Forget David Brooks, can Piketty inspire religious progressives?

The economist has laid bare America's gross economic inequality, but don't expect Democrats' faithy enablers to act

Topics: Religion Dispatches, Thomas Piketty, Marxism, Democrats, Conservatives, David Brooks,

Forget David Brooks, can Piketty inspire religious progressives?Thomas Piketty (Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau)
This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches.

Religion Dispatches Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee Whom we adore,
Serving Thee Whom we adore.– From Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “God of Grace and God of Glory,” 1930.

The Piketty phenomenon—”Piketty Porn,” as some are calling it—seems to be reaching a crescendo. Mainstream media brim with breathless reports about the unprecedented numbers of 700-page Piketty books that have been printed and sold and about packed lecture halls as the 42-year-old French economist continues his American tour.

What Thomas Piketty and his colleagues have done is to document in great depth the rising concentration of wealth over time—over 250 years, in fact. They conclude that there’s no natural antidote to this concentration and that the only remedy is organized resistance from the bottom to force effective redistribution by means of taxation.

Neoliberal economists have been gobsmacked by the book because for decades they have accepted the theory propounded by Simon Kuznets that wealth concentration is self-correcting. What the neoliberal types have conveniently overlooked is the fact that, in the 20th century U.S. experience, there was significant resistance to such concentration from below—from the industrial labor movement and the New Deal—that corrected, albeit imperfectly, the obscene inequality of 1929.

Red meat conservatives have, predictably, responded to Piketty with blithering outrage and name-calling. For them, Piketty is (a) French and (b) Marxist. What more needs to be said?

Moderate conservatives—Douthat and Brooks, for example—have taken a shrewder tack. For the most part, they have not disputed the meticulous research behind the book or Piketty’s main assertion about wealth accumulation. They focus instead on his proposed remedy—a universal wealth tax—ridiculing it as utopian and unworkable. And they urge measures that would blunt what is being called the “Haymarket 2028″ scenario: a mass uprising against the rentiers. 



Here is David Brooks:

This is a moment when progressives have found their worldview and their agenda. This move opens up a huge opportunity for the rest of us in the center and on the right. First, acknowledge that the concentration of wealth is a concern with a beefed up inheritance tax. Second, emphasize a contrasting agenda that will reward growth, saving and investment, not punish these things, the way Piketty would. Support progressive consumption taxes, not a tax on capital. Third, emphasize that the historically proven way to reduce inequality is lifting people from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down the top. In short, counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift.

I thought it was interesting that the Brooks column on Piketty was tombstoned on the Times editorial page right next to an Op-Ed call to end college legacy preferences, a.k.a. affirmative action for the wealthiest. Talk about a utopian idea!

One small problem with the Brooks “unifying uplift” formula: it is by no means “historically proven” that what he calls ”human capital” reforms do anything substantial to mitigate wealth concentration. As far back as 1971, sociologists Ivar Berg and Sherry Gorelick published a devastating critique of the human capital approach under the title The Great Training Robbery. No one has ever successfully refuted that book’s demolition of the notion that we can solve social inequality by sending educational ladders down to the deserving poor. And now that those ladders can only be climbed by youngsters willing to strap on the concrete shoes of usurious student debt, the mythical character of the idea that we will fight inequality by expanding educational access should be even more obvious.

But here’s a much more serious problem than the widespread acceptance of the Brooks formula by rattled conservatives and centrists. To wit: the “uplift” formula is also embraced by much of the so-called Left: by the Washington think tanks and pundits aligned with the Democratic Party and (most depressingly, for me) by many bien pensant progressive religious leaders in the U.S.

These religious progressives include some who rallied belatedly to the Occupy banner but who did so merely as a gesture of faux solidarity with those whose livelihoods and prospect of rising were shattered by the financial crisis. They include faith leaders who have so prostituted themselves to a wealth-colonized Democratic Party that when the White House says “jump!” their only response is to say “how high?”

These are people who would never in a million years call for a return to Eisenhower-era levels of marginal taxation on income, who didn’t raise a peep of protest when Obama made a very bad deal with the GOP on estate and capital gains tax rates, who had nothing to say when Dodd-Frank was gutted with Democratic connivance, and who would never dare to critique Obama’s Clintonesque devotion to trade deals that clearly hurt American working people while swelling the fortunes of the boardroom set.

I quoted from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s great hymn for a reason. The real danger for faith leaders is, quite naturally, a lack of faith. And what we see among religious types who are willing to serve as the Democratic Party’s handmaidens is precisely this lack of faith. Instead of faith that a real struggle from below is where God is and where God wants us to be, we see only gestures and expressions of “faithiness” (e.g., calls for a paltry increase in the minimum wage) that overlay a deep cynicism and a deep acceptance of the system as it is.

Bear in mind that this system still signals in multiple ways that getting ahead is the individual person’s own responsibility and that failing to get ahead is an individual and not a systemic failure. Leaders who accept such a system are about as far as they can be from the Isaiah who points to a very different source of failure: “Woe to you who join house to house and who add field to field until there is room in the land for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”

Written for the dedication of Riverside Church, Fosdick’s hymn appeals to God to “save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” In 1930 it was fairly obvious to everyone that irresponsible greed at the top was a primary evil, if not the primary evil, to be deplored. In 2014 it is equally obvious that concentrated wealth is the fundamental moral evil threatening human well being, democracy, and the planet itself. This is why lots of people who would never otherwise go to hear a nerdy economist have been flocking to Piketty’s appearances. But don’t expect the wealth-colonized Democrats’ faithy enablers to seize this as a moment to attack the system in fundamental ways.

And don’t expect our demoralized mainstream pastors and rabbis to have much to say, either. After all, they have annual budgets and capital campaigns that must hit their marks somehow. Hmmm, do I show loyalty to the God of the dispossessed, or is my real loyalty to the Mammon of the well-possessed?

Same old question, same old answer. But one can still hope for a different one.

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