book review: capital in the twenty-first century

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was a big book a couple of years ago. It’s still large (mwah waaah) but it’s a not-inaccessible examination of some of the economic history we find ourselves embroiled in today.

Piketty uses a lot of historical data to look at how economic income patterns have changed, especially in France, since they had records going back to the 18th century, but more generally in the West. Why did Marx’s prediction that runaway capitalism would lead inevitably to its own collapse not work out like that? Why are we coming into a new age of inequality where the rich own more and more and the poor have less and less, and is this unprecedented?

I quite enjoyed learning about this stuff. I’m no economic specialist and wouldn’t be able to quibble with the data Piketty chose and didn’t choose, but I found it very interesting that the shocks of WWI, the great depression and WWII had on income and ownership were much bigger than I’d thought. For people growing up after the 1940s we have a perspective that equality is possible and the best thing to invest in is an education, but that’s skewed by specific postwar policies that have been undone by specific 1980s policies and greater deregulation. Inequality will be growing and if we don’t want that to continue we have to make changes to the capitalist system. Piketty never really goes so far as to say we should get a new system instead of capitalism, which is probably my biggest beef with the book.

It was written in an accessible enough style and Piketty re-explained concepts he was relying on at the beginnings of chapters so even a nonspecialist could follow along. I do think David Graeber’s Debt was more interesting in both writing style and content, as far as big modern books on economic principles go.

book review: neptune’s brood

Neptune’s Brood is a great space opera about interstellar banking by Charles Stross. Seriously great.

The protagonist, Krina Alizond, is a banking historian who now that she’s worked her way out of her indentured servitude to the hugely wealthy intelligence that created her, is into Ponzi schemes and especially how they play out over huge distances and slower than light travel. There are tonnes of digressions into the history of banking and how to set up a colony around another star when you can only travel at a percent of the speed of light and building a ship to do that is planetary economy expensive. The solution is debt and repayment over the long long term.

Alizond, is also interested in what happened to her sibling (who was also forked off of the same hugely wealthy being) on a distant world so she’s going there by hitching a ride working on a chapel-ship dedicated to the Fragile (ie humans who have not been upgraded to actually function in space and over the timescales one needs to be thinking in if you want to make a difference in a huge uncaring universe). There are banking privateers and mermaids and queens and a (really boring) space battle. It’s set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, but I haven’t read that one and it did not matter at all.

Definitely one of my favourite books of the year, and it even includes an epigraph from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (one of my favourite nonfiction books). If you like thinking about how things could be if they were different, this is a book you should read. We have science fiction basically so books like this can be made.

book review: paying for it

Paying For It is Chester Brown’s comic-strip memoir about being a john. It is a fascinating look at prostitution and the arguments for and against it. Brown documents his decision to start paying for sex and each of the prostitutes he visited (with obscuring details) and the discussions he had with his friends about it.

Basically, Brown decided that romantic love was bullshit and why shouldn’t people have sex with people for whom it is a job? His companions tend to be more romantic (or as the cartoonist Seth says in the afterword, they “experience human emotions”). I should clarify; it’s possessive monogamy that Brown feels is the problem. We can have lots of friends, but why only one sexual partner? The afterword is filled with more information and notes about the book, and even if it doesn’t convince you to go pay for sex, it will make you think about the standard shortcut ways of thinking about prostitution.

Reading this book right after Debt: The First 5,000 Years was interesting, since that one was talking so much about how slaves are people who are removed from their social context, and Brown spends a good amount of time in the afterword debating whether any of his prostitutes were sex slaves (he doesn’t think they were).

book review: debt: the first 5000 years

I’ve been grabbing people by the arm and talking their ears off about David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a couple of weeks now. Putting together a few thoughts about it here has been a little daunting though. Partially because I liked it so much, but partially because it seems to be about so much.

The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.

It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.