Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Inverted World of Niall Ferguson: On the Real Obama Doctrine

The Inverted World of Niall Ferguson: On the Real Obama Doctrine
Thomas Riggins

Niall Ferguson teaches history at Harvard. He has a very conservative world outlook which, when applied to the analysis of current social reality, has a tendency to so warp his perceptions that the situation he writes about becomes an imaginary inverted world where truth becomes falsity and falsity truth. But don't take my word for it. Just look at his article in the Wall Street Journal for 10/10-11/2015: "The Real Obama Doctrine." Ferguson's take on Obama can only be the result a profound ignorance of the historical reality he professes to understand.

He opens his article by referring to ideas expressed by the revered, but morally reprehensible, Henry Kissinger in 1968.  Kissinger expressed the opinion America didn't really have a foreign policy. He might have noted the U.S. was too busy butchering Vietnamese peasants to pay attention to much else.

Be that as it may, there was no real coherent strategic thinking going on and this for two reasons according to Kissinger. First, the president was not selected for his strategic thinking but his "will" to get elected, and second, there are just too many lawyers working for the government. Now lawyers are clever but they don't know enough about history and this deficiency has led to the adoption of a "minimum risk" attitude when it comes to policy. Well, Ferguson teaches history at Harvard; what better guide could we have to lead us to understand Obama's plans for the U.S. of A.

Seeing that Obama was elected due to his will to win, has a passel  of lawyers at work in his administration, and doesn't support a "maximum risk" policy, he seems to exemplify just what Henry K was complaining about to a tee. Ferguson tells us, in fact, that he himself has "spent much of the last seven years trying to work out" just what strategy Obama was following. Here is what he found out.

He read Obama’s 2009 Cairo Speech but wasn’t clear on how it would result in practical actions. The speech was full of good intentions and was met positively by those friendly to the U.S. and either negatively or skeptically by those hostile to it. The criticisms basically were that actions speak louder than words and that upbeat speeches were no substitute for a change in policies. Ferguson doesn’t go into much detail on the speech, but needless to say he should have known that Obama would not be able to quickly reverse fifty years of cold war policies and the fact that the Bush administration had left the entire Middle East entirely in flames or on the verge irrupting into chaos.

Obama’s attempt to disengage U.S. ground forces in Iraq and strengthen Iraqi security forces is called by Ferguson “precipitate withdrawal.” The fact is that the damage done to Iraq by the Bush policies are almost irreversible and the sectarian Shia government the U.S. created is both corrupt and unwilling, or unable, to reconcile with the Sunni minority. Obama must either try to wind down American involvement or hunker down and prepare for an open ended American occupation. The American people definitely want to get out of Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and they don’t want to get involved in Syria either. Obama cannot, no president could, put the Middle East back together again after the Bush folks so thoroughly smashed it up. The best he can do is respond to the will of the American people and try and limit the damage caused by the Bush gang.

Besides not having a clue to the complexities in Afghanistan, Ferguson thinks Obama has become “indifferent” to Europe as a result of the attempted “reset” with Russia. It’s true the reset failed but only because it was predicated on Russia following American dictates against its own interests and there is no evidence that Obama has become indifferent to Europe.

But Ferguson also discovered something more troubling than Obama’s failure to clean up the mess left behind by Bush. It is one thing to reject Bush’s policies, but the 2012 debate with Mitt Romney revealed, horror of horrors, that Obama was also “turning away from Ronald Reagan.” Romney held that enemy numero uno to our world wide hegemony was Russia and Obama dismissed this. And what happened? In March 2014 [as a result of U.S. and E.U. intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine] Russia annexed Crimea returning it to Russian administration after it had been assigned by the Soviet Union to Ukraine in the 1950s. Historian that he is, Ferguson thinks Romney “prescient” in spotting that, in his words, Russia is “our number one geopolitical foe.” We had better move the Seventh Fleet to the Bering Strait in case Putin decides to reverse the Alaska Purchase.

Ferguson also discovered, by reading articles and interviews given by Obama in the popular press, that it was his intention to “create a new balance of power in the Middle East.”  Obama said that he wanted to end the conflicts between the Shia and Sunni by trying to get Iran to abandon its (in his opinion) negative polices and to work with the mostly Sunni Gulf states in a common effort to build a positive future in the region.

Obama hopes an international coalition, which could include Iran, might work together to solve the problems of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Unmentioned is the fact that the crisises in all these countries are the results of Saudi and American actions and interference. It would be the U.S. and not Iran that would have to abandon its negative policies. It is unlikely to do since it profits from arms sales to the region.

Ferguson, however, has other reasons for objecting to Obama’s Middle East policies which he says are based on the president’s “fuzzy thinking.” In his recent U.N. speech Obama indicated he was willing to work  with other nations “under the mantle of international norms and principles” and with both Russia and Iran (as long they agreed to eventually dump Assad) in solving the Syrian problem. Obama is “fuzzy” because, Ferguson says, neither Russia nor Iran are “famed” for operating under the “mantle of international norms and principles.”

 One would expect a Harvard history professor to be aware of the fact that the U.S. is also not “famed” for operating under this mantle. In fact, even a slight acquaintance with modern history would show U.S. behavior is more egregious in this respect than that of either Russia or Iran. In fact, almost every crisis in world diplomacy since (and most of them before) the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the result of the U.S. flouting international norms. To blame Obama for trying improve this dismal record doesn’t say much in favor of Ferguson’s bona fides.

Ferguson thinks Obama's policies are failing because, since 2010, terrorism and violence in the Middle East from North Africa (Libya) to Pakistan and Afghanistan have dramatically increased and we can expect even more violence to come “as the Sunni powers of the region seek to prevent Iran from establishing itself as the post American hegemon.”

It’s true that American policies are not working out if peace is the goal. If, however, the goal is to sell billions of dollars worth of new weapons systems to the governments in the area as well as to ramp up military spending at home, these policies at least make some sense.

After Bush/Cheney destroyed Iraq in the  east and the Obama/ U.S. supported NATO intervention in Libya (pushed by Secretary of State Clinton) effectively destroyed that country in the west the growth of terrorism was bound to increase as outside governments and their proxies moved in to take advantage of the chaos the U.S. created.

It was the Sunni governments that moved to take advantage of the situation. The U.S. destroyed two major secular governments and both the Saudi Arabians, and Gulf Sunni states, representing the most backward “Islamic” radical ideology, funded Sunni terrorist groups, as well as Pakistan’s covert support of the Taliban, that has led to the impotence of U.S. policy on the ground. The U.S. still sends billions of dollars in military aid (much of it actually spent at home to support the military industrial complex behind our domestic deep state) to countries who pass some of it along to the very terrorist groups the U.S. is fighting.

The truth is that Iran is not trying to become a hegemon. It was the Shah, installed as a result of a CIA coup against a democratically elected government and backed by the U.S., who was moving to both develop nuclear weapons and establish hegemony, as a U.S. client state, in the region until he was overthrown in 1979. The U.S. has been trying to get rid of the new Iranian government ever since.

Iran’s actions have been purely defensive in nature. It supports its Shia allies in Iraq against the Sunni Islamic State, it supports its ally Assad in Syria against the Islamic state and the Sunni jihadists supported by the Saudis and indirectly by the U.S. under the covering myth of supporting “moderates.” All this puts the lie to Ferguson’s pseudo-historical analysis of “Obama’s failures.” Obama’s problem, such as it is, has been his inability to reverse the movement of Middle Eastern disintegration initiated by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has succeeded in preventing the implosion of half the Mediterranean world  by keeping boots off the ground in Libya and Syria, and thus not compounding the Bush/Chenny Iraq folly. Nevertheless his interventionist actions in these two countries threaten to create a wider area of war and destabilization which the next president will have to defuse unless he takes actions towards withdrawal and cooperation with the Iranians and Russians to limit Saudi and Pakistani sponsored jihadists.

Finally, Ferguson concludes there are three major problems facing U.S. foreign policy; the Middle East, Russia’s meddling, and China’s ambitions. Obama, he says, is failing to properly address these problems. The reason for this failure is that he does not have advisors of the caliber  of Zbigniew Brzezinski (whose Afghan policies gave us  both Osama ben Laden and  the Taliban) and Henry Kissinger (whose war crimes against humanity gave us fascism in Chile and Pol Pot in Cambodia, among achievements of similar note). Both of these stalwarts, Furgeson says, have made intellectual contributions to strategic doctrine far greater than the advisors surrounding Obama. Perhaps, but more people around the world have died meaningless deaths and suffered injuries and loss of loved ones due to the strategic doctrines of Brzezinski and Kissinger than due to the policies of Obama (but he is running a close second with his Syrian policies).

U.S. policy does have problems. In the Middle East it supports dictators and tyrants and its blanket support of Israel and Israel’s truly barbaric treatment of the Palestinians prevents it from having a policy that the majority of Middle Eastern people can live with. We create the very terrorists we seek to fight. Russian meddling is nothing more that its advancing policies that protect its interests and are usually just reactions to overt or covert U.S. provocations. There will be no reset of relations with Russia as long as the U.S. acts in bad faith. China’s ambitions are perfectly normal. They want to play a role in their part of the world commensurate with their growing economic and political strength. As long as the U.S. seeks to challenge them in this respect (such as U.S. air and naval provocations in the South China Sea) there will be no real cooperation possible nor any incentive for Chinese to trust the U.S.

The above comments are just a reflection of the current Zeitgeist and it appears that the role of the U.S. is contrary to the movement that spirit is taking — a movement that is pointing us towards a world of better cooperation and understanding and is not subject to the negative destructive will of one rogue superpower. This, and not the views of Henry Kissinger, is what the next president must keep in mind.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Poverty and Child Brain Damage

Poverty and Child Brain Damage
Thomas Riggins

Politicians love to tell us that we live in the richest and greatest country in the world despite the fact that our actual ranking when it comes to overall living standards and democratic rights is far from numero uno. We rank 23rd on the "Satisfaction with Life Index" (Cf. Wikipedia). But no one will get elected telling us we are the 23rd best über alles in the world. 

More to the point, when it comes to how we treat children, it's telling to find out that UNICEF ranks the U.S. at 34 out of 35 industrialized countries (we beat out Romania but eight other former east European socialist countries take better care of their children than we do)-- Washington Post 4-15- 2013.

It just so happens that 22% of children in the United States live in poverty and are apt to remain there as long as the Republicans and the right use their political power to cut welfare, food stamps, day care, education, feeding programs in schools, tax breaks for low income families, elimination of the sales tax for the poor, decent wages for working people, unemployment insurance, immigration reform, and continue to obstruct the right to vote and union organization with respect to minorities and working people.

What is particularly vile about the these right-wing anti-children policies is that scientists have shown that living in poverty has horrible consequences for the normal development of children's brains, damages their emotional health, and results in under achievement academically.

Scientists have shown, according  to Science Daily 7-22-15, (“Poverty’s most insidious damage is to a child’s brain”) that low income children living in poverty have mental lags and  abnormal development in their frontal and temporal lobes resulting in test scores 20 per cent lower than the norm for children not living in poverty. 

We should also note that the brain has not fully developed into a mature organ in humans until the mid 20s. The result of temporal lobe damage will impair normal comprehension and understanding of speech and frontal lobe impairment  will effect normal thinking, planning,  and decision making ability, personality development and moral and ethical comprehension and behavior  among other higher mental functions.

The information in this article from SD is based on the research reported by Dr. Seth Pollak et. al., in “Poverty’s most insidious damage: The developing brain” published in JAMA Pediatrics, July 2015.  Besides this article there is an editorial  by Dr. Joan A. Luby  of the Washington University School of Medicine, who says “early childhood interventions to support a nurturing environment for these children must now become our top public health priority for the good of all.” Dr Luby’s own research has also shown that the brains of children living in poverty can be damaged causing problems for the the rest of their lives.

What can be done to help these children? Should the government guarantee a minimum income to families with children to keep them above the poverty line? Should pressure be applied to the Republicans and other rightist politicians to drop their opposition to food stamps, free meals, and other programs designed to help the poor? Should these programs get more funding so that no child is left behind in poverty? 

It seems it is the job of the parents of the children in poverty to solve this problem (providing of course they didn’t grow up in poverty themselves and suffer some of the problems discussed in this article). Dr. Luby’s studies have shown that properly nurturing parents “can offset some of the negative effects” inflicted on the brains of poor children.

“Our research has shown,” Dr.Luby writes, “that the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus [part of the temporal lobe] are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses experienced by the children.”

This suggests that if  we teach nurturing skills to parents, especially poor parents,  then maybe the children will benefit.  This is something the fiscally responsible Republican Congress might be inclined to support. We really don’t have to make any radical social changes in the way the richest and greatest  country (or at least the 23rd such country) runs its social programs (or lack thereof) , we only have to encourage and teach better nurturing techniques to parents— this shouldn’t cost too much.

“In developmental science and medicine,” Dr. Luby wrote, “it is not often that the cause [poverty] and solution [better parenting] of a public health problem become so clearly elucidated. It is even less common that feasible and cost effective solutions [teach parents how to nurture] to such problems are discovered [maybe] and are within reach.” So cost effective that the 1% won’t even have to face a tax increase or the military a budget cut.

In closing we should consider what is happening to children all around the world. If the Numero Uno country has over 20% of its children facing permanent brain damage and life long mental disabilities as a result of childhood impoverishment  what is happening to the billions of children in the third world living in areas of armed conflict, as refugees, in countries with undeveloped and ruined economic conditions? How will future Greek children compete with their German counterparts
twenty years from now if the EU is still around?

One thing is certain. The current  dominant economic system in the world will not solve the problems of these children, and the problems of child poverty will not be cured by blaming them on poor parenting as the most loving and nurturing parents in the world cannot feed and nuture their children on words alone.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Decline of Earth's Plant Life Threatens Human Life As We Know IT

"Decline of Earth's plant life threatens human life as we know it."
Thomas Riggins

A recent scientific study comparing the role of plants in the sustainability of life on Earth and the current rapid destruction of such life has convinced many scientists that human civilization and well-being will be placed in jeopardy. Rain forests and grass lands around the world are being destroyed at an alarming rate to make room for palm oil plantations, commercial crops of no intrinsic value (tobacco), and the practices of illegal logging for the furniture and lumber trades, and industrialized agriculture.

This  has led to a massive destruction of the total biomass of the planet  all of which is fueled by the immense profits available under capitalism for the private exploitation of natural resources at the expense of sustainable use and of preservation in the interests of environmental conservation for the common good of humanity. The drive for profits is led by major private and state owned capitalist enterprises which, in addition to using the political systems they encounter in many countries to get control of the resources they intend to plunder, also resort to bribery, corruption and other illegal operations in order to attain their ends.

  Dr. John Schramski, of the University of Georgia, has recently completed (as lead author) a study of the effects of the over exploitation of Earth’s plant biomass (Science Daily 7/15/15 “Continued destruction of Earth’s plant life places humans in jeopardy”). The rich and diverse animal and plant life of today is the result of several hundred million years of evolution that began when simple one celled organisms developed  which were able to chemically change the sunlight they received into useful energy which they could metabolize.

The fact that  plants can create their own “food” from sunlight allowed animals to evolve using plants as their source of food: indirectly feeding off of the sun. Dr. Schramski used the laws of thermodynamics (the physics of heat in relation to mechanical energy) to calculate the amount of chemical energy the plant world produces and the amount that humanity is at present consuming or destroying via the reduction of forests and other plant  environments.

“You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years,” he said. “ The sun’s energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished.”

In the last 2000 years human activity has reduced half of the battery charge (i.e., the biomass accumulated from living carbon over the last several million years). In just the last one hundred years about ten percent of that biomass was wiped out according to the article.  This destruction means the Earth has less and less energy  to keep the food webs and “biochemical balances” going upon which we all depend.

Dr. Schramski pointed out that, “As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctions, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest.”

If humans survive this accelerated loss of biomass Dr. Schramski, and his co-authors (James H. Brown and David Gattie) predict that our species will have to abandon our current civilization and return to hunting and gathering or simple gardening (i.e., a pre-neolithic life style), as populations will crash and large-scale industrial agriculture will be impossible. [Perhaps the world population, after the die off, will be about what it was in 10,000 B.C. or so (1 to 10 million people).]

Dr. Schramski says,” I’m not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics. These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of biomass energy available on the planet, and once it’s exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it.”

The scientists are hopeful that we can take the drastic measures needed to halt this downward spiral to the paleolithic or extinction. “I call myself a realistic optimist. I’ve gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we’re wrong,” Dr. Schramski said,” but I haven’t found it.”

One glance at the US Congress should give us an idea where we are headed.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reflections on China's South Sea Trouble

Reflections on China’s South Sea Trouble
Thomas Riggins

Lying in the South China Sea between Indochina and the Philippines is a collection of 700 or so small islands, reefs, atolls, shoals, and rocks which are all very scattered about and collectively known as the Spratly Islands (named after the British sea captain Richard Spratly, 1802-1870, who "discovered" them in the early 19th century).

The Europeans were, of course, not the first to come across this collection of rocks and mini-islands in the ocean. Though uninhabited they had been explored by and integrated into the Chinese Empire for centuries. Many centuries before there was even an England, let alone the United States, ancient Chinese maps had depicted these islands.

The Chinese were there on fishing expeditions during the Han Dynasty (Third Century B.C.). They appear on Qing (Manchu) Dynasty maps of the Empire dating from the early 17th Century but they were being regularly visited and mentioned in the literature of the Song, Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties as well.

In the 19th Century China, Indochina, the Philippines, and the areas around the South China Sea were under European control. China was in no position to exert its claims in the islands. At this time the French claimed parts of them (from which the Vietnamese claim ultimately derives) due to French Indochina.

Nobody, other than the Chinese, seemed to care about these islands for many centuries but interest in them began to pick up in the second half of the last century. This interest is due to the prospects that undersea oil and gas deposits could be the source of wealth and energy and thus claims on the islands— or at least some of them — would allow the possessor to claim the territorial waters associated with the land.  So there are now five countries besides China (PRC) who have claims in the Spratly Islands.

It should be noted all the fuss over the Spratly islands involves pumping up hydrocarbons that should remain just where they are as our scientists tell us global warming is out of hand and this additional  supply should remain untapped and alternative sources of energy developed. This also applies to the arctic and all major undeveloped areas on both land and in the seas. Nevertheless, short sighted political entities will probably continue to develop these regions without any concern for the future consequences.

Who are the other five claimants to the Spratly islands in whole or in part? They are Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.  I maintain that China, having the oldest connection with these islands (going back to the times of the Roman Empire in European terms) has the most justified claims and that if it decides to grant rights to others it should favor the claims of the Vietnamese first and foremost. 

I will deal with the Vietnamese claims last. First let’s deal with Taiwan. Taiwan claims the islands for the same reasons the PRC claims them since Taiwan, as the Republic of China (ROC), considers itself the successor state to the Chinese Empire. The PRC claims Taiwan is a province of China that will eventually be reunified with the mainland. The PRC claims simply absorb those of Taiwan and we don’t have to further consider them. 

Brunei has a partially submerged reef within its 200 mile limit (exclusive economic zone [EEZ]). Whether this reef is recognized as an ocean “rock” or an “island” will determine if Brunei gets to extend its sovereignty over additional areas of the South China Sea.  I think the Chinese could easily grant fishing rights to Brunei in areas beyond the 200 mile limit which it claims without having to acknowledge that this reef is an island. Since drilling for oil or gas is detrimental to the entire earth  Brunei’s  claim should be rejected if that is its intention. I will explain later why  it is more likely that China can be convinced not to drill in the Spratly’s than other claimants (excepting the Vietnamese).

The Philippines claims began in 1978 when the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos issued a decree that parts of the Spratly islands  within his EEZ belonged to the Philippines. He then occupied some islands. If the Chinese claim has historical 
priority, however, the Philippine action would be invalidated. This claim should be decided in talks between the PRC and the current Philippine government.

Malaysia’s claim is based both on the position of  some of the islands are in its EEZ and the fact that they were unoccupied after World War II when the Japanese abandoned the Spratly Islands after their defeat. The PRC’s claim, of course, predates World War II and the fact that wars, colonialism, civil wars, the presence of hostile Western forces (the US Seventh Fleet) prevented the PRC from exercising its sovereignty  until recently does not automatically give other nations the right to claim these islands as abandoned or unowned. Malaysia and the PRC should engage in bilateral discussions to resolve this dispute.

Vietnam (SRV, Socialist Republic of Vietnam) which occupies Spratly Island itself among others, bases its claims on having taken over some islands after the French left Indochina and that the puppet government (US installed Republic of Vietnam) had put boundary markers on some islands, and that the Vietnamese Empire had claimed them as far back as the 1600s. Vietnam also says that the ancient claims made by China actually refer to those made by non-Chinese people who lived in what is today Northern Vietnam (yet this area was a province of China in ancient times.)

The SRV and the PRC have special responsibilities is resolving their disputes regarding the Spratly Islands; responsibilities that go far beyond legalistic arguments and interpretations of an international law system basically drawn up by colonial and imperialist powers to serve their interests. 

In the first place they both claim to be socialist countries and products of the Marxist- Leninist tradition, resulting from the Russian Revolution, regardless of the unique characteristics which the special historical and cultural developments of each nation has contributed to its form of socialist expression.

International working class solidarity is a basic element of their common socialist heritage and the interests of the Chinese and Vietnamese workers  should not appear to result  in antagonistic contradictions between  their governments. Such contradictions are indicative of leaders who are deviating from socialist principles. We have seen the damage such deviations have caused to the international socialist movement in the last century. It behooves the leaders of the PRC and SRV to resolve their contradictions in the spirit of working class solidarity and unity against the machinations of imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism, in the region.

The U.S. involvement is adventuristic and provocative with regard to the PRC’s activities in the island chain and on the same level with its provocations against Russia over NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and its attempt, along with the EU, to assert its interests in the Ukraine at the expense of Russian interests and those of millions of Ukrainians who wish to maintain friendly relations with both Russia and the EU. Here the U.S. seeks to drive a wedge between the PRC and its neighbors.

Since neither the PRC nor the SRV, in the interests of planetary survival, should be planning to extract hydrocarbons from the South China Sea, and both need to cooperate in finding alternative sources of energy, they should bilaterally resolve their rival claims in this region in the true spirit of working class internationalism by proportionally sharing in the economic development of the region and having a united policy on resolving their problems with the non socialist governments making claims in this area. They should be united in rejecting U.S. interference and saber rattling in the South China Sea as U.S. imperialism has a record of destabilizing areas (such as the Middle East and Ukraine) in order to justify military
spending at home and a divide and conquer foreign policy abroad.

These reflections have, no doubt, overlooked some significant issues involved in the current problems in the South China Sea but I think those problems could be subsumed within the framework of discussion suggested above. In any event, I think these reflections, or something very much like them, will be foundational
to understanding what is happening in this region.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sin, Socialism, and Sacrilege

Sin, Socialism and Sacrilege
Thomas Riggins

In some ultraconservative circles as well as groups of  “Christians"  and other misguided religious zealots the issue of gay marriage has become the cause célèbre  du jour. [I use the term ‘misguided’ to refer to bigoted and backward thinking not in tune, in my view, with modern religious and philosophical opinions.]  I propose to discuss a typical article from the right casting aspersions upon the concept of gay marriage as a constitutional right that must be respected under the law and protected from bigoted attacks disguised as authentic religious beliefs claiming also to be constitutionally protected. I will attempt to demonstrate that gay marriages should be constitutionally protected and that no religious objections to it are worthy of respect on legal, ethical, or moral grounds.

The article in question is by an ultra-right political "journalist" Charlotte Allen and was published on May 1 on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal: "Modern Sin: Holding On to Your Belief." What is the belief at issue? Socialists and other progressives don't usually think in terms of "sin." The term "politically incorrect" is the one that we prefer. To hold on to, and act upon, discredited beliefs such as racism, sexism, fascism, xenophobic nationalism, chauvinisms of all kinds including religious chauvinisms, and certain kinds of behaviors that are dishonest, socially destructive of people's well being, and many more too numerous to list here are considered not to be politically correct [PC]. 

So the question to be addressed by the WSJ article should really be what beliefs are people holding on to, and acting upon, that are not PC and, in religious jargon, are "sins" against other human beings  and hurtful to them. If your notion of the deity includes the idea that It wants you to act in a hurtful way to other human beings, attacking their rights and happiness in order to make you feel better about your own, my article will hopefully convince you that you are wrong and have a false notion of what "sin" is all about. 

Ms. Allen’s article is a sympathetic account of the trials and tribulations of small business owners whose bigoted interpretation of religion has led them to discriminate against gay couples who wish to marry. Their arguments are not unlike those given a few generations  ago by those who also discriminated against interracial couples on religious grounds.

There are, Ms. Allen points out, a small group of [ misguided Christian] “bakers, florists, and photographers’’ who maintain that “their Christian beliefs in man-woman marriages preclude their providing services to same-sex marriages.” Well, “Christian beliefs” are also opposed to pagan ceremonies and polytheistic worship but they don’t seem to preclude people from baking, taking pictures or providing flowers for Hindu wedding ceremonies. There are “Christian beliefs” against divorce but are divorced people getting married again refused these services?

Businesses open to the public must serve the public in a non discriminatory way.
A misguided Christian restaurant owner is not entitled to tell a couple of same sex individuals they will not be served if he overhears that their meal is a wedding brunch. Or is he? This is the issue. Does freedom of religion include the freedom to discriminate and impose your beliefs on others in the public arena?

It seems that these “Christian” business people are committing acts of common bigotry under the guise of “acts of [selective] conscience.” Ms Allen supports the business people involved. She presents the case of a Southern Baptist florist who was fined for refusing to serve a gay wedding because she claimed to have a personal relationship with [an imaginary friend called] “Jesus” who, it appears, is anti-gay marriage. This defense against anti-discrimination laws did not impress the lower courts in Washington State and is now on appeal. Her case would be strengthened if she could present her friend as a witness. But I doubt “Jesus” will appear since his constituency includes both gay and non gay people which makes this not a question of “Christian” belief so much as one of personal interpretation.

Ms Allen thinks holding misguided “Christians” responsible for their bigoted actions (no one  should object to their  private or public beliefs only their public activities if they impinge upon the rights of others under the law) goes against former California Supreme Court Justice Ronald M.George’s statement that: “Affording same-sex couples the same opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official or any other person.” Ms. Allen is, of course, wrong and the Judge is right.

“Religious freedom” is not absolute in the U.S. It is freedom to practice your religion under the law. For instance, American Muslims don’t have the freedom to marry four wives, people can’t practice human sacrifice, people of one sect are not free to behead those of a different sect, and Amish elders don’t have the right to debeard their opponents, and people considered to be heretics, sacrilegious, or blasphemous cannot be burned at the stake or otherwise dispatched.

 All of these practices are, be it noted, sincerely held religious beliefs, some of them by Christians, and to the list should be added discriminatory practices and hateful deeds directed against gay people or any other subsections of society which lawfully seek to enjoy life and peacefully practice their beliefs and life styles in ways not detrimental to the legally protected rights of others.

 Businesses serving the public whether they be caterers, bakeries, florist shops, photo stores and studios, wedding planners or any business permitted to engage in services by the state should not, and generally cannot, discriminate against people based on their race, religion (or lack of religion), sex, gender preferences, ethnic origins, looks or age, etc. This means that individuals or groups, including institutionalized religious organizations cannot engage in discriminatory practices against others based on their own shared and practiced beliefs and feelings. They can do as they please as long as it is legally permitted and does not infringe upon the legal rights of others. If there are existing laws permitting such discriminatory actions they must be repealed.

If you have a sincerely held religious belief that same sex marriage is immoral and against the will of God (although God is quite capable I should think to see to it that his will is not violated without any help from humans)  then no one can force you to marry someone of the same sex. It is wrong, however, for you to seek to prevent others from engaging in same sex marriage or refuse to serve them if you have a business open to the public.

Ms. Allen fears that if the Supreme Court finds that gay marriage is a constitutional right  then a “persecution of Christians” will follow. All that will follow is that Christians, and others, who have a long history of persecutions against others themselves will find it more difficult, if not impossible, to engage in the hate crimes and discriminatory behavior against gay people that they believe their Imaginary deity requires of them. I say “imaginary” because no purportedly perfect and good deity would countenance such behavior and truly religious persons should consider it a sacrilege to believe otherwise.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Piketty for Progressives (All six parts gathered here)

All six parts of Piketty for Progressives are published here -- about 17 standard  book pages if printed.

Piketty for Progressives 
Thomas Riggins


"Introduction" to Capital in the Twenty-First Century-- Part 1

Piketty opens his book by telling us the questions he wants to answer are two diametrically opposed queries stemming from the works of Karl Marx on the one hand and Simon Kuznets on the other. From Marx-- does capitalism inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands ?  From Kuznets -- does the later development of capitalism lead to less inequality and more social harmony between the classes? A third question is what lessons can we learn and apply to our present century from a study of wealth development since the eighteenth century?

Piketty admits that the answers he gives to these questions are "imperfect and incomplete." Now if you write a book whose conclusions are imperfect and incomplete you are inviting a lot critical commentary not only from the Left but  from the Right as well. In this respect the reception of his book has not been disappointing.  He thinks however his research provides a "new" way to understand the inner workings of capitalism. We shall see.

He believes that current bourgeois economic "science" has become so sophisticated  that the "Marxist Apocalypse" can be avoided. This is, however, an article of faith and no argument is advanced to substantiate this claim. He doesn't exactly say what the "Apocalypse" is but I rather think it refers to the collapse of the capitalist system and its replacement with a socialist economic order. Marx did give an argument for this outcome based on his analysis of the inner contradictions of the capitalist system. This analysis is in his work Capital which book Piketty mentions in passing only three times in his own book (according to the index, but I counted more) giving no indication that he read Marx's work.

Piketty admits that if/when capitalism provides a greater return on capital than it does on income and economic growth "then it automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based." This is quite a statement. It assumes we live in democratic societies where a person's social condition is based on merit. This is I think demonstrably false for the politically corrupt oligarchical societies of the West with which Piketty is concerned. Race, ethnicity, family background, wealth, availability of opportunities are the actual factors that determine the social conditions of people living in capitalist democracies not "merit." To say our societies are based on "values" that are plainly non-operative beyond the verbal level is no way to go about understanding reality as if effects most people.

He thinks there are ways democracy can "regain" its power over capitalism. He says "regain" because he thinks these negative features of capitalism were operant in the nineteenth century but were not so dominant in the twentieth (!) but seem "likely" to come into force in the twenty-first century. There are few, if any, people on the Left, I think, who view the twentieth century as a success story for meritocratic democracy (except maybe in a few isolated pockets).

Well, I don't want to jump to conclusions so let’s look more closely at the introduction to his book:

A Debate Without Data?

In this section Piketty points out that previous  theories about wealth and inequality have been based on a narrow set of facts that have been appealed to support many different interpretations. He is going to explain his sources and how he and his associates have expanded the amount of data available to researchers.

He also makes some comments in this section that reveal an interesting set of subtextual assumptions of which progressives  (especially Marxists) should be aware.  For instance, inequality is, he says, visible to many kinds of people and many different theories as to its causes flourish due to inadequate data. He tells us peasants and nobles, capitalists and workers, and bankers and non-bankers  [and we might add “slaves and masters” to the mix as well-tr] all see the world differently. Each group sees different “aspects” of reality and this conditions their outlook on justice and injustice. “Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate.”

One of the purposes of Marx’s Capital was to show just what nonsense this is and that class struggle and exploitation have objective roots in external reality and can be scientifically understood. Political conflicts between workers and capitalists (just as slave rebellions and peasant uprisings) are not the result of subjective psychological problems due to feelings of oppression because the “oppressed” group only sees its own “aspect” of reality. They are objective historical facts that can be scientifically studied and remedied by a correct understanding of the relations of production and distribution and the mode of value creation within a given society and Marx presents arguments to support his conclusions rather than just stating them as matters of fact.

All sides are represented in [bourgeois] democracy, Piketty thinks, and since there is no scientific explanation for the resolution of the political problems engendered by the subjective psychological reactions of different groups to their experiences of inequality we can conclude “Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts— and that is a very good thing.” Piketty’s value judgment is, of course, a subjective psychological reaction to his understanding of the nature of inequality.

Piketty does see an important role, however, for the class of “experts” to which he himself belongs. While, he maintains, they cannot provide a solution to the  violent  political conflicts that inequality naturally engenders, they can do research which “will inform democratic debate and focus attention on the right questions.” Piketty says intellectuals such as himself “have the good fortune to have more time than others to devote themselves to study (and even to be paid for it— a signal privilege).” Yes, but who is the paymaster?

Before going into detail on his new methods he wants to present an historical review of how the problems of inequality were dealt with in the past, and so we move on to Part 2 of this review and will resume with the section entitled:

Malthus, Young, and the French Revolution


“Introduction” to Capital in the Twenty-First Century— Part 2

2. Malthus, Young and the French Revolution 

This section is not particularly enlightening as it is mostly just descriptive. We are informed that Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) wrote his 1798 work "Essay on the Principle of Population" based on few sources, one of the most important of which was a travel diary that the British agronomist Arthur Young (1741-1820)  published of his trip to France (1788-89) where the extent of poverty he saw led him to fear a revolution was in the offing. Malthus was led to believe the social troubles facing Europe as a result of the French Revolution and the changing economic conditions of the day were caused by overpopulation. Too many poor people were being born and not enough food could be produced to feed them. His solution was to advocate the end of any kind of welfare aid to the poor (let nature take its course) and to discourage their procreative activities. Piketty says we cannot understand the extreme views of Malthus without understanding the role that fear played in a Europe experiencing revolution, fast economic changes, and the rapid increase of population and poverty occasioned by the Industrial Revolution. He stress that the theoretical work of the time was based on limited sources due to scanty record keeping by modern standards. 

3. Ricardo: The Principle of Scarcity 

Piketty says in retrospect we might make fun of the dark prophecies the nineteenth century  thinkers made concerning the dire consequences that the development of the class nature of capitalism and the consequent unequal distribution of wealth seemed to indicate.  He seems to think “these prophecies of doom” did not happen  but were justified by the “traumatic” changes the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution engendered. David Ricardo (1772-1823) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) “the two most influential economists of the nineteenth century” both had apocalyptic views of the future. Ricardo thought the wealth of society would be monopolized by the owners of land, Marx by the industrial capitalists. In this section Piketty discusses Ricardo’s views. 

Ricardo's interests were in the price and rent of land and were expressed in his 1817 book "Principles of Political Economy and Taxation." He had few statistics to work with, Piketty says, but he understood contemporary capitalism and further developed the theories of Malthus. As population grew the demand for land (for agriculture especially) would go up and so would its price and consequently the amount that could be charged as rent.  
Eventually the landowners would be getting the lion's share of the wealth expressed as income and the rest of the people would be getting less and less. Unless taxes on land were radically increased to readdress this income imbalance social stability would collapse and the spectre of the French Revolution would arise to haunt Europe. 

Piketty points out that Ricardo was wrong because of technological and industrial developments that took place after his time that diminished the role of agriculture in the economy. Nevertheless, Ricardo's views on the role of "scarcity" were insightful as they indicated that the prices of certain commodities (goods and services) could get out of hand and disrupt society, especially in the present age when the global economy is coordinated and kept in balance by an international pricing system.  "The problem is," Piketty says, "the price system knows neither limits nor morality." 

Here is a classic example of the problem of reification discussed by Marx in the first volume of Capital in the chapter on the fetishism of commodities. Something created  by human beings takes on an "independent" existence and enthralls its creators who treat it as as some kind of  self-subsistent entity whose laws we are subject to and incapable of changing or abolishing. 

Scarcity could still be a problem in our century. But there is a way to contain problems of scarcity-- namely supply and demand. Piketty says if prices get too high because of lack of supply, then people will not buy  and the demand will lessen causing the prices to fall. But what about a problem with the food supply? Not enough food, sky high prices, people can't buy-- but will the demand for food lessen? It would not. It's possible that food purveyors would end with a wholly disproportionate and unequal share of social wealth in their control.  Piketty thinks in this sort of situation a Ricardian Apocalypse is theoretically possible. However, he doesn't think it will ever come to this but will put off further consideration of this problem until later in his book where his treatment "will be more nuanced.” 

4. Marx: The Principle of Infinite Accumulation 

By the time we get to Marx in the second half of the nineteenth century (Capital Vol. I came out in 1867) the main problem was understanding how industrial capitalism actually worked and what was responsible for the immiseration of the  industrial working class [and not just it alone]—“the most striking fact of the day.”

 During this period, right up to World War I, Piketty says, the evidence indicates that there was growing income inequality with the ruling class expropriating more and more of the social wealth created and leaving less and less for the working people and others in society to share. He says this “endless inegalitarian spiral” only came to  an end due to the shocks of the World War and only these shocks could have halted the growing inequality let loose by the Industrial Revolution. [One of the biggest shocks was, incidentally, the Russian Revolution and the forces of social consciousness it unleashed on the planet— still somewhat reverberating throughout the world.] 

Piketty dates the birth of  the “first” movements of socialism and communism to the 1840s (actually there were even earlier movements dating back to at least the seventeenth century) when people began noticing that while capitalism was working for the capitalists, enriching them, the working people were not benefiting from the system and were subjected to the same kind of miserable living conditions as they had in the pre-capitalist past.  

Enter Karl Marx who sets himself the task of explaining how capitalism works and why it keeps the working people is such miserable conditions (relatively speaking). Piketty says Marx built his system (expressed in Capital ) on two principles he took from Ricardo— the principles of the price of capital and of scarcity. It is true that Marx had great respect for Ricardo but he actually rejected Ricardo’s price theory, and replaced it by his own original theory developed out of his concept of labor power and surplus value based on socially necessary labor time. I don’t see how Ricardo’s views on “scarcity” played any positive role in Marx’s system as Ricardo’s theory was developed in the context of his misconceived theories of agricultural rent. 

Pekitty also says that Marx developed a “principle of infinite accumulation” in which he showed “the inexorable tendency for capital to accumulate and become concentrated in ever fewer hands, with no natural limit to the process.” Piketty then says this is the foundation of his “prediction of an apocalyptic end to capitalism.”  Either the capitalists will fall into violent conflicts over their inability to keep accumulating (it isn’t infinite after all) OR the workers will revolt because “capital’s share of national income would increase indefinitely.” 

Yes capital must continue to accumulate to survive in Marx’s system, but there are natural limits— namely saturating the market both domestically and eventually world wide. It was these conditions that led to monopolization, colonialism, and imperialism and brought about the apocalyptic twentieth century in which the capitalists managed to set off, two world wars, ignite both the Russian and Chinese revolutions, destroy the lives of hundreds of millions of people and usher us into the present century in which they have instigated violent conflicts in Europe, Africa and Asia anyone of which could set off a more general war. The instability of capitalism is as great as it ever was and poverty is spreading everywhere (except mostly in those countries still maintaining communist governments). Therefore, Piketty’s conclusion that  “Marx’s dark prophecy came no closer to being realized than Ricardo’s” is considerably premature— the game is still afoot. 

This introduction has a strange reading, I think, of twentieth century history— it improves later in the book. He doesn’t see World One I as part of Marx’s Apocalypse but admits a communist revolution did break out in Russia “the most backward country in Europe.” However, “fortunately for their citizens” the advanced European countries “explored  other, social democratic, avenues.” I don’t know how advanced Spain and Portugal were after the war (WWI) but I don’t think Franco or Salazar qualify as social democrats, nor do Hitler, Mussolini, or Pétain. By and large I don’t think the citizens of the “advanced” countries had a very fortunate century. 

There are two other comments on Marx in this section which are unjustified. The first is that he “neglected the possibility of durable technological progress and steadily increasing productivity” as “counterweights to accumulation and concentration of private capital.” Marx did not “neglect” either technological progress or increased productivity but he saw them not as counterweights but as the results of the accumulation and concentration of capital.  

The second unjustified comment is that Marx did not devote much time to speculating about how a post capitalist society would be structured. This is meant to be seen as a failing on Marx’s part but that would be an error. Marx did not think it a good use of his time to engage in utopian speculations on the future but he did study the example of the Paris Commune of 1871 and discussed the economic and political actions that would have to be undertaken in a post capitalist society (“The Civil War in France”) and his ideas were elaborated on later by both Engels and Lenin. There is a Marxist literature on this subject to which Piketty could have referred. 

Piketty ends this section by saying Marx is still important to study and that his principle of “infinite accumulation” is still at work in the twenty-first century but not as “apocalyptic” as he thought. But this is faint praise and seems to miss the point of what accumulation is for Marx and why Marx is still important. 

Piketty says too much accumulation of wealth when population and productivity growth rates are low can lead to social disequilibrium. But Marx isn’t talking about accumulation as too much private wealth. When Marx says “Accumulate, Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets” [Capital I c. 24, section 3] He means that the wealth accumulated is to be reinvested in production because capital must expand itself continuously or perish. By reinvesting the capital people are put to work the economy expands and more accumulation is generated to do it all over again (until a crisis due to capitalism’s contradictions.) Marx is still important because this movement of capital is still going on and still creating crises (we are in one now) and the spectre haunting Europe has not been exorcized. 

Part III of the this introduction will continue with Piketty’s section “From Marx to Kuznets, or Apocalypse to Fairy Tale.” 


5. From Marx to Kuznets, or Apocalypse to Fairy Tale

As we have seen, Piketty rejects Marx's views about the future of capitalistic inequality, which  he called "Apocalyptic", and in this section he will also reject the views of Simon Kuznets (1901-1985) which he finds too optimistic.  Kuznets engaged in empirical studies and arrived at the view that as capitalism became more advanced income inequality would decrease-- on the principle (mis-attributed to President Kennedy) that "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Although Piketty does not accept Kuznets’ conclusions, he credits him with being the first to empirically utilize two sources of information which must be used in conjunction to be able to meaningfully study income inequality and its evolution__ i.e., growth of national income for a country and the distribution of that income to individuals. It was using such information that Kuznets arrived at his views regarding the decrease of inequality. The question is--  did the data reflect universal trends within advanced capitalism or just an historical fluke? If the latter then Kuznets’ theory was a "fairy tale"-- as Piketty suggests by this section title.

6. The Kuznets Curve: Good News in the Midst of the Cold War

In this section Piketty says that Kuznets admitted his statistical discovery of a decrease in inequality in the US (the period covered was 1913 to 1948) was “largely accidental.” In his 1953 book Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings he even admonished his readers not to jump to conclusions based on his data. But that is just what he did himself two years later in a famous lecture where he proposed a bell curve to explain the relation between capitalism and
inequality. As capitalism begins to develop inequality increases between the capitalists and the general population and peaks just as capitalism becomes mature and widespread, thereafter it begins to decline as the benefits of the capitalist system begin to be shared by all.

Even in this lecture Kuznets says his statistics reflect unique historical circumstances, but also suggests that, despite the historical specificity that shaped his curve, the inherent nature of the capitalist system itself would also work to produce the curve. This was simply cold war propaganda posing as science.
Piketty points out that in the lecture Kuznets told his audience (it was a speech to the American Economics Association) that he was giving an optimistic twist to his theory to, in his own words,” keep the Third World “within the orbit of the free world.”

Nevertheless, despite this lecture and other papers, Piketty says that Kuznets showed the true “scientific spirit” in his big 1953 book (the supposed first use of meaningful statistical analysis) even if the Kuznets curve is a fairy tale. It was the two world wars and the Great Depression that brought about a decrease in inequality not the inherent tendency of capitalism.

7. Putting the Distributional Question Back at the Heart of Economic Analysis

Piketty thinks the question about how wealth is distributed is important. He says there has been a big increase in economic inequality since the 1970s— in all the developed countries, but especially in the U.S. In the Third World it is possible that economic development may decrease inequality— especially the development of China. All of this, he says, is a cause “of deep anxiety.” He does not make clear why this should be so— whether it is the growth of inequality, the development of China, or both.

Also, markets that are supposed to exhibit “balanced growth” according to Kuznets and others ( real estate, oil and financial) are showing remarkable “disequilibrium.” Piketty asks who will be running the show in 2050 or 2100 (i.e., controlling the world as it were). He lists several possibilities, one of which is the Bank of China. I can see the origin of “anxiety.” The Bank of China is ultimately under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (it is state owned).

In any case, the distribution of wealth becomes, for Piketty, the most important area of study if we are to understand the growth of inequality. To determine this we must collect data on the economic history of many countries and forecast future developments by a scientific understanding of past and present trends.

8. The Sources Used in Piketty’s Book

Piketty says his work is basically an extension of the work begun by Kuznets in his study of the period 1913-1948 in the U.S.  Kuznets’ statistical methods were extended to France, the contemporary U.S., and to other countries. But “the primary source of data” for the book comes from the World’s Top Incomes Database (WTID). [Google: The World’s Top Incomes Database]

Piketty says there are TWO components of income— from labor and from capital.
He says labor income consists of wages, salaries, bonuses, non-wage labor, and income “statutorily classified” as such [tips?]. Capital income consists of rent, interest, dividends, profits, royalties, capital gains, and “other income” from land, real estate, financial instruments, industrial equipment, etc. [!]. It is obvious that this is an un-Marxist way of treating income but Piketty can define his categories anyway he chooses since he is not a Marxist economist. We shall see later how useful, or not, his definitions are.

Piketty says his book “stands out” from those before it because he has “made an effort to collect as complete and consistent a set of historical sources as possible”
for the study of the distribution of income and wealth “over the long run.”

We will resume the fourth installment  of this commentary on Piketty’s introduction with the 9th section :“The Major Result’s of Piketty’s Study.”


9. The Major Results of Piketty's Study

Piketty says his study has arrived at two major results. First, that economic determinism is not  the answer to why we have inequality in wealth and income between people. But no economist worth his or her salt has ever been an economic determinist, so this is not a very startling conclusion. 

Any Marxist would ready agree with this observation by Piketty (it is commonplace in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin): inequality results from the interplay and conflict of forces between people in the economic, political, and social institutions in which they find themselves and the relative power they have at their disposal to enforce their values and choices; inequality "is the joint product of all the relative actors combined." Marxists might be a little more concrete about who these actors are (classes and social strata) and what the power relations rest upon (ownership of the means of production, ability to create surplus value and such) but the first major result of Capital in the 21st Century echoes one of the major results of Capital in the 19th Century. 

But, "the heart of the book" Piketty says, is his second major result. This is that there are major forces at work that push both towards increasing inequality (divergence) and decreasing inequality (convergence). I will call these D-forces and C-forces.

What is important, and will be rejected by all apologists of the Ann Rand version of laissez faire capitalist hokum (surely there are no intelligent Randists left after Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence) as well as mainstream bourgeois economists, is Piketty's findings that there is no internal mechanism within capitalism itself that can regulate and control the D-forces and prevent them from increasing "permanently."

Marxists would say the internal contradiction within capitalism between the C- and D-forces is certainly not permanent. Ultimately the build up of the pressure from the D-forces will explode the system (there cannot be infinite inequality). Piketty's language is not the language of Marxism, but in his own way he has restated, in the language of neoclassical economics, the objective reality of Marx's Apocalypse.

The D-forces are heading in that direction and Piketty wants to find a program that can bolster the strength of the C-forces and drag  back the D-forces, if not to a stop, at least to a non-critical mass. This won't be done within the capitalist system qua capitalist so the energy required by the C-forces must come from outside. There's the rub.

The above states the main points of this section. However, Piketty mentions two theories which have been put forth to counter the D-forces from within the system without extraneous help for the C-forces. Both of these theories are logically possible but their practical implementation as a solution to growing inequality is "largely illusory" if the history of capitalism has anything to tell us about them. I will only mention them in passing as Piketty doesn't put much stock in them.

The first is the  "human capital hypothesis." As technology advances workers need more and more skills and hence have to be paid more so capital will be transferred from the money bags to the working class increasing the C-forces and leading to greater democratic control of society. A pipe dream. 

The second is that "class warfare" will be replaced by "generational warfare" because science is making people live longer. This type of "warfare" is more benign since all young people will end up old people (all workers won't end up capitalists on the class war model).  Young people will begin saving up for old age so they will have enough to mitigate the effects of the D-forces. The young will be ants and not grasshoppers. Another pipe dream. 

It says something about "economics," as taught in bourgeois educational establishments, that capitalism's existential threat (unsustainable D-force pressure) can produce solutions that amount to pipe dreams.

The real counter to the D-forces, Piketty says, as revealed by history has been "the diffusion of knowledge and skills."  This "diffusion" must be an external factor independent of the capitalist system because Pitketty has said capitalism  has no
internal mechanism to prevent run away D-forces, or if it is an internal factor then it cannot prevent the Marxist Apocalypse. 

10. Forces of Convergence, Forces of Divergence

Piketty says that while the diffusion of knowledge and skills is the main source for the C-forces, it is nevertheless a fact that the D-forces can overcome it and increase in power. This is because the C-forces need to be reinforced by social policies that are not sufficiently built into the mechanism of capitalism to counter the the D-forces (which are built in) on their own. 

Presently there are two major D-forces  independently at work in the world economy. The threat, Piketty says, is that these two forces may merge and become unified thus creating a new and super powerful motor driving inequality.  From what would this Super D-force be composed? From the current D1-force which is the ability of top-earners to “quickly separate themselves from the rest by a wide margin” and the current D2-force which is itself an amalgamation of forces that bring about “an accumulation and concentration of wealth when growth is weak and the return on capital is high.” The D2-force is the “principal threat’’ to income equality.

Piketty uses the example of the United States from 1910 to 2010 to show how the D1-force has been developing. What has happened is an explosion in the income of the top managers of the large capitalist enterprises that dominate the economy. Gigantic inequality gaps separate this capitalist elite from ordinary workers and citizens. Piketty says the most likely explanation of this inequality gap is the power these capitalists have of setting “their own remuneration”  and to do so independently “of their individual productivity.”

This, by the way, this could never have come about in a properly functioning democratic society. It suggests that capitalism is incapable of creating such a society and that the problems of inequality cannot be solved within the parameters of such a society.

Bad as this D1-force is, it is the D2-force that Piketty considers the main threat to equality and the growth of the C-forces under capitalism. It is this second force that we will deal with in the next installment of “Piketty for Progressives.”


This posting will cover sections 11 and 12 in Piketty's introduction to Capital in the 21st Century.

11. The Fundamental Force for Divergence: r > g

This formula, r is greater than g, where r is the  average annual rate of return on capital and g is the rate of annual economic growth “sums up the over all logic” of Piketty’s arguments regarding growing inequality under capitalism.

Piketty thinks the outlook for the 21st century is that r will be much greater than g and this means that inherited wealth will be greater than output or income. Under the rule of r > g it follows that people with wealth need save only a small fraction of their income and it will accumulate faster than the economy does thus increasing inequality. A real possibility exists that the increase in inequality will undermine the principles upon which bourgeois democracy is based. Billionaires, for example, could be able to sink so much money into elections and lobbying that they will basically control the electoral process and the government and people’s democratic rights will honored in name only if at all.

Piketty thinks that this scenario is a real possibility but it is not inevitable. Besides this powerful D-force there are also C-forces at work that could delay or even completely counteract it. He thinks, however, that the decrease of g in the coming decades is very likely.

His view is, he says, less “apocalyptic” than Marx’s view. But I think he mischaracterizes Marx’s outlook. He says Marx has a principle of “infinite accumulation and perpetual divergence” because he thinks g will be 0  due to 0 growth in productivity. Because of this there will be a revolution to overthrow capitalism (the Apocalypse). But this isn’t Marx’s view at all. His view, somewhat simplified, is that  capitalism will eventually run out of markets due to a crisis of over production and will breakdown because it won’t have the profits needed to sustain itself.

Piketty says his theory of r > g has nothing to do with any “Imperfections” in the market. It is not inevitable but is a likely occurrence and we should be aware of it. He stresses that the “more perfect” the capital market the more likely is r > g. Does this imply that the “better” the capitalist system is the more inequality it will create? This would make it incompatible with any kind of democracy and logically implies that some sort of fascist anti-democratic state is its natural outcome.

Piketty thinks the capitalist state will have to intervene and manipulate the outcome of the “more perfect” capitalist market to counteract the negative effects of r > g. He suggests “a progressive global tax on capital.” He doesn’t think this will be a real world solution to the problem and whatever the different nation states end up doing will be “less effective.” Does this mean that, after all, in the real world r > g is actually unstoppable? Is the Apocalypse destined to be our fate?

12. The Geographical and Historical Boundaries of Piketty’s Study

The upshot of this section is, that while Piketty will use information from many areas of the world to bolster and develop his views, he will rely “primarily on the historical experience of the leading historical countries: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and Great Britain.”

He thinks the UK and France are particularly  important because they have the best economic records kept from the 19th century and they were the leading countries of the “first globalization” (1870-1914) of international trade and finance. This, by the way was the period analyzed by Lenin in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This first globalization was, Piketty says, “prodigiously inegalitarian.”

Piketty notes that the “first globalization,”  is “in many ways similar” to the second one which has been going on “since the 1970s.”  It is so similar that Lenin’s book on Imperialism is still largely relevant for understanding it. One of the weaknesses of Piketty’s book is that neither “Lenin” nor “Imperialism” appear in its index — a strange omission in a work trying to explain the origins of, and remedies for, inequality.

One of the similarities Piketty notes is the fact it was not until beginning of the 21st century that the leading imperialist countries attained the level of stock market capitalization  vis a vis GDP as the UK and France had at the beginning of the 20th century.

He next explains why he spends so much time on France. The first reason is that it has records going all the way back to the late 1700’s. The second reason is he thinks France is more typical than the US and its future will more likely be what most states will experience rather than that of the US. This is because the US population went from 3 million in 1776 to 300 million today. That quantitative leap has had its qualitative accompaniment  and the US “is no longer the same country it was.” France meanwhile has only doubled its population from 30 to 60 million over two hundred years not increased it a hundred fold. It is still basically the same country. Piketty doesn’t see the world population increasing 100 fold in the next two hundred years so French development is more likely representative to the future.

He means the trends in inequality seen in French history are more useful to predict future developments than are those seen in US history. This is another example of “American Exceptionalism" as the US experience “is in some sense not generalizable” and social class and inequality in the US are “so peculiar” when contrasted with other countries.

The third reason is that France is “interesting” because its revolution was more “bourgeois” than the English (1688) or the American (1776). The English kept their nobility and the Americans their slaves while the French actually established “ the ideal of legal equality [of men]  in relation to the market.”  This has important implications in discussing the growth and future development of inequality. Piketty also says that the concentration of wealth was  the same in Britain as in France so even though the French had legal equality for all and the British did not this was not enough to “ensure equality of rights tout court.”

We will finish the introduction to Piketty's book in the next posting.


Piketty for Progressives (Part Six  suite et fin)

14. The Theoretical and Conceptual Framework of Piketty’s Book

In this next to last section of his Introduction Piketty presents some autobiographical information that he thinks will be helpful in seeing how his views developed. This information is about his subjective emotional experiences  and not at all on scientifically based views nevertheless,  the information is interesting and helps to explain many of his attitudes. It is a section more about what he calls his “intellectual itinerary” than about theory, as we shall see.

He tells us he turned 18 in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and was part of that generation who listened to the news of the fall of the Communist dictatorships and who had no affection or nostalgia for any of them including the Soviet Union.
An older generation who remembered it was the Communists who ran the underground against the Nazi occupation of his country and the Soviet Union which basically single handedly defeated Hitler’s Germany and liberated most of Europe from Nazi control might have had a different reaction. But it is a characteristic of callow youth to have no historical memory. He was, at 18, he says, “vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism….” The disease infecting young minds in Paris at the time, however, was anticommunism not anticapitalism and it appears the young Piketty got the wrong inoculation.

Piketty is a firm believer in bourgeois democracy and supports a social order based on democratic debate which will provide equal justice to all under the rule of law. He appears innocent of the struggle based on class conflict aimed at ending the exploitation of working people resulting from the expropriation of their surplus labor power by a class of social parasites which has control over the means of production and distribution. This accounts for the popularity of his book.

At the age of 22 he had a decisive experience. Having just been awarded his PhD he got a job at MIT and, as he puts it ,“I experienced the American dream.” This was extremely fortunate for him because as an economist he must be aware  that the majority of Americans never get to experience the ‘’American dream’’ (except as a dream).

The dream, however, wore off and by age 25 he knew he wanted to go back to France. One of the reasons he left was he was not convinced by the work of US economists and he realized, despite his early successes that he “knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems.” Economists didn’t seem to have much interest in history and turned out theories without realizing what facts had to be explained. 

Piketty thought that the field was still addicted to a childish fascination with mathematical models which created the illusion of science without its substance due to the lack of proper historical research and contextualization of factual material. Piketty decided he wanted to do research and discover the data that was necessary in order to do mature scientific work in economics.

It seems that American economists and French economists share a tendency to think they are being scientists while in fact “they know almost nothing about anything.” This doesn’t seem to bother American economists but it does the French and as a result they have made great efforts to communicate  and collaborate with other disciplines— sociology, anthropology, history, political science, perhaps even (shudder) philosophy.

The fact is that Piketty thinks economics “should never have sought to divorce itself from the other social sciences and can advance only in conjunction with them.” His book is an attempt to advance this cause and he considers it just as much a history book as one on economics. He tells us that anyone, with a little effort, will be able to understand his book (there is minimal jargon) and come away with a clear understanding of the historical developments that form the background to his theories on the growth of income and inequality in the modern world.

The last section of the Introduction deals with the 

Outline of the Book

Piketty’s book is organized as follows:

Introduction [covered by this series of articles]

Part One— two chapters  to go over basic ideas to be used later in the book.

Part Two— four  chapters  on the future of the capital/income ratio and the division between nations of the future income between labor and capital.

Part Three— six chapters on the structures of inequality both within and between nations and the future possibilities of wealth distribution internationally over the next few decades.

Part Four— four chapters on conclusions and policy suggestions on how to handle the problems of income inequality.

Piketty admits, and shows, that all the subjects that he is writing about are basically  "deeply unpredictable.”  Not a good inducement to spend a lot of time going over these four parts. He also tells us that “ history always invents its own pathways” and that the “usefulness” of the lessons he has drawn from his research  “remains to be seen.”

Finally there is a conclusion in which Piketty sums up his position, decides that Marxism is old hat, and advocates for a more robust democracy  “if we are ever to regain control over capitalism.”   

There is no doubt that inequality and exploitation is increasing. There is an historically, I believe, tried and true explanation of these phenomena and a solution to the the human misery they cause. It is be found in the works of Karl Marx and his followers who have studied the capitalism of the past and present and have demonstrated that the system cannot reform itself sufficiently to ward off existential disaster and must be replaced by a socialist order. 

Piketty, as well as other establishment economists who think capitalism can solve its own problems within the system, will continue to put forth alternative explanations opposed to those of the Marxist economists. Whether these alternatives are mere fads of the moment or useful counter-theories, indeed, remains to be seen.