Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thomas Piketty: "Capital in the Twenty-First Century": in short, tax accumulated (but idle) wealth as well as income

Author: Thomas Piketty, with translation from French by Arthur Goldhammer
Title:Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Publication: London and Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-674-43000-6; 685 pages, hardcover, 4 parts, 16 chapters, Introduction and conclusion, heavily end-noted and indexed
Amazon link is this

This was a heavy book to carry around on the Metro, when I would have time to read it.  (There is a Kindle version that is still pretty expensive.)  A man (probably pretty much from the Obama Left himself) at Union Station (DC) said he thought that the book was hard to get, but it came immediately from Amazon to me.
Piketty develops his thesis in steps, with plenty of data and comparative histories from various societies, mostly European and pre-WWII US.  The four parts start with the concepts of income and capital, then the capital/income ratio, then “the structure of inequality”, and finally his proposals for regulating capital.
Capital is accumulated wealth.  If one has enough of it, one can live off it without working.  That makes one a “rentier” – although “rents” could come from work one has done (like use of patents and copyrights), which of course invokes well known controversies (like trolls) particularly with the Internet economy today.  The problem is that return on capital tends to exceed economic growth rate (the “r/g” ratio) particularly as its owners age.  That’s the fundamental source of chronic or intractable inequality.
Piketty proposes what he admits are Utopian solutions with democratic entry points.  That is, income taxes of increasing progressivity, particularly on income from capital.  And finally, he suggests a global tax on excessive capital, starting at certain levels, although it’s hard to see how the granularity would be defined.  Furthermore, doing so would require systems of financial surveillance even beyond what the NSA can do today!

A major goal of such a measure, however, is not just growth itself (although encouraging people to keep on inventing and not to coast on wealth sounds good).  It’s mainly that gross inequality is morally inexcusable and, as we know from history, leads to instability and unsustainability.  Piketty mentions that fortunes were sometimes destroyed, as in wars, and sometimes even taken by expropriation (after “revolution”).  Generally, as a result, wealth has tended to spread more from just generational dynasty to fortunes actually earned in some sense, often with super salaries, and a middle class has become able to have and own capital (and become “patrimonial”).   All of this is somewhat close to the thinking in my “DADT III” book, where I maintain that some inequality is necessary for innovation that benefits the common good (mostly everyone in time) but the inequality also leads to instability.  But what concerns me more is the moral position it puts individuals in.
Piketty skirts around individual morality pretty much, although he cites some literary and fictional treatments to make some points, particularly Honore de Balzac’s “Le Pere Goriot” (1835). Balzac, by the way, would use characters he had introduced in other books, a practice I have toyed with in some of my fiction manuscripts and screenplay treatments (on my Wordpress blogs).  

I’ve been around people, though, who see getting and keeping “unearned” wealth as a crime, ripe for expropriation, or who see the salaried professional middle class as “parasitic” on lower wage workers, a belief system that borders on Maoism.  Seeing “unearned” wealth may communicate the idea that the “rules” don’t make sense and simply perpetual privilege that could be taken away by force.  There have been some in the past (like the “People’s Party” in the early 1970s) who wanted just a “single tax”, that is, an income tax, but who also wanted maximum personal incomes (that is, marginal rates of 100%, above the all time high of 98% -- and Piketty sees the high marginal rates of some periods in the past as rather successful.  

Update:  Nov. 14, 2014

Vox has a set of cards on inequality (both wealth and income), and examines the "guaranteed income" proposals of the 1960s (even Nixon wanted to do it).  Vox makes the interesting observation on Card 7 about "the fundamental nature of capitalism", that Piketty thinks the relative equality of the mid 20th century needs explaining, not inequality;  follow the subordinate link. Yes, the superstar effect has gotten bigger.

Update: April 2, 2015

MIT graduate student Matt Rognlie, 26, has published a paper "Deciphering the fall and rise in the net capital share" (link, published by Brookings), to answer some of Piketty's analysis of wealth inequality.  He seems to take the libertarian-Cato position government policy, especially in proping up real estate, is responsible for some of the distortions. I don't think that's the case in my own life.  My own family's "wealth" came from conservative, compound-interest-sensitive investment by my father, and a gas well on the mother's side of the family, when prices were higher (the gas well paid for a lot of eldercare).  Vox has analysis by Matthew Yglesias here

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Amazon offers "Netflix-like" unlimited Kindle service, possibly confounding the print book industry

Well, no, we can’t say “It’s free”, but Amazon has announced a new library service, of over 600,000 titles (including audiobooks) for $9.99 a month, main link and video here

Apparently royalties are paid when a consumer has read a portion of a book, although it’s not clear how much or how it knows.  (After you download a book on a Kindle, it’s just like a hardcopy; Amazon doesn’t know if you read it.  The same seems true if you purchase a “cloud” copy of a music CD (as mpg) or video.  If you play the book on its server, then it could tell.)
Brian Fung has a report on the “Netflix-like” service on the Washington Post Saturday, p. A13, here.  The article notes that, while this could be good for consumers and some authors, it could undermine the market for hardcopies, especially paperback reprints of former best sellers.  This might not be welcome news at Barnes and Noble.

I do wonder how this development could play out with the print-on-demand business.  As I noted (review of two books on self-publishing, Oct. 16, 2013) even some self-publishing companies (like Booklocker) are predicated on sales of hard-copy books, and all the service companies pressure authors to buy large inventories of print. 

I noticed that my newest book, DADT III (xLibris), remains available on Kindle for 3.99, but the first two books (iUniverse) no longer are, although they are available in print as paperback.  I surmise that they may be included in the pot for unlimited reading for $9.99 a month.  They had been available as Kindle’s until I checked this morning.  I’ll have to check into this.

It is desirable to have all the books available in portable format.  Although the text of all the older books is available in html, it’s nice to have a downloadable PDF.  I don’t own the production copies but in fact it’s pretty easy to create acceptable PDF’s from Word or HTML and make them available in some convenient mechanism. 

I do have my own “copies” of all three books on my own Kindle device.

Kindle, by the way, has been very useful for getting classics free.  If you want to look up something in a work you read in literature class in college for some reason, that’s the place to go.  I got Thomas Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus” this way (Dec. 2, 2013).   

My own Kindle device tells me that these is a special $3.99 sale through July 31.  Not sure how that fits.
By the way, I am ploughing through Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” (quite massive) and should have a review within about two weeks. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Vincent Cianni: "Gays in the Military: Photographs and Interviews" -- a review

Author: Vincent Cianni

Title: “Gays in the Military: Photographs and Interviews

Publication: Daylight (link) ,  ISBN 978-0988983151, 252 pages, large, glossy; hardcover
Amazon link is here.The book does not appear to be available in Kindle or paper.
This “coffee table sized” book is an album of professional black and white photographs of gay men and women who have been in the US military, with a collection of interviews (I count 51) that run from page 121 to 240. 

There are some other text items: a letter from Bruce Simpson regarding denial of a good conduct medal; a commentary “Silent, Celibate and Invisible” by Allan M. Steinman, MD, a commentary “Soul of a Sailor” by Lt. Donald R. Bramer, and a commentary “Been There: History Witness and Some People We Might Never Have Known”.  There is a summary epilogue by the author.  The text pages are double columned, and are printed to look like manual type face (Pica, I think), and that made it a little harder on the eyes. There is no table of contents.  But, then, this is a “coffee table book”.
The interviews are often compelling, and run the range of situations from WWII to present day, after the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.  In many cases, servicemembers were forcibly outed by others. 
A number of novel situations appear.  One, Goercke (the first one) joined the Merchant Marine, an operation that has a relatively low profile. Ironically, I had just visited the grounds of the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Long Island, New York Monday.  Alan Steinman (p. 208) served in the US Public Health Service, which as technically under the DADT policy (carrying stethoscopes instead of rifles), before moving to the Coast Guard.   Katie Miller (p. 169) reports resigning her commission at West Point on “moral grounds” in 2010 over having to hide (and she was so close to repeal). 

Two of the best known cases covered by interviews are Zoe Dunning (p. 215) , who the book says was the only openly gay soldier allowed to stay in the military in the 1990s, and  Victor Fehrenbach, a LTC in the USAF until 2011, and had served in the Gulf in all the wars.  Mike Almy (p. 145)  is pursuing reinstatement, and Anthony Loverde, as USAF staff sergeant, was reinstated in 2012 with the help of Outserve-SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network). 

A few of the cases that seemed important in the mid 90s – Keith Meinhold, Joseph Steffan, Dirk Selland, and Tracy Thorne, are not covered. 
My own history, of course, I’ve covered in my books and blogs.  In brief, I was thrown out of a civilian college (William and Mary) for “admitting” homosexual in 1961, classified 4-F, volunteered for the physical two more times and became 1-Y and 1-A, and was “drafted” in 1968, and, after a stint in Special Training Company at Fort Jackson, SC, graduated OK from Basic, was sent to the Pentagon (with my MA in mathematics) and then mysteriously transferred to Fort Eustis for the rest of my time, after my Top Secret clearance investigation had started.  I would have been happy to do an interview, but the point of my experience was more the effect that military service could have on civilian life.

The photos are certainly impressive.  The photo on pp 28-29 with the calves hairy despite the tattoos is  bizarre. 

Question: Is Cianni interested in making an independent film out of some of the interviews?  That would be an interesting and promising idea. 
In 1993, the idea that gays could disrupt “unit cohesion” and “privacy” in situations of forced intimacy sounded like “common sense” to some.   Foreign militaries (most of all Israel) and then our own would show that this idea was a gross oversimplification at best, even as much as McCain and all held onto even as late as 2010.  In 1993, people really could live double lives.  With the Internet, all that changed.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

"A Place of Remembrance": NatGeo offers a book based on the 9/11 Memorial Museum in NYC

The National September 11 Memorial in New York City (link) at the new Liberty Tower sells, in the gift shop, National Geographic’s “A Place of Remembrance: Official Book of the National September 11 Memorial”, a glossy and heavy paperback, authored by Allison Blais and Lynn Rasic, with a Foreword by Michael R. Bloomberg, and an Afterword by Joe Daniels.  The book runs 228 pages and has 8 chapters.

The biggest value of the book is the myriad professional photos, including almost all of the contents of the Memorial.  Flash photography is not allowed in the Museum, and a major sanctum at the Museum does not allow photography at all.  But many small items are shown in the book, as on p. 77.

The most interesting part of the text is the early part, giving the history of the World Trade Center.  The early engineering work in the 1960s as advanced for its time, as were the problems of displacing people from “Radio Row”.  I had taken the ride to the top in the summer of 1970 myself, when I had started my first employement gig in New Jersey.  I wasn’t aware that the Port Authority was getting out of the real estate business and selling the building in the summer of 2001.
Of course, the book recreates the details of September 11, 2001 in both New York City and at the Pentagon in detail (as well as Flight 93).  One detail that is often overlooked is the displacement of many lower Manhattan residents.  Some were not able to return to their apartments or condos for weeks to months, some as long as a year.  Since property insurance typically doesn’t cover acts of war or terror, I’m not sure how these residents would have fared or whether the Bush administration or Congress arranged to compensate them.  Possessions would have been irretrievable and lost (including work, as with artists) in some cases. 
About the last half of the book describes rebuilding the site (including Liberty Tower) and the Memorial and Museum themselves (there is an outdoor fountain Memorial area which can be visited without going into the Museum).  I recall that designs were submitted in 2002, and that originally the site was to be rebuilt by 2008, but in fact the Liberty Tower wasn’t finished until 2013 and it is still not quite open yet.  A subplot of one of my screenplay scripts (“American Epic”), deals with the effort to plan the rebuilding, but that thread has become obsolete.