Tag Archives: economics

“Father Goriot” by Honore de Balzac

Piketty (see blog post dated April 14) cites the novelist Balzac as providing insight into the impact of income inequality in France around 1820. Balzac had that and a great deal more on his mind! The plot of Father Goriot is wildly melodramatic. There’s a touch of Shakespeare – Father Goriot reminds one of King Lear, but with no good, loving Cordelia to offset the wiles of the two conniving daughters. And Father Goriot never really acknowledges his daughters moral failings.

Wikipedia describes Balzac as “one of the founders of realism in European literature”. He is sometimes compared to Dickens. His descriptions of people and the urban streetscape are so vivid, I felt like I was watching a movie the whole time I was reading. The dismal, poverty stricken boardinghouse he described made my skin crawl. Father Goriot is part of Balzac’s panoramic Human Comedy.

Balzac explores in detail the relationship between wealth and social status, especially as it related to women. The daughters of old Goriot always want MORE, and are willing to lie and take great risks to maintain appearances. Goriot was a working class entrepreneur, a pasta maker and a speculator in grain. He thought, when he married his daughters to men with aristocratic titles, that his troubles were over. He died penniless.

Not only is this book translated (from French) but it includes occasionally obscure and archaic concepts. I shared a confusing paragraph with a friend, who said my problem was lack of familiarity with the “theory of humours”. You know, what happens if you have too much “black bile”. “Humours” were used to explain both health and disposition. Best to just keep reading…

This is a book which showcases the problems of a society that encompasses great extremes of wealth and poverty. Would I want to live in the world he describes? No way!

Balzac deserves far more careful attention than I am giving him here. If your currently book choice category is “filling in the blanks in my literary education”, I highly recommend Balzac’s Father Goriot.

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“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty

I mentioned Piketty in my review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, blog post dated April 5.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century falls into several interesting categories:

  • I didn’t read it. I made substantial use of an informant (to use journalistic jargon) who happens to be a member of my household. I have never taken an economics course. I’ve probably read half a dozen popular books about economics.
  • The edition in hand was translated from French. I always assume that something could be lost (or gained) in translation. This book was published in French in 2013 and in English translation by Arthur Goldhammer in 2014, by Harvard University Press.
  • It’s been reviewed positively in venues I respect, like The New Yorker and The Guardian.

What have we got here?

  • Genre – nonfiction (academic research)
  • Text 578 pages
  • Notes 79 pages
  • 18 tables
  • 7 illustrations
  • About 100 figures

This heavy academic tome is a best seller! Amazon.com lists it as #1 in Comparative Economics. It has 1,761 customer reviews! Reviewers praise it as the most important economics book of the decade.

Piketty’s area of specialization is (the history of) wealth and income inequality. I’ll bet he saw OCCUPY WALL STREET coming, and many of our current political controversies.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a (surprisingly?) readable book. Piketty and Goldhammer have avoided most economics jargon. The exception? You must understand the term “rentier”. Perhaps it could also be translated as “owner”. A “rentier” makes money from money or land or assets, not from work. Got it? If you have any investments, you are a rentier (fem. “rentiere”, I think). If you read Robinson’s New York 2140, you remember that the RENT STRIKE was a tool of political activism.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century deals with questions that feel very real and immediate – how should capitalism be regulated? How should wealth be distributed? Who is helped/harmed by globalization?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is based on data, and written so that trends can be compared between countries. Piketty points out that some of our economic assumptions are based on “deviant” circumstances that no longer apply. This is important, since economists often seem to argue from opinion, rather than data.

In addition to analyzing reams of data, Piketty occasionally refers to the literature of the times he studies, offering examples of how the distribution of wealth impacts human lives. Two authors he cites are Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac. Jane Austen is familiar territory for me, but Balzac? I borrowed two of his short novels from the library. We started listening to Pere Goriot on a recent car trip.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is not Piketty’s last word. He published another book in 2015 and two more in 2016. He makes use of other forums, like TED.com.

My goal is to read the introduction (39 pages) and the eight page conclusion. Then I’ll decide about making a serious assault on the whole volume…

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.

 

“Blue-Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical” by John Royston Coleman

I haven’t read this book, but I know its good. How? I heard the author speak, shortly after the book was published in 1974. And the gist of his story stayed with me so clearly that I spotted his obituary in the New York Times last week (September 9, 2016)! John Coleman died at age 95, after a life of intellectual adventure and social activism.

Coleman was the first non-Quaker president of Haverford College, serving from 1967 to 1977. In the middle of that period, he took a sabbatical and worked as a garbage collector, ditch digger and salad chef. As President of Haverford, he abolished football (I heartily approve), encouraged antiwar protests and campaigned for coeducation, eventually resigning when the College’s Trustees wouldn’t open the doors to women. (They did so shortly thereafter.)

If you want to read Blue-Collar Journal, good luck. My local libraries don’t have it. I’m sure Interlibrary Loan would come through. Amazon has a few copies, but at $156.87 I won’t buy it. I hope a Kindle version will be offered soon.

Interestingly, I found another book entitled Blue Collar Journal available on Amazon. It’s by one Richard Cronborg, a retired heavy equipment operator who seems to have jumped, upon retirement, into blogging, Facebook, poetry and self-publishing. I doubt the two authors ever met. But what wonderful gifts their writings are!

“Good Morning, Beautiful Business” by Judy Wicks

Good Morning, Beautiful Business by Judy Wicks. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013, 274 pages. Subtitle The unexpected journey of an activist entrepreneur and local economy pioneer.

Another long-ish pause in my blogging, as I read another long and thoughtful book…

This blog post counts as two items – a report on a lecture and also a book review! I bought the book when Judy Wicks spoke at my workplace on March 19, 2015. (It didn’t really take me three weeks to read her book. I had others in progress.)

Judy Wicks was brought to campus by the School of Business, with enthusiastic faculty support. Apparently three or four classes were required to attend, so the room was jammed with students signing in and extra chairs had to be set up.

Good Morning, Beautiful Business is a memoir. Wicks is just two years older than me, so we experienced many of the same events but followed very different pathways through life.

Odd features of this book:

  • Judy Wicks is not to be found in Wikipedia, except as the first wife of Richard Hayne, one of the founders of the extremely successful Urban Outfitters, a business than has generated a fortune. I thought everyone who EVER wrote a book would show up in Wikipedia. (Wicks is easily found on Amazon.com. If she wasn’t, that would be spooky.) I thought the White Dog Café might show up in Wikipedia, but it is also missing. It shows up on at least a dozen “restaurant finder” web sites.
  • This memoir contains NO information about Judy Wicks’ college experience, not even the name of the school she attended. Why?! Was she disowned? Most colleges love to claim their famous alumnae. Her website says only that she earned a BA in English. Wicks’ descriptions of childhood and high school are vivid, as is her chapter on her post college experience with Americorps, which sent her to a very remote village in Alaska. A friend of mine collects written accounts of college experiences. I thought surely there would be something in this book for him!

Judy Wicks was a child in the 1950s, college student and young adult in the 1960s. One of “us”, a baby boomer. The 50s were distinguished by sexism and conformity, the 60s by the Vietnam War and its associated backlash. Wicks came out of these trials a feminist and a skeptic, but still an idealist. She stumbled into the restaurant business (starting out as a waitress) and later founded the highly successful White Dog Café, known nationally and even internationally for its commitment to using food that is

  • organic
  • local and
  • humanely produced.

It is also a hub for progressive social action and community building. Much of what she does and cares about can be subsumed in the category of “sustainability”, a term that has been so used, abused and co-opted as to be almost useless without detailed qualification.

Judy Wicks has enough energy for four or five average people! The account of her activities left me breathless.

So all of this was going on while I lived 60 miles down the road, in Southern New Jersey. How did I miss it? I don’t know. My only time of residence in Philadelphia was a three month sojourn in the Ronald MacDonald House, when my son had a serious medical crisis. I did, in fact, dine at the White Dog once or twice during that time, but I wasn’t processing much detail.

Of the three commitments listed above, the one that speaks to me most strongly is “local”. Wicks has the courage to envision an economy radically different from that in which we now live. She highlights ideas like self-reliance and cooperation that have been greatly diminished in our current competitive and globalized world order. (She scarcely needs to mention that it has brought us into terrible risk.)

Just today, I drove around looking for local eggs. I can, if I make the effort, buy eggs directly from farmers. The farm market “scene” around here fills my summers with delight.

I have almost no experience with the entrepreneurial spirit Wicks so embodies and values, and I can’t imagine owning a business. Maybe at some point I will invest in a local business! I like that idea.

As I read the last few chapters of Wicks book, I wondered how she maintains her optimism. I found the following formulation – Wicks believe that social action requires two generations. Efforts of the baby boom generation to resolve the ills that led to the Vietnam War failed because the “generation gap” between the WWII generation and the subsequent anti-war baby boomers was so traumatically, excruciatingly wide. She thinks that our generation and our children (down to the millenials) are working together much more constructively. Well, it’s a theory. I hope Wicks is right!

ALL business students should read Good Morning, Beautiful Business. So should most of the rest of us, since consumers determine which businesses flourish.

“Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy” by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart

Some coincidences are really strange. Consider, for example, the timing of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident – March 28, 1979. That was just twelve days after Jane Fonda’s antinuclear movie The China Syndrome was released. (The expression refers to the fact that, in theory, an out-of-control nuclear core meltdown might progress indefinitely.) That was the public weirdness.

The private weirdness, for me, was that in March of 1979 I was teaching a college course on Environmental Issues! Nuclear power was among the “issues” on the agenda, and news reports superseded my teaching plans for weeks. (Younger readers may not realize how frightening the TMI accident was. Many people had their “escape” routes planned, in case a large region had to be evacuated.) I learned so much about radiation that I think I could have passed a licensing exam for Radiation Safety Officer. The timing was one of the strangest coincidences in my life.

And now… I have been reading Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart, and what happens? The casino industry implodes. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. The bold and (somewhat) controversial plan by Stockton University to establish a campus in the former Showboat Casino has been torpedoed by a casino industry mogul. The Press of Atlantic City has all the dirty details. A project that might have been a cornerstone of redevelopment for suffering Atlantic City has been delayed. Time is money, and the plan may be dropped entirely. Stockton University is in shock.

Mutari and Figart released their book Just One More Hand about six weeks ago. It focuses on the workers in the casino industry, featuring details about the lives of several dozen casino employees. The authors interviewed these people in their homes or on neutral territory, and protected their identities through the use of pseudonyms. This is really a book about the nature of work, and the impact of work on quality of life. It is both well documented and highly readable. I hope it reaches a wide audience.

Consider what the “casino industry” represents! An illegal activity considered a serious social problem has (over about 40 years) been

  • legalized
  • organized
  • regulated
  • cultivated
  • nurtured…

and transformed into an “industry”; a branch, in fact, of the “entertainment industry”. Early on, intense efforts were made to ensure that organized crime didn’t follow gambling into AC when the first casino opened in 1978.

I am well of an age to remember when gambling was illegal. A vice. A crime. I still question its morality. Is it okay to get something for nothing? Advocates point out that participation is voluntary. I choose not to gamble.

Mutari and Figart don’t delve into the question of what came along for the ride as Atlantic City rushed down the path to being a one industry, gambling town. I wonder about drugs. About fifteen years ago, I attended meetings of the “Family Life Committee” at my son’s public school. We dealt with issues like sex education, the level of racial tension, domestic violence, and DRUGS. All the fun stuff. One parent casually referred to gambling as Atlantic City’s number two industry. He was convinced more money was changing hands over drugs than through the legal channels of the gambling industry in Atlantic City. Is this true?

I found Mutari and Figart’s chapter on public investment and risk very interesting, especially the information about Revel, the immense casino that now stands dark and empty, next to the former Showboat which Stockton so optimistically tried to repurpose. Every day the news brings an update on Revel. Is there a buyer? What will happen to the tenants? And whoever thought the mega luxury resort was a good idea?? It’s quite clear that the casino industry, shiny and new in 1978, has matured, spread, and, in fact, reached a saturation point. There was no market for Revel. A shocking amount of tax money was sucked into that black hole. Some experts refer to this as a case of “economic predation”. The money is gone. Little benefit accrued to the taxpayers.

The future of Atlantic City is a mystery. You can understand it somewhat better if you read Mutari and Figart’s excellent book, but really, all we can do is wait and see.