross Douthat lack any apparent expertise in any field, much less in anything that would qualify them to speak intelligently about Piketty’s arguments. Both also, however, apparently view themselves as “reasonable conservatives” who at least go to some lengths to make a show of open-mindedness. That both settled on a strategy of attacking Piketty’s supporters is thus noteworthy.
Brooks, for his part, tells us that “[t]he modern left is led by smart professionals—academics, activists, people in the news media, the arts and so on—who tend to live in and around coastal cities. If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich.” He then adds: “It really doesn’t help that you have to spend your days kissing up to the oligarchs and their foundations to finance your research, exhibition or favorite cause.”
See? It is not that there could possibly be good reasons to support Piketty’s arguments. It is, instead, that there are well-educated people who are simply envious, annoyed by the constant reminders that they are smart but not really all that rich. Therefore, Brooks tells us, such people are especially eager adherents to Piketty’s message.
Douthat, in lockstep with Brooks, describes a “liberal professional class” of “doctors and lawyers and consultants and academics and well-compensated bureaucrats (and, yes, some journalists) who inherit money or real estate from their professional-class parents, or get gifts from those parents at key moments (when they’re house-hunting or college-shopping, most notably), and who pass on the fruits of that capital to their resume-padding, university-bound progeny.”
Why are these people in Douthat’s crosshairs? Because they have “proven much more successful at resisting tax increases in the age of Obama than [h]ave the true plutocrats above them.” According to Douthat, these people are willing “to vote Democratic only so long as they’re protected from tax increases.”
The column links to a different column in which Douthat twists recent history regarding the extension of the majority of the Bush tax cuts in January 2013. During the 2012 election campaign, President Obama had insisted on allowing those tax cuts to expire for individuals making more than $200,000 per year, and $250,000 for married couples. In the end, Obama capitulated to a compromise, allowing those lower limits to be moved up to $400,000 and $450,000, respectively.
Douthat would have his readers believe that this happened because of the liberal doctors and lawyers who fall into the income range between those numbers. The apparent claim is that liberals are not really committed to helping the poor, which we can see by their insistence on not allowing their taxes to go up, even while taxes on their snooty hedge fund-running neighbors did go up.
This fantasy, of course, completely misrepresents the reality of the political debate in late 2012, where it was Republicans who insisted on increasing those lower limits, over the loud objections of liberals (many of whom really would have paid more taxes, had their policy druthers been turned into law). But what a fun narrative! Liberals can be blamed for the compromise that they fought against, with the fact that some of them (especially those in the “liberal political elite”) earn $300,000 or so somehow submitted as evidence of their treachery.
The Sociology of the Sociological Objection: Some People Need to Get Over Perceived Slights
It is tempting to dismiss smears such as those by Brooks and Douthat as mere argumentum ad hominem, and to reject those attacks because they are not engaging with Piketty’s arguments but with the seemingly irrelevant question of the lifestyles and attitudes of the “liberal elite” in this country.
That, however, would be too easy. It is, in fact, often appropriate and helpful to ask of one’s ideological opponents: What are they thinking? And even if one cannot speak authoritatively to what is going on inside the head of another person, it is certainly possible that such an inquiry could shed light on the topic at hand.
For example, during the 2012 election campaign, I wrote a column here on Justia’s Verdict in which I evaluated the words and actions of the Republican presidential ticket, and of the leadership of the Republican Party more broadly, in light of the clinical definition of “sociopathy.” Sadly, it was all to easy to conclude that the Republican leaders showed classic signs of being sociopathic, and I continue to believe that it is useful to understand current Republican policy positions as fully consistent with that assessment.
I am not, therefore, claiming that commentators like Brooks and Douthat could never be right to try to understand a political conversation by analyzing the psychology of their opponents. The problem, however, is not just that their descriptions of the motivations of “liberal elites” are so comically unpersuasive, but that those descriptions tell us more about the insecurities of the conservative would-be intellectuals than they ever could about their liberal tormenters.
So let us engage in some social psychology of our own, shall we? In the columns linked above, and in writings by other conservatives, there is the strong whiff of score-settling. Why, after all, are they so obsessed with the actions of the “smart professionals” who “live in and around coastal cities”? Because those are the people with whom conservative commentators went to college, and who live in their neighborhoods today. And what is wrong with those people? They have, by the telling of conservatives, a bad habit of feeling good about themselves for being liberal, and apparently of letting conservatives know it.
From their first days after joining the Republican Club at Harvard, or similar places that turn out the conservative commentariat, these no-longer-young people apparently discovered that their other classmates did not agree with them. They were in a minority, and they felt oppressed. They thus looked for every opportunity to visit payback upon their oppressors.
Their “do-gooder” classmates, however, did not go away, instead becoming their social peers later in life, serving on PTAs for the desirable schools, and so on. The sense of grievance on the part of these conservative commentators remains palpable, as they turn arguments about inequality into an insistence that, say, some smug liberal pre-med in one’s freshman rooming group is really now just a big hypocrite.
Interestingly, this looming sense of long-nurtured grudges shows up not just in commentary by people with every reason to suspect that they are intellectually in over their heads (such as Brooks and Douthat), but even to the people who make it to the top of the academic pyramid. For example, one of the cases of red-baiting that I discussed above came not from a general-purpose commentator but from an economist with a blue-chip Ph.D., who nevertheless argued that professors are liberal because they “envy the wealthy, and feel themselves more worthy.”
Similarly, another well-known conservative economist (in an article published long before Piketty’s book) chalks up concerns about inequality to “envy,” which is “directed at the guy down the hall who got a bigger raise.” In particular, he points to liberal professors, who (he assures us) are resentful that less-smart people are running the world. Apparently, therefore, we liberal professors are all too ready to take those guys down a notch, and we are happy to use Piketty’s book to hide our nefarious motives.
The point is that at least some of the people who are proffering these arguments should know better, because they are sufficiently educated to try to engage with Piketty on the merits of his arguments. Yet they cannot resist turning debates about inequality into an attack on their former classmates and professional peers, who apparently really got under their skin.
Or, like all arguments based on amateur sociology and armchair psychologizing, this could all be simply wrong. Given how weak conservatives’ actual arguments against Piketty have been, however, one cannot help but note the fervor with which they have tried to turn this into a discussion of the political motives of people in a small handful of professions. Having personalized the discussion, however, they should at least not be surprised to find themselves on the analyst’s couch.