Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Party Like It's 1999

I had a milestone birthday this summer. It turns out that 2020 is not a great year for celebrations!

I'd started vaguely thinking late last year about what, if anything, to do for the occasion. For the last couple of years I haven't done any events, instead opting for solo backpacking trips or marathon gaming sessions or other low-key "me time" events. But it seemed appropriate to mark the occasion somehow. I started to think through some possibilities: maybe renting out some venue (an arcade? a park?) or just crashing at Crissy Field for a come-as-you-are thing.

Needless to say, COVID put all that on ice. Like a lot of people, I think I was in denial at first, hopefully thinking that "Oh, if this is all over by May, then people will be relieved to see each other in person again, and my party could be a great opportunity to do that!" And I felt very fortunate that I hadn't made any big plans yet; I feel really badly for people who planned 2020 weddings or otherwise had sunk a lot of time or money into something that COVID took away.

At a certain point, I finally accepted reality: no matter what government regulations were or weren't in place, the virus definitely would still be around, and people wouldn't want the hugs and homemade cake I had planned. (Well, maybe some people would, but those same people would be the riskiest ones to be around.)

By this time, though, I'd gotten attached to the idea of having a proper birthday celebration. At some level, it felt like it would be giving up to fall back to my traditional low-key solo outing. And, with everyone's social lives so constrained, I thought it would be more important than ever to have an opportunity to bring people together. One of the hardest things for me about the COVID era has been the monotony: days seem to bleed into each other, with so little changing in my daily experiences, and I find myself really starved for novelty and experiences. So, if I could somehow make an experience for others, then that might be something they'd enjoy. And in the meantime it would give me something to do other than get mad at politics!

I brainstormed for a while about what to do. The obvious solution was "Host a Zoom call," but I was pretty leery of it. I've been getting pretty burned out on Zoom, and I'm sure lots of other people are too. And the scenario just seemed kind of depressing to me: opening a laptop and seeing a dozen people in tiny little squares on the screen, all staring at each other and doing the awkward "Hi! Can you hear me? Yes, I can hear you, can you hear me?" thing.

But, I definitely did want to see other people, so some sort of video chat would be a very welcome component. I started to mull over the dynamic of a traditional physical birthday party and how I could adapt some of that experience to cyberspace. Everyone doesn't all show up at your front door at the exact same minute: there's usually a gradual ebb and flow, from early birds through late stragglers. There are clumps of people talking with each other. There's music, and food, and lots of chatter.

The more I thought about it, I really liked the idea of some sort of staggered arrival to a video call. What if there was some sort of activity for my guests, a game or something, that would lead into the video? That would add more variety and fun, and also lend a nice cadence to the day. I flashed back to some of my earliest childhood birthday parties, which featured scavenger hunts, with each guest hunting for treasures and all coming together at the end for cake. That sounded perfect!

As I brainstormed more, I gradually came to realize that what I was doing was really creating a game. The overall process for putting together my birthday party was shockingly similar to how I made my Shadowrun campaigns. I had a big ole' Google Doc where I mapped out the stages, the overall arc of the experience, various ideas I had. As the idea was refined I edited it more and more tightly, stripping out bad ideas and foregrounding the fun ones. I created a burndown checklist of all the tasks I had to complete to pull this off, which grew for some time before gradually diminishing. I made a separate Google Doc for the copy, writing fiction and instructions and all the narrative glue to pull things together.

That narrative ended up being pretty fun. This part actually ended up being a little backwards: in my Shadowrun games, I often zero in on a story relatively early on and then build out missions to support that story. For my birthday, I had all the missions planned first, then realized that it might be annoying to just say "Do this, and then do that!", so I whipped together a lighthearted and silly story to tie everything together. Which, amusingly, is much closer to how AAA game development typically works, with the writers brought in to the process after everything else is done.

Anyways... here are some highlights! Let's see... I think I'll focus on the order of how people experienced this, versus the order of preparation.

I sent out an evite invitation to the party. I don't think I've ever sent an evite before, but I receive them decently often. It's what I would have used for a physical party, and I think it helped set the tone.

Evite isn't a great site, and has really annoying ads and upselling (and upselling to remove ads), but it worked pretty well. It's simple, everyone already knows it, and it's easy to track what's going on.

Actually, I take that back: One thing evite is really bad at is RSVPs. For typical parties it doesn't matter at all, you just need a ballpark number while preparing and want to encourage people to come at the last minute. But in my case, I had logistics to consider. I needed to mail out physical supplies, which meant I would need to mail everything a week in advance, which meant I would need to order everything several weeks in advance, which meant I would need to know exactly who was coming early-ish. But evite doesn't have any support for requiring RSVPs by a certain date. After some Googling, I learned that their suggested work-around was to limit the number of guests to the number who had accepted by your decided day. Which seems hacky, but whatever!

So, yes: shipping! I decided to make use of the US Postal Service while we still have it. There are some extremely affordable Flat Rate boxes, but the stuff I had in mind wouldn't fit on one of those. Fortunately, they do also have (free!) Priority Mail boxes, which are a bit more expensive (they're charged based on weight and distance instead of dimensions), but not ridiculously so. I got 17 "4" boxes for my 33 guests and started packing!

While this pandemic definitely sucks, we are very fortunate to be living in 2020 and not 1950 or even 1990. I was able to do pretty much everything online and through the mail. The USPS mailed me empty boxes for free, I packed them up at home, bought postage through USPS.com, scheduled a pickup, laid out all of the boxes by my mailbox, then several hours later someone came by to pick them up. No visits to the post office, no flagging down a carrier, everything was very efficient and socially distanced.

Inside the box, guests would find a cheerful and colorful warning sign, keyed to their personal time zone, about when the festivities would begin.

I printed these at... Office Max, I think? The per-sheet prices were extremely reasonable; the shipping was more expensive than the printing itself, but I was happy to pay to minimize my exposure risk.

After the stated time expired, guests opened their boxes, and found goodies inside!

The shipping manifest included:
  1. One or more lei
  2. One or more birthday party hat
  3. A heartfelt typed letter from yours truly
  4. Four sheets of paper with lines and circles on them
  5. A Mysterious Treasure Chest with a 3-digit padlock
I bought most of the party favor things from Michael's. The heartfelt typed letter was also printed from Office Max. The treasure chest was really fun, and something I spent a long time sourcing. I had a very specific idea in mind, which would require a small box with a small but usable lock. I spent multiple hours researching until I stumbled across an excellent box at Michael's, which was also shockingly cheap ($3.49 per chest!). I bought the padlocks separately, which were also pretty cheap, but I had to buy from multiple vendors since no single seller had as many as I needed.

Around this time I started getting some confused text messages: "Where's the Zoom link?" I gave a few hints and nudges, but most guests figured it out on their own: it's Puzzle Time!

The first phase involved aligning the sheets of paper with lines and circles over the heartfelt typed letter. Tiny holes cut into the paper provided a screen into the underlying letter, eventually revealing the hidden communication: a URL!

Making this was one of many time-consuming elements of party prep, but was a lot of fun. I used an X-Acto knife to cut out the desired characters from one of the letters, taped to a sturdy piece of paperboard. I then used the paperboard as a template to cut out more characters from stacks of letters. I could do about 7 sheets of (flimsy) paper at a time, though my knife was getting pretty dull by the end!

I used two of the pieces of paper for each letter, then used a ruler and a coaster and some crayons to make my marks. Most of the markings went on the paper, with some of the edges marked on the underlying letter. The recipients would then align the edges with the paper to restore it to the original position. I included a couple of dummy papers too to keep it from getting too easy.

And, what was at that URL? More puzzles!

I'd overthought this landing page. Since I was mailing out the packages in advance, I was somehow worried that, like, some people would start working on the puzzles days before and get through it too early, having an unfair advantage over people who waited. What a dumb worry! This wasn't a competitive game or anything, and folks have better things to do than defy the wishes of the birthday boy. But, in order to prevent this imagined scenario, I added a content gate (again, my video-game-author instincts kicking into play). I asked a question that would be keyed to the day of my birthday. That morning, I would update the back-end with the correct answer, so nobody would be able to proceed before I was ready

For the record, I am not a web developer. I think the last time I made an HTML page was back in the 1990s, and my web skills are still at about that level. Still, since this wasn't a professional gig, I had a lot of fun with it. For the tech, I used Ktor, a Kotlin framework for web development, along with FreeMarker for templatized web pages. Everything was done with static content and URL redirects, no cookies or sessions or any storage. I hosted the site on Heroku, and, boy, I can see why it's so popular! Even with practically zero experience in dev ops it was a breeze to manage deployments. I purchases some novelty one-off domain names from Google Domains and pointed them at my Heroku apps. All in all I think I spent $8.03 on Heroku (one month of a hobby dynamo to get SSL, plus a tiny amount for traffic) and $12 for each Google domain (good for a year but I won't be renewing).

The "plot", such as it is, kicks in soon after this. The nefarious intellectual property lawyers from Hasbro, Inc. are furious at my reckless infringement of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles copyright, and I have gone into hiding to evade them.

One big goal of mine while planning this out was to bring guests through a multitude of different channels and experiences, again evoking an old-fashioned treasure-hunting ethos that brings you through different environments, and also giving some more novelty to the experience and hopefully some moments of delight. In some ways I thought of this "game" as being a little like an ARG, weaving together various physical-world and digital-world venues with different clues people would follow as they hopped between them and followed the trail. There were a few big differences, though. ARGs are designed to be really hard to solve and take a long time, while I really wanted everyone to get through in an hour or so and had some decidedly non-tech-savvy folks on my invite list. ARGs also tend to encourage collaboration, while this game was more solo.

But, not TOO solo! I wanted to make sure that, early on, I could bring the guests together digitally, to get some of that sense of cooperation and collaboration, and also to give me a graceful opportunity to provide hints to people who were getting stuck. So, after solving the first couple of puzzles, I brought people into a private Discord server.

The event was scheduled to start at noon PST, and I was poised at my laptop throughout: one window open to the Zoom meeting where everyone would wind up at the end, and my Discord window open. I stared at it, wondering when the first people would come in. 12:05 rolled by. Zero people had made it. 12:10 came and went. Still zero people. I felt a sense of dread rising within my stomach. "This is just like the Antumbra offices all over again! I made the opening stages too hard! Nobody will make it here! They've probably all given up already! This is a terrible birthday party!"

And then, at 12:11, the first guest arrived: my good friend Josh from high school! He was followed seconds later by a current friend from work, and then more soon after. It was pretty remarkable that folks all over the country, from the west coast to the east coast, independently working on the same puzzles, completed them in almost the exact same amount of time.

I'd initially planned to do more game-y stuff within the Discord; my concept was to have a bot that you would chat with, and who would eventually send you on your way. After a lot of research, I eventually determined that I couldn't do exactly what I wanted, at least not without a lot more coding than I was willing to do. (Oddly enough, Slack and Discord could each do half of what I wanted: having a bot automatically communicate with you when you joined a channel, and having a bot respond to what you say in a private conversation with it.)

But it all worked out well. There was some good chatter in the main channel, and it was fun to see people gradually pop in as time went on: again, it had the cadence of a "real" party, which was exactly what I wanted. It was fun to see some people be prompt, and others arrive to see lots of activity.

The main meat, though, was a private message that the MEE6 bot would send, pointing them towards their next puzzle.

I have to admit that I am not a regular Discord user. At some point I'll probably get on it for real since more and more of my favorite game companies and communities seem to be moving there, but I am still stuck in my ways. Anyways, I poked around for a bit for various bots, the MEE6 one did the most of what I wanted and was easy to configure. It just sent this welcome message to everyone who joined the server, providing some more flavor text to the "quest" and pointing them towards two things: a Google Photos album and another URL to continue.

The album included a bunch of beautiful nature shots, all taken from the same backpacking trip. But what trip?

Some folks who know me very well, or who are big fans of Lord of the Rings, could probably guess it quickly. Others, though, could use the magnifying glass to zoom in on the writing of one particular photo, which would bring them within a Google search of the answer.

And, from here, they would (most likely) have to use Google Maps (or an old-fashioned atlas or something) to find what specific town near the track I was "hiding" in.

This eventually segued into another bit of fiction, as "I" have "escaped" from New Zealand and am returning back to the States.

The Donatello shout-out here was a late addition. As in my video games, I try to keep some narrative coherence, and periodically remind my players of the overarching plot arc. This was an extremely silly "plot", but I still think it was kind of fun, and it tickled me to remind my guests of the very low stakes. And, in a weird way, it almost felt kind of like character development... for me. (For the record, I was a huge fan of the Ninja Turtles as a kid, and hadn't thought about them at all for decades, and think fondly of them now and listen to their official podcast.)

The next puzzle comes up soon: a long playlist appears, and the guest is challenged to figure out what one song in it doesn't belong.

This was one of my favorite kind of puzzles, with many possible approaches and solutions. You can just brute-force your way through it. Wrong guesses aren't really penalized, although they did result in this menacing warning.

A simple scan through the playlist will almost immediately reveal the theme: the vast majority of songs are about California, and, heck, have California in the title. Some of them are more subtle: Free Fallin' doesn't have any California places in its title, but the lyrics do ("Livin' in Reseda", "Down Ventura Boulevard", "Over Mulholland"). But you could narrow the possibilities down pretty quickly, then either listen to them, or crunch through them.

It was pretty important for me to have a music portion to the party. Like I said before, I was trying to recapture some of the essence of a party, and music is a big party of that. I actually had a checklist of stuff I wanted to do: music, food, movies, games, chatting. I'd built out an entire movie puzzle that was oriented around the 80s movie The Wizard before cutting it out near the end; once again, I think my experience in "game development" has helped me evaluate this stuff and ask basic-but-easily-overlooked questions like "Is this as fun for people to play as it is for me to make?"

The solution to this puzzle was "The El" by Rhett Miller. I'm pretty pleased with that: most of my guests are either from California, and thus have a leg up on recognizing California place names, or from Chicago, and thus have some experience with the El. (And "The El" does, at a glance, look like it could be a Spanish name, in line with other items on this playlist.)

Curating this list was pretty fun. I did a lot of searching in Spotify and on Google to build up a big list, then gradually whittled it down to a smaller-but-still-longish playlist that would take about two and a half hours to listen straight through. I think maybe a third of the songs on there are ones that I'd never heard before. I tried to represent a mix of genres and time periods, but also cut out everything I hated. In the end I think there are only two songs on there that I really love ("California" by Grimes and "I Remember California" by R.E.M.), but there are a lot of bangers; I became particularly fond of the opening guitar lick of Sausalito Summernight and the bouncy fun of San Luis Obispo.

From the music puzzle, guests proceeded to the next part of the game: an actual honest-to-goodness game!


This was probably the most ridiculous, indulgent part of the whole project, to write an entire game from scratch, but I was dedicated to the idea: I love games, and programming, so I thought it would be fun to put something together.

I'll probably include a separate post about this later. It's a very simple and completely non-narrative game, sort of a word jumble type of thing. I used it as an excuse to learn Flutter, a newish cross-platform development ecosystem, and wrote my first-ever iOS app and first-ever web app. I had to be really strict about feature creep and do the bear minimum to make sense for my party, since as ever there's an infinite number of improvements you can make to any game.

But, yeah, it was totally unnecessary and fully satisfying to go through the whole process of releasing a new game to Google Play and the App Store, just so a dozen or so people could use it as a step along the scavenger hunt! The web site directed them to the App Store, they would download and install the game, play it for a few stages, then a new button would appear, they would tap that, and be taken forward into the next stage of the hunt!

(For the record, that's an animated GIF above. Most but not all of the Turtle content in the hunt was animated.)

This led into another "content gate". I probably overthought the "security" aspects of my treasure hunt; the odds of some random person playing my totally unadvertised game during the few hours that easter egg / backdoor were open was astronomically low. Still, I didn't want randos stumbling into my precious birthday party! So, since this link was accessible to anyone who played my game, I had guests verify information that came with their physical box. This is something that could theoretically be brute-forced, since, again, I wasn't really doing any session tracking or anything fancy on the server; so I also added a free-form text field, sowing doubt in the mind of a hypothetical hacker that even running through every possible combination would yield a correct solution.

Getting this wrong would lead to yet another warning. The list of my adversaries grows larger and broader!

This line eventually led to a numeric and audio puzzle:

This was kind of inspired by numbers stations, like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Here's the actual audio.

As I discovered during the event, that does not work on all browsers! Like a fool, I had only tested on Firefox, but apparently it doesn't work on Chrome (and maybe Safari?). But, by this point everyone was in the Discord server, so I was able to provide folks with hints. In the meantime, a few resourceful people were able to check the HTML source code and directly track down the .wav file location, which played fine when you open it directly.

Oh! Speaking of the source code, I'm pleased that people did poke into it, since I had a few more Easter eggs buried within.

If you haven't figured it out already, those audio numbers are the opening part of the Fibonacci sequence. For some reason this was in my head from an old Square One Mathnet episode. Thinking back on it, there was a LOT of PBS-type stuff in this hunt, from Carmen Sandiego geography to Square One math puzzles. Some people got it from Fibonacci, others directly calculated the sequence scheme, a couple needed help. A surprisingly large number of people didn't know what to do with the surprisingly large number that was the answer. The solution, of course, was to use it to unlock the combination padlock on their Mysterious Treasure Chest!

There were a whole bunch more trinkets inside, including:
  1. One or more noisemaker.
  2. One or more tightly-wrapped (albeit stale) brownie.
  3. A set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-branded party napkins.
  4. A set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle temporary tattoos.
  5. A pen.
  6. A card reading "Shine a light on me!"
This shifting between analog and digital puzzles just tickled me so much. As I said later, it reminded me of the rhythms of my favorite shadowruns: you do legwork to gain access to the facility, then the decker jacks into the matrix to open some doors, then the team advances and finds a port on the secured network, then the decker takes over the facility, etc. The chaining together of physical space and cyberspace is one of my favorite things, both to experience and to create.

In this particular "run", guests had to figure out what the heck was going on. To jump ahead to the solution: the pen included a blacklight. Shining the blacklight onto the card revealed a hidden message written with invisible ink.

Not a particularly helpful message! This says "Other side!". Flipping the card over and shining the light reveals yet another message, "Look There", between some arrows. A few people were stumped by this step, which was guiding them back to the arrows way back on the first "Please Do Not Open Before Noon PDT" cards. Shining the light on that would reveal the final message: yet another URL to yet another website, guiding you back into cyberspace once again!

I'd decided pretty early on that I wanted to do something with invisible ink, and I particularly loved the idea of hiding a message in plain sight early on, and having guests return to it later with more information and resources to extract meaningful data. The padlock was an obvious example of that, the greeting card with invisible ink a much less obvious one. Actually getting the ink took quite some doing! I'd initially thought of using lemon juice and having people heat it, but, as it turns out, this doesn't work well at all. I then went down a rabbit hole of making my own invisible ink with a reagent. You can find a bunch of formulas online, most of them don't work or don't work well. I finally found one that was good: you make the ink by mixing together tap water and baking soda, draw the message in it, then make the reagent by combining rubbing alcohol with turmeric. The message fades into invisibility, and the reagent brings it out really nicely. I'd gotten pretty far along this distribution plan, going so far as buying cute little bottles to hold the reagent, before belatedly asking myself: "Is it really OK to send 100% isopropyl alcohol through the postal service?"

I did some research and determined that the answer was a hard nope. Well, more like a hard please don't. Highly concentrated alcohol is considered an explosive. You need to declare it, hand it off in person to a postal employee (not a comforting thought in COVID times!), and it cannot travel on airplanes, only ground transport, and thus wouldn't be eligible for Priority Mail and wouldn't arrive in time.

While looking up these various inks, I kept getting ads for invisible ink pens, which I just reflectively pooh-poohed and barrelled past. After my reagent dreams went up in smoke, though, I revisited it, and ended up deciding that was the way to go. You can get them for really cheap; they're sold out in many places but I found a seller on eBay who was nearby and offered fast delivery. As a nice bonus, the invisible ink pen let me write much more compactly than I would have been able to with homemade ink, which would need a paintbrush or similar wider applicator.

And, at the end of all this, my guests each got an invisible ink pen as a party favor, so that's pretty fun!

That final web site came up with an encouraging note progressing the fiction, and a final "puzzle" to solve, which was really my final content gate: asking people to enter information from various clues along the way. Again, this was just mild paranoia on my part. I'd configured robots.txt and noindex, nofollow and all sorts of stuff to make sure these sites wouldn't be crawled or show up in search results, and the odds of someone randomly typing in these characters during the few hours the content was live were infinitesimal, but out of an abundance of caution I wanted to make sure that only folks on Official Party Business would make it through to the end.

The very last page was a cornucopia, a joyful explosion of animated gifs of the TMNT. I think there were around 40 altogether, mostly drawn from the original 80s cartoon but some from later incarnations. It was all very silly and fun. You could click a button at the top of the page, which would play the theme to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time arcade game.

And at the bottom I had a sincere and heartfelt "thank you" to everyone for participating, along with a link to what everyone expected all along: a Zoom call! I actually sprang for one month of a Zoom membership to get this; again, it was cheaper than renting a place or something would have been, so I was able to justify some expense.

Continuing the theme of "overthinking everything", I was worried that the call would feel chaotic with more than a dozen people on at a time. I'd initially thought of having different "rooms" linked from that page, again emulating something like a traditional party feel: I would hang out in the "Kitchen" room, but you could also pop into the "Living room" or the "Balcony" or the "Front door" to see who else was there and have little side-conversations. But, it turns out that you need to purchase a separate Zoom subscription for every simultaneous call you want to have, and, uh, no thank you!

The first person to pop in was my youngest brother, who had endured a biblical flood which had destroyed his parcel, but showed resilience and pressed on through the digital realm into the Zoom call. It was just the two of us for a little while, and he was good-natured about my constant state of distraction as I monitored the Discord and my text messages to field technical inquiries with various levels of franticness.

The next person to pop in was Josh, who had been the first one into the Discord and thus won some sort of prize. Josh had received some help from his daughter, and it was really fun to see her.

And, to see kids in general. As more folks hopped in I enjoyed hearing about how different folks had responded to the situation, from the gleeful destruction of Young Ben to the grave concern of Silas ("Oh, no! Chris is missing!!").

The whole in-person (well, "in-person") thing ended up being really wonderful and lovely. My concerns about it feeling too crowded or chaotic faded away: there was a really great conversational flow, great mixing between people from different stages of my life who hadn't met before, and tons of good vibes. I realized after the fact that we'd had a conversation that lasted for nearly two hours without ever once talking about Donald Trump or COVID-19. I don't think I've matched that record before or since, and it was one of the many highlights of my birthday.

So, yeah! The whole project was really stupid and I never would have done it if I'd known how long it would take to prepare, but as the same time it's probably the most fun I've had all year and I'm delighted by how it turned out. I got lots of really great and kind messages after the event, too, and it felt really gratifying to hear that I'd provided a little bit of lightness into folks' lives. Even if it was a blacklight!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Reach For The Stars

I just lost my first game of Stellaris!

It was pretty fun, and I expect I will lose more games in the future.

Stellaris has been on my radar for a while. I've been longing for a big, meaty strategy game to dig into, but have been underwhelmed by the last few incarnations of Civilization, which has historically been my go-to. Even after picking up Civ VI for free on the Epic Games Store recently, I think I only played for like thirty minutes before getting bored and annoyed and haven't picked it back up again. Stellaris has a really great reputation, and I'd thoroughly enjoyed my previous experiences with Europa Universalis 3, so I was delighted to receive it as a gift from my ever-reliable brother and dig into it.

The learning curve for these games is brutal. The Stellaris tutorial is significantly better than the EU3 one, which was absolutely broken, but even so it's pretty overwhelming at first. There are dozens and dozens of menus and windows and orders to familiarize yourself with, and all systems are interconnected. I think I have it more or less all in my head now, but I'm also pretty sure that I had to shove out some childhood memories to make room for it.

Learning the game is also challenging because it has changed so much. That is one of the things Paradox has a great reputation for: like many midsized publishers, they are fantastic about continually updating their games for years and years, adding new features and improving the balance and fixing bugs. But that also means that existing information can become outdated. The details on the official wiki seem to be accurate, but in general Googling for questions I had wasn't very fruitful: many of the guides and stuff written for Stellaris came out soon after the game's launch, and the version of the game I'm playing now is quite different from that one. To pick one example at random, it seems like the entire way you expand your borders is different from before. It sounds like in earlier versions of the game, your borders would automatically push out over time based on your Pops and other factors. In the current version, though, you expand your territory by building an Outpost. How do you build an Output? By issuing the "Build Starbase" order. This will build an Outpost, which is NOT a Starbase. If you want a Starbase, you have to build a Starbase, then open your Starbase, then click the "Upgrade to Starbase" option to change your Starbase into a Starbase. A Starbase that isn't a Starbase doesn't count against your Starbase limit, while a Starbase that is a Starbase does count towards it. Obviously.

Stellaris, like the other Paradox games, is termed a Grand Strategy game. It has a lot of similarities to the Civ (or, in this case, Alpha Centauri) franchise as it goes beyond individual battles or even military conflict in general: you must juggle political, social, technological, and economic concerns. Often times you can "win" by, say, having a large military that you never need to deploy, successfully deterring potential rivals; or by carefully forging alliances to exert a sphere of soft-power influence. This does scratch a pretty powerful itch of mine, as I love games that you can win without needing to fight, or at least not have that be the sole focus.

One major difference between Civ games and Paradox games, though, is that the whole concept of "winning" is significantly more ephemeral in the latter. Civ has always had very well-defined victory conditions: conquer the entire world, or be the first civ to land on Alpha Centauri, or merge with the global consciousness, or whatever: you get a nice victory screen and a tidy end to your story. Paradox, though, arguably is creating simulations more than games. There isn't a dynamic where there's one winner and six losers; instead, there are, like, fifty different nation-states that are each trying to do their best. It ends up falling to the player to define for themself what they want to do. Simply surviving is a very worthy and challenging goal. (One that I've failed!) I'm very, very far from the endgame in Stellaris, but from what I can tell, it looks like the kind of default position is to have the highest score in the year that the game ends (2500, I believe?), which is very similar to how EU3 wound up.

In keeping with the simulation theme, Paradox games don't have immortal beings with absolute dictatorial sway over their nations from 4000 BC until 2100 AD. Instead, a wide variety of leaders will come, make an impact, age and then pass. In my particular game, I was playing as Earth, which starts the game with a Democratic government. My President had won office with a mandate to increase production of Alloys. She succeeded, but was voted out of office nonetheless. It's an interesting dynamic to have imperfect tools to work with; one of my Governors became Corrupt, and I needed to decide whether to keep him in place and accept the increase in Crime or whether to replace him with a less-experienced but more trustworthy replacement.

Much like Civ, I do really dig the early, exploration-heavy phase of the game. The way this plays out in Stellaris is really interesting. Your map is the galaxy, and you move between star systems, which are the nodes of the map. But not every node is directly connected to every other node. Instead, you basically end up with connected constellations, and can only move between particular systems. This raises all sorts of interesting strategic implications: certain systems may act as hubs, and be important because they link together many other systems; while some systems are chokepoints with only two connecting systems, and could be crucial to block enemies' movements.

The exploration phase reminded me a lot of my mega-game of EU3, where I gradually mapped the world from Mecklenburg. But in Stellaris I had a lot more explorers active. I think in EU3 I only had like two armies who traveled through the entirety of Africa, the Middle-East and Asia, while in my short game of Stellaris I built something like 12-15 Science vessels and they were all active. In both games exploration is really important to discover where potential rivals and allies live and what resources you might exploit. In EU3 I was very motivated by trying to discover new Centers of Trade so I could dominate them economically; in Stellaris I was hunting for Anomalies to research and candidates for new planets to settle.

I think I may switch up my exploration strategy in my next game. Unlike EU3, Stellaris differentiates between merely entering a territory and surveying it. A ship may go from A to B to C, which will reveal what planets are in each system and how they are connected. Or it may actually survey each system, which takes much more time but reveals how many resources the system holds, where they are located, and the location of any anomalies.

In my game, I surveyed every system as I came across it, which is pretty cool, but may not have been all that useful: I was sometimes surveying stars that were like 25 hops away from Earth, which I couldn't possibly have claimed no matter how cool they were. Anyways, I'm wondering now if it might be a better strategy to explore in two waves: send out some early ships that just go as fast and as deep as they can, so you can quickly discover your neighbors and the geometry of the galaxy; and then send a second, bigger wave to properly survey the previously-discovered systems. That way you could focus on strategically-important areas, too.

Anomalies turned out to be a really great way to inject some storytelling into the game. Big strategy games are usually very light on the in-game narrative, which does leave a lot of space for players to tell their own stories ("Gandhi is such a warmongering jerk!!"), but can also make the game feel sterile. One of the (many, many) things I love about Fall from Heaven 2 is how its Events and unique encounters provide color, texture, and narrative thrust to the world. In Stellaris, the overall 4X experience is typically abstract, but when you explore an anomaly it gets really specific and wonderful. They are short but vivid descriptions, enticing fragments of past civilizations, their follies or their triumphs or the blank mysteries they left behind. Or hints of science beyond our comprehension, or dimensions beyond our own. They're always surprising. The mechanical effects are usually rather simple but welcome: permanently adding resources to a nearby planet, say, or giving a sizable chunk of Society research. Every once in a while, you actually get to choose from a multi-choice dialog prompt: for example, upon discovering that the object you've been researching is the deceased remains of an extinct species, you can let the coffin continue on its journey, or take it for further studies. I'm always a big fan of choice in games, and it's a delight to have one here.

I think my growth pattern was basically fine in this game. I discovered Alpha Centauri early during the tutorial and established a colony there, which grew large enough to be independent after a couple of decades. Much later I belatedly surveyed Sirius and found another promising planet and had planted a colony there. Those two planets and Earth were the only highly-compatible worlds I came across, with everything else Desert planets or similar with only around 30% habitability. But even if I had found another planet I think I was near the limits of my Administrative Capacity (?) to manage them.

It took me a while to figure out how building works on planets: there's a nice big obvious button by available Building slots to bring up a window of all the new things you can construct, but I didn't realize until pretty late that you can also build Districts by clicking the much smaller grids off to the left. I think that in most cases the Districts are more cost-effective, so they're better options if you just need to make some more Jobs or Housing available for your Pops. I suspect that in longer-running games planets will tend to specialize, which would make Buildings more important to get multiplicative bonuses to your production.

Diplomatically, my game started out pretty fine. It took a while for me to make first contact, and the first aliens I met were pretty friendly xenophiles. We signed a lot of treaties and agreements. I didn't realize until later that these agreements inhibit your ability to expand into unclaimed territory, so I might be more cautious in the future about signing those.

I also encountered a couple of Fallen Empires. This is a cool mechanic that I don't think I've seen in other games. You, and most of the AI factions, are young up-and-comers at the start of the tech tree and just starting to expand from a single planet. The Fallen Empires, though, are ancient Prothean-style civilizations who have existed for millennia. They have large territories and advanced technology and sizable fleets; but they are stagnant and decadent, and do not grow or advance like the other AI factions do. So, early in the game they are overwhelmingly powerful and not to be trifled with, but beyond a certain point you (or other up-and-coming galactic civilizations) can take them on, conquer and loot their empires. I think that will be a really interesting dynamic.

I found a few other empires, finally encountering one that would be my doom. They were Spiritualist Xenophobes, religious bigots who wanted to wipe all heathen aliens out of existence. I had a bad feeling about them.

Looking at the map, I saw a way to potentially block their expansion. I began to to prioritize my Output construction in that direction: if I could reach the chokepoint before them, then I would have dozens and dozens of star systems on my side of the divide, which I could then explore, claim and settle at my leisure. But if they broke through, then it would be almost impossible to contain them, and I would need to maintain a border that would span a half-dozen systems.

I threw all of my Influence towards building a series of Outposts reaching towards that chokepoint. After some foolish early expansions, I'd come to realize that the best way to expand territory is system-by-system. Building an Outpost three systems away costs exactly as much Influence as building an Outpost in each of those three systems. At least in my game, Influence was the gating factor as I was swimming in Alloys and drowning in Minerals.

My prospective foes were expanding, but less single-mindedly than me, branching in some other directions besides the one I was worried about. I moved my Fleet down into the sector I intended to claim to keep a close eye on them, as my Construction Ships laid track all the way down.

And then, when I was just one hop away from the chokepoint, I saw something terrible: a foreign Construction Ship entering "my" system! The only conceivable reason to be here was to build. I was too late.

Or... was I?

I mulled things over. I didn't want a war, and wasn't really prepared for a war. But declaring a war would keep them from taking that system. And it would buy me some time. Maybe, if I could reinforce my position, and build that Output, then turn my Starbase into a Starbase and get some defenses into it, I could actually defend this position. Using EU3 as a baseline, I hoped that I could survive for a respectable length of time, then sue for a white peace, keeping my border intact.

On the other hand, my prospective opponents already hated me, with a -1000 attitude modifier. I didn't have any allies or mutual-defense treaties. I had never built a new combat ship during the entire game. I had never fought a war in Stellaris before and didn't know what it would entail.

But... it's just a game, eh? Why not go for it! So I did.

And, well, yeah. It was a fun game, and I lost.

But I had a blast! Overall, Stellaris feels like a blend of Europa Universalis 3 and Mass Effect 1, which is exactly what I wanted. There's the same joy of discovery, beautiful galaxy, fascinating aliens and inspiring technology that ME1 had, with the strategic depth and enormous timeline of EU3.

I feel like I know all the basics now. I'm sure there are more mechanics to come;  I had just unlocked Sectors right before the game's end, never learned how to use wormholes, never unlocked any of the unique resources. I think I'll probably play at least more pacifistic Earth-focused game and hopefully get a bit further before branching out into some other governments and playstyles. I have a lot more to look forward to!

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Fall of the Third Reich

As alluded to in my previous post, I went on a bit of a YouTube bender in the midst of reading Capital and Ideology. This was actually a momentous occasion, as it is the first time in my approximately 14 years of using YouTube that the algorithm did something good. Usually it suggests inane, offensive or redundant content, so it was a pleasant surprise that, for the first time in my entire life, I was actually seeing YouTube recommendations pointing me towards unexpected things that turned out to be delightful.

This all started with the aforementioned short The New Spirit, also known as "Taxes to Beat the Axis". This is a really remarkable piece, filled with education, humor, drama and spectacle. The Sixteenth Amendment was only a few decades old, and the idea of a progressive income tax was relatively novel.

The first section is really funny, with Donald's swings from enthusiasm to sulking and back again. It's really interesting to see historical artifacts in there, like old-fashioned ink blotters. But the most stunning section is the final few minutes. We pull out from Donald's private domestic zaniness and witness his enthusiastic run across America, gaining a broad perspective of the entire continent: all bound together, united, with the mass communication of the radio tying California with the East Coast, seeing the unique beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the Texan desserts and the Louisiana delta. And that dissolves into the awe-inspiring and shocking militancy of the final minutes: we see the fruits of that great united nation, putting to work the wealth of the nation, her factories busy, churning out the weapons to defeat fascism. I think the part of this short that sticks with me the most is the way the narrator says "Guns, guns, all kinds of guns!", his quivering tone suggesting a mixture of reverence and titillation.

That's actually the second video I saw when searching "Taxes to Beat the Axis" on YouTube. The first one I saw is sort of a sequel, "The Spirit of 43". This is the one I vaguely remember seeing at the Ground Round in my childhood, along with a video I can't seem to find anywhere that updated Aesop's Fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper and ended with the Grasshopper relaxing to a luxurious winter thanks to his stash of War Bonds. Anyways, The Spirit of 43 strikes a markedly different tone in many ways from the earlier work. This is a more internal struggle, with Donald reaching within himself to do the right thing instead of responding to an authoritative voice.

I'm struck again and again by the sense of collective struggle in these shorts. The government is us, it's we the people putting our resources together - "Your taxes, my taxes, our taxes" - to accomplish something important. I really wish we could reclaim that sense of all being in this together.

Another interesting artifact is the cartoons of Tex Avery, including Blitz Wolf.  This is less nuanced (who would have ever thought that Donald Duck would be the avatar of nuance?!), but crams in a ton of gags and is really fun to watch. Where Donald appeals to your mind, Avery appeals to your fighting spirit, with tons of slapstick and scenery-chewing. This is nominally a program to sell war bonds, but that appeal feels very perfunctory and tacked-on, not integrated into the story like the Donald shorts.

From here, I took a detour into a longer and more structured form of propaganda: Why We Fight. This amazing series of films from Frank Capra hold up impressively well today, both as history and as art.

So, just to state the obvious: Yes, this is propaganda. It was developed by the United States government to shape public perceptions of the war; more specifically, to convince a generally isolationist populace of the need to fight in Europe and Asia, and to convince conscripted young men that this cause was worth killing and dying for.

That said, it comes off as surprisingly nuanced propaganda. I was kind of impressed at how deeply it delved into the history of the rise of Hitler in Germany: it covers the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the punishing payments extracted from Germany, the hyperinflation this led to, and the human misery and desperation accompanying it. The narrator's overall message is along the lines of "The Germans were going through hard times, and they made the mistake of believing that the Nazis had the answers. Of course, we all have gone through hard times. In America we worked through our problems democratically, establishing the New Deal and fixing our economy while continuing to live freely." It carefully threads a needle, the same one Piketty delicately traces, of explaining how the prior actions of the Allies laid the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power, while remaining very clear that his actions were inexcusable.

The big overriding proposition of this series is that World War II is a cataclysmic battle between two incompatible worlds, the Free World of the allies and the Slave World of the axis. The Free World is implicitly denoted by FDR's famous Four Freedoms: Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Axis only promises freedom from want and tramples on all the others. I was struck by how the films stressed America's diversity, making a note that Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Christians and everyone else shares equal rights to practice their faith. It also is (to my ears) surprisingly friendly towards the left, repeatedly decrying how Hitler and Mussolini suppressed socialist movements in Europe and praising the freedoms granted to labor unions in the US.

As history it works well and thoroughly, not starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the invasion of Poland in 1939, but the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. We see how long aggression had gone unchecked, how many times belligerent nations broke treaties without repercussions, how often the League of Nations tutted their tongues and did nothing. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 follows the same vein. The narrator spells it out very clearly and darkly: The people in the United States asked, Why should we care that some Africans in huts have been attacked, or some Asians in rice paddies? The message is clear: we should have cared, we had a moral duty to care, and we're only in this mess now because we neglected to act when the victims were people who didn't look or speak like us.

That narrator is a constant companion through the series. It's fascinating and instructive to compare this to The Triumph of the Will. From what I understand, Capra intended this series to be a sort of response to or antidote for that famous Nazi propaganda movie. They are completely different beasts, though. Triumph of the Will has almost no dialogue, just sweeping and inspiring imagery of crowds and movement, mass roaring chants; there are selections from speeches by Nazi leaders, but the real power is the response to those words, not the words themselves. It's a film designed to overwhelm your senses, to inspire awe.

So, it's interesting that Why We Fight is such a dialogue-heavy series. We're getting a history lesson, and following troop movements on a map, and hearing glosses on major events. It cajoles, it pontificates, it debates, it states. It's doing a lot, but what it's trying to feel most like is an appeal to reason: it lays out evidence, makes arguments, and asks you to accept its conclusions.

The more I think about this, the more perfect this comparison is. When you're producing propaganda in the service of democracy, you're emulating democracy, and making each viewer its own citizen, capable of making up his or her own mind, and hoping we all pull together in the right direction in the end. When making propaganda in service of fascism, though, it's all about the mass movement, about unity, about unquestioning devotion and obedience. One picks you up, the other sweeps you away.

The nature of those arguments is also very well done. The movies frequently quote from Mein Kampf and various speeches from leaders in all three Axis nations, using their own words to illustrate the danger these countries pose. Sometimes it is highlighting the grandiose ambitions and despicable philosophy they hold. Other times it is to highlight their hypocrisy and treachery; one very effective example comes in part two, The Nazis Strike, replaying a speech from Hitler where he makes specific promises against any claim of territory on each of his European neighbors. The film returns to that speech again and again after each new border is breached, replaying his earlier words as an ironic counterpart to his later actions. It's making a clear argument that diplomacy with such a man is impossible. It also is stunningly similar to the technique recently popularized by Jon Stewart and now deployed by a variety of news-oriented comedians, highlighting the hypocrisy of politicians by playing old footage of them stating one thing alongside new footage of them saying or doing the opposite.

The series isn't perfectly high-minded, of course. While the movies rightfully decry the Nazi philosophy of Aryan supremacy, they're completely silent on America's own history of racial injustice, making no mention of the Jim Crow South or the Chinese Exclusion Act or the internment of Japanese Americans. It generally avoids racial and national characterizations, but does slip in a couple of suggestions that, say, the Germans have a history of aggression (while also going out of its way to show that America has been a good home for Germans, highlighting the many ethnic Germans serving in high ranks of American government and military).

Finally, I wanted to note that the editing of these films is really remarkable. It's surprisingly fast and kinetic, with the kind of rapid cuts and disorienting shifts in action that I tend to associate with 21st-century Hollywood movies. The aerial combat scenes as in The Battle of Britain are particularly effective, exhilarating and tense.

It's really interesting to see the shift between high-level and low-level information. Some of the US War Department's films were aimed to educate (or "educate") the populace about the broad contours of the war: why we were fighting, the theaters in which we were operating, what territory had been lost or reclaimed. Others were much more low-level: what you, the viewer, ought to be doing (or not doing). Those Donald Duck cartoons above are a great example of this: you should be paying your taxes to support the war effort. There was similar propaganda around discreet communications ("Loose Lips Sink Ships"), self-sufficiency (Victory Gardens), and volunteering for military or non-military duty.

A particularly fascinating sub-genre were films aimed directly at servicemembers. With a drafted, non-professional military that consisted mostly of young single men, there was a... very particular tone used to impart important lessons. Lewd and funny, it's kind of shocking that these were actual government films, but I can see why they might be more effective than a straight training movie.

I'm mostly thinking of Private Snafu here. The pedigree of these cartoons is kind of insane: Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) wrote the scripts, Chuck Jones animated them, and Mel Blanc voiced them. Unlike Why We Fight, these were not distributed for broader public consumption, and were exclusively viewed by members of the armed forces.

I think the humor still holds up well, with the unfortunate and major exception of the blatant racism. Unlike the Disney cartoons, which used anthropomorphized animals and vehicles to depict our foes, or Why We Fight, which uses actual footage of foreign leaders and soldiers, the Snafu cartoons include painful racial characterizations, particularly of the Japanese, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has viewed, say, Buck Rogers comics of the era. It is tempting to contextualize this and point out that we were at war with the Japanese, but you can't escape the major differences between how our European adversaries were depicted compared to our Asian adversaries.

Maybe the biggest impact all of these historical and artistic artifacts have on me is a new appreciation for the massive difference between the pre-1970s civilian army versus our modern professional army. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely glad that we no longer have a draft! But when I look back at history, it's striking how there was such a unified sense of purpose in our conflicts: everyone was serving in the war or directly affected by it; even when opposing war, as in Vietnam, it was a national issue that impacted everyone. Today, it seems like our wars are parceled out and self-contained, with citizens duly funding the expenses via our taxes but having no sense that it is "our" fight, "our" purpose. That seems to me like a dangerous trend. Whether a war is just or not, it is being fought on our behalf even if not by our personal bodies, and I kind of wish we paid the same degree of attention to our missions in Afghanistan that we once did to our missions on Pacific atolls or European beaches.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrasts


Don't get me wrong: I am not glad to be in quarantine now. But one silver lining is that my local library is closed, which means that I got to keep my copy of Capital and Ideology indefinitely. It's taken me three months to make my way through it. But I'm glad I did! It's been a really interesting and thought-provoking book, with lots to chew on.

I tend to think of this book as being a sequel to Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There is definitely significant overlap between the two: both are primarily interested in inequality, the large and growing gap between the very rich and the very poor, and seek to explain why inequality occurs and how we as democratic societies might address it. But they take very different tacks in how they approach and consider the subject. Cit21C is built on empirical research and data, but feels like a more theoretical book, with Thomas Piketty drawing general conclusions that show how certain inputs have led to consistent outputs across different continents and centuries. C&I feels almost like the opposite. It's a very story-focused approach, telling the history of a certain place at a certain time; and Piketty is more interested in the differences than the similarities, showing how the various decisions countries made resulted in very different outcomes. C&I is a much longer book, over 1000 pages versus the ~700 of Cit21C, but I almost feel like it's even more readable. Piketty keeps the same nice bite-sized sectional organization of the first book, and here has a more narrative style, weaving a story step by step rather than building up an argument brick by brick.

C&I progresses more or less linearly through history, starting with the emergence from the dark ages into the medieval and early modern period. Piketty focuses on what he calls "trifunctional societies". Honestly, this was one of the hardest parts of the book for me, and I kept muttering to myself "Piketty is so French!". Viewing trifunctional societies as a fundamental system of organization has always seemed so bizarre to me. I remember being kind of dumfounded in history class reading about the Three Estates in France; why would you organize your society into three groups where one of the three groups accounted for 95% of the population? They're probably particularly hard for Americans like me to grasp, as we've never had a landed noble class and have rather famously had separation of church and state, so the idea of devoting one-third of social control to a group that doesn't exist and another one-third to a fairly obscure profession seems bizarre. If you're going to divide into three groups, why not pick ones that are at least more numerically equal, like, say, those who work the fields, those who work with tools, and everyone else? Or manual laborers, intellectual laborers, and non-laborers? Or butchers, and bakers, and candlestick makers? THERE CAN ONLY BE THREE.

Piketty does seem to fundamentally agree that trifunctional organization is a dumb idea, but it also feels like he kind of stretches other systems to make them fit within his concept of a trifunctional society. He kind of hand-waves Swedish society, which was very explicitly a quaternary society, and kind of says "It's basically the same thing." And he writes at length about how different the various trifunctional countries were; for example, Spain had a much larger noble class than France, and Denmark had a more more strongly defined nobility than England.

But, I kept asking myself, what's the point? On the one hand Piketty seems to be saying "Trifunctional societies dominated in this period, everything can fit into this category!" and saying "Everything is different, there are no fundamental rules"! If that's the case, why use that lens to look at this period in the first place? I got somewhat annoyed by this endless parade of "A is different than B!", which makes me wonder, "Then why are you comparing A to B in the first place?" Anyways, I'm almost positive that an American writing this book wouldn't have started with trifunctional societies and made them such a focus.

However, this all retroactively started to make sense to me literally hundreds of pages later when Piketty starts to look at castes in Indian society, and I finally started to grok what trifunctional ideology was all about. While continuing to stress that there were important differences, he draws strong parallels between the Brahmins as the clergy class and Kshatriyas as the nobility class. He explains that the trifunctional schema was a method primarily advanced by the intelligentsia on both continents, arguing that strong warriors should rule the people, but those warriors must listen to the advice and counsel of learned men. The combination of strong executive action tempered by thoughtful and deliberate advisors is more effective than either one would be alone. That finally started to make sense for me. I think my hang-up had been that I only had thought of trifunctional societies as being under a monarch, who held real power; but actually the introduction of strong central-state power was the death knell for trifunctionalism, and its original logic preceded the monarchy. As Piketty makes clear, in both Europe and in India, the trifunctional divisions were always more aspirational goals for how society ought to be structured than impassive descriptions of how society actually worked. Of course, a clergyman, the one person who is actually literate in his age, would include a whole category for himself while writing up the ideal social order.

Piketty casts a much wider net in C&I than in his previous work, and that pays big dividends, with lots of interesting examples and lessons to be learned from smaller European and larger non-European nations. For instance, while the nobility and clergy were roughly equally balanced in power in France, the nobility held relatively more power in England, thanks to the larger estates granted after the Norman Conquest and the seizure of Church property during the Reformation. In India, the warrior nobility lost much status after failing to stem invading Muslim armies from the West, leaving the intellectual Brahmins as the dominant faction. On the other hand, in Japan the warrior-nobility Samurai dominated, while the clergy, divided between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, took a lesser role.

Sweden is a particularly fascinating example throughout the whole book. In the early chapters, Sweden stands out as a hyper-inegalitarian state organized around censitary suffrage: basically, each person can cast a number of votes proportional to the wealth they own, so while 100 men in a village might be eligible to vote, a single man may be able to cast more votes than the total of the other 99. And then, in a span of a few decades, this very same country transforms into the most egalitarian social-democratic state in Europe, with not only universal suffrage but also the lowest divide between rich and poor of any nation. As Piketty repeatedly insists, this shows that there is no racial or national character that makes some nations inherently more or less egalitarian (or violent or cautious or whatever) than other nations. Who would have thought that the Vikings would become superrich merchants, and then social democrats? Nothing is pre-ordained, and societies are always capable of choosing to change.

As a side note, introduced by Piketty, the censitary suffrage of 19th-century Sweden has uncomfortable similarities with the current political regime in the United States, particularly after Citizens United: the political influence wielded by, say, the Kochs is thousands or millions of times larger than the political influence of the people working for them. Piketty repeatedly urges looking to other examples in time and space: history never repeats itself, but we can learn many lessons from history, and seeing how Sweden evolved out of their domination by the hyperrich may provide some inspiration for paths the US could choose to follow today.

Piketty doesn't just point to contemporary events to make his points: he also loves referencing literature and cinema, both to show how events and topics were viewed in their own times, and also how artists have illustrated the implications of these eras. Cit21C had lots of great references to Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac and Titanic; C&I has the Grapes of Wrath and Proust and Donald Duck. The latter inspired me to go on quite a YouTube bender; I may even write a separate post later about it, but for now, I want to share the short he quotes, "Taxes to Beat the Axis."

It's a startling and wonderful cartoon. What a huge change in how our country thinks about taxes! These days both parties consistently describe taxes as burdens at best, theft at worst; back then, though, they were a source of pride and power, collective mobilization to accomplish a great task. (It also reminds me of eating hamburgers at the Ground Round when I was a kid, which is a good thing!)

The language used to describe taxes is important. Piketty implicitly stresses the importance of language throughout the book; one of his overriding theses is that every society needs to tell itself a plausible story to explain its inequalities. So, for example, a trifunctional society tells itself that the clergy need to receive food without performing physical labor so they can devote themselves to the spiritual health of the community; or a neo-proprietarian society tells itself that landlords need to collect rent in order for new housing to be built. Societies can endure in these forms for as long as their stories are generally believed, and crumble or transform once the stories are no longer widely believed.

Piketty is very careful with his own language, too. I really like how he creates or uses new or specific terms, like "proprietarianism". Very late in the book he mentions in passing that contemporaries used to refer to this economic regime as "liberalism", but the meaning of "liberalism" has shifted over time, so he prefers "proprietarianism" instead. I think that's fantastic: it takes a little more time to learn what he means, but provides so much more clarity later on, since he has precisely defined the word. It also avoids the messiness of automatic judgments based on our preexisting biases towards that word. It made me think of Matt Stoller, who used more standard terms like "liberal" and "progressive" over the course of Goliath, in ways that sometimes raised my hackles. Even if the actual point an author is making is valid, their language can stir up tribal feelings that rebel against the argument. It's much better to choose precise and neutral words and phrases, and when those don't exist, to judiciously coin your own.

Likewise, very late in the book Piketty spends a page or so writing about why he has avoided using the very common term "Populist" in this book. He wants to be specific and precise in his language, and Populism is so overused and slippery that it's useless: it just stirs up emotion and is used to denounce or dismiss people and movements without any real engagement. He notes the absurdity of "Populist" being used in 2016 to refer to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are diametrically opposed on virtually every meaningful axis: nationalist versus internationalist, racist versus antiracist, tax cuts for the rich versus spending for the poor, and so on. Any word that can be applied to both of those candidates is not a useful word, so we shouldn't use it, and instead should be more specific about what we mean: nativism, progressive taxation, social democracy, and so on.

Another phrase Piketty is fond of is "transcending capitalism". Here, I think he's choosing his language to persuade more than to identify, although it accomplishes both. Many people automatically equate criticism of the capitalist regime with a devotion to communism and a fondness for autocracy. Piketty doesn't want a revolution, he wants an evolution. He has an Elizabeth Warren-esque outlook, trying to save capitalism rather than destroy it, as Karl Marx or Bernie Sanders would want to do. Once again, his language is important, avoiding knee-jerk reactions while still clearly conveying his meaning.

Returning to taxes: Piketty has a baseline assumption that higher taxes are generally good, matter-of-factly noting with approval that western European countries collect up to 40% of all national income in taxes, while tutting in dismay that other countries can barely manage 5%. I tend to agree with that point of view, but "taxes=good" is probably not a widely held view today, particularly in the United States. So, I think it's great that he takes a historical approach in looking at the growth of taxation and what it means for the state. In the 19th century, the taxes collected in our countries were equivalent to a few percent of GDP, which gives the state enough funds to act as the "Night Watchman." Basically, this level of funding lets the state hire a small percent of the population to provide internal security against blatant crime, deter external threats with a nominal army, and set up a court system to enforce the laws and peacefully adjudicate private disputes. More concretely, if the state collects 1% of the money earned in a country, then it can hire roughly 1 out of every 100 citizens to work for the state and put them to work as police officers or soldiers or judges.

For most of history, and even today in the developing world, lots of states can't even reach that "Night Watchman" level: there's a nominal state, but it doesn't have the manpower to enforce its will. This is why we had feudal systems in the Middle Ages: local elites, and particularly the warlord nobility, were responsible for performing security functions. Starting after World War 1, though, states started getting tens of percent of GDP in revenue. This enables a much more robust state that can provide public education to its children, build public infrastructure for its merchants, provide a social safety net to its citizens, and so on. That's interesting!

Having grown up under this regime, I think we take it for granted. The big threat Piketty sees now is that the wealthiest citizens are not paying their fair share of the tax burden; in a rather infamous example, Warren Buffet pays a lower total tax rate than his secretary does. This undermines the public's overall faith in and support for the tax system, which is leading to tax revolts and pressure (alongside fiscal competition between states) to cut total tax revenue, which in turn threatens the stability of the state. This can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle, as the state loses legitimacy by failing to perform its functions, causing more citizens to withdraw their support, causing the state to weaken further and eventually fail. That's one of a few dark futures that Piketty is worried about. We don't need to reduce inequality only because it is morally right; we also need to because it's creating a volatile situation that could lead to social calamity.

Reducing inequality is of course Piketty's great goal. The tool I was most familiar with was the one he promoted in Cit21C, a progressive wealth tax. I thought of that as a cool and innovative new idea, so while reading C&I I was a little surprised to learn that other countries have already used wealth taxes in the past. In fact, Prussia implemented one all the way back in the late 1800s, and it lasted for about a century before being repealed. Piketty goes deeper into the implementations and historical contexts of these European wealth taxes. He identifies technical shortcomings they had, such as being based on fixed assessments that were only updated in census years. He also looks at the political and social forces that took them down; there were several, but the biggest culprit is a race to the bottom. After capital flows were liberalized in the 1980s and wealthy Europeans could instantly move their wealth across borders, all countries tried to outdo one another in slashing rates to attract the wealthy, until most taxes were completely eliminated. This topic turns out to be one of Piketty's hobby-horses, particularly in the last few chapters of the book, where he looks at how Europe has gone awry in the last four decades and how it might get back on track.

I've watched a couple of interviews with Piketty recently, and one big point of his that keeps coming up in them is that just because something is good does not mean that it's best or right. For example, in India, during the last 40 years the bottom 50% of the income distribution has seen a dramatic increase in their standard of living in real terms: that translates to far less hunger and many more people living meaningful lives who otherwise would have died in misery. But, during that same time there's also been a drastic increase in inequality between the bottom 50% and the top 10%, even more so than the dramatic rise in the US. Other people often point to this relationship and say that inequality is justified or necessary when it can produce such great benefits to the masses. (As some free-marketers would say, "A rising tide lifts all boats": the argument is that inequality inspires people at the top to get rich, which generates economic activity, which provides more income for the poor.) But Piketty says that this is not the only way: India could still have had tremendous growth while sharing that growth more equally, leading to even better outcomes for its poorest citizens.

It's hard to argue these counterfactual points, which may be why he doesn't directly do it within the book, but it's the implicit reason for all of the many comparisons he makes in the first half of the book between nations and centuries. There isn't just one Marx-style order of progression through history, where you need to pass through a greedy capitalist phase before entering an egalitarian communist phase. People have chosen many different paths in the past, which have led to very different outcomes, and we can decide what course we want to follow in the future. We should learn from India's example and see what's possible, while remaining aware that it could have followed many other paths, and some of those may have resulted in an even richer and fairer country.

This comparative system, which was so frustrating and seemed pointless in the early part of the book, pays increasing dividends in the second half, as he explores the various systems and outcomes in more modern times. I'm particularly intrigued by his musings on alternate systems of corporate governance. I only became aware of the German/Nordic system, which guarantees workers seats on corporate boards, when I read Cit21C. I've thought about that system a lot in recent years, in both abstract and practical terms. In C&I, Piketty dives into much more detail about the various allocations used in Rhenish and Nordic countries, the successes and limitations they've had, and his thoughts on why they have failed so far to catch on in French, Japanese or Anglo-American companies. (It isn't because they aren't successful; German corporations consistently produce better results for both workers and stockholders than French or British corporations do.)

Piketty also writes about co-operatives, where every participant in a business gets equal say in making decisions and in sharing profits. (In a nice bit of synchronicity, Bay Curious had an episode this week on the surprisingly large number of cooperatively owned pizzerias in the East Bay Area.) Co-ops make perfect sense in many cases, where everyone is contributing substantially equal amounts, but can be ill-suited for others. For example, if someone invests $50,000 of her personal savings to start a bakery, and then hires two other people who invest no capital and are free to quit at any time and start their own competing bakery, then is it really right that the two employees can consistently outvote the founder? Clearly, co-ops aren't a one-size-fits-all solution for corporate governance.

But, he stresses, still other forms of organization can be imagined, and have even been used before. For example, in the 18th and 19th century there were limits on the total number of votes a single shareholder could cast, which de-facto capped ownership at certain levels. Or we could develop a model where any investment over, say, 10,000 shares has 10% as much voting power as smaller amounts. This could be wonderful for more modern, crowd-funded types of companies, particularly news and media organizations or Kickstarter-birthed enthusiast-driven companies. These wouldn't technically forbid large investment into the companies, but would strongly encourage broad-based ownership. People would invest because they want to participate in and support the company, not to strip it for parts.

This ties in with something I've been thinking about a lot regarding my own company. Based on my personal ideological preferences, I really like the idea of cooperatives, but it does feel fundamentally different when I've put a decade of my life into building something and am ride-or-die on it, while others are free to go their own way. I've mused about other ways we could organize, such as distributing voting shares that vest over time; that would follow a similar structure to employee stock-option plans, but instead of being about selling to profit, it would be more about earning a voice to shape the long-term future of the company. This kind of stuff is hard to change, though, particularly when there isn't a popular or standard model to follow. I'm glad to see more discussions like Piketty's proposal, along with other innovations like B-corporations, and I hope we can see more changes and options in the future so different sizes of companies can organize in fair and equitable ways for their employees and communities.

C&I seems simultaneously more and less relevant to "normal people" than Cit21C. It seems to be even more squarely aimed at lay audiences and avoid technical terms. But the contents of C&I seem to be almost entirely focused on changes in the top 10% of distributions (income, wealth, and education) and the bottom 50%; unlike Cit21C, he spends almost no time on the "middle" 40% (from the 90th down to the 50th percentile). For the most part this class has kind of tread water during the last 40 years; the gains of the top have almost all come from the very bottom. It's kind of interesting since I suspect that most readers of C&I belong to that "middle" class: it's our society, but the changes haven't affected us as strongly as at the extremes of the income distribution. (Well, except for missed opportunities, as the real gains from productivity growth have almost entirely gone to the top 10%.) This is one of a few cases where I wish that he had drawn more on his own work from Cit21C: as r > g, it seems inevitable that our current trajectory will shrink the "middle" class in the future, after the lower class's wealth is completely reduced to 0 and there's nowhere else to draw capital income from.

Capital and Ideology is divided into four (long!) sections: Inequality Regimes in History, Slave and Colonial Societies, The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century, and Rethinking the Dimensions of Political Conflict. The first two sections are basically a long series of Piketty saying "One country did this one thing, this other country did this other thing. Any country could have done anything, and the results would always have been different." As he moves through the third and particularly into the fourth section, he shifts into saying "We could do this one thing, or we could do that other thing. These different things would have different effects." That vagueness is kind of maddening, but I came to realize that it's also his fundamental thesis: Everything that happens is a result of the decisions societies make, we don't need to be held hostage to the status quo or our pasts, and can choose to follow different trajectories as we encounter switch points in real-time.

On page 595 he writes, "It is too simple to say that private ownership is the solution to every problem or, conversely, that it should be criminalized in all circumstances." I simultaneously wanted to say "Yes, that's brilliant!" and to bang my head on the wall at frustration at how inane of a statement it is. "It's not this one extreme or this other extreme, it's in the middle!" Who exactly is he arguing with?!

The other part of Piketty's thesis, though, is that we should cease "sacralizing" property: treating our ownership traditions as immutable and inviolable. He shows early on how powerful this sacralization is: even after the radical transformations of the French Revolution and the upheaval of the social order, the Republic never seriously considered challenging the private-property regime in place, merely reapportioning (often with reimbursements) who owned what. As Piketty sees it, all of the property in a country collectively belongs to all of its people (in a moral sense, almost never in a legally recognized sense). We need to have democratic debates about how we want to use and manage that property, instead of mindlessly continuing to do what we've always done. Lots of situations don't stand up to close scrutiny: Why should the child of a poor person pay the child of a rich person for the privilege of living in a home? The poor child did not do anything to deserve his lot in life, nor did the rich child do anything to deserve his lot. We as societies have been afraid of tampering with our systems of ownership out of fear that we will open Pandora's box: once you start questioning, say, whether a legally-purchased slave can be set free without compensating its owner, then the whole system of ownership may come into question, and the forces of anarchy and chaos will be unleashed. Piketty insists that we must not be afraid. Many things that once seemed unthinkable are now taken for granted: Our ability to sail across oceans, to communicate our ideas across time, to govern ourselves, to eradicate diseases. There is absolutely nothing stopping us from reconsidering how we should treat property, other than the will to do so.

So, very broadly, Piketty just wants us to have a conversation about property: even thinking about it as a changeable thing will be a huge win. Within that topic, though, he does have personal guidance about what a just property regime may look like, in contrast to today's neo-proprietarian or the failed Soviet-style communist models. His thoughts kind of line up with my own: I've long thought that it's dumb to have multiple private fire departments competing to service the same houses, or to have multiple power companies stringing wire to adjacent houses, and so on, so those sorts of operations should be state-owned or at least regulated monopolies. Piketty takes a different tack than me, though. He doesn't look primarily at the mode of delivery: instead, he's interested in the homogeneity of the good or service. Electrical power is electrical power, no matter where it comes from or how it's transmitted, so it could be collectively-owned state property, and therefore owned by its customers (citizens funding the government funding the power company servicing the citizens). And if we really want the same educational quality and opportunities for everyone, then we should provide a fairly homogenous educational system, which should be state-owned as well. On the flip side, though, when there's a diversity of tastes and preferences, then it makes sense to support private ownership. So it's good to have a variety of small, independently-owned restaurants and fashion labels and publishers. For these kinds of industries, we just need to make sure that they don't get too powerful.

Unsurprisingly, Piketty doesn't see a one-size-fits-all solution to the property ownership question, but rather a variety of tools. Almost all of these were used in multiple countries in the 20th century and have a demonstrated track record of effectiveness. A highly progressive wealth tax can circulate resources within a country and ensure that the largest fortunes are eventually returned to the people. A power-sharing structure in corporate boards can ensure that large companies' workers are represented alongside owners. And so on - there are even more new ideas that Piketty introduces in the final chapter, but there are already plenty of well-known tools at our disposal that could lead to greater equality in wealth and power.

Moving on to some random topics:

The discussion of net public wealth was interesting. I remember Piketty writing about net public wealth in Cit21C, but mostly in the high-level comparative breakdowns in the early part of that book (country-versus-country) and not in the prescriptive second half. Instead of net public wealth, I'm more used to hearing debates about the deficit and the national debt; in the US, that's generally a cudgel that the GOP uses to dissuade the Democratic party from investing in the economy, a cudgel that is laid aside whenever the Republicans want to cut taxes or wage war. So, I'm used to just one half of the balance sheet: Piketty very naturally looks at the other half of the balance sheet, public assets, how much a country owns, and balancing it against what the country owes. This is a challenging but comprehensible process: sum up the total value of all government office buildings, VA hospitals, public universities, national parks, and so on, giving each the price it could conceivably fetch if sold on the open market. Then you subtract the total debt, the total market value of all Treasury notes, bills and bonds. The result is the net public wealth.

Piketty is alarmed that the value of public wealth has recently turned negative in both the US and the UK. Interestingly, this is different from the (often feigned) GOP alarm, because Piketty would like to correct it through a combination of reducing debt (by raising taxes) and increasing public assets, both of which are anathema to the GOP. So why is the net negative wealth so concerning? Once a country has net negative wealth, then the creditors don't just own all of the physical stuff in a country (its land and buildings): they also own the people. That isn't just an abstract hyperbolic statement: To be specific, the future earnings of those citizens will go to paying off the public debt. There's no theoretical maximum on the size of the public debt, which conceivably could be twice the value of public assets, or thrice, or even more. Once it went high enough, you would essentially have eternal, legal, fiscal slavery, with 100% of the citizens contributing 100% of their current and future earnings to pay off past bondholders. Such a situation would not be tolerated for long, and disruptive geopolitical actions could result, much like Germany after WW1.

There's a brief but fascinating discussion of meritocracy. As a reminder, each society needs to tell itself a story to justify its inequality. In premodern times, poor people were told that they were poor because of external forces: you were born into the wrong caste or born to slaves or otherwise dealt a bad hand in life. Even in the trifunctional society of France, after serfdom was abolished, the third estate was lower in status to the other two, but were told that they served an essential (even sacred) role: They had an important job, to feed society and produce goods.

In modern times, though, as suffrage has become universal and rights are theoretically available to all, the poor are now told that they are poor because of internal reasons: they're not smart enough to get rich, or not charming enough, or haven't worked hard enough. This is untrue! There's very clear evidence that your lot in life is still overwhelmingly based on the life you're born into. (For example, in France, 1% of children born to farmers entered university, compared to 75% of children born to factory managers and 80% of children born to independent professionals. The university is the path to well-paying and high-status jobs. There are glaring inequalities in opportunities based on origin, despite the hypothetical ability of anyone to get rich.) Meritocracy is hypocritical, telling a gaslighting story that does not match reality, and is designed to keep de-facto control in the hands of the elite while reducing the demand to share power.

The last section of the book seems mostly concerned with the evolution of parties in Western democracies over the last 80 years or so. People on the left have been worrying about the "loss" of the white working-class vote for decades; there were "Reagan Democrats" in my childhood, and in my early adult life I read lots of blog posts filled with indignant disbelief that the working class was "voting against their own economic self-interest", meaning that they were voting for George W. Bush and Republican congressmen who rewarded the rich and punished the poor. My own thinking on this topic has largely been shaped by Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas" (which Piketty approvingly cites in a later footnote): the GOP hoodwinked the same rural and lower-class people who once formed the foundation of the Democratic party by distracting them with culture-war issues like abortion, guns, and gay marriage, causing them to lose sight of their ancestral class allegiance. Piketty, like Matt Stoller and others, flip this around: it was the left who abandoned the poor, not the other way around. More specifically, the left parties have become increasingly popular among well-educated, high-income, and wealthy (in that order) people. That change in party affiliation has shifted the priorities of the parties, which we saw in the "New Democrats" of Bill Clinton and "New Labour" of Tony Blair. The parties are now focused on promoting the interests of highly-educated people with 401(k) plans, and not really oriented around their classic roots in labor unions and farmers.

So, there are two theories: the left abandoned the WWC or the WWC abandoned the left. Piketty describes these two hypotheses as the "sociological" hypothesis and the "nativist" hypothesis. The sociological theory is that the lower classes are disaffected because the left parties no longer speak to their interests, while the nativist theory says that the lower classes have abandoned the left because of the left's support for social issues (immigration, gay marriage, etc.). Piketty says that there is some circumstantial evidence for the nativist theory, most notably the GOP's rise in the American South after the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s. But, if the nativist hypothesis was the main factor, then we would expect to see those classes enthusiastically turning out for right-leaning parties. That hasn't happened: instead, turnout has plummeted among the lower class. So, it seems like the sociological hypothesis is more convincing. It becomes even more convincing in later sections, as Piketty shows that the same decline and reorientation has been observed in all of the western European democracies, despite the fact that social issues didn't become motivating factors in their elections until decades later.

Piketty does a great job at putting into clear words what we've all noticed. The western world's political system has reoriented itself over the past 70 years. At the start, the political cleavage was basically between elites and non-elites: people with education and money on one side, the poor and less-educated on the other. Today, though, we're in a dual-elite system. The "Brahmin Left" draws its elites from the academy: highly educated people who are high in social capital. The "Merchant Right" gets its power from business, particularly finance.

These two groups of elites are united in some stabilizing ways, particularly sharing a certain desire to protect the status quo, to uphold existing property rights, and to support globalization. But the long-term effect of this dual-elite system will be destabilizing. A large and growing sector of the population doesn't see their interests represented by any political party, so they withdraw from political participation. As a result, we see wild swings from side to side in one election to the next, with the victor never earning the active support of 50% of a country's citizens. This is accompanied by increasing despair that politics can solve problems, as the underlying pain of inequality goes unaddressed no matter who is in power. This leads to a volatile situation, where there's an opening for a violent, non-democratic revolution that promises to make changes, instead of collectively solving our problems through a peaceful political process.

Piketty notes an interesting resemblance of our current political cleavage structure with the old premodern trifunctional societies. The Brahmin Left is the new intellectual class, continuing the role of the clergy. Warriors are no longer needed in modern society because the centralized state guarantees security, so instead merchants have taken the more worldly role that the nobility used to play. And, like on the eve of the French Revolution, the third estate is not seeing its interests promoted by the two factions in power.

It's a good explanation, though Piketty goes get rather repetitive in his analysis on how party structures have evolved over the last 70 years or so. I didn't need much convincing and pretty much immediately accepted it: "Yup, more educated people have become more likely to vote for left-leaning parties, got it." But he goes on and on and on, for dozens and dozens of pages, showing so many charts and in-depth arguments across so many different countries that all show the same overall trend. Maybe this would be important to convince skeptics, but I was a little surprised that he spent so many pages driving this particular point home when elsewhere he's perfectly willing to refer readers to the online appendix via a footnote.

Education is one of the dominant topics of this book, sharing equal billing with wealth, and I'm a little unsure what to make of it. I was surprised first when reading Cit21C and particularly in C&I by the huge emphasis Piketty places on education; personally, I think of education as being important, but not a first-order deterministic factor like he does. (Which may be ironic, given my personal background.) He does make some persuasive arguments for the primacy of education, which includes a pretty compelling hypothesis that the US's world-leading investment in public education during the 19th century led directly to our economic triumph in the 20th century, and that the loss of our leadership in the global economy today is largely due to our failure to maintain a similar lead in public education in the 21st century. Britain provides a counter-example: they had a very poor public (government) school system, which has resulted in an economy that consistently lags that of other countries.

And how does education relate to politics? Piketty's argument is that more educated people have become more likely to vote for left-leaning political parties. This is backed up in the way he breaks down the percentages, but it's really only one of two variables that have changed in the last 70 years: the rate of education has also drastically increased within that time. I was initially somewhat skeptical of his point. 70 years ago, only a tiny fraction of people would have attended colleges, and they were the elite of the society, so of course they didn't vote for left parties. Today, nearly half of American youth attend college, which by definition means most college students will not end up in the top decile of wealth or income: in other words, today's middle class mostly attends college, while in the past they did not. I would think that this would be the more important factor than the relative education level achieved: just by going to college, students are getting more exposure to liberal arts, to people outside their home town, to different cultures, to critical thinking, and so on. So we have people going to colleges to get jobs, not going to colleges to run businesses; to me that seems like it would push the curve towards left-leaning parties all on its own. But, Piketty says that he sees the same trends even when just looking at college-attenders versus non-attenders, so I guess I'm wrong and there really is a kind of "educational class" system that's changing.

So, with a bifurcated elite system that does not address the needs of the non-elite, how do those needs end up manifesting? As he nears the end of the book, Piketty's earlier insistence on looking at a wide variety of examples all around the globe really pays off. He identifies what he calls the "Social-Nativist Trap", tying together recent movements in the US, France, the UK, eastern Europe and other places. This is a natural response to the globalist bipartisan pro-business regime that has dominated these countries for decades. The rising social-nativist faction makes an appeal directly to disaffected lower-income and lower-education voters, promising to deliver real tangible benefits to them (spending, jobs, assistance) while also hardening borders and demonizing outsiders.

Donald Trump, channeling Steve Bannon, ran on this platform in 2016: breaking from GOP orthodoxy, he promised to keep Social Security intact, to create a superior healthcare system, to bring back manufacturing jobs. The Front National in France, originally born from an anti-tax movement, has recently reinvented itself with a strong (if false) pitch about spending money on the poor and on education instead of on immigrants. And the same line was very explicit in UKIP's campaign for Brexit, telling the British that they could spend more money on the NHS instead of sending it to Europe. Leftists like me roll our eyes at how transparently manipulative and misleading these pitches are, but the important thing is that these movements are actually speaking to the needs of the people, promising to improve their health and minds and wallets, while the center-left parties seem more concerned with international trade and cultural issues.

There are lots of problems with the social-nativist movements, and one big one is that they can't or won't actually deliver on their promises of increased social spending. Despite his campaign and rhetoric, Donald Trump has governed as a traditional Republican, only delivering tax cuts aimed at the superrich and undermining the social safety net. Brexit isn't going to lead to flush coffers for increased social spending. These social-nativist parties can't admit that they lied or failed, and so they'll need to double down on the second part of their platform, whipping up more outrage against immigrants or foreign states or domestic minorities or other enemies that they can blame for their failure to deliver. Once again, there are very discomforting parallels to what we saw in the run-up to World War 2.

While there's been a drastic rise in social-nativist parties in all of the major Western countries, there are other paths available, and modern India is a really fascinating counter-example. Places like the US have transformed into dual-elite systems, and there's a big risk of an enduring coalition between the economically disadvantaged and racist parties and policies. But India has gone in the other direction: over recent decades, the lower castes and poorer Indians have grown more closely politically aligned with Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and other minorities. The Hindu-nationalist BJP has risen into power as a nativist party, but the BJP is very closely aligned with the Brahmin caste and other high-class people. Why have the poor Hindus not joined this nationalist party like poor Americans have joined the GOP or poor French have supported the FN? Part of this seems to stem from Indian institutions, including a system of reservations and quotas that benefit lower-caste people. It's natural to see common ground between disadvantaged people, whether it's because of caste, religion, or wealth: they're all in it together. The scheduled castes and tribes (former Untouchables) see that these systems support them against the elite power of the Brahmins, who also oppose the Muslims, and so solidarity grows between the lower-status groups, forging bonds of class rather than culture.

Piketty's big point as always is that nothing is inevitable. Western democracies can learn from India's experiences: not copy their systems, or react against them, but see what they've done and what the results have been, and then use that to guide our own goals and plans.

Brazil also provides an interesting counter-example to the rise of social-nativist parties. Since the end of the military dictatorship, its Labor Party has been a major contender in democratic elections, but in the early years there wasn't much class adherence to any parties. The Labor party was more focused on urban factory workers, who were slightly better-educated than the national average and also slightly poorer than average. The politics reflected an urban/rural divide more than a rich/poor, educated/uneducated or black/white division. After Lula led the Labor party to victory, though, he delivered concrete benefits to poor people, and as a result the political system has grown more organized around class than before. I'm sure that many people would see increased class division as a negative, but for Piketty it's definitely positive: He wants political solutions to inequality, which means politicians running on specific plans, winning popular mandates for those plans, and then implementing those plans. On the other side of Brazil's politics is Bolsonaro's party: the party of the rich, and also of "the whites" (who have recently become a minority within Brazil).

Brazil obviously has a different history than India. India was dominated by the centrist Congress Party for a long time, while Brazil has had a more dynamic left/right divide. But it's interesting to see how similar those countries are today. In both cases, the party in power is supported by the upper classes and promotes a nativist, socially reactionary platform. The opposition in both countries is a lower-class, multiconfessional, multiracial party. This is a very different dynamic than what we're seeing in the First World.

As Piketty has shown over the whole course of the book, and really even in the title, economics and politics are inherently intertwined, and we can't fix one without the other: we need political action to improve fiscal justice, and we need economic reform to realign our politics and escape the social-nativist trap. In the very last chapter he finally lays out his proposals. The progressive annual tax on wealth, his marquee suggestion from Cit21C, makes a return here: Over the long run it won't bring in an enormous amount of revenues for the state, but it will be a huge force for breaking up concentrations of capital and reducing inequality within nations. Alongside wealth taxes he also discusses inheritance taxes, which I don't recall being a factor in Cit21C. He seems to suggest that having an annual wealth tax could remove much of the need for an inheritance tax, as wealth would be recirculated during an entire life instead of just at the end, but seems to ultimately come down on the side of having lower, steeply progressive inheritance tax rates rather than just eliminating it. He has some compelling examples for lowering inheritance tax rates: for example, if parents want to pass down their house to a child, that child might not be able to afford to pay the inheritance tax without selling that house. Inheritance taxes could either be pegged to the value of the estate, as they are today, or based on the wealth of the heirs, which may be fairer.

His style is an interesting mix of humility and audacity. Piketty keeps repeating that these ideas are just proposals meant to start the conversation, that the final rates and details should be set by parliaments after extensive public debate, but he's very detailed and forceful in his arguments. These are things that he really wants to see happen, not just a thought exercise or intriguing hypothetical model. He gets deep into the politics, suggesting what things could be implemented immediately by large countries like the United States, what things could be implemented by medium-size countries like France, and what things would require international cooperation. He also thinks a lot about the staging of changes: what political reforms would be needed before other things can happen, such as escaping the EU's unanimity requirement (where a tiny nation like Luxembourg can veto any fiscal measure it dislikes) prior to signing reciprocal agreements to tax wealth. He often writes something like "A would be ideal, but if we can only get B, that would still be a significant improvement over the status quo." It's intriguing and refreshing to see such radical proposals paired with an openness to incrementalism.

Much as the global progressive tax on wealth was the big idea of Cit21C, the big new idea in C&I is a universal capital endowment. The large sums generated by wealth and inheritance taxes would be placed into a special national fund, and that fund would provide every citizen with an "inheritance" when they turn 25. In his tentative proposal, the value of the inheritance would be set at 60% of the average (mean, not median) wealth of citizens in the country, which in the United States would be around $130,000. As it stands today, the bottom 50% of the population inherits virtually nothing and has practically zero wealth, so this would open up enormous opportunities: the full range of the population could now engage in the full range of economic and social activities. A young man or woman could use their endowment to start a business, or as a down payment on a house, or buy their own professional tools, and so on, giving each citizen the freedom to choose.

It's a really interesting and compelling idea. Reading this proposal reminded me of my own parents, who were poor when they got married, but were able to buy a house because of an inheritance one of them received from a relative; it wasn't huge, but was enough for a down payment on a house. They continued to earn low incomes during my childhood, but were able to provide us kids with a stable home thanks to that gift. (Which I think probably did come around age 25, interestingly enough. As Piketty notes, the aging population means that even those people who do receive inheritances today receive them much later in life, and may arrive too late to serve as the springboard to a desired career.)

To play devil's advocate, I'm curious what this scheme would do to prices. My first thought is that if everyone suddenly received $130,000, then the prices of all houses would go up $130,000, and there wouldn't be any net improvement of the status quo. After mulling it over some more, though, that's probably not much of an issue. First, only around 2% of the population will turn 25 in a given year, so it's only a limited and gradual infusion rather than a sudden shock. Second, since the endowments are funded by wealth taxes, they're basically transfer payments: the total number of dollars in the economy isn't increasing, they're just being moved around. You can think of it as, instead of a millionaire buying a house and then renting it to a college grad, the college grad can buy the house herself; the overall demand is the same as before, since the millionaire has proportionally less money to purchase rental properties.

In a separate section on expatriation of property, Piketty also alludes to how real estate prices might drop as a result of foreign investors (who only own real estate for income and not to live in) offloading their portfolios to avoid paying the wealth tax in that country. So, even if the universal capital endowment did lead to an increase in domestic prices, it may offset the fall in prices from foreign buyers. And of course, not all of the capital endowment will go towards purchasing real estate! People could also invest it as a nest egg to live on, to provide economic security during future times of turmoil, to live on while attending grad school, or whatever makes the most sense for their personal journey through life.

In the conclusion, Piketty updates Marx and Engels' famous assertion that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles," stating instead that "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the struggle of ideologies and the quest for justice." I think that's on point. First, looking narrowly at our socities in 2020, I don't think class struggles can satisfactorily explain today's GOP or the FN in France; but ideological struggles perfectly explain both. This updating has huge implications and really inverts Marxism. Instead of viewing history as an ineluctable process driven by natural laws and inevitable developments, Piketty sees it as a far more dynamic and living thing, driven mostly by the decisions we make. This mindset puts the power right in the hands of the people: not the power to carry out a preordained role, but the power to exercise our own free will and to select our future.

I think it's fitting that Piketty ends C&I with the same general statement with which he opened Cit21C. He indicts the field of economics for divorcing itself from the other social sciences: becoming too wrapped up in mathematical models and abstract theories, and not seeing itself in relation to questions of politics, society, culture, or history. And on the other hand, journalists and citizens have surrendered discussion or thinking about economic matters to professional economists. His main goal, across both books, is to bring economics back into the democratic sphere, and empower citizens to make choices about how they want their economies to function.

As you can tell, I enjoyed this book a lot, despite a slow, meandering start and some stretches of repetition. But I do have some complaints. Here they are!

On a minor pedantic note, there are quite a few typos sprinkled throughout the entire text. Usually these are minor things, like writing "was" instead of "way". In a few cases, the text or caption for a figure gives the wrong year, like 2009 instead of 2019, or gives the wrong dollar amount. It's usually obvious what he means, but is still a little disappointing. Given how excited I've been to get my hands on this book, I'm pretty sure that Harvard University Press rushed the translation and editing, so I shouldn't be surprised. I'm sure they'll all be addressed in the second edition.

The overall flow of the book is generally fine, but it seems like Piketty wrote it to support readers jumping around to specific chapters that interested them, like just reading the sections on Russia or just reading about the mid-20th-century social democracies. But maybe as a result, there is an interminable number of footnotes saying "See Chapter 5" or "See figure 11.3". It's annoying to me because I already know what he's referring to, and the chapter numbers by themselves aren't meaningful. On the whole the footnotes really break up the flow of the book for very little gain; for every illuminating note, there are four notes referring back to stuff you just read, another three referring you to the online appendix, and one strange digression that seems unrelated to the text.

Overall, the book feels less disciplined than Cit21C. I absolutely adored Cit21C's brick-by-brick approach, where he patiently laid down the fundamentals and developed indisputable points before gradually building up to his major theses and conclusions. In this book, Piketty can't resist rushing forward and applying modern-day applications in the midst of his historical review. In Cit21C he often said "I will return to this point" and just moved on (which always made me go "Aw snap, he gon' do it!!!"). In C&I he will close out sections on, say, 17th century British landlords by saying "This will later form the basis of the extreme concentrations of financial ownership that occurred starting in the 1990s." On the one hand, I spent the first half of Cit21C wondering "Why does this matter?", so maybe it's good that Piketty previews the relevance of these topics prior to Page 700. But I really miss the discipline and focus of the earlier book, which very patiently built an edifice out of neat, tiny self-contained arguments and eventually grew into something undeniable.

I feel a little like the disgruntled fan of a band who keeps asking them to just play the hits! I'm really surprised that, over the 1000+ pages of this book, Piketty never really addresses economic growth. I'm surprised because I felt like that was the most important element of Cit21C; he returns to many of that book's other themes here, but not that central one. It's important because Piketty painstakingly showed that low growth rates are the historical norm, with the 20th century's high growth as the aberration; and that there's an inverse relationship between growth rates and concentrations of capital. In the new book, he only briefly talks about growth to show that the extremely high tax rates levied by the US and the UK in the period 1950-1980 coincided with the incredibly high economic growth rates of both, thus disproving the common assertion that high taxes inhibit growth. But, based on his earlier book, it was inevitable that growth after 1980 would slow anyways, due to the ending of the baby boom and the completion of post-war reconstruction.

Anyways, I'm curious why he didn't include that topic in this massive book. Maybe he has changed his mind and now believes that the social-democratic policies really were responsible for large growth and not just reduction of inequalities. Or it could be a tactical political decision: it's compelling to say "Let's return to the policies of the 1950s-1980s so we can experience those growth rates again", and less inspiring to say "Let's return to the policies of the 1950s-1980s so we can more fairly share a shrinking pie."

And... I think that's the extent of stuff I disliked about this book!

I want to close by expressing my deep appreciation for Thomas Piketty's moral clarity. He's an economist, but he's a human being and a humanist foremost. It felt incredibly refreshing that, for example, he treats slavery as an absolute evil. Piketty does examine slavery seriously: not banishing it from discussion, he fully looks at all of the economic and political effects that the slavery and colonial regimes had, but he never loses sight of the human suffering behind those numbers and the gross injustices they inflicted. Particularly after my disappointment with Goliath, it's such a relief to see a humanist perspective underlying all the very solid financial and ideological observations he makes. This in turn makes me far more receptive to the ideas he proposes, as I can trust that we both see the world in compatible ways and share moral values. It seems hard to believe that these ideas could become realities; but, as he notes, ideas like a wealth tax that seemed unthinkable in the US at the time he wrote his prior book are now championed by leading presidential candidates and hold majority support in public polling. Bringing them into a reality will take a struggle, just as democracies themselves were born from struggle. With enough hard work, we might live to see more just ideologies and fairer capital systems in our own future.