Paul Krugman: Thomas Piketty's got conservatives running scared

The New York Times columnist argues the right has no idea how to offer a legitimate policy response to inequality

By Elias Isquith
Published April 25, 2014 2:01PM (EDT)
Paul Krugman                                                                                                                                                       (Reuters/Chip East)
Paul Krugman (Reuters/Chip East)

In his latest column for the New York Times, award-winning economist and best-selling author Paul Krugman continues to champion the new book on inequality from French economist Thomas Piketty while ridiculing conservatives for having no substantive response to Piketty's work.

"The really striking thing about the debate so far," Krugman writes, "is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis. Instead, the response has been all about name-calling — in particular, claims that Mr. Piketty is a Marxist, and so is anyone who considers inequality of income and wealth an important issue."

Krugman isn't surprised that conservatives are flummoxed, though, saying that because Piketty's book so debunks one of their core convictions about the economy, it's hardly a surprise to find them grasping for answers. "[T]he insistence that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved," Krugman writes, is "that most cherished of conservative myths..." But Piketty "demolishes" it.

Where's that leave them? According to Krugman, it leaves conservatives with little else to do but call Piketty names. "Marxist," in particular.

Krugman continues:

[I]t has been amazing to watch conservatives, one after another, denounce Mr. Piketty as a Marxist. Even Mr. Pethokoukis, who is more sophisticated than the rest, calls “Capital” a work of “soft Marxism,” which only makes sense if the mere mention of unequal wealth makes you a Marxist. (And maybe that’s how they see it: recently former Senator Rick Santorum denounced the term “middle class” as “Marxism talk,” because, you see, we don’t have classes in America.)

And The Wall Street Journal’s review, predictably, goes the whole distance, somehow segueing from Mr. Piketty’s call for progressive taxation as a way to limit the concentration of wealth — a remedy as American as apple pie, once advocated not just by leading economists but by mainstream politicians, up to and including Teddy Roosevelt — to the evils of Stalinism. Is that really the best The Journal can do? The answer, apparently, is yes.

Now, the fact that apologists for America’s oligarchs are evidently at a loss for coherent arguments doesn’t mean that they are on the run politically. Money still talks — indeed, thanks in part to the Roberts court, it talks louder than ever. Still, ideas matter too, shaping both how we talk about society and, eventually, what we do. And the Piketty panic shows that the right has run out of ideas.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Class War Inequality James Pethokoukis One Percent The New York Times Thomas Krugman Thomas Piketty