Tag Archives: globalization

“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…

“How Soccer Explains the World – an unlikely theory of globalization” by Franklin Foer

HAPPY first day of the World Cup 2014, in Brazil!

I didn’t mean to read this book. I bought it in a used bookstore, thinking it would appeal to my husband, but the real truth is that, if he wants a book, he already has it, so How Soccer Explains the World was low on his reading list. I snagged it in desperation when my Kindle died (see previous post). 

I was shocked to find I was reading a serious book. The cover looked warm and fuzzy (Buddhist monks watching a distant soccer match). Fortunately I read the prologue first, which said the chapters were ordered (roughly) from most serious to most optimistic.

The character of the book is also foreshadowed by its subtitle, an (unlikely) theory of globalization. To discuss globalization, it is necessary to analyze nationalism. This book combines journalism and political science to cover these subjects.

The first few chapters of the book, which dealt with soccer hooliganism, were depressing. Or frightening, depending on your mood. Chapter 1, “How soccer explains the Gangster’s Paradise” deals with the former state of Yugoslavia. Chapter 2, “How soccer explains the Pornography of Sects”, addresses the unfinished Reformation, being played out between Protestants and Catholics in England, Scotland and Ireland.

Country by country, Foer dissects sport and sociology around the world. My favorite chapter describes soccer as “Islam’s Hope”. The women of Iran refused to stay home when their national team was winning.

This book is ten years old, and Foer has not published a comprehensive follow up. I really just want someone to tell me if things are getting better or worse… Foer’s Jewish Jocks, published in 2012, sounds interesting.

Now I’m going to watch the second half of Brazil vs. Croatia.

“A Fierce Green Fire” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 2)

Another friend got into the discussion (also very slightly edited):

I won’t argue with Kant or Chomsky (since I haven’t studied them in great depth) but I see a few problems with your hypothesis for the lack of engagement in activism, namely the Sierra Club, among the young. The brain may not lack an organizing capacity for historical reflection. Just because we’re “hard wired” as it were for immediacy doesn’t mean we aren’t also predisposed for reflection; we just shouldn’t try to do it all the time like when we’re escaping predators. But historical reflection will allow us to cut down on encountering predators.

I’m not sure if you mean the perceived lack of engagement is for the local chapter of the Sierra Club or if they are having a national crisis for membership. I can see alternative explanations for either case. Let me address your points more directly.

1. “Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.”

Our recent history has not been bland. Our students are well aware of economic depression, since 2008 they have lived during one. They have also lived through three different US wars in the Middle East, two of them lasting almost their entire lifetime. The impact of natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and more recently Sandy also affects them. They are also concerned with other global issues such as genocides in Darfur, wars in Georgia, Syria, and now Ukraine.

2. “A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.”

This sounds like the charge Socrates made against the youth of Athens. There have always been distractions from what other people consider important. So let’s look at what today’s youth considers important. It’s not always entertainment as your hypothesis claims. Locally, I know our students have a great concern for employment. They seem genuinely disinterested in anything I have to say until I connect it to them getting a job. This isn’t unreasonable since they have just started on their careers during the worst depression the US has seen since the 1930s. They don’t come from affluent families so the current trend in higher education of graduating students with a crushing debt is an ever present worry for them. They are also the first ones in their family to go to college. For many, especially the women, this is in itself is a form of activism. They are fighting a cause more dear to their hearts than the environment — class struggle and freedom of education. 

The media outlets you bemoan are not the problem in and of themselves. It’s who else is using those media outlets. Most news sources and networking sites inundate youth with worrying messages about their future in terms of jobs and debt. The environment is drowned out as a long term worry while economics is presented as an immediate problem; this triggers the part of the brain that deals with “escaping the predator.” What does an 18-22 care about the earth dying in the next 100 years if he has no idea where he will live or how he will eat when he turns 23?

Many environmental organizations do use these digital and social media outlets to get their message across and the youth do respond. I think the 5th point of the movie, globalization, underscores this. Perhaps the lack of interest isn’t about the environment but just the Sierra Club. Youth may be looking for more global platforms. How does youth membership in Green Peace and World Wildlife Fund compare to Sierra Club? Or other types of political activism such as Amnesty International? 

3. You used the phrase “my generation.” An important point to keep in mind is that in terms of just numbers, your generation and the baby boomers simply outnumber Generation Y and the Millenials (today’s youth). So what may be perceived as a drop off because people aren’t engaged may just be a drop in young people even existing. Can’t engage what doesn’t exist. 

You really want to engage the youth in political and environmental activism, connect it to them earning a living. Occupy Wall Street is a good example. Many young people are starting non-profit corporations that target environmental issues (such as installing solar panels at low cost) rather than joining huge public protest movements. Perhaps your perception of what constitutes political/environmental activism needs to change.

“The Memory Chalet” by Tony Judt

The problem with this book is that it must be read through two totally different lenses. First, it is the memoir of a dying man. Judt suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, one of the cruelest neurodegenerative maladies. ALS leaves the mind trapped in a paralyzed, helpless body. Judt died two years after he was diagnosed. His original symptoms were those of a mild stroke.

Judt’s work must also be judged in light of his (high) academic standing and status as a “public intellectual”. I’m no judge of academics and have little knowledge of “public intellectuals”, though I’m inclined to think we need more of them, or perhaps should pay better attention to those we have. (Judt solves one of my problems by telling me where to FIND public intellectuals – The New York Review of Books.)

So what about The Memory Chalet? It’s a charming book. The “chalet” is Judt’s alternative to The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (by JD Spence). Suffering through torturous nights in his quadriplegic condition, Judt needed a mental “device”, a mnemonic, to remember the essays he “wrote” in his head. He remembered a chalet in Switzerland where his family used to vacation. It was a humble, 12 room hostel he recalled in comprehensive detail and which had, for him, a wonderfully positive ambience. Moving through it in his mind allowed him to organize his ideas and recall them later for dictation to an assistant.

What did he write? A great deal was about his childhood and education. He loved trains, hated school, became aware of his Jewish identity… The picture he paints of post war England is detailed. It’s hard for us, looking back, to understand what “austerity” meant. Judt fills in the details, and also elucidates the sense of solidarity, of unity, that England experienced after WW II (and has since lost).

Judt became interested in politics very young (14?) and embraced Zionism and socialism to the extent of spending extensive holidays on a Kibbutz. His parents were displeased when he spoke of moving to Israel permanently. Of these experiences, he says “Before even turning twenty I had become, been and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.” To the relief of his family, he enrolled at Cambridge and studied history.

What about Judt the “public intellectual”? He taught at various universities and wrote extensively. His original field was criticism of French historians (hope I got that right). He says his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2006) secured “public intellectual” status for him. He tried to overcome the Western European habit of ignoring important events in Eastern Europe. He describes his decision to learn the Czech language as a turning point in his intellectual evolution.

Judt described himself as a “universalist social democrat”. It’s going to take me a while to parse that. In the meantime, I think it would make a good mantra.

I might read Postwar, but more likely will look at Thinking the Twentieth Century (published posthumously, coauthored by T Snyder) first. Written in dialogue format, it is sounds accessible to non-historians like me.