The Tragedy of Thomas Piketty

The latest Pikettian response to Giles’s and Giugliano’s assertions regarding the quality of Piketty’s data and research is to accuse Giles and Giugliano of being “dishonest.” (Hat tip in comments here.) I suppose this means that Piketty’s is employing a classic I-am-rubber-and-you-are-glue-whatever-you-say-bounces-off-me-and-sticks-back-to-you defense, but there is little substance to the accusation; at best, Piketty can assert (without evidence) that the flaws found with his data do not change his conclusions, and that other studies find widening inequality “by using different sources.” The response to this is (a) there is, in fact, plenty to suggest that the flaws in Piketty’s data change his conclusions (see my original post and my follow-up for more on this issue), and (b) just because other studies find widening inequality “by using different sources” does not mean that they are right, or that even if they are, Piketty is justified in finding widening inequality through a flawed data set. It is worth noting that Piketty issued a reply via the Financial Times that sought to address Giles’s and Giugliano’s concerns, but as Tyler Cowen pointed out, Piketty’s reply “was quite weak. Maybe he’s not to be blamed for what was surely a rapid and caught-off-guard response, and perhaps there is more to come, but it doesn’t reassure me either.”

Beyond all of these accusations and counter-accusations, there is–as my blog post alludes to–a deeply unfortunate phenomenon at work here. Irrespective of how inclined or disinclined I might have been to believe Piketty’s claims, I wanted to think that he would be a worthy and formidable interlocutor for those on the opposite side of the wealth inequality debate. I had hoped that Capital in the Twenty-First Century would be an influential book on the issue of wealth inequality (though I also hoped and hope that it won’t be the only one), a book that would be good enough to force Piketty’s intellectual opponents to bring their A-games in debating him and his ideas. In any consequential debate over policy and politics, any intellectually honest person would want each side to be represented by serious, smart, well-informed and ethical champions; people who care about the data and what it means. That’s about the only way any of us are going to have a decent and meaningful debate over the consequential issues of the day, and it is the best way to ensure that smart policy emerges from those debates.

Instead, we have a situation in which Piketty’s data has been rendered suspect and his reputation for ethics and honesty may very well have taken a serious hit. It is one thing to debate findings, opinions and political philosophy; no one expected Piketty to write a book that converted every single critic into a fan and left no detractors. There are always going to be arguments and debates about issues like wealth inequality, and no matter how persuasive one might be, one isn’t going to persuade everyone of one’s position. That’s all fine and good; mature people don’t expect otherwise.

But Piketty does not merely stand accused of having failed to convert every single participant in the wealth inequality debate over to his side. He stands accused of having committed both “fat-finger errors” and mistakes which may indicate fraud and dishonesty on his part. There are plenty of people who are willing to give Piketty a chance to substantively answer his critics and show that he is indeed a serious player in the wealth inequality debate. I count myself as one of those people because I don’t like thinking the worst of others, but it is increasingly difficult to avoid concluding that at best, Piketty is out of his depth.

As I mentioned in my initial post concerning l’affaire Piketty, I remain willing and eager to read his book. Maybe by the time I finish reading it, the debate over Piketty’s honesty and competence will have been substantially resolved in Piketty’s favor. But things don’t look good for Piketty right now, which means a diminishment in the wealth inequality debate as a whole. That diminishment is the tragedy I lament in this blog post.

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