Category Archives: Economics

Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation”

Recent discussion about the effect of technology on employment reminded me of Marshall Brain‘s prescient essays of almost 20 years ago. (“Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom“) Here is a summary of the main theses in each essay.

Robotic Nation

OUTLINE

Tip of the Iceberg – Technology transforms employment because of
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth is leading to a
The New Employment Landscape – where the equation
Labor = Money – will no longer hold, necessitating new economic models.

Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated soon, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now we interact with automated systems: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems lower cost and prices, but “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.

In the next 15 years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human shaped robots will begin to appear, and by 2025 we may have AI equipped machines  that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. Robots will get cheaper and become more human shaped to facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you will buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, and mow the lawn. Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter, and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will replace half the American workforce leaving millions unemployed. Restaurants, airports, construction, hospitals, truck drivers and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers. These robots will last for years, and need no vacation or sick time.

While robotic vision or image processing is currently a stumbling block, Brain thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next twenty years. This single improvement will bring catastrophic changes, analogous to the changes brought about by the Wright brothers. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks, activities that waste human potential.

If all this sounds crazy, Brain asks you to consider a prediction of faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no radios, model T’s or airplanes.  At that time many thought heavier than air flight was impossible, and predictions to the contrary were often ridiculed. Thus the employment world is changing dramatically and rapidly. Why?

The basic answer is Moore’s Law—CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers in 2020 will have the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. Robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: cheap computers with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software.

The new employment landscape isn’t so different from the one of 100 years ago, but it will be vastly different once robots that see, hear, and understand language compete with humans for jobs. The 50 million jobs in fast food, delivery, retail, hotels, airports, factories, restaurants, and construction will be lost in the next fifty years. But America can’t deal with 50 million unemployed, and the economy will not create 50 million new jobs. Why?

In the current economy people trade labor for money. But without enough work, people won’t be able to earn money. What then? Brain argues that we should then provide free housing and a guaranteed income. But whatever we do, we had better start thinking about the kind of societal structures needed in a “robotic nation.”

Robots in 2015” 

OUTLINE

We Will Replace the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which implies
A Race to the Bottom – so
Where Do We Want to Go?

If you went back to 1950 you would find people doing most of the work just like they do in 2000. (Except for ATM machines, robots on the auto assembly line, automated voice answering systems, etc.) But we are on the edge of a robotic nation, where half the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline replaces expensive pilots, the money saved will give them a competitive advantage over other airlines. Initially we’ll feel sorry for the pilots, but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Other jobs will follow suit. What about new jobs creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry do the same? No. Robots will assemble robots, and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.

The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Even now our economy creates few high paying jobs. (For which there is intense competition.) Instead, there will be a “race to the bottom.” A race to pay lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate them altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last forty years—irrelevant; there will be no high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones. So where do we want to go? We are on the brink of massive unemployment unknown in American history, and everyone will suffer because of it. How then do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?

Robotic Freedom

Overall Summary

The Concentration of Wealth – is accelerating bringing about
A Question of Freedom – why not let us be free to create
Harry Potter and the Economy – which leads us to
Stating Goals – to increase human freedom using
Capitalism Supersized – an economy that provides for all and has
The Advantages of Economic Security – which is better for
Everybody – because even high-skilled jobs are vulnerable.

We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lane, and the pace of this change will accelerate in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the economy will not absorb all these unemployed. So what can we do to adapt to the catastrophic changes that the robotic nation will bring?

People are crucial to the economy. But increasingly there is a concentration of wealth—the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all corporate income will go to the shareholders and executives. But this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative. So why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy?

This is a question of freedom. Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote them while on welfare and would not have done so without public support. Think how much human potential we lose because people have to work to eat. How much music, art, science, literature, and technology have never been created because people had to work to eat. Consider that Linux and Wikipedia were created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity, one where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain argues that robots give us a chance to transform the human condition.

He also argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead he states these goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What need to completely re-think our economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We can do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose their own creative projects, and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty hour work week, which is “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers suggestions (supersize capitalism, guarantee economic security) as to how we would fund a society in which people are free to actualize their potential to be creative without the burden of wage slavery. Now if all this seems unrealistic consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that populated much of human history. Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation, so we should think about a different world. Hopefully it will be one where robotic workers give us the time and the the freedom we all so desperately desire.

Robotic Nation FAQ

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal? Answer – Robots will take over half the jobs by 2030, and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to plan ahead.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast? Answer – Consider the analogy to the automobile or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—but this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.

Question 3 – In the past technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsman making things by factories making them,  human calculators by computers, etc., it improved productivity and increased everyone’s standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems? Answer – First, no previous technology replaced 50% of the labor pool. Second, robotics won’t create new jobs. The work created by robots will be done by robots. Third, we are creating a second intelligent species which competes with humans for jobs. As the abilities of this new species improves, they will do more of our work. Fourth, past increases in productivity meant more pay and less work, but today worker wages are stagnant. Now productivity gains result in concentration of wealth. This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.

Question 4 – There is no evidence for what you are saying, no economic foundation for your proposals. Answer – Just Google ‘jobless recovery,’” for the evidence. Automation fuels production increases, but does not create new jobs.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist? Answer – Brain responds that he is a capitalist who has started three successful businesses and written a dozen books—he is pro-market. Socialism is the view that centralized governmental planning produces and distributes goods. But Brain argues that by giving consumers a share of the wealth—which they won’t be able to earn with work—we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending,” and at the same time provide economic security to all citizens. Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas Brain wants people to have “economic freedom for the first time in human history…”

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem? Answer – With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this, which is better for everyone.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation? Answer – Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes, social security or other programs that redistribute wealth.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion. Answer – Brain argues that we should do this gradually. Remember $150 billion, about what the US spent on the Iraq war in 2003, is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. At the moment our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so a stipend in that range is feasible.

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more? Answer – “As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”

Question 8 – Won’t robots bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices. Answer – True. But current trends show that most of the wealth will end up in the hands of a few. Also, if you have no wealth it won’t matter that prices are low. For every citizen benefit from the robotic nation, we must distribute the wealth.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics? Answer – Brain notes this is a common question since many people assume that if we aren’t forced to do hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. But he has no idea where this fear comes from (probably from philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.) He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife who works at home; b) his in-laws are retired and live on a pension and social security; c) he has independently wealthy friends; d) he knows students supported by loans; and e) many receive free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! 

Question 9a – Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about. Answer – Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by a paycheck and spending it at businesses who get the money from customers is just that—a cycle—which will stop if people have no money. And giving a stipend won’t stop people from trying to make more money, create, invent or play. Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now, but Brain thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics if we provide people with enough to live decent lives.

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – Because of economic coercion. This economic power is why companies pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. Better to have a universal basic income.

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the whole world in your proposals—why are you U.S. centric? Answer – Ideally, the global economy would adopt these proposals.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen? Answer – We should spread the word.

____________________________________________________________________

1. These articles in their entirety can be found here.

Prospect Theory & The Election

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. ~ H.L. Mencken

As a follow-up to my recent post, “Education and the Election,” another thing that struck me about the voting was how prospect theory in behavioral economics explains why many gambled on Trump.

Prospect theory helps explain why voters reject safe options—say remain in the EU or elect a well-qualified Democrat candidate—in favor of riskier ones. Here’s the idea. If I offer you a choice between giving you a $50 bill, or flipping a coin and giving you either $100 or nothing, most people take the $50. They accept the sure thing. But when people are already down $50, and they have a choice of either doubling down to get even or lose $100, most will accept the risk. When people are losing, or believe they are, they are less risk averse.

Now it’s pretty straightforward how this applies to a choice like Clinton-Trump or Brexit-NoBrexit. In fact, the behavioral economists Quattrone and Tversky showed how prospect theory rather than rational choice theory generally explains voting. Again, if people believe they are doing poorly, and/or that others are doing better than they are, then they favor riskier candidates. As explained by Christophe Heintz:

Many of the explanations for the Brexit and Trump votes … emphasized how frustrated citizens were with their economic situation, and the effect of fear mongering discourses and appeal to lost grandeur … The political discourses of the Trump and Brexit advocates have framed the stakes in terms of losses rather than gains. The slogans “Make America great again” and “Take back control” clearly refer to the lost grandeur of the past. This sets the reference point as a lost state that was much better than the current one. Also, fear mongering is by definition talking about the frightening (negative) state in which we find ourselves. All this motivates citizens to favor risky options: the gains, even if they are unlikely, are so strongly desired that they induce discounting the very likely losses.

This is the political equivalent of going “all-in” in poker. And, as a former professional poker player, I can assure you this is a dangerous move. Especially when the outcome of putting nuclear codes in the hands of unstable, narcissitic minds is much, much worse than losing all your chips in a poker game. Millions, if not billions of people will die if crazed, fascist leaders with nuclear weapons at their disposal make the wrong move.

And by the way, it is INSANE that there are thousands of nuclear warheads on hair trigger alert in the hands of anyone, even relatively sane people. Pleistocene brains aren’t to be trusted with such power. Oh, how I hope that we use technology to enhance ourselves.

Karl Marx for Dummies

In yesterday’s post, I discussed Professor Barry Schwartz‘s recent New York Times article “Rethinking Work.” I concluded that post by noting that no discussion of the nature of work is complete without a consideration of the economic conditions of the society or societies in question. And any such discussion must reflect upon the thought of Karl Marx.

Marx would say that Schwartz was talking about what Marx called alienated labor. The basic idea is that most workers aren’t happy with their work because it does not express or elaborate their being. Workers in modern capitalistic societies are alienated from the process and products of their labor, and ultimately from other people too. They work for money, but derive little satisfaction or meaning from their work. This short video provides an excellent introduction to the basic ideas of Marx’s philosophy. (I also recommend Terry Eagleton’s excellent book, Why Marx Was Right.)

Reader’s Comments on Thomas Piketty

On June 12 I wrote a post “Thomas Piketty & Neil deGrasse Tyson” which elicited some comments from readers. I then added a few more thoughts in my June 13 post and decided to elaborates somewhat in my June 14 post : “Thomas Piketty, Critical Thinking, and Social Stability.” These posts elicited comments from readers who put a lot of time into their responses. Since they did I thought I’d give two of those comments the front page today.  Both address the issues, with the latter a rejoinder to the former. (For those interested Charlie Rose devoted a recent PBS broadcast to an interview with Piketty.)

Professor Messerly:

Commenter #1.

I have read numerous (8+) reviews of Piketty’s book, which skewer it for different reasons, along several dimensions. If you read even a few of these reviews, you will see that Piketty repeatedly makes claims like:

Controversial assumption A + controversial assumption B, under economics model X, predicts conclusion Y, the data support Y, therefore … capitalism is fundamentally broken.

Over and over again, Piketty refers to the fundamental flaw or error in capitalism, based on far narrower and nuanced premises, just like in the example that I outline above.

You write: “As a non-expert in the field though I am more likely to accept his views–since they are consistent with the majority view among economists today–than those of blog post or articles by individuals who have a vested interest in his claims being false.”

FIrst, I’m not sure that his views are “consistent with the majority view among economists today.” Most moderate-left economists are cautiously supportive of capitalism as the engine of growth and abundance in the world, given certain constraints. Most of the economists do not, to my knowledge, regard modern capitalism as doomed to self-destruct without even greater reforms, taxes, and redistribution than we have now. That sounds more like Marx than The New York Times or the American Economic Review.

Second, even if your claim (Piketty is consistent with mainstream economics) is true, I’m not sure that’s a solid foundation to form beliefs, instead of reserving judgment. Your statement itself involve enormous complexity, in deciding what exactly is Piketty’s view, and what about it is consistent with the “majority” of economists. And do we really want to turn your beliefs about economics into a popularity contest?

Lastly, the far more important point: you discount critiques of Piketty by alleging that his critics are biased because they succeed through “plutocra[cy.]” The first major problem with this argument is that Piketty’s critics are typically not millionaire robber barons twirling their mustaches and counting their gold coins. They are libertarian, conservative, and independent economists, pundits, and scholars. Few people would call academics like Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan or Scott Sumner (or any of the writers at the Liberty Fund) to be “plutocrats.” They’re university economics professors, and bloggers, with various degree of success in publishing books (Cowen moreso than the others). The true plutocrats in the United States, like the deca-millionaire tycoons on Wall Street, generally don’t give a damn about Piketty because he’s too powerless, and his book too trivial, to upset their daily lives. Most of them are ignorant of academics and probably have no idea who Piketty is.

The second major problem with appealing to bias is that liberals are biased. If you live in, say, Seattle, surrounded by liberals, then there is undeniable pressure to fit in and agree with everyone else. Same if you teach in a college/university or surround yourself with academics. If you like women, and women are significantly more liberal than men, then you will feel pressure to be liberal. If you Piketty endorses signaling that you care by supporting more taxes and redistribution, and if women tend to be more caring and nurturing (and like those who signal the same tendency to care), then you’ll feel pressure to be liberal. If you stand to gain from liberal policies through increased welfare and handouts (as I would and you would and most people would) then you will feel increased pressure to be liberal.

So two can play the “bias” card. That’s why I asked you about Haidt’s theory of political differences and moral sensibilities (see his book The Righteous Mind). That’s also why I asked you about well-known sex differences in political views and voting patterns.

Commenter #2

Point 1 – From what I remember, Haidt’s main thesis was that reason is the slave of the passions. We have a gut reaction to some situation and find a justification that allows for the preservation of our mental framework as much as possible. If such accommodation is not possible, we’re much more likely to ignore the fact/situation than demolish our mental framework and start over. He also uncovers some “universal” moral sentiments based on surveys across cultures but I don’t remember what they are. I do remember that they are the way they are because they more or less fit with human nature (an evolved trait we can agree?). Whether you accept them or not is a function of where you were born (time, location, social-context) your particular biology, your personal experience and some amount of random chance. In all of his examination, he finds that Liberals have two of the moral foundations whereas Conservatives have six. All this is not say (in my interpretation) that one is better than the other but that neither is “right” each is appealing to different areas of moral sentiment that are necessary for a government to be responsive to humans as they are.

Now your question – what does Dr. M think of this. I can only surmise from reading this blog that he would say something along the lines of “Is” does not imply “ought”. At best, this would create a government/political party that mapped perfectly to “human nature” (let’s assume we can Identify the bell curve of whatever this is and not worry about outliers) which I don’t think Dr. M would think is a “good” thing.

Seeing as he espouses that we need science/technology to re-engineer human nature are get rid of traits that may have been useful in small tribes but that with bio and nuclear technology threaten our very existence as a species. I would think he would want us to use the scientific method to figure out what traits are best to ensure our long-term survival as a species so that we can get to the technological singularity and create a trans-universal species worthy of omnipotence and omniscience.

In a nutshell, Haidt is saying evolution produced x so let’s understand x and make a government that caters to it. Dr. M is saying, x is going to get us killed so let’s go turn x into y where y is awesome :)

Point 2 – It is only in a patriarchy that came to power and sustains itself through violence that some set of universally human characteristics are derisively called feminine. Violence vs. Diplomacy? How is one either feminine or masculine? Your assignment of these genders belies your misogyny.

Point 3 – From what I’ve read, all the “skewering” you talk about was pretty easily dealt with. In fact – here’s his response to the FT piece that kicked all this off and does deal with your issues of big data sets and questionable data. I mean we work with what we have right? Since there isn’t perfect data we can’t try to understand something? Then how is science ever to progress? Anyway here’s his initial response:  http://www.voxeu.org/article/factual-response-ft-s-fact-checking

“Let me start by saying that the reason why I put all excel files on-line, including all the detailed excel formulas about data constructions and adjustments, is precisely because I want to promote an open and transparent debate about these important and sensitive measurement issues.

Let me also say that I certainly agree that available data sources on wealth inequality are much less systematic than what we have for income inequality. In fact, one of the main reasons why I am in favor of wealth taxation, international cooperation and automatic exchange of bank information is that this would be a way to develop more financial transparency and more reliable sources of information on wealth dynamics (even if the tax was charged at very low rates, which everybody could agree with).

For the time being, we have to do with what we have, that is, a very diverse and heterogeneous set of data sources on wealth: historical inheritance declarations and estate tax statistics, scarce property and wealth tax data; household surveys with self-reported data on wealth (with typically a lot of under-reporting at the top); Forbes-type wealth rankings (which certainly give a more realistic picture of very top wealth groups than wealth surveys, but which also raise significant methodological problems, to say the least). As I make clear in the book, in the on-line appendix, and in the many technical papers on which this book relies, I have no doubt that my historical data series can be improved and will be improved in the future (this is why I put everything on-line). In fact, the “World Top Incomes Database” (WTID) is set to become a “World Wealth and Income Database” in the coming years, and together with my colleagues we will put on-line updated estimates covering more countries. But I would be very surprised if any of the substantive conclusions about the long run evolution of wealth distributions was much affected by these improvements.

I welcome all criticisms and I am very happy that this book contributes to stimulate a global debate about these important issues. My problem with the FT criticisms is twofold. First, I did not find the FT criticism particularly constructive. The FT suggests that I made mistakes and errors in my computations, which is simply wrong, as I show below. The corrections proposed by the FT to my series (and with which I disagree) are for the most part relatively minor, and do not affect the long run evolutions and my overall analysis, contrarily to what the FT suggests. Next, the FT corrections that are somewhat more important are based upon methodological choices that are quite debatable (to say the least). In particular, the FT simply chooses to ignore the Saez-Zucman 2014 study, which indicates a higher rise in top wealth shares in the United States during recent decades than what I report in my book (if anything, my book underestimates the rise in wealth inequality). Regarding Britain, the FT seems to put a lot of trust in self-reported wealth survey data that notoriously underestimates wealth inequality.”

Thomas Piketty, Critical Thinking, Social Stability

A Reader’s Comments

I just wanted to thank all those who comment on my recent post and briefly reply to a comment from a reader who stated: “The confidence with which he [Piketty] states his conclusions … is staggering.” I don’t know if the reader has read the 700 page tome—I have only perused it—but on the very first page Piketty states: “Let me say at once that the answers contained herein are imperfect and incomplete.” This somewhat belies the reader’s claim about Piketty’s staggering confidence, although perhaps Piketty expresses more confidence later in the work. I do know the book is the culmination of fifteen years of research and that it was researched with and by multiple colleagues. I also suspect that the criticism of it is, for the most part, hastily derived. And as a lifelong academic I know that, for the most part, my colleagues were more interested in truth than political pundits. Still I acknowledge that Piketty’s basic ideas–and those of his multiple collaborators–may be partly or wholly mistaken.

The reader also states “Piketty’s book has been skewered in numerous blogs (see numerous posts on Marginal Revolution) and prominent articles.” I have no doubt that is true and there are differences of opinion in the world. As a non-expert I am not in a position to adjudicate among these disputes. If the massive data he and his collaborators presents turns out to be wrong, or if other evidence falsifies his various hypotheses then so be it. Still one must be skeptical of the critiques for reasons I will explain in a moment.

Critical Thinking

I would also like to address how these considerations bring up questions of critical thinking. How should we form opinions on topics about which we are not an experts? I am not an economist and I doubt most of my readers are. In general I have always held to the advice expressed by Bertrand Russell in his essay “Let the People Think:”

(1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

This is a good starting point but there are other considerations. For example how precise is the subject matter we are talking about? Physics and biology are very precise sciences, psychology and sociology much less so, and theology and poetry are not precise at all. Thus I generally trust the views of biologists concerning biology but not the views of so-called theological experts, assuming there even are any. (I don’t think there are.)

Another consideration, perhaps the most important one, is to ask yourself who has a greater interest in lying to you or deceiving you? For example consider tobacco companies who for years and to some extent today still deny the connection between tobacco and various health risks associated with their products. It is possible they are correct, that over 50 years of medical research is mistaken, and that the research is part of some liberal plot to get the government involved in regulating tobacco. But such a view strains credulity. The tobacco companies have a much greater incentive to lie than the scientists and thus should be trusted much less.

Or consider that there is overwhelming evidence and reasons to accept the most basic idea of modern biology-evolutionary theory-rather than the non-scientific creation myths of various religions. But religious institutions often believe it is in their financial interests to oppose such science–otherwise they might lose contributors! Those who tell you to doubt biological evolution are either ignorant–they truly don’t know that evolutionary theory has the same scientific status as gravitational or atomic theory–or they are lying to you because they fear the consequences of you abandoning your religious beliefs. Unlike science, religious institutions believe they have a vested interest in lying, or perhaps they come to believe their own lies.

Similarly one should be skeptical of the claims of fossil fuel companies who for the most part deny the connection between human activity–burning fossil fuels, eating meat, etc.–and global warming. As stated in this blog and referenced numerous times, that view is at odds with the near unanimous view of climate scientists. It is much more likely that the disinformation campaign regarding climate change is motivated by the profit of the fossil fuel industry than that there is some conspiracy among scientists. There is also ideological opposition to believing in climate change because most likely it will require global governmental action to address this issue.  (“Cap and trade,” a conservative and market based approach also holds much promise, although for political reasons  it has recently been abandoned by the Republican party in the USA, since so many of their political donations come from the fossil fuel industry.)

Now consider Piketty’s work. There is a small but politically influential sector of plutocrats who believe they have a vested interest in Piketty’s claims being false. And of course Piketty’s basic claims may be false. Still, as a non-expert in the field though I am more likely to accept his views–since they are consistent with the majority view among economists today–than those of blog post or articles by individuals who have a vested interest in his claims being false. Of course economics is not as precise a science as climate science or biology and hence we cannot be as certain of its conclusions. The majority of economists at MIT, Berkeley and Harvard may turn out to be mistaken and the majority at the University of Chicago may be vindicated. (Although many of the ideas of the contemporary right of the American political spectrum are very radical and would be unrecognizable even to Adam Smith, Freidrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.)

Social Stability

All of this leads to even larger issues. Since Piketty’s research is about, among other things, income inequality, it is easy to see why those with the most wealth generally oppose his ideas. But I am not sure that the wealthiest members of society benefit from their opposition to the minimal welfare state in the USA much less the more generous ones in Western Europe and Scandanavia. (Which I must add consistently are shown to be the happiest, most prosperous and most peaceful countries.) After all the wealthiest members of the society benefit the most from political stability. To the extent they undermine it–pay low wages, disenfranchise voters, support violent anti-government anarchists–they may undermine their power. The revolutionary ideas they foment may be self-defeating.

Thus it is probably not in the self-interest of prominent right wing commentators to go on national television and support anarchists who aim assault weapons at the government officials trying to collect money for using public lands. After all, it is the police, the national guard and the courts who ultimately protect those who have wealth and power.