Reading Piketty, but seeking systemic change

The not-so-little book that’s electrified the developed world.

I’m late to the party with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First CenturyWhat can I say, I don’t read that quickly. The work is formidable in length and impressive in its breadth of research. If nothing else, every page is a shining example of social science that puts data first and doesn’t draw any broad, satisfying, unsubstantiated conclusions.

Since the English publication was released in April, Piketty has become a sort of academic rock star- it seems every publication I follow on Facebook has devoted at least a few stories to his conclusions, and the impact his analysis of inequality. It’s reached the point that some are just marveling at the media attention, in some sort of feedback loop that you often see with faux media controversies on an increasingly information-starved CNN.

There is a clear division between Piketty the social scientist and Piketty the public policy advocate. The conclusion establishes that these two selves should be linked- pure critique isn’t enough. If the research supports a conclusion, it should be advocated with conviction. His devotion to social science research methods is admirable; as a sociology student his example is a good one to follow. Waves have been made regarding his data and graphs, but even critics have dismissed potential errors as insubstantial. His decades of work on inequality shine. In 2013 I took a semester of economic history, focusing on the United States. From that, I have seen how the topic can be written in a dreadfully murky and technical manner. Piketty writes with confident clarity, and his use of French and British novels to illustrate the pre-industrial political economy is a welcome break from data-driven analysis.

That last quarter is the issue though. Some points Piketty makes are beyond dispute. Absolutely, countries need to share banking data to keep the rich from hiding their assets. But the global tax on capital raises the question: is that a systemic solution? His view of the 20th century is that the world wars radically changed the views on government and led to a more rigorous tax system. That’s self-evident. Yet much has been undone, in the United States the shift has been obvious. Taxing the rich by a few extra percent has paralyzed the federal government for most of Obama’s presidency, and those attempted increases are less than half of what it was in the 1940s and 50s.

Yes, a global tax on capital would solve serious economic issues. It could dig developed countries out of a ludicrous and unnecessary sovereign debt crisis, and reassert the social state that has done amazing things for hundreds of millions of people. But what’s to stop it from being undone by international conglomerates, especially in a system of otherwise free trade? And can the masses be mobilized once again for the same kind of solution?

Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist I mention from time to time, has a strong leftist critique of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. His monthly economics lecture in New York is available on YouTube, and he devotes quite a bit of time on Piketty (here’s the video, marked where he begins to talk about the book). Perhaps taxation and regulation are not the ultimate solution. The issue with modern capitalism isn’t its 21st century flavor of widespread inequality, the issue is with capitalism, period. Without a change in the class system today, inequalities of capital will always exist, and likely get worse immediately after policies are enacted to address that. A serious omission is the mass movement needed to get such changes implemented- without such discussion, the global tax on capital and movements against tax havens are simply commonsense, good ideas. They are not achievable ones simply by making sense.

Wolff joins other critiques (Jacobin did at least a half dozen pieces over the past two months) in pointing out a key issue, namely the power of the elite to block or roll back legislation that reduces their wealth and influence. Piketty points out that a robust democracy is needed, but ignores the many roadblocks that exist in the modern world. And even if democracy can elect a better government, it still needs to avoid the corrosive influence of money, and its own newfound power. As Bakunin said, “men do not make positions,;positions . . . make men.” To create change, the political system needs to go through a radical change, alongside capitalism. The huge success of what Thomas Piketty has to say indicates that people understand things are profoundly broken, but may be hesitant to speak of a deeper cause than modern policy changes.

Occupy sign. December, 2011.

Whatever your takeaway from the Occupy movement was (and is), the enduring legacy goes beyond the branding of 1% vs. 99%. It got people, many with no prior background in activism, talking about capitalism. Outside of universities, real discussions about capitalism are rare in the United States. I was born into a capitalist system, but that doesn’t mean it’s above critique. We emerge from old traditions constantly, casting aside religious and social customs constantly. If developed countries can ditch organized religion, they can ditch capitalism too. In the times of Roman Catholic supremacy, the idea that religion was an option, and not an obligation, merited execution. Now that view is accepted and even normal in some regions.

All and all, I am glad I overcame my slow reading and finished the book. One of his conclusion at the very end is dead on, that economics needs to realize it has more in common with sociology and political science than physics and mathematics. That being said, I think the leftist critique is valuable. Not to say everything I’ve read from that angle is correct, but that it puts the impetus on Piketty and his supporters to flesh out the policy side of the research. How does democracy save us, and what forms will it need to take? On what ground do the working and middle classes fight the elite for control of economic policy? Can these policy ideas form a systemic solution to inequality?

I don’t know the answers, and Piketty isn’t so sure either. That’s okay, and he often does state his research and conclusions have clear limits. But for his ideas to be picked up and carried to fruition through toil and struggle, they need to work in the long-term. There are a finite number of difficult paths regular people can go in order to create change. Money is scarce, so is time and will. To see inequality spike back up a few decades down the road would be devastating. And if the 99% gives up hope, the world is truly lost.


The hot-pink criticism shield


My friend Gavin and I are two of the few who still use AOL Instant Messenger over newer forms of communication. Looking over years of chat transcripts- and our reaction to all sorts of landmark news events and societal tends- it is clear that we in some sense compete to see who can be the most cynical about things. Sometimes our reflections are stupid and silly, but other times they make me pause and think.

A week ago Gavin muttered “most products sporting a pink ribbon are carcinogenic in some way.” It lined up this scattered unease I’ve had about awareness months, and the October one for breast cancer in particular. Cancer research is about as bulletproof as a cause can be, but I think some groups use it as a shield and a publicity device. It breaks down into two main problems I have:

  1. Gavin’s point. The month is full of major corporations switching out their traditional colors for bright pink. But like how dirty companies have hid behind environmental rhetoric and advertising (greenwashing), the “good work” these companies are doing raising awareness (and donating a very small amount to charity) helps deflect an underlying criticism.  Many of the chemicals, cleaners, building materials, and food they produce are carcinogenic. You may have seen a pink water bottle touting the cause. The problem? It was likely made with bisphenol A (BPA), a dangerous carcinogen linked to breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen Foundation, which is the vanguard of these awareness movements, has served as a kind of buffer to inhibit responsibility. As a 2012 story states:

BPA-peddling corporations have deflected that responsibility by donating to organizations like Komen, which states on its Web site that at this time, there is no evidence to suggest a link between BPA and the risk of breast cancer.

While Komen is not a denialist organization by any means, it is part of a trend where they are slow to recognize new research that happens to clash with their multimillion-dollar corporate sponsors.

If I were to make a bold political statement, I would say that industrial capitalism and cancer treatment and prevention charities are not on the same side. They never are. But they’ve been melded in a way that benefits the business side while working against the goals of the philanthropy side.

2. The tone of this awareness month is weird and disingenuous to many women living with a diagnosis, or dreading a future one. Amanda Vodola writes in the Youngist about her experience with breast cancer and her feelings on the movement:

I know people have good intentions when they don a pink ribbon, but people rarely realize that the symbol originated from a corporate-sponsored study group asked to pick a color that made them think “happy”. The result was pink. There is nothing happy about breast cancer, and someone wearing a ribbon does not provide the support I want or need.

Again we come back to corporatism. Study groups to gauge happiness makes sense when you’re drawing up EuroDisney- when it’s related to a serious form a cancer, it’s disconcerting. Vodola also brings up something I noticed a few years ago when participating in a Relay for Life and saw a team sporting “Save Second Base” shirts. The disgusting sexualization of disease:

I can’t even begin to articulate my rage when I see “Save the Boobies” and “Save the Tatas” printed on t-shirts and bracelets, as if sexualizing a disease is the only way to make people – in this case, the target market of straight men – care that female-assigned people are dying from cancer.

It’s not about tits. It was never about tits. It’s about people dying, mostly women. In much of the world, there is still almost no treatment available, and women are dying in a painful, disturbing manner.

Years ago, when in I was in high school, Invisible Children became a very big organization with a lot of support from my demographic- rich white kids growing up in a progressive area. It too was all about “raising awareness.” But people who were paying attention (before and after KONY 2012), realized that it was a sham. The group spent very little of its huge budget on helping African children, and its whole mission was deeply flawed. Both Invisible Children and Breast Cancer Awareness Month have the basic fact in common- they stand for (or against) things universally seen as important. This also makes them impervious to a lot of criticism that they would otherwise get. But both are at some level absurd and contradictory. That image- a hot-pink sports bottle laden with BPA, or hot-pink makeup full of parabens- is grotesque.

The last straw

I think the issue of bad and expensive public transportation was the last straw…But what bothers me even more is that our government isn’t providing for us more generally. Not in schools. Not in hospitals. We have huge levels of social inequality and violence.

-Priscila Passareli, Brazilian protester

Quote comes from a story in the Los Angeles Times.

In Turkey, it was redevelopment eliminating green space. In Brazil, it was a transit fare hike. These are the vanguard issues, the ones that break people out of complacency. The hundreds of thousands of people are not there solely because the bus is more expensive- they come together in dozens of cities because they feel the government has failed them.

Turkey is in part about the past- the feeling that Prime Minister Erdogan has eroded at the foundation built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost a century ago. In Brazil, it is about a future promised but not delivered on. Much like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and other South America leaders, the Workers’ Party has been kept in power through a bold anti-poverty pledge. That poverty is down, but few other issues are resolved- education, transit, infrastructure, crime, inequality- has indicated to many that the party has either slowed down their promise, or stopped entirely. The huge investments in the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and then the Summer Olympics amplify what is seen as a lack of investment in ordinary people.

Americans are often mad when cities build sports stadiums for private teams- often costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But what if we also had a poverty rate, illiteracy rate, and crime rate like Brazil? It would be enough to riot over. And Brazil is.