Friday, June 26, 2020

Diary

With the help of the coronavirus, I'm having an unusually dull summer. So far, Vermont, which has an elderly population compared to most states, has done relatively well in containing the pandemic. Addison County has done exceptionally well. There was a surge in new cases in Chittenden County after Memorial Day, but that subsided fairly quickly. Besides making it necessary to curtail public activities, such as going to restaurants, the pandemic causes a variety of psychological stresses that accumulate month after month. The thing that bothers me the most is having to watch the slow-moving train wreck of the Trump administration and the Republican Party on a daily basis. When Trump is gone, I'll probably stop following the news so closely. While it was apparent as early as 2016 that the Trump administration would fail, few Americans realized or acknowledged that he was elected purely on the basis of propaganda, and that any perceived successes of the administration were essentially either nonexistent or, at best, dumb luck. What irritates me the most is how long it is taking for the public to realize that they have been duped. They misattributed the success of the economy to Trump for three years, and now it is taking months for them to realize that he has completely mishandled the pandemic, causing the preventable loss of thousands of lives and damaging the economy. If there is any justice in this, it is that many of the Trump-supporting states are increasing in COVID-19 cases because they followed Trump's anti-science lead and failed to take the necessary precautions. Moreover, they will have on their consciences the fact that they enabled the most incompetent and corrupt president in American history.

Another aspect of the current political situation that disturbs me is the extent to which so many political opportunists have tied themselves to Trump and continue to resist the notion that he isn't just a little bad as president, but a complete disaster for both the country and the world. Not only is he a menace to public health and economic stability, but he and his appointees are attempting to shred the Constitution and eliminate the balance of power in the federal government. As a rational person, it irks me to look on as millions of people continue to support a politician who, by every measure, does nothing but damage to the country. This situation is a perfect example of why faith in democracy is a misguided idea – thus my skepticism regarding Thomas Piketty, progressive politicians, etc.

On a more positive note, all of my astronomical equipment is currently up and running, and we have had a few clear nights. However, with the objects that I like to see, it has to be extremely clear and rarely is. I like galaxies and was able to see Markarian's Chain, a line of galaxies only visible in large telescopes. I could see them, but they were blurry. Perhaps I prefer galaxies because they're about as far from Earth as you can get. I find it comforting to know that humans are at best a footnote to a footnote in the scale of the universe.

The weather has been hot and dry recently, and, with heavy watering, the tomatoes are off to a good start. I've ordered a new book that sounds promising and will begin reading it soon. I wasn't that thrilled by Charles Darwin or Thomas Piketty and could use something a little different at the moment.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Capital and Ideology V

As expected, I finished the book. Part Four includes the chapters Borders and Property: The Construction of Equality, Brahmin Left: New Euro-American Cleavages, Social Nativism: The Postcolonial Identity Trap, and Elements for a Participatory Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. The latter chapter lays out some of Piketty's ideas regarding the specific structure and goals of future governments. He says:

The study of history has convinced me that it is possible to transcend today's capitalist system and to outline the contours of a new participatory socialism for the twenty-first century—a new universalist egalitarian perspective based on social ownership, education, and shared knowledge and power.

In the short concluding chapter, he writes:

Ultimately, this book has only one goal: to enable citizens to reclaim possession of economic and historical knowledge. Whether or not the reader agrees with my specific conclusions basically does not matter because my purpose is to begin debate, not to end it.

While, on one level, I respect Piketty's idealism, on another level he seems to be a completely naïve academic who, having accessed an international readership, is now freely expressing his childhood fantasies. Looking at his background, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that both of his parents were once Trotskyites. That by itself wouldn't necessarily be bad, but his ideas seem shaky to me, and how he thinks they might be implemented seems completely unrealistic.

As mentioned earlier, Piketty has no interest in psychology and seems to be completely unaware of the problems that one would encounter in educating the public and making them sympathetic to his ideas. For example, although he seems to have some awareness of how Trump supporters think, he conveniently places them in his category of "nativist merchants," who have come to dominate the Republican Party and abhor the "Brahmin left," which includes people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who have come to dominate the Democratic Party. In Piketty's nostalgic version of socialism, there remains the fantasy of a well-educated and intellectually flexible public who are ready to implement enlightened ideas without any help from experts simply by following routine democratic processes. Looking at the electorate in the U.S., this seems like a pipe dream of the highest order. How are voters who don't even know how many branches there are in the federal government suddenly going to become progressive policy wonks?

I'm not going to attempt to summarize Piketty's proposals, because I don't see them going anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps they may get some support in the E.U., but elsewhere, particularly in the U.S., you may at best see some piecemeal versions of them in progressive platforms such as those put forward by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. In order to make any headway in the U.S., Piketty's ideas would have to overcome forty years of conservative propaganda and challenge the corporate mindset in a manner that hasn't succeeded in nearly a century. I should also mention that Piketty seems to have no sense of the future of capitalism: for him it will continue to function much as it has, but with greater taxation on wealth and high incomes. One of his pet projects is to improve educational opportunities for the disadvantaged; while on the surface this seems like a good idea, realistically I don't think it would be of much benefit in a shrinking job market. In fact, Piketty hasn't given a thought to how capitalism itself is likely to evolve over the next few decades. Like more conventional economists, he seems to think that capitalism can be an engine of growth indefinitely, and that it merely has to be regulated better so as to keep it in line with the public interest. He seems to have almost no sense of the cutthroat nature of capitalism, which has historically left winners and losers in its wake. Somehow, he thinks, the democratization of corporate boards will result in enlightened corporate policies – without affecting profitability. From reading this book, you would never know that corporations routinely disrupt democratic processes in order to gain competitive advantages. I don't see that behavior changing significantly until all major corporations are nationalized – which doesn't seem to be looming on the horizon.

From my point of view, Piketty is operating primarily from a pre-scientific schema, and he is willfully ignoring both behavioral economics and a biological understanding of human nature. He would benefit greatly from reading some of the books that I've discussed on this blog. Underlying his ideas is an idealized version of human nature in which everyone has the ability to reason clearly and make good choices. However, scientific research now says quite the opposite. I wish that I could give this book a more positive assessment, but, as it stands, I can hardly recommend it.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Capital and Ideology IV

I am finding that the book is structurally ill-conceived and far too long for the abbreviated conclusions that Piketty is likely to reach in the final chapter, which is only seven pages long. I looked over Part Three, which includes The Crisis of Ownership Societies, Social-Democratic Societies: Incomplete Equality, Communist and Postcommunist Societies, and Hypercapitalism: Between Modernity and Archaism. On page after page you see the social and economic histories of country after country, accompanied by Piketty's charts, which usually show changes in wealth and income inequalities over long periods of time. The main point of Piketty's last book was that capitalism tends to coexist with inequality, though he did not posit a causal relationship. That was an interesting idea at the time, since, particularly in the U.S., the prevailing mythology had been that "a rising tide raises all boats," or "trickle-down economics" dating from the Reagan-Thatcher era. However, although that book was popular among progressives, as far as I know, it has hardly made a dent in policy anywhere and is the butt of jokes in Davos. I think the current book will have even less of an impact, because Piketty does nothing more than tenuously link the state of inequality in a country with whatever the prevailing political ideas are at any given time. For Piketty, it seems that inequality is purely subject to the prevailing ideas in a country, and he has not so far presented a case for any particular set of ideas that ought to be applied generally in order to reduce it. Also, as I mentioned earlier, he has no interest in using the biological characteristics of humans to construct plausible models for future use. Thus, from my point of view, he has no interest in examining the underlying causes of intractable inequality. If he took that extra step, he might immediately see that humans are social animals, and that they expend much of their energy attempting to attain social prestige. In this era, that prestige is usually associated with greater wealth, and until wealth is replaced by some other characteristic, economic inequality is inevitable. This is such a simple and obvious idea that I am stunned that it hasn't occurred to Piketty. Rather, he seems to prefer to show off his historical knowledge and loosely connect it to economic history. As I said, I don't think that history is much of a guide to anything.

In other respects, if one is interested in social history, the book can at least provide some food for thought. Piketty makes a case that part of the ascendance of the economy in the U.S. was due to the fact that the American educational system surpassed that of most other countries early in the twentieth century. On the surface, this is an appealing idea, but I don't think that it holds up to scrutiny. Rather, I see this as an indication of Piketty's tendentiousness. I think that Piketty is a hopeless, ideological conformist in his belief that economic advancement is the result of the removal of constraints on the underprivileged. In this instance, he seems oblivious to the fact that increases in agricultural productivity led to a reduction in demand for farm labor; this precipitated a migration to industrial jobs that did not require an educated workforce. I doubt that education had much relationship to productivity in the U.S. until after World War II, when the GI Bill created a new generation of professionals.

On the other hand, sometimes Piketty offers descriptions which help clarify situations:

The neo-proprietarianism that has emerged over the past several decades is a complex phenomenon; it is not merely a return to the proprietarianism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, it is linked to an extreme form of meritocratic ideology. Meritocratic discourse glorifies the winners in the economic system while stigmatizing the losers for their supposed lack of merit, virtue and diligence. Of course, meritocracy is an old ideology on which elites in all times and places have always relied in one way or another to justify their dominance. Over time, however, it has become increasingly common to blame the poor for their poverty. This is one of the principal features of today's inequality regime. 

This description applies to many countries at the moment, and, in the U.S., the Trump administration has turned it into a parody: Trump and his flunkies transparently demonstrate their utter incompetence on a daily basis, while unconvincingly posing as masters of economic and geopolitical skills. The problem, however, is quite real, and a slightly less offensive version of the same behavior infected the Obama administration. I also notice that some of the current heroes of capitalism, such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, often seem quite vacuous if you examine them outside their particular areas of expertise.

I've (only) got 322 pages left to go and hope to blast through them and wrap up the book on my next post.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Capital and Ideology III

Part Two of the book consists of an exhaustive description of slave and colonial societies. There is so much material in this book – it could have been three or four books – that I'm going to comment only on things that particularly interest me. My interests do not necessarily match Piketty's, but I find some of the information interesting in its own right. In passing, Piketty mentions the basic pattern of international trade, and it struck me how little one ever hears about it, because it is ignored or distorted by the news media and politicians. When a country, such as Japan, increases its exports because labor is inexpensive, the workforce is young and it has a competitive advantage in pricing, the situation is not permanent and evolves over time, particularly when the workforce ages and the labor pool declines. Eventually, the workforce becomes smaller, and the wealth that has been accumulated is invested overseas, providing a replacement income for the income that has been lost from exports. Although the situation isn't quite so stark in the U.S., manufacturing and exports have similarly declined, resulting in fewer jobs. The workforce in the U.S. is also aging, but, unlike Japan, immigrants are filling vacant positions. Under this explanation, there is nothing wrong with trade deficits, and there isn't necessarily a reason to rebalance them. For example, Japan now has a trade deficit, but the Japanese have large investments abroad and are not financially imperiled. In order to regain lost manufacturing jobs in this scenario, it would be necessary to reduce labor costs either though automation or lower hourly pay. Thus, when Donald Trump or other politicians come along and say that they are going to rev up the economy and bring back jobs, as if it were 1960 all over again, they have no idea what they're talking about. There is a basic cyclical process in place that can't be bypassed. No doubt this will be listed in Trump's obituary, along with his other colossal failures. Piketty has yet to describe how improvements could be made in this kind of political environment.

I found the description of how slavery ended interesting. When the English ended slavery, the government compensated the slaveholders for their loss of property. The situation with the French in Haiti was quite different. There had been many uprisings in Haiti, and finally France agreed to let the slaves buy their freedom. Thus, Haiti incurred a debt in 1825 which was not paid off until 1950. The U.S. had confused and unsatisfactory results when slavery ended. There was a proposal to send the slaves to Liberia, which didn't work. An attempt to recompense the slaveholders was also unsuccessful, because the value of the slaves was too high to be afforded by the government. Perhaps some of the animus in the South lingers from the fact that the slaveholders were never compensated. The problem of slavery remains unresolved in the U.S., and we're still seeing it in the news. Of course, I don't have any answers, but I don't think that reparations to slave descendants, as currently discussed, are going to be politically popular. I find that movement a little odd, because life isn't fair and never has been. At this stage, the civil rights movement in the U.S. has worn quite thin and is on life support. Uneducated white people are now clambering for attention too, as their economic situations deteriorate. From my point of view, all Americans have become a bit whiny. Many of them seem to assume that they are entitled to a minimum standard of living even if they make little effort. Worst of all, the government, which is permanently underfunded because of low taxation, doesn't have the ability or desire to do much about it. I know it isn't an apt comparison, but I think more along the lines of the Armenians (three of my great-grandparents) who fled genocide in the Ottoman Empire. The idea that I would demand reparations from Turkey seems like the height of absurdity to me. If I were a slave descendant living in the U.S., my first choice would be to emigrate to a different country. I wouldn't waste my time waiting for the U.S. to become an enlightened country.

Also in Part Two are descriptions of the transitions from ternary societies to proprietary societies in Asia and elsewhere. There is so much data that I'm not going to try to summarize it.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Capital and Ideology II

The book includes a detailed description of the historical structure of society in several countries. The earliest widespread structure, called ternary or trifunctional, consisted of the nobility, the clergy and "the third estate," which represented ordinary workers of low status. In France, that system existed up to 1789, from where it gradually evolved into the next structure, which is called proprietary. England went through a similar process, but without a full-scale revolution. The propriety structure runs right up to the present, and, as the name suggests, is based on the ownership of property. Many of the examples of proprietary structure come from France and England and are a repeat of content from Piketty's last book. Once again he examines the unequal ownership of property and uses Balzac and Jane Austen for accurate descriptions of the early nineteenth century in France and England. He also includes data from the Belle Époch, which ran from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to World War I in 1914. As recounted in his last book, that period, though rich in the arts, was characterized by extreme wealth inequality. He also includes data on Sweden and other countries.

The book is quite long – 1041 pages – and goes into great detail, usually relying on data such as inheritance records. Besides being a little tedious to read, the early sections amount to evidence that he will use for his central arguments at the end of the book. Of course, this type of process is hardly concise and makes the book look like a major academic treatise. More than ever, Piketty comes across as a slightly pedantic academic who is forcing the readers to wade through minutia that may not be of much interest to them. Although the data is often rich, I am finding that I don't need most of it and would be much happier with "the short version," a concept which seems to barely register with Piketty. For this reason, I am passing across the pages far more rapidly than usual in order to finish the book in a reasonable amount of time. Moreover, I don't particularly like historical approaches, because they often seem arbitrary to me, and historians never seem to be good at summarizing conceptual issues. For these reasons, I am not going to dwell on anything and will move as quickly as possible without referencing the countless bits of information.

In passing, one issue came up that shows the difference between my thinking and Piketty's. Writing about the Aryan nobles in India and nobles in other regions, he says:

...the historical evidence suggests that classes mixed to such a degree that any supposed ethnic differences disappeared almost entirely within a few generations.

I think that Piketty embodies many liberal biases, because he is commenting on something without taking into account alternate views. With respect to the Brahmins, here is what David Reich, the geneticist, has to say:

The people who were the custodians of Indo-European language and culture were the ones with more relative steppe ancestry, and because of the extraordinary strength of the caste system, the ancient substructure in the ANI [ancestral north Indians] is evident in some of today's Brahmins even after thousands of years.

My point here is that Piketty, though roughly correct, has no interest in accurate genetic information which contradicts the unquestioned liberal assumption that all people and ethnicities have essentially the same capabilities. There are differences which, though small, should not be glossed over unless research disproves it. As I've said before, though a genetic view of the abilities of different groups may seem racist, in cases such as those put forward by David Reich, there is scientific evidence to back them up, and the default liberal academic trope that all people are essentially the same looks much like propaganda. It is apparent to me that Piketty comes with a lot of intellectual baggage which may not hold up well if you remove him from his particular academic bubble. Thus, while I admire him for his quest for the cause of equality, it is hard for me to overcome the aspects of his thought that amount to no more than academic received wisdom. There are real differences between people, and some of those differences are the result of their genetic backgrounds.

I am hoping to wade through another 200 pages before making my next post.