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Thomas Ferguson: The increasing popularity of French economist Thomas Piketty’s book points to how Democrats hope to make inequality a political issue in November elections

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

We’re now joined by Thomas Ferguson. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and he’s also a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Thanks for joining us, Tom.


DESVARIEUX: So, Tom, French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Captital in the Twenty-First Century, it’s a bestseller. It’s really struck a chord with folks. What do you think is behind this? What do you think this means?

FERGUSON: Okay. Well, alright, Jessica, let me begin by declaring just a little bit of conflict–potential conflict of interest. I’m also the research director at the Institute for New Economic thinking, and we did help fund a very substantial portion of the research that went into the database that Piketty uses, the World Top Incomes Database. So I should say that.

The other thing I’d maybe better frankly confess is that everybody knows that Arthur Goldhammer, who translated the book, the best, I think, living translator from French into English there is, he was my roommate for many years back when I was teaching at MIT. So I’ll just–.

But now, that said, look, the striking thing to me is that a–we’ve got a brick], basically has become a bestseller. And while it’s a very well written book and I don’t mind saying I think it’s very important and very good, even if, you know, there are things in it I’d probably do different if I were writing it, this is indeed remarkable. It’s almost without precedent. So what’s up?

And, you know, my take is–let’s just set aside the questions, the particular discussions about the book that people have been focusing on. I think what you want to pay attention to is this. There’s a political context here that is pretty important. Let’s go take a step back for a second, though, to understand that. We’ve all heard about framing these days, about how in political campaigns, parties, political parties, will try to discuss an issue with the idea of influencing the electorate’s response. That’s triggered a torrent of writing. A lot of it’s garbage and a lot of it is–you get way overstated claims for what framing can do. But there isn’t much doubt that if you can, for instance, build in effect a background noise and make it audible, you can influence folks in their thinking.

Now, in the current election year–I mean, I–here I don’t guess. I’ve seen some Democratic Party memoranda, or, rather, from their pollsters. Their own focus groups show that President Obama is not very popular with most Americans. You know, we can all debate whether that should be or shouldn’t be, but that’s a fact. What they also realize is that, you know, most people don’t think they’ve gotten very much out of the Obama seven years or six years, as it were, in office. But when they change the subject to things like inequality, they discover that then they get a much more favorable response compared to, say, Republicans. And, you know, it’s not hard, I think, to figure out why that’s the case. It’s because on the question of inequality, the Republican Party is essentially unpresentable. There is no way that you can sit there, preach it, tell everybody that the existing state of income distribution in the United States is in any sense optimal, or keep nattering on about job creation, etc. You know, it’s just–it’s a loser for Republicans, just like it was a loser in 2012.

Now, you could see last fall the president begin to give speeches on income inequality and draw attention to the issue. That led immediately to a discussion with even some of the center-right groups in the Democratic Party squawking that that was really a bad idea. It was pretty interesting to watch how the Center for American Progress, which is a think tank very close to the White House, then jumped into that debate, and some of their spokespersons began saying, well, you know, income equality’s a legitimate issue. Then you could watch the next step. John Podesta, who’d founded the Center for American Progress, rolled back into the White House as a senior adviser to the president. Then you could watch a little later when Piketty came to the United States–I won’t swear it was his first talk, but it was his first big talk, down at one of the affiliates of the Center for American Progress.

And then that sort of–what then happened is even more interesting. Now, to understand what then happened, you have to realize that the White House press corps pretty much congregates around the White House the way birds were said to do around St. Francis. And so if they see the White House doing something, they start to sort of pick it up, imitate it, and talk about.

Okay. What was really interesting to me is that Piketty gets an interview with the secretary of the Treasury. Now, look, I will tell you I know lots of people who work on income inequality, and they do absolutely outstanding work. They haven’t been granted personal interviews with the Treasury secretary. That’s a political move. And very plainly it was intended to sort of signal to Democratic friendlies in the press corps, this is, you know, an issue we’d like to talk about. They have all done this. I mean, just about every correspondent I know that has any kind of residual tendency toward the Democrats is starting to think, act, and talk like they are interested in income inequality, though when I directly asked people if they’ve actually read Piketty’s book, the answer is usually no. I mean, I have a feeling this is one of those books that is going to be more–it’s going to be bought and it’s going to end on a coffee table in a large chunk of the beltway. But, you know, that’s life.

Anyway, my point here is this is going to go on at least through the November elections. Then it will probably tail off a bit. It will–I can write this trajectory too right now (predictive social science is possible)–it will probably resume as the 2016 presidential elections come up again, and then it will stop abruptly pretty soon after that.

I mean, the thing I think we all want to watch in this is, essentially, this is the background music. It’s framing in a political context. It’s fun to compare the amount of space The New York Times devotes to this, for example, with The Wall Street Journal. Guess what. You’ll find less space on it in The Journal and a far more hostile treatment of the question. It’s just to illustrate my point.

And in that sense, you know, I’m glad for all the attention Piketty’s getting. As I said, I think it’s a really important book, it’s a good one, and it makes agreement on particular points just irrelevant in a sort of–from the standpoint of a discussion like this. But, you know, understand what you’re seeing here. It’s really a political phenomenon, and it needs to be produced as that. It’s not, as it were, Piketty or his book himself; it’s the phenomenon of the brick as bestseller, which, I would observe, as–because it’s done so well in the United States–when it came out in France it did well but not sensationally. Now it’s doing sensationally in France, too, and France is yet another country riven by deep political conflicts in which income distribution is emerging as a big question.

DESVARIEUX: But, Tom, do you see this in any way potentially that this could backfire for the Obama administration and Democrats if they are sort of riling the base and having this being a major issue in the November elections? But if people sort of wake up and their consciousness is transformed by this book, could you actually see this carrying on beyond November?

FERGUSON: Well, look, this is an interesting question. Art Goldhammer, when I talked to him the other–the translator, the other week, reminded me of Jacques Necker’s book on French finances in 1780, you know, just before the French Revolution. Necker was amazed to discover it became a bestseller. And, of course, Necker was the guy whose dismissal helped bring on one of the–maybe the greatest single event in the history of the world. I mean the French Revolution.

Well, so, yeah, Jessica, you know, we don’t know how people will calculate, but I do think this is that the Democrats have a real problem. You know, after six years, they don’t have–I’ve said this before on The Real News, and indeed I started saying it, meh, within a month after the president took office that the economic plan was too little and too late. And so, you know, this is one of these deals where they’re kind of running out of tricks. They’ve got to try something. They’ve been in power six years, and for the average human, there’s just no recovery. So, you know, the stock market’s great, but for the average human there’s still huge numbers of people unemployed. Most everybody’s children who graduate from college have huge troubles finding jobs. I mean, it’s pathetic. It’s ridiculous. And, you know, people don’t know, necessarily, quite all the ins and outs of this, but the recoil away from, if you like, the out-in, in-out sequence that I’ve talked to you about before in great recessions and depressions is clearly at work here. I mean, Obama was really lucky to have somebody as inept and caricaturable as Romney to run against. He doesn’t have a Romney to run against this time. But they are well on the way to constructing, if you like, the social equivalent of Romney, and, you know, that’s not easy to do. I mean, you can’t overemphasize how outrageously partial to the super rich the Republican leadership is. but you’ve got to keep reminding people of that.

But I take your point. Where this stops–you know, it’s like Jacques Necker found out in 1780 that he had a lot more to do with his life than write a bestseller at the time.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Tom Ferguson, thank you so much for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught formerly at MIT and the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Right Turn (Hill & Wang, 1986). Most of his research focuses on how economics and politics affect institutions and vice versa. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Economics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic History. He is a long time Contributing Editor to The Nation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Historical Society and the International Journal of Political Economy.