Paul Krugman dismantles Piketty's haters

The New York Times columnist says the recent attacks on the French economist's work are bogus

Published June 2, 2014 1:11PM (EDT)

Paul Krugman                                                                                                                                                                     (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
Paul Krugman (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

In his latest column for the New York Times, award-winning economist and big time Thomas Piketty booster Paul Krugman rides to the defense of the celebrity economist, arguing that Chris Giles of the Financial Times' recent attempted takedown of "Capital in the 21st Century" makes some predictable, fundamental mistakes.

"[Piketty's] alleged errors," Krugman writes, "were actually the kinds of data adjustments that are normal in any research that relies on a variety of sources." In fact, Krugman says, the response's most obvious error — which rested on "an apples-to-oranges comparison that experts have long warned about" — is the kind of "fallacy" that Krugman says he warned about all the way back in 1992.

"In short," Krugman concludes, "this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked." This was an outcome, Krugman claims, that we "should have expected" because there are "so many independent indicators" that support Piketty's central claim — that inequality in the world's most advanced capitalist countries is increasing and has been for at least 30 years.

Yet Krugman hardly expects that Giles' debunking (which was accomplished by many, Piketty himself included) will cause people to accept Piketty's findings. On the contrary, he says, now those who are invested in denying inequality will forever have a source to point to that supposedly disproves Piketty's work:

In short, this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked. And you should have expected that. There are so many independent indicators pointing to sharply rising inequality, from the soaring prices of high-end real estate to the booming markets for luxury goods, that any claim that inequality isn’t rising almost has to be based on faulty data analysis.

Yet inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt. Indeed, you can be sure that the claim “The Piketty numbers are all wrong” will be endlessly repeated even though that claim quickly collapsed under scrutiny.

By the way, I’m not accusing Mr. Giles of being a hired gun for the plutocracy, although there are some self-proclaimed experts who fit that description. And nobody’s work should be considered above criticism. But on politically charged issues, critics of the consensus need to be self-aware; they need to ask whether they’re really seeking intellectual honesty, or are effectively acting as concern trolls, professional debunkers of liberal pieties. (Strange to say, there are no trolls on the right debunking conservative pieties. Funny how that works.)

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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