Saturday, May 30, 2020

Capital and Ideology I

For a number of reasons, I'm out of my winter reading mode and will probably proceed through this book, by Thomas Piketty, very slowly. Like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it isn't technical and is easy to understand. I am reminded of Charles Darwin, who similarly wrote accessible books, and thereby laid claim to the title of one of the greatest scientific minds in history. Like Darwin, Piketty is already rich and acclaimed from his popular first book.

I've only read the long introduction, which describes the main plan of the book. As with his last book, Piketty loves historical narratives in which he compares conditions in different countries at different periods. In this case, rather than focusing primarily on the economic aspects of wealth inequality in rich countries, he looks broadly at ideology and politics in all kinds of countries. I am already finding myself disagreeing with him when he says "Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political." It looks as if the main premise of the book is that inequality can only be addressed through political processes, and in this sense it seems that his ideas are similar to those of Jared Diamond in Upheaval: each nation must work to define its situation and find solutions through a democratic political process. In most respects, that is a conventional view today. However, as I've mentioned on previous posts, I have a very low confidence level in political processes and usually find prevailing ideologies stunningly simplistic if not simply incorrect. Piketty seems to abhor technical language when it comes to collective human thinking about how societies should be organized. I agree with him that natural language is our primary resource for resolving political and ideological disputes, but think that he has too much faith in the idea that humans can collectively solve their major problems simply by identifying and discussing them at all levels of society. I find myself frequently disagreeing with progressive intellectuals, who often seem to base their ideas on a faulty understanding of human nature.

Piketty's form of argument, while refreshing in some ways, is disappointing in others. It is indeed pleasant to read about social issues in narrative form, probably because our brains have evolved to work that way. Strictly scientific language seems cold and inaccessible, so it makes sense that people, including Piketty, prefer stories for digesting information. Most people, for example, would prefer reading a novel to reading a scientific treatise. The problem is that ideologies and political memes lack real substance if they're not measured against more objective standards. Several of the books that I've read since reading Piketty's last book show that human cognition is highly erratic in its performance, which results in irrational behavior on the part of practically everyone. Thus, the idea that the citizens of a country can simply buckle down, put their heads together and reinvent themselves through a process that is both orderly and rational seems naïve to me. That, unfortunately, seems to be the view of most progressive intellectuals these days. I am more inclined to let policy experts or AI make these decisions, because most people are simply incapable of understanding complex policy options. It looks as if Piketty is going to completely ignore behavioral economics, which, besides being a useful branch of economics, is probably one of the most important ones to develop over the last fifty years.

Although, as I've said, politics and ideology don't interest me much, I can use the current political situation in the U.S. as an example. People generally agree about what comprise liberal or conservative ideas, but perhaps the one interesting thing that Donald Trump has done is demonstrate that Republican conservatives now have no core beliefs. Because Trump has no real ideology other than narcissism, the Republican Party, for the first time since the early twentieth century, no longer represents fiscal conservatism or free trade. Notably, there has been no effort made by Republicans to reframe their ideological beliefs, and it seems that, almost overnight, the conceptual identity of the party was gutted, and the party itself became a tool for conceptually incoherent opportunists. To be sure, some of the previous practices, such as the removal of restrictions on corporations, are still in place, but, with Trump at the helm, there can be no intelligible ideological or political goals. I think Piketty will be commenting on the Trump situation later in the book, but this situation may contradict some of his ideas.

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