expedient reconciliations

Marx on vulgar economics:

“In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power…It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prize fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic. Still, even the obtrusive pamphlets with which the Anti-Corn Law League, led by the manufacturers Cobden and Bright, deluged the world, have a historic interest, if no scientific one, on account of their polemic against the landed aristocracy. But since then the Free Trade legislation, inaugurated by Sir Robert Peel, has deprived vulgar economy of this its last sting.

The Continental revolution of 1848-9 also had its reaction in England. Men who still claimed some scientific standing and aspired to be something more than mere sophists and sycophants of the ruling classes tried to harmonise the Political Economy of capital with the claims, no longer to be ignored, of the proletariat. Hence a shallow syncretism of which John Stuart Mill is the best representative. It is a declaration of bankruptcy by bourgeois economy…

Under these circumstances its professors fell into two groups. The one set, prudent, practical business folk, flocked to the banner of Bastiat [think Mankiw], the most superficial and therefore the most adequate representative of the apologetic of vulgar economy; the other, proud of the professorial dignity of their science, followed John Stuart Mill [think Stiglitz, Picketty] in his attempt to reconcile irreconcilables.”

This was written in 1873. It should have been the last word on Picketty (or, if you prefer critiques of the Picketty phenomenon written after Picketty, this from Thomas Palley).

Twitter had a notion I wanted to hear more and they notified me of this discussion with Dorian Warren, Shamus Khan, and Suresh Naidu on Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (interesting) and Picketty and how awesome his influence has been (not again!). I watched primarily out of self-doubt. Maybe I’m too dismissive. Maybe I engage in the straw manning of mainstream economics I’m critical of in other heterodox economists. So I watch. (Let me point out that this is a discussion between three University of Columbia University professors. It is nice to see MSNBC finally reaching out to coastal cultural elites in the top 10% of the income distribution.)

Now, I know this is produced and distributed by good people so I’m just supposed to smile and retweet, but it seems basic respect and decency involves actually listening. And this is what we hear (starting at 5:51):

“Actually Greg Mankiw had a pretty interesting contribution…If you really only care about improving the wages of workers…you should just give everything to capitalists…well, if workers are more productive when they work with more capital, if you give capitalists more you’ll give workers a larger capital stock to work with and they’ll actually make higher wages…

But then he points out that if you actually care about inequality you should actually favor a tax on capital.”

What are the Picketty-inspired cutting edge radical ideas I’m supposed to be in awe of? A combination of stupidity and banality. If you are a tenured neoclassical economist at Harvard, shouting “supply-side economics!” and pointing out that taxing rich people might lower inequality counts as “pretty interesting.”

And they wonder why some economists are hesitant to abandon the “Zombie” traditions of radical political economy to join the dignified ranks of the DeLongs and Mankiws.

Let me add, because I honestly hate to be provoked into such snarkiness, that if you are interested in finding interesting social science, forgot all the nice stuff that Warren, Khan, and Naidu have to say about Picketty’s writing and read what they’ve written themselves.

(edit: Proving I do not have sufficient cultural capital to be in MSNBC’s target audience I stupidly called Columbia University the University of Columbia. It is difficult for us public school kids!)

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