Posts Tagged ‘history’

Chart of the day

Posted: 19 June 2014 in Uncategorized
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The current World Cup finals in Brazil have had fewer draws (or, in American, tied games) than in many recent World Cup tournaments. There have been only three thus far (through 20 matches).

Not that a draw, even a scoreless draw, is necessarily boring. The Brazil-Mexico game, which ended 0-0, is a perfect example. It was, in fact, thrilling—with end-to-end action, great interchanges and goalscoring opportunities, lots of shots, and spectacular saves (especially by Mexican goalkeeper Ochoa).

Interestingly enough (especially for the Economist), the column that accompanies the chart blames globalization for leveling the game, such that “football has been ‘normalised’ into 90 minutes of boredom.”

I don’t think that’s correct. It is true that some teams (like Spain and Brazil) in these finals have not played up to their potential. But other teams (such as Costa Rica, Croatia, Mexico, and the United States) seem to be punching above their weight. That, and the generally higher quality of play overall, has made this one of the most entertaining and exciting World Cup finals in memory.


*I haven’t checked all the numbers but there is one glaring mistake in the chart: the 1994 World Cup finals held in the United States had 24, not 32, teams participating.


The argument behind our course, A Tale of Two Depressions, was not that the depression of the 1930s and the one today are exactly the same but, instead, that we might learn a lot more about each depression by comparing it to the other.

David Cay Johnston offers a different perspective. In his view, the majority of Americans actually fared better in the midst of the First Great Depression than they’re doing today.

Indeed, coming out of the Great Depression eight decades ago, the vast majority fared vastly better than most people have coming out of the Great Recession, which officially ended on June 30 six years ago.

It may be jarring to hear that the vast majority of Americans, the 90 percent, enjoyed bigger income gains in the 1930s than in recent years, but that is what the data show.

The data also indicate tandem increases in both want and wealth, with the vast majority worse off in 2013 than in 2009, while those at the apex of the economy are enjoying a much larger — and growing — share of national income.

Read the rest of Johnston’s essay for his survey of the data on jobs, earnings, and inequality in comparing the two eras.

Robert Jacob Hamerton, illustration from Punch, 29 July 1843

No, I haven’t had a chance to read Thomas Piketty’s book yet. But I’ve just finished my end-of-semester grading. So, soon…

In the meantime, Thomas Frank [ht: ra] offers a few things to look out for, such as:

1. Piketty’s critique of the discipline of economics.

One of the best things about Piketty’s masterwork is his systematic demolition of his own discipline. Academic economics, especially in the United States, has for decades been gripped by a kind of professional pretentiousness that is close to pathological. From time to time its great minds have grown so impressed by their own didactic awesomeness that they celebrate economics as “the imperial science”— “imperial” not merely because economics is the logic of globalization but because its math-driven might is supposedly capable of defeating and colonizing every other branch of the social sciences. Economists, the myth goes, make better historians, better sociologists, better anthropologists than people who are actually trained in those disciplines. One believable but possibly apocryphal tale I heard as a graduate student in the ’90s was that economists at a prestigious Midwestern university had actually taken to wearing white lab coats—because they supposedly were the real scientific deal, unlike their colleagues in all those soft disciplines.

Piketty blasts it all to hell. His fellow economists may have mastered the art of spinning abstract mathematical fantasies, he acknowledges, but they have forgotten that measuring the real world comes first. In the book’s Introduction this man who is now the most famous economist in the world accuses his professional colleagues of a “childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation”; he laughs at “their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.” In a shocking reversal, he calls on the imperial legions of economic pseudo-science to lay down their arms, to “avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, and political scientists”; the six-hundred-page book that follows, Piketty declares, is to be “as much a work of history as of economics.”

2. His lack of knowledge of U.S. history.

Whenever Piketty moves away from numbers and tries to describe life in the United States, things go wrong in a hurry. The worst example first: Piketty tells us that, unlike the French, Americans feel “no nostalgia for the postwar period” because our economy didn’t grow rapidly in those years. In fact, American GDP often grew by 5 and 6 percent in the ’50s and ’60s and Americans have felt intense sweet wistfulness for those days ever since “American Graffiti” came out in 1973. To be fair, Piketty corrects himself several hundred pages on, but then not because he’s looked around and noticed the four decades of ’50s-revival crap Americans have so eagerly consumed, but because of a stray nostalgic remark by his fellow economist Paul Krugman. It’s all moot, I guess, because before long and without any explanation he reverts to his original position of nostalgia denialism.

Piketty’s command of American political history is, quite simply, abysmal. He announces that the U.S. “never became a colonial power,” which would be news to the people of the Philippines, not to mention the Sioux. He describes Herbert Hoover as a “liquidationist” though that was Hoover’s own term for the policies that Hoover rejected. About the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt—ordinarily an important period for students of inequality—Piketty seems to know almost nothing, except that FDR used wage and price controls during World War II. At one point, he comes close to denying the existence of Rooseveltian liberalism altogether, writing that for we benighted Americans “the twentieth century is not synonymous with a great leap forward in social justice.” As for the great right turn of the Eighties, he asserts repeatedly and with virtually no documentary evidence that it happened because America was falling behind Germany and Japan in economic growth—in other words, that the galaxy of nutty anxieties that fuel modern right-wing politics can be easily deduced from a few lines on a graph.

3. And Piketty’s blind spot when it comes to unions.

Turning to the problem of income inequality here in the United States, there is an even simpler solution, by which I mean a more realistic solution, a solution that builds on familiar American traditions,that works by empowering average people, that requires few economists or experts, that would involve a minimum of government interference, and that proceeds by expanding democracy and participation rather than by building some kind of distant and unapproachable global tax authority: Allow workers to organize. Let people have a say on the basic issues affecting their lives.

Piketty’s biggest blind spot is that he has virtually nothing to say about labor unions. He starts Chapter 1 of “Capital” with an anecdote about a bloody strike in South Africa and he returns to that same tragic episode at the very end of the book, but in between he addresses the matter almost not at all. Piketty talks a good game about democracy, but like other economists who have made inequality their subject, he prefers solutions that are handed down from the lofty heights of expertise.

The best remedy for inequality, however, is the one that comes up from below. Economists may not think very highly of those hardened people in SEIU t-shirts—some of them smoke too much, some are suspicious of “free trade,” some of them (gasp!) didn’t go to college—but the fact remains that in nearly every particular they represent the obvious and just about the only social force on the ground in America that might bend the inequality curve the other way.

In all honesty, one can go even further than Frank. Letting people have a say on the basic issues affecting their lives means more than forming unions. It means letting them having a say in the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed in their workplaces. Now, that’s a solution to the battle between capital and labor that has been going on since the mid-nineteenth century.


There are all kinds of things that make Chicago a curious city. One of them is the WBEZ program of the same name, which answers questions curious listeners pose about the city.

A recent episode focused on the Haymarket Square demonstration [ht: jh] on 4 May 1886, which transformed labor politics worldwide and left an indelible mark on Chicago itself.

What connections do you see between the events of Haymarket and today?

[James] Green: As in the 1880s, Chicago is a city of immigrants and a city of immigrants who are wage-earning people, many of whom are in low-wage occupations, many of whom may not be citizens at all or are viewed as second-class citizens. There are similarities with the Gilded Age and the extremes of wealth.

The unions are pretty tough in Chicago, but they’re under assault. The mayor (Rahm Emanuel) would certainly love to get rid of the teachers union. There’s a lot of pressure on unions to give up things. The eight-hour workday — for a lot of people — is not feasible anymore. You need to work two jobs and overtime.

[Leon] Fink: The larger issues of inequality, worker rights, the basic decency of the workplace are still very much alive today. And some of the issues — the length of the workday and whether there’s a minimum wage — have returned to the political surface. Our culture is also constantly challenged by those who would find scapegoats as a way of turning away from the central issues raised by a movement or by radicals

Poem of the day

Posted: 28 April 2014 in Uncategorized
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I chanced upon the following poem by Bertolt Brecht, from 1936, while searching for the appropriate words to commemorate the retirement of a colleague and longstanding friend.

Questions from a Worker Who Reads

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.


from Bertolt Brecht, Poems, 1913-1956, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Methuen, 1987).



As Michael Reich and Ken Jacobs explain,

One measure of employers’ latitude to absorb higher wages compares the minimum wage to the median wage. From the 1960s into the 1970s, the minimum-median ratio in the United States varied between 41 and 55 percent. Since the mid-1980s, it has been much lower, varying between 33 and 39 percent. A minimum wage increase to $10.10 by 2016, as President Obama proposed earlier this year, would restore the national ratio to 50 percent.


Special mention

Knight-20-02 144745_600


As Niraj Chokshi explains,

In each state in the nation, the top 1 percent of earners saw its share of the income pie grow between 1979 and 2007, according to a new 50-state study of income inequality. The change was starkest in Wyoming, where 9 percent of income belonged to the top 1 percent in 1979. By 2007, that top slice of earners laid claim to 31 percent of all income.

It hasn’t always been the case, though. As the GIF above [shows], the top 1 percent saw its share of all income shrink between 1928 and 1979. Over that half-century, the income pie was shared a little more equally. But since 1979, that trend reversed in every state.


Thomas Piketty’s new book, Le capital au XXIe siècle (which is supposed to be released soon in English as Capital in the 21st Century), is creating quite a stir. It is the subject of the latest column by Thomas B. Edsall and was recently reviewed by Branco Milanovic [pdf].

In fact, the chart above is taken from Milanovic’s review. It shows the growing gap between (as Piketty defines them) the rate of growth of world production (g) and the rate of return to capital (r) during the nineteenth century and, after the “special period,” from the mid-1970s onward. For Piketty, that gap is the source of growing inequality in both the functional (capital-labor) and size (top 1 percent) distributions of income.

I’ll refrain from further commentary until I’ve had a chance to read the book (which, if all goes well, I’ll probably end up adding to my Topics in Political Economy reading list in the fall). But, I’ll admit, I am both intrigued (by the model and data) and somewhat wary (especially concerning the definition of capital) of Piketty’s approach. Still, given Milanovic’s summary,  Piketty’s methodological reflections alone warrant further attention:

Appropriately for such a wide-ranging book, Piketty closes his book with an essay on the method to be used in economics. He regards economics as a social science (where the emphasis is on “social”) that can flourish only if (i) it asks important, and not trivial, questions (so adieu Freakonomics and randomistas), and (ii) uses empirical and historical methods instead of sterile model-building. These issues have been debated ad nauseum by the economists, and Piketty has nothing new to add to that, except perhaps in a most important way—namely, by showing in his own work how these two desiderata should be combined to create economic works of durable importance.



Clearly, the War on Poverty hasn’t worked. Not when the official poverty rate has only fallen to 15 percent from 19 percent since Lyndon Baines Johnson’s landmark State of the Union address, and when in 2012 46 million Americans still lived in households that fell below the poverty line.*

But the problem is not that government tax and transfer programs don’t work. It’s that they simply can’t work, not when the U.S. economy continues to force people to try to survive in such miserable conditions.

Recent research (by both Liana Fox et al. and Christopher Wimer et al. [pdf]) on historical trends using the Supplemental Poverty Measure has shown that, in fact, government policies have played an important and growing role in reducing poverty. For example, the national poverty rate fell from about 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent today.

But their research also indicates how difficult it is to decrease, let alone eliminate, poverty—when nothing has been done to transform an economy that continues to generate such high levels of poverty. That’s the real war on war on poverty.

Wimer Fox

The U.S. economy continues to force almost a third of Americans to try to survive on low private-sector jobs and incomes—which, in the absence of government programs, would leave them below the poverty line. If anything, things have gotten worse since the war on poverty was first declared: about a quarter of Americans would have been poor in 1967, and that number has climbed to over thirty percent in 2011.

The real reason the War on Poverty hasn’t worked is that U.S. capitalism continues to generate such high levels of poverty in the first place.


*Those numbers are only slightly modified by the Census Bureau’s Supplementary Poverty Measure [pdf], which indicates a poverty rate of 16 percent and a total poor population of 49.7 Americans.