New York Times columnist and economics Nobelist Paul Krugman showered encomiums on French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century calling it a "magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality" and "an awesome work." While noting some flaws, the Washington Post's financial reporter Steven Pearlstein nevertheless hailed the book as "an intellectual tour de force, a triumph of economic history." Timothy Shenk at The Nation gushed, "Stands a fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century." And these are just a three of the plethora of over-the-top accolades that can be gleaned from the reviews cited on the book's Amazon page.
If the response to Piketty's book proves anything, it confirms that intellectuals really, really hate the rich.
Now that the initial furor has died down a bit, Jonah Goldberg has written a thoughtful analysis of the book and its reception over at Commentary. In his article, "Mr. Piketty's Big Book of Marxiness," Goldberg does a thorough job of reviewing the various criticisms of how Piketty has (mis)interpreted history and economic data. Goldberg also shows that most Americans disagree with President Obama's assertion last December that a "a dangerous and growing inequality … is the defining challenge of our time." To the contrary, Goldberg reports…
…in May, when Gallup asked voters what they saw as "the most important problem facing this country today," a mere 3 percent volunteered the gap between rich and poor … A poll in January conducted by McLaughlin & Associates (for the YG Network) found that Americans by a margin of 2:1 (64 percent to 33 percent) prefer expanding economic growth to narrowing the gap between rich and poor. In 1990, Gallup asked Americans whether the country benefits from having a class of rich people. Sixty-two percent said yes. In 2012, 63 percent said yes.
It seems that most Americans simply want a fair shake. They don't really begrudge the success of others, and to the extent they do, they don't want to do much about it. It's hard to see how any of this amounts to an inequality-driven powder keg of social unrest waiting to explode.
So again, who resents the rich? Intellectuals. As Goldberg nicely explains:
Piketty is a member of the ruling class. Piketty's way puts Piketty and his friends in charge of everything. A one-time adviser to the Socialist politician Se?gole?ne Royal, a star academic and a columnist for Libe?ration, Piketty is a quintessential member of what the econo- mist Joseph Schumpeter identified as the "new class." Schumpeter's prediction of capitalism's demise hinged on his brilliant insight that capitalism breeds anti-capitalist intellectuals. Educators, bureaucrats, lawyers, technocrats, journalists, and artists, often the children of successful capitalists, always raised in the material affluence of capitalism, would organize to form a class whose collective interest lay in seizing economic decisions from the free market. As Deirdre McCloskey writes: "Schumpeter believed that capitalism was raising up its own grave diggers—not in the proletariat, as Marx had expected, but in the sons of daughters of the bourgeoisie itself. Lenin's father, after all, was a high- ranking educational official, and Lenin himself a law- yer. It wasn't the children of auto workers who pulled up the paving stones on the Left Bank in 1968." No, it was actually people like Piketty's own parents…
Piketty's argument, with its scientific veneer and authoritative streams of numbers, is a warrant to empower those who think they are smarter than the market—and who feel superior to those most richly rewarded by it.
Goldberg's whole article is well worth your attention.
For more background, see my articles, "Why President Obama is Wrong on Income Inequality," and "Obama's 'Opportunity' Makes Everybody Less Well Off."
Disclosure: Jonah and I have been friends for nearly two decades.