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Sunday 4 May 2014

Humor, Memes, and the Historical Roots of Inequality

Be warned that today, I'm going to ramble all over the place.

The News and Internet Memes

There are some items reported in various news media that seem to live lives far longer than what their inital value may warrant. This idiocy of mountainous coverage of mole hill news often appears to be the product of the dreaded "slow news day." Some of it is merely the churn of 24/7 news-on-demand where Andy Warhol's apocryphal 15 minutes of fame means that reporters and editors are obliged to create a metaphorical 24 hrs/0.25 hrs = 96 new news items per day. In a world with such a demand for the latest and greatest news items, it's no stretch to see that some of those 96 daily items of "news" will end up being mostly trivial coverage of mole hills to the detriment of reportage of mountains.

One can certainly find trivial news and its mockery aplenty. Small town newspapers abound with such items as:

"12:47 p.m.-- A resident of High Street reported that someone came into house while she was gone, shaved her dog and took her cell phone charger" (1)

Items like this often live far longer than is justified simply because they are humorous to just about anyone other then the soul who made the original report and now live long lives on the internet, passed in unnumbered Facebook and Twitter "shares." I have to wonder if the persistence of this particular item lives on because it evokes that episode of the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog where the Fred, the deranged barber pursued just about everyone but Muriel to give them a buzz cut (2).


The reduction of trivial though funny happenstance into memes on the internet has become as cliche as "all your base are belong to us" (3). The celebration and perpetration of the humorously trivial in the news by such venues like no doubt will be the subject of many anthropology and sociology dissertations for years to come. Sometimes it's not even the churn of news that sends such unimportant items into perpetual orbit on the internet. Back in 1994, back when web pages were really in their infancy, Compuserve still existed, USENET newsgroups were the rage and one could buy "Internet in a Box," someone passed a mimeographed page of church bulletin bloopers around in choir practice at my church in St. Louis. This venerable collection has since found its way onto the internet where one can find its several permutations on many church related blogs and websites (4, 5) where can one discover such gems like:

"Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early."


"The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on the Water. The sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus."

Spreading harmless humor on the internet might arguably be one of the best uses. It is tempting to say that the proliferation of needless and trivial news might one of the worst, but it is not in comparison to the truly criminal uses of the net such as fraud, con jobs, sexual stalking of minors, and the like. In a world where every amateur blogger can pursue delusions of being a real journalist, items like

"Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation"

don't seem so bad.

Mountains from Mole Hills due to Politics

There are some items pursued in the news media that while newsworthy, do garner attention far beyond their worth. The Keystone XL Pipeline is one such item. Given the reality that there are hundreds of pipelines transporting both raw and refined fossil fuel products, the stink over the Dept of State Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline is unbalanced. Why this one pipeline and not others? Frankly, all pipelines present some risk of leakage, and while dilbit crude from tar sands is a bit nastier than light crude, any given natural gas pipeline is vastly more dangerous. A simple internet search on natural gas pipeline accidents vs. liquid fossil fuel pipeline accidents will bear this out.

I believe the persistence of this item in the news is likely that the Keystone project has become an example, a scapegoat target of environmental activists who object to not just one pipeline, but all pipelines and all activities related to products derived from tar sands. By deriding one project, they believe they are able to cast aspersions on all similar projects. While there are few unbiased websites detailing the Keystone XL Pipeline project; a half-way decent chronology of the project and opposition is up on Wikipedia and a relatively neutral examination of pros, cons and claims can be found at the reputable (6).

Frankly, given a choice between scaremongering about Keystone like

"this pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources and jeopardize public health" (7)

and a recirculated church bulletin blooper like

"At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice"

it's easy to see why many people eschew political dead horse beating on the news for laughs over the inanity of monorail cats (8)

Leonhardt's New York Times Article of 4 May 2014

Well, sooner or later, I am obliged by my own self-imposed rules for this blog to discuss someone being wrong on the internet, regardless of the appeal of church bulletin bloopers like

"The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday."

Today's subject is an article in the New York Times Magazine on a subject that really should have died weeks ago, namely the publication of Professor Thomas Piketty's book Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The article is by New York Times journalist David Leonhart with the title of "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable" (9)

New York Times Magazine articles are often pages and pages long, though there's often something in every one that's good. For example, I remember first reading about the murders, forgeries, and prosecution of the now infamous Mark Hoffman, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. In contrast to the usual land and in-depth articles that usually grace the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Leonhardt's piece was really short, less than a page. The gist of it is that Leonhardt didn't grok all of Piketty's math on inequality trends so he called Piketty and asked him to explain. Piketty obliged.

Leonhardt then sums up some of Piketty's main points, namely that wealth inequality is growing, and has been getting worse with time and with the introduction of the tools and technology of modern productivity. According to Leonhardt's take on Piketty, wealth inequality was not as bad back in the pre-industrial days of agriculture because the basis of wealth, i. e. land, was static. With the introduction of modern tools and technology, that is not longer the case: the means of creating wealth, i.e. tools and technology, has been increasing since the industrial revolution and this results in both the creation of more wealth and more wealth inequality.

Granted, as I said in an earlier blog post, I have not read Piketty's book and probably will not do so until I can score an inexpensive copy. So I don't know what Piketty really said vs. what Leohardt thinks he said - though given that he actually bothered to call Piketty, I'm willing to give him more credence than a lot of other articles I've seen on Piketty's book. So on top of everything, you have to rely on my understanding of what Leonhardt said Piketty said, which may or may not be accurate - but Leonhardt's article is short so if you're interested, go read it for yourself.

What's important here is Leonhardt's statement based on Piketty's book that the wealth inequality gap is increasing and has been been doing so since the transition from agrarian to modern industrial societies. He goes on to say that such a trend is not inevitable and that Piketty's now infamous solution is to redistribute some of that wealth through a universal excess wealth tax. Given how much I don't like economics, church bulletin humor looks better by the second in comparison.

More Reactions to Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Maybe I shouldn't be running on at the keyboard here over a book I haven't even read yet, but the ridiculous obsessing over Piketty's book for the last month is really getting to be a bit much. Granted, a lot of the reaction to the book has to do with conservatives having a cow over the obvious Marxist leanings which are explicit in the book. After all, words like communist, Marx and wealth redistribution are enough to give any American Cold War vet the heeby geebies. McCarthy must be rolling in his grave!

The Economist has published a rather nice little commentary on the reaction to Piketty's book and its longevity thus far in the press because, frankly, it's just a book on economic theory (10). One could make a case that Piketty's book is really just a mole hill that's gotten mountain-status coverage in certain media venues because it contains buzz words and economic proposals that are contrary to American cultural norms of red bashing. American supply-side and monetarist economists, political conservatives, and their political supporters, many of whom probably can't even discuss Marx vs. Lenin vs. Stalin vs. Trotsky vs. Adam Smith, are apt to react to such words that have more to do with political camp than with true economic evaluation. Okay, I concede that I might not be entirely fair in my estimation of the general knowledge of American conservative rank and file.

For a book on ecomonic theory which is full of the kind of economic arm-waving math that I personally have little patience for, I find the reaction way out of whack. Piketty's book in his native French was published in France a year ago and hardly made any waves in Europe. An academic French economist wrote a review for a left-leaning publication in France that criticized the work for not being, well, more to the left (11)! As I noted in my first blog post on Piketty's Capital, the current reaction over the English language publication of this book has more to do with one's politics than with the actual book itself (12).

Just like the treatment of some of the trivial news items on slow news days, the coverage in the English-language press to Piketty's Capital is a mountain in reaction to a mole hill of a book.

Have you ever read the anti-federalist responses to the Federalist Papers? When we read the Federalist Papers or read about them in American History classes, the 85 different articles making up that work look like a coherent collection of essays in favor of the U.S Constitution. What we don't learn, or learn and then forget, is that the Federalist Papers were not a coherent, planned and crafted seamless set. Each of those "articles" was really an editorial in a late 18th century newspaper, published in various cities by different authors over a period of two years (1786-1787). As these articles were printed, rebuttal editorials by anti-federalist opponents were also being published in the early American post-Colonial press (13). The give and take was hardly give and take; the exchange between the two groups was heated and often polite to the point of nastiness. Even accusations of wanting to reestablish some kind of monarchy or tyranny were leveled against the Federalists as well as predictions of robbing the individual states of their sovereign power through the economic evil of one unified monetary supply for all the States. Some of the other anti-federal accusations were just as off the wall.

Some of the exchanges in the modern press in this country remind me at times of the spats in the newspapers of post-Colonial early America between the Federalists and their anti-federal opponents. Tea Party true-believers and "the government is the problem" "starve the beast" Reaganoid conservatives sound a bit like those old anti-federalists to me at times.

Someone Was Wrong on the Internet?

Now that I've rambled from French left-leaning newspapers, the U.S. Constitution, shaving dogs and church bulletin bloopers, I should probably explain what it is about Leonhardt's article that makes it a worthy target of this blog.

First, Leonhardt's title for his article does not actually match the content of his article. His title conveys that wealth inequality itself is not inevitable. The body of the article states that the trend of ever-increasing wealth inequality is not inevitable, and that this is one of the main arguments of Piketty's book and also the basis for Piketty's wealth tax proposal as a means to reverse that very trend.

So what so wrong with that?

To begin, the title is misleading and also, it's wrong. Wealth inequality is an intrinsic feature of civilization. Hierarchy and social stratification are a feature of the Civitas. You don't have one without the other because agriculture, the defining act of any so-called "civilized" state, requires organization and specialization. Where you have organization and specialization, you will have social stratification and hierarchy creation, which lead to the unequal allocation of wealth across social classes.

The transition between primitive societies and the creation of the Civitas - or "civilization" occurs at the hunter-gatherer to agrarian transition. To support these very broad statements, I will now appeal to the work of one of the most prolific and respected encyclopedic historians ever, Will Durant.

Based on studies of Amerindians, Eskimoes, Samoans, Borneans, Amazoneans, Cittagong Indians and tribal cultures where land was not something anyone owned, where crop gathering was supplemental to hunting and organized agriculture did not yet exist, Durant pointed out that the means for survival were shared and differences in personal wealth were trivial. He labeled such societies as being truly communistic both in regard to food and to land. He also considered the members of these societies to be egalitarian though primitive, uncultured, and somewhat lazy. Yes, he really did said lazy, which makes sense for something written in the 1930s, which is when he wrote the passages I'm currently looking at (14). He had no knowledge of Sackett's famous (infamous?) study that settled the hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural work debate that raged for almost 50 years, showing that people do less work and have more leisure time in hunter-gatherer societies compared to agrarian societies (15).

When I was reading Leonhardt's article, I noted Leonhardt's paraphrase of Piketty's idea that the static nature of pre-industrial society meant wealth inequality was more or less stable, namely:

"He suggested imagining a hypothetical village from centuries ago in which neither the population nor the economy was growing. Every year, the village produced the same amount of goods for the same number of people to divide — a reality that was typical before the Enlightenment, when material living standards and human longevity barely rose. (The peasants of the 15th century were not better off than peasants in ancient Rome.)"

Reading this, I thought to myself that Piketty might be a brilliant economist, but he is no historian. In particular, I remembered a passage in Will Durant's first volume in his acclaimed History of Civilization series, a work which - like Gibbon's - is more than just a history. It was a passage that contradicted this view that the economic inequality of pre-modern agrarian societies was static and stable. It took me a little while to find it. You can read it for yourself and see why I contrasted it with Piketty vis a vis Leonhardt:

Perhaps one reason why communism tends to appear chiefly at the beginning of civilizations is that it flourishes most readily in times of dearth, when the common danger of starvation fuses the individual into the group. When abundance comes, and the danger subsides, social cohesion is lessened, and individualism increases; communism ends where luxury begins. As the life of a society becomes more complex, and the division of labor differentiates men into diverse occupations and trades, it becomes more and more unlikely that all these services will be equally valuable to the group; inevitably those whose greater ability enables them to perform the more vital functions will take more than their equal share of the rising wealth of the group. Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence, and the chaos of revolution levels men again into a community of destitution. Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty. Periodically the land gets itself redistributed, legally or not, whether by the Gracchi in Rome, the Jacobins in France, or the Communists in Russia; periodically wealth is redistributed, whether by the violent confiscation of property, or by confiscatory taxation of incomes and bequests. Then the race for wealth, goods and power begins again, and the pyramid of ability takes form once more; under whatever laws may be enacted the abler man manages somehow to get the richer soil, the better place, the lion’s share; soon he is strong enough to dominate the state and rewrite or interpret the laws; and in time the inequality is as great as before. In this aspect all economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social-organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

As I acquired more volumes of Durant's History of Civilization, initially from my father who had several first editions, and then later filling in the gaps from purchases at used book stores, I read them all. It is a theme, subtle but explicit throughout Durant's opus that the inequalities of wealth in pre-modern societies were anything but static and stable. Durant clearly saw a pattern of where the cruelty and/or greed of some elites in certain societies led to inequalities of wealth and privilege so unjustifiable that those with nothing to lose would rebel, sometimes to fail and sometimes to topple their rulers, redistributing wealth and not always equitably. He noted the pattern in the Spartan Helots revolts; the patrician-plebeian class war of the early Roman republic; the Gracchi, Jacobins and Russian Communists mentioned above; as well as the Jacqueries of 14th century France.

Durant saw cycles in history of recurring struggle between the haves and the have-nots. While his initial statements in this area of historical interpretation was limited to economics and did not account for the effects of religion and propaganda in co-opting and coercing the lower classes in their servitude, like in Ancient Egypt to build the Pyramids, his point was made about the patterns of wealth distribution and class warfare. One only needs to look at the historical records to know that wealth inequality was anything but stable and static in the pre-modern pre-industrial agrarian world. Piketty is right in the statement that wealth inequality has been growing since the industrial revolution and Durant agrees with that (16), but Piketty is wrong in considering the wealth inequality of pre-modern societies as a constant. The European peasants of 15th century were likely serfs and probably were much worse off than the free citizen peasant farmers of the Roman Republic of Antiquity, but probably better off than the chain-gang latifundia slaves of the late Roman Republic and Empire. The Devil is in the details.

Wealth Inequality in Perspective

The internet can trivialize even the most profound of great thinkers. There may be a lot more to Piketty than one can extract from too many politically-biased editorials commentaries; for now, however, just a small sampling of Durant's encyclopedic vision across the vast landscape of history is enough for all that internet drivel to seem rather flimsy and much ado about nothing. Frankly, given the bankrupt profundity of politically-motivated biased journalism on the internet, I think I much prefer my church bulletin gaffs:

"This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar."

References, on the casual side

  1., accessed 4 May 2014
  2., accessed 4 May 2014
  3., accessed 4 May 2014
  4., accessed 4 May 2014
  5., accessed 4 May 2014
  6., accessed 4 May 2014
  7., accessed 4 May 2014
  8., accessed 4 May 2014
  9. Leonhardt, D. (4 May 2014), "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable," New York Times Magazine, p. MM23, also, accessed 4 May 2014.
  10., accessed 3 May 2014
  11. De La Gasnerie, G. (18 Oct 2013), "Le manifeste inégalitaire de Thomas Piketty," Liberation,, accessed 3 May 2014: e.g. " il n’est jamais question de domination sociale et culturelle, de violence, de relégation, d’exploitation, d’aliénation au travail, de classes, de luttes, etc." To be completely honest here, I found out about this review from reading the Economist, namely in an commentary piece at, accessed 3 May 2014
  12., accessed 4 May 2014
  13. I had a collection of the Anti-Federalist Papers when I was in high school competing in the American Legion annual oratory competition on the Constitution. I got a lot of good material for my speeches from that book, though alas, I came in second in my state the last time I competed and never got to go to the National level of competition. But that collection of anti-federalist material really expanded my knowledge of the formation of the this country beyond anything I learned at school. You can find a decent selection of the sorts of anti-constitution editorials that were being printed in early US newspapers at (accessed 4 May 2014) if you'd like to see what sort of acrimony was in the air just before the Constitution was written and ratified.
  14. Durant, W. (1935, 2014), Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, NY: Chapter 2 Ther Economic Elements of Civilizations, part 3 Economic Organization.
  15. Sackett, R. (1996), Time, energy, and the indolent savage. A quantitative cross-cultural test of the primitive affluence hypothesis: Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
  16. Durant, Will (1935, 2014). The Complete Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ, Age of Faith, Renaissance, Age of Reason Begins, Age of Louis ... and Revolution, Age of Napoleon, Reformation (Kindle Locations 621-636). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
  17. Ibid, Kindle Locations 637-639

Saturday 26 April 2014

Biased Journalism and Capital in the Twenty-First Century

It's been way too long since I last posted. The delay was due to my "day job" of running a small business. One can only procrastinate so much when it comes to accounting and taxes. Trying to sort out the needless complexity of federal income taxes is enough to convert anyone into a progressive on tax reform - but I'll save that rant for some other day.

Piketty and his Book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Today's blog offering is about the recent brewhaha over Professor Thomas Piketty's brand new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (we will refer to this book as just Capital for the rest of the post).

There are whole farms of editorial misstatements in this week's and last week's newspapers and sponsored blogs over this book. When I compare op-ed pieces on Piketty's opus, it seems like every editorial or review is about a different book. For example, Capital as read by Nobel-Prize winning economist Krugman ( appears to be a different work compared to the Capital read by right-leaning editorialist David Brooks (, by Wall Street fund manager Daniel Shuchman (, or by engineer and part-time journalist David Auerbach ( I could list more articles on Piketty's Capital, like the ones found in the venerable weekly Economist ( or the American Business flagship magazine Forbes ( It seems like the world has exploded with numerous reviews and commentary on this French economist's book while I was on vacation for the last two weeks.

I have not read Piketty's book and therefore am not in a position to produce my own critique. Regardless of what Piketty actually wrote, I am both intrigued and disappointed that I can predict the overall tone and much of the content of most reviews and commentary on Capital by author or publication for most of the news outlets I visit (with the one exception of Salon, as discussed below). For example, Krugman uses Piketty's analysis of growing income equality to go straight for the jugular of the voodoo economics favored by the modern American neo-con rightwing. But that's Krugman's bread-and-butter for his New York Times column. The man just can't resist taking those potshots at the supply-side economic theories of the American right wing because the former lives in a data-driven universe and latter does not.

Obligatory Tangent: Voodoo Economics

Okay, I admit it - that was a cheap shot. You caught me red-handed. I like Krugman's stuff and therefore must come clean that the above statement may be biased. Let's look at that for a moment before moving on. The term "voodoo economics" was coined by George Bush Sr. when he was running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination as the party's presidential candidate in 1980. Voodoo economics was Daddy Bush's label for what is known as supply-side economics or "Reaganomics" on this side of the Atlantic. The lynchpin of Reaganomics is the theory that cutting taxes on capital-based income will create incentives to reinvest this formerly-taxed income in new business development, thus stimulating the economy and creating jobs. The tax revenue lost would be recouped through taxes on the new economic growth, namely the newly-created wages and business profits. By reducing the tax expense for businesses, the money saved would then "trickle-down" to the rest of the economy through new business spending. Deregulation of industry and shrinking the size of government were also part of Reaganomics, on the grounds that removing governmental meddling for both businesses and individuals would also stimulate the economy. The BBC has a nice bite-sized overview of voodoo economics at and the Stern School of Business at NYU has a nice in-depth overview at

Federal deficit reduction has been and still is integral to the current economic philosophy of the right wing; but if you give it a minute of thought, I believe you will realize that deficit reduction is actually a separate issue from supply-side economics. This is important only because right-wing pundits believe that policies which are the opposite of those recommended by supply-side theory, namely increasing taxes, regulating industry and not shrinking government, will lead to recession along with a growth in the federal deficit and in interest rates. The irony here is that the federal deficit exploded under Reagan's and Bush Senior's terms as President with their policies of deregulation and tax cuts, from $40 billion in 1979 to $221 billion in 1986. As to the economic impact of Reaganomics, numbers from the Congressional Budget Office show that the growth in GDP abruptly slowed during the Reagan administration, indicating a drop in economic activity.

In actual fact, the Clinton administration approach to federal deficit reduction did everything that supply-siders hate: taxes were increased while the growth of federal spending was slowed but not reversed. By the start of Clinton's second term, the federal deficit was cut in half. When Clinton left office, he left Bush Jr. a budget surplus of $236 billion. During that time, real interest rates and the growth rate of the GDP were both stable. (Federal deficit data is from the Congressional Budget Office,; GDP data is from the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis,

So what's the gig with voodoo economics? Simply that they don't work as advertised, particularly in recessionary economies. At the risk of sounding like Krugman, cutting both taxes and government spending make recessions worse. This isn't arm waving. This is a statement based on data, and more data than just comparing Reagan/Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr. The numbers aren't even exclusively American, especially when looking at the effect of taxes or consumer and government spending on measurements of economic health, namely unemployment, real wages, and prices indices. Krugman covers much of this ground in his 1995 book, Peddling Prosperity (ISBN 978-0393312928) but for an up-to-date look at the failure of supply-side economics, I refer the reader to the 2013 data-intense analysis of Stuckler and Basu in their book The Body Economic (ISBN 978-0-465-06398-7). Don't be fooled into thinking it's a book on public health policy. Read this book for its number crunching of international economic and societal data. Admittedly, the progressive rhetoric of the authors is strident but what they have to say is backed up by data, lots of data, and even more data. I'm a data-driven person and so I recommend this book highly.

To conclude this verbose tangent on voodoo economics, it was no surprise to me that Krugman's op-ed piece on Piketty was really just another another platform for one of his attacks on right wing economic theorists who are long on wind and arm waving and short on real numbers. I don't like Krugman because I'm a liberal because I'm not a liberal. I like Krugman because he pays attention to real-world economic data and eschews theoretical economic models regardless of the political orientation of their supporters. So much for my bias on Krugman.

More Predictable Reactions to Piketty's Capital

David Brooks is one of the New York Times' token op-ed conservatives. Mind you, what I have to say here is personal opinion and that the reader's opinion may be different from mine. I find that Brooks is no Krugman and that most of his stuff is unfocused and underwhelming, though I do enjoy his regular tiffs with New York Times liberal editorialist Gail Collins because of their good-natured humor. Brooks' piece on Piketty is like Brooks himself: full of fuzzy thinking and fuzzy, often incorrect assumptions. Here's an example from Brooks' Piketty article:

If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich. You go to fund-raisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around. You get more attention than them at parties, but your whole apartment could fit in their dining room. You struggle with tuition, but their kids go off on ski weekends. You wait in line at the post office, but they have staff to do it for them.

The first time I read this, my inner smart aleck protested that you'd never see the Wall Street elite at school functions since all their kids are off at Choate or Emma Willard or some other private school. And what's that bit about struggling with tuition? Young professionals I know in New York or San Francisco can't afford private schools for their kids, many of which carry price tags as expensive as tuition at an Ivy League university. Most professionals of my acquaintance, like my sister or my cousins, have to settle for moving to a bedroom community with a good public school system. And somehow, I find his take on inequality really very odd: that Brooks believes that observing the wealthy 1% is more common than seeing the homeless in Union Square or MacArthur Park, or seeing the slums every commuter observes from the windows of the subway or BART or from one's car on the Nimitz Freeway on the south side of Oakland. I have a hard time with that since the signs of poverty are as common and frequent as every person holding a "will work for food" sign at busy intersections and highway onramps, an unavoidable sight unless you live in a gated community that you never leave. This is just one example of why I find Brooks to be a fuzzy thinker and a fuzzy writer.

The quality of the New York Times' conservative editorialists has suffered since the late William Safire retired, sad to say. I do find it interesting that Brooks seems to assume that the reader has already read Piketty's book with its hefty retail price of $39.95 (and only $21.99 on Kindle!) but the devil's advocate in me wants to point out that Brooks' piece is an editorial, not a book review.

Out of the several of pieces from the Wall Street Journal ("WSJ") on Piketty's book, I will use just the one I mentioned above since I find it representative of many of the WSJ editorials I've read in recent years. I have to delineate between the old WSJ and the new because I find the WSJ just isn't what it used to be after Murdoch bought it. The amount of criticism of business and politics on the editorial page has declined and some topics, like racism and workplace discrimination, don't even appear anymore. I'm not alone in thinking the WSJ has strayed from its former standards of superior business reporting and analysis as any search on "Wall Street Journal changes since Murdoch" will show. The discussions on the changes at the WSJ at would be a good place to start for those who are interested.

For me, the new style of WSJ editorials tend to feel like varsity versions of the junior varsity "commentary" reporting at Fox News. Strawman arguments, name calling and other forms of ad hominem attacks never used to show up at the WSJ but subtle forms of these are now not uncommon. Here's an example from the WSJ book review by Wall Street insider Shuchman:

"the author believes that no CEO could ever justify his or her pay based on performance. He doesn't say whether any occupation—athletes? physicians? economics professors who sell zero-marginal-cost e-books for $21.99 a copy?—is entitled to higher earnings because he does not wish to 'indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth.' "

Wow. Strawman and ad hominem all in one sentence! I'm going to resist the temptation here to ponder whether Shuchman perhaps found Piketty's commentary on exploding executive salaries a little too close to home. Someone please pass me my 6-pack of mice! For myself, I find nothing wrong with Piketty's desire to avoid the creation of a "moral hierarchy of wealth" where one's worth in life is measured only in terms of how much you earn. Despite the common American failing to use wealth as a measure of social standing and personal worth, it is not true that any given physician is a better person than a house wife raising a pack of children, or that a best seller author is a better person a truck driver, or that a Wall Street fund manger is a better person than a bank teller. Methinks that Shuchman doth protest too much.

I find that this sort of subtle nastiness has infected the op-ed pages of the WSJ since its takeover by Murdoch's media empire. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (, this is the new Murdoch-owned WSJ where one editorialist claimed that:

"Pipelines also tend not to go straight through exposed population centers like Lac-Mégantic."

If you recall, this brilliant example of cluelessness was out of an editorial titled "Can Environmentalists Think?" It makes me wonder if the op-ed page editor was asleep when this was submitted. Unfortunately, this is the sort of snarkiness one can expect out of the WSJ these days. I find it incredibly sad because I used to really love the WSJ with its deep and nuanced reporting on business, which was unique and every bit as good as the Economist but on a daily basis. But things have changed since the buy-out of the WSJ's parent corp Dow Jones and over a hundred journalists fled for other news outlets, which would be a devastating loss for any news organization (ref: I think the only reason I still subscribe to the WSJ is for fodder for this blog. Really.

Moving on to the book review in the Economist, it has everything that one expects from this premier European economic weekly: a good overview of what the book is about, an appreciation of Piketty's attempt to tie economic trends to modern philosophical and cultural trends and a list of both good and bad aspects in Piketty's analysis. Where the WSJ book review ridiculed Piketty's invocation of literature and culture in his analysis of the use of capital in modern societies, including Communist ones, the Economist's review discussed the value of examining economic theory from different cultural perspectives that change over time. This review was comprehensive, nuanced and sophisticated. The unnamed author of the review did not pull punches where he or she saw gaps in Piketty's assumptions or disagreed with Piketty's conclusions, but those criticisms were delivered ever so politely, demonstrating that disagreement doesn't have to be wrapped in nastiness or sarcasm. The review in the Economist makes me want to read Piketty's book for myself. This is the sort of journalism that one expects from the Economist and it's one of the reasons why I adore this weekly. If you have never sampled the joys of intelligent business-oriented news and analysis in the Economist, you should take the time to check it out.

The treatment of Piketty's book by Forbes is interesting and in-character for this maverick of American business reporting. While the article I cited earlier is intelligent and perceptive, it's only one in a whole series of a planned examination by Forbes on the different aspects of Piketty's book. Going over to the Forbes website, a search on "Piketty" returns 15 already-written articles and blogs on his book plus several others discussing Piketty in general or in comparison to other economists of international standing. Well, that's Forbes for you. Like the eccentric and flamboyant members of the Forbes family who founded and ran this magazine, one never knows quite what to expect but whatever it turns out to be, it will be interesting. Given the sheer number of divergent opinions on Piketty reflected in the Forbes articles, I know I have revised my opinion on Forbes upwards.

Red Bashing

Now there's one thing about the Piketty book that I've not discussed yet, and that is Piketty's treatment of Marx. Piketty's specialty in economics is economic inequality and on that subject he apparently takes some of what Marx said seriously. Keep in mind that Piketty is a French economist working and teaching in France, a place where words like "socialist" or "communist" are not necessarily the lies of Satan straight out of the Necronomicon. Since he doesn't have to worry about the American tenure system for academics, examining the theories of Marx with something other than condemnation does not carry the risk of career suicide that it would be in the U.S. of A. Apparently, Piketty makes some very un-American suggestions to combat what he believes is an irreversible run-away spiral of wealth inequality a la Marx, like a world-wide 80% tax on income from capital gains - well, that's the impression I get from that pile of informative Forbes articles. David Brooks at the New York Times was dead on the money for once when he wrote that such a global wealth tax was the product of a utopian idealist.

Now saying that something in Marx might be right is enough to invoke a lynch mob in these parts. Only one of the Piketty reviews (Auerbach at Slate) noted that not only did Piketty agree with some observations by Marx but that he also had lots to say about where Marx got it wrong. This left me wondering about the potential lack of balanced reporting on Piketty's book and about possible trends of pinko commie bashing in Piketty book reviews and editorials. So I made a completely unscientific random survey of reviews and commentary, and my results are listed below:

  • New York Times - Krugman: no mention of anything like Marx or commies (
  • New Tork Times - Brooks: offhand neutral remark about Marxism (
  • Wall Street Journal - Shuchman: red bashing (
  • Wall Street Journal - Paletta: no mention of Marx (
  • National Review - Pethokoukis: red bashing (
  • Slate - Auerbach: neutral observation on Piketty's treatment of Marx (
  • Slate - Weissmann: offhand neutral mention of Marx (
  • Economist - anon.: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • Forbes - Winship: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • American Enterprise Institute - Hassett: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • Salon - O'Hehir: rightwing conservative bashing (
  • Salon - Donovan: rightwing conservative bashing (
  • New Yorker - Cassidy: neutral mention of Marx's theories, neutral observations on Piketty's treatment of Marx (
  • Rush Limbaugh Show - Limbaugh: red bashing squared (
  • Bloomberg - Crook: minor neutral mention of Marx (
  • Naked Capitalism - "Rumplestatskin": no mention of Marx (

This list is interesting. I was surprised by the lack of red bashing from Hassett at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Pethkoukis, a career red basher at the the National Review also publishes stuff through the American Enterprise Institute and he seldom passes up the opportunity to spout anti-commie utterances. I guess this means that the American Enterprise Institute doesn't insist on red bashing but they don't ban it either.

What really surprised me was Salon, which I have liked over the years. A double whammy of conservative bashing was not what I expected but the facts are staring me in the face: Salon does not ban the bashing of conservatives and conservative ideas. My opinion of Salon has been revised downward. Sic transit gloria salon.

Biased Journalism

My big point in this digression is that a review or commentary of someone's controversial work can be more reflective of the person who writes it or the publication in which it appears than it is of the work being discussed. This idea popped into my brain after I read Krugman's column and Brooks' column back-to-back. Neither column told me much about Piketty's book but each spoke volumes to me on the signature writing styles of these two columnists. I then visited several other newspaper and magazine websites to test my hypothesis. To a first approximation, I think my observation is correct with one caveat. Here's the caveat: the shorter the review or commentary, the more likely it reflects the opinions of its author or publisher and the less likely it is to inform the reader about the content of the work under discussion. But don't take my word for this. Run your own test of this hypothesis and make up your own mind on this matter.

I think it's good to test this hypothesis on a subject you don't care much about or on a issue where you don't already have a strong opinion formed. Like me this morning, if you know nothing about the celebrated international French economist Thomas Piketty, then run your experiment on his book Capital. If you are already informed about Piketty's Capital, then pick a different subject you don't know much about. Next, make a list of news outlets and/or authors along with your own evaluation of whether they are liberal vs. conservative and cursory vs. detailed. Then visit each news outlet or author on your list and look at the political orientation for each article you find discussing your chosen subject. The gig here is not whether you agree or disagree with the opinions you find, but rather what the political orientation might be for any author or news outlet. Also look at each piece of reporting as to whether it delivers facts and observations and whether it resorts to arm-waving, grandstanding, ad hominem attacks and other opinion-manipulation tricks like strawman arguments. Be aware that any given piece of writing may include both factual content and rhetorical tricks. The purpose of the exercise is to measure factual reporting vs. political bias. You might learn something new about who does a good or bad job reporting the news. I certainly did.

Post Script 1:

I haven't read Piketty's book. At $22 for an ebook version, I find the price a bit too high. I'll wait for the library to get a copy or will pick up a copy in a few months for a few bucks at a used book store. While I will slap down $40 for a good science book, like the American Chemical Society overview on the chemistry of paper that I just picked up, I find that most tomes on economic theory are tedious and uninteresting. Molecules are much more engaging that monetary supply and macro-economibarf. I dropped the one economics class I tried in college. I'd rather decline verbs in Latin or wash dishes. So no, I'm going to pass on reading this tome of economic theory until I can borrow it or buy it cheap. That's why this post is about bias in the journalistic reactions to this book and not about the book itself.

Economics. Blech!

Post Script 2:

Of all the articles I've read on this book, John Cassidy's review in the New Yorker ( is by far the best: balanced, detailed and interesting. I almost bought a copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century after reading this review before sanity reasserted itself.

Economics. Blech! Just because I sometimes write about economics doesn't mean that I like economics.

Notes on References: all the URLs listed in this blog post were accessed on 26 April 2014.