Ideas and Economics

quote-ideas-are-more-powerful-than-guns-we-would-not-let-our-enemies-have-guns-why-should-we-let-them-joseph-stalin-268865

Yes, ideas matter. In economics, they matter a lot.

Three key economics ideas have shaped academic debates and national policies about economics for the past 240 years. Communism was the latecomer:  Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Das Kapital in 1867, and his ideas took their place in the triumvirate in the 20th Century. Meanwhile, Scotsman Adam Smith articulated capitalistic economics in The Wealth of Nations (1776), which subsequently split into two key versions.

The first was championed by the Fabian Society, formed in London in 1884 in part as a counter to the growing interest in Marxism. The Fabians’ ranks included H. G. Wells and  George Bernard Shaw, and their agenda was democratic socialism, which became Europe’s dominant model. The Fabians advocated nationalized industry, centralized banking, and social welfare through “state-protected trade unionism and other state interventions such as social security and unemployment insurance. And [they] did so by claiming that capitalism worsens inequality and exploitation, that it is rife with robber barons and virtueless inheritors.” A History of the Mont Pelerin Society (1996), The Foundation for Economic Education.[1]

The second major version of capitalism got its most significant boost in 1947 when Austrian-British economist and philosopher F. A. Hayek invited a group of intellectuals to meet in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland to chart the Western world’s recovery from WWII, and specifically to counter Marxism  and Keynesian economics. The group became known as the Mount Pelerin Society. Its original gathering included luminaries such as Hayek, Karl Popper, and Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics, and Milton Friedman and George Stigler of the University of Chicago. The MPS agenda came to be known as neoliberalism, and advocated private enterprise and limits on government regulation of the kind that — despite the word “liberalism” in its label — have become associated with conservative politics.

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Thus the lines between economic ideas were drawn, and debates among them persist to this day. Of the three, Communism’s Soviet version tanked in the late 80’s. but persists in China, albeit in vastly altered form. Meanwhile allegiances to the competing schools of capitalism are today more polarized than ever.

But do any of these models support current realities? A whole new generation of economists don’t think so, and believe it’s time policy-makers heeded some advice articulated by John Maynard Keynes:

johnmaynardkeynes1

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote this in The Future of Ideas:  The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (2001):

“A time is marked not so much by ideas argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. Power runs with ideas that only the crazy would draw into doubt. The “taken for granted” is the test of sanity, “what everyone knows” is the line between us and them.

“This means that sometimes a society gets stuck. Sometimes these unquestioned ideas interfere, as the cost of questioning becomes too great. In these times, the hardest task for social or political activists is to find a way to get people to wonder again about what we all believe is true. The challenge is to sow doubt.”

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and journalist Carolyn Gregoire expressed a similar sentiment in Wired To Create (2015):

“While experience is an important aspect of excellence in any creative discipline, one risk of being a seasoned pro is that we become so entrenched in our own point of view that we have trouble seeing other solutions. Experts may have trouble being flexible and adapting to change because they are so highly accustomed to seeing things in a particular way. For this reason, the newcomers to a field are sometimes the ones who come up with the ideas that truly innovate and shift paradigms.”

In the coming posts, we’ll examine some of today’s paradigm-shifting economic ideas and their impact on the contemporary working world.

[1] For another excellent review of this history lesson, see The Mont Pèlerin Society: The ultimate neoliberal Trojan horse (2012), The Daily Knell.

How Did We Get Here From There?

We got nudged, that’s how.

Economic news is a media mainstay, but I’ve always felt that real people don’t live in “The Economy.” Instead, I think we live in a world forged from our outlook on life, which is derived from personal biases and cultural norms, so that economics is only news when our internal outlook (“I can afford that”) clashes with external reality (“(No I can’t”).

NudgeTurns out somebody just won a Nobel Prize for thinking along those lines — well, sort of:  aside from his lifetime of credentials, he took the idea much further and figured out how policy-makers who know better than we do can come to our rescue by nudging us ahead of time in the direction we really ought to go.

Richard H. Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass R. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School Professor. Together, they wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009). Their concept of “nudging” super-sized behavioral economics and spawned a lucrative new consulting field. (Google “nudge” and you’ll see what I mean.) Prof. Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize not only for Nudge, but for a body of work the The Economist summarized as follows in an article earlier this week:

“Not long ago, the starting assumption of any economic theory was that humans are rational actors who maximise their utility. Economists summarily dismissed anyone insisting otherwise. But over the past few decades, behavioural economists like Richard Thaler have progressively chipped away at this notion. They combine economics with insights from psychology to show how heavily economic decisions are influenced by cognitive biases. On September 9th Mr Thaler’s work was recognised at the highest level when the Nobel Committee awarded him this year’s prize in economics. Mr Thaler thus becomes one of very few behavioural economists to win the prize.

“That started to change when Mr. Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar at Harvard University, co-authored a book, “Nudge”, in 2008. The book attacked the assumption of rational decision-making in economic models and showed how context could be changed to “nudge” people to make better choices. In 2010 Mr Thaler advised the British government on the creation of the Behavioural Insights Team, a unit that sought to put their ideas into practice. The wildly successful government unit has since been spun out into a quasi-private company and now advises governments around the world.”

The Nobel In Economics Rewards A Pioneer Of “Nudges” — Richard Thaler becomes one of very few behavioural economists to receive the discipline’s highest honour, The Economist, October 9, 2017

Vox also summarized Thaler’s work earlier this week:

“Richard Thaler, one of the founders of modern behavioral economics and the winner of the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, is obsessed with how people make decisions — not just investors or policymakers but everyday consumers and taxpayers. He’s tried to explain why people won’t sell wine they own for more than they paid for it, why people take out big loans even when they have plenty of savings, and how to encourage people to sock away more of their paychecks toward retirement.”

This Headline Is A Nudge To Get You To Read About Nobel Economist Richard Thaler — Okay, it’s not a very good nudge, but his work is really important! Vox, October 9, 2017.

I confess, I read Nudge and could never quite silence my own biased subtext of resentment over the idea that politicians, think-tankers, captains of industry, and other members of The Illuminati know what’s best for my health, wealth, and happiness, and are deliberately nudging me to carry out their own agendas. I’ve made liberal use of my human right to make dumb mistakes, thank you very much, and prefer to keep it that way. On the other hand, I respect the scholarship that went into theorizing something we all probably realize but try not to admit:  that we decide subliminally before we act, and then rationalize what we’ve done after the fact.

Turns out that, like it or not, “The Economy” actually does run on ideas that come down from the top. Next time, we’ll look at some of the most famous economic nudgers of all time.

Spinal TapBy the way, there’s an Illuminati website. Watching the greeting video, I think this has got to be a parody in the same league as This is Spinal Tap. If it’s not, then it’s it just plain creepy.Illuminati

 

The TED Inequality All-Stars

Economic inequality is so important to a thorough look at happiness on and off the job that, before we leave the topic, I decided to provide an all-star lineup of TED talks on the subject, from a variety of perspectives. We’ve heard from the first two before, but not the last three.

TED Chrystia Freeland

This is Chrystia Freeland, journalist turned politician. We’ve heard a lot from her book Plutocrats already. Her political biases are evident in this talk.

TED Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty, economist and professor at the Paris School of Economics, literally wrote the book on the subject — a 600-page runaway bestseller Capital in the Twenty-first Century. He talks fast enough to get through much of his book in this talk. I’ve quoted him before, too.

TED Paul Tudor Jones

Paul Tudor Jones II is the billionaire founder of hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation and a philanthropist. Here’s a sample:

“[Capitalism is] a system I love because of the successes and opportunities it’s afforded me and millions of others.

“Higher profit margins do not increase societal wealth. What they actually do is they exacerbate income inequality, and that’s not a good thing.

“This next chart, made by The Equality Trust, shows 21 countries from Austria to Japan to New Zealand. On the horizontal axis is income inequality. The further to the right you go, the greater the income inequality. On the vertical axis are nine social and health metrics. The more you go up that, the worse the problems are, and those metrics include life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, literacy, social mobility, just to name a few. Now, those of you in the audience who are Americans may wonder, well, where does the United States rank? … Yes, that’s us, with the greatest income inequality and the greatest social problems, according to those metrics.

“Now, capitalism has been responsible for every major innovation that’s made this world a more inspiring and wonderful place to live in. Capitalism has to be based on justice. It has to be, and now more than ever, with economic divisions growing wider every day.

“I’m not against progress. I want the driverless car and the jet pack just like everyone else. But I’m pleading for recognition that with increased wealth and profits has to come greater corporate social responsibility.

“‘If justice is removed,’ said Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, ‘the great, the immense fabric of human society must in a moment crumble into atoms.’”

TED Richard Wilkinson

Public health researcher Richard Wilkinson studies the social and health effects of income inequality. In his writing and in this talk, he offers piles of statistical evidence from worldwide studies on a wide variety of social issues including life expectancy, social mobility, math scores, literacy rates, infant mortality, homicide and incarceration rates, teenage pregnancies, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, school bullying, violence, high school drop-out rates, and more. In this talk, he returns often to three points that seem to be commonly cited in inequality research and commentary:

  1. There is a strong statistical link between these social issues and economic inequality.
  2. Conventional economic measurements such as GNP per capita, gross national income, and national income per person fail to recognize this link; and
  3. The problem of inequality at its core revolves around relative inequality (the human trait of comparing what I have to what you have).

TED Nick Hanauer

Nick Hanauer is another plutocrat — a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” — who has founded and funded 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He openly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for the future if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

“What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind. In 1980, the top one percent of Americans shared about eight percent of national [income], while the bottom 50 percent of Americans shared 18 percent. Thirty years later, today, the top one percent shares over 20 percent of national [income], while the bottom 50 percent of Americans share 12 or 13. If the trend continues, the top one percent will share over 30 percent of national [income] in another 30 years, while the bottom 50 percent of Americans will share just six.

“You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.

“Fellow plutocrats, I think it may be time for us to recommit to our country, to commit to a new kind of capitalism which is both more inclusive and more effective, a capitalism that will ensure that America’s economy remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. Let’s secure the future for ourselves, our children and their children. Or alternatively, we could do nothing, hide in our gated communities and private schools, enjoy our planes and yachts — they’re fun — and wait for the pitchforks.”

Next time we’ll look at the complex nature of real economics for real people in the real world.

Meet the New Boss

Same as the old boss.

– The Who

Commentary about economic inequality often compares the situation today to America’s Gilded Age. Back then they had the Robber Barons. Now we have the Robber Nerds. Same dif? It depends who you ask.

A quick check of a list of the Robber Barons on Wikipedia reveals the names of several household brand names that still endure, plus numerous key universities and charities. And this article from a European source — The Truth About the Robber Barons from the Mises Institute ( “30 Years of Austrian Economics, Freedom, & Peace”) — says don’t be too hasty to condemn:

“The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often referred to as the time of the ‘robber barons.’ It is a staple of history books to attach this derogatory phrase to such figures as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the great nineteenth-century railroad operators — Grenville Dodge, Leland Stanford, Henry Villard, James J. Hill, and others. To most historians writing on this period, these entrepreneurs committed thinly veiled acts of larceny to enrich themselves at the expense of their customers. Once again we see the image of the greedy, exploitative capitalist, but in many cases this is a distortion of the truth.”

For more, consider the following articles, whose titles telegraph whose side they’re on. but they’re all worth reading:

Seven Myths about the Great Philanthropists:  The turn of the 20th century was a golden age of American philanthropy. It deserves to be better understood.  The Philanthropy Roundtable (2011).

The Robber Barons Weren’t Robbers. Here’s Why. The Learn Liberty project of George Mason University (2017).

Robber Barons. Economists View (2007, reprinting a 1998 article).

The Dark Side of the Gilded Age. The Atlantic (2007)

The Myth of America’s Golden Age. Politico Magazine (2014)

On the lighter side, see P.J. O’Rourke’s Up To a Point: Robber Barons Make Way For Robber Nerds. Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan: This country used to produce impressive if immoral captains of industry. Now we’re stuck with unrefined geeks like Mark Zuckerberg. The Daily Beast (2014).

One thing seems to be consistent in all these commentaries:  both then and now. soaring wealth for the haves and a commensurate decline for the have-nots occurred in a capitalistic, market-based economy. A second key point gets less consensus:  whether the Barons benefited then and the Nerds are benefiting now from government policy and financial subsidies (including tax breaks in our day) — i.e., whether the economy was then and is now truly a free market.

Satisfy yourself, but at this point, after examining far more sources than I can cite in a blog post of this length, and having interviewed a couple free market champion friends of mine, I can comfortably say, as they did, “There never has been a free market.” Instead, what we had then and what we have now was and is a skewed version of capitalism — a perfect political and economic storm that made economic inequality possible back in the Gilded Age and makes it possible again today. This is the missing piece that Econ 101 and its simplistic supply/demand curves doesn’t provide.

The result in both eras has been a new class system that morphs the Horatio Alger ideal into a Great Gatsby reality. When the new class system hits the job marketplace, the result is a vast worldwide demographic of the Angry Left Behind — unhappy, disillusioned, dissatisfied, depressed, and even suicidal workers suffering from meaning malaise. What bothers them is often equated to the same anger that has fueled worldwide political shifts such as Brexit, Trumpism, the move to the right in Germany and France, and a whole lot more. (See for example No Job Left Behind and Back to Work, and countless more initiatives and opinions like them.)

When the subject of economic inequality invokes those kinds of inflammatory developments, it’s no wonder we don’t want to talk about it. Which is precisely what we’ll continue to do, right here.  Stay tuned.

meet the new bossHere’s the original music video of The Who’s We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here

And who first called the Robber Barons era the “Gilded Age”? Find out here.

Economic Inequality Statistics

My research on economic inequality consistently turns up three key points:

  1. since the 80’s, there has been an ever-widening gap in incomes and capital ownership between the rich and poor,
  2. the gap has been growing at an accelerating rate, especially since the year 2000, and
  3. this phenomenon is worldwide.

So what?

As I’ve mentioned before, many U.S. economists and policy-makers greet those findings either with indifference or as a clarion call to defend endangered capitalism, while their international counterparts find them alarming. We’re talking about them here because it turns out that economic inequality has a lot to do with happiness and meaning at work. (Stay with me — we’ll get there, we’re just taking the scenic route.)

We all know that it’s easy to mold statistics to fit opinions — here’s a neurologist’s take on Why People Can’t Agree on Basic Facts. Any stats we look at here will have been pre-sorted, pre-analyzed, and pre-interpreted. My goal today is to provide a sampling of statistics from a variety of global sources — starting with a quote about how the new global super-rich are a bunch of economic data curve busters, which makes finding honest data even harder.

plutocrats“The skew toward the very top is so pronounced that you can’t understand overall economic growth figures without taking it into account. As in a school whose improved test scores are due largely to the stellar performance of a few students, the surging fortunes at the very top can mask stagnation lower down the income distribution.

“Consider America’s economic recovery in 2009-2010. Overall incomes in that period grew by 2.3 percent — tepid growth, to be sure, but a lot stronger than you might have guessed from the general gloom of the period. Look more closely at the data, though… and it turns out that average Americans were right to doubt the economic comeback. That’s because for 99 percent of Americans, incomes increased by 0.2 percent. Meanwhile, the incomes of the top I percent jumped by 11.6 percent.”

Plutocrats:  The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012), by Canadian journalist and politician Chrystia Freeland.

kwak“Across the developed world, vast fortunes are again ascendant. In the United States, the top 1 percent take home a larger share of total income than at any time except the late 1920’s. The total wealth of the world’s billionaires has quadrupled in the past two decades (even when the definition of “billionaire” is adjusted for inflation).

“In the 1950’s, a typical CEO of a large company took home as much money as twenty average employees; today he makes as much as two hundred workers.”

Economism (2017), by UConn law professor James Kwak.

the wealth of humans“In 2014, the inflation-adjusted income of the typical American household was just 7 per cent higher than it was in 1979. By contrast, the income of a household in the 95th percentile of the income distribution grew 45 per cent over that period.”

The Wealth of Humans:  Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016), by Ryan Avent,  a thoroughly Anglicized American who works as a senior editor and economic columnist for The Economist.

the fourth industrial“[C]ompare Detroit in 1990… with Silicon Valley in 2014. In 1990, the three biggest companies in Detroit had a combined market capitalization of $36 billion, revenues of $250 billion, and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the three biggest companies in Silicon Valley had a considerably higher market capitalization ($1.09 trillion), generated roughly the same revenues ($247 billion), but with about 10 times fewer employees (137,000).”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016), by German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

Prior to the 2017 World Economic Forum annual meeting of world leaders, U.K.-based Oxfam International issued a report that offers a fascinating slant on Schwab’s comments. According to the report:

“Eight men now control as much wealth as the world’s poorest 3.6 billion people… The men — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Amancio Ortega, Larry Ellison and Michael Bloomberg — are collectively worth $426 billion.”

As reported by CNN.

“By contrast, half the planet’s population, some 3.6 billion people, have a combined wealth of $409 billion.”

As reported by The Mirror Online (the U.K.’s “intelligent tabloid”).

Not only are the Elite Eight collectively worth more than the lower half of the world’s entire population, each individual member of the group is worth more than the combined market capitalization of Detroit’s three largest companies 27 years ago. The Mirror also noted this about the study:

“The report found that between 1988 and 2011 the incomes of the poorest 10% increased by just $65, while the incomes of the richest 1% grew by $11,800 – 182 times as much.”

A couple years ago, Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2015 reported that half of the world’s assets were controlled by the top 1% of the global population, while the lower half owned less than 1%.

There’s plenty more where all of that came from. In fact, there’s such an abundance of global data and opinion on the topic that, if nothing else, it’s probably safe to conclude that economic inequality either really is a problem or, even if it’s not, a whole lot of people around the world sure seem to think it is.

We’ll continue our economic inquiries next time.

Why We Can’t Talk About Economic Inequality

see no evil

“It is not just the super-rich who don’t like to talk about rising income inequality. It can be an ideologically uncomfortable conversation for many of the rest of us, too. That’s because even — or perhaps particularly — in the view of its most ardent supporters, global capitalism wasn’t supposed to work quite this way.”

plutocratsThat’s from Plutocrats:  The Rise of the new Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland (2012). The book reads like an extended academic version of People Magazine meets CNN meets The New York Times, and could only have been written by someone who logged years on the insider track and took lots of notes.

Turns out that’s precisely who Chrystia Freeland is. She’s a Canadian writer, journalist, and politician. She worked in a variety of editorial positions at the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, and Thomson Reuters, was elected to the Canadian Parliament in 2013 (the year after the book came out), and was appointed Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs earlier this year. She’s a Harvard grad, a Rhodes Scholar, and was named one of Toronto’s 50 most influential people by Toronto Life Magazine in 2015.

The book takes names and tells stories, and is awash in dates and times and statistics. Reading it all the way through can be a bit of a slog, and I wonder how many people actually do — I confess, I skimmed a lot. I quote it here because it does a great job of capturing the lessons of my last two posts:  1) most of us haven’t updated our understanding of economics since Econ 101, and 2) we don’t like talking about economic inequality. Beginning with the quote above, the book provides a useful overview of how those two things are related. (These quotes are particularly re: income inequality, but apply to capital inequality as well.)

“Until the past few decades, the received wisdom among economists was that income inequality would be fairly low in the preindustrial era–overall wealth and productivity fairly small, so there wasn’t that much for the elite to capture– then spike during industrialization, as the industrialists and industrial workers outstripped farmers (think of China today). Finally, in fully industrialized or postindustrial societies, income inequality would again decrease as education became more widespread and the state played a bigger, more redistributive role.”

(This theory was articulated by Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuzmets, and can be plotted in what has become known as the Kuzmets curve. According to Wikipedia, Kuzmets won the award in 1971 “for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development.”)

Continuing with Plutocrats:

“Until the 1970’s, the United States… was also an embodiment of the Kuzmets curve. The great postwar expansion was also the period of what economists have dubbed the Great Compression, when inequality shrank, and most Americans came to think of themselves as the middle class.

“But in the late 1970’s, things started to change. The income of the middle class started to stagnate and those at the top began to pull away from everyone else. The shift was most pronounced in the United States, but by the twenty-first century, surging income inequality had become a worldwide phenomenon, visible in most of the developed Western economies, as well as in the rising emerging markets.

“The switch from the America of the Great Compression to the America of the 1 percent is still so recent that our intuitive beliefs about how capitalism works haven’t caught up with the reality. In fact, surging income inequality is such a strong violation of our expectations that most of us don’t realize it is happening.”

We’ll look at some inequality stats next time.

Taboo Economics

Last time, University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak challenged us to upgrade our Econ 101 understanding of economics. I’ve spent the past year doing that, and have come across what appears to be the one single issue that will instantly and absolutely shut down all further inquiry. It is the ultimate economics taboo — the quickest way to destroy any hope of further learning or discussion. Taking it head on is like signing up for a an adventure tourism trip into the Labyrinth, live Minotaur included.

No thanks, I’m pretty sure I’ve got something going on that night.

It’s especially taboo if you’re an American — economists around the rest of the world talk about it all the time with a sense of urgency, like it’s something we need to get on right now if we know what’s good for us. More on that in a moment. But first, what is it? In a word,

Inequality

Karn_The_Minotaur_Boss

Uh-oh. I think I just heard the footfalls of a really large, really nasty creature.

Understanding economic inequality is the key to Economics 2017. Trouble is, the topic threatens the very bedrock of a country founded on this premise:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

we are the 99%In the USA, “equal” means “anybody can make it here.” It is the land of Horatio Alger. To suggest that public policy — where the study of economics is played out — might include income inequality on its agenda is to throw Alger’s rags-to-riches enthronement of hard work, determination, courage, and honesty under the bus. Questioning those values is un-American by definition — the province of the Occupiers, who we all know finally had to give up and get a real job.

And so it goes.

You think I’m exaggerating? Read this NY Times op-ed piece from earlier this summer, then read these two completely polarized responses. The writer who started the exchange is a Brit who writes for the Brookings Institute and wrote a book entitled Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about Itwhich pretty much tells you everything you need to know, doesn’t it? About as surprising as finding this lesson plan primer on economic inequality on the PBS website.

And so it goes.

As the NY Times exchange makes clear, the issue isn’t so much economics, it’s the complete, total, utter American rejection of anything resembling a class system — a yoke we threw off with those Declaration of Independence fightin’ words. Which is why, these days, if you’re an European or Asian economist you’ll talk about inequality with a sense of urgency, but if you’re an American you won’t talk about it all — unless you’re a foreign-trained economist teaching at a prestigious U.S. university, which doesn’t really count. See the analysis of the USA vs. the Rest of the World Economic Divide in Why So Few American Economists Are Studying Inequality, The Atlantic, Sept. 13, 2016. (The article’s killer opening line is “In recent years, it’s been European scholars who have written the blockbuster papers on the topic.” “Blockbuster papers”? Seriously? Are we talking about economics here?)

Which is why it takes a Frenchman to write an international blockbuster (there’s that word again) economics book that takes 600 geeky pages to reckon with economic inequality. (Google Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century — it’s all over the capital 21st centuryplace.)

I mentioned the book to a friend who’s a hedge fund manager. He’s the most dedicated to the study of economics person I know. His comment? “Piketty didn’t talk about benefits.”

That was it.

We can let the topic of income inequality send us scurrying to the safety of Econ 101, or we can brave the Minotaur. We’ll enter the Labyrinth next time.

By the way, the reputed lefty Brookings Institute and its equally reputed righty arch-rival American Enterprise Institute actually collaborated on a 2015 study called Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream. And if the BI is given to favoring its own touchy topics, the AEI isn’t afraid to tackle its own controversial counterparts, as I learned while squirming my way through The Inequality Taboo. I’ll just leave it there for now.