Cross-posted from Smirking Chimp
Economist Thomas Piketty
(image by YouTube)
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 re-litigate 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 on-line 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 which 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 engaged in a secret conspiracy to deprive them of the right to bankrupt themselves with gas-guzzling vehicles and vote for politicians who serve the interests of people much wealthier than themselves.
They are joined in this effort but easily excitable, emotionally-driven partisans who find it somehow satisfied to stick it to an imaginary "liberal elite" with extreme and erroneous arguments. While the people they persuade are (and probably always will be) a minority, it's a sizable enough minority to make meaningful action on climate change extremely 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.
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