Welcome! The articles below caught my attention this week. Relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********). Article titles preceded by [SR] require a subscription.
(8 March 2020) “Thomas Piketty Turns Marx on His Head” The New York Times
********This is a review, by Paul Krugman, of the English translation of Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Piketty. At 1,093 pages, it is a very sizable follow up to Piketty’s best-selling 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which was a mere 816 pages long. The head-turning noted above is indicated in this paragraph of Krugman’s review:
In Marxian dogma, a society’s class structure is determined by underlying, impersonal forces, technology and the modes of production that technology dictates. Piketty, however, sees inequality as a social phenomenon, driven by human institutions. Institutional change, in turn, reflects the ideology that dominates society: “Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.”
It is a nice conceit, this head-turning. It is an echo of what is conventionally said about Marx, i.e., that he stood “Hegel on his head.” So, if Marx stood Hegel on his head and Piketty stood Marx on his head, is Piketty a Hegelian? Probably not. This isn’t so evident in Krugman’s review, but it comes through quite clearly in a review in The Guardian. He is not so much “a man with a plan” but a man “fixated on statistics” over space and time. As the reviewer notes, “Piketty is a brilliant and relentless anorak.” (Evidently, ‘anorak’ is British slang for “a person who has a very strong interest, perhaps obsessive, in niche subjects.” It is to Piketty’s credit that inequality is no longer a niche subject but one that concerns all but a few.) As William Davies, the Guardian reviewer notes, “Piketty’s theoretical innocence has always been part of his charm . . [He] gives us history without a motor, a series of variations in income and wealth that happen because people at the time wanted and allowed them to.” Further noting, “inequality is illegitimate, and therefore require ideologies in order to be justified and moderated. . . . The overturning of regressive ideologies is therefore the main condition of economic progress.” But how to do that? Therein lies, I think, part of Krugman’s dissatisfaction with Piketty’s latest effort.
(15 March 2020) [SR] “’Experimentation Works’ and ‘The Power of Experiments’ Review: Test, Test and Test Again” The Wall Street Journal
********Two recent books are reviewed in this piece about contemporary uses of experimentation, especially in the sphere of business. They are:
Experimentation Works: The Surprising Power of Business Experiments, by Stefan H. Thomke, who is a Harvard Business School professor.
The Power of Experiments: Decision Making in a Data-Driven World, by Michael Luca and Max H. Bazerman, who are also Harvard Business School professors.
Francis Bacon is conventionally referred to as the founder of the experimental method in his Novum Organum (1620), a nifty, probably not coincidental, 400 years ago. What comes across clearly in the review is the power of small things systematically pursued. Thomke, in his discussion of A/B testing, notes how businesses are tapping into “the power of high-velocity incrementalism, while Luca an Bazerman examine how nudges combined with “the tools of behavioral economics” can be put to policy use. Overall, Thomke, Luca, and Bazerman “balance their passion for experiments with a recognition of its limits. . . . Experiments are often unsettling to contemplate and difficult to execute—and their conclusions hard to accept. Still they are a powerful tool for curious teams with the confidence, and humility, to embrace the Baconian challenge.”
(16 March 2020) [SR] “’Golden Gates’ Review: Build It Here, Build It Now” The Wall Street Journal
********On February 13th The New York Times published an article by Conor Dougherty on California’s housing crisis. His book Golden Gates: Fighting of Housing in America is now reviewed, in the context of the Yes in My Backyard (Yimby) Act, “introduced by Reps Trey Hollingworth (R., Ind.) and Denny Heck (D., Wash.), recently passed by the House of Representatives.” As the review notes, “The term ‘Yimby’ in the bill’s title is a play on Nimby, or ‘not in my backyard,’ the moniker given to a person who, while not necessarily opposed to new housing, strongly opposes development in his own neighborhood.” The Yimby Act “requires cities seeking community-development funds from the federal government to report their progress in removing local regulatory obstacles, such as restrictive zoning rules or onerous permitting processes, that hamper housing affordability by limiting new construction.” You can read the text of the bill—five pages—here. Broader information about the bill can be found here.
The reviewer notes, that those wishing to have “a compelling and accessible overview of . . . [California’s] housing crisis, there is no better book than Conor Dougherty’s ‘Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.’” Dougherty has “a gift for telling the stories of people struggling to overcome California’s housing dysfunction.” His account “makes it clear that the California Yimbys are only getting started.” More broadly, the Yimby Act “signals a growing bipartisan consensus that regulatory burdens in local housing markets are a source of regional and national impediments to economic growth and upward mobility.”