What Would Thomas Piketty Think of Affirmative Action?

"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" offers solace for both supporters and opponents of affirmative action.
What is the value of human capital? Photographer: Ronda Churchill/Bloomberg

Reading the Supreme Court's decision this in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, I couldn't help thinking of Thomas Piketty's controversial new book, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." Where would Piketty stand on affirmative action?

Piketty, as every Bloomberg reader knows, purports to show that returns from capital so outstrip returns from labor that we are in for massive inequalities of wealth in the decades to come. Piketty has his critics -- some of them carrying impeccable left credentials -- but he has been lionized by liberals looking for a champion.

In Schuette, a fractured Supreme Court ruled that a state's voters are free to forbid their public universities from considering race in the admissions process. The three-justice plurality was at pains to make clear that it was not ruling on the constitutionality of affirmative action itself. Thus, the court left the public debate exactly as it was.

Piketty's fascinating but flawed volume has little to say about race, and much of what he does say seems tossed off. (He tells us, for example, that "racial prejudice" is "exemplified by the debates over the health care reform adopted by the Obama administration.")

Although the issue doesn't arise in his book, one might suppose that Piketty would be a supporter of race-conscious admission programs. After all, his concern is principally with inequalities in wealth, and, in the U.S., the racial gap in wealth is large and has lately been getting larger. (According to the Census Bureau's Survey of Consumer Finance, in 2010, white Americans collectively owned 88.4 percent of the nation's wealth; black Americans owned 2.7 percent.) Even when one holds income constant, the gap is enormous.

And although Piketty is strangely resistant to the term "human capital," he fully accepts that education is an important driver of wage inequality. Indeed, he complains toward the end of the book that America's most prestigious colleges -- the ones that, by hypothesis, add the most to one's potential future earnings -- tend to engage in social reproduction, welcoming the children of the upper classes while pricing themselves out of the reach of the poor.

Graduating from a prestigious college is a proxy for the difficult-to-measure human-capital investment of higher education. (So are one's major and one's grades.) A classic argument in favor of affirmative action is that opening the opportunity to earn the proxy credential (graduation, not admission) to a more diverse range of students will help to address social inequities -- for example, that wealth gap.

This argument seems to me a persuasive one. The only mystery is why liberals who support affirmative action in higher education don't follow their own logic and argue for democratizing primary and secondary school, too -- by supporting vouchers that would allow poor families to invest significant resources in their children earlier, as the well-to-do can.

Although Piketty plainly sees the importance of education, he is also something of a skeptic. He is unhappy with the notion of human capital, which he sees as measurable "only in societies where it is actually possible to own other individuals fully and entirely." (Yes, he means slavery.) Unfortunately, Piketty's hostility to human capital makes it difficult for him to provide any rational explanation for large differences in income earned by labor. His solution is, in effect, to suggest that the large income differences we see today (say, among corporate managers) aren't rational.

Assume he's right. Wouldn't that verdict tend to undercut the case for affirmative action in college admissions? If human-capital investment can't account for significant differences in income and wealth -- if, as Piketty suggests, the labor market really works only in setting wages for low-status workers -- then affirmative action looks like an effort to perpetuate a vast and perhaps meaningless fiction. The irony of course is that well-compensated professors at selective institutions, many of whom are Piketty fans, undoubtedly do believe that their own status is earned, not random. And their hiring practices reflect the conviction that grades and degrees are proxies for something that should matter to the market.

On the other hand, Piketty's argument can easily account for the opposition to affirmative-action programs. Piketty fans see his analysis as supporting a "false consciousness" narrative in which the middle classes have been beguiled into voting against their own economic self-interest. But a significant source of opposition to affirmative action surely arises from white families worried about their own children's prospects. The argument advanced by the critics of Schuette, that the political process should not be used to end affirmative-action programs, is really an argument that people shouldn't be permitted to vote their self-interest, even when they see it clearly.

And let's not forget that there are other drivers of inequality, not all of them amenable to programmatic solutions. Consider the phenomenon of assortative mating, in which people of similar backgrounds tend to wed and reproduce. It's easy to see how the tendency of the successful to mate with the successful contributes to inequality across the generations.

As it turns out, assortative mating has a racial component. Given the opportunity, most people will choose to date people of their own race. Recent work suggests that the within-race dating preference is stronger among women than among men, and stronger among the young than among the old. If this research is correct, we can predict a widening racial inequality no matter what other societal institutions might do.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm a supporter of affirmative action in college admissions; indeed, I think education is precisely where the case is strongest. But Piketty, if he means what he says, should find himself torn -- as would many of his countrymen. In Piketty's native France, efforts to pursue affirmative action after the U.S. model would be impossible, and Schuette would be irrelevant. Official recognition of race is forbidden by the 1958 constitution, and although the grandes ecoles have adopted policies to increase the diversity of their student bodies by income, the efforts have led to fears that should sound familiar to the American ear: that merit and excellence will be sacrificed for the sake of equality.

What is it they say in France? Plus ca change ...

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