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.

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