Brad DeLong's take on Piketty vs. Piketty observes that "two lines of criticism suggest that Piketty may be wrong, both with respect to the normal characteristics of a capitalist economy and where we may be headed when it comes to inequality."
"The modern champion of the first line of attack," DeLong writes [as mentioned here and here], "is Matthew Rognlie:"
The standard bearer for the second line of criticism is none other than Piketty himself - not in anything he has written, but in how he has behaved since becoming a celebrity and a public intellectual.
Piketty's book encourages a passive response. It portrays the forces favoring the formation of a dominant plutocracy as being so strong that they can be countered only by world wars and global revolutions - and even then, the correction is only temporary.
But Piketty is not behaving like a passive chronicler of unavoidable destiny. He is acting as if he believes that the forces he describes in his book can be resisted. If we look at what Piketty does - rather than what he writes - it seems evident that he believes we can collectively make our own destiny, even if the circumstances are not what he, or we, would choose.
The wealthiest, meanwhile, make their own destiny by saving billions in a private tax system:
Operating largely out of public view -- in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service -- the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government's ability to tax them. The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans.
"Two decades ago," the article continues, "the 400 highest-earning taxpayers in America paid nearly 27 percent of their income in federal taxes:"
By 2012, when President Obama was re-elected, that figure had fallen to less than 17 percent, which is just slightly more than the typical family making $100,000 annually, when payroll taxes are included for both groups.
The ultra-wealthy "literally pay millions of dollars for these services," said Jeffrey A. Winters, a political scientist at Northwestern University who studies economic elites, "and save in the tens or hundreds of millions in taxes."
Here is where the politics gets lopsided. "While Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have pledged to raise taxes on these [wealthy] voters," the piece continues, "virtually every Republican has advanced policies that would vastly reduce their tax bills, sometimes to as little as 10 percent of their income:"
At the same time, most Republican candidates favor eliminating the inheritance tax, a move that would allow the new rich, and the old, to bequeath their fortunes intact, solidifyin [sic] the wealth gap far into the future. And several have proposed a substantial reduction -- or even elimination -- in the already deeply discounted tax rates on investment gains, a foundation of the most lucrative tax strategies.
"There's this notion that the wealthy use their money to buy politicians; more accurately, it's that they can buy policy, and specifically, tax policy," said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who served as chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. "That's why these egregious loopholes exist, and why it's so hard to close them." [...]
"We do have two different tax systems, one for normal wage-earners and another for those who can afford sophisticated tax advice," said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of San Diego who studies the intersection of tax policy and inequality. "At the very top of the income distribution, the effective rate of tax goes down, contrary to the principles of a progressive income tax system."
The Federalist's Samuel Gregg claims that Tocqueville opposes Sanders and socialism, writing that "perhaps it's time to be attentive to great nineteenth-century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville's highly critical opinion of socialism." Gregg describes Sanders' socialism and suggests that "it's precisely such 'moderate' versions of socialism that were the primary object of Tocqueville's worries:"
Tocqueville's first reproach was that socialism--whatever its expression--has an inherently materialistic understanding of humans. "The first characteristic of all socialist ideologies is," Tocqueville insisted, "an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man." [...]
Second, Tocqueville observed that all forms of socialism are inherently hostile to private property: an institution he considered indispensable for civilization. After explicitly referencing Proudhon's outright anti-property stance, Tocqueville claimed that "all socialists, by more or less roundabout means, if they do not destroy the principle upon which it is based, transform it, diminish it, obstruct it, limit it, and mold it into something completely foreign to what we know and have been familiar with since the beginning of time as private property."
"Here it's worth quoting Tocqueville at length," writes Gregg:
A third and final trait, one which, in my eyes, best describes socialists of all schools and shades, is a profound opposition to personal liberty and scorn for individual reason, a complete contempt for the individual. They unceasingly attempt to mutilate, to curtail, to obstruct personal freedom in any and all ways.
"Tocqueville's assessment of socialism is surely dead-on," he continues:
Even its most sophisticated contemporary advocates believe that governments must assume perhaps indirect but undoubtedly more control of people's lives in the name of essentially materialist conceptions of what matters in life.
Looking through Sanders' speech, one can't help but think he believes that the vast majority of America's economic problems will disappear if more people have more stuff and are less economically unequal. There's very little recognition, for example, in his remarks that poverty has in many cases extra-economic causes, most notably family breakdown, single-parent households, and mental illness. Addressing these issues requires much more than just giving people more material things, and often has little to do with economic inequality. They often require moral, even spiritual solutions.
We all know that there is a hierarchy of needs, but what Gregg ignores is that material needs have primacy. If someone freezes to death in the streets, or starves, or loses a limb due to an untreated infection, those "spiritual solutions" will never get a chance to prove their value.
What, exactly, makes Tocqueville an expert in socialism is a question that Gregg never answers. Another intriguing question is why conservatives treat Tocqueville as an all-purpose wise man, while denigrating the insights of contemporary French writer Thomas Piketty.