Saturday, May 31, 2014

More on Piketty -- Oh God No, Please, No...

Cover: Capital in the Twenty-First Century in HARDCOVER

Piketty, Piketty, Piketty! How did the Piketty phenomenon happen? Surely Piketty must be one of the all-time great economists. Maybe even as great as Marx.
Yes, parts of the emerging backlash against Piketty's Capital resonate with me. Guido Menzio nails its spirit in a recent post, announcing to the Facebook universe that he'll "send you $10 and a nice Hallmark card with kitties if you refrain from talking/writing about Piketty's book for the next six months." (The irony of my now writing this Piketty post has not escaped me.)
As I see it, the problem is that Piketty's book is popularly viewed as a landmark contribution to economic theory, which it most definitely is not. In another Facebook post, leading economic theorist David Levine gets it right:
People keep referring to economists who have favorable views of Piketty's book. Leaving aside Krugman, I would be interested in knowing the name of any economist who asserts that Piketty's reasoning ... is other than gibberish.

    So the backlash is focused on dubious "reasoning" touted as penetrating by a book-buying
    public that unfortunately can't tell scientific wheat from chaff. I'm there.

But what of Piketty's data and conclusion? I admire Piketty's data -- more on that below.  I also agree with his conclusion, which I interpret broadly to be that the poor in developed countries have apparently become relatively much more poor since 1980, and that we should care, and that we should try to understand why. 
In my view, Piketty's book truly shines on the data side. If much of its "reasoning" is little more than neo-Marxist drivel, much of its underlying measurement is nevertheless marvelous (assuming of course that it's trustworthy). Its tables and figures -- there's no need to look at anything else -- provide a rich and jaw-dropping image, like a new high-resolution photo of a previously-unseen galaxy. I'm grateful to Piketty for sending it our way, for heightening awareness, and for raising important questions. Now we just need those questions answered.

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