Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty

A couple of months ago I was feeling a bit undereducated about economics, so I asked people on Twitter to recommend me some books. I got four or five responses, three of which were “Piketty”, but then Barry O’Farrell resigned and there were no more recommendations that day. I was a bit uncertain as to whether a currently-popular book would be a good introduction, but I think they were right: if you know next to nothing about macroeconomics, the book is a great introduction. I liked Capital so much that I’ve started to feel a bit annoyed about the peculiar form of bad writing that accretes around celebrated books, and I hope that people will read it for reasons other than the controversy.

The argument is straightforward: when the rate of return on capital is larger than the rate of growth, fortunes will accumulate which eventually serve to make inherited wealth, and the power it commands, far greater than the wealth which can be generated by labour or innovation or accrued by the state. For the great majority of human history the rate of return on capital has been higher than the growth rate. World War I started an exceptional period during which growth was higher than the return on capital: this period has now ended, and unless we do something about it, or there’s another disaster, inherited wealth will once again get the upper hand.

In the industrial economies of the 18th and 19th centuries, growth had increased from its traditional level of basically zero, but was still outstripped by capital. In Europe, the resulting social order was one in which wealth and power were no more equally distributed than they had been before the French Revolution. (Piketty’s illustration of this world, largely through the works of Austen, Balzac and other writers, is terrific, and I hope that savvy literature teachers start including excerpts in the material for their students. For someone who read Proust last year, Piketty’s descriptions of the Belle Époque felt like I was being shown around the engine room of a grand ocean liner by a knowledgable member of the crew. Just before it hit the iceberg.)

In America and Australia, things were a bit different. Any Australian who is proud of their country’s egalitarianism – which, in my experience, is pretty much all of the white ones – should take a grim lesson away from this book. Although Piketty doesn’t explicitly say so in the case of Australia, it’s clear that the egalitarianism of a country like the USA, Canada or Australia comes not from some innate virtue of its people, but from the fact that cheap land prevented the growth of concentrated wealth to the degree that it had in Europe. To put it bluntly, the one thing which most Australians from either side of politics can agree in congratulating ourselves on was built on stolen property.

History provides a short list of processes which have significantly tipped the balance away from capital:

  • war, the bigger the better
  • colonial dispossession
  • hyperinflation
  • mass immigration
  • violent revolution

Piketty is not very left-wing: he just looks that way from the anglosphere. Anyone depicting him as a raving commie can be dismissed as a fool or a toady, and he gives Marx’s specific economic predictions a swift and satisfying kick to the nuts. His suggested method of dealing with the problem is a global tax on capital returns, as a means of defusing the potential for disaster he sees in exacerbated inequality. Depending on who you ask, this is either gutlessly pissweak, hopelessly utopian, or frothingly Bolshevistic. (I’m probably in the middle camp, but in the sense that most political ideas worth fighting for start out as utopias.)

The book’s message is less cheerful the more that you find it convincing. Because of centuries of habit, the cultural context in which we view politics tends to associate pessimism with the right and optimism with the left, and this still informs debate today: it’s how the right can frame the left as do-gooders and bleeding hearts, and themselves as strong men with the ability to face up to harsh truths. But the great political disasters of our time are the result of the optimisms of the right: that war can build democracy in the Middle East, that removing financial regulations will improve the economy, that we will be able to burn hydrocarbons forever, that our meritocracy is so perfect that concentrations of inherited wealth will never return. Piketty is hard on Marx, but he is just as hard on the macroeconomicists of the twentieth century who mistook the reconstruction period after the most destructive wars in history for the eternal sunlit present of industrial capitalism triumphant.

It’s possible to imagine a sincere conservative who agrees with Piketty’s findings and says, “Good! A return to the power of inherited wealth is exactly what the world needs.” The fact that most conservative critics have instead accused him of cooking the books is a good thing: they are mostly still too shamefaced to be honest bigoted Tories.

Lastly, I’ve read several reviews of the book by economists who reassure their lay readers not to be daunted by the fact that it contains tables of statistics and graphs. This has left me with the unpleasant sense that economists think that I’m a fucking idiot. Guys, come off it. Yours is not the only profession with the capacity for abstract thought. I work at a university, and I know what the real mathematicians think of your stuff. (Really. They had to put a hack into the rules for a research quality reporting round so that the economists’ “mathematics” papers wouldn’t be embarrassed.)

Ulysses: Alternate Endings

Ulysception

“What is this place?” asked Stephen. Eerie monuments stalked off to a fog-shrouded horizon: many were like trees and standing stones. Here and there were more disquieting shapes, like broken fragments of limbs or tremendous statues with blurred features. Voices seemed to murmur all around them in a hundred accents and languages.

“It’s a dream I shared with her,” replied Bloom. “We were happy here, for many decades. But it is too deep: too close to Limbo, the formless chaos behind all dreams.”

The murmuring voices rose around them, and with them a tide of dark river water. “A MacGarath O’Cullagh O’Muirk MacFewney sookadoodling and sweepacheeping round the lodge of Fjorn na Galla of the Trumpets!”

* * * * *

Stephen gasped on the floor of 7 Eccles Street, his head doused in cold water. “A bit of a turn,” said Bloom, “Syncope. Cold water the best remedy,” gesturing awkwardly with the chipped enamel basin he held.

“Mgkranow,” said the cat, as the ceiling caved in under the weight of a torrent of syllables.

* * * * *

“The fuck is this,” said the reader. “Hello there,” said Bloom, at his elbow. A crubeen span and continued to spin upon its trotter, tottering, trottering, teetering, tottering…


Hey Hey It’s Bloomsday

Standing outside Paddy’s Markets, a quartet of AUSTRALIANS wearing blackface, comically oversized leprechaun hats and hoisting pints of green Guinness and blocks of Coon cheese shout “Top o’ the morning to ye!” at passers-by.

MULLIGAN (aside): Stage Irish.

BLOOM: Come on now, that’s a bit much.

THE AUSTRALIANS (sobbing and exposing their stigmata): WE DIDN’T KNOW, WE CAN’T BE RACISTS, WE’RE NOT BRITISH/AMERICANS, STOP CENSORING US, WHERE’S YOUR FUCKING SENSE OF HUMOUR, &c.

They are impaled on a huge steel I-beam which slips from the crane of a nearby construction site.


Stephen Hero

—But Stephen, gasped Mr Deasy, what about our history?

Stephen grins and puts on a pair of sunglasses.

—History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.

He walks towards the camera as the school explodes.

The Weirdness

Jeremy Bushnell

This is a really enjoyable combination of literary satire and supernatural fantasy in which an aspiring but more-or-less unpublished Brooklyn writer is offered a guaranteed best-seller, in exchange for certain services, by Lucifer himself: a Faustian beginning, but things get more twisted than this might suggest. The tone is light and enjoyable but doesn’t stint the darker aspects of the characters or story: in this it reminded me of Robert Sheckley’s blackly comic sf stories. Also, I want the cover design on a t-shirt:

The Weirdness

Open City

Teju Cole

Russell Hoban has one of his characters say of  the weather in Amsterdam that “one would be ashamed to draw badly in that light”, and Teju Cole’s novel makes me feel that my clunking prose can’t do it justice. Narrated by a psychiatrist of Nigerian and German parentage who practices at a hospital in New York City, its meditative style is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, and its moral seriousness (that’s too pompous a phrase, but I can’t think of any other way to put it) and artful use of omissions and silence made me think of Henry James. There’s a patience and strength to this novel that stay with the reader.

Necessary Errors

Caleb Crain

I’ve been a regular reader of Caleb Crain’s blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything, for a few years now, and it’s even better than its title suggests, so I was looking forward to reading his first novel. Necessary Errors traces the life of its central character, a young, gay American who’s been drawn to Prague just after the fall of Communism. It’s beautifully written and evokes the place and time remarkably well. The interplay between the young community of expatriates who are Jacob’s colleagues at an English-language training school and the Czechs who are coming to terms with the end of the Cold War is fascinating.

Crain has been posting illustrations to accompany the novel in a section of his blog, in a revival of a practice originating in the 18th century known as extra-illustrating or grangerization: readers would collect illustrations and insert them into their own copy of a book.

CRANK 3

Grouch Porn

Issue 3 of CRANK, a zine dedicated to petty grievances, huffs and pedantic setting-the-world-to-rights, is available now from Pinknantucket Press. Among other things it includes my explanation of why it’s gross to compare everything to porn, and the cover illustration in which I break my own rule.

Surface and Essences

Douglas R Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sadler

When I was a 13-year-old nerd, I toted around a copy of Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid until it fell apart and I had to buy my grandfather a new copy. Apart from a collection of his columns for Scientific American, I haven’t read any of his work since then: I think I got a bit tired of it. Reading his new work, which is an exploration of the role analogy plays in human consciousness, made both these old feelings return – first the enthusiasm, and then the fatigue. Unlike GEB,which has lots of variety – dialogues, Escher reproductions, musical scores, whole chapters on foundational logic - Surfaces and Essences is uniform, prosy, long and rather relentless. I think I agree with Hofstadter and Sadler’s thesis, but it’s a shame that most of the books argument takes the form of thought experiments rather than, say, psychological studies. Mostly, it made me want to re-read GEB for the first time in years.

I did enjoy the chapter towards the end of the book about Einstein, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of well-written explanations of relativity.