It’s about the data, stupid!

I’ve been a big fan of Thomas Piketty and his book Capital in the 21st Century long before I knew about Thomas Piketty or his book. When word first started bubbling out about the book and the English translation’s release (side note: it looks like the German translation is finally coming in November 2014), the important thing was that it was backed by a database where he had pulled together new sources that hadn’t been analyzed like this before. He had data, and formed theories from it. The economist as data scientist: that explains my fandom.

The book has put the discussion of inequality into turbo mode, and it has the elites running scared. After they realized that they couldn’t really fight him on the data, they’ve turned to name-calling, straw men, and pulled every other fallacy out of the handbook to try and beat back the flames. Until Chris Giles.

It took a little while, but someone finally spent some time with the data and may have found some errors. I would be surprised if there weren’t any minor errors in a massive and technical tome like this. (Full disclosure: I have bought the book, but have not gotten to through it myself yet.) Mr. Giles has found some errors of the transcription type, similar to the ones that took down the infamously influential Reinhart and Rogoff paper, and a few others, but according to Krugman and Yglesias, he oversteps his claims on how damaging those errors are. The political motivations of Mr. Giles are also plain to see, which explains his willingness to overstep in this sentence:

The exact level of European inequality in the last fifty years is impossible to determine, as it depends on the sources one uses.

which of course is the basis of everything Piketty has done in his book. The level of European inequality is not impossible to determine; the data is there, but it may be hidden behind some privacy laws and the elites’ want for secrecy. Since it is the elites who are generally the ones passing the laws anyway, it’s difficult to imagine that the laws will be changed any time soon to allow for more transparency. But here, it’s the pundit’s language that is used to stir the emotion, even in supposedly analytical situations like this one, so let’s look at that sentence.

“The exact level…” No one is claiming to want to know the exact level. Good approximations are enough, and even more important are the direction of the trends. “…impossible to determine…” well of course, because he’s moved the goalpost (“exact”) impossibly high. “…as it depends on the sources one uses.” And there’s the switch. He’s made a false premise, so any conclusion is valid, even though he’s phrased it as if the conclusion were the premise. So in one sentence, he’s trying to repudiate all of Piketty’s work and to get this whole equality thing behind us, because some other made-up crisis that the media controls must used to distract the masses.  Or something.

And frankly, it’s a bit of shame. It’s good that Mr. Giles did his homework and may have found some errors, whose correction will only strengthen Piketty’s body of work. But by overstepping his conclusions and revealing his motivations, Mr. Giles has cheapened his own  additions to the discussion about the what’s really important: the data.

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