Sunday, 17 April 2022

Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty

 Pages: 1041  (including inline footnotes, excluding index)

Piketty became an international intellectual super-star back in 2014 after releasing Capital in the 21st CenturyCapital and Ideology (published in English in February 2020) is his followup book, intended to answer the question "What now? Can we do something about wealth inequality?"

I can summarize Piketty's answer fairly briefly.

There is nothing natural or inevitable about the level of income or wealth inequality that currently exists.  In fact, inequality was much lower across a broad range of societies in the period 1950-1980 AND economic growth was higher.  

There are proven policies that we could use to radically reduce inequality like steeply progressive income taxes, inheritance taxes, and wealth taxes. Coupled with transnational treaties and transnational governance designed to eliminate tax competition between nations, we could radically and quickly reduce inequality. It is desirable that we do so for reasons of innate economic justice, to build funding and support for critical initiatives like combatting climate change, and because extreme inequality is fostering zenophobia and division.

But Piketty is not brief.  In fact, Capital and Ideology is 1041 pages long. What's worse is that you could get the gist of his argument if you read the 47 pages of the introduction and the 75 pages of Chapter 17: Elements of a participatory socialism for the 21st Century.  

So why is Capital and Ideology so long?  

  • Piketty (or his translator) is wordy: several times I found myself taking a pencil and editing an entire long paragraph down to a sentence. 
  • The book is repetitious.  Given how long it is, the repetition can be helpful.  On the other hand, if the book were shorter it might not be as necessary.
  • Piketty took both the praise and the critiques of Capital in the 21st Century a bit too seriously: 
    • The quotations from Austen and Balzac in that book really enlivened his descriptions of the economies of 19th Century Britain and France. His attempts to find relevant literature to quote when describing the economies of every nation and every time period included in this book just seems laboured. 
    • Piketty was obviously critiqued for focusing too much on Western economies in Capital in the 21st Century, and he makes a real effort to discuss a wider range of nations in Capital and Ideology. Unfortunately, data for many of these countries is not as complete, which makes his efforts to be more inclusive sometime feel more like a 'tickbox' exercise than a true broadening of the discussion.
More importantly, obviously Piketty backs up each point that he makes with copious data and examples, and all of that takes words (and pages).

Should you read this book? Well, Piketty has much more to say my summary does, and some of his stories are fascinating: did you realize that the 19th Century Sweden was the most highly unequal country in Europe? Or that the ruinous and unsustainable level of reparations imposed on Germany after WWI amounted to approximately the same percentage of national income as the debt imposed on Haiti after their 18th Century slave revolt? (Haiti's debt was intended to reimburse slave owners for their losses. Haiti repaid that debt in full over the following 125 years.  Sickening, no?)  Or that France made an attempt to create a transnational governing body for it and its colonies as they gained  independence? (The attempt failed because France refused to share real power.) Or that the American Civil War cost about 1/3 of what it would have cost to compensate slave owners for the economic "loss" of freeing their enslaved workers? (and that no one seriously considered compensating the freed workers for the loss of the value of their years of labour, let alone the trauma of their enslavement?)

These stories are interesting, and sometimes enlightening.  Not to mention that none of what I've said so far even mentions Piketty's analysis of changes in voting patterns since the 1960s (Chapters 14-16) and the rise of 'nativism' in many countries (think Le Pen, Orban, Trump....).  These chapters are thought-provoking and could warrant an entire post of their own.

But sometimes a book makes an impact because it appears at just the right time to illuminate the world around it, and sometimes a book fails to make an impact because its timing is 100% wrong. 

I suspect that Capital and Ideology falls into this latter category.

Reading this book in 2022 reminded me how different the world feels today than it did in 2019, post-pandemic, post-Floyd George, post-Ukraine invasion, and as the climate crisis accelerates.  

If you want to learn more about Capital and Ideology, you can check out some of the professional reviews of the book, like this one from The Guardian.  You can also check out some of the notes I made after finishing it.

Notes on Capital and Ideology

Major points: 
  • Every inequality regime needs a rationale, an ideology that justifies why it exists, why it's fair.  Ours says that it's a "meritocracy" where the entrepreneurial and hard-working thrive. It is therefore much more "blamey" than, say, medieval society because in our society if you aren't successful, it's your own fault.  This argument is problematic for many reasons.  One is that access to education, particularly higher education, is highly unequal, and highly correlated to economic success.  
  • Our current inequality regime is not "natural" or "inevitable".  It evolved out of a particular set of historical circumstances, and can and has changed over time, sometimes radically and quickly.   Piketty illustrates this by describing a wide variety of historical circumstances ranging from Ancien Regime France through post-colonial India. For example, Britain financed the Napoleonic Wars by issuing interest-paying bonds. The money to pay the interest on these bonds was raised by levying  regressive taxes (like tariffs) on the entire population.  Over the next century, this amounted to a huge wealth transfer from lower and middle income tax payers to the wealthiest members of British society (who were bond-holders).  However, Britain paid for the First World War by introducing a progressive income tax and steep death duties, both of which primarily affected the wealthiest. The difference? The franchise was extended in the late 19th to early 20th Century to cover all adult males (and eventually females).
  • No form or conception of "property" or ownership is natural, inevitable, or universal. (see different conceptualization of property ownership in Ancien Regime, which included numerous obligations for land owners).  
  • No particular level or type of inequality is necessary to have a high growth economy: economies where the top decile takes 20% of all income and economies where the top decile takes 80-90% can both be economically successful (although levels of inequality that high generally only occur in slave societies)

What changes should we make?  

  • Reconceptualization of ownership as 'temporary' and only justified when it causes a social good.  ie/ 
    • Return to having high marginal tax rates on the highest incomes (rates reached 80-90% in the 1970s in Britain and the US), a steeply progressive inheritance tax on the largest fortunes, and a wealth tax.  Think of the wealth tax as an extended "property tax", that applies to all wealth and not just real estate.
  • Structural redistribution of societal wealth, funded by wealth tax.  That is, every young adult gets an equal allotment of capital at age 25 equal to perhaps 60% of average wealth in society (or 3.5 X annual income, or $150k in Canada).  Think of it as an early universal inheritance, that comes at a time of life when it can do people the most good.
  • Weaken the power of "ownership".  Make the involvement of workers in the governance of all firms compulsory, as it is in Germany and Sweden where workers get seats on corporate boards. Perhaps couple this measure with further limits on the number of corporate board votes per $ invested to limit the influence of the largest shareholders
  • Stop the 'race to the bottom' and inter-state tax competition.  Stop making treaties like NAFTA or CETA that focus on trade and freeing capital from international control, and start making pacts that focus on economic justice, enforcing financial transparency, and minimum taxation levels.
  • Create transnational unions with real teeth, where the transnational union focuses on enforcing consistent inheritance taxes, income taxes, corporate taxes, etc. between nations.

Analysis of changes in voting patterns across a wide range of societies:
  •  Piketty talks about how support for social democratic parties has collapsed amongst those in the lowest deciles of income beginning in the 1960s but particularly since 1980. Reason? social democratic parties had no answer to Reaganism/Thatcherism, and instead largely adopted the neo-con's destructive anti-tax and globalist agenda.   This has impoverished those in the bottom 50% of the income distribution. 
    • Political participation in this group has dropped dramatically overall.  
    • Because no one seems to be  representing their interests and because all political discourse focuses on how TINA to current economic policies, they turn to zenophobic and exclusionary parties and politics. Think of it from their perspective:  they are told that the pie has to be smaller, so there's a certain logic to their saying that we need to exclude immigrants to preserve what's left of the pie for them.  
    • support for social democratic parties scales with education: the most educated are the most likely to support social democratic parties.  This "Brahmin left" benefits from globalization and inclusionary policies, as economic success in a globalized economy is correlated with education.

 Random facts/points:
    • Since 1980s, top decile's share has risen to 55% while bottom 50% share has decreased to 15%.  Globalization has benefited richest (top 1% have taken 27% of all global growth), and poorest in poorest countries (bottom 50% globally got 12% of global growth).  Middle suffered.
    • the change in the 1980s led by Reagan/Thatcher to much lower taxes and to privatization was a mass transfer of public assets/wealth to private interests.  Comparable (though smaller) than the liquidation of the assets of the Soviet empire which enriched  Russian / Eastern European oligarchs/ kleptocrats.
    • on around page 600-630 Piketty includes an interesting discussion of how China is governed, and how it sees the West and its governance
    • p. 666: carbon emissions are as inequal as wealth.  Yellow vest movement in France shows you cannot reduce taxes on wealthy while imposing a carbon tax on everyone.  "there can be no effective carbon policy that ignores economic justice or people will rebel"
    • His discussion of slavery as an economic issue not a social issue felt kind of sickening, frankly, even though it's enlightening.  I suspect that in the future our current arguments that we can't act to stop climate change because we can't afford it will feel just as apocalyptically unjustifiable as the economic arguments made at the time against abolishing slavery. (There was a general feeling that slavery could not be abolished without fully compensating slave owners for their economic losses, which would have been a huge economic burden. To today's ears, the focus on compensating slave-owners, and the complete lack of consideration to compensating enslaved people for their enslavement is appalling.)

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Firewater: How alcohol is killing my people (and yours) by Harold R. Johnson

This book was not written for me or for any kiciwamanawak (white settler).  Harold R. Johnson is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation who is a senior crown prosecutor in Treaty 6 territory (south-central Saskatchewan).  Johnson wrote this book for niwahkomakanak (his relatives): the Woodland Cree and any other First Nation that struggles with alcohol.

Personally and professionally, Johnson has seen the impact of alcohol abuse first hand.  He has stood by the graveside of friends, relatives, and community members who have died by accident, overdose, or alcohol-induced illness. He has defended or prosecuted countless individuals who "are nice guys when they aren't drinking", often the same people over and over again.  He has seen families destroyed, he has seen people try to stop drinking and fail (or sometimes succeed).  He has been a hard drinker himself and he has been sober.  

He estimates that alcohol causes the deaths of half of his people.

Harold Johnson has no use for alcohol.  He doesn't understand the stories that kiciwamanawak tell themselves about alcohol and and he doesn't understand why we give it such a central place in our society. He wants niwahkomakanak to start telling themselves different stories.  He wants his people to embrace sobriety.

This book is a polemic by an elder who has seen too much. His focus is squarely on the members of his own community, and his stories use the traditions, language, and perspectives of that community to propose a path forward. 

Should you read it?  Perhaps, if you are niwahkomakanak.  If you are, like me, kiciwamanawak, this book was not written for you.  I'd say read it only if you are willing to listen respectfully to someone else's conversation.

What have I been reading?

I just realized that I haven't blogged in a couple of months. Here's a few of the books I've read recently: 

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I got this one for Christmas and tackled it mostly to be completist. I'm glad I did. Mantel writes wonderfully well, of course, and there was something satisfying about seeing Cromwell's story to its tragic conclusion. 

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This book is yet another example of why I should overcome my baseline prejudice against literary fiction.   It's the first person  life story of an unreliable narrator, with a closing twist that makes you want to turn back to the first page to understand everything that went before.  Given that it's a novella, I should probably do that, even though the book definitely falls into my literary novel stereotype of being 'about the boring struggles of boring middle class people'.

The Duke of Uranium by John Barnes

Was there really a market for a Heinlein juvenile in the year 2002?  I was surprised (and disappointed) by this book after reading Barnes' Orbital Resonance, The Sky so Big and Black, and Candle

Dancers in Mourning by Margery Allingham

A surprising number of Golden Age mysteries are well worth reading.  Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey's books are all still entertaining reads. And then there's Margery Allingham.   Maybe she wrote better books than Dancers in Mourning?  This one wouldn't convince me to read more of her back catalogue.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

 2020 was the year of the Black Lives Matter movement.  But I was inspired to read this book by a personal experience.  Some time ago....2018? I had a conversation with a friend about sexism and racism.  During this conversation I told him a story about myself, a story about a time when I had acted in a racist way.  

He refused to accept that my actions had been racist.  "That's not helpful" he finally said the third or fourth time that I challenged his resistance.  His refusal puzzled me. When I learnt about the concept of white fragility, I wondered if it could provide some insight.

White Fragility was written by a white American woman who does diversity and anti-bias training.  Fundamentally it's about how anti-Black racism manifests even amongst 'liberal' whites in the United States, and how those liberal whites resist awareness of their own racism. But while elements of her discussion are specific to the American context, the basic discussion of white racism and white defensiveness about our behaviour are more broadly applicable.  

Here are some quotes, and what they taught me.

"...we have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist...I  am saying something deeply offensive; I am questioning my reader's very moral character."

"The simplistic idea that racism is limited to the individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. "

Okay, that is a light bulb moment:  that's why my friend couldn't accept that I had acted in a racist way.  When I said that I had been racist, I was acknowledging that in the situation that I described, my discomfort had led me to take actions that had a negative impact on a group of people of colour.  In doing so, I had made a mistake that I was embarrassed about, and that needed to be corrected.  My actions had a racist impact.  To my friend, me saying that I had acted in a racist way was factually incorrect -- I had not intentionally acted in an unkind way -- and so I was unjustifiably identifying myself as an immoral person.

Which brings us to: 

"emphasizing intentions over impact...privileges the intentions of the aggressor over the impact of their behaviour on the target. In doing so, the aggressor's intentions become the most important issue.....minimizing the impact of racism on people of color."

Yes, I had not acted intentionally to disadvantage those students because of their race.  Nevertheless, my actions had done so. My actions were racist. I didn't have the words to explain this to my friend, who resisted the idea that the impact of my actions was more relevant than my intentions.  He resisted centring the perspective of the students of colour.

"Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge -- the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility...."

Ah, another light bulb moment. My friend was getting defensive (on my behalf, no less), because he does not recognize that racial bias can be unconscious. 

And then one more quote, from Diangelo's sarcastic rules for giving feedback about racism to white people without triggering white fragility:

"1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.  

"If you insist on breaking the cardinal rule, then you must follow these other rules:

"2. Proper tone is crucial -- feedback must be given calmly.  If any emotion is displayed, the feedback is invalid and can be dismissed."

I feel that second point (of 11 in total).  I was having this conversation about sexism and racism in the first place because I had called out this friend's sexism.  He asked to meet to discuss my comments. The end result:  I left the meeting in tears, feeling at fault, having apologized....because I had gotten angry.  The conversation became about my anger, and not about his sexism. 

I don't know what it's like to be Black, or Indigenous, or to have any of the multitude of other identities of colour. But I know how that one feels.  I understand white male defensiveness, white male fragility.

So, reading White Fragility helped me understand a situation I've mulled over many times since I experienced it several years ago.  Maybe this understanding will help me deal better with similar situations in the future, by preparing me for defensiveness and by giving me words to help discuss it.

But reading White Fragility with this incident in mind was also a hindrance. The parts of the book that resonated most with me were the parts that illuminated this experience, an experience where I "come off better" than my friend.  Alas, despite my recognizing and addressing my racism in this one specific case, I can't claim to be without racism, and I can't claim to be without defensiveness about it.  I would probably have been better served had I paid better attention to other parts of the book. 

For example, why am I so uncomfortable talking about myself or my friends as being white?  I've actually lowered my voice when saying the word 'white'.  Why?  Because in white society it is polite to pretend to be colour-blind?

"A white participant said....'I don't see race: I don't see you as Black'. My co-trainer's response: 'Then how will you see racism?'.....If she were ever going to understand or challenge racism, she would need to acknowledge this difference. Pretending that she did not notice he was black was not helpful to him in any way...."

Or is it because as a white person, we believe that we are all individuals, and not members of a class? 

"Whiteness rests on a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm......White people find it very difficult to think about whiteness as a specific state of being that could have an impact on one's life and perceptions."

"...a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race -- 'just human'. .... To say that whiteness includes a set of cultural practices that are not recognized by white people is to understand racism as a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color.  These norms and actions include basic rights and benefits of the doubt, purportedly granted to all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people."

Is White Fragility the definitive book on racism? No, of course not, particularly not for white Canadians. The book is American in important ways. Is it a useful book for white Canadians to read even so?  Yes, I think it is. Diangelo speaks directly to white attitudes about racism and to white defensiveness about racism. In doing so, she helps make them more visible, and therefore more addressable.

Monday, 8 March 2021

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 Pages: 771 pages

As I read The Goldfinch, I couldn't help but feel that smothered within its pages was a really good 400-500 page book.  

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

 My last entry was about time travel novels.  This book IS time travel.

In 1933, an 18 year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor walked from the Netherlands to Constantinople, beginning his journey by more-or-less following the Danube River across central Europe.  More than 40 years later, in 1977, he began publishing an account of this journey. A time of gifts is the first volume, telling the story of his journey as far as the border of Hungary.

Although the book was actually written in the 1970s, it takes you immediately back to 1933: the 1933 of inherited privilege, the weight of English and European history, actual Nazis, lost marshes full of birds and frogs, and lost villages surrounded by Romas and occupied by studious Jews, friendly peasants, and faded but welcoming aristocrats.

Fermor was the son of a senior official in the Indian colonial government, expelled from a succession British Public Schools before spending a long year of intensive private tutoring meant to prepare him for entry to Sandhurst (and thus a career in the military).  A time of gifts reflects this privileged background: Latin and French phrases are not translated -- everyone reads Latin and French, surely? -- obscure bits of British history are taken as given (everyone knows the romantic story of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, no?), and it is only natural that one should be taken up by the smart young set in Vienna, or that the British consul in Munich would spot you 5 pounds when a misfortune deprives you of all of your funds -- your father is Someone after all, and one one does what one can.

In other words, A time of gifts captures in words a world that has vanished, in the style of the era that it describes.  It's a well-loved book that's considered a classic of travel literature, or at least, it's a classic young man's adventure story.

It's not a book that I loved.  In the words of a couple of GoodReads reviews "It’s windy, self-satisfied, lifeless, and dry" or "It was meandering and musing and fascinated, all without actually being interesting". Not for me: witnessed by the fact that I began this review 7 months ago, and then completely forgot to finish.