Sunday, May 25, 2014

Spell Pneumonia 

I’ve been anticipating the counterattack for some time. The media success of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century guaranteed that the defenders of the oligarchic order of our times would come up with a more effective defense than the purely reflexive preliminary spasms, which pretty well came down to a combination of “He’s a Marxist!” and “Our shit does not stink!” I note that after a series of brainstorming sessions that probably played like a scene from the twenty-third season of Mad Men, the consultants decided to fall back on the same denialist script that had proven so successful in service to the Book of Genesis, tobacco, and fossil fuels. In law, the technique is known as pettyfogging. In war, it is pretty much the strategy used in another bad cause by Kesselring in the Italian campaign. The basic idea is to exhaust the opponent or at least delay defeat by making the contest a series of bitter struggles about trifling technical details or meaningless hilltops. The Creationists claim that evolution is in doubt because there is an overturned stratum in Wyoming. The tobacco lobby points to a misplaced decimal point in a government study. “It’s snowing!” So now we’re going to be treated to a campaign of nitpicking about the statistics in Piketty’s book. The aim is to create the impression that there is some genuine dispute about whether wealth and income inequality is increasing.

That there are errors in Piketty’s tome is quite inevitable. A big book is a big evil, as Callimachus opined a couple of millennia ago and I can assure you is true having served as the editor of a three-semester calculus textbook. Specific errors are of less moment in a work drawing general conclusions from history than in proving a theorem. Unlike many other economists, Piketty’s preferred style of argument is inductive, which is why his book is more reminiscent of The Origin of Species than Das Kapital. Like Darwin, Piketty piled up corroborating data in enormous heaps, an approach whose validity depends on the balance of evidence, not the accuracy of any given data point. In contrast, the patented denialist PR methodology appeals to a Popperian or perhaps pop Popperian epistemology, that is, it depends on the thesis that only negative results really matter in science because of the logic of conditional sentences. If p implies q, q doesn’t imply p. Not q, however, does imply not p. Which would be decisive indeed in a piece of deductive reasoning. The logic doesn’t really apply to empirical work; but for polemic purposes, the focus on falsification is convenient because it means that the critic doesn’t have to worry about the mass of positive evidence. It’s not an accident that creationists don’t know much geology, biogeography, or biology. If all you want to do is cast doubt, all that’s needed is a counter example or two. Why fill your precious mind with irrelevances?

Evidence does matter, and Piketty will have to address any errors discovered in the vast databases that underlie Capital in the Twenty First Century. That’s the normal process of research conducted in good faith. Unlike many other economists, notably Reinhart and Rogoff whose influential paper really did have meaningful errors, Piketty shows his work so as to facilitate both criticism and improvement. Everything has always been available either in the text itself or on the net. Meanwhile, the op/ed writers at WSJ will leap on any imperfection as definitive proof that there’s nothing to the general conclusions of this ongoing work and that we can safely ignore the multiple strands of evidence for a powerful worldwide trend because of technical issues about the proper way to construe a single English time series. Meanwhile, the evidence for a new Gilded Age was overwhelming before Piketty and remains so.

Old joke: a black guy dies and shows up at the Pearly Gates where he finds he’s third in line. St. Peter explains to the first man in line, who's white, that everything seems to be in order but there is the formality of one last test. “Spell ‘cat.’” Same drill with the next person, a white lady, “Spell ‘dog.’” Well, you see where this is going. In economics, it’s slightly different. If you’re furthering the approved politics, demonstration consists of drawing two intersecting straight lines in a rectangle and triumphantly asserting “See!” If, like Piketty, you’ve made an elaborate case for the proposition that everything doesn’t work out for the best in the best of all possible worlds, that there is no working thermostat that automatically prevents the runaway concentration of wealth and incomes, it’s time to spell pneumonia.