Thomas Frank on Thomas Piketty

I haven’t read Thomas Piketty’s best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century yet but I found much to applaud in Thomas Frank’s review of it on SalonIt resonates what the best heterodox economists/economic historians like Steve Keen and Michael Hudson have been saying for years. The criticism goes to the heart of of the fallacy of neo-liberalism, globalisation and TINA (There Is No Alternative). In New Zealand they were represented first by Rogernomics and then carried on with varying degrees of vigor by both Labour and National, including the previous Clark and current Key governments. It’s like the GFC never happened.

One of the best things about Piketty’s masterwork is his systematic demolition of his own discipline. Academic economics, especially in the United States, has for decades been gripped by a kind of professional pretentiousness that is close to pathological. From time to time its great minds have grown so impressed by their own didactic awesomeness that they celebrate economics as “the imperial science”— “imperial” not merely because economics is the logic of globalization but because its math-driven might is supposedly capable of defeating and colonizing every other branch of the social sciences. Economists, the myth goes, make better historians, better sociologists, better anthropologists than people who are actually trained in those disciplines….

Piketty blasts it all to hell. His fellow economists may have mastered the art of spinning abstract mathematical fantasies, he acknowledges, but they have forgotten that measuring the real world comes first. In the book’s Introduction this man who is now the most famous economist in the world accuses his professional colleagues of a “childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation”; he laughs at “their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.” In a shocking reversal, he calls on the imperial legions of economic pseudo-science to lay down their arms, to “avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, and political scientists”; the six-hundred-page book that follows, Piketty declares, is to be “as much a work of history as of economics.”

Frank goes on to make a spirited case for unionism in the US complete with a link to a very good union supported website that tracks CEO renumeration and juxtaposes it with statistics and case studies of workers. The New Zealand trade union movement could do something similar, Helen Kelly? New Zealand unionists don’t tend to talk in terms of capital and labour and the eternal (class) struggle between them. Perhaps they should again. Maybe they do but it’s not reported by the MSM.

It is not a coincidence that labor’s rise in the 1930s happened at the same time as the One Percent’s fall from grace, nor is it a coincidence that labor’s long decline has been almost a mirror image of the One Percent’s recovery of its nineteenth-century heaven. These things happened the way they did because labor’s most basic function is to turn the bright light of democratic scrutiny on economic power. When labor is strong, our composers write things like “Fanfare for the Common Man” and blue-collar workers buy cars and boats and snowmobiles. When labor is weak, we bow down before “job creators” and McMansions sprout like mushrooms after a rainstorm.

Frank’s main criticism of Piketty is his shallow knowledge of US history. He feels Piketty has overlooked that in fact there is a long history of anti-plutocratic sentiment in the US, though you would be hard pressed to find much of it in the MSM today. Big business has been very successful with its lobbying and buying congressional and presidential votes with campaign contributions, effectively rolling back all the main financial and corporate regulation imposed since the Great Depression and preventing it being reimposed post GFC. I posted a while ago highlighting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. He often speaks to an empty chamber, Democrats and Republicans alike don’t want to hear his message, and would be pretty much unreported by the media in the US, let alone elsewhere. Yet he has powerful points to make that the status quo elites globally would rather not discuss or debate, or even have you hear.


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