I just finished reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, the economics work du jour that has been called the most important book of the century. Rather than take the time to collect my thoughts and organize them into a coherent, sensible review, I decided I’d just dump my initial impressions in a scattered fashion and let you wade your way through. I’m not sure why anyone would even by interested in what I have to say about the issue (as opposed to people much more informed than I am), but this is the Internet and being unqualified never stopped anyone before!
—It seems to me that, in all the discussion of Piketty’s book, a lot of people are misconstruing the argument he’s really making. The summary you’ll see a lot is that Piketty is saying inequality has been getting worse for the last 30 years or so. And that is sort of what he’s saying, but that’s not the crux of his argument, and he’s very open about the lack the clarity on that issue. Indeed, he says, “It is by no means certain that inequalities of wealth are actually increasing at the global level.”
Still, inequality is the central theme of the book, and Piketty paints a harrowing portrait. But the full picture he creates is not just one of the present and recent past. He goes all the way back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century and illustrates a few key points. The first is that inequality decreased substantially throughout the twentieth century. This is kind of obvious, but his next point is crucial: This decrease was essentially a historical accident. It was the result of a global Depression and two world wars of unprecedented scale, which destroyed a ton of wealth* and, as Piketty puts it, “wiped the slate clean” for the generation after World War II.
*The way this happened was not as obvious as you might think. Some of it was just the physical destruction of the wars, sure, but it also came from nationalizations caused by the war, loss of European colonies, and the huge national debts and subsequent inflation that followed. Piketty explains it all better than I could.
In other words, the decrease in inequality wasn’t some natural result of the forces of capitalism, but the legacy of specific disasters we’re only now emerging from.
An OWS Manifesto
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” —Karl Marx
What ever happened to Occupy Wall Street? Only 18 months after the camps in Zuccotti Park and across the country were being compared to the Arab Spring, people now remember the movement with the same dismissive nostalgia usually reserved for lesser Backstreet Boys. Cynics wonder what the movement ever accomplished, as if OWS fizzled out on its own accord as opposed to being brutally, aggressively, and covertly evicted in a coordinated, nationwide campaign of repression.
Of course, the reality is that OWS never really went away—it only became less visible and therefore easier to ignore after the evictions. Even when OWS couldn’t be ignored, it was always easier to make fun of it than to try to understand it. The lack of concrete demands, the weird hand gestures, and the eclectic mix of people all made the movement impossible to fit neatly into the ubiquitous “Democrat vs. Republican” narrative, and so it was generally viewed as a sideshow or a “liberal Tea Party” by the mainstream media.
But OWS was always better understood in the context of history than in the context of American politics—the entire premise of the movement was that American politics were fundamentally broken in the first place. David Graeber’s new book, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement aims to place OWS in that historical context. It’s something of a tricky task, since the movement is only two years old, and its long-term effects are still unclear. Continue reading
What we read while we all just got along…
What we read while Mega Millions disproved rational choice theory…
People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or in the private sphere. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course. Moreover, however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of troubles, it generally falters and fails when new troubles arise. And many new troubles are inherently insoluble. As political eras, whether dominated by public purpose or by private interests, run their course, they infallibly generate the desire for something different. It always becomes after a while “time for a change.”
—The Cycles of American History
Before historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.—not to be confused with his father, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.—published The Cycles of American History in 1986, few people recognized that history had a point. Most instead believed that history was composed of unconnected events in the past that had little to no effect on the present.
At the time, historians defended their practice with two famous quotations: 1. Dionysius’s “History is philosophy teaching by example” and 2. Hegel’s “The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk.” There were, however, several problems with these quotes. First, Dionysius (of Halicarnassus) lived before Jesus and was more a rhetorician than a historian.* Second, Hegel is really, really hard to understand.
*And what forms of history did he really have access to? What could he study? I assume he did all his research in the Library of Alexandria.