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Thursday, April 24, 2014

David Brooks, "The Piketty Phenomenon": Are David Brooks and Paul Krugman Marxists?

Question: Did David Brooks or Paul Krugman ever serve in the army? I don't know the answer, but I would guess that they did not. Relevance? Simple. The army is the one place where persons are forced to interact with others from different economic strata, particularly with the poor.

Whether by happenstance or design, both Brooks and Krugman have today written New York Times op-eds concerning Thomas Piketty's new book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." Brooks, in his opinion piece entitled "The Piketty Phenomenon" (, acknowledges that young professionals in coastal cities have little contact with the poor:

"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.

You see firsthand the explosion of wealth at the tippy-top. It really doesn’t help that you have to spend your days kissing up to the oligarchs and their foundations to finance your research, exhibition or favorite cause."

Enunciating what he understands to be Piketty's claim that inequality is "driven by hedge fund oligarchs" and declaring that a "global wealth tax is utopian," Brooks concludes:

"This is a moment when progressives have found their worldview and their agenda. This move opens up a huge opportunity for the rest of us in the center and on the right. First, acknowledge that the concentration of wealth is a concern with a beefed up inheritance tax.

Second, emphasize a contrasting agenda that will reward growth, saving and investment, not punish these things, the way Piketty would. Support progressive consumption taxes not a tax on capital. Third, emphasize that the historically proven way to reduce inequality is lifting people from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down the top. In short, counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift.

The reaction to Piketty is an amazing cultural phenomenon. But it says more about class rivalry within the educated classes than it does about how to really expand opportunity. Of course, this perspective could just be my own prejudice. When it comes to cultural analysis, I, like Piketty, am quasi-Marxist."

Brooks is a "quasi-Marxist"? Fascinating. I'm not a "quasi" anything. Most of the time, I'm pissed-off and tired.

On the other hand, Krugman, who once told us that "Occupy Wall Street is starting to look like an important event that might even eventually be seen as a turning point," seems more of a "closet" Marxist than a "quasi" Marxist (not that I care). Krugman, in his opinion piece entitled "The Piketty Panic" (, tells us:

"The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis. Instead, the response has been all about name-calling — in particular, claims that Mr. Piketty is a Marxist, and so is anyone who considers inequality of income and wealth an important issue.

. . . .

[W]hat’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.

. . . .

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."

Yes, I think that inequality of income and wealth is an important issue, but sometimes I wonder if Krugman has run out of ideas beyond government stimulus spending. Is OWS still his answer for income inequality?

My recommendation: In addition to Brooks's "beefed up inheritance tax," I would also demand national service from all citizens, which could include the army, forcing young people from different economic backgrounds to come face to face and learn from one another. Added benefits: reduced unemployment and potential job training.

But why should multimillionaires Obama and Hillary support higher inheritance taxes? This could stand in the way of the future political campaigns of Natasha, Malia and Chelsea. Send Natasha and Malia (it's a little too late for a pregnant Chelsea) to the army? We all know that's not going to happen.

Piketty "Phenomenon" or "Panic"? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Nor will a narcissistic West in another couple of months.


  1. How large would the standing military be and how would we pay for this?

    1. You might want to examine conscription and alternative service in Switzerland.