Must-read: Henry Farrell: “Piketty, in Three Parts”

Must-Read: Second to Miriam Ronzoni in the Crooked Timber Piketty symposium is Henry Farrell–who provides the best precis of Piketty as both sociological phenomenon and political actor I have yet seen:

Henry Farrell: Piketty, in Three Parts: “Piketty[‘s]… contribution is better understood in sociological terms…

…Economic knowledge… is the product of social processes… in which socially-legitimated social structures produce socially-legitimated forms of knowledge that are validated in socially-legitimated ways…. In a technocratic age… high-quality statistical data are… legitimate in ways that other kinds of knowledge are not. Piketty and his colleagues[‘]… high-quality data sets… confound… previous… wisdom that we didn’t need to worry about inequality. This makes a vast and important social phenomenon… visible, salient and socially undeniable….

Although efforts to undermine the credibility of the project (such as the notorious Financial Times investigation) have failed, it will continue to get empirical pushback. However, this pushback is likely to further increase the salience of the problem of inequality, by making it a major object of scientific inquiry…. If you (whether for principled or unprincipled reasons) don’t want inequality to be a problem that people pay attention to, and want to try and solve, then the Piketty book is likely to seem like a disaster to you. You’ll devote a lot of time and energy to trying to tear it down. Sometimes this criticism will be useful…. Sometimes it will be a form of denialism. Equally, if you are someone who believes that inequality is a real problem, Piketty’s work not only helps to validate your beliefs, but it gives you a new set of tools….

Finally, it helps explain Piketty’s policy prescriptions, some of which are proposed not so much to solve the problem of inequality, as to help generate the kinds of politics that might solve the problem…. For example, his self-admittedly utopian proposal for a global tax on capital is in part motivated by the desire to reduce financial opacity, and to make it clearer just how well the truly rich are doing…. If we (as a democratic society, in the US, France, Ireland or some congeries of these national societies) truly understood how rich the rich were, we could do something about it…. Obviously, this bet is an uncertain one. Piketty has little to say about the politics through which knowledge generates political action…. What more we might need than knowledge is difficult to say…


Brad DeLong
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