Thomas Pikkety in his own words on wealth and inequality patterns

You may recently have read about Thomas Pikkety’s book on economic inequality, Capital in the 21st Century. 1 2

Here he is speaking about his research last week, joined by notable names that include Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. He begins at 9:35 in the clip, speaking until 38 minutes. The others have their presentations before proceeding to a discussion. Yes, it’s long—but it’s also very worth watching.

The study of history, you know, I think is important because a lot of what’s happening now has already happened in the past. In particular the study of pre-WWI capitalism, I see it as very important for the future. I have read some reviews…who say that, ‘These were agrarian societies in Europe before WWI, so what can we learn about our future century with all this nice innovation?’


1900 was a time where we invented the automobile, electricity, the radio, the transatlantic steamship…so, you know, of course this is much less important than Facebook, but still these are important innovations…And still these very important innovations brought some social mobility, but these also brought a huge concentration of wealth, because this growth rate that you had with all this innovation of 1, 1.5% per year, was not enough to counteract the fact that the rate of return was 5, 6% and led to very large concentrations of wealth because initial wealth concentrations tend to get amplified.

On Margins And Invisible Children


NYTimes / Ruth Fremson

“Even her name, Dasani, speaks of a certain reach. The bottled water had come to Brooklyn’s bodegas just before she was born, catching the fancy of her mother, who could not afford such indulgences. It hinted at a different, upwardly mobile clientele, a set of newcomers who over the next decade would transform the borough.”
Invisible Child: Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life

Dasani’s mother, Chanel, was similarly named after a symbol of a better world. Piercing throughout, this is a well-written piece over at the NYTimes. At turns a disheartening depiction of the state of affairs for New York’s homeless, Dasani’s resilient attitude is inspiring. A lengthy piece, but worth reading in full.

NYTimes / Ruth Fremson

NYTimes / Ruth Fremson

Reading about Dasani’s family, and the solace Dasani finds at the McKinney, surrounded by role models and figures truly concerned with her progress, I am reminded of the recent words of a former headmaster of mine, William Powell.

Schools need to be safe places. Students and teachers need to feel physically and psychologically safe. Learning is greatly inhibited when fear pervades the schoolhouse. Learning is also greatly inhibited when children and young adults do not feel a sense of belonging.
I wrote the Anarchist Cookbook in 1969. Now I see its premise as flawed

I’m in turn reminded of Dzohakar Tsarnaev’s journey. Prompted by Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image, I broached a similar notion earlier this year:

Let me underline the point that I don’t in any way condone the use of violence. But, do pause to wonder why an individual or groups of individuals feel their words devoid of the power and respect that a gun might proffer. What creates that kind of environment?
Rolling Stone’s Piece on Dzhokhar Tsaernaev: A (Familiar) Narrative Of Vulnerability and Hopelessness


I do not intend to draw a direct causal relationship between homelessness in New York City, and the violent actions of Dzhokar Tsaernaev; many things — only a fraction of which society can be ultimately held responsible for— fed into his and his brother’s decision to violently disrupt Boston’s Marathon. I am also not here to justify or condone such unjust, indescriminate means for achieving whatever ends the Tsarnaev brothers had in mind. Nor, finally, do I want to ignore that the solutions to these problems are not invariably fraught with more questions as they are answers. On that, one might say it is the hard work of idealism, both in speech and practice: in setting out the bar, one identifies the goal even as the journey there is, at best, subject to the “havoc” that is fortune/chance; at worst, rather hazy.

From Dasani and her brothers and sisters, to the two homeless children in Pennsylvania booted from school because of a suspect reading of law , to refugee children in Syria born into statelessness, to valiant children like Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, children the world over are entering and existing in the world at the margins of society. This is about better understanding — of  needing to conscience — that fractional portion, however you large or small you may see it, of society’s responsibility for its children.

It helps to focus on the word margin. I think of the hundreds of times I have put pen to paper. What happens in the margins is by definition on the periphery: thoughts jotted down in the margins are not the intended focus; I fondly remember using the margins for nonsensical doodling.

Yet let us now imagine the innumerable children of the world in those same margins. In Syria alone, UNICEF reports that of the estimated 865,000 refugee children, 70 percent of them are not enrolled in school. That’s enough children to fill the Madison Square Garden (capacity 18,200) 33 times over, with children left over. Who among us would really agree that young minds, at times naive but also, in their curiosity about the world, representing the best about humanity’s potential, deserve relegation to the margins of our conscience? To say the singular individual hasn’t the time is in my view much too facile an answer. It betrays the reality of our much-enjoyed collective existence.

Our sweetest existence is relative and collective and our true self is not entirely within us
—John Jacques Rousseau, Dialogues

P.S.: View more of Ruth Fremson’s photos for the Times’ story here.

Killed As They Slept: 40+ Students Killed In Nigeria by Boko Haram

AP via NYTimes

“Dozens of gunmen attacked an agricultural college in northeastern Nigeria late Saturday and early Sunday, killing more than 40 students, local officials said … A student, Musa Aliyu, 21, said on Sunday that the attackers had entered the college’s dormitories as students slept, and then opened fire randomly in the darkness.”

Militants Blamed After Dozens Killed at Nigerian College
Killed as they slept, in a place of learning. Unconscionable.

Before the Tomahawk missiles begin raining down on Syria…

Word has it the US and whomever else joins the fray will justify a shift to kinetic, punitive action at least in part on the grounds that Assad’s regime is violating the Geneva and Chemical Weapons conventions.

Prudence suggests we should take a moment to recall things like the horrible treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, as well as this country’s use of militarized drones, both (1, 2) of which have been cited as running afoul of portions of the Geneva Conventions, among a litany of other international norms. Who – and on what basis – can rightfully police those actions?

We speak of the “fog of war” often, and our attendant difficulty in avoiding subjective determinations of fact. Just yesterday the Syrian government brought to the attention of the United Nations possible cases of recent, insurgent use of the chemical weapons that they contend warrant investigation. Invariably some will view this as the Assad regime stalling potential efforts by other states to intervene–if the inspectors take longer to do their assessment, the logic goes, it will keep collateral-wary states from firing those Tomahawks until the inspectors have vacated the area.

True or not, it remains that either side will continue to accuse the other of lying about its complicity and responsibility in the deployment of these heinous agents; it’s no surprise polities often find today’s rhetorical appeals to idealistic, moral high grounds laughable at best, disturbing at worst.

Perhaps the most realistic characterization of the mess we as humans, state and other identities aside, find ourselves in, comes by way of this article:

“In cases like Syria (or, for example, Congo or the sites of other horrors), the absence of international will and clarity is as responsible for festering crimes, like the ones in Syria, as the actions of bad actors. Any society without the will to create laws and a police force to protect against crimes they know are coming must be seen as an enabler of those crimes.” … “Any system of law that protects state actors — or those who cloak themselves in the protections of acting on behalf of a nation state, to the degree ours still does — is fundamentally and profoundly flawed.” (emphasis added)

Too Little, Too Late

I hope lives of all stripe are saved in Syria and wherever else tomorrow, next week’s, and next year’s news cycles happen to focus on. But as the “global community” lurches from inaction to action in various contexts, let’s be extremely careful to not paper over the hypocrisies our state-centric world furthers, and our own complicity in that; let’s not forget to think about those flaws, even if something of a solution isn’t a be-all-end-all, either.

In that vein, I’ve lately been interested in the notion of the “Responsibility to Protect“, a norm with increased currency in our today’s world, even if only halfheartedly. In a way it’s what drives Gareth Evans in his recent piece, “The Moral Case on Syria When the Law Is Lacking“, excerpted below, especially vis-a-vis the “moral imperative” he speaks of:

“To invent a legal justification, when there isn’t one, as the UK in particular tried to in Iraq in 2003, is to put at risk the credibility of the whole humanitarian, civilian protection enterprise. “


“A similar dilemma arose in 1999 when Russia made clear it would veto Security Council endorsement of NATO’s proposed intervention to stop Milosevic’s genocidal attacks in Kosovo. The weight of world opinion supported the view that military action might not be legal, but here it was morally legitimate.”


“The most credible way of overcoming the lack of formal legal authority would be to offer the equivalent of a domestic court plea in mitigation: “We may have breached the letter of the law, but don’t challenge its applicability and won’t make a habit of it– it’s just that in the very particular circumstances there was an overwhelming moral imperative to act as we did, and any censure should reflect that.”


“But for that moral case to stand up, without undermining either the principle of a rule-based international order or the evolving responsibility to protect norm, four conditions will have to be satisfied…”

So Evans champions tried-and-tested way of breaking a system: you have to be deliberate, careful, and, ultimately play by some sort of rules others can understand if you hope to maintain the bedrock legitimacy of said system in the majority of other contexts.

All well and good. But I think, in much the way there will be those questioning the “overwhelming moral imperative” of external action in Syria, it shouldn’t be beyond the pale to wonder why the same critical questions can’t apply to other, ongoing contexts, as with Guantanamo, drones, etc.

NYPD Labeling Entire Mosques As Terrorism Organizations

A line from a Politico story I read that really quite piqued my interest (emphasis added):

David Cohen, a former CIA executive who became NYPD’s deputy commissioner for intelligence in 2002, said the old rules didn’t apply to fighting against terrorism.

It is a wonderful thing: the systems of governance we have created are, generally speaking, amenable to the changing contexts that require updating and rethinking of the rules and the way systems function in order to be more proactive, context-sensitive and change with the times. Still, a question to ask: who are we going to let redefine those rule? Assuming we aren’t satisfied with their redefinition, what will we do when we have finished making hay and pouting about our dissatisfaction? Will we redouble our efforts to be more critical, mindful and concerned that actions are being taken in our names, on our behalves, that, if questioned we may not actually be comfortable with? Food for thought.

(An aside: I’m experimenting with embedding tweets, facebook posts on the blog; not sure yet whether I like quoting articles, and whether it makes any sense to share that sometimes I come across a story not on a media outlet’s own domain, but through their Facebook page. Stay tuned)

“Enthusiastic turnout for elections at world’s largest refugee site”


More than a third of the 400,000 refugees living in the Dadaab site in Kenya have registered to vote for the 1,002 candidates running for leadership positions. These include camp leaders, section leaders and block leaders with each position being filled by one male and one female. Voting, which began on Monday, is being staggered across the five camps that make up Dadaab and will conclude on Thursday.

Enthusiastic turnout for elections at world’s largest refugee site

That a refugee camp has such permanence that elections are being held for leadership positions should be enough reason to give us pause.

“But the reasons for a strong response transcend Syria. It will be a very different 21st century if weapons of mass destruction – whether they are chemical, biological or nuclear – come to be seen as just another type of weapon. There needs to be a robust taboo surrounding their use. Any leader must know that a decision to deploy them will sacrifice sovereign immunity and result in many in the world accepting nothing less than ousting and arrest.”

America Must Respond to the Atrocities in Syria

Read the full piece for his suggestion on what a response should entail, but I think this point about the precedent setting is salient.

…then again, “CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran

The New York Times / Mark Makela

The New York Times / Mark Makela

“The concept is just jaw-dropping,” said Helen Gym, who has three children in the city’s public schools. “Nobody is talking about what it takes to get a child educated. It’s just about what the lowest number is needed to get the bare minimum. That’s what we’re talking about here: the deliberate starvation of one of the nation’s biggest school districts.

A City Borrows So Its Schools Open on Time

It’s pretty hard to make sense of this — and by that, I mean that a nation, much less a state, or a city, would allow a situation to get to this point. It reminds me of that Mandela quotation, again: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Newsflash: Faculty Influence in Students’ Tastes Is A Thing.

“Overwhelmingly, the authors write, students’ “taste formation” in choice of major is due to faculty members, although the influence can go either way. “Faculty determine students’ taste for academic fields by acting as gatekeepers, either by welcoming them into an area of knowledge, encouraging and inspiring them to explore it, or by raising the costs of entry so high so as to effectively prohibit continuing in it,” Takacs and Chambliss write. “Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field — some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently.”

‘Majoring in a Professor’

I remember the computer science professor who convinced not just myself – a sometime budding technologist – but also a fellow social science major (and, really, plenty of other Tufts undergrads) that studying computer science might not actually be as cut-and-dry and jargon-laden so as to remain relegated to a select few. I also remember experiences that led students who had entered the classroom intending to pursue further studies in the area, but found themselves walking out at semester’s end determined to look in other departments to pursue their academic achievements. To be sure, neither the positive or negative perspectives students leave about a particular field are wholly the result of singular professors; we are, as I am reminded daily complex narratives composed of numerous influences, the idea that anything reduces to one denominator is simply too divorced from reality.

Still, the piece reminds us that teaching — not just number of papers published, cited and refereed/general research chops, is a pretty important thing. Not a novel concept, but we really do have to worry research institutions have a tendency to lose sight of this as they chase the prestige of higher annual rankings by US News and the like.