The Online Opinion Outpost features opinions and commentary on the latest hot topics from national news sources. As much as you love hearing from The Universe, we thought you might like to hear from journalists around the nation.
Income inequality: Thomas Piketty
“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, is a bona fide phenomenon. And conservatives are terrified.
Mr. Piketty is hardly the first economist to point out that we are experiencing a sharp rise in inequality, or even to emphasize the contrast between slow income growth for most of the population and soaring incomes at the top. No, what’s really new about “Capital” is the way it demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved. But how do you make that defense if the rich derive much of their income not from the work they do but from the assets they own? And what if great wealth comes increasingly not from enterprise but from inheritance?
What Mr. Piketty shows is that these are not idle questions. Western societies before World War I were indeed dominated by an oligarchy of inherited wealth — and his book makes a compelling case that we’re well on our way back toward that state. Still, it has been amazing to watch conservatives, one after another, denounce Mr. Piketty as a Marxist. Even Mr. Pethokoukis, who is more sophisticated than the rest, calls “Capital” a work of “soft Marxism,” which only makes sense if the mere mention of unequal wealth makes you a Marxist.
Now, the fact that apologists for America’s oligarchs are evidently at a loss for coherent arguments doesn’t mean that they are on the run politically. Money still talks — indeed, thanks in part to the Roberts court, it talks louder than ever. Still, ideas matter too, shaping both how we talk about society and, eventually, what we do. And the Piketty panic shows that the right has run out of ideas.
Thomas Piketty likes capitalism because it efficiently allocates resources. But he does not like how it allocates income. There is, he thinks, a moral illegitimacy to virtually any accumulation of wealth, and it is a matter of justice that such inequality be eradicated in our economy. The way to do this is to eliminate high incomes and to reduce existing wealth through taxation.
“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is Mr. Piketty’s dense exploration of the history of wages and wealth over the past three centuries. Whether or not one is convinced by Mr. Piketty’s data—and there are reasons for skepticism, given the author’s own caveats and the fact that many early statistics are based on extremely limited samples of estate tax records and dubious extrapolation—is ultimately of little consequence.
He is obsessed with the following calculus: Are the fruits of working hard greater than those attainable by marrying into a top fortune? If not, “why work? And why behave morally at all?” He views equality of outcome as the ultimate end and solely for its own sake. Alternative objectives—such as maximizing the overall wealth of society or increasing economic liberty or seeking the greatest possible equality of opportunity or even, as in the philosophy of John Rawls, ensuring that the welfare of the least well-off is maximized—are scarcely mentioned.
There is no doubt that poverty, unemployment and unequal opportunity are major challenges for capitalist societies, and varying degrees of luck, hard work, sloth and merit are inherent in human affairs. Mr. Piketty is not the first utopian visionary. He cites, for instance, the “Soviet experiment” that allowed man to throw “off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth.” In his telling, it only led to human disaster because societies need markets and private property to have a functioning economy. He says that his solutions provide a “less violent and more efficient response to the eternal problem of private capital and its return.”
ON TUESDAY, the Supreme Court refused to strike down Michigan’s ban on affirmative action at the state’s public universities. We disagree with the 58 percent of Michigan voters who, in 2006, inserted the ban into the state’s constitution. But the court, which ruled 6-2, nevertheless made the right call in respecting voters’ prerogative to make a different judgment.
The case, Schuette v. BAMN, did not address the constitutionality of public university admissions policies that consider applicants’ race. Rather, it concerned how and when those policies may be changed or eliminated. The case reflects the tension between majority rule and the courts’ important, historical role in protecting minority rights. Over the course of decades, courts rightly struck down voter-driven attempts to reorder the political system in ways that would have made it difficult or impossible toensure school integration or fight racist housing practices.
But this is not an obvious or even subtle case of misguided majorities imposing discriminatory policies on helpless minorities. The debate over affirmative action is one in which there is legitimate and understandable disagreement. We believe that carefully applied affirmative action policies promote valuable diversity on campuses, helping them to prepare rising generations in a pluralistic society.