Thomas Piketty, Critical Thinking, Social Stability

A Reader’s Comments

I just wanted to thank all those who comment on my recent post and briefly reply to a comment from a reader who stated: “The confidence with which he [Piketty] states his conclusions … is staggering.” I don’t know if the reader has read the 700 page tome–I have only perused it–but on the very first page Piketty states: “Let me say at once that the answers contained herein are imperfect and incomplete.” This somewhat belies the reader’s claim about Piketty’s staggering confidence, although perhaps Piketty expresses more confidence later in the work. I do know the book is the culmination of fifteen years of research and that it was researched with and by multiple colleagues. I also suspect that the criticism of it is, for the most part, hastily derived. And as a lifelong academic I know that, for the most part, my colleagues were more interested in truth than political pundits. Still I acknowledge that Piketty’s basic ideas–and those of his multiple collaborators–may be partly or wholly mistaken.

The reader also states “Piketty’s book has been skewered in numerous blogs (see numerous posts on Marginal Revolution) and prominent articles.” I have no doubt that is true and there are differences of opinion in the world. As a non-expert I am not in a position to adjudicate among these disputes. If the massive data he and his collaborators presents turns out to be wrong, or if other evidence falsifies his various hypotheses then so be it. Still one must be skeptical of the critiques for reasons I will explain in a moment.

Critical Thinking

I would also like to address how these considerations bring up questions of critical thinking. How should we form opinions on topics about which we are not an experts? I am not an economist and I doubt most of my readers are. In general I have always held to the advice expressed by Bertrand Russell in his essay “Let the People Think:”

(1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

This is a good starting point but there are other considerations. For example how precise is the subject matter we are talking about? Physics and biology are very precise sciences, psychology and sociology much less so, and theology and poetry are not precise at all. Thus I generally trust the views of biologists concerning biology but not the views of so-called theological experts, assuming there even are any. (I don’t think there are.)

Another consideration, perhaps the most important one, is to ask yourself who has a greater interest in lying to you or deceiving you? For example consider tobacco companies who for years and to some extent today still deny the connection between tobacco and various health risks associated with their products. It is possible they are correct, that over 50 years of medical research is mistaken, and that the research is part of some liberal plot to get the government involved in regulating tobacco. But such a view strains credulity. The tobacco companies have a much greater incentive to lie than the scientists and thus should be trusted much less.

Or consider that there is overwhelming evidence and reasons to accept the most basic idea of modern biology-evolutionary theory-rather than the non-scientific creation myths of various religions. But religious institutions often believe it is in their financial interests to oppose such science–otherwise they might lose contributors! Those who tell you to doubt biological evolution are either ignorant–they truly don’t know that evolutionary theory has the same scientific status as gravitational or atomic theory–or they are lying to you because they fear the consequences of you abandoning your religious beliefs. Unlike science, religious institutions believe they have a vested interest in lying, or perhaps they come to believe their own lies.

Similarly one should be skeptical of the claims of fossil fuel companies who for the most part deny the connection between human activity–burning fossil fuels, eating meat, etc.–and global warming. As stated in this blog and referenced numerous times, that view is at odds with the near unanimous view of climate scientists. It is much more likely that the disinformation campaign regarding climate change is motivated by the profit of the fossil fuel industry than that there is some conspiracy among scientists. There is also ideological opposition to believing in climate change because most likely it will require global governmental action to address this issue.  (“Cap and trade,” a conservative and market based approach also holds much promise, although for political reasons  it has recently been abandoned by the Republican party in the USA, since so many of their political donations come from the fossil fuel industry.)

Now consider Piketty’s work. There is a small but politically influential sector of plutocrats who believe they have a vested interest in Piketty’s claims being false. And of course Piketty’s basic claims may be false. Still, as a non-expert in the field though I am more likely to accept his views–since they are consistent with the majority view among economists today–than those of blog post or articles by individuals who have a vested interest in his claims being false. Of course economics is not as precise a science as climate science or biology and hence we cannot be as certain of its conclusions. The majority of economists at MIT, Berkeley and Harvard may turn out to be mistaken and the majority at the University of Chicago may be vindicated. (Although many of the ideas of the contemporary right of the American political spectrum are very radical and would be unrecognizable even to Adam Smith, Freidrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.)

Social Stability

All of this leads to even larger issues. Since Piketty’s research is about, among other things, income inequality, it is easy to see why those with the most wealth generally oppose his ideas. But I am not sure that the wealthiest members of society benefit from their opposition to the minimal welfare state in the USA much less the more generous ones in Western Europe and Scandanavia. (Which I must add consistently are shown to be the happiest, most prosperous and most peaceful countries.) After all the wealthiest members of the society benefit the most from political stability. To the extent they undermine it–pay low wages, disenfranchise voters, support violent anti-government anarchists–they may undermine their power. The revolutionary ideas they foment may be self-defeating.

Thus it is probably not in the self-interest of prominent right wing commentators to go on national television and support anarchists who aim assault weapons at the government officials trying to collect money for using public lands. After all it is the police and the national guard who ultimately protect those who have wealth and power.


One thought on “Thomas Piketty, Critical Thinking, Social Stability

  1. Professor Messerly:

    1. “This somewhat belies the reader’s claim about Piketty’s staggering confidence, although perhaps Piketty expresses more confidence later in the work.”

    Yes, it’s strange to be arguing about a book that neither of us have read. That said, I have read numerous (8+) reviews of Piketty’s book, which skewer it for different reasons, along several dimensions. If you read even a few of these reviews, you will see that Piketty repeatedly makes claims like:

    Controversial assumption A + controversial assumption B, under economics model X, predicts conclusion Y, the data support Y, therefore … capitalism is fundamentally broken.

    Over and over again, Piketty refers to the fundamental flaw or error in capitalism, based on far narrower and nuanced premises, just like in the example that I outline above.

    2. Wishful thinking:

    You write: “As a non-expert in the field though I am more likely to accept his views–since they are consistent with the majority view among economists today–than those of blog post or articles by individuals who have a vested interest in his claims being false.”

    FIrst, I’m not sure that his views are “consistent with the majority view among economists today.” Most moderate-left economists are cautiously supportive of capitalism as the engine of growth and abundance in the world, given certain constraints. Most of the economists do not, to my knowledge, regard modern capitalism as doomed to self-destruct without even greater reforms, taxes, and redistribution than we have now. That sounds more like Marx than The New York Times or the American Economic Review.

    Second, even if your claim (Piketty is consistent with mainstream economics) is true, I’m not sure that’s a solid foundation to form beliefs, instead of reserving judgment. Your statement itself involve enormous complexity, in deciding what exactly is Piketty’s view, and what about it is consistent with the “majority” of economists. And do we really want to turn your beliefs about economics into a popularity contest?

    Lastly, the far more important point: you discount critiques of Piketty by alleging that his critics are biased because they succeed through “plutocra[cy.]” The first major problem with this argument is that Piketty’s critics are typically not millionaire robber barons twirling their mustaches and counting their gold coins. They are libertarian, conservative, and independent economists, pundits, and scholars. Few people would call academics like Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan or Scott Sumner (or any of the writers at the Liberty Fund) to be “plutocrats.” They’re university economics professors, and bloggers, with various degree of success in publishing books (Cowen moreso than the others). The true plutocrats in the United States, like the deca-millionaire tycoons on Wall Street, generally don’t give a damn about Piketty because he’s too powerless, and his book too trivial, to upset their daily lives. Most of them are ignorant of academics and probably have no idea who Piketty is.

    The second major problem with appealing to bias is that liberals are biased. If you live in, say, Seattle, surrounded by liberals, then there is undeniable pressure to fit in and agree with everyone else. Same if you teach in a college/university or surround yourself with academics. If you like women, and women are significantly more liberal than men, then you will feel pressure to be liberal. If you Piketty endorses signaling that you care by supporting more taxes and redistribution, and if women tend to be more caring and nurturing (and like those who signal the same tendency to care), then you’ll feel pressure to be liberal. If you stand to gain from liberal policies through increased welfare and handouts (as I would and you would and most people would) then you will feel increased pressure to be liberal.

    So two can play the “bias” card. That’s why I asked you about Haidt’s theory of political differences and moral sensibilities (see his book The Righteous Mind). That’s also why I asked you about well known sex differences in political views and voting patterns.

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