“After Piketty”: compendium about wealth and income inequality mixes mathematics with challenges to personal morality

After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality”, edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum, for Harvard University Press, is a gigantic compendium of academic reaction to Thomas Piketty’s 2014 missive, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (“C21”).

The book comprises four sections (“Reception”, “Conceptions of Capital”, “Dimensions of Inequality”, and “The Political Economy of Capital and Capitalism”), splitting into twenty-one chapters, after which Piketty responds with a Chapter 22, “Toward a Reconciliation between Economics and the Social Sciences”.

You really need the physical hardcover to follow this book; it’s a bit overwhelming on Kindle.

The editors start with an Introduction where they summarize Piketty’s basic claims:  social democracy became more generous with the disadvantaged right after the Great Depression and WWII, but generally the trend is toward greater inequality as was the case in the “Gilded Age”. Underneath income inequality lies wealth inequality, which tends to drive divergence in incomes.

A Chapter One by Arthur Goldhammer, “The Piketty Phenomenon” notes that Piketty’s book sold unusually well to the general public for a non-fiction academic text. Maybe this would become a lesson for me on how to sell my own authored books!

The various chapters often refer to actuarial calculus (reproducing some mathematical derivations (even partial differential equations) and proofs) and refer to the basic inequality  “ r > g” (average return on capital exceeds growth rate).  At then Piketty himself refers specifically to David Gerwal’s chapters and the “two fundamental laws of captitalism”, regarding the derivation of capital share, and the way the capital / income ratio follows the savings rate over growth rate.

But it is the socially descriptive material, and the bearings of such on personal morality, that occasionally grab attention. Piketty, some authors say, has no explicit theory of human capital (or social capital the way Charles Murray would talk about it).  But generational wealth gives some kids advantages, including those who (like me) grow up childless.  The advantages include greater financial stability when young (less need to go into debt), and very likely parents who have helped train them in the abstract thinking that is necessary for personal success in modern civilization. The quality of public education associated with class and particularly race becomes relevant.

Capitalism, by definition, implies that wealth accumulates on its own beyond the actual work done by the asset owner, so it implies also using (or “exploiting”) the labor of others.  That implies also rent seeking, which tends to impose rules on workers who haven’t accumulated enough of their own capital to own their own lives. No wonder, various forms of socialism and communism developed (even ideas about the moral nature of some kind of “New Man”) evolved over decades in the past two centuries especially.  I can remember the angry rhetoric, especially from women, when spying on meetings of the “People’s Party of New Jersey” in the early 1970s., like “why do we have to have capitalism”, along with proposals to limit maximum income to $50000 a year (income equality by racing to the bottom).   Sometimes threats of expropriation by force would evolve, as with the Patty Hearst case (Jeffrey Toobin’s book, Nov. 9, 2016, ironically reviewed by me right after Trump’s election).  Left wing terror preceded and sometimes went along with radical Islamic terror.

The book does get into sensitive ideas like personal complacency, along the lines of the usual rationalization (short of a canard) that ego-related inequality is necessary for innovation, even if it can undermine sustainability and stability. Indeed, lifelong accumulated savings (and some of it inherited) allowed me to become an independent journalist without the need for my own writing to pay its own way, which others may see as destructive or unfair.  I consistently refused to become someone else’s huckster, even as I understand the pressure on many people to join up and recruit others to buy from them.

Likewise the authors take up the issue of voice. Wealthier people are able to influence politicians to meet their needs, whereas the less well-off are recruited into solidarity by others who do not respect their ability to think for themselves.  Even Donald Trump bragged to his base, “I am your voice.”  I resent the idea that anyone else claims to be my voice.

Editors: Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum
Title, Subtitle: After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-06745-0477-6  hardcover and Kindle
Publication: Cambdrige and London; Harvard University Press, Introduction and 21 chapters in 4 sections, with a Chapter 22 reply by Piketty
Link:  Publisher’s

(Posted: Saturday, October 28, 2017, at 6 PM EDT)

“Starving the Beast”: how “conservatives” have turned public universities into “businesses”, adding to student debt

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Name: Starving the Beast
Director, writer:  Steve Mims
Released:  2016
Format:  16:9
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/9/3, with director QA
Length 95
Rating NA
Companies: Railyard
Link: official

Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities”, directed by Steve Mims (at the QA tonight, along with producer Bill Banowsky), documents the gradual erosion of state funding of their own universities since 1980, with the increases in tuition and obviously student loan debt.  The general idea is that public universities have turned into businesses selling education courses as fungible commodities.

The first part of the film focuses on the University of Texas (and Texas A&M), where Governor Rick Perry has encouraged reduction of public support and policies that expect professors to make the university system money (part of the “seven point” system).

Then the film moves to Charlottesville, where a female UVa president is forced to resign by conservative forces, before being reinstated.

It also visits the University of Wisconsin, after Scott Walker’s influence, Louisiana State, and then UNC, the University of North Carolina, traditionally viewed as an “Ivy League” level public university. I know people there, and it also has a great music program and great symphony orchestra.

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Speakers in the film include James Carville (whom I have met), the libertarian Koch Brothers, Senator Marco Rubio with his bill to encourage private investors to fund the educations of individual students (Atlantic article ) , and an outspoken UNC professor, white but advocating for the poor and people of color, who thinks he keeps his job from conservative attack only because of tenure.

The film also makes the odd remark that Stanford’s business model works better than Harvard’s.

Some QA clips

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5 (UNC professor of government)

(Published: Saturday, September 3, 2016, 11:45 PM EDT)

Distantly related is CNN’s “The Hunting Ground” (March 2015).

“(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies”: Duke Professor Ariety explores human nature and little white fibs, which get bigger on their own

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Name: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies
Director, writer:  Yael Melamede
Released:  2015
Format:  video TV
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play 2016/8/23
Length 89
Rating PG-13?
Companies: CNBC, PBS, Bond 360
Link: PBS

 

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies” (2015) is a CNBC film by Yael Melamede featuring Duke University professor Dan Ariety presenting the topic of naturally human tendencies to gradually become more dishonest.

Ariety starts with his own story, of how he was severely burned in a fireworks accident in Israel, and how dealing with pain forced him to think about the way people like to avoid sudden discomfort.

People will wonder how far they can bend the rules and still be “good”.

There are several compelling stories.  An African-American woman in Ohio falsifies her residence so her son can go to a better school district, and winds up in jail.  A Wall Street trader is brought down by an undercover sting in an insider trade scam related ultimately to the 2008 collapse.  Bernie Madoff is mentioned.  An accountant for MCI in Georgia, finding it hard to collect from 900-call customers, gets involved in cooking the books with an offshore operation after the WorldComm takeover and winds up in jail.  An appealing young public relations executive manipulates “Tucker Max” with public sign defamation campaigns.

Ariety also goes into the issue of college honor codes, not quite getting to the subject of term paper plagiarism and academic integrity.

But when I was growing up, “cheating” on tests was one of the biggest sins – and they would say, “You are cheating yourself.”  Well, if you were a young man, you had to worry about the military draft.  I worked as an assistant instructor in graduate school and flunked one person whom I caught cheating, And he was worried about Vietnam.

(Published: Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, 7:15 PM EDT)

“Requiem for the American Dream” is Noam Chomsky’s best interview film

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Name: Requiem for the American Dream
Director, writer:  by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott
Released:  2015
Format:  video or film, standard
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2016/5/18
Companies: Gravitas Venturas
Site: Link

Requiem for the American Dream” (2015), directed by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, is the best Chomsky interview film so far.  The film, stitched together from four recent interviews with Chomsky’s “ten points” (below), has plenty of interesting animation and a lot of interesting archival historical footage that is shown while he talks.  Most of the time, the view has something other than Chomsky to watch.

My own introduction to Chomsky came while I lived in Minneapolis. Late nights, I would pass Shinders book store on Hennepin on the way to the Saloon, in the months after 9/11.  I often saw paperbacks by Chomsky on right wing conspiracies in the stacks.

The title of the film tells us the theme: most average Americans have had most of their opportunity taken away from them by the wealthy and powerful. Chomsky calls our system now a “plutonomy”, extracting from a “precariat”, or “precarious proletariat” (and my first unpublished novel, after all, had been titled “The Proles”).  The plutonomy undermines democracy deliberately because it sees the “precariat” a threat that could rise up and expropriate, pretty much according to Marxist theory.

Let’s run through the ten methods that the ruling class uses.

(1)    “Reduce democracy”, the basic idea.

(2)    “Shape ideology”.  Donald Trump is trying to do that.

(3)    “Redesign economy”, particularly through “fincialization”, as explained in the book “Makers and Takers” by Rana Faroohar May 14 here. Sometimes Chomsky suggests that things are much more unequal know than ever before because of this process, but at other times, he admits that inequality and labor exploitation were pretty awful in past generations (slavery, the sweatshops of the industrial revolution).  Indeed they were. The 50s and 60s are a bit of a “golden age”, but not really, given the need for the Civil Rights movement, and then Vietnam.

(4)    “Shift burden”, particularly to workers, whose jobs become more precarious even if management says the issues are still mostly job performance.

(5)    “Attack solidarity”.  This sounds like something about labor unions, but that comes up later. This is more about social solidarity.  Michael Moore often criticizes the attitude “I got mine”.  There are questions like, why should I pay school taxes if I don’t have kids?  Chomsky talks about the proposals to privatize social security here and sees it as a wealth-sharing, whereas most of us feel we paid for our own benefits with our own FICA taxes, a point he doesn’t mention.

(6)    “Run the regulators”. This would seem to refer to loosening of financial regulations, that allow crashes (we didn’t have any in the 50s or 60s – the crashes really started with the savings and loan in the late 1980s, but the biggest was the 2008 crash, followed by the “too big to fail” idea.

(7)    “Engineer elections”, with more and more money for campaigns.

(8)    “Keep the Rabble in Line”.  Here Chomsky talks about unions, saying people don’t have sufficient right to organize (solidarity again).  He seems to be referring to “right to work” laws.  But there is also a problem in non-union salaried environments, where people with fewer responsibilities (often the childless) can work for less, or work free overtime, and lowball the system.

(9)    “Manufacture consent”, where he talks about public relations companies and consumerism, especially now online.

(10) “Marginalize populations”.  Here he says that free speech is not itself in the Bill of Rights (what about the First Amendment?) and didn’t come into serious consideration until the 1960s.  He says that the plutonomy tries to restrict the number of people who have influence, but totally misses the contributions of the “Fifth Estate”.

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In the end, Chomsky says that the ruling elite doesn’t like to see  ordinary people talking about “class”.  Indeed, “class” has something to do with what people you have some control over, at least indirectly.

Chomsky is indeed talking about how the “overlords” (to use a term of Arthur C. Clarke, as if we approached a “Childhood’s End”) manipulate classes of people, as if this were the main moral concern of the day.  Yet, at the same time, he says, “this is a free country”, as if to say that is pretty unusual in history as a whole.  My own writing inverts all this, and asks how the “man in the middle” (me) is supposed to behave, as if this is the moral question.  Maybe it’s like former Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne’s titling a book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” back in the 90s (1998, Liamworks, which I read after hearing Browne speak at a LPVA convention in 1996).  I indeed grew up with a certain class consciousness, and the idea that if I made good enough grades, I could move into the “good clothes” class and live off the real labor of “The Proles” (link). It sounds like a boorish, snooty, snarky idea. It brings up the idea of personal “rightsizing”, so far an essentially spiritual idea having to do with personal karma.  It would mean learning to walking the shoes of others whom you have depended on without feeling you are brought low yourself.  You have to deal with it.

Some good collateral reading would be Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believers: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” (1951).

(Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at 10:30 EDT)

 

 

 

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” parallels some of my own narrative issues

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Name: The Man Who Knew Infinity
Director, writer:  Matt Brown, Robert Kanigel
Released: 2016
Format: film, 2.35:1
When and how viewed: AMC Shirlington, Arlington VA, light audience, late 2016/5/14
Companies: IFC
Link: website

The Man Who Knew Infinity”, directed and screen-written by Matt Brown (adapted from the book of that name by Robert Kanigel) is an engaging British biographical drama about Indian-born mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel, star of “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)).

Ramanujan (1887-1920)  is known for his work on number theory and infinite series.  He developed many identities (the bane of trigonometry students) my “intuition” before he could prove them.  Generally, this is uncommon in academic mathematics, although it happens with cosmology and physics;  some of his work now relates to black holes.  His life was tragically shorted by aggressive tuberculosis (the “white plague”), which could not be well treated when he lived.

The film tells a story with some striking parallels with my own personal narrative, and deals with some issues on which I have focuses a lot.  As a young adult, he is nudged into an arranged marriage (in India), after which he goes begging for an accounting job to support his wife despite having no formal degrees.  He tries to be attentive as a husband, but is not very physical, and his wife even says he is more interested in his numbers than people (or was my father once said, in “seeing people as people”).  He contacts Cambridge University Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at first with a desire just for assistance in getting published (another issue of mine)!  It’s determined that he needs to pursue a degree and attend classes like everybody else.  But his outspoken and perhaps boorish behavior in a lecture (the professor asks why he doesn’t take notes, when he responds by putting his infinite series expansion converging to “2/pi” (or 2/π ).

Then World War I starts (with some foreshadowing newspaper headlines).  Unbelievably, wounded soldiers are treated in tents right on campus.  A white soldier bullies Ramanujan as a privileged freeloader, living a shelter life in academia while his peers go out and fight – very much anticipating our own student deferment controversy during our own Vietnam War. But Ramanujan starts getting sick during the hardships from the rationing (the students cook in fireplaces with coal their own rooms).  Later he survives a zeppelin bomb attack on the campus. He would be denied his fellowship but eventually regain it and get his degrees.

He finally returns to India, partially recovered but soon deteriorates and passes away, almost like someone with AIDS. His illness may have also been related so some poorly done surgery mentioned in Wikipedia.

The screenwriting makes a lot of the personality crises (following the tenets of keeping audience rooting interest) and is sometimes a little “over the top” compared to what probably really happened.  The discussions about the need to do mathematical proofs, though, are interesting to me.  Hardy is atheist, by Ramanujan  was religious, saying every equation comes from God, and is shown praying in his room with incense.  Dev Patel makes his character personally appealing despite churlishness, and except in the illness scenes, seems more vigorous physically than he probably really was.  A comparison could be made with the early scenes of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (2014).  A more distant comparison (psychologically) would be Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014).

My own background includes an M.A. in Mathematics from the University of Kansas (1968), right before going into the Army as a draftee.  In the movie, a cohort, Littlewood (Toby Jones) gets “drafted” and serves doing ballistics calculations, but actually lives in tents in combat.  In my Army tour, I had an MOS “Mathematician” (“01E20”) and spent the two years at the Pentagon and Fort Eustis, sheltered from combat.   Most of the course work involves proving theorems, as are most of the exam questions. I remember very few of the problems, except proving Liouville’s Theorem on the master’s orals (and stumbling)  with implies the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra.  My Master’s Thesis (“Minimax Rational Function Approximation“) has already been described online.

But compared to any genius mathematician, I was spread too thin, across too many areas, to have the kind of intensity to do this kind of math.  In 1971, I did help a colleague in a civilian job in the Navy Department get a paper on matrices in military computing published.

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Wikipedia attribution link for Trinity College Picture, by Stanley Howe, under CCSA 2.0.