Things to Do in the Twenty-First Century

CapitalI had thought Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” would be one of those books I would continue to read about but would probably not read first-hand. At 685 pages, its great strength data, its cost new $39.95 (speaking of wealth and distribution), the French economist’s thick tome was not on my list of books to keep an eye out for, let alone add to one of the several stacks of books to read already piled about the house. Piketty’s book is a stack of its own.

In an Isaac Chotiner interview with Piketty at the New Republic , Piketty himself speaks to to the difficulty of reading such books:

IC: Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Marx on your thinking and how you came to start reading him?

TP: Marx?

IC: Yeah.

TP: I never managed really to read it. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read it. Have you tried?

IC: Some of his essays, but not the economics work.

TP:The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is a short and strong piece. Das Kapital, I think, is very difficult to read and for me it was not very influential.

IC: Because your book, obviously with the title, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to him in some ways.

TP: No not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Marx there’s no data.

But I was wrong. First, fortune brought “Capital” my way. I was walking down to a distant mailbox (like newspapers disappearing, so too are the neighborhood mailboxes). On my way, I looked into our local library box. Only about five or six books. The Believer magazines I’d dropped off the other night were gone. But there at the end of the top shelf in the library box was Piketty’s “Capital.” I picked it up. Looked unread, brand new. Weighed about five pounds. Would it still be there in the box when I got back from dropping off my mail? I glanced through it. Couldn’t take that chance. Not with this kind of fortune. So I walked away with it, feeling a bit guilty though because I knew I might not actually read it, those stacks of unread books about the house already weighing upon me like a seven course meal when you’re not really all that hungry to begin with.

But I was wrong. Second, the book is not all that hard a read. While it probably won’t make anyone’s top ten common reader list, Piketty’s book is clearly written, concise, with well-wrought sentences, and full of remarkable insights and surprises. Consider this paragraph, the subject of which (experiential, anecdotal, or empirical data) revitalizes the current humanities in crisis folderol. Piketty says,

Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.

To be sure, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the intuitive knowledge that everyone acquires about contemporary wealth and income levels, even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis. Film and literature, nineteenth-century novels especially, are full of detailed information about the relative wealth and living standards of different social groups, and especially about the deep structure of inequality, the way it is justified, and its impact on individual lives. Indeed, the novels of Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830. Both novelists were intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in their respective societies. They grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments. These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.

Indeed, the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing (p. 2, Introduction, A Debate without Data?).

And we learn on page 24 of Piketty’s book (Figure I.I) that income inequality in the United States (1919-2010) was at its lowest between the years 1950 to 1980. From 1980 to today, income inequality in the US has grown steadily, and is now higher than it was during the Great Depression years. Those 30 years of comparative stability (1950-1980) allowed for a sharing of accumulation of capital and knowledge unprecedented and not seen since. The US working class achieved a remarkable degree of middle class provisions, its children went to college in unprecedented numbers, without incurring today’s debt for education, but today nearing or in retirement may be returning to its roots.

 Today’s library box held only three books, none of which I picked up: “A Nun on the Bus”; “Jesus for President”; and “Bernie Sanders: an Outsider in the White House.”

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it,” says Buckminster Fuller, explaining the title of his 1969 book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in the chapter titled “Spaceship Earth.”

The whole idea is a metaphor, comparing the planet to a machine. Is Earth a machine? What are the implications of our thinking of the planet as a machine? If it’s a spaceship, who’s in control? Who’s the captain? Where is the crew, and what are their jobs, or roles? Where are we going?

We may think of an operating manual as not quite the same thing as an instruction manual, yet Fuller continues, “I think it’s very significant that there is no instruction book for successfully operating our ship.” So the manual, whatever we call it, should provide both physical and mental information for the user to successfully work the machine. In Fuller’s terms, this includes physical and metaphysical work, for “In view of the infinite attention to all other details displayed by our ship, it must be taken as deliberate and purposeful that an instruction book was omitted.” Omitted by whom?

“We are forced,” Fuller says, “because of a lack of an instruction book, to use our intellect, which is our supreme faculty, to devise scientific experimental procedures and to interpret effectively the significance of the experimental findings. Thus, because the instruction manual was missing we are learning how we safely can anticipate the consequences of an increasing number of alternative ways of extending our satisfactory survival and growth – both physical and metaphysical.”

Seeing Earth as a machine provides metaphorical instruction (seeing Fuller’s title as a metaphor provides rhetorical instruction). If we think of Earth as a machine, we justify certain uses of it, and these justifications explain our behavior. Our current thinking of machines includes the idea that they break down, or wear down (entropy). Property insurance contracts include the terms “depreciation” and “actual cash value.” The actual cash value of an old machine is its value new minus its depreciated value from wear and tear, damage, and obsolescence. Using this formula of valuation, what’s the current value of Earth? What would it cost to replace it (replacement cost)?

Thinking of Earth as a spaceship reorients our position. We need not think of going into space, outer space; we are already in outer space. We are already out in space. Are we lost in space? And are we running out of fuel? Are we beginning to feel entropic effects? Should we start shopping around for a new planet? A new spaceship?

But Fuller argues that “the physical constituent of wealth-energy cannot decrease and that the metaphysical constituent-know-how can only increase. This is to say that every time we use our wealth it increases. This is to say that, countering entropy, wealth can only increase. Whereas entropy is increasing disorder evoked by dispersion of energy, wealth locally is increased order – that is to say, the increasingly orderly concentration of physical power in our ever-expanding locally explored and comprehended universe by the metaphysical capability of man, as informed by repeated experiences from which he happens in an unscheduled manner to progressively distill the ever-increasing inventory of omniinterrelated and omni-interaccommodative generalized principles found to be operative in all the special-case experiences. Irreversible wealth is the so far attained effective magnitude of our physically organized ordering of the use of those generalized principles.”

Fuller is the eternal optimist, literally. His glass is more than half full; it’s continually running over. “Wealth is anti-entropy at a most exquisite degree of concentration,” Fuller says, but one must get his brain/mind dichotomy to be persuaded by the argument: “Brain deals exclusively with the physical, and mind exclusively with the metaphysical. Wealth is the product of the progressive mastery of matter by mind, and is specifically accountable in forward man-days of established metabolic regeneration advantages spelt out in hours of life for specific numbers of individuals released from formerly prescribed entropy preoccupying tasks for their respectively individual yet inherently co-operative elective investment in further anti-entropic effectiveness.”

Systems check: Mind? Functioning near full capacity. Brain? Showing some signs of wear and tear. Coffee? Need a refill.

Update: This post selected at Berfrois for Earth Day!

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