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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

London Rising

There's been a very surprising and very welcome trove of fresh storytelling in Fallen London, the browser game I've been periodically inhabiting over the past decade. I've been at the content boundary for many years, and have a habit of just popping in every now and then: dancing my way through the Feast of the Exceptional Rose, or answering persistent doorbell rings at Sacksmas, or obliging the occasional friend asking for help dealing with their nightmares.

This return has been pretty different. Failbetter is in the midst of celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Fallen London proper. The game technically launched back in 2009, under the original name Echo Bazaar and a slightly more social-game orientation. The rebranding to Fallen London was one of the many (many!) gradual evolutions of the game. The celebrations have included what is by far the single biggest and longest expansions in the entire time I've been playing.

There's always new material being added to the game, but most of it is (quite sensibly) delivered for Exceptional Friends, paying customers who help keep the company afloat. The vast majority of FL content is free, but most of it has been in place since the early days. As with most games, only a small fraction of the total playerbase makes it to the endgame, and so most of Failbetter's updates have, understandably, been focused on improving the experiences for new players: diminishing the grindiness of the early game, adding more narrative thrust to the initial areas, providing new activities that all players can participate in.

Of course, there definitely have been end-game additions over the years. We got to visit the Elder Continent, to excavate the Forgotten Quarter in search of the Tomb of Silken Thread, and most recently to visit Arbor.  But this latest tranche is vastly different. The slack-jawed consensus among players is "It feels like becoming a Person of Some Importance all over again!" If you've played Fallen London before, you may already know that that means. If not... it's somewhat like discovering Skyhold for the first time in Inquisition, or opening the Galaxy Map in Mass Effect, or dying in Tides of Numenara. Something clicks, and you discover that there is an entire new world out there, with entirely new systems: the game is not only bigger than you thought, it's also deeper and more varied, with whole new modes of exploration.


When you first become a POSI, you gain access to a variety of interlocking areas and systems, new stats, new considerations. The Bazaar Side-Streets, the Zee, the Islands, the Empress's Court: you'll be visiting each of them, buying your ship on the side-streets, then a plated seal at zee, then breeding it in the Labyrinth of Tigers to get a Bifurcated Owl, easing the path to Notability to get a high-level Profession to get a stat-boosting weapon to increase your maximum Persuasive so you can reach 40 Renown so you can get the best-in-slot Shadowy Boots. The Bizarre, Dreaded and Respectable qualities that once seemed useless are now all-consuming.

Similarly, we now have several new areas. The Laboratory is where most of us will visit first. There's a complex and engaging system in here that feels very true to what I've heard from friends who work at research universities: you negotiate with the university administration, get equipment for your lab, petition for supplies, recruit grad students as researchers, engage on projects, gradually build up the reputation of both your lab (science!) and your teaching (humanity!).

On its own, this would have been a cool and satisfying addition: it's mechanically deep, and nicely challenging (it feels weirdly nice to have Watchful checks that I can't 100% pass even with my maxed gear), and can reward some unique items. But it also opens the portal to another major area, which we've been talking about for years and years: Parabola, the place behind the mirrors, which Is Not.

In some ways, Parabola is even more complex than the Lab. For starters, it includes multiple areas, which you will need to explore to find: you'll start off in your Base Camp (which you can level up - very helpful for keeping Nightmares in check!), but as you track various Parabolan creatures, you'll occasionally spot some other interesting areas. You can finally meet the Fingerkings, if you dare. Or see where the Great Game is played and play it yourself. Or float down the Waswood and look for interesting objects in the current.

In Parabola, you'll start seeing, using and increasing entire new stats: Mithrandcy, Glasswork, Monstrous Anatomy, and more. These stats even behave differently than the normal ones we're used to: You can train them up as before, and equip items to increase them, but you can also increase their maximum levels: usually the Glasswork stat caps out at 5 (along a pyramidal increase), but if you treat the Fingerkings right you can raise the maximum to 7, then train it up to that. Again, just being able to fail things again is kind of exciting: I've spent years just squeezing out another 1 or 2 points on a previously-maxed stat by chasing down a new best-in-slot item, and it's genuinely thrilling to once again get something going from the very start.

The University and Parabola are interrelated in wonderful ways. For example, you can create Glass Gazettes in the Lab, which will help you track Parabolan beasts. Capture a beast, and you can later study it in your Lab. This may grant you new insight that will help you further explore Parabola, and so on.

These two are also related to a third new area, the Bone Market. It's a shop near the Department of Menace Eradication, sort of a Bazaar that barters in kind: if you pick up an unusual bone in your research or your travels (sorted into the fresh and startling inventory category "Osteology"), you can take it down to the Bone Market and look for a willing buyer. This place also has unique mechanics, most notably that you will need lower BDR stats in order to attract certain buyers. This can be a problem for veteran players, who probably belong to a Respectable Club or have a Dreaded Tattoo or other permanent entanglement. Correspondingly, there is now an entirely new market in BDR-lowering items, which the Fingerkings would be all too happy to provide, at what will certainly not cause any danger for any person whatsoever.

The Bone Market is spare at the moment, at least compared to the huge amount of content at the Lab and the University. Failbetter has indicated that more options will be opening up in there soon, such as being able to open your own stall. That's right, the anniversary celebration isn't over yet: we still have more to come!


Not least of which is an entirely new festival! New festivals have been added every new and then, like the Fruits of the Zee and the Election. We're now mere days into a brand-new one, Whitsun, which is... about eggs? It feels pretty convoluted and confusing at the moment, but I'm pretty sure that most festivals probably do to brand-new players.

The core mechanic of this festival is basically: buy an egg, enhance an egg, hatch an egg. Depending on how you enhance it, you'll get different things. Mostly pets. So, it's a little reminiscent of the Feast of the Rose. Unlike the Feast, which was more card-based (to get Masquing), Whitsun is more time-based: once you get an egg ready, it takes 24 real-world hours to hatch it.

The whole thing honestly feels kind of overwhelming, but fortunately a kind soul created an extremely helpful and comprehensive Google Doc listing the possible rewards, which then lets me plan my own personal goals. There are a nice mix of desirable things here: some pets apparently unlock new branches on existing cards and stories, others boost the new end-game stats, and one is a new best-in-slot BDR boot.

(I do have to say that the new diversity in stats and stat requirements has made the already-inadequate Wardrobe system now woefully pointless. I previously wanted seven slots; now I think that up to fifteen may be needed, if the Bone Market is a regular thing. I guess we'll probably go back to manually searching through our Possessions every time we draw a new card. Just imagine searching through this mess, trying to find the one pet that gives a boost to Glasswork, or that lowers your Bizarre!)

As with most festivals, you can get a lot of stuff for free, or pay some Fate for higher-level rewards. This festival uses a new currency, the ha'penny: everyone gets three of them for free, and you can buy more for Fate. Fate is required for the end-game-related pets, or if you want more than one of the clothing items. I'm thinking of dropping some cash in the next day or two for that. Fallen London has given me so much joy over the years, and is so decent in how they manage their business, that I always feel good when I toss them a few bucks.

While eggs are the stars of the Whitsun show, it seems like there's still more to come. The Apicius Club has reappeared and we're having our first De Gustibus in, uh, maybe five years or so. You can finally pick up that Sealed Copy of the Crimson Book you've been pining for! And it sounds like there are new, Egg-related research options at the Lab, and in Sinning Jenny's Finishing School, and perhaps a local newspaper edition to be written.

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the Ambitions! They're all done, now! This was the very first stuff in Fallen London, the big, meaty narratives that drew us in and gave us purpose in the early days. All four have been completed. Well, by Failbetter, I mean. I'm personally in the midst of a very intense bracket tournament as I pursue my Heart's Desire, but my opponent will just need to wait until I've finished admiring all these eggs.

There's lots more to see and do, and with all the dispiriting stuff happening (or not happening) in the world now, I feel very grateful for the chance to escape into Fallen London for a little while now.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Lordes and Ladies

This was a Pickettyriffic weekend. Thanks to a hot tip from my brother Pat, I was able to join a great live (quarantined) panel discussion with Thomas Piketty, the "rockstar" French economist, and several other great thinkers in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion that touched in particular on the covid pandemic and the possible futures it may foretell. I also got to watch the new film that panel was ostensibly promoting, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And I crossed the halfway mark in Capital and Ideology, the latest book from Piketty.

Originally I was planning to wait until I finished this book before writing up all three things; but realistically that will be at least several more weeks, so I wanted to capture the event thoughts while they're still fresh. Then I thought that I might write up my impressions of the book so far, much as I would do with a particularly lengthy novel. But on further reflection I think I want to wait and react to the whole book in one post, not least because of all of his pending promises like "I will have much more to say about it later on" (which has replaced my beloved "I will come back to this point" from the previous book). Instead, let's start with the panel!

Like so much of the entertainment I've consumed over the last two months (The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Hollywood Handbook), this took the form of a Zoom call. It was hosted by The New Republic and moderated by the editor Chris Lehmann. Piketty fielded most of the questions and got most of the speaking time, which certainly makes sense given the purpose of the event and his stature. As with other interviews I've seen with him, he speaks in strongly accented but clear English. He's interesting to watch, often with brows knit tightly in concentration while someone else talks or jokes, then loose and open while he speaks. Rounding out the panel were two other experts who, I would later learn, are also featured in the movie: the journalist Gillian Tett and the political scientist Ian Bremmer. Both gave good observations and helped drive the conversation. Ian was also surprisingly (and welcomely) active in the Q&A chat, responding to randos like me who had joined the Zoom and were following the conversation or going on tangents.

Lehmann opened the panel with a question about the Coronavirus. Historically, crises have often provided opportunities for making major structural changes: for example, the Great Depression led to the New Deal. He was curious if one possible beneficial outcome of the crisis would be to reorient society in a more just fashion, providing necessary investment in our state's capabilities. Piketty agreed that this is one possible outcome, but warned that it's just as likely that things could go the opposite direction; after all, economic crisis in Germany had led to the rise of Nazism. So there are major risks as well as opportunities to be aware of.

Bremmer eventually articulated a really thoughtful analysis of the overall situation we're currently in, basically with one good trend and two bad trends. On the one hand, the political discussion in the US now is far more advanced than it has been for decades: ideas like the wealth tax that were not even considered just a year or two ago are now polling with absolute majority support and have major political champions. This trend will likely accelerate as a result of coronavirus, as we compare the outcomes in the US to those in other countries and political pressure builds to invest in our healthcare system, our social safety net, and so on. But, on the other hand, the people who are most hurt by the crisis and the accompanying recession are the working class: they're working "essential" jobs, getting sick and dying from exposure to the virus, losing jobs that they can't afford to lose, getting displaced. This is a huge shock to the lower class, which will necessarily blunt their political power: you can't canvas for a candidate if you're starving or traveling for home or work. And, much as we saw in the 2008 financial crisis, the top 1% elites are emerging richer and more powerful than ever: while the real economy is tanking, tech companies like Google are more profitable than ever. So, for at least the next couple of years the upper classes will have even more relative power than they already (which is already a hell of a lot!). And finally there's the external threat of countries like China who have a degree of control over their citizens that allows them to much more easily resolve this sort of crisis. All of these things are accelerating, and it's really hard to say where we will end up.

Tett was unfortunately sidelined by audio issues for some of the program (a problem I've encountered all too often these past few months!), but did make some great contributions early on. Her background is actually in anthropology, and she noted that one of the most important things about anthropology is realizing just how much societies can vary: it's natural to assume that things can only be one way, until you see it being done another way, and suddenly that opens up new ways of thinking about your own culture. This dovetails really nicely with Piketty's politically-oriented view of economies, which are not driven by immutable laws, but rather by the choices people make. This does give much more opportunity for optimism.

In addition to the coronavirus, there was also some good, spirited discussion on another hot contemporary topic, the Green New Deal (and environmentalism more broadly). Tett has apparently written extensively about the GND and helped lay out some thoughts. Most people view global climate change as an existential crisis, one that could permanently cripple human development; many think that we need to tackle both climate change and inequality, while others see a limited potential for political evolution and think we need to focus all our attention on climate change. In previous interviews, I've heard Piketty make an argument along the lines that climate change is the bigger issue, but solving inequality is a prerequisite to solving climate change: we will need massive mobilization of resources to take it on, which will require democratic marshaling of wealth and a broad will to meet the challenge; otherwise, elites will hoard the resources we need to solve the problem, and the less-privileged people will be too focused on meeting their short-term necessities to tackle the looming problem. Tett did share some good news, in that tackling climate change is a less polarizing issue than it was even a few years ago; conservatives use different language, like "Conservation" and "Stewardship," but are now potential allies in this fight.

The panelists also looked at the global dimension of the problem, which is definitely important: not just what happens within countries, but between countries. The US, UK and France became global superpowers in large part because of our unlimited extraction and consumption of resources in prior centuries; when we tell rising countries not to do what we've done, they'll rightly laugh in our faces. The only just and rational solution is for the rich countries to pay the poor countries not to pollute. But, just try telling that to someone wearing a MAGA hat! Once again, the issues of politics, economics and environmentalism are inseparable, but no less important.

Tett and Bremmer in particular shared a lot of interesting thoughts on globalization (or, as Bremmer frames it, globalism vs. globalization). This topic has kind of been in the background of much of the stuff I've been reading and watching lately, but I haven't really seen much heads-on explanation of it, and it was great to see this breakdown. As Bremmer hits hard, the global population has done extremely well over the last several decades, with more than a billion people being lifted out of poverty and into the global middle class; but this has happened at the same time that the first-world middle class has stagnated, which is directly contributing to the rise in nativism we're seeing in the US and Europe.

I have noticed that the "optimism versus pessimism" question seems to arise rather often in live events with Piketty. Lots of people, including myself, saw Capital in the Twenty-First Century as a rather dire warning, with fundamentally pessimistic outlooks on the prospects of future growth. But in person he's always careful to emphasize his optimism: there's more wealth in the world than ever before, and in the past we have demonstrated our capability of using political power to reduce inequality, and nothing is really stopping us from doing so again other than a lack of political will. He sounded slightly more measured in this panel, obviously not wanting to downplay the impact of the coronavirus and being aware that all switch points do not lead to positive outcomes. Bremmer had a more dour perspective, but the interview as a whole ended on a pretty positive note.

I decided to take the plunge and buy a ticket for the movie. I really dig how they're doing this: clearly, the original plan was to release the movie in theaters, but that isn't happening now. Rather than just keeping it in the vault or releasing on a streaming service, though, Kino Lorber has come up with a cool model: you can buy a ticket through your local movie theater. They split the cost between the theater and the distributor/filmmakers, just like you would with a regular physical ticket. The theater then gets income during the time it's shut down so they can continue to pay employees, cover rent, and continue minimal operations; and you as the viewer can watch the movie at home. I was very pleased to see that the Roxie Theater in the Mission District in on the list of distributors, and ponied up for it.

It didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked. I'd tested it out ahead of time by Airplaying the trailer for the film from Kino's site, which worked perfectly. Unfortunately, though, it looks like the actual movie has some sort of extra DRM or something and I was unable to stream it. That was very frustrating! I always hate feeling like I'm being punished for doing the right thing and buying things legally.

This felt kind of ironic because, right before the panel discussion, I'd (privately) scoffed at someone on Twitter who wrote something along the lines of, "It's disappointing that you're charging people to watch a movie about capitalism, it should really be free." One thing I've gained a far better appreciation for in recent years is the value of labor: orienting the economy around fairly compensating people for the work they do, instead of focusing on selling things as cheaply as possible. There's absolutely no contradiction between criticizing capitalism (as currently practiced in the US) and charging for something you made. But here I was, that same night, feeling like a fool for paying money for something that didn't work. I don't know, it's complicated!

I calmed down and watched it the next night: directly on my computer, not as nice as it would have been on my TV, but whatever, it's fine.

So, bottom line: I really liked it! It's a different beast than the book, and I think that ultimately the shared title is probably more about marketing than adapting. But it's getting at the same spirit as Piketty's body of work, and covers an overlapping set of topics and concerns, leaning on cinema's strengths to tell the story its own way rather than try to reproduce the book.

The movie is slickly put-together. A dozen or so interviewees provide most of the content: Piketty (in subtitled French), also Gillian Tett and Ian Bremmer, several famous intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama and Joseph Stiglitz, and many other academics and a few civil servants. We get to see the speakers, but most of the time the audio is spliced over scenes that evoke what they're discussing: homeless people sleeping against Manhattan skyscrapers, or pristine Bermuda beaches, or a sea of people riding a wave in a pool. The music is smart and contemporary, if a bit too on-the-nose: I laughed and rolled my eyes when the movie opened with Lorde's song "Royals" (of course a Kiwi would pick that!), "We're In The Money" plays during the 1920s, "Kids in America" plays when we enter the Reagan years. Though, in retrospect, those songs are cultural artifacts of their eras, and it probably is worthwhile to listen to how people were expressing their thoughts about wealth in different societies.

There are also great, judicious clips from movies and TV shows, which always fit in well with the topics being discussed. Piketty famously admires Jane Austen's depiction of privilege, and it's fun to see how a room orients itself around Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice". We see a few different depictions of the impersonal forces of capitalism causing specific human misery in foreclosing a specific house, first in "The Grapes of Wrath" and later in an episode of "The Simpsons". And there's some really dark footage of strike-breaking and slave plantations. Probably the most chilling inclusions are scenes from "Triumph of the Will" and other Nazi propaganda.

Again, I'm only halfway through "Capital and Ideology", but I feel like the film version of "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" is actually closer to "Capital and Ideology" than it is to the book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century". Which isn't a bad thing! Cit21C is more about economic theory while C&I is more about history, and history can be a lot more engaging. C&I also casts a wider net: while Cit21C is primarily focused on the US and western Europe from roughly 1800-2000, C&I has a more global perspective, and goes deeper into colonialism and the slave trade. The movie more or less follows the same structure as C&I, telling a basically linear and narrative story: how the class systems of feudal societies carried forward into the modern era, how inequality actually accelerated after the legal privileges of the nobility were revoked, how those inequalities led to social stresses within nations and tension over competition between nations, how those stresses led to WW1, how the economic misery of the depression led to ethno-nationalism, how the postwar boom and social-democratic policies led to enormous decreases in inequality, then how those policies were unwound starting in the 1980s and how the reckless actions of bankers and capitalists have led to misery and massive inequality today.

It's a bit of a whirlwind, but a very well-told one; I personally didn't feel like I learned much from this part of the movie that I hadn't picked up from the two books, but that's okay! Again, I think it's really smart to lean on the language and strengths of cinema rather than try to ram hundreds of graphs into 110 minutes.

As the movie goes on, I did come to really appreciate the diversity of voices and the new perspectives it brings in. Piketty is the anchor of the film, but it's not all about him, more about exploring the space he's interested in. A few particular sections really stick out in my mind. One is about the history of the fashion industry (and Christmas!), how need was manufactured and then fulfilled. I've read a lot about textiles (so many textiles you guys), but hadn't heard specifically about the fashion side of it, which provided a fascinating piece to the puzzle. Another is about the psychology of wealth, and some really disturbing (and compelling) research about how strongly behaviors can be driven by the perception of wealth. These sorts of things go beyond the areas Piketty lays out in his books, which makes perfect sense: he's a very cautious and judicious writer, avoiding the temptation to opine on topics outside his area of expertise, so it's great to hear some of those outside experts show how his findings extend to other areas, or can explain the patterns he has discovered.

At the tail end of the movie, the last ten minutes or so finally get around to what the book Cit21C is about: the relationships between growth, return on capital, wealth and inequality; his proposal for a progressive tax on wealth. Unlike in the book, Piketty doesn't build up to these observations and show how they're derived from empirical data: instead, he takes them as givens while making further points. I don't think any skeptics would be convinced by this movie in the same way they might be from his books, but for the vast majority of people who are generally curious about the relationship between wealth and power, what's happening now and may happen in the future, the film does a terrific job at conveying the heart of what Piketty and his colleagues are trying to say.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Song of Autumn

Once you hop on the Fall from Heaven 2 train, it's very hard to get off again. Each game is exciting and fun, but it also tantalizes with possibilities for future games. "Hm, I didn't build any siege equipment all game, I might want to look into that next time. Or even try Luchiurp to make some golems..." "Too bad nobody joined the Overcouncil with me. I need to get that going in another game." "Sacrifice The Weak seems insanely powerful. I wonder if I could use that while keeping hell terrain out of my empire?"

Whenever I start a new game, I'm debating between revisiting previous fun experiences (Khazad, Kuriorates, etc.) and trying some of those novel experiences (finally playing an evil civ, rushing to an early victory, going for a new victory type). Making choices can be hard! Which is why it's sometimes nice to have those choices made for me. Specifically, trying a scenario.

FfH2 does not need scenarios. The base game is infinitely variable and entertaining already. They're a ridiculous addition to an already perfect game, like ice cream on cake or a shot of Baileys in your Guinness. I've written about them at length before, and I've still only played through maybe half of them.

I think this is now the third PC that I've installed FfH2 on, and fortunately I've brought my scenario "trophy" file along with me for each of those moves, so I effectively have a 13+ year mega-campaign going on. More like 5 separate mega-campaigns, really. Dusting off the cobwebs and reviewing the state of things, I have yet to complete any one of the major arcs in the scenarios, although I've unlocked the final scenario for all of them. I think that last time I got stuck on The Black Tower, the end of the Falamar quest chain, where an already-difficult objective is made even harder by the special rules (human units can never heal, and become demons when killed, so you end up fighting nearly every unit you build). I do want to beat that one, but I figured I'd ramp back up to it, and instead tackled one of the more stand-alone scenarios: The Splintered Court.

There's a really fascinating, deep and complex lore behind FfH2, drawing on a wide variety of influences but combined into a really unique dark fantasy whole. These lore bits are scattered all around: sometimes you'll get long entries in the Civilopedia entry, or hear a comment from another leader during negotiations, or some narration when you explore a unique feature in the terrain. A recent delight has been reading Kael's lore posts on the (still active!) /r/fallfromheaven subreddit. But maybe the best single source of lore is the scenarios. You'll learn why Rosier is The Fallen, how the Doviello relate to the Illians, who the hell Decius is and why he behaves differently from every other leader, and so on. Besides straight-up lore bombs, the scenarios ooze flavor, too, with disconcerting and compelling writing and visuals hooking you in and dragging you along for the ride.

I could say many more things about the scenarios (and I probably have in my previous posts), so for now I'll just note two awesome things. First, the stories are surprisingly interactive: at certain critical beats in the scenario, you'll often get an Event pop up that describes something your leader is experiencing (a diplomatic summit, an assassin in the night, a vision from beyond) and give you multiple choices for how to respond. Like with the base FfH2 games, these can have in-game consequences that range from minor (some more gold, a new resource appearing, a change in diplomatic states) to major (powerful new units appearing, new civ-wide buffs being applied). But many scenarios also have branching effects based on these choices, which can drastically change your objectives and lead to entirely different experiences.

The second awesome thing is that those branching choices don't just affect your current game, they can impact other scenarios as well. The decisions you make as Decius in Into the Desert decide who you play as in Wages of Sin, setting up entirely different gameplay and victory conditions despite being the same scenario. And there can be significant bonuses between them: defeating the Lord of the Balors scenario will reduce the power of the Infernal faction in all of the other scenarios. Lord of the Balors is the last scenario in the list, but it shouldn't be the last one you play! It can help to be strategic when determining the order in which you will tackle the scenarios, and not just while playing each one.

That said, for this particular outing I was looking for a scenario which was not tied into any other ones, or at least not obviously so. (There are some notoriously diabolical hidden links between other scenarios.) Reading through the ones I hadn't yet played, I soon decided on "The Splintered Court". This touches on a domain that none of the other scenarios so far have addressed: the elves. Specifically, you can play as one of the Ljosalfar or Svartalfar in their civil war. The three Ljosalfar leaders are joined in a permanent alliance with one another: you automatically share any discoveries, are permanently at peace, readily agree to each others' requests, and act as one entity when declaring war or peace with other civilizations. Except in this game, you are permanently at war with the Svartalfar. Faeryl Viconia is there, in an alliance with two new leaders custom to this scenario: Rivanna the Wraith Lord and Volanna.

I mulled for a while over who to choose. I was very tempted by the Svartalfar; I've always been intrigued by their dark-elf aesthetic, but haven't had a whole lot of experience with the sort of stealth-heavy campaigns that they seem oriented towards. Rivanna and Volanna seem like slightly underwhelming leaders with only a single trait each. On the Ljosalfar side, I was initially leaning towards Thessa: Arcane seemed like a lot of fun, producing super-charged spellcasters, while Expansive seems like an all-around useful trait. But, the special conditions of this scenario include not being able to build new Settlers, so much of her Expansive potential would be wasted. Amelanchier seems like the best all-around choice, with his martially focused traits. But I eventually decided to play as Arendel: Those small culture bumps can be really useful in the early game, and Spiritual would have huge synergy with the strategy I was envisioning: building temples and churning out disciple units.

The scenario opens with an advanced start. You have already learned pretty much all of the ancient-era techs: Animal husbandry, Calendar, Knowledge of the Ether, etc. You have three settlers, three archers, and a Disciple of Leaves. I planted my capital on my first turn, and the next two cities on the following turn. I decided to explore the map with my archers while my cities produced scouts, and then explore with the scouts, too. This proved to be a mistake. After maybe thirty turns or so, barbarians walked up and sacked my completely undefended cities. Whoops! Total newbie move!

I reloaded and started again. I noticed that, while the shape and terrain of the scenario map is always the same, the location of resources is not: in general, it's a more resource-rich map than usual, but the exact locations change from game to game. This second start wasn't as good, so I started over a third time, and finally settled in for the long haul.

Being limited to a military victory was nicely focusing: I usually try to spread myself too thinly in the early stages, pursuing any promising leads and trying to be all-around strong in multiple disciplines, and only start seriously thinking about the endgame after a few hundred turns in. This scenario was a lot more clear-cut (though, I would eventually learn, not as clear-cut as it initially seemed). I was going to need to defeat the Svartalfar, which meant building a potent fighting force. I would build it around my civilization and my religion, leveraging my unique traits.

On the very first turn, I moved my Disciple of Leaves into the capital and spread the Fellowship. Interestingly, this also founded the Fellowship; in normal games this happens in the opposite order, but this way makes perfect sense in a scenario. This also meant that my holy city was in my capital, which is often not the case but can be very lucrative when so.

The first tech I researched was Drama, which grants a free Great Bard to the first person to discover it: Me! The Great Bard can construct the Song of Autumn, so I did. Between this and my temples, I was able to start focusing on Priest specialists, which would eventually ensure a steady stream of Great Prophets.

For civics, I ran with God King, which gives an impressive 50% boost to production and gold in your capital. Because you're limited in the number of cities you can build, it's viable to stay with God King the entire game. For cultural values I stuck with Religion the whole game, which gives some small happiness and culture boosts; in retrospect, since I was Spiritual it might have made more sense to frequently rotate this around, going Nationhood during periods when I was building military units, then swapping in Pacifism during the times I was increasing my infrastructure, so I could build up GPP more quickly. On the Labor front I ran Apprenticeship the whole time, giving +2 XP to new military units : nice for everyone, but especially for mundane martial units, so they can take a promotion before seeing combat. In practice, though, the vast majority of units I constructed automatically gain XP anyways, so it wasn't that big of a deal. I might have been better off with Military State to boost unit production, allow spending gold to rush, and allowing more free unit support. There is a culture penalty, but that isn't a big deal for this scenario after you get your fat cross.

And then there is the economy. I was just Agrarian for a while, even though I didn't have any farms, and just figured the extra 1 point of Health couldn't hurt. But soon my allies discovered Hidden Paths and I decided to adopt Guardian of Nature. Wow! I'm sure I've run it before, but it's been, uh, years and years, I've forgotten how insanely good it is. You can easily get an extra 12-15 Happiness per city, which is more than even a late-game city will be getting from its luxuries or its buildings. And an extra +5 flat Health, but because of all the forests you have that will actually be more like 12 Health. All this adds up to enormous mega-cities even in the early midgame. Finally, late in the game I adopted the Overcouncil. I only had enough time to vote on a single resolution, but it was a pretty useful one. I'd like to do more with the councils in the future.

My capital was my religious center, my military center and my Great Person center. I put all the wonders that boosted starting XP and production in here. Once I started generating Great Prophets, I began constructing the Altar of Luonnotar here: even though I couldn't get the Altar victory, I've seen from earlier games that it can be very powerful at higher levels. And it definitely is! By the end of the game, I was building new Priests of Leaves every 2 turns, and each of them were starting off with 16xp.

The second city wasn't as big of a deal: it was my arcane center, so I created a Mage Guild, and then pumped out one adept after another. As usual, my goal was to start them early enough and get enough of them so I could maximize my Archmages by the time they became available. In this game, though, I never even got to Sorcery, so it ended up being a bit of a waste; in retrospect I should have focused on building more archers or something. The adepts I did build were only slightly useful. At that level, your Air mana is good for Fair Winds; but I never built or used any boats. Life mana is good for Sanctify; but the Armageddon Counter is disabled in this scenario, so it doesn't matter. With the Song of Autumn, I had 2 Nature mana, so each adept already had Treetop Defense. This spell is very useful, as there is a ton of Forest in this map: I would say that over half of all squares are forested to start with, and more will probably bloom over the course of the game. Since all your units are elves, you're mostly quickly moving through forests anyways, so it can be helpful (though not decisive) to end your turns fully fortified via magic. But I could easily have gotten by with just a couple of adepts.

In the third city I constructed a Hunting Lodge. My initial plot was to focus on capturing animals and using them to build my army: in the early exploratory phase of this scenario, you run across a ton of wild animals. It ended up not quite working out like that. My Scouts had really low base strength, of course, and even after getting many promotions they had a hard time winning fights against the stronger animals. They had explored so far that it would take dozens of turns to return home and upgrade. One finally did and became a Ranger, but by the time he headed back out, barbarians had replaced all the animals. So my initial plan failed, but I was still happy with how things turned out. Rangers had the highest raw strength of any unit of mine during the game, with an Attack of 7. And even better, hawks! I'm kind of kicking myself now for not making any Hawks during my Calabim game, I'd completely forgotten how incredibly useful they are. Most units can see 1 square around them. If you're standing on a hill above lowlands, or have spent valuable XP on a Sentry promotion, you might be able to see 2 squares (if mountains aren't in your way). A Hawk, though, can fly up high and recon, clearing a huge (maybe roughly 20x20) field from the fog of war. Including over mountains. This provides invaluable operational insight! You can verify that the lands around your cities are clear of barbarians, or identify any that are approaching and position your defenders to greet them before they can pillage. And your rangers in the field can carry hawks, letting you not just see who's waiting for you in that city several spaces away (I could have used that when Flauros was trying to dislodge Acheron!), but also to look beyond that and see if your opponent is reinforcing their position with more people so you should rush forward and take the city ASAP, or if they're trying to flank you and so you should reposition to meet them in the field. And hawks are cheap, too! At just 20 hammers I think they're the cheapest unit in the entire game, even less expensive than warriors.

You do occasionally get an event where wanderers arrive in your capital and you can decide what to do with them: I think the options are something like supply them as Settlers for 100 gold, equip as Hunters for 70 gold, equip as Scouts for 20 gold, settle for +1 population for free. This event seems to be random. In my first game, I got it twice in my first 30 turns before getting wiped out. In my last game, it only fired once, after more than 100 turns. I did take the settler option, of course. In this scenario, my settlement strategy was the opposite as my earlier Calabim game on a Huge Erebus map, where I struck out far and wide to claim chokepoints. Here, particularly while running God King, and in a state of eternal war, I wanted to settle compactly, keeping maintenance costs low and letting me share defenders between cities. I planted this one to the north, gaining access to three brand-new luxury resources: Gems, Wine and Dye. I decided that this city would build an Archery Range and finally start producing those units. Unfortunately, the game ended before I could even construct the building, let alone the archers.

There is one other option to expand your empire in this scenario: conquer cities. Late in the game, a barbarian city plopped down near my capital, and it was Size 2 before I conquered it. It was within range of Yggdrasil and had some other good resources so I kept it, but it never developed that far.

My public works for this game were basically opposite to my Calabim game. With the Fellowship, your Forests turn into Ancient Forests, giving you solid production and food but no commerce. As elves, though, the solution is clear: Build cottages in the forest! Instead of farms everywhere, it was cottaged Ancient Forests everywhere. And since elves already treat forests as roads, and there's tons of forest all over the map, I only needed to build roads when linking up resources.

Early on, I focused on exploring the map. There are the regular assortment of goody huts and lairs to be found, and the continent feels a little crowded, so it's worth prioritizing some Scouts to ensure good results from those before they all get claimed. I lucked out with technology discoveries and a couple of Great People. I sent a Great Commander back to my capital to form a Command Post, and started a Golden Age with a Great Scientist. After discovering Drama, I learned Military Strategy to get another Great Commander. I attached him to Gilden Silveric. Since your two allies are also Ljosalfar, I'm not sure if they're also capable of building him, so I prioritized creating him early on.

It took a while, but I eventually explored the map, primarily with my Scouts with some help from my Archers; in this game I lucked out on the barbarians and was able to leave my home cities lightly defended for some time, and further lucked out and got some Treant assistance during early incursions. The overall setup is that the three Ljosalfar civs are in the northwest, the Svartalfar in the southeast, Baron Duin Halfmoon leading a werewolf faction (coded as Doviello) in the southwest, and Alexis of the Calabim in the northeast. Everyone hated me, but only the Svartalfar were at war. Much later I met Falamar of the Lanun; after trading maps with him even later, I saw that he hailed from an island to the east. There is ocean all around the continent, except that the western edge touches the map so you can't sail completely around. Boats were irrelevant for the game, though it may be possible to induce Falamar to attempt a landing.

One other mechanic in this game is that each turn is also part of a day/night cycle. It's actually really subtle, but there's some text on the right side of the screen (superimposed over the map) that lists the current hour: Dawn, Morning, Noon, etc. Supposedly these time cycles effect the strength of units; with the Baron's werewolves shifting back into men during daylight and the vampires weakening under the sun. As I never fought either of those factions, though, it doesn't seem to have a big impact on the scenario.

Once I had Gilden built, I decided to try and start the war proper. He isn't that strong of a unit, at a base of just 5 attack and unable to wield metal weapons; but he compares well to other units of his era, and more importantly he's one of the earliest Heroes you can get, so he will have more promotions than anyone else you can meet in the field. I decided to start my war with a very simple pairing: Gilden to crack open cities, stacked with a Disciple of Leaves to help heal him and weather counterattacks.

I started with Volanna, whose mini-empire was located immediately south of the Calabim lands. Her Warriors didn't yet have access to any Copper, and Gilden was able to easily take them down. He was in that exciting early phase of heroism with a big set of unspent XP available. I could check the odds, grab some Combat or Shock if necessary, attack, and then take another promotion to heal up most of the damage.

Oddly enough, when you capture an enemy city in this scenario, you don't get the normal offer to keep it or pillage: you automatically keep every city. This made me slightly nervous. These cities were on the far opposite side of the map, nearly doubling my Maintenance cost. Not to mention that I hadn't planned for a long defensive occupation, just a fast conquering strike. (Remind you of anybody's foreign policy?)

I hunkered down for a bit, then an idea struck me: I was part of an alliance! Why not turn the city over to my allies? It made perfect sense: It was geographically closer to them, so the maintenance wouldn't hurt as badly. The AI is usually a lot smarter at defense than offense anyways. And I could see that my allies were building buttloads of low-strength units, mostly archers and warriors, in contrast with my smaller selection of high-power units. I would be the tip of the spear, pushing through Svartalfar territory, while Amelanchier and Thessa would be the shaft, filling up the hole and denying these lands to our foes.

I initially planned to offer the city to Amelanchier, since he was closer, but then realized that Thessa was closer to these cities than she was to any of the other ones; if I was going to share the burden of maintenance, then it would probably be better for her to carry these ones. I offered her the city gratis and she gracefully accepted, then began moving reinforcers. At the same time, I was bringing in my own reinforcers to join with Gilden: A newly promoted and experienced Ranger, but more excitingly, a brace of Priests of Leaves.

You don't think of Priests as being military units, but they can absolutely fill that role. A Priest has a base strength of 5, better than warriors or archers. And because mine were starting out with more than a dozen XP and a Potency promotion, by the time they saw battle they could easily have taken Command and Combat III or more. Unlike adepts and mages, you don't need to save any promotions for spells, you can dump them all into combat-related promotions. Of course, even without promotions they're incredibly useful, with powerful passive Heal abilities that keep your army moving quickly and minimizing the risk of a counterblow. But they can also be a respectable force to build your army around in the first place.

I also came to really appreciate their tigers. These behave a lot like Skeletons: they can't attack on the turn you summon them, so they take some advance planning, but they remain indefinitely. You have a limited number available: with 5 priests of leaves, you can summon a total of 5 tigers, but it's fine for one priest to summon 5 times, for example. Those Combat promotions you gave your priests translate into Empowerment for your tigers. In practice, mine could usually kill any unit in the field, and could do a lot of damage when attacking a city. It's free to create new ones, so I didn't hesitate to suicide-squad some in the midst of an assault, or simply deleting ones that weren't seeing action. The one slight downside in this map was that the Tigers were the only non-Elf unit I had all game, so they moved through forests at 1 square per turn, unlike everyone else who moved at least 2 per turn. So on long marches, it often made more sense to dismiss all my tigers, then march, then re-summon them at my destination.

My power was growing, with Gilden getting his Heroic Offense and joining forces with my Priests. But the dark elves were adapting and growing more menacing. First, they gained access to Copper, immediately making their cities tougher (definitely not impossible!) to crack. They also had researched Poisons, and assassins took to the field. Most alarmingly, they built two heroes in quick succession: Alazkan the Assassin and Gibbon Goetia.

I lucked out a bit on the timing. I had taken Volanna's first two cities, and she built Alazkan in the third. A newly-born Hero hasn't yet had time to reach their potential, and I was hoping to take him down before he grew too powerful. This was a tricky siege, and honestly I reloaded a couple of times to get the outcome I wanted. Alazkan has high offense but low defense, so he was one of the last units to defend the city but a deadly force when attacking. Like other Assassins, he also attacks the weakest unit in the stack, instead of going after the strongest ones as normal. So if one of my attackers took too much damage while still winning their combat, Alazkan could pick them off afterwards. On the plus side, though, he only had a handful of promotions so far, and he is at a disadvantage when defending (or, presumably, attacking cities). I had him hemmed in pretty well. It would be a lot more challenging to meet him in the wilderness!

It took severally rounds, but I gradually whittled down the defenders. I got nervous once my Ranger arrived and had his hawk recon the area: Gibbon Goetia was marching north, leading a huge stack of assassins and archers! I had my Fawn and a couple of spare Tigers try and draw them off while my main force redoubled their efforts. Finally, I killed Alazkan, and... what's that?! Another Alazkan?! I attacked again in an avalanche of tigers, defeating the assassin and the badly wounded remainders, before finally taking the city.

This time I finally got a popup asking what I wanted to do with it. There was an option to "Return control to the Ljosalfar", which I chose; surprisingly, it went to Amelanchier, even though Thessa already controlled the two other cities. I'm not sure if it was based on distance to the capital or what.


More compellingly, I also got a little story. Volanna had been captured, but Baron Duin Halfmoon interceded. He wanted to take possession of Volanna and turn her into a werewolf, promising me his military aid in return.

I paused for a little while to consider. On its face, this was a solid trade. My objective for the scenario was simply to destroy the two remaining Svartalfar factions; joining the Baron wouldn't hurt that, and might help, as he would project threat from the southwest while I continued pushing down from the northeast. But, playing the other scenarios has made me incredibly wary. This seemed like exactly the sort of thing that would come back to bite me in the ass: what if, saw, it turned out that there was a hidden objective to defeat the Baron at the end, and giving him Volanna would just make him stronger? Or even add a new hostile werewolf faction in some other scenario? I eventually decided that, while the Baron might be helpful, I certainly did not need him. I turned him down, bracing for repercussions, but that was it: no declaration of war, no onslaught of barbarians.

I marched through a small wilderness area before arriving at Faeryl's own borders. By now Amelanchier was participating in the campaign as well, moving some stacks down to help in the fight. There was a bit of a delicate dance with Gibbon as I lured away individual defenders going after individual tigers, eventually splitting and then thinning the stack. Gibbon himself wasn't too bad to take down, but he regularly summons Mistforms, who are much more powerful if shorter-lived.

Oh! I almost forgot. After defeating Alazkan, I finally discovered why I needed to kill him twice. He dropped his special item, the shield Black Mirror, which now any unit could pick up. This unlocks the awesome Mirror ability which creates a perfect copy of the casting unit: it has your current XP, current promotions, current buffs, etc. (The one exception: it does not copy your race, so mirroring an Elf does not give double movement through forests.) This summon cannot completely kill a unit by attacking, but can take it down to, like, 0.2 health or something. It lasts until the start of your next turn, so you can also position it as a defender. Needless to say, I had Silveric carry the mirror. I didn't always use it, but on turns when I had a shot at taking a city, I would always launch the first charge with the mirror: even when it fails, it would strongly damage the best defender, giving everyone else in my stack a much better chance at breaking through.

Dealing with the enemy assassins was the tricky part of this phase, as they could move swiftly through the forest and strike at any sign of weakness, including my Adepts as well as wounded military. It was difficult, but I absolutely loved it, in no small part because I felt like I was fully, deeply experiencing the Ljosalfar/Svartalfar divide: not just through flavor text or background art, but feeling it through the gameplay. My Ljosalfar were dextrous, archery-oriented, worshiping the Leaves, allied with nature. Their Svartalfar were sinister, recon-oriented, following Esus, secretive, hidden, striking unseen, melting into the shadows. We shared the same common traits: living in the forests, we moved quickly through the trees and fought well in them. But those common points only further highlighted our fundamental differences. We just felt different, in the way we marshaled our forces, where we preferred to strike, how we built our armies and what promotions we took.

I survived the wave of assassins, and fortunately it got much easier after this: there were still plenty of defenders left to face, but mostly mundane archers and warriors, supported by the occasional ranger or scout. I did manage to Command a single Adept to join my side, which was cool: he came with his Shadow promotion, granting me the Blur buff for better success against enemy archers. This came in handy along with the standard Treetop Defense. My general MO for this campaign was to move through forest as much as possible and then set up outside of a city, ideally also in a forest, even better on a forested hill. My adepts would make us defensible and my priests would summon tigers. I would count defenders and attackers and decide on a course of action: if I had the numbers, I would soften up with a Tiger Rush and then finish them off with my elven fighters. Otherwise I would just take out a couple of their strongest units with a couple of my strongest, wait and heal up, then continue until they were low enough for the final push. Fortunately, Amelanchier was often fighting by my side during these siege, weakening defenders on his own or at least drawing their fire.

The same general pattern repeated as before: the game automatically gave me ownership of new cities as I conquered them without options for razing, but the final city gave the standard options. For a little while my allies were unwilling to take ownership of new cities via diplomacy ("We have our reasons"), but a few turns later they were happy to do so again; I'm not entirely sure why, but it may have been because of ongoing disorders in those cities. After defeating Faeryl, another event popped up, but this one was merely informative: Faeryl had managed to escape my forces and fled to the remaining Svartalfar faction.

I continued to roll forwards. Thessa never got very involved in the campaign, although she did back-fill her new cities with fresh defenders. I continued my research during the campaign, although I had to dial my science investment back to 50-60% to keep my deficits under control; even after giving away the far-flung captured cities, the enormous sizes in my core led to huge maintenance costs. I eventually finished researching Feral Bond and unlocked Kithra Kyriel, the first Fellowship Hero. I built him and ordered him to charge down towards Rivanna the Wraith Lord's final cities. But it was over before he arrived: the last defenders fell.

As with Volanna, another choice event appeared, this one paralleling the earlier one: Alexis manifested inside the palace, offering to join my side in an alliance if I gave her Rivanna to become her thrall. This was less tempting than the Baron's offer: the war was over, and unless there was some final twist there wasn't going to be any more fighting. I declined to hand over Rivanna or to execute her, instead sending her back to my own capital to face a just trial.


And, that was the end! The end of the game, at least. There was a very long written epilogue. Again, it's been years since I've played a scenario and I don't remember whether this is similar to the others or if it's longer, but it was a fantastic, wonderfully-written combination of dialogue and prose that's now seared into my brain.

That ending... holy shit, how chilling! It's the best kind of twist, one that I did not see coming but that makes perfect sense in retrospect. In fact, it's my very favorite kind of twist: one that is particularly reinforced through the gameplay. I mean, these are the special abilities of these units and of these civilizations. But up until now they've been fairly abstract, mechanical things that you plan around and respond to. But now we're forced to confront what they mean, how they feel, and there's a really intense creeping horror to it. I mean, if I'd read this in a short story collection I probably would have gone "Oooh, creepy!", then set it aside and forgotten about it. But instead it's been lingering with me for a few days now, as my mind continues to chew over what happened and when and how.

One of my first questions was, is this true in the base game as well? I could see this being something that happens during the base game, probably under the aegis of Gibbon; but it's deliciously monstrous to think that it happened at the end of the Age of Ice and has been happening all along.

I also thought back to the endings of Volanna and Rivanna. I started to wonder: had I caused this ending to happen? Taking arcane Svartalfar back to my capital, had I welcomed the wolves into the flock and opened the gate? In trying to do the "good" thing, had I unleashed doom upon us all? If the other leaders had gone to the werewolves and vampires, would we have been fine? Or would some external calamity have befallen us instead?

The more I thought about it, though, a second, more chilling possibility presented itself. What if it isn't just Faeryl: What if it's all three? What if it's been true all along? Thinking back to the events, I don't remember Rivanna or Volanna speaking: what if they were actually my allies? That adds a whole new tinge of horror, watching their fates being decided, internally screaming but unable to be heard. In this reading, the mercy is particularly meaningful; but then it might add its own level of terror later, unseen, as they witness, or at least understand, what has happened and that salvation is not forthcoming.

And again it's tempting to link it back to the base game. Is this why there are apparently three Ljosalfar and only one Svartalfar leaders? Are there actually still three Svartalfar leaders in the main game? I don't know if there's a canon answer, but I probably won't ever look at Thessa the same way again.


What a fun rush! Each of these scenarios has felt different, with some more like dungeon crawls and others like entire campaigns. The Splintered Court struck a really nice balance, with most of the standard 4x mechanics in place, but the permanent alliances and some delicious storytelling really puts it over the top. I continue to be impressed at how the base game improves the scenarios and the scenarios improve the base game, each providing lore and experience and depth to the other.