Capital and Liberalism

Besides all the writing I’ve been doing, I’ve also been reading and watching some things worth recommending. The first is a book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce, and the second is Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a documentary based on the book of the same name by Thomas Piketty.

I discovered Retreat indirectly through the columns written by Edward Luce in the Financial Times. Late last year, Alex introduced me to the Financial Times. It’s a British newspaper, upon which the Wall Street Journal was modeled. I began my engagement with a lot of skepticism, having grown up in an environment where such publications were considered too “right wing.” I can’t really speak to the Wall Street Journal, but I find the Financial Times soberingly intelligent and cogent. The fact that they occasionally slip into a kind of monetary myopia is, to my mind, a minor grievance when I consider just how well-written and ideologically balanced they tend to be.

Anyhow, it was through Luce’s biography on FT that I discovered his book, and my longstanding interest in the history of liberalism and its future trajectory prompted me to give it a go. The style Luce employs for his FT articles transfers well to long-form non-fiction. He is erudite and insightful, able to draw connections between literature, his lifetime of experience in politics and in journalism, and current events. In that regard, reading his book was time well spent. I gained a number of incites about how various international organizations are run, and the political and economic dynamics between China, India, the EU and the US.

Where I disagree with Luce is perhaps in an aspect of his overall conclusion. Luce is strongly of the opinion that Trump supporters are not evil or stupid, but merely aligned ideologically to the only person in their field of vision who appears to be “on their side.” By way of example, he cites the biography of French writer Didier Eribon. His family, we are led to believe, abandoned progressivism because it became obsessed with identity politics and failed to address their economic concerns. I don’t buy this argument. Anyone with even an iota of intelligence should be able to deduce that these new nationalist and xenophobic leaders are not interested in helping anyone economically. Yes, the obsession on the left with identity politics is oft banal and self-congratulatory, but it doesn’t logically cohere to say that vast swaths of the West are voting for right-wing extremists because of some perception that those extremists will improve said voters’ economic situation.

The documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century is definitely worth a watch. The book on which it is based is over 700 pages long, and the film does a good job of condensing its main points into 90-ish minutes of screen time. It also includes a number of narrators who introduce research and topics relevant to the novel’s points. Of particular interest was Paul Piff’s Monopoly study, which you can also find out about from his TED talk.

I recommend both of these works for anyone interested liberalism and global macroeconomics respectively.