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Marx + Foucault = Piketty

With the possible exception of Chelsea Clinton’s baby bump, no one is getting more press these days than Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which has lefties like Paul Krugman all in a lather. “Inequality is the new black!” they exclaim. “We’re going to win this mother!”

Piketty’s basic pitch, delivered through some 697 pages of heavy data, is this: r>g. That is to say, under capitalism, the return on investment tends to exceed the growth rate of the economy as a whole, so that the rich get richer and richer, while the poor fall further and further behind, so that, in the future, instead of a world characterized by liberté, egalité, fraternité, which is what we want, or what we ought to want, we get capitalist oppression, a new “Gilded Age,” as Krugman tells us.

For my part, I don’t think liberté, egalité, fraternité worked out all that well the first time around, and despite ecstatic reviews from not one but two Nobel prize winners (“Thomas Piketty Is Right,” Robert Solow tells us at the New Republic), I’m not at all impressed by Piketty’s arguments, as recited by Paul and Bob and half a dozen other favorable reviewers. If you can stomach the presumption of a reviewer who takes on two Nobelists over a book that they’ve read but he hasn’t, read on.

Clive Cook and Tyler Cowen both provide intelligent rebuttals to the substance of Piketty’s arguments, but I’m more interested in his tone. When Piketty presents his data, which are nothing if not copious, he is the model of scholarly modesty and reserve. Everything is tentative, after all. To the extent that these masses of data from the past are accurate—and only to that extent—they tell us what has happened. They can’t tell us what will happen.

But once the data are on the table, Piketty extrapolates with gusto rather than caution and adores Marxist phraseology. Think things are getting better? Nuh-uh! That’s a bourgeois myth! There was a brief interlude when inequality declined, from 1910 to about 1970, but the unique historical factors that temporarily reduced the power of capital have faded. “The past eats up the future,” Piketty tells us—that is, the advantages of inherited wealth will grow greater with each passing generation, so the poor fall further and further behind—taking us back to the bad old days of capitalist oppression instead of the paradise promised by false-speaking neoliberal economists. Like Foucault (that’s why he’s in the headline), Piketty wants us to believe that “progress” is a bourgeois lie, a narcotic intended to make us the willing slaves of our heartless masters, a slavery that’s even worse than the old kind because we want to be slaves. The poor (defined by Piketty as the “bottom 50%”) can only stand by helplessly as the rich whiz by in ever faster and ever grander limousines. There’s nothing you can do, dude! It’s the “essential contradiction” of capitalism!

Like Krugman, Piketty sees a new Gilded Age dawning, though being French he prefers “La Belle Époque,” which ran from 1871 through 1914, though he gets his data a bit scrambled, because to give us an idea of what life was like back then, and give us a glimpse of what we have to look forward to, he cites Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac to the effect that if you want real cash, you marry it, you don’t earn it, i.e., r>g. Well, Jane was writing in the first decades of the nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution, and “capitalism,” had barely started. Furthermore, she was writing about the predicaments of well-born girls whose entire fate depended on making a “good marriage”—one offering both economic security and social position—which in those days could only be supplied by inherited wealth. Balzac, for his part, wrote as an “artist” who would infinitely prefer to cast his soul to Hell rather than fetter it to an office stool. Jane + Honoré ≠ r>g.

But Priketty’s big lie—his really big lie—is his Marxist line that the poor have nothing but their labor as a defense against economic hardship. In fact, they have the welfare state, built up laboriously by generations of liberals and socialists. Their children don’t run wild through the streets, as they did in the nineteenth century. They’re educated in extravagantly funded school systems that reflect the educational priorities of their parents far more accurately than the chattering class can acknowledge, or even comprehend. Even in the tight-fisted U.S., there is unemployment compensation, workman’s compensation, food stamps, Medicaid, Obamacare, disability insurance, Social Security, and Medicare, all of which are likely to be around for a long time, predictions from both the left and right to the contrary notwithstanding.

Furthermore, the shocking fact is that life is much better today than it was in the supposed halcyon fifties and sixties, even allowing for the effects of the Great Contraction, which hit the poor far harder than anyone else. Of course, happiness is largely relative, and in the fifties and sixties people could look back on a life of hardship if not actual terror—the Great Depression and World War II—and contrast it with a steadily increasing standard of living. Today, life is more uncertain, but the comforts and conveniences of life are far superior, and far cheaper, than any previous generation has known. And, shockingly, I think that’s going to continue.

Mr. Will writes the Constitution. Again.

When I was in college, I had an idea that was so profound that, even now, I find it hard to believe that I actually had it, but I did.

The situation was this: back in the day, Oberlin College had a graduate school of theology, with a wonderful old library, of some 50,000 volumes. I walked in there one day, and had my thought: “This library is its own refutation.”

Why? Because if it takes 25,000 authors (give or take) to explain the Word of God, it isn’t the Word of God. God should be able to speak for Himself, shouldn’t he?

Fortunately, one thing the U.S. is light on is theology, but, naturally, we have an equally tedious substitute, constitutional law. A recent volume—one of 100,000, surely—claiming to explain what the Constitution reallyreally, really—means is Timothy Sandefur’s The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty.

Sandefur’s book is being puffed by that eminent puffball, George F. “F for Fatuous” Will, who has a thing for dumb books about the Constitution. According to George, the essence of Tim’s pitch is that the meaning of the Constitution has to be determined in light of the Declaration of Independence, even though the Constitution, shockingly, makes no reference to that document. But, whatever. Tim’s on a roll, and George is rolling with him. As George explains,

Sandefur says progressivism “inverts America’s constitutional foundations” by holding that the Constitution is “about” democracy, which rejects the framers’ premise that majority rule is legitimate “only within the boundaries” of the individual’s natural rights. These include — indeed, are mostly — unenumerated rights whose existence and importance are affirmed by the Ninth Amendment.

Sandefur “proves” his argument about the intent of the framers by pointing to such things as the 14th amendment and other events that took place after all the framers were, well, dead. He also fails to note that Thomas Jefferson, who, you know, wrote the Declaration of Independence, thought the Constitution was pretty much a pain in the ass, and heartily disliked the right-wing judicial activism that is clearly Sandefur and Will’s continuing wet dream—the sort of dream peculiar to those who find they can no longer dream of winning elections..

In actual fact, even right-wing cranks like Scalia and Thomas are smart enough to know that they can’t rip up the federal statute book just because they don’t like what it says. The only two things you really need to know about the Constitution are these: “The Constitution says what the Supreme Court says it says” and “The Supreme Court follows the elections returns”.

We have had, really, three Constitutions. The “Washington Constitution” ran from 1788 until 1860, when, for four years, major decisions were made, not by legislative majorities and court decisions, but rather, as Bismarck would have it, by iron and blood. The “Lincoln Constitution,” which exalted “liberty” over democracy, ran from 1865 until 1933, felled, of course, by the Great Depression. From 1936 until the present, we have had the “Roosevelt Constitution.” Under the Roosevelt Constitution, we have defeated both fascism and communism. We have made significant headway in erasing the effects of our primal sin of racism. We have stumbled our way through the “Great Contraction” by largely Rooseveltian means, and now find ourselves to be once more the possessors of what is easily the world’s largest and healthiest economy. There is no replacement for the Roosevelt Constitution on the horizon, because there is not the slightest need for one.

“The Jeep’s Blues”—It’s no hustle

If you saw American Hustle you know the tune that starts and ends the film, “The Jeep’s Blues,” performed by the Duke Ellington orchestra. This is the tune that brings Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) together. I rather doubt that many seventies strippers and conmen were into fifties Ellington, but whatever. The point is, Irv and Syd are made of finer clay than the rest of the cast, that they are, in fact, kind of like us.

It’s a good bet that director/writer David O. Russell is an Ellington aficionado, but it also tells us a lot about the commercial pressures on a Hollywood production that Dave doesn’t dare give us more than about 30 seconds of the tune, a gorgeous slow blues that Ellington wrote for his greatest soloist, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, aka “the Jeep.” Unfortunately, there’s no live video of Hodges performing “The Jeep’s Blues,” so I and you will have to make do with this static video posted by Johanna Jem featuring the version that Irv and Syd listen to, from the famous Ellington at Newport album, although there’s an even better one from another live album, the awkwardly titled All-Star Road Band, Vol. 1 Get it!

What about American Hustle apart from “The Jeep’s Blues”? Well, two-thirds of the way through it was shaping up as the coolest Coen picture the Coens never made, but then all of a sudden it went soggy on us, with a ridiculously happy ending. Skip the movie, and stay with the Duke.

Carlos Slim Helú? Who he?

Michael Barbaro has an intriguing story in the New York Times today on the finances of Jeb Bush (spoiler alert: they’re not pretty), but even more intriguing to me is the following:

As a paid adviser to [failing Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers] in the summer of 2008, he met with Carlos Slim Helú, a Mexican billionaire, as Lehman sought to persuade Mr. Slim to make a sizable investment in the firm, emails show.

News flash for Michael Barbaro: Carlos is not your run-of-the-mill billionaire. He’s a Bill Gates-class big guy and, even more to the point, he and his family own 10 million shares of New York Times stock, with options to buy 16 million more. He isn’t quite your boss, but I bet if you met him you’d call him “Señor”.

Pseudo New Yorker

Legal humor here.

“Laugh your ass off. When I get audited, I’ll get to keep the shell.”

“Because I’m a happening terrapin, that’s why.”

“I’ll go goddamn digital when I’m goddamn good and ready.”

“Shells are strong, but knowledge is stronger.”

“Because memory is the mother of all wisdom, mon frére.”

“Because I’m 125 and counting.”

“Sure, the shell is a mess, but my burrow is as neat as a pin. It’s all about priorities.”

“Can I help it if I’m ahead of evolution?”

“Because I’m sick of elephants getting all my ink. Tell Jumbo there’s a new terrapin in town.”

“Digital my ass! Digital is going down! Heartbleed is just the tip of the iceberg!”

Literature R Us Explained. Again.

Since I’ve added a new book to the site—Vorak of Kolnap—I thought I would indulge myself and give a bit of a guide to the site. I’ve done this before, so it it’s old hat to you, skip it.

I started this site to promote my unpublished if not unpublishable fiction, but that old mutatis mutandis thing took over—I had a dedicated band of about seven readers, plus the ebook thing was coming along, plus President Obama was turning himself into Cheney Light, so now I’ve rearranged things, going the self-publishing route for my fiction and fixing up this site for both continuing commentary and self-promotion. So this is what you’ll find.

If you go to the left-hand column and click on “About,” you’ll see a dismayingly large picture of me looking fairly goofy, as is my wont, along with a touch of self-description.

If you click on “Books,” you’ll get links to my two ebook/print on demand novels, Vorak of Kolnap and Author! Author! Vorak is a sci-fi thriller, while Author! Author! is a collection of two short stories and one novella, each featuring a famous author as a lead character—W. H. Auden, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, to name them. There is also a link to my free ebook, Three Bullets: A New Nero Wolfe Threesome, as well as links to my two “dead tree” books, Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra and Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara. You can also access sample passages from the five books.

If you click on “Reviews,” you can access movie reviews I’ve written for the Bright Lights film Journal reviewing all the films of Charlie Chaplin and all the musical films of Fred Astaire. The “Links” page, which needs some expanding, lets you access all the other reviews I’ve done for Bright Lights, as well as the site itself.

“Topics” is the not terribly snappy title I’ve come up with for longer pieces that I’ve run in the past—ranging from takedowns of Flannery O’Connor (not as great as some people say, in my opinion) to a partial guide to jazz albums dedicated to the compositions of Thelonious Monk. In keeping with my affection for jazz, I run a jazz video every week, usually focusing on the compositions of, yes, Thelonious Monk. If you want to find all the jazz videos I’ve featured, well, click on “Jazz.”

Great violins, like great wines, only get better with age. Or not

Kudos to Alice Robb at the New Republic for letting us in on the following:

A paper1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers led by Claudia Fritz, an acoustics expert and professor at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, asked ten renowned violin soloists to select which of 12 violins they would take on an imaginary concert tour. Half of the violins were made by Stradivarius or another 18th-century Italian master, while half came from contemporary European or North American makers (whose identities aren’t revealed in the paper). The volunteers—including Russian virtuoso Ilya Kaler and former London Symphony Orchestra soloist Susanne Hou—had two opportunities to try out the violins, once in a rehearsal room and once in a 300-seat concert hall.

After spending two and half hours playing around on the different instruments, six out of the ten musicians chose one of the modern violins for the hypothetical tour—and only three picked a Stradivarius. The two most-preferred violins were both contemporary; the least-preferred was a Stradivarius. Fritz also had the violinists guess whether each instrument they played was old or new—and they guessed right just about half the time.

Alice doesn’t bother to say how much a new violin costs, but a (very) quick search suggests that a high-quality fiddle is going to set you back about three or four Gs. So it’s hard to imagine paying more than $10,000 for new fiddle, even if it’s custom-made, as compared to a million-plus for a Strad.

I believe it was Charles Darwin who first talked about the narcissism of small differences—that, for example, since women tend to have less facial hair than men, the less facial hair a woman has, the more “feminine,” and thus the more desirable, she becomes. It’s becoming increasingly clear that much connoisseurship is the narcissism, not of small differences, but of nonexistent ones. I recently blasted Felix Salmon for insisting that “great” wines really are great even after acknowledging that every blindfold study shows that even the most recognized œnophiles, when blindfolded, actually prefer $5 wines over Chateau Lafite-Rothschild!2

  1. An abstract of the paper is here. You need a subscription to read the whole thing. 

  2. Which costs about $2,000 a bottle. 

Pseudo New Yorker

Legal humor here.

“Just act natural. But remember, they’re extremely turf conscious.”

“They love a bargain, and they love their oolong.”

“It turns out they are social animals. There were just no coffee shops on the veldt.”

“Ix-nay on the ippo-hay jokes, s’il vous plaît.”

“Come January, this place will be nothing but elephants.”

“It turns out that whole opposable-thumb thing was way over-rated.”

“Apparently, that shift in the Swiss banking laws touched off a real migration.”

“This is nothing. You should see this place on ‘Scone Tuesday.’ It’s a real madhouse.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll be gone in a month. As soon as a place gets hot they drop it.”

“Whoever’s selling those time shares on Central Park West is making a killing.”

Reiham Salam to neocons—“I’m just as dumb as you are! Really!”

Last week, Reihan Salam wrote a short column called “Why I Am Still a Neocon.” A lot of people sort of made fun of Reihan, pointing out, among other things, that nothing Reihan said made much sense, or had much of anything to do with any policies that might be described as “neocon.” They also pointed out that Reihan’s clincher—“Richard Nixon killed my uncle” (by supporting West Pakistan’s oppression of East Pakistan/Bangladesh back in 1971)—was not entirely on point. (Over at the American Conservative, Daniel Larison provides his own beatdowns of Reihan’s inconsistencies and links to others as well.)

In response to the fact that he made an ass of himself in about 500 words, this week Reihan makes a larger ass of himself in about 2,500. It seems to me that Reihan’s major problem is that he didn’t write the first column to say anything substantive about foreign affairs. Rather, he wrote it to convince the Bill Kristols and Charlie Krauthammers of the world that he’s still a right guy. It’s not easy being a liberal these days, not with Barack “I am the law” Obama in the White House, but it’s not easy being a conservative either, not if you actually want to think for yourself, as Reiham is occasionally wont to do. Well, such men are dangerous, and it’s Reihan’s job to explain to Bill, Charlie, and the rest that when it comes to foreign policy, he’s just as dumb as they are, that he looks forward to reviving the Cold War, if we could just find a damn enemy.

But the cream of the jest is that Reihan attempts to talk the neocon talk and walk the neocon walk without once mentioning the word “Israel.” Dude, that’s the whole ballgame!