Delta Forced

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If The Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg or The Financial Times or even The Economist are taken, broadly speaking, as the major organs of the financialized evangel, I still hold that it is The New York Times which best represents the way the rentier class in America self-perceives and self-represents. The former are a sort of priestly class; the Times is a congregant and a believer. It sits in the pews, prays to the gods, and authors the temple newsletter. When some doubt arises about the rightness of global capital, when some evidence appears that the augurs have been diddling the young pigeonkeepers behind the altar, it wrings its hand with worry; fortunately, all depredations are ultimately revealed to be aberrations—indeed, to be extravagantly so.

Signs and wonders! The Times has discovered, mirabile dictu, that “inequality” is not getting worse, as is the conventional wisdom. Not only that: it is getting better. “Inequality” is already a dire euphemism for capital—ownership of and access to—but let’s not reinvent the wheel again. The Times has discovered, or has, more accurately, discovered someone discovering, that if you look at the recent percentage changes in annual incomes, the very, very rich have seen far steeper declines. Ergo, therefore, and hallelujah.

I assume there’s a certain joy in delivering the good news that the world really is, after all, mounted on the back of a turtle. You may all recall, some years ago, that Stephen Pinker delivered the great, good news that the modern world is not only a kinder, less violent, more gentle place than it has ever been, but that it is measurably so. There’s the old saying about lies, damned lies, and statistics, but the last of these should really be percentages. David Bentley Hart was onto him:

Even so, the numbers do not add up. Pinker’s method for assessing the relative ferocity of different centuries is to calculate the total of violent deaths not as an absolute quantity, but as a percentage of global population. But statistical comparisons like that are notoriously vacuous. Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents. Obviously, though, a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens. And even where the orders of magnitude are not quite so divergent, comparison on a global scale is useless, especially since over the past century modern medicine has reduced infant mortality and radically extended life spans nearly everywhere (meaning, for one thing, there are now far more persons too young or too old to fight). So Pinker’s assertion that a person would be thirty-five times more likely to be murdered in the Middle Ages than now is empirically meaningless.

In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion.

So too, this idea that a larger percentage change in a very large income number is in any meaningful sense a greater loss or gain than a commensurate change in a very small one. If a investment banker with a base salary of a million bucks makes two million in bonus in a very good year and only a million the next, his income has declined by a full third, but he’s still making two million bucks in a year. If a guy making twenty bucks an hour working 37.5 hours a week for fifty weeks a year has his hours cut back to just thirty hours a week, his income declines only 20%, but it represents the loss of 10 months’ rent. Also, he loses his health insurance. Also, he’s paying about a third of his income in taxes, whereas Joe Millionaire is at half that. Did we mention that the Times is looking only at pre-tax income. We mention it now.

You might argue in good faith that inequality doesn’t matter, that it’s fine and well to have a society in which a very few people are very rich and many people are just scraping by. I’d disagree, but there’s a legitimate argument that, so long as there exists some open path for the guy making forty grand a year to one day make forty million, however unlikely, then there’s not a structural problem. But to say, instead, that because very large incomes are more volatile than very ordinary incomes, therefore their recent declines represent a countervailing trend to the concentration of wealth is to engage in what I choose to interpret as an astonishing stupidity lest I have to believe it an even more amazing dishonesty.

11 thoughts on “Delta Forced

  1. You might argue in good faith that inequality doesn’t matter, that it’s fine and well to have a society in which a very few people are very rich and many people are just scraping by.

    Deirdre McCloskey makes just such an argument in her review of Piketty, thus: http://www.deirdremccloskey.org/docs/pdf/PikettyReviewEssay.pdf It’s written in her usual charming style, and so it’s delightfully easy to swallow:

    Piketty’s worry about the rich getting richer is indeed merely “the latest” of a long series back to Malthus and Ricardo and Marx. Since those founding geniuses of Classical economics, a trade-tested betterment (a locution to be preferred to “capitalism,” with its erroneous implication that capital accumulation, not innovation, is what made us better off) has enormously enriched large parts of a humanity now seven times larger in population than in 1800, and bids fair in the next fifty years or so to enrich everyone on the planet. Look at China and India (and stop saying, “But not everyone there has become rich”; they will, as the European history shows, at any rate by the ethically relevant standard of basic comforts denied to most people in England and France before 1800, or in China before its new beginning in 1978 and India’s before 1991). And yet the left in its worrying routinely forgets this most important secular event since the invention of agriculture—the Great Enrichment of the last two centuries—and goes on worrying and worrying, like the little dog worrying about his bone in the Traveler’s insurance company advertisement on TV, in a new version every half generation or so.

    How can you not love that? How can you not smile and nod at that, until the glow of the genever wears off and you realize this is the “six miles, in the snow, uphill both ways” gem in a new setting? Things are better than they’ve been; therefore, they’re as good as they might get. “Eat your peas, dear; people aren’t starving in China; new economy, Internet of Things, Web 3.0, cloud cloud cloud.”

    Sorry for the tangent, but I was reminded since this is the most palatable version of that argument that I’ve ever read.

  2. Agree about the money; disagree about the violence. You can call Pinker’s argument reductionist, but you can’t call it wrong based even on the strongest arguments I’ve seen mobilized against it.

    Hart’s rebuttal is a case in point: I take it that a society of two Inuit villages, each with a single fistfight fatality, is in his view somehow “more violent” than a single such village? And a hundred such villages are more violent still? Even though the local level of violence is constant and identical to the single isolated village? And what’s more, a society of 100 million with a murder rate of 1 in 100,000 is somehow “more violent” than an isolated village of 200 people that wipes itself out in an orgy of murder-suicide? Sorry, but that just isn’t reconcilable with any definition of “more violent” or “less violent” that I can wrap my head around.

    Given a sufficiently large population, the number of daily fatalities from, say, slipping in the tub makes the bathroom sound like Auschwitz. It isn’t. There are just a lot of people in the world.

      1. Seriously, I do not understand the argument you’re making.

        Hart says: “In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion.”

        So “real body counts” is the measure of how violent a society is, regardless of the size of the population involved. By this measure, going to the bathroom is _literally_ worse than the Holocaust.

        Help me out. This is actually what you’re saying?

        If there’s been a “demographic explosion” resulting in the population increasing at a greater rate than the “real body counts”, this means that the extra people added are less violent than the people who came before. That’s… I don’t know how to put it. It’s arithmetic.

        Here’s a riddle for you: I grew up in a town with a lot of murders. More murders, per capita, than anywhere else in the world, as it happens. It affected the texture of everyday life. It made people depressed and jumpy and, sometimes, dead. Yet there were fewer murders there each year than in, say, New York City. Or Germany. In which place did violence most severely curtail people’s ability to live full lives?

      1. Pinker spent a chapter and then some on genocide, including the Holocaust. His thesis is that genocide (and civilian casualties in general) rarely made it into the history books until recently.

      2. Is that my “fraud”? Lordy lordy. And here I thought both Pinker and I were actually counting both as “violence”. Is that actually the basis for your objection? That Pinker somehow omits state violence from his analysis? Have you read — not the book, even, but maybe just a review of the book?

      3. I couldn’t care less about any concern trolling Pinker engages in. I’m
        sure he cries crocodile tears very convincingly for those who want to
        be convinced. I’ve seen enough of Pinker’s Hobbesian lies in his own
        pieces/lectures and as cited in reviews of this book to know what the
        book says. I’m aware that, as Steven Jay Gould, Brian Ferguson, and
        others have pointed out, the likes of Pinker trump up a phony case for
        the alleged natural militarism and depravity of human beings (with its
        companion Big Lie, that people suffer and fight mostly because of
        actual physical scarcity), as opposed to organized warfare arising in
        tandem with hierarchical “civilization” and elite monopolization of
        otherwise sufficient resources. That of course is what sociobiologists
        like Pinker want to deny. You should try reading a real anthropology
        book without a neoliberal agenda, like David Graeber’s “Debt”.

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