Friday, June 6, 2014

Piketty, Economics or Science as a Profession, Public Claims, and Political Stability

I am not a professional in this area, and I know that I could be readily bamboozled. There must be within the economics profession review articles about the data and the theory, saying what is agreed, where there is disagreement, and suggest why and what needs to be studied. Such is the bread and butter of physics.

Surely there are political differences, in how you interpret the data, in preferred policies, etc. But within economics, the profession looks scientific insofar as having the sort of systematic review I am thinking of. I know that there are ongoing arguments about the cause of the Great Depression, but again, what are the data, what do they say in a bland sense?

What is most striking about all the Piketty talk (pro, con, otherwise) is the low attention paid to politics and national stability. What you don't want is a country where most people do not see the political-economy as being their political economy. That is, for stability you really need to have most people believe they participate adequately in the economic pie. The problem is not that the rich grow richer, per se. Rather, the 99% or the "takers" to use our former candidate's language, are not feeling robust. That is not a good recipe. And it strikes me that the accumulation of wealth by the 1% is by the good will of the other part, for tax rates, laws, and regulations might well be changed. Property rights are subject to political interventions.

Also, as a colleague pointed out, once you are in the public arena (the professional one, or the more public one), it may be hard to admit the fudges and fixes you do on the data to get your results. At that point your claims are not scientific ones, per se, but either professional or public policy. In both arenas, you could admit your fudges and weaknesses, but then you are less likely or make a big splash. On the other hand, your splash won't come back and get you all wet.

So for example the recent astronomical observations of the polarization that would seem to give further evidence for the inflation scenario had some problematic issues re the background. It may have served the authors longer term interest to have indicated those problems and give a range of estimates of the effects they saw. But perhaps it would also have created less of a splash. Now they may have good reason for the background estimates they used, but others find those reasons convincing?

Ed Kleinbard's message, in his new book, is that our taxes do not suit our ambitions, that government is good for stuff people want, is also directly perpendicular to the Piketty discussion, I believe. Put differently, if the good stuff were well taken care of, much of the inequality discussion would have a different tone.

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