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.

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