Be warned that today, I'm going to ramble all over the place.

The News and Internet Memes

There are some items reported in various news media that seem to live lives far longer than what their inital value may warrant. This idiocy of mountainous coverage of mole hill news often appears to be the product of the dreaded "slow news day." Some of it is merely the churn of 24/7 news-on-demand where Andy Warhol's apocryphal 15 minutes of fame means that reporters and editors are obliged to create a metaphorical 24 hrs/0.25 hrs = 96 new news items per day. In a world with such a demand for the latest and greatest news items, it's no stretch to see that some of those 96 daily items of "news" will end up being mostly trivial coverage of mole hills to the detriment of reportage of mountains.

One can certainly find trivial news and its mockery aplenty. Small town newspapers abound with such items as:

"12:47 p.m.-- A resident of High Street reported that someone came into house while she was gone, shaved her dog and took her cell phone charger" (1)

Items like this often live far longer than is justified simply because they are humorous to just about anyone other then the soul who made the original report and now live long lives on the internet, passed in unnumbered Facebook and Twitter "shares." I have to wonder if the persistence of this particular item lives on because it evokes that episode of the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog where the Fred, the deranged barber pursued just about everyone but Muriel to give them a buzz cut (2).

Humor

The reduction of trivial though funny happenstance into memes on the internet has become as cliche as "all your base are belong to us" (3). The celebration and perpetration of the humorously trivial in the news by such venues like fark.com no doubt will be the subject of many anthropology and sociology dissertations for years to come. Sometimes it's not even the churn of news that sends such unimportant items into perpetual orbit on the internet. Back in 1994, back when web pages were really in their infancy, Compuserve still existed, USENET newsgroups were the rage and one could buy "Internet in a Box," someone passed a mimeographed page of church bulletin bloopers around in choir practice at my church in St. Louis. This venerable collection has since found its way onto the internet where one can find its several permutations on many church related blogs and websites (4, 5) where can one discover such gems like:

"Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early."

and

"The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on the Water. The sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus."

Spreading harmless humor on the internet might arguably be one of the best uses. It is tempting to say that the proliferation of needless and trivial news might one of the worst, but it is not in comparison to the truly criminal uses of the net such as fraud, con jobs, sexual stalking of minors, and the like. In a world where every amateur blogger can pursue delusions of being a real journalist, items like

"Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation"

don't seem so bad.

Mountains from Mole Hills due to Politics

There are some items pursued in the news media that while newsworthy, do garner attention far beyond their worth. The Keystone XL Pipeline is one such item. Given the reality that there are hundreds of pipelines transporting both raw and refined fossil fuel products, the stink over the Dept of State Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline is unbalanced. Why this one pipeline and not others? Frankly, all pipelines present some risk of leakage, and while dilbit crude from tar sands is a bit nastier than light crude, any given natural gas pipeline is vastly more dangerous. A simple internet search on natural gas pipeline accidents vs. liquid fossil fuel pipeline accidents will bear this out.

I believe the persistence of this item in the news is likely that the Keystone project has become an example, a scapegoat target of environmental activists who object to not just one pipeline, but all pipelines and all activities related to products derived from tar sands. By deriding one project, they believe they are able to cast aspersions on all similar projects. While there are few unbiased websites detailing the Keystone XL Pipeline project; a half-way decent chronology of the project and opposition is up on Wikipedia and a relatively neutral examination of pros, cons and claims can be found at the reputable FactCheck.org (6).

Frankly, given a choice between scaremongering about Keystone like

"this pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources and jeopardize public health" (7)

and a recirculated church bulletin blooper like

"At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice"

it's easy to see why many people eschew political dead horse beating on the news for laughs over the inanity of monorail cats (8)

Leonhardt's New York Times Article of 4 May 2014

Well, sooner or later, I am obliged by my own self-imposed rules for this blog to discuss someone being wrong on the internet, regardless of the appeal of church bulletin bloopers like

"The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday."

Today's subject is an article in the New York Times Magazine on a subject that really should have died weeks ago, namely the publication of Professor Thomas Piketty's book Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The article is by New York Times journalist David Leonhart with the title of "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable" (9)

New York Times Magazine articles are often pages and pages long, though there's often something in every one that's good. For example, I remember first reading about the murders, forgeries, and prosecution of the now infamous Mark Hoffman, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. In contrast to the usual land and in-depth articles that usually grace the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Leonhardt's piece was really short, less than a page. The gist of it is that Leonhardt didn't grok all of Piketty's math on inequality trends so he called Piketty and asked him to explain. Piketty obliged.

Leonhardt then sums up some of Piketty's main points, namely that wealth inequality is growing, and has been getting worse with time and with the introduction of the tools and technology of modern productivity. According to Leonhardt's take on Piketty, wealth inequality was not as bad back in the pre-industrial days of agriculture because the basis of wealth, i. e. land, was static. With the introduction of modern tools and technology, that is not longer the case: the means of creating wealth, i.e. tools and technology, has been increasing since the industrial revolution and this results in both the creation of more wealth and more wealth inequality.

Granted, as I said in an earlier blog post, I have not read Piketty's book and probably will not do so until I can score an inexpensive copy. So I don't know what Piketty really said vs. what Leohardt thinks he said - though given that he actually bothered to call Piketty, I'm willing to give him more credence than a lot of other articles I've seen on Piketty's book. So on top of everything, you have to rely on my understanding of what Leonhardt said Piketty said, which may or may not be accurate - but Leonhardt's article is short so if you're interested, go read it for yourself.

What's important here is Leonhardt's statement based on Piketty's book that the wealth inequality gap is increasing and has been been doing so since the transition from agrarian to modern industrial societies. He goes on to say that such a trend is not inevitable and that Piketty's now infamous solution is to redistribute some of that wealth through a universal excess wealth tax. Given how much I don't like economics, church bulletin humor looks better by the second in comparison.

More Reactions to Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Maybe I shouldn't be running on at the keyboard here over a book I haven't even read yet, but the ridiculous obsessing over Piketty's book for the last month is really getting to be a bit much. Granted, a lot of the reaction to the book has to do with conservatives having a cow over the obvious Marxist leanings which are explicit in the book. After all, words like communist, Marx and wealth redistribution are enough to give any American Cold War vet the heeby geebies. McCarthy must be rolling in his grave!

The Economist has published a rather nice little commentary on the reaction to Piketty's book and its longevity thus far in the press because, frankly, it's just a book on economic theory (10). One could make a case that Piketty's book is really just a mole hill that's gotten mountain-status coverage in certain media venues because it contains buzz words and economic proposals that are contrary to American cultural norms of red bashing. American supply-side and monetarist economists, political conservatives, and their political supporters, many of whom probably can't even discuss Marx vs. Lenin vs. Stalin vs. Trotsky vs. Adam Smith, are apt to react to such words that have more to do with political camp than with true economic evaluation. Okay, I concede that I might not be entirely fair in my estimation of the general knowledge of American conservative rank and file.

For a book on ecomonic theory which is full of the kind of economic arm-waving math that I personally have little patience for, I find the reaction way out of whack. Piketty's book in his native French was published in France a year ago and hardly made any waves in Europe. An academic French economist wrote a review for a left-leaning publication in France that criticized the work for not being, well, more to the left (11)! As I noted in my first blog post on Piketty's Capital, the current reaction over the English language publication of this book has more to do with one's politics than with the actual book itself (12).

Just like the treatment of some of the trivial news items on slow news days, the coverage in the English-language press to Piketty's Capital is a mountain in reaction to a mole hill of a book.

Have you ever read the anti-federalist responses to the Federalist Papers? When we read the Federalist Papers or read about them in American History classes, the 85 different articles making up that work look like a coherent collection of essays in favor of the U.S Constitution. What we don't learn, or learn and then forget, is that the Federalist Papers were not a coherent, planned and crafted seamless set. Each of those "articles" was really an editorial in a late 18th century newspaper, published in various cities by different authors over a period of two years (1786-1787). As these articles were printed, rebuttal editorials by anti-federalist opponents were also being published in the early American post-Colonial press (13). The give and take was hardly give and take; the exchange between the two groups was heated and often polite to the point of nastiness. Even accusations of wanting to reestablish some kind of monarchy or tyranny were leveled against the Federalists as well as predictions of robbing the individual states of their sovereign power through the economic evil of one unified monetary supply for all the States. Some of the other anti-federal accusations were just as off the wall.

Some of the exchanges in the modern press in this country remind me at times of the spats in the newspapers of post-Colonial early America between the Federalists and their anti-federal opponents. Tea Party true-believers and "the government is the problem" "starve the beast" Reaganoid conservatives sound a bit like those old anti-federalists to me at times.

Someone Was Wrong on the Internet?

Now that I've rambled from French left-leaning newspapers, the U.S. Constitution, shaving dogs and church bulletin bloopers, I should probably explain what it is about Leonhardt's article that makes it a worthy target of this blog.

First, Leonhardt's title for his article does not actually match the content of his article. His title conveys that wealth inequality itself is not inevitable. The body of the article states that the trend of ever-increasing wealth inequality is not inevitable, and that this is one of the main arguments of Piketty's book and also the basis for Piketty's wealth tax proposal as a means to reverse that very trend.

So what so wrong with that?

To begin, the title is misleading and also, it's wrong. Wealth inequality is an intrinsic feature of civilization. Hierarchy and social stratification are a feature of the Civitas. You don't have one without the other because agriculture, the defining act of any so-called "civilized" state, requires organization and specialization. Where you have organization and specialization, you will have social stratification and hierarchy creation, which lead to the unequal allocation of wealth across social classes.

The transition between primitive societies and the creation of the Civitas - or "civilization" occurs at the hunter-gatherer to agrarian transition. To support these very broad statements, I will now appeal to the work of one of the most prolific and respected encyclopedic historians ever, Will Durant.

Based on studies of Amerindians, Eskimoes, Samoans, Borneans, Amazoneans, Cittagong Indians and tribal cultures where land was not something anyone owned, where crop gathering was supplemental to hunting and organized agriculture did not yet exist, Durant pointed out that the means for survival were shared and differences in personal wealth were trivial. He labeled such societies as being truly communistic both in regard to food and to land. He also considered the members of these societies to be egalitarian though primitive, uncultured, and somewhat lazy. Yes, he really did said lazy, which makes sense for something written in the 1930s, which is when he wrote the passages I'm currently looking at (14). He had no knowledge of Sackett's famous (infamous?) study that settled the hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural work debate that raged for almost 50 years, showing that people do less work and have more leisure time in hunter-gatherer societies compared to agrarian societies (15).

When I was reading Leonhardt's article, I noted Leonhardt's paraphrase of Piketty's idea that the static nature of pre-industrial society meant wealth inequality was more or less stable, namely:

"He suggested imagining a hypothetical village from centuries ago in which neither the population nor the economy was growing. Every year, the village produced the same amount of goods for the same number of people to divide — a reality that was typical before the Enlightenment, when material living standards and human longevity barely rose. (The peasants of the 15th century were not better off than peasants in ancient Rome.)"

Reading this, I thought to myself that Piketty might be a brilliant economist, but he is no historian. In particular, I remembered a passage in Will Durant's first volume in his acclaimed History of Civilization series, a work which - like Gibbon's - is more than just a history. It was a passage that contradicted this view that the economic inequality of pre-modern agrarian societies was static and stable. It took me a little while to find it. You can read it for yourself and see why I contrasted it with Piketty vis a vis Leonhardt:

Perhaps one reason why communism tends to appear chiefly at the beginning of civilizations is that it flourishes most readily in times of dearth, when the common danger of starvation fuses the individual into the group. When abundance comes, and the danger subsides, social cohesion is lessened, and individualism increases; communism ends where luxury begins. As the life of a society becomes more complex, and the division of labor differentiates men into diverse occupations and trades, it becomes more and more unlikely that all these services will be equally valuable to the group; inevitably those whose greater ability enables them to perform the more vital functions will take more than their equal share of the rising wealth of the group. Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence, and the chaos of revolution levels men again into a community of destitution. Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty. Periodically the land gets itself redistributed, legally or not, whether by the Gracchi in Rome, the Jacobins in France, or the Communists in Russia; periodically wealth is redistributed, whether by the violent confiscation of property, or by confiscatory taxation of incomes and bequests. Then the race for wealth, goods and power begins again, and the pyramid of ability takes form once more; under whatever laws may be enacted the abler man manages somehow to get the richer soil, the better place, the lion’s share; soon he is strong enough to dominate the state and rewrite or interpret the laws; and in time the inequality is as great as before. In this aspect all economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social-organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

As I acquired more volumes of Durant's History of Civilization, initially from my father who had several first editions, and then later filling in the gaps from purchases at used book stores, I read them all. It is a theme, subtle but explicit throughout Durant's opus that the inequalities of wealth in pre-modern societies were anything but static and stable. Durant clearly saw a pattern of where the cruelty and/or greed of some elites in certain societies led to inequalities of wealth and privilege so unjustifiable that those with nothing to lose would rebel, sometimes to fail and sometimes to topple their rulers, redistributing wealth and not always equitably. He noted the pattern in the Spartan Helots revolts; the patrician-plebeian class war of the early Roman republic; the Gracchi, Jacobins and Russian Communists mentioned above; as well as the Jacqueries of 14th century France.

Durant saw cycles in history of recurring struggle between the haves and the have-nots. While his initial statements in this area of historical interpretation was limited to economics and did not account for the effects of religion and propaganda in co-opting and coercing the lower classes in their servitude, like in Ancient Egypt to build the Pyramids, his point was made about the patterns of wealth distribution and class warfare. One only needs to look at the historical records to know that wealth inequality was anything but stable and static in the pre-modern pre-industrial agrarian world. Piketty is right in the statement that wealth inequality has been growing since the industrial revolution and Durant agrees with that (16), but Piketty is wrong in considering the wealth inequality of pre-modern societies as a constant. The European peasants of 15th century were likely serfs and probably were much worse off than the free citizen peasant farmers of the Roman Republic of Antiquity, but probably better off than the chain-gang latifundia slaves of the late Roman Republic and Empire. The Devil is in the details.

Wealth Inequality in Perspective

The internet can trivialize even the most profound of great thinkers. There may be a lot more to Piketty than one can extract from too many politically-biased editorials commentaries; for now, however, just a small sampling of Durant's encyclopedic vision across the vast landscape of history is enough for all that internet drivel to seem rather flimsy and much ado about nothing. Frankly, given the bankrupt profundity of politically-motivated biased journalism on the internet, I think I much prefer my church bulletin gaffs:

"This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar."

References, on the casual side

  1. http://failblog.cheezburger.com/fails/tag/slow-news-day, accessed 4 May 2014
  2. http://courage.wikia.com/wiki/Freaky_Fred_(episode), accessed 4 May 2014
  3. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/all-your-base-are-belong-to-us, accessed 4 May 2014
  4. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/matthew-archbold/hilarious-church-bulletin-bloopers, accessed 4 May 2014
  5. http://www.freemaninstitute.com/churchBloopers.htm, accessed 4 May 2014
  6. http://www.factcheck.org/2014/03/pipeline-primer/, accessed 4 May 2014
  7. http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline, accessed 4 May 2014
  8. http://www.lolcats.com/popular/23.html, accessed 4 May 2014
  9. Leonhardt, D. (4 May 2014), "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable," New York Times Magazine, p. MM23, also http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/magazine/inequality-has-been-going-on-forever-but-that-doesnt-mean-its-inevitable.html, accessed 4 May 2014.
  10. http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21601567-wonky-book-inequality-becomes-blockbuster-bigger-marx, accessed 3 May 2014
  11. De La Gasnerie, G. (18 Oct 2013), "Le manifeste inégalitaire de Thomas Piketty," Liberation, http://www.liberation.fr/economie/2013/10/17/le-manifeste-inegalitaire-de-thomas-piketty_940345, accessed 3 May 2014: e.g. " il n’est jamais question de domination sociale et culturelle, de violence, de relégation, d’exploitation, d’aliénation au travail, de classes, de luttes, etc." To be completely honest here, I found out about this review from reading the Economist, namely in an commentary piece at http://www.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2014/04/thomas-piketty, accessed 3 May 2014
  12. http://blog.someonewaswrongontheinternet.com/post/2014/04/26/Biased-Journalism-and-Capital-in-the-Twenty-First-Century, accessed 4 May 2014
  13. I had a collection of the Anti-Federalist Papers when I was in high school competing in the American Legion annual oratory competition on the Constitution. I got a lot of good material for my speeches from that book, though alas, I came in second in my state the last time I competed and never got to go to the National level of competition. But that collection of anti-federalist material really expanded my knowledge of the formation of the this country beyond anything I learned at school. You can find a decent selection of the sorts of anti-constitution editorials that were being printed in early US newspapers at http://www.thisnation.com/library/antifederalist/ (accessed 4 May 2014) if you'd like to see what sort of acrimony was in the air just before the Constitution was written and ratified.
  14. Durant, W. (1935, 2014), Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, NY: Chapter 2 Ther Economic Elements of Civilizations, part 3 Economic Organization.
  15. Sackett, R. (1996), Time, energy, and the indolent savage. A quantitative cross-cultural test of the primitive affluence hypothesis: Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
  16. Durant, Will (1935, 2014). The Complete Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ, Age of Faith, Renaissance, Age of Reason Begins, Age of Louis ... and Revolution, Age of Napoleon, Reformation (Kindle Locations 621-636). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
  17. Ibid, Kindle Locations 637-639