Wealth redistribution?

During a walk in the forest, I listened to a recent episode of the Oxford-style debate series of Intelligence2. Oxford-style means that the position of the audience is registered before and after the debate, and the side that has gained the most percentage points, wins the debate.)

The proposition was simple: Is it time for wealth redistribution? Unfortunately, and typically in debates like this, the debaters interpreted this differently. Over the last decade, the question has been asked more urgently every year, and with every increase of Bezos’ billions. Most people agreed on Piketty’s structural analysis of “Capital in the 20th century”, and redistribution seemed to be a red scare only in the eyes of heavily ideological anti-socialists.

The debaters were familiar to me, and I liked ‘my’ team on the left: Yannis Varoufakis and Robert Reich, both of whom are, I think, keen intellectuals with no lack of self-deprecating humor. They argued in favor of the motion. Reich and Varoufakis made it clear that merit ought to be rewarded, even excessively so. They don’t have an issue with that (that was the strawperson the other side of the debate repeatedly knocked down).

But money begets money. Wealth breeds – rendered in Varoufakis’ austere voice, that stuck with me. We are not taking down the successful people, as Larry Summers argued, when we redistribute ‘their’ accumulated wealth.

The most important argument in favor of wealth redistribution was the damage extreme inequality does to democracy. This was also the point where the debate lacked intellectual rigor and ideological courage on the part of the libertarians. The middle class is beholden to populists, Reich aptly remarked, that make them blame the lower class. Of course, these populists enjoy strong support of the wealthy elite. Their money should be removed from politics, and it would be naive to think that can be done without actually taking it away from them and investing it in the public space.

The debate merits a second round about the value of democracy itself. Simply put: Do we need to democratically legitimize the disowning of wealth, in order to heal the democratic process? Can we trust a democracy that has already been ‘infested’ with big money interests, or should be temporarily suspend it in order to rebuild a functioning rule by and for the people later on?

These are simplistic questions of political science 101, but we need to address them – because the populists will. In Hungary and Brazil we already saw something like the formal suspension of democracy. In Trump’s USA it seems like it’s about to happen.

Both sides agreed that democracy is unquestionable both as a value and a political practice. Yet the answer to the proposition was not “let the people decide”. Should it be?

The ideology that makes the people believe that Bezos’ wealth is Bezos’ business, and none of ours, can be compared to a casino. One player is excessively successful. Intuitively, we support him: we are animals with a rich imagination and we depict ourselves in that player’s chair. When we find out that he is good friends with the casino owner, we shrug. We would be too, if we were sitting in that chair. If we would learn about a scam, we would give the player the benefit of the doubt – up to a certain point. Our abhorrence of free-riders appears to be hard-coded too, so once the player falls, he falls hard (Epstein hard). We inflate their personal worth because we are them, vicariously, in our upward-facing middle class existence.

That is the emotion Larry Summers knew to evoke very well – and that is why his side won the debate by a large margin. Outrage against the super rich only comes when people are fully convinced (persuaded!) that they play foul, which is increasingly hard to do as they own the media and dictate the very definition of foul play. The structural decoupling of merit and wealth requires a rethinking of the American, and indeed the Western mind.

Wealth redistribution? was originally published on Meandering home


Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Seven years after his The Better Angels of our Nature, the book in which he presented abundant statistics and reasons why violence has declined, Steven Pinker has published an even more ambitious tome defending the idea and ideals of Enlightenment. The controversy that arose from the ‘cautiously optimist’ view he presented in 2011 might have come as a surprise to the esteemed Harvard professor and has likely motivated him to double down on his claims in this new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress‘.

It is a delight to digest the statistics of progress (decline in crime, war, disease, poverty, slavery, racism) that Pinker presents and discusses in the second and strongest part of the book, although at times it seems that prof. Pinker has made the stats look prettier than a scientific worldview would allow. In that sense, the book is Enlightenment propaganda, and this has backfired as we can read in the many reviews on Goodreads and especially in this in-depth rebuttal by Jeremy Lent and this critique by Guardian columnist George Monbiot that focuses on the environment.

Every serious critic agrees with Pinker’s enlightenment worldview. Unfortunately, as these critics have pointed out, he might have succumbed to enlightenment zealotry, which might have led hem to defend the Enlightenment against a benighted strawman rather than against its own unforeseen and unwanted consequences. There are some occasions of cherry-picking and rather annoying ridicule of Marx, Nietzsche, environmentalism and the dangers of strong AI.

The Enlightenment cannot function without a healthy dose of skepticism. Monbiot writes: What looks like a relentless enhancement in human welfare could emerge instead as an interlude between one form of deprivation and the next. Another reviewer accuses Pinker of defending an ‘anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.’

The story he presents at places like the Economic Forum in Davos, the story that is bought by the likes of Bill Gates, is a heart-warming and hopeful one, to be sure. The idea that we humans have come so far can foster more solidarity as we go forward solving the remaining problems – and the new problems that will arise as an indirect result of the enlightenment, such as environmental degradation and rising inequality, which Pinker has attempted to defuse out of fear they could be used as an argument against enlightenment thinking. There is the irony of this book: By exaggerating and massaging the numbers on the enormous progress we have made he seems to obfuscate the most important property of an enlightened position: that of relentless self-criticism and the willingness to engage with opposing views, so long as they are reasoned.

This critical self-awareness has now come from his serious critics – a reminder that the Enlightenment is indeed not advanced by lone intellectual behemoths, but by the concerted efforts and dialogue of humble minds. It is Pinker’s merit that he uses data rather than ideological narrative, and his book is a fruitful starting point of a debate that eschews the ideological in favor of the factual. That doesn’t make the vitriol of either ideological camp disappear, but it forces both sides of the aisle to think more scientifically. A world in which both progressives and conservatives are equipped with better reasons is a better world;-

Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Spent by Geoffrey Miller

Cover on Goodreads

Geoffrey Miller’s 2008 book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior about conspicuous consumption uses the relatively new science of evolutionary psychology to analyse modern humans’ consumerist behavior. The bottom line is that we engage in conspicuous consumption to show potential mates, like animals, that we have desirable traits. Through countless examples, some of which are funny, Miller shows that this signalling game has gotten out of hand and turned into plain stupidity. He details the six commonly recognized basic personality traits (Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience) and shows how advertisers appeal to a combination of them.
The narrative of the book is largely funny, but one can be put off by the cynical overtones.
In the final chapters, Miller presents some solutions to conspicuous consumption, for example a consumer tax on luxury items.

Review: Spent by Geoffrey Miller was originally published on Meandering home