Friday, October 26, 2018


I enjoy reading, but there is a very short list of authors whose books I will buy immediately on release and drop everything to read. Haruki Murakami is one of those few. The last few novel unveilings have taken on a somewhat ritualistic form. I scrupulously avoid all information at all about the book (one reason I use the Mini Spoilers nomenclature on this blog is to honor folks like me who would prefer to know absolutely nothing about a work prior to starting). Green Apple Books in San Francisco hosts midnight release parties for the new books. The previous events for 1Q84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki featured a limited number of autographed books and attracted hundreds of readers. This year there weren't any signed copies of Killing Commendatore, just some limited-edition swag, and only a few dozen showed up. It was still a fun and well-run event, though, with a Murakami-inspired playlist, free Sapporo, Japanese snacks, and a fun scavenger hunt through the rambling bookstore. I started reading the novel on the BART ride home, and just finished it.

I often cite Kafka on the Shore as my favorite Murakami novel. It was also the first novel of his that I read. I suspect that this is a pattern: people who first read Wind-Up Bird generally prefer that, people who first read 1Q84 prefer that, and so on. That isn't a coincidence. Our first exposure to his dreamy, calm, detailed, otherworldly prose has a big impact. Murakami is well-known (and often liked) for his adherence to repeating tropes and touchstones: cats, wells, moons, vanishing people and animals, passive male protagonists, classical music, jazz records, small humanoids, ears, weird sexual encounters. These motifs can build resonance across multiple unconnected novels; unlike David Mitchell, there are never any overt links between his books (except, I suppose, for the Trilogy of the Rat), but the interior of most of his novels have to do with the unexplained correspondence between seemingly disparate objects and events, and that sense of quantum entanglement may be amplified across multiple novels. For better and worse, though, the later novels you read will grow less surprising. You're expecting something odd and unexplained to occur, so it's no longer a shock when it does.


All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed Killing Commendatore more if it was the first Murakami novel I'd read and not the twelfth. The start was especially slow and unengaging. I was reminded of a meme making the rounds on Twitter recently that took the format "We forced a bot to [read/watch] over 1000 [pages/hours] of [White House press briefings / Friends episodes / TED talks / etc.] and made it write its own. Here's what it came up with." The first 40 pages or so of this novel feel a bit like a Mad Libs parody of a Murakami book. Aimless male protagonist? Check. Woman leaving? Check. Attractive woman initiating sex for seemingly no reason? Check.

The book starts hitting its stride when the actual Killing Commendatore appears: there's finally some mystery and purpose to the story. It still feels very drawn-out: the writing is quite good, and it's interesting to learn more about (but never fully understand) Menshiki. The book gets really good at about 500 pages in, but that just leaves around 100 pages to explore this heightened, fascinating world before ending. The length itself isn't a problem - I was completely gripped by 1Q84 from start to finish - but if I hadn't already been determined to finish this book I might not have stuck around until it started getting good.

One aspect that struck me almost immediately was the protagonist's profession as a painter. I found myself thinking of Bluebeard, a Vonnegut novel that also featured a painter and is also one of my less-favorite books from a novelist I generally adore. Murakami writes a lot about painting: technique, motivation, impact, the creative process. I'm fairly certain that this is all a metaphor for writing. Painters and writers seem to follow fairly similar creative processes: it's an activity a person does by themself, in a solitary setting, putting in a great deal of work over a long period of time, before sharing the finished project with the world. The creator must balance their commercial and artistic needs. The artist/writer develops a distinctive style over time, and can evolve that style or mindlessly replicate it or rebel against it. The artist/writer tries to reveal something in their work, and in the process may find something new about it.

Color is a big element of painting, and the protagonist spends some time mixing his paints to get things right. I was struck by how, late in the novel, he repeatedly refers to Menshiki as "Colorless", which, of course, is also how Tsukuru Tazaki was called in his previous novel. I don't remember characters in earlier Murakami novels being called "colorless," and I'm curious if this is a newly-emerging Murakami trope. Menshiki remains an enigma throughout the novel, even though he probably speaks more than any other character. Why, exactly, is he colorless? He does seem to have some passion, or at least motivation: he harbors some feelings for his old girlfriend, and has some sentimental and/or emotional connection to Mariye. He seems to be carefully-controlled and deliberate, a man of habits and purpose. There's an intriguing comment by the Commendatore late in the book which suggests that Menshiki is missing something. There's a kind of absence inside of him, and that absence creates a danger, something malign that may threaten Mariye. Is that absence the loss of her mother? I don't think so; I don't get the impression that his life significantly changed after they broke up. It seems more like that absence is an inherent quality of Menshiki himself, something he has always lacked.

Menshiki and the protagonist have a lot of (fairly oblique) conversations about things being "natural". This seems to be especially important to the protagonist; it feels like it takes Menshiki a little while to grok what he means, then afterwards he also often references natural-ness. I'm not totally sure if this is something Menshiki truly believes, or if it's his method to endear himself to the protagonist. In some ways, the "natural"-ness seems to be the polar opposite of Menshiki. As far as I can tell, to be "natural" an event must be unplanned, unforced. It can flow from circumstance or emotion, but not from logic, and it must have no exterior motivation. The irony is that the protagonist wants events to seem natural even though they very much are not. He's constantly pulled into lies of omission and commission, creating an environment that will strike others as natural even though they're highly staged. But this seems to only mildly bother him. I guess that, as long as the space he's created feels natural and people can act "naturally" within it, it's fine if the actions outside of that space, that created that space in the first place, are "unnatural".

Seen from this perspective, Murakami probably thinks that the slow and ambling pace of the book is a feature and not a bug. The protagonist's life definitely feels natural: he brews coffee, cooks delicious lunches, listens to insects, goes for strolls, praises his students. And takes naps - so many naps! I'm pretty sure there are more naps in Killing Commendatore than in any other book I've read, I'm very jealous.


By contrast, my favorite part of the book is the least "natural": Mariye's disappearance, the meeting with the senile and dying Tomohiko Amada, and especially descending through Long Face's trapdoor into the underworld. This segment reminded me a bit of Hard-Boiled Wonderland (the other contender for my favorite Murakami novel): the dark, claustrophobic underground caverns with ill-defined malevolent forces lurking at the periphery of perception is an incredible atmosphere. This all helped the novel end on a very high note for me, like a rousing political speech that leaves you wanting more.

While the overall shape of the novel was sometimes frustrating, the nuts-and-bolts writing was as excellent as always. Here are a few segments that particularly stuck out to me:

"It's like an earthquake deep under the sea. In an unseen world, a place where light doesn't reach, in the realm of the unconscious. In other words, a major transformation is taking place. It reaches the surface, where it sets off a series of reactions and eventually takes form where we can see it with our own eyes. I'm no artist, but I can grasp the basic idea behind that process. Outstanding ideas in the business world, too, emerge through a similar series of stages. The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark."
p. 203 

I really like the writing here, as well as the underlying idea. That's a cool left-field turn in the penultimate sentence: how did we get from art to business so quickly? This kind of reminds me of when I try to describe the sensation of programming to non-programmers. From the outside programming or business may seem like very dry, analytical, rote activities. But people who are immersed in them see that they're just as creative and passionate as any artistic endeavor.

"The Commendatore is not trademarked. If I had appeared as Mickey Mouse or Pocahontas, the Walt Disney Company would be only too happy to slap me with a huge lawsuit, but if I am the Commendatore, I think we are safe, my friends."
p. 235 

This just makes me laugh. Although his personality is very different, the Commodotore reminded me of Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker from Kafka on the Shore, and I'm curious if any threats or fears of litigation from that work informed this presentation here. Also, I'm not sure if it's intentional, but it's intriguing that Pocahontas is treated as a copyrighted character here, when she was of course a real historical person. Murakami hasn't engaged as explicitly with popular culture in his recent novels, and it's interesting to think of the nexus between history, culture, creativity, and commerce. Walt Disney is free to appropriate native peoples' culture in its movies, but attempts to reinterpret those same characters may run up against an army of lawyers.

Truthfully the physical pleasure she provided me left nothing to be desired. Up till then I'd had sexual relationships with a number of women - not so many I could brag about it - but her vagina was more exquisite, more wondrously varied, than any other I'd ever known. And it was a deplorable thing that it had lain there, unused, for so many years.
p. 292

Even when he's writing about fairly conventional sex, Murakami always sounds so weird. But I'll take a dozen pages of this oddly affected prose over one more description of a thirteen-year-old girl's developing breasts.

He said, "There is very little I can explain to my friends about Tomohiko Amada's Killing Commendatore. That is because it is, in essence, allegory and metaphor. Allegories and metaphors are not something you should explain in words. You just grasp them and accept them."
p. 302

I feel like this one paragraph is the best explanation I've read yet of Murakami's writing.

All of us are, without exception, born to die, and now he was face-to-face with that final stage.
p. 524

Brutal and honest and powerful. I am curious if Murakami is feeling his own mortality more now as a nearly 70-year-old man.

"Goodness, no! I am a Metaphor, nothing more."
"A Metaphor?"
"Yes. A meager Metaphor. Used to link two things together. So please, untie my bonds, I beseech you."
I was getting confused. "If you are as you say, then give me a metaphor now, off the top of your head."
"I am the most humble and lowly form of Metaphor, sir. I cannot devise anything of quality."
"A metaphor of any kind is all right - it doesn't have to be brilliant."
"He was someone who stood out," he said after a moment's pause, "like a man wearing an orange cone hat in a packed commuter train."
Not an impressive metaphor, to be sure. In fact, not really a metaphor at all.
"That's a simile, not a metaphor," I pointed out.
"A million pardons," he said, swear pouring from his forehead. "Let me try again. `He lived as though he were wearing an orange cone hat in a crowded train.'"
"That makes no sense. It's still not a true metaphor. Your story doesn't hold. I'll just have to kill you."
p. 550

I laughed out loud at this. This novel is finally getting good! And it only took 550 pages! 

"To tell the truth," she said, "I'm pregnant. I'm happy to see you, but don't be shocked to see how big my belly's grown."
"I know. Masahiko told me. He said you asked him to."
"That I did," she said.
"I don't know how big you've gotten, but I'd like to see you in any case. If it's not too much of an imposition."
"Can you wait a moment?" she asked.
I waited. She appeared to be leafing through her appointment book. Meanwhile, I tried hard to remember what kind of songs the Go-Go's sang. I doubted they were as good as Masahiko had claimed, but then maybe he was right, and my view was perverse.
"Next Monday evening is good for me," Yuzu said.
p. 608

I included a bit more context here just to hopefully help capture how completely random it is for the protagonist to start thinking about the Go-Go's music. Another laugh-out-loud moment for me, sandwiched inside a really moving and emotional scene.

"Menshiki himself is not an evil man. He is a decent sort, one could say, with abilities that exceed those of most people. There is even a hint of nobility in him, if one looks hard enough. Yet there is a gap in his heart, an empty space that attracts the abnormal and the dangerous. It is there that the problem lies."
p. 646

I talked about this a little up above. It's an interesting concept, that there isn't an evil presence inside a person so much as a space that allows entry to an alien danger. Unlike David Mitchell, Murakami very rarely depicts straight-up evil; the sense you get more often is of something harmful and mysterious. 

"I think it's cool," Mariye said. "It's a work in progress, and I'm a work in progress too, now and forever."
p. 664

This is really sweet. I love this metaphor.

"Perhaps nothing can be certain in this world," I said. "But at least we can believe in something."
p. 673

Man, I love this. It sums up my personal attitude towards religion and politics and all sorts of important, controversial domains. We can't know the truth, and it's important to remember that fact and remain humble. But we can decide to believe something, and then pursue that belief with our full hearts.


I liked Killing Commendatore a lot. Particularly after the mild disappointment of Men Without Women, it was encouraging to read something so engaging. It's one of my least favorite Murakami novels, but that says much more about me and about the strength of his other books than it does about this entry. There are still elements that I'll be mentally chewing over for a while, and it's that lingering sense of intrigue and unexplained phenomena that I most treasure about this author.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Planet Peace

Just a quick update on my return to Star Wars: The Old Republic:

I'd wondered before if my swift level advancement was due to playing during a double-XP week. Nope! Even after the event ended, my progress was very quick. I reached Level 48 at the end of Chapter 1, right after completing Alderaan. The game continues to hand out XP Boost items, none of which I have used. I'm curious if the curve will get any steeper after I hit 50, but I suspect that it'll remain fairly quick all the way until the new cap at 70.

It's interesting to see how different games handle being overleveled. In LOTRO, if you're 10 or more levels ahead of the enemy, they cease to threaten you: you can walk right past them, or even through them, without them becoming aggressive. This makes it a breeze to complete quests in low-level areas; granted, those quests won't provide meaningful XP or rewards for your level, but it can still be nice for story-completion purposes.

In SWTOR, the game will instead limit your effective level: if you are level 34, but you're currently on Taris, where enemies are around level 16-20, the game will adjust your level down to 24. It doesn't take away any higher-level abilities, but scales down your raw health and power to be more in line with your foes. That means that fights will be at least somewhat meaningful - you can't just one-shot anybody - but you're still rewarded for being overleveled. It looks like your rewards are also scaled, so you'll receive a decent amount of XP for completing a quest, whereas in LOTRO (or, I'm pretty sure, the original SWTOR) you would just receive a tiny 5XP award if you were significantly over-leveled.

I'm a bit curious about the meaning, if any, of the difference between the two games. One obvious difference is the structure of the content. SWTOR has a ton of different activities you can use to level (PVP combat, story quests, space-fighter missions, multiplayer flashpoints), but the actual story quest is very linear: except for a few minor deviations where, say, you can choose the order in which to visit Tatooine and Alderaan, you must complete each story element to advance to the next. In contrast, LOTRO has far more options in how you advance through the content. Some players visit the Trollshaws after the Lone-Lands; others head to Evendim instead. After reaching Rivendell, you can continue east to the Misty Mountains, or north to Angmar, or west to Forochel. Some players will make their way south down the Misty Mountains through Enedwaith and Dunland, while others strike east through Lorien and Mirkwood. Anyways: all that to say, SWTOR assumes that you will visit every planet in the game, while LOTRO assumes you will skip many regions, and that probably impacts their decisions on why players visit a region they're too high-level for. In LOTRO it's probably because they just want to see the beautiful sights or follow up an Epic Quest line. In SWTOR it's probably because they spent time doing non-story quests.

I'm digging a bit deeper into the whole free-to-play / cartel coin situation. Here are all of the unlocks I've bought thus far:
  • Third crew skill slot
  • GTN terminal and cargo hold decorations for my stronghold on Nar Shaddaa
  • Companion appearance customization

I got the first one early on, and just bought the last. I kind of wish I'd gotten it earlier, so I could have swapped in my new look for Kira near the beginning of her plot instead of near the end. It is a little odd that you only reach those vendors after traveling with your companion for quite some time, as the changes in their look are pretty significant. Still, better late than never, and I'm enjoying making my party more unique-looking.

Oh! I also have had fun with costumes. Back when I was playing before, the main approach to making a decent-looking character was to use custom (orange) gear which had a look that you liked, and then keeping its mods updated as you leveled. Sometime in the past six years, BioWare has added a cosmetic outfit slot so you can display a different outfit than the one which is providing your stats. This works somewhat similarly to the one in LOTRO; the biggest difference is that the SWTOR version charges you credits each time you add an item to your cosmetic outfit, so the stakes for experimenting are higher. Anyways, I spent a very productive hour trawling the cheap aisle of the GTN looking for secondhand gear, and threw together an outfit that I really like and will probably keep for a while. Which, again, is funny - I have zero desire to go thrifting in real life, but happily throw together cute combinations in video games.

It's a somewhat similar situation for companions. All of their gear is now effectively cosmetic, and doesn't affect their stats, so you can put on whatever you like. As I discovered to my chagrin, though, you can't give them items that they can't use. I only figured this out after dropping several grand on the GTN buying light armor with a level requirement of 65. Ah, well. I did get a new chestpiece for Kira, and will be holding on to the other pieces until she can wear them, assuming I don't find something better first.


I neglected to talk about this in my previous post, but, for better and worse, one of the more interesting elements of the Republic plot line has to do with the Republic itself. Particularly while you're visiting Coruscant and meeting with Senators, there are several plots that deal with the mechanics of government there: elections, representation, campaigning.

On the whole, it's a rather negative portrayal. Senators scheme against one another, sharing polite words in public while arranging betrayals in private. One charismatic woman was elected on a reform platform, but took money from a criminal enterprise to fund her campaign. Another senator is a populist advocating for the Republic to disown the Jedi in order to curry favor with the Sith.

On the one hand, these are actually interesting scenarios! Unlike the binary choices I complained about in my last post, there's some room to consider alternatives and values here. Unfortunately, though, because this is Star Wars, at the end of the day the game imposes its own Light Side / Dark Side value judgment on each situation. It doesn't matter if that woman is delivering real, meaningful structural change and lifting people out of poverty: her money is tainted, so supporting her is Dark Side. It doesn't matter that the man is betraying the principles of the Republic to support the Sith: he represents the will of the people, so supporting him is Light Side. Does that seem contradictory? Don't blame me, take it up with the developers!

In a broader sense... I shouldn't be surprised that, in a post-Phantom Menace game, we get such an underwhelming view of the Senate. The overall impression you get is that it's sclerotic, dysfunctional, indecisive, corrupt. Again, the complexity of that picture is interesting, and does make the Republic/Empire dichotomy more compelling than it would be otherwise. But, playing this game has made me increasingly unhappy that we have so few positive portrayals of representative government in our speculative fiction. Fantasy is probably the worst offender, where a nation's goodness or badness entirely derives from the monarch leading it. (And it's not for lack of historical examples, whether classical Grecian democracy or medieval Italian republics.) Science fiction is a little better, especially Star Trek, but on the whole seems to veer towards militaristic fascism or corporate dystopias.

Anyways! It's so rare for us to get a sci-fi/fantasy game that includes scenes of democratic governing, and it's really discouraging to have it portrayed in such a snide, dismissive way. Over and over this game presents us with the idea that debate and consensus are for weak, sniveling cowards unwilling to make difficult decisions, and that only bold unilateral action can solve problems. That's the opposite message we should be sending.

Or, maybe to put it another way: in speculative fiction, non-representative governments (kingdoms, empires, and so on) can be shown either critically or non-critically. But it seems like representative governments are only shown critically. I definitely don't want to say there's no place in fiction for critiquing problems with democracy - they're definitely there! - but looking over the genre as a whole, it's held to a far higher standard than authoritarian governments are.

Again, though, it's hard to blame the developers for this - it's a big part of the Star Wars DNA, centered on the hero's journey instead of the betterment of society. That's one of the many reasons why I'm cautiously optimistic about what the Expanded Universe might look like after the sequels are finished, as they're doing admirable work in dismantling the bloodline-obsessed values underlying the original movies.


As for the actual Jedi Knight story line: It's pretty good. The Imperial Agent one was way better, but I'm still relatively early in the JK plot, so I shouldn't pass final judgment yet. I've avoided reading any spoilers of the plot, but it was relatively highly rated, and the consensus seems to be that it's one of the most "Star Wars" plots. I'd say that's true, and... it actually reminds me in some ways of the sequels (which were started after this game was released) in the way it seems to replicate the story beats of the original trilogy.
  • Young Jedi teaming up with a cute little droid in a personal space ship.

  • Jedi is the secret offspring of a Sith.

  • Empire has built a planet-destroying weapon that only you can stop.

  • Young Jedi's master gets killed by the Sith adversary, but comes back as a Force Ghost to give guidance and instructions.

I suspect that, in 2011 when we were starved for more Star Wars stuff, this all would have felt awesome. It now all feels pretty familiar. But, again, I have two chapters left to go, and haven't even recruited half of my crew, so I imagine there's more story to come.


Despite all my grousing, I'm having a lot of fun! It feels good to be a hero, to help innocent people and solve problems and make the galaxy a safer place. There's a nice rhythm to combat as a Jedi Knight, and you look stylish as hell while swirling around two lightsabers.  I'm determined to press onward and see what else the game has in store for me.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How You Vote Is The Main Thing

Remember, remember, the sixth of November! Let's see what the ballot holds for us in Northern California, shall we?

Governor: Holding my nose and voting for Gavin Newsom. My visceral dislike of the man is tempered by my agreement with virtually all of his positions. He has some very big shoes to fill. Jerry Brown is the best Governor I've ever lived under, by a very wide margin, and if Newsom can uphold Brown's legacy I'll consider us extraordinarily fortunate.

Lieutenant Governor: I am an adult who has written books and it still takes me two tries to spell "Lieutenant" correctly. Anyways: Ed Hernandez.

Secretary of State: Alex Padilla

Controller: Betty Yee

Treasurer: Fiona Ma

Attorney General: Xavier Becerra

Insurance Commissioner: Ricardo Lara. (I'd actually be fine with Poizner getting this, he's a solid choice. But Lara would jumpstart the single-payer campaign in a big way, which is worth pursuing.)

State Board of Equalization: Malia Cohen

US Senator: After much consideration, I'm reversing my primary vote and going with Dianne Feinstein in the general. Since her troubling behavior early in the Trump era, she has really come around, and now has been a consistent and powerful voice against his administration's policies. The cynic in me says that this is just because it's an election year and she saw the need to placate her base; on the other hand, though, I want to reward good behavior, and I do genuinely appreciate her recent actions. On a grand-strategy level, this will almost certainly be the last time she runs for office, and the field to replace her will be just as strong in six years. If she happens to retire early, it will remain a safe Democratic seat.

Congress: Jackie Speier

Assembly: Kevin Mullin

Retain Justice Carol Corrigan? No

Retain Justice Leondra Kruger? Yes

James Humes: Yes

Sandra Margulies: Yes

James Richman: Yes

Marla Miller: Yes

Peter Siggins: Yes

Jon Streeter: Yes

Alison Tucher: Yes

Barbara Jones: Yes

Superintendent: Tony Thurmond

Millbrae City Council: Reuben Holober and Anne Olivia. They've delivered on the smart-growth policies that first attracted me to this city, and I hope our council will serve as an example to our sister cities on the Peninsula in encouraging more housing and infill development.

Harbor District: Ed Larenas, Henry Sutter

Prop 1 (Housing assistance bonds): Yes

Prop 2 (Redirect mental illness treatment to housing): Yes

Prop 3 (Water bonds): No

Prop 4 (Private children's hospitals bonds): No

Prop 5 (Elderly keep low property tax when moving): No

Prop 6 (Repeal gas tax increase): NO. (I'll readily grant that gas taxes are regressive, but California's tax system overall is highly progressive, and there's room for this kind of tax. Increasing the cost of driving is a feature, not a bug, and taxes on fossil fuels are among the best ways to spur large employers and investors to develop and commoditize alternative fuels.)

Prop 7 (End Daylight Savings Time Phase 1): Yes. (I don't care all that much about DST one way or another, but I love this trend: it just undoes a voter mandate and returns the power to the legislature, which should have it in the first place. It's so dumb that we need to vote on, like, rain water barrels every year just because our forebears thought it was super-important to get their pet issues enshrined in the state Constitution.)

Prop 8 (Dialysis oversight): No

Prop 10 (Rent control): See response below.

Prop 11 (Private ambulance workers must remain on duty): No

Prop 12 (Minimum space for farmed animals): Yes

Measure II (Rebuild community center): Yes. (Fun fact: this is the letter "i" twice, and not a Roman numeral 2.)

Measure W (Half-cent sales tax to fund transit): YES

Board of Education: Susan Alvaro

I've probably spent more time mulling over Prop 10 than all the other items on the ballot combined. California has an affordable housing crisis. People who are lucky enough to have rent control today are safe from the crisis, but remain anchored to their apartments forever. More people will be able to claim that safety in the future if this proposition passes, but at the cost of decreasing future housing construction and raising average rental prices across the board. It will be a godsend to established residents, and a cudgel to newcomers. It will make a small but significant decrease in inequality between wealthy landlords and their tenants. And it's worth remembering that approving this proposition doesn't enact rent control; it just gives cities the authority to do so, on terms they decide.
After weighing all this, I ended up voting Yes on 10, with the hope and understanding that it will take more efforts like Prop 1 and Prop 2 to address the increase in prices this will bring about.

And... that's it! I guess this ballot is relatively tame as far as Californian elections go, though I'll be extremely interested to see how the other Congressional Districts in the state turn out. And turnout in general: as I keep noting/complaining, the big statewide races in California tend to be foregone conclusions, which I imagine makes people less motivated to vote here than in battleground states. But with the higher overall interest in politics over the last two years, I hope that leads to greater engagement and participation at all levels. At the end of the day, the local and regional votes we cast make a tremendous difference in our day-to-day lives, and our big-picture energy and motivation can be usefully channeled into human-scale change.

Friday, October 19, 2018


Well, this is wild: this is officially the 1,000th blog post on Timmy's House of Sprinkles! This obscure corner of the Internet has been chugging along for (gulp) a little over thirteen years now!

I started the blog immediately after moving to California, and you will not be shocked to learn that I had no particular plan or goal for it, then or now. It's kind of fascinating to dive back into the archives and see how stuff has changed. Those early posts were much more slice-of-life-y, recapping outings with friends and family or reacting to cultural differences on the West Coast. Over time posts grew gradually longer, then a little shorter, but still too long. I've gone through a lot of phases along the years: guides to personal finance, a developer's log for my video-game modding, and detailed backpacking travelogues. There are perennial topics I return to, like politics, but I've now accepted that this blog's bread and butter are my aimless but heartfelt reviews of books and video games.

Thirteen years feels really old for a personal web site. It seems like most people abandon their online outposts after a few years, or proactively nuke them. There's good reason for that! All of us are constantly changing, none of us are the same people we were thirteen years ago, and there's an accelerating trend of holding people accountable for the sins of their past selves (see: James Gunn). I know that I frequently cringe when I dive back into the aughts and read my old posts: I sound so pompous, so conceited, so sure that I'm right. The older I get, the more I realize how little I know, and I think the more humble tone of recent years is apt. But I'm also sure that I'll be just as embarrassed by this particular post in thirteen years as I am today about those first ones.

When I first started the blog I thought it'd be cool if it ran for a year. Will it live to see 2,000 posts? Almost certainly not! Even if I wanted to continue it, Google seems determined to kill off all of the services that I enjoy: after axing Reader and Picasa, I imagine that Blogger's days are numbered, and I'm no more likely to bother moving this blog to a new platform than I've been to rehost my hundreds of old photo albums. Still, it's admirably served my need to natter away about stuff that interests me. Occasionally it interests someone else, more often it disappears into the void, but I feel much better for having said it. It's my little patch of grass on the Internet, and I'm grateful to have it.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The New Republic

After a long absence of six years, I've finally returned to a galaxy far, far away. I had a hankering to start an RPG, but the ones that most intrigued me also came with daunting 60+ hour playtimes and new systems to learn. I was in the mood for something a little lighter, then I remembered that I had always meant to check out the expansions to Star Wars: The Old Republic. I reinstalled, relaunched, and restarted: my new character, the Zabrak Jedi Sentinel Trel'ves, joins the Imperial Agent Seberin and his adopted daughter the bounty hunter T'may in a new, sprawling clan charting the future of the galaxy.

There have been a lot of updates in the six years since I left. The most obvious one is the transformation from a subscription model to a free-to-play game. The system is somewhat similar to that of Lord of the Rings Online. Players can choose to pay a monthly subscription, which allows full access to every feature of the game, or play for free with some restrictions. Players in the latter category can use a special currency, which can be purchased with Real Money or earned in-game, to permanently unlock those features. The same currency can be used to purchase attractive clothing, furniture, toys, and other fun stuff.

Unbeknownst to me, because I had set up a Security Key (an offline two-factor authenticator) prior to canceling my subscription, I had continued to earn 100 Cartel Coins per month during the entire period of my absence. So, upon rejoining, I immediately had over 7,000 coins to spend, enough to buy a ton of things. I've mostly held on to them so far, just unlocking a third crew skill slot and a personal Rocket Boost for faster travel around the map. Much like with LOTRO, I'm finding it just as much fun to research and plan my spending as to actually buy stuff.

A ton of new things have been added since I left. Some of these, like multiplayer space battles and guild ships, hold little interest, while others are great. The Legacy system is really cool: my established characters can unlock perks that apply to all other characters on my account, giving my new Jedi Knight easy access to resources that otherwise would be hard to acquire. One major example is Strongholds, housing you can buy on various planets. There's aesthetic fun to be had in decorating these spaces, but they're also incredibly convenient as they offer storage that can be shared across all characters, including between the Imperial and Republic faction! This means that, among other things, I could have Seberin craft a hotrigged speeder bike and leave it in the closet for Trel'ves to pick up. And Trel'ves can store excess crafting supplies in here, so any future characters can use them in their own recipes without needing to gather their own.

There were a lot of possibilities in restarting my game: I had parked Seberin at the old end-game level cap of 50, and could dive right into the expansions. Or I could continue leveling T'may. But I was mostly playing this for story. In SW:TOR, any given playthrough has two major plot arcs: a class-specific story (such as for a Sith Inquisitor, a Smuggler, etc.), and their faction story (Imperial or Republic). In order to maximize new story, I decided to start fresh with a new Republic character, so I could see how the struggle between the factions played out from the other side.


I immediately faced a choice: which species to play as? This was the first area where my free-to-play status became a factor, as I had a limited selection to choose from: ordinarily I would need to pick between Human or Zabrak, although I had unlocked the Cyborg option by virtue of taking Seberin to Level 50. Other species could be purchased for Cartel Coins. I decided to go with Zabrak, because aliens are way more interesting than boring old humans. As usual, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the character creator, and am pretty happy with how Trel'ves turned out. I later discovered that you can pay a very modest credit fee to change your appearance, and touched up her scar a little bit.

The Jedi Knight story starts out fairly interesting from the beginning. The first villain you face is not some evil Sith Lord: instead, it's a rogue Jedi, who believes that the Jedi Order has grown too soft and is unprepared to face the threat of the Empire.

I have a well-known antipathy to binary morality systems in games, and on the surface the Light Side / Dark Side dichotomy is the worst offender of the lot, with cartoonish villainy on one side and simplistic virtue on the other. But as seen through the BioWare prism, it actually gains a little nuance and interest. I've previously sung the praise of the Imperial Light Side storyline: as you dive deeper into the game, you come to grok the difference between the Imperials and the Sith, which fight under the same banner but are not one and the same and do not share the same hierarchy. (With my recent readings of Bonhoeffer, I now think of Imperial Intelligence as being an analogue to the Abwehr, with the Sith filling the role of the Gestapo.) Choosing to pursue the Light Side under the Imperial banner can mean choosing to impose a strict but beneficial order over chaos; it can mean honoring alliances to bolster military power instead of undercutting them for personal gain; it can mean refusing orders because they harm the Empire's strategic goals. The climax of the Agent storyline has the best (really, the only even vaguely sensible) explanation I've heard for why people would choose to side with the Empire: stripped of its Sith trappings, the Empire is an unapologetic meritocracy, where those who have the greatest skill and determination can rise to the top. There are no princesses in the Empire, no patrimonial dynasties, no obligation to appease the masses.

At first glance, the Republic storyline is a lot less interesting. Dark Side choices are evil and dumb and counterproductive. Light Side choices mean that you do the right thing and get the better outcome. Still, there are a few spots along the way that are interesting, and I think they help highlight some elements of the source material that are troubling. High on this list is the prohibition against love and friendship: Jedi are meant to renounce all bonds. In one early quest, you strike up a relationship with a young chieftess of a tribe. She is mourning the loss of her mother, and looks to you for comfort and friendship. I accepted, of course, and was shocked to see that I'd gained Dark Side points for doing so. The game follows through on this in a nice way, though - you can confess your action to your mentor (gaining LS) points, but then also argue that it was the right choice in the first place. Roleplaying! Or there's a weird quest where another Jedi teacher is obsessed with the possibility that two of his students are growing romantically involved. So the "Light Side" approach is to SPY on PEOPLE MAKING NOOKIE and then BREAK THEM UP. Or you can choose to follow the Dark Side by, uh, allowing love to flourish in this world. I dunno. It's weird.

As the game continues, you start getting into some more political situations. Here, the choices often come down to "Light Side: Do the right thing in the moment, at the cost of the Republic's strength and/or giving an advantage to the Empire" versus "Dark Side: Achieve a strategic victory by lying/cheating/killing." That's kind of interesting, and there were a couple of specific points where I was genuinely tempted by the Dark Side. Unfortunately, though, the game doesn't really follow through on this tension. Almost invariably, the "inferior" Light Side choice ends up leading to the best outcome after all: the Imperial officer you allow to escape decides to aid you, the crime lord you expose continues to cooperate with the Republic. The game seems unwilling to make you choose between having your cake and eating it. Which, to be fair, does feel very Star Wars - the heroes triumph by doing the right thing - but also makes the choices feel rather mediocre.


At least so far! Right now I'm only up through Taris. Despite the game warning me that I'm earning XP at a diminished rate due to my free-to-play status, I'm leveling insanely quickly, just hitting level 40 on a planet that's capped at 20. I figured this was due to the game rebalancing to encourage quicker progress, which seems to be a common thing for MMOs: as the endgame recedes, it's in the developer's interest to help move newcomers through the dead early zones quickly and bring them to the populated climax. But I also just found out that I apparently was playing during a "Double XP" week, which doubtless helped as well.

All of which is kind of moot - I'm just playing for the story, so the overall power curve and resource acquisition really doesn't matter much to me. Speaking of which, though, I'm struck by the very different vibe I get when playing SW:TOR versus LOTRO. Lord of the Rings Online is a calming, contemplative activity. I love just wandering through its landscapes, staring at the beauty around me, searching for inner stillness. There's a storyline in LOTRO, quest-givers and plot, that advances you through the map and the game. And that story is rather perfect for what it is, inhabiting the spirit of Tolkien's works and celebrating grace, but it only serves to guide you through the world, and never feels like the focus of the game.

In contrast, playing TOR feels much like watching one of the movies. It's exciting, and slick, and propulsive. The landscapes there can also look gorgeous - I just left Nar Shadda's stunning cyberpunk skyscape, which still looks beautiful after all these years - but they also feel somewhat sterile and decorative. They're the kind of spaces you blast swiftly through on your speeder, thinking "Oh, that looks cool," as you rush ahead towards your confrontation with the Dark Lord.

Which, ultimately, is a good thing. I'm always nervous that MMOs will get their hooks in me and consume my precious free time. I'm grateful that TOR is an MMO that plays like a traditional RPG, and once I finish Trel'ves's story I'll be able to step away. And I'm glad to have Middle-earth waiting for me whenever I need it, without worrying that anything bad while happen while I'm away.

Friday, October 05, 2018

I Will Return To This Point

Okay! Just wrapped up Capital in the 21st Century, and I really want to get my thoughts down while it's still fresh. It's a dense, readable, gripping book about topics that tend to seem arcane or irrelevant, and Piketty makes a compelling case for why citizens of democracies ought to pay attention. I can see why this book and the subjects it raises have formed the center of recent political debate in the US and elsewhere, and visiting the source has helped me better understand the sense of urgency it's been getting.

Reading this book is a long commitment, well over 600 pages of economics, but it's organized extraordinarily well: most sections are just about two pages long, clearly establishing a single point that can then be built upon. There's some math, but just three (important!) formulas over those 600 pages. Lots of graphs, a few tables, and some great quotes from Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, Titanic, and other fiction. When talking about this book, I feel a little like when I'm recommending a good but intricate television show. "It gets really good starting in the third season." "You have to watch about ten episodes to start getting a feel for what it's doing." Or it might be more like watching a game of Magic: The Gathering or Starcraft. Piketty clearly and efficiently lays groundwork, you see things building up but are not sure to what purpose; and then bam, around 300 pages in he starts tapping his cards and launching his protoss and becomes kind of hard to deny.

For my own sake, here's my personal summary of the book's thesis:

As background, economics as a field has become far too enamored of abstract, theoretical, mathematical models. "Assuming an economy with perfect competition and actors pursuing rational self-interest, what happens to X when Y does Z?" Outside of the field, politically motivated thinkers develop theories, then cherry-pick circumstantial economic data to support their desired outcomes. Piketty insists on a data-first approach: we have multiple centuries' worth of data on wealth and income and capital and tax rates and all sorts of stuff, so let's examine the data and develop theories based on that, not the other way around.

His terminology and benchmarks are similar to but slightly distinct from popular ones used in the past, such as the labor-capital split or GDP. He tends to focus on numbers as a percentage of national income, as this enables clear comparison between countries and years. He uses "capital" more or less synonymously as "wealth". Capital is something you own that produces money, whether it's dollars in a savings account, a home, stock certificates, a copyright, whatever. You can find a country's total capital by adding up the cost of all that capital: the sum of all bank deposits, the appraised value of all real estate, the market capitalization of the stock market, the going rate for copyrights, etc. National income is the sum total of all the money earned in a country for one given year: adding up everyone's paychecks, interest, rent, dividends, royalties, etc. You can then compare capital to income and get a sense for how much wealth has accumulated in a country, relative to the size of its economy.

Throughout the book, Piketty mostly focuses on France, England, the United States and Germany. Piketty is French so it's understandable that he would lead with France as an example, but he also has a great reason for this: France has fantastic detailed historical records going all the way back to the French Revolution that provide fine-grained insight into the financial state of the nation. He frequently compares these four countries, and their similarities and differences are very interesting in their own right: they generally follow the same curves, even in the pre-globalized economy, but there are some great lessons to be drawn from, for example, the relatively clean-slate start of the United States or the impact of Germany's multi-stakeholder approach to corporate governance. He occasionally brings in other examples like Sweden, Canada, Australia, or China, always carefully pointing out where data is missing or inadequate or otherwise not a good source of comparison.

One of the more ambitious projects comes early on, when he examines the history of wealth over the last two thousand years, using scant historical data and models to draw rough conclusions about what happened from 0AD until now. In summary: nothing much happened from 0-1700AD; the economy and population started to grow a tiny bit quicker for the first century of the Industrial Revolution; then it picked up significantly and we saw significant growth during the 20th century. Most economists have assumed that this is the normal environment and drawn all their conclusions based on that, but as Piketty points out, the 20th century was very much an aberration and cannot continue. In terms of population growth alone, the boom is mostly over, with Europe now having a stable population and America mostly supported by immigration; it's impossible to predict what will happen in the rest of the world, but if the 20th century increase in growth rates were to continue Earth would have a population in the trillions in a few centuries, which seems impossible to sustain.

For the most part, Piketty is interested in the period for which we have more detailed data, roughly from 1800 to the present. Looking at the size of capital relative to national incomes, we see a steady and high level (roughly 700% of national income) until the start of World War 1, then a rapid decrease through the two world wars and the Great Depression until bottoming out around 1950, then a gradual rebound until the present, eventually reaching a ratio close to what existed at the peak of the Gilded Age and continuing its upward trajectory.

Why is this? Piketty patiently works through the dynamics of capital accumulation. First, an accounting formula: α = β * r. That is: the share of capital in the national income is equal to the proportion of capital to national income, multiplied by the rate of return earned by capital. More concretely, if a country's accumulated capital (everything owned by its private citizens) is four times the national income, then β = 4. If the average rate of return of all that capital is 4%, then r = 0.04. As a result, α = 16%. Even more concretely, if this is a country where the national income is 1 trillion dollars, then 160 billion dollars will go to the owners of capital (stockholders, landlords, authors, etc.) and 840 billion dollars will be distributed as wages.

This is a tautological formula, but is helpful for thinking about how these things are related. If the value of capital in a nation increases, while the rate of return remains the same, then capital will claim an increasing share of the national income.

So: as time passes, do we expect capital to increase or decrease? The singular event around which this book turns is the period from 1914-1945, which drastically wiped out fortunes around the world and especially in Europe. A kind of perfect storm happened. There was literal destruction of capital, as bombs fell across Europe and destroyed real estate and artwork and farmland. Massive inflation destroyed the value of bonds that had been purchased in a no-inflation environment. Debts were entirely repudiated, such as after the Bolshevik revolution. Overseas colonial possessions were lost. Industries were nationalized. Confiscatory tax rates were charged to finance the war and its debt.

All this turmoil had a profound and real impact on accumulated wealth. Just as importantly, though, it is the only time we see when wealth comes under assault. Other than this, the data consistently shows, across multiple continents and multiple centuries, the steady and increasing share of capital in national economies. This proves very resilient even across different technological eras and governmental structures. Farmland used to be the major component of national capital; today it occupies a miniscule share, but financial capital has more than made up for its decline. Capital accumulation in France continued unabated as the nation shifted from republic to monarchy and back again. The United States started with extremely low capital as its early settlers arrived with very little, but immediately embarked on the same march of accumulation.

So, in the absence of a catastrophic series of events like the early 20th century, what is the "natural" stake that capital will claim in an economy? This brings up the second formula, β = s / g. That is, the share of capital in the national income will, over the long run, reflect the nation's long-term savings rate divided by its long-term growth rate. More simply, as the savings rate goes up, more capital will accumulate; as the growth rate of the overall economy increases, though, the share of capital will decline. 

The savings rate is just how much money doesn't get spent. This may vary a little based on national culture and priorities: an aging, pessimistic population will consume less and save more, while a young and optimistic population will tend to save less. But it's also worth noting that income from capital tend to be plowed back into more capital. If you didn't need to spend that money in the first place, you probably don't need to spend what it produces, so you can save the fruits of what you've previously saved.

Piketty divides the growth rate into two components, population growth and productivity growth, that are simply added together. In other words, the growth of a nation's economy is the sum of the growth of its population (how many more people will be doing work) and the growth in its productivity (how much more work each individual person can do, on average, thanks to improved technology or education or training).

During the second half of the 20th century, we've grown accustomed to think that national growth "should" be around 4%, but as Piketty compellingly shows, that is unrealistically high and unsustainable. Historically, the growth rate was close to 0% from 0-1700AD. Even the industrial revolution, with its much-vaunted productivity, produced an annual growth rate of around 1%. Most of the immense productivity gains of the 20th century was thanks to population growth, a boom that is over in Europe and slowing elsewhere. Piketty sees a total growth rate of 1.5% as the upper bounds of a realistic, good growth rate, with even 1% good by historical standards. The only time we can see a sustained growth rate of significantly higher than that (the 3-4% people want) is when a less-advanced economy is catching up to the technological innovations of a more advanced economy, as happened in Europe and Japan during post-WW2 reconstruction and as is happening in China today. Eventually the economy catches up to the threshold of innovation, and from that point on, it can count itself lucky to sustain a growth rate of 1% plus whatever population growth it can manage.

I found it helpful to intuitively think of β = s / g like this: when the growth rate is high, a lot of new dollars are entering the economy. The total size of the economy grows more quickly than people can save, so capital shrinks relative to the economy (even though its total size increases). When growth slows, capital still continues to increase, but at a faster rate than the economy, so more of the new dollars produced by the economy will be "stored" in capital. Eventually you reach an equilibrium where the allocation of new dollars from growth matches the existing ratio of capital in the economy, at which point β and g stay consistent and the total sizes continue to grow at the same proportion.

What's the upshot of all this? During the 20th century, we saw a decline in the value of capital, followed by a very slow recovery of capital, and people (who were very reasonably drawing from their immediate experience and evidence of the present) assumed that the new normal of the global economy was fundamentally different from that of the 19th century: Marxism had been refuted, his dire predictions of ever-increasing capital disproven, and now everyone would enjoy in the fruits of a more egalitarian and labor-friendly market that would continue indefinitely.

Piketty's point is that the slow recovery of capital post-WW2 was a direct consequence of the abnormally high and unsustainable growth rate. Now that growth is slowing, we see capital accumulation correspondingly accelerating, at the same rates we saw during the Gilded Age. There's no natural force that will stop this accumulation or prevent it from passing the highs we saw then.

The obvious question is: so what? Up until this point, Piketty has focused only on aggregates, what's happening in nations as a whole. Now he starts to look at what's happening within nations, how those top-line numbers break down and affect individual citizens' lives within those countries.

High capital accumulation isn't necessarily intrinsically bad. We can imagine a society where capital is shared more or less equally, where most citizens have comparable wealth. In practice, this would likely mean that each person would have a cushion against unexpected turmoil. They would still need to work for a living, but might not need to work as many hours to achieve the sort of lifestyle they desire, since it would be supplemented by payments from other citizens on their capital.

In practice, does this happen? Hell no. We're now moving into the more politically charged part of the book, as Piketty walks through a wide-ranging look at the breakdown of wealth (and income) across nations. This is the part of Piketty that most of us have heard about. He breaks down wealth into deciles and centiles, looking at what percentage of people own what percentage of capital. His talk of "the bottom 50%" and "the top 10%" allows him to systemically compare equivalent benchmarks across diverse societies, in the way that traditional categories like "the upper class" and "the working poor" cannot.

To summarize his findings: the poor have always been poor. Not only that, they've been consistently destitute: from the United States to Germany to Australia, from the 1850s to the 1900s to the 1950s to the 2000s, the bottom 50% of the population owns between 0-5% of a nation's wealth. That means that, in the best case, the median member of half the population owns 1/10 of their mean share. The one exception Piketty finds: in the 1970s and 1980s, the Scandinavian countries' bottom 50% owned as much as 10% of their nations' wealth. Even then, the best example we have in all of history, they owned 1/5 of their mean share; far more often, the poor own nothing, and have nothing to pass on when they die.

Where there has been some change over the past century is the bracket from the 10% down to the 50% wealthiest, who you might broadly call the "middle class". During the Gilded Age this cohort owned around 5-10% of their nation's wealth. Today, they own around 25%. In other words, today, the upper half of a county (excluding its very top) holds about a quarter of their nation's wealth. In absolute terms going from 10-25% might not seem like much, but it more than doubles their prior share, and has a significant impact on their (our?) lives and prospects. Piketty calls this the rise of the "patrimonial middle class": people who, over the course of their lives, can assemble a modest financial legacy that they can then pass on to their children.

The upper 10% is of course much wealthier. For all the recent rise in inequality, we are not yet at the levels seen during the Gilded Age. Back then, the top 10% of a country's people owned 90% of its wealth, so each member of the upper class owned, on average, nine times as much as the mean wealth. In contrast, today's 10% owns about 70% of the nation's wealth, or a mere seven times the mean wealth. The effect gets more pronounced as you climb higher up the scale. On the eve of WW1, the top 1% owned 50% of the wealth; today, the top 1% own 35% of the wealth.

The underlying reason for this is his third and final observation: inequality increases when r > g. In other words, when the rate of return on capital is greater than the growth rate of the entire economy, those who already hold fortunes will accumulate money at a faster rate than the rest of the economy. Money acquired in the past wins out against new wealth created today. Those holding capital will pull further and further ahead of everyone else, snowballing and eventually drawing down not only new national income but even cutting into what others are earning. The early and mid 20th century was a time when g > r: growth was abnormally high due to a booming population and post-war reconstruction, and r was unusually low thanks to high taxes and governmental policies like rent control. But that period was an aberration. Now that growth is slowing, and taxes on capital were  demolished in the 1980s and 2000s, we are witnessing the return of the Gilded Age's plutocrats.

Again: so what? The standard argument is that those in the top brackets are there by basis of merit: they've worked harder and smarter and taken more risks, so they're rewarded with fortunes. Piketty painstakingly walks through the data to show that this isn't the case. Yes, people can earn fortunes through a lifetime of hard work (especially in the era of high growth that we're currently exiting): but those who inherit fortunes can earn just as much without working a day in their life. He brings this home with a vivid, concrete example. Bill Gates was the wealthiest man on Earth for about two decades, during which time he built Microsoft into a megalith and revolutionized computing. Piketty is deeply skeptical of the entrepreneurial cult worshiping Gates - he points out that Gates' contributions are heavily indebted to the work of thousands of computer scientists who did not receive anything close to his rewards - but, still, two decades of hard work at the top of his empire saw Gates' fortune expand by about 10% per year (in real returns). To contrast this, he looks at Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in the world. Liliane did not work at all: she inherited her fortune from her father and lived as an heiress. And during those same 20 years when Gates' fortune expanded by 10% per year, Bettencourt's fortune expanded by 10% per year. Beyond a certain point, capital becomes self-perpetuating. The existence of self-made millionaires in the Wealthiest Americans list shouldn't obscure the fact that many more people got there through accident of birth. And, furthermore, that trend will accelerate in the future: as growth slows and capital stocks accumulate, those lucky enough to inherit a fortune will have an insurmountable lead, reaping returns on their capital far more quickly than anyone can accomplish through a lifetime of labor.

There's a lot of other great stuff in this section, some of which I'll return to down below, but for now I'll skip ahead to the final section. So far we've gone through three explicit arguments (capital shares naturally increase over time, capital shares grow inversely to the economy, existing wealth in the past is rewarded far more than new labor generated in the present and will lead to a widening gap between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else) and one implicit assumption (it's bad for a society to have a tiny class that owns virtually everything and a large class that owns virtually nothing). The fourth section considers what can be done about this. Previous economists thought that the market economy would naturally solve inequalities over time, but if it won't correct itself, it will require political action to do so.

Piketty makes a forceful case for creating a global, progressive, annual tax on capital. Across planet Earth, every nation would sum up the net worth of each citizen (all their assets minus all their debts) and tax the result. Piketty admits that it's virtually impossible that such a tax would be implemented, but still thinks that it's a good idea and a great conversation to start, so he walks through it in detail to show how it could be set and what it would accomplish. To make it concrete, he imagines charging perhaps 0.1% on wealth under 200,000 euros, 0.5% on wealth up to 1 million euros, 1% on wealth  from 1-5 million euros, and 2% on wealth over 5 million euros. Higher rates could be set on even higher brackets, with perhaps 10% on fortunes over 1 billion euros. The taxes at the top would not bring in all that much revenue, since not many people own that much, but would be an incredibly powerful force for reducing inequality. The middle brackets, on the other hand, could bring in an enormous amount and potentially replace many (not all) other taxes charged today.

It's interesting, for example, to think about the property tax. Imagine you buy a house today for $500,000. You pay $100,000 as a down payment, and borrow $400,000 as a mortgage. Suppose your state charges a 1% annual property tax, which comes to $5,000 a year. You own 20% of the house and the bank owns the other 80%, but you're responsible for 100% of the tax payment and must pay the full $5,000.

Now imagine the capital tax. Suppose you own that $500,000 house, and have another $100,000 in various financial assets (bank accounts, mutual funds, etc.), and owe that $400,000 loan to the bank. You add up your assets ($600,000) and subtract your debt ($400,000) to reach your total capital ($200,000). That would place you in the 0.1% tax bracket, requiring you to pay $200. The bank owns the other $400,000 of capital in your home, which is added to its net worth, which is ultimately paid by the owners of the bank. Over time, as you pay down the mortgage, your net worth increases, with you gradually paying more of the tax as you come to own more of the asset.

So, yeah: the tax on capital would completely replace the property tax. In general Piketty wants everything to be more transparent and treated equivalently: stop allowing corrupt billionaires to hide their income in shady tax havens through questionable holding companies. Have everyone declare what they own and pay what they owe. Current tax code is largely accidental, based on what it was easy to do at the time (it's very easy to tell when someone's living in a house) or driven by emergencies (the United States and other countries charging extremely high income taxes in the mid-century). Even his progressive tax on capital isn't an end-all solution. Ultimately, Piketty wants to establish democratic control over the economy, and have the power in the future to debate and decide how they wish the economy to grow.

Phew! I imagined the above summary being just a couple of paragraphs, guess I got carried away. ANYWAYS, there's some stuff I want to talk about, starting: now!

I found myself thinking of The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism often while reading this book. Bogle and Piketty are coming at this from very different directions: Bogle is a captain within the financial industry with a fullhearted and unexamined devotion to the principles of capitalism. Piketty is an economist examining the economy from the outside with a nuanced and critical view of capitalism. Both of them are very alarmed by the trends that they see: skyrocketing executive compensation, financial shenanigans, a widening gap between rich and poor, fraying of the social safety net. Their views on compensation are interesting to contrast. Bogle sees managers as villains, people who have betrayed the trust placed in them by the company and looting the shareholders' well-earned gains for their own benefit. Piketty refers to this class as "supermanagers", and to him they're... maybe more like antiheroes. Managerial income does come from labor, and does not depend on an inheritance, existing wealth, or even (necessarily) social class or family status. Yet, their compensation is completely unjustified, far outside the value a reasonable observer would believe they generate for the company. Piketty sees a coming struggle between the dynamic new supermanagers and the static old heirs, and can't cheer for either side. It's a bit like watching Alien and Predator fight: it's compelling, but humanity won't be well served by the victory of either side.

Bogle just sees the supermanagers as decreasing the (capital) payments to shareholders. Piketty also sees them in the context to the payments made to labor. Looking more closely at the capital share, I think the underlying question and the potential point of difference between Bogle and Piketty lies in who owns that capital. If it's widely distributed, as it may have been when Bogle was getting his start in the 1950s (with shares primarily owned by dentists and architects and pension funds), then the supermanagers are stealing from the pockets of the middle class and should be condemned. But if the capital is concentrated in the hands of the elite, as it was during the gilded age and will be again in the future, then the supermanagers are drawing down the fortunes of the 1%. Which... I dunno. In a war between millionaires and billionaires, I guess you cheer for the millionaires? Maybe?

Of course, another significant difference between Bogle and Piketty is that Bogle is American and Piketty is French. We both share democratic traditions and free-market economies, but have rather different institutions, histories, and attitudes. Piketty addresses some of those differences directly (via ever-helpful graphs and tables), and it also underlies a lot of his thinking and criticism. For example, he quotes often from the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, which holds a similar power over the French mind as the Declaration of Independence does over the American. I don't think it's a coincidence that "liberty, equality, fraternity" resonates slightly differently from "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".

Particularly near the end of the book, Piketty writes a lot about "democracy regaining control over capitalism." This sounds reasonable (democracy is good!), but what this really means is a whole society democratically deciding what to do about individual fortunes. Americans in particular seem likely to ask, "Why should anyone else have any input into the use of my money?", and I suspect that the American populace in general will be more resistant to this kind of development than Europeans, for ideological rather than self-interested reasons.

Piketty briefly touches on a continuum of "deserving" money. Nearly everyone would agree that if someone stole money, they don't deserve to keep it: the state can rightfully confiscate the entire amount. If you happen to just find money lying on the ground and grab it, it doesn't seem "earned", and it seems more reasonable for you to share some. Then there's money that you received as a gift and didn't work for. And finally there's money that you earned through your own labor, which almost everyone feels is the most "deserved" ownership.

I think that Americans probably lean more towards the earlier side of the continuum, with almost any non-illegal source of income honored, while Europeans (including Piketty) lean more towards the latter, with income that you didn't personally work for seen as at least partially a public rather than a private resource. And that difference is fine! Piketty's real point is that we need to have a democratic (and not a plutocratic) debate about this. Currently, citizens are almost totally disengaged from "boring" tax policy debates, leaving the influence to people like Michael Bloomberg and Sheldon Adelson who drop millions of dollars on electing the Senate and then have significant say over economic policy. Once the plutocracy is sidelined and a more representative legislature debates, we'll still end up with national differences, due to our distinct cultures and priorities and characteristics. Piketty notes in passing that American marginal productivity is consistently about 20% higher than French productivity, presumably because it's in our character to work harder and enjoy life less. That difference will help drive our tax code: how much we need, what we spend it on, how richly to reward entrepreneurship versus investing in education. Having differences between nations seems useful: they can become laboratories of democracies and economies, not unlike how states within the US can try new policies and other states can observe the results.

Adopting an annual tax on capital seems like a very tough sell in America, but the more I think about it, the less exotic it seems. As noted above, the property tax already serves as a (limited, unequal) form of a wealth tax. Another interesting analogy is the severance tax that American states charge on the extraction of natural resources: it doesn't serve the same purpose or cause the same effect as a tax on capital, but I think its justification is somewhat similar. Extracting resources from the land requires labor and capital and effort, and the enterprise does justify earning a profit; but the extractor did not put the oil in the ground. At a broad level, natural resources belong to the entire nation. It seems reasonable to pay the nation (via our agents in government) for using our natural wealth. That's also a potential way to think about a tax on wealth, especially inherited wealth. You didn't create that wealth by yourself, and your father didn't invent it out of thin air. The fortune relies on the public sphere we've built over centuries: the creation of markets, a class of monied consumers, a skilled workforce, a common currency, transportation networks, and so on. By definition, those who have accumulated wealth have profited from the system, and it seems eminently fair that they help sustain it.

And, ultimately, it's in the best interest of wealthy scions to help sustain that public system. Piketty's real concern in this book isn't so much a permanent plutocratic class; he doesn't see the endgame of no action as being an enduring dictatorship of the top 0.1%. Such an extreme inequality will, in his view, inevitably lead to violent social conflict: he fears another French Revolution, another Bolshevik uprising. It isn't exactly Marx, though. Because of how capital accumulation works, he doesn't welcome the revolution: once the new regime takes over, the process will begin all over again. The only way to break the wheel is to yoke the oxen of capitalism to the control of democratic government. We need its dynamism and its growth, but must curtail its extremes, because left to its own devices it will cause great division and misery.

I've done some light Googling while looking up statistics for this post, and in the process have stumbled across quite a lot of criticism of this book, much of which seems to miss the point. Piketty is pointing out the problems on the horizon, as growth in developed economies slows and as taxes on capital are further cut. Saying "Newly wealthy people are being created now!" isn't surprising: Piketty's point is that by the end of the 21st century, a lifetime of highly-paid work won't accumulate as much as inheriting a fortune that started growing in 1950.

Reading various peoples' opinions about the source of inequality reminds me a lot of peoples' opinions about the cause of the Civil War. A low-information outsider will have a naive understanding: "Slavery caused the civil war." "Poor people don't have enough money, so we should raise the minimum wage so they can earn more money." People who are interested in the subject sneer at those naive opinions. "Well, actually, the Civil War was caused by industrialization / the cotton gin / states' rights / whatever." "Well, actually, raising the minimum wage will just cause people to lose their jobs, IDIOT, the right solution is to abolish the minimum wage and cut taxes on job creators." And then the experts who actually study the topic for a living weigh in. "No, the Civil War really WAS caused by slavery." "No, if the minimum wage is sufficiently far below the average wage, you can safely raise the minimum wage without any increase in unemployment, and in the process slightly slow the process of capital concentration."

For the most part I found this book incredibly persuasive, but there are a few aspects that left me curious at the end. (To be fair, some or all of them might be addressed in the endnotes, most of which I skipped.) One thing I wonder about a lot is how shocks fit into long-term trends: are they subsumed into those trends, do they modulate the magnitude of those trends, or are they truly unique events that stand apart from those trends? During the roughly three centuries that Piketty mostly focuses on, there was one huge negative shock (WW1+Depression+WW2), and one seemingly non-repeatable positive windfall (expansion into the American continent). He doesn't spend a whole lot of time in the 0-1700AD era, and (convincingly) summarizes what happened in general during that time: no productivity growth, almost no population growth. But, of course, if we did have detailed data for that era, we wouldn't see a smooth and unbroken 0.1% population growth for those 1700 years. Events like the Black Death and wars would have been incredible shocks at the time: the Black Death probably killed from 30%-60% of Europe's population in just a few years. So, it seems like if we omit the Plague, the actual population growth rate must have been above 0.1%. Is it possible that the long-term trends of the past produced numbers closer to what we observe today? If we successfully prevent future pandemics and future wars, will higher growth rates naturally follow?

Should these sorts of shocks be included as part of long-term trends (as Piketty presumably does) or treated as unique events (as he handles the early 20th century)? The 1914-1945 shock seems like a once-in-history event, but I wonder if it is. Consider the turnover of capital in England following the Norman Conquest, or really any major conquest or plague event. In the best case scenario, the "natural" growth rate is higher than the historical values Piketty observes, which will automatically help mitigate the accumulation of capital thanks to β = s / g, even though it won't solve it. On the other hand, those kinds of wars and natural catastrophes probably also helped break up capital accumulation. Lands were confiscated after conquests, aristocratic families died out with no heirs, duchies were devastated by famines or plagues. So, one possible outcome of fewer future shocks might be greater overall prosperity and slower accumulation of capital, but even greater concentration of that wealth into even fewer hands, as past wealth continues to grow uninterrupted by man or nature.

And that's the other thing about Piketty that's worth thinking about: are we worried that specific dynasties will grow unabated (the Rockefellers, the Waltons, the Rothschilds)? Or is the threat that the superrich class will continue to grow even superricher, but we'll still see movement in and out of that class across generations? Near the end of the book I found myself thinking of the old phrase about "a fortune is lost in three generations"; of course, since this book is so data-driven, I'm now very curious if that's just folk wisdom or if there's hard data behind it. It may be overstated: "rich dude loses his fortune" is a more compelling story than "rich dude keeps fortune", so we may hear a disproportionate number of stories about losses. And, again, we're emerging from a very specific historical moment in which capital was devastated and many fortunes lost, but the presence of very real examples in our recent past does not mean that it will be a natural state going forward: the more quickly capital grows and the greater advantage conferred upon existing large fortunes, the more difficult it becomes for even a spendrift failson to completely squander it.

But if that old saying is more or less true, and dynasties tend to naturally end, we get a more dynamic picture of wealth. New fortunes are created, endure for a few generations, then disperse, as the upper class slowly shuffles its membership over time. That's still an inegalitarian picture, as real and immense benefits are bestowed upon undeserving heirs (not all of us get the opportunity to fritter away billions), but it feels less apocalyptic than the other scenario of ever-increasing elite patrimonial lines. Ultimately, though, that distinction doesn't really matter that much on the scale of an individual human lifespan. As Piketty notes elsewhere in the book, even a short-term trend can last decades, and it's small comfort to a person harmed by that trend to know that it's only "short-term." The difference is really interesting for the completeness of the picture, but the salient fact is the presence and acceleration of inequality.

For the most part I was interested in this book as a theory and as a means of understanding today's economic and political debates. But I have to admit that part of my brain was thinking about what this meant for me and my personal profit$: like a lot of middle-class-ish Americans, I've accumulated some of my own capital over the years, and of course I'm motivated to grow it. This sort of came to a head during Piketty's analysis of university endowments, which is awesome but was also personally worrying. Basically, by comparing the returns of hundreds of American universities, he shows a clear and consistent correlation between endowment sizes and rates of return. The wealthiest universities with the largest fortunes (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) have the highest return on their investments, and that return steadily declines along with endowment size.

For the last 15 years, I've adopted the gospel of John Bogle: you shouldn't try to beat the market, just own all of it. In the big scheme of things, the entire market earns the average return. For everyone who places a winning bet, someone places a corresponding losing bet, and you can't know in advance which is which. The one thing you can control is your costs, so instead of trying to beat the market, you should invest in low-cost indexed mutual funds and buy the entire economy.

Well, the university analysis puts the lie to that seemingly-reasonable syllogism. Spending more on wealth managers and financial analysts does lead consistently to greater returns. Granted, this isn't relevant for me: I'm not even worth the <$100 million bottom endowments that make do with meager 6% annual gains, let alone the vast sums that earn 10%. But in breaking down the reason for this divergence, Piketty reveals that "owning the market" does not mean exposure to or capturing all of the gains. Harvard's highly-paid investors have access to unlisted stocks and private equity funds and mineral explorations. By definition, when I own the publicly-traded stock market, I have zero exposure to those private, unlisted, off-the-books ventures. The public market may reflect the economy, but it is not the economy.

Bluntly, indexing can't match actual growth. When you stop and think about this, it intuitively makes sense that the most talented, motivated, and connected people will seize limited opportunities for themselves: snapping up shares before they're officially offered, for example. Let's suppose that this represents the top 10% highest-performing assets. That leaves the bottom 90% of assets available for everyone else to compete for. It's within this diminished world that the standard advice of "you can't control returns, only expenses" kicks in.

So, what's my takeaway as a greedy wannabe capitalist? It doesn't change my strategy. As Piketty points out, the high absolute expenses required to achieve above-average growth only make sense when it's a small fraction of the total size of a fortune, and, uh, I ain't going to be there any time soon. But it does make me more pessimistic about future returns. The earnings available to bourgeois investors will always lag the real earnings of the entire economy, after the elite have taken their share. And that gap will continue to grow as capital continues to concentrate: larger fortunes grow even larger, supermanagers amass their own pile, and the patrimonial middle class is left to scrap over an ever-shrinking slice of the pie.

Yay! So, yeah. I really like the note that Piketty ends the book on. As he sees it, capitalism poses real and incredibly difficult challenges. They are solvable, but will require an extraordinary amount of political will. That may seem impossible on its face; but 80+% income tax rates would have seemed impossible in 1910, and not only were they accepted after the great depression, they helped power America through 50 years of unprecedented growth. This book has already accomplished Piketty's goal of launching a democratic conversation, and I suspect this debate will continue for much of my remaining life.