Ideas matter. As we wallow in cynicism, Karl Rove and Citizens United, we are occasionally reminded that our political culture is grounded in ideas. It's been thin soup for a while. For decades, the left seemed bereft of an economic message other than a larger welfare state. The right, at least, offered a paradigm. It abounded in austerity/marketplace nostrums, advanced with a religious fervor and mostly wrong. It hasn't been a good era for contending ideas about how we manage our economic affairs.
Like a bolt from the blue comes Thomas Piketty and his book Capital In The Twenty-First Century. His argument (roughly) is that income inequality is the great danger, especially when caused by inheritance, and that a global tax on wealth is the remedy.
Put aside the merits and demerits of his ideas. There is plenty to question about the economic and political realities that stand in the way of adopting the Pikettian agenda. It's the reaction of conventional left and right that is most instructive.
In both cases, there is much harumphing about the label and consequences of Pikettianism. The right, sadly and predictably, play the Red card, with the American Enterprise Institute accusing him of "soft Marxism." Fox News' Charles Gasparino advances the intellectual argument by calling the book an "open sore."
The left is more polite but no more on point. The usually incisive Bob Kuttner of the American Prospect fears that if the beknighted working class ever finds out about Pikettnish ideas they will respond with "passivity and resignation." Dean Baker of the Center For Economic And Policy Research similarly fears the consequences of reading a book that will drive "many people back to their vacation homes." (Whether this involves working-class people with vacation homes or some wider set of participants is unclear.)
Come on, boys, the trick is to know when the revolution is actually showing up. It wasn't Ayn Rand, and it wasn't Occupy Wall Street and it certainly wasn't Obama. The Pikettonian uprising is the real deal. It has changed the paradigm, the structure and content of the international debate about economics and politics. The moving hand has writ and "nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line."
A great book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, postulates that change comes when the existing existential paradigm becomes so riddled with holes that it no longer serves, and, bang, a new one replaces it. That's what's happened. The Pikettolish model explains why we have moved to a level of income inequality unheard of since the French Revolution, why it's unsustainable, and what we could do about it. The new intellectual paradigm will shortly give way to new political efforts. Goombye welfare state and Goombye supply-side economics.
A paradigm shift does not mean a smooth transition to specific proposals. There are enormous political obstacles to enactment of the Picklettian solutions, as New York's James Wetzler points out in today's Times. But the debate has been forever transformed. Once we focus on the consequences of huge concentrations of capital, the ingenuity of human politics will address the mechanics of change, and fairly quickly.
Adam Smith's ideas led to the 19th century transformation of law and economics that created the industrial revolution. The ideas of Marx and Jefferson gave rise to the ameliorative actions of the welfare state in the 20th century. Pikettology will give rise to... something.
I spent a long time in elected office. In all that time, I saw the power of money, the venality of politics, and the limitations of government. I also saw how, in the end, the power of ideas inevitably molded the outcome of political machinations. We should be greeting Pikettism with hosannas and joy. We can again begin to sort out our affairs based on competing ideas, critiques and proposals. Politicians and intellectuals of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.