Thomas Piketty & Neil deGrasse Tyson

Thomas Piketty, 2015 (cropped).jpg
Thomas Piketty

Paul Rosenberg wrote an interesting piece in the June 8, 2014 edition of Salon entitled: “Rise of the myth busters: Why Piketty and Tyson are the icons America needs.” Rosenberg explains that the sudden popularity of the two men is rooted in: a)an empirical hunger; b) a desire to think big; and c) a thirst for meaning.

The disdain of the empirical has risen in America in the 21st century, exemplified especially by the denial of basic scientific truths. There is currently a shocking scientific illiteracy among both layperson and public officials. In contrast, both Piketty and Tyson exemplify the empirical approach—truth is based on sense experience, observation, data, evidence, and the scientific method.

Thinking based on reasons and evidence lets us think big, and both thinkers strike a chord in us because they cast a long gaze. For example they imagine–as we all can–a world without gross inequality and environmental and climate degradation “rather than just resigning ourselves to drift whichever way the torrents of wealthy elite power may take us.”

Both also tap into our need for meaning:

In Piketty’s case, this comes from his insight that capitalism does not just naturally evolve to a state of broader general prosperity, as many optimistically came to believe in the early post-World War II era … but rather that political choices are necessary to shape the rules to make broad prosperity possible. This means that we have collective agency in shaping our shared future — a message that resonates historically with Tom Paine’s declaration that “we have the power to begin the world anew.”

In Tyson’s case, the big-picture story is that science itself can give meaning to our lives, because the hunger to know is built into who we are … Tyson put the big-picture story like this: Yes, the universe had a beginning. Yes, the universe continues to evolve. And yes, every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnace within high-mass stars. We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.

Rosenberg believes that Tyson’s message has “almost quasi-religious” implications, which is why the strike fear into economic and religious conservatives. Both are open to a new future; both are anti-dogmatic and empirically based. As Rosenberg says: “The exploration of novelty is a recurrent theme linking liberalism and science to one another, just as the veneration of tradition is a recurrent theme linking conservatism and religion.” Yet now old traditions cannot solve our complex problems. We need new ideas and the wherewithal to follow through on them.

Most importantly both threaten to replace the old models by giving meaning to our lives in new ways. In the past the conservative, religious view held an advantage over the liberal, scientific world view—its mythical narratives gave life meaning. But science can give meaning to our lives if we understand our place in the universe as wise stewards of cosmic consciousness. As Tyson puts it:

If we are, after all, “empowered by the universe to figure itself out,” then taking care of ourselves on our home planet should not be that hard of a task. If only we own up to our ignorance, we’ll be quite well equipped to figure out how to do it. For me,” Tyson said, “I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and along the way, lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

Commentary – I have written extensively on these topics and I’m in general agreement with Rosenberg’s sentiments. Marx was probably the most important original economic visionary who envisioned a world where people’s labor could express or elaborate their being. (It is also worth noting that  Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek , and Milton Friedman and other so called conservative economists have been distorted beyond all recognition by the plutocrats and their minions–none of them advocated for the specifics of the economic system that dominates our globe.) As for scientific cosmology giving meaning to life, these issues have been explored deeply by Julian Huxley, E.O. Wilson, and others.

What Rosenberg’s piece specifically captures, I think, and the zeitgeist that Piketty and Tyson have tapped into, is a hunger among good and relatively educated people for a better world. A civilized world without, for example, arsenals of weapons in individual hands, public executions, punitive criminal justice systems, environmental and climate degradation, religious fanaticism, scientific illiteracy, unremitting  poverty, and lack of health care just to name a few.

As for economics, the gross inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and privilege would be shocking to a moral inter-planetary visitor or any other marginally moral person. There is nothing inevitable about this current situation. It was created by human action and can be remedied by human action. In fact a more equal distribution of wealth is probably in everyone’s interest, including the plutocrats. Do the wealthy really live well when they spend most of their time earning, protecting, and worrying about their money? When they spend vast sums to ensure they maintain their positions? When they wonder when the Bastille will be stormed again or the Reign of Terror revisited? I doubt it.

As for cosmology, must we really find meaning in the simple unscientific myths of our ancestors? Can we not instead look at this cosmos of which we are a part and see that the universe is becoming conscious of itself through us? Can we not become more conscious, aware, informed, and moral? Must we be so scientifically illiterate? Why? What are we afraid of? That life has no meaning in a cosmos revealed by modern science? I think that is the main reason.

But believing some ancient myth doesn’t give life meaning—because while silly stories may be comforting, they aren’t true. So let’s turn our back on these ancient traditions and embrace the work of making life meaningful, of following the truth wherever it leads, of exploring ourselves and our world. If we discard the ancient myths, accept the truths we have recently discovered, and continually explore that which we don’t yet understand—then we will grow up. Let us do so before its too late.

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3 thoughts on “Thomas Piketty & Neil deGrasse Tyson

  1. Professor Messerly:

    Let’s get meta.

    1. Are you familiar with Haidt’s theory that conservatives are tapping into three more axes of evolved moral sensibility than liberals? If so, what do you think of it?

    2. Do you agree that modern liberalism caters more to feminine interests than conservativism does? Liberalism tends to favor cooperation over competition, diplomacy over violence, redistribution over creating-your-own-wealth, pro-choice over pro-life viewpoints, etc. On dimension after dimension, liberalism seems to be the position of women and women’s interests, and conservatism the position of men and machismo.

    3. There is a difference between (A) empirically supporting a controversial position with rock solid quality data and irrefutable logic, and (B) generating huge quantities of data, and coupling it with sweeping and questionable claims about the failures of capitalism. Piketty’s book has been skewered in numerous blogs (see numerous posts on Marginal Revolution) and prominent articles, and the general conclusion is that economics is too complex to decisively say he’s right or wrong (at best). The confidence with which he states his conclusions, despite these criticisms, is staggering. Appealing to data, without actually using quality data to decisively prove your point, is both ironic and dangerous. It disguises mood affiliation and wishful thinking in the camouflage of data.

    4. The shortcomings in Piketty’s arguments are consistent with this claim:

    “Rosenberg believes that both messages are ‘almost quasi-religious,'”

    which should scare the hell out of you.

  2. Other countries that are more liberal than America just don’t have real men. Take Scandinavia, total depravity what with them lacking the moral depth of American conservatives. America isn’t far to the right because of hucksters and hypocrites, it’s just because America is the last refuge of Men. And with the added goodness of “Extra Electrolytes”, I mean, “Extra Moral Sensibilities”. (It doesn’t sound very masculine, or even intelligible to me, but I’m not well read in advertising stickers.)

  3. He Kip – I won’t answer for Dr. M but here’s my crack at it…

    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 arebest 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 sux and is going to get us killed so lets go turn x into y where y is awesome 🙂

    #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.

    #3 – I think it’s odd that Picketty saying that unfettered Capitalism, or Capitalism as it has been fettered to date, still leads to not just unequal outcomes but increasingly unequal outcomes, is so terrifying? From what I’ve read, all the “skewering” 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-

    “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.”

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