Piketty on Capital: A Footnote

by Henry on April 5, 2014

I’m sure that there’s going to be plenty more discussion here on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (there’s lots of good arguments to be had, but it is every bit the major work that people say it is), but in the meantime, a correction. Dean Baker, in a somewhat grumpy review, says:

Rather than continuing in this vein, I will just take one item that provides an extraordinary example of the book’s lack of attentiveness to institutional detail. In questioning his contribution to advancing technology, Piketty asks: “Did Bill [Gates] invent the computer or just the mouse?” Of course the mouse was first popularized by Apple, Microsoft’s rival. It’s a trivial issue, but it displays the lack of interest in the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.

I’ve been seeing the Gates quote circulate a bit among left-leaning friends, very likely because of its structural similarity to a notorious claim by a rather different big sweeping economics book that precipitated a lot of derision (nb though that Gabriel Rossman, despite repeated calumny from He Who Must Not Be Named, decided in retrospect that the mistake wasn’t that big of a deal). Whichever which way, Dean’s use of the Piketty quote is unfortunately rather misleading. What Piketty actually says (p.512 of the proofs version of the book, which I assume maps on to the final text):

“As for Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan, each with his own cult of personality (Did Bill invent the computer or just the mouse? Did Ronnie destroy the USSR single-handedly, or with the help of the pope?), it may be useful to recall that the US economy was much more innovative in 1950-1970 than in 1990-2010, to judge by the fact that productivity growth was nearly twice as high in the former period as in the latter, and since the United States was in both periods at the world technology frontier, this difference must be related to the pace of innovation.”

In other words, Piketty isn’t claiming that Bill Gates invented the computer, or the mouse, any more that he’s claiming that Saint Ronald went in there like Rambo with his missile launcher (with or without the help of trusty sidekick JP-II) to bring the Soviet Union to its knees. He’s engaging in sarcastic hyperbole to illustrate the ludicrous way in which popular wisdom attributes vast historical changes to the intervention of singular, godlike culture heroes. This is quite unambiguous in context, especially as Piketty has talked some pages before about Gates’ actual role (in a brief discussion of operating systems). Taken out of context, as it is in Baker’s review, it wrongly suggests that Piketty is ignorant or sloppy to a quite extraordinary degree.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that this is deliberate dishonesty on Baker’s part. I can see how this kind of mistake can happen (I rely on notes myself when writing reviews; there but for the grace of God …). I also think that the broader point that Piketty’s book has little to say about institutions is a fair one. But Baker’s misattribution to Piketty of a bewilderingly stupid-sounding claim that Piketty obviously does not make is the kind of thing that could go viral (and already is going semi-hemi-quasi viral). Thus, I think, it’s worth pointing out that it’s just not so.

Update: Dean Baker has modified his review to say that the Gates bit was a “throwaway line,” which helps imo clarify his real disagreement.

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Time-recognition for having a baby by the ERC

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 5, 2014

In many European Countries (fn1), scholars applying for research grants with the National Research Councils can indicate that they had a child, and get additional ‘time recognition’. Many grants, especially the most prestigious and best-funded grants, work with a time-limit, e.g. you can only apply until Y years after getting your PhD degree, or between X and Y years after getting your PhD degree. If you had a baby, you can add a certain number of months to Y – which makes the timeframe more flexible for the applicant.

Now, as our friend of the blog Z rightly remarks in the comment following my previous post, the ERC has a quite remarkable policy on time-recognition for having a baby:

if you want to be shocked by something in the [ERC] report, you can have a look at their policy towards the deduction of parental leave from the qualifying period for a starting grant: 18 months per children for women, the actual amount of parental leave taken for men. Say what? What is the presupposition here that justifies such a differential treatment? What was wrong with “the actual amount of leave taken” (perhaps times a multiplier to be more family friendly) for both gender? I felt insulted both as a father of two children born in quite rapid succession at a critical period of my career and on behalf of my wife, who apparently is considered by the ERC to be not being devoted to her work for 18 months, even if she worked full-time the day her mandatory maternity leave ended.

[click to continue…]

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Humanities and social sciences within the ERC

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 4, 2014

The European Research Council issued a press release today on the number of applications for its Starting Grants – a prestigious grant of up to € 1,5 Million for scholars who have recently received their PhD degree. Here’s a paragraph that struck me:

In this call, the distribution by the three ERC domains was as follows: 1494 proposals were submitted in ‘Physical Sciences and Engineering’, 1030 in ‘Life Sciences’ and 748 in ‘Social Sciences and Humanities’.

So if we calculate the shares of the applications, we get this:
Physical sciences and engineering: 45,6%
Life Sciences: 31,5%
Social Sciences and Humanities: 22,9%.

Compare this with the budget shares that the ERC has allocated to those three areas (see ERC documentation p.13):
Physical sciences and engineering: 44%
Life Sciences: 39%
Social Sciences and Humanities: 17%.

Can someone please explain this to me? Or should we perhaps simply interpret this as another sign of the worsening conditions for research in the social sciences and humanities in the European Union?

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The Secret!

by John Holbo on April 3, 2014

I can’t say I find much to agree with in this Charles Koch op-ed, in the WSJ. Although I do second Kevin Drum’s amazement that the best emblem they could find of the sort of spirit no leftist could possibly endorse was … an old Daily Kos logo? Really?

But I do think it’s a good sign that the right is branching out from Alinksy to Schopenhauer.

Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.

I knew it! (I had long suspected, but this is the smoking gun!) The Kochtopus is a crypto-Schopenhauerian cult! It is all a subtle plot to deny Americans their freedom – as Schopenhauer denied human freedom! The Kochs seek to get all good Americans to see the World As Representation, thereby inducing ethical denial of the World As Will. (As we know, welfare just encourages people to go on living. That’s why we must cut programs for the poor, to bring about an ideal, Schopenhauerian rapture of ethical nihilism!)

On the other hand, perhaps Koch is a Schopenhauerian in a less metaphysical, more practical sense. He practices The Art of Always Being Right: The 38 Subtle Ways of Persuasion [Amazon].

Could it be?

(Seriously. It’s a good book. Schopenhauer wrote a fine little treatise on motivated reasoning, tracking the beast to its lair, the den of desire to be right.)

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April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day, a day when we are called upon to raise awareness of autism. I have been working in the last months on a paper on how to [philosophically] conceptualize the well-being of people with autism/autistic people*, but alas, that project is not finished yet. But if you’re interested in new philosophical work on autism, check out this book that Jami L. Anderson and Simon Cushing edited, which contains some interesting chapters. And check out this interesting blog post by Richard Ashcroft, on a workshop that Raffaele Rodogno organized last year, which was absolutely fascinating for the reasons that Richard spells out.

I want to raise two issues: one about the diversity of people with autism, and the possible epistemological consequences. [click to continue…]

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The Ethicist has a problem that will interest Henry:


I am a graduate student at a state university. One of four required texts for a course was written by the professor, and the subject matter of the text is also the content of his lectures. A significant portion of my grade is based on a ‘‘review’’ I write of his text. Is it ethical to require students to buy a book that you wrote? Aren’t I already paying tuition for this professor’s expertise and knowledge?

The ethicist makes some sensible comments (scroll down a bit). I have a further comment and a question. The comment: it is relatively easy to avoid making money on a textbook that you assign to students. If you REALLY think it is the best one, figure out what your royalties will be, and make a deal with the local bookstore that they will sell it at regular price minus your royalty, and just pay the bookstore the difference for each copy they sell. I don’t think that Greg Mankiw has responded to Henry’s occasional jabs about him using his monopoly power to assign his textbook, but that’s probably because he does what I have described, but doesn’t want to undermine his credibility by telling anyone.(One alternative: an undergraduate professor of mine who wrote a rather good textbook which he wanted to use, just xeroxed the final draft and kept giving it to his own students; another alternative, calculate the royalties, and either give them to a scholarship fund for low-income students, or use them to invite struggling students out to lunch in small groups to build up their confidence – that might be the best strategy for Mankiw, given where he works).

The question, about non-textbooks. I have never assigned one of my books to a class, though I have co-taught a class in which my co-teacher assigned one of my books. It’s not that I am inhibited about making money of the students (I am but, above, propose a solution, but that when I assign texts, my aim is to have the students both understand and criticize them. Its not that I am uncritical of my own work, far from it, but I want to treat a text as something I am exploring critically along with the students, and that just seems a bit odd when I wrote it. Once in a while, in an upper division (or graduate) class I assign a paper or two that I have written, and with graduate classes I have assigned works in progress. But even then, with the undergraduate classes, I only assign papers that I know will invite very strong criticism from the students, and I make them do the presenting (this resulted, last semester, in one of the best presentations I have witnessed, in which a student ripped into this paper with such vehemence that her co-presenter—and I think most of the other students—were horrified). Anyway. In fact students regularly criticize me for my policy of non-assignment, arguing that they want, and want other students, to see their professors as producers of intellectual work, and want to see that intellectual work and have it discussed in class; both because it makes them see their professors differently, and because it is a rare chance for an undergraduate to discuss serious intellectual work with its producer. What do you think?

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Down the MOOC-hole, where I have been, I haven’t kept score in the Silver/Krugman kerfuffle. But, Plato-preoccupied as I was, I did make a false inference. I knew it was some fox-hedgehog thing. Silver was using Archilochus to frame what is wrong with standard opinion journalism. Perfect! I thought. Because I have read Plato’s Republic.

“Since, then, ‘opinion forcibly overcomes truth’ and ‘controls happiness,’ as the wise men say, I must surely turn entirely to it. I should create a facade of illusory virtue around me to deceive those who come near, but keep behind it the greedy and crafty fox of the wise Archilochus” (365b-c). [click to continue…]

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Today

by Harry on March 29, 2014

In one of the TV discussions of Tony Benn’s death, Diane Abbott pointed out that much of what Benn had fought for, and been ridiculed and despised for, had simply become mainstream. I’d never thought of it that way, because I had focused on those things he fought for that parted even farther from the mainstream. But she was right. For example, 30 years ago, nobody would have taken you seriously if you’d said that, in 30 years time, gay and lesbian Britons would be able to marry the person they loved, let alone under a law passed by a Conservative government. Not that anybody would have said that, because it was such a manifestly ridiculous thing to say. Congratulations to all those who fought for this, apparently absurd, goal. Today, just celebrate.
(posted 3/28 in the US, but 29/3 in the UK)

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The Game of Wrong, and Moral Psychology

by John Holbo on March 28, 2014

Apologies for extended absence, due to me teaching a Coursera MOOC, “Reason and Persuasion”.

I’m moderately MOOC-positive, coming out the other end of the rabbit hole. (It’s the final week of the course. I can see light!) I will surely have to write a ‘final reflections’ post some time in the near future. I’ve learned important life lessons, such as: don’t teach a MOOC if there is anything else whatsoever that you are planning to do with your life for the next several months. (Bathroom breaks are ok! But hurry back!)

We’re done with Plato and I’m doing a couple weeks on contemporary moral psychology. The idea being: relate Plato to that stuff.

So this post is mostly to alert folks that if they have some interest in my MOOC, they should probably sign up now. (It’s free!) I’m a bit unclear about Coursera norms for access, after courses are over. But if you enroll, you still have access after the course is over. (I have access to my old Coursera courses, anyway. Maybe it differs, course by course.) So it’s not like you have to gorge yourself on the whole course in a single week.

We finished up the Plato portion of the course with Glaucon’s challenge, some thoughts about the game theory and the psychology of justice.

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. (358e-9a)

So I whipped up some appropriate graphics (click for larger). [click to continue…]

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Journalism and Astroturfing

by Henry on March 27, 2014

Back when Nick Confessore broke the Tech Central Station scandal, another journalist wrote a very good piece about the problems that you got when journalism merged into astroturfing.

For years—literally years—I’ve been writing about Astroturf organizing and that trendsetting operation in the trade, DCI —home of that Johny Appleseed of the plastic and the green, Tom Synhorst. Simply put, Astroturf organizers are in the business of creating phony grassroots support, or rather the appearance of grassroots support, for this or that cause. You got the money and the cause? They’ll bring the front groups, the push-polls, the oped payola, you name it. …The secret of ‘turf is a simple one. Advertisements and paid spokesman may influence us to some degree. We hear their opinions, see them on TV and such. But because they’re paid, because they’re essentially advertisements, we also tend to tune them out, or at least bracket them off in our minds. … For years, the trendsetter in Astroturf has been DCI. And a couple days ago, if you were watching really closely, a tiny sentence changed on an out-of-the-way page on the TechCentralStation website. The sentence that read … “Tech Central Station is published by Tech Central Station, L.L.C.” now reads … “Tech Central Station is published by DCI Group, L.L.C.” It wasn’t an accident. It was because this article—‘Meet the Press’ by Nick Confessore—was about to be published by The Washington Monthly.

That journalist was Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo. Today, as part of its “very cool new section … which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America,” Talking Points Memo published this piece about “the data sharing effort to cure cancer.” [click to continue…]

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Anyone Remember Tech Central Station?

by Henry on March 27, 2014

Josh Marshall tells us that he has wonderful news.

Today I’m really excited to announce that we’ve launched a very cool new section to our popular Idea Lab vertical called Idea Lab: Impact, which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I’ve wanted to take Idea Lab in this direction for some time. Ideal Lab focuses science, cutting edge technology, the tech industry and the economics, policy and politics that surrounds those issues and sometimes on the gizmos we all use everyday. Idea Lab: Impact will have a different focus. How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives? How is it impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations of the 21st century – whether that’s in subsaharan Africa or Appalachia or in congested great cities of the world. Basically, how is and how can science and technology change the lives of people in their every day lives – not only with their gadgets and not only for people who command great wealth, but real world impacts for everyone.

People who’ve been blogging as long as I have may remember another website with PHrMA funding which set out to tell us about the awesome innovating power of innovative innovation, the unlamented Tech Central Station. TCS dished out money to Glenn Reynolds and other bullshit merchants in the marketplace of ideas to provide cover for a whole variety of unsalubrious corporate agendas. Josh Marshall isn’t Glenn Reynolds – the sponsorship is public and I imagine that there’ll be some quality control. But still, PhRMA’s agenda on innovation involves some very, very shitty stuff indeed. There are a whole bunch of big sleazy lobby groups on Capitol Hill, but PhRMA is arguably the sleaziest.

And in that spirit, I’d like to introduce a very cool new non-sponsored section myself, “Bullshit Lab: Impact,” focused on the very cool ways in which PhRMA lobbying is affecting real human lives and impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations. Except maybe losing the “impacting,” since it isn’t a verb ever seen outside corporate press releases. How, for example, is PhRMA lobbying advancing the ball on shovelling insanely demanding IP requirements into international trade agreements? What are the impactful ways in which PhRMA is impacting high drug prices? What are the cutting edge techniques in which PhRMA is pushing back on patent reform for AIDS drugs in South Africa (with the lobbying help of James Glassman, whose name devoted readers may recognize from previous episodes of sponsored hackery like, well … Tech Central Station). Feel free to treat this post’s comments sections as an opportunity to provide further examples, and unleash the real world impacts of innovative lobbying innovations!!

Update – see the comments below for responses from and debate with Josh Marshall, and this follow-up post for more discussion.

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ICANN Public Forum Bingo

by Maria on March 27, 2014

Here in Singapore at the ICANN Public Forum, we’re at the end of a brutally busy week talking about how to run the Internet naming and numbering systems. It’s an event comprised almost entirely of ritual, and to understand what’s going on you need to be able to translate some of the long-loved incantations. Here are a few:

When someone says: I’m going to simplify things.
They mean: Be confused. Be very, very confused.

When someone says: I’m going to back up here.
They mean: I’m going to make up some history, now.

When someone says:I’m going to name the elephant in the room.
They mean: My next observation will be startlingly banal.

When someone says: Speaking on my own behalf. As the VP of Blah for Blah Blah Corporation, ….
They mean: I don’t want you to think about who’s paying me to be here, but you better listen because we have a lot of money, customers and power / votes, ministries and battleships.

When someone says: We need to show leadership.
They mean: I should be in charge.

When someone says: There needs to be a bottom-up process.
They mean: Nobody asked me about this.

When someone says: I want to talk about process.
They mean: Hold up. I need to consult my boss.

When someone says: I realise I’m what’s standing between you and lunch / dinner / drinks
They mean: I know you won’t like what I’m going to say. Please don’t throw anything.

When someone says: We are fixing the plane while it’s in flight.
They mean: I don’t understand what’s going on, but I know I don’t like it.

When someone says: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
They mean: Ignore everyone else’s ideas and just use mine.

When someone says: Any other comments on this?
They mean: Will everyone please, for the love of all that is holy, STFU?

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Silver vs Krugman

by Kieran Healy on March 26, 2014

Nate Silver’s relaunched FiveThirtyEight has been getting some flak from critics—including many former fans—for failing to live up to expectations. Specifically, critics have argued that instead of foxily modeling data and working the numbers, Silver and his co-contributors are looking more like regular old opinion columnists with rather better chart software. Paul Krugman has been a prominent critic, arguing that “For all the big talk about data-driven analysis, what [the site] actually delivers is sloppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination.” Silver has put is tongue at least part way into his cheek and pushed back a little with an article titled, in true Times fashion, “For Columnist, a Change of Tone“.

[click to continue...]

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In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.


Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be. [click to continue…]

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All the things I knew I didn’t know …

by Henry on March 25, 2014

This apology by former NSA head Michael Hayden to Angela Merkel is pretty interesting as apologies go.

Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Hayden is very explicitly not apologizing to Merkel for the US tapping her cellphone. He considers this part of the ordinary business of relations between nations; even “good friends.” He’s apologizing because the US was caught doing it, hence putting Merkel in “a very difficult position.” I was in a radio debate with Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe a few months ago, where he drew an analogy between this scandal and the kind of everyday stuff that you know, happens in marriages, when husbands hire private detectives to spy on their wives and makes sure that they’re not cheating and vice versa. Hayden’s apology actually goes one step further in the weirdness stakes – the cheating spouse apologizes not for having cheated, but for not having hid the affair (which he/she still resolutely refuses to confirm or deny) well enough, hence making for social awkwardness. [click to continue…]

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