Monthly Archives: August 2014

Capital in the 21st Century: Chapter 6

In his sixth chapter of his Capital, Piketty investigates the evolution of the “Capital-Labor Split” throughout the 20th century. This ratio is determined by the so-called first law of capitalism–α = r * β–elaborated in the first chapter of the work. Here,  α corresponds to capital’s share of national income, thus conversely, labor’s share of income can be  simply determined by subtracting capital’s share from total income. That is to say, if capital’s share (α) is 35% of national income, than labor’s share of national income is 65%. The first observation that Piketty draws from his analysis of British and French data, is that capital’s share of nation income follows precisely the “U-Shaped” curve of the capital/income ratio (β), though in an attenuated form, “the depth of the U is less pronounced” (200). This attenuation, Piketty suggests, may be a consequence of the rate of return on capital (r), which, he suggests, “seems to have attenuated the evolution of the quantity of capital, β: r is higher in periods when β is lower, and vice versa, which seems natural” (200). Said otherwise–and drawing upon the second law of capitalism (β = s/g)–since growth (g) is inversely proportional to the # of years of capital stock (β), periods of high growth/low savings correspond to periods of high rate of return on capital (i.e. high profit). That is to say, you can’t have your cake [savings] and eat it too [profit].

Of course, at this point it is worth clarifying what is precisely meant by “capital’s share of income” versus labor. In general, Piketty attempts to group together all forms of non-wage income in order to determine capital’s share. In practice, this includes rents, dividends, interest, and other miscellaneous forms of profit. Of course, this figure fails to recognize non-wage labor whose return is entirely in the form of dividends or other non-wage remuneration. Piketty will offer, as an example, the time and effort put into portfolio management by managers in the financial sector. In order to compensate for this time and effort (labor), Piketty has subtracted a set portion of capital’s income to create a “pure rate of return.” “The pure rates of return obtained in this way are generally on the order of one or two percentage points lower than the observed returns” (206).

Having thus adjusted the rate of return, Piketty is able to chart historical trends. The results are startlingly stable. “In both France and Britain, from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, the pure return on capital has oscillated around a central value of 4-5 percent a year, or more generally in an interval from 3-6 percent a year. There has been no pronounced long-term trend either upward or downward” (206). This stability (“or more likely this slight decrease of about one-quarter to one-fifth” [206]) will be central to Piketty’s argument later in the work, as it will constitute one of the key variables of his now famous inequality r > g, or, the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of growth.

As a final note in this section of the chapter, Piketty next considers capital saturation. Whereas a certain quantity of capital is necessary for a functioning economy: with unlimited growth “saturation is eventually reached” (215). Simply, there is only so much land that can be worked, machinery that can be run, and houses that can be occupied. In such saturation scenarios–as predicted by the inverse relation of the rate of return (r) and capital stock (β) in his formula α = r * β–the rate of return tends to plummet. Conversely, if the rate of return on capital can be maintained during capital stock growth (or at least fall more slowly than capital stock grows) than capital’s share of nation income (α), can nonetheless grow during capital stock growth.

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Common notation of the “Cobb-Douglas Production Function”

Shifting focus, Piketty spends much of the remaining chapter situating his theory among previous economic commentators. Most importantly, Piketty takes on the so-called “Cobb-Douglas production function.” This function supposed that capital maintained a constant share of national income (α). Piketty suggests that the popularity of this formulation may have been as ideological as it was scientific, as stability in capital’s share of income would suggest a certain level of social/class harmony. Yet, as Piketty notes, “the stability of capital’s share of income […] in no way guarantees harmony: it is compatible with extreme and untenable inequality of the ownership of capital and distribution of income” (218). Without moving through Piketty’s analysis of the various positions vis-a-vis this function, it is safe to say that his basic outlook is that economists from both side (liberal and Marxist) have failed to view capital’s share of income from a properly broad frame of reference (the consistent refrain of Piketty’s Capital).

Following Cobb and Douglas, Piketty next situates his analysis of the Capital/Labor split in relation to Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. Contrary to many leftist reviews of Capital, Piketty here offers a rather generous reading of this central Marxist notion. In particular, he recognizes that, for 19th century Britain, the notion of indefinite growth was unfathomable. Thus, it was only natural for Marx to posit a point when growth would flatline. Were such a flatline to occur, then Piketty’s formula–β=s/g— would predict infinite growth of capital stock–and a correlate crash in rate of return (r)–precisely the sort of apocalyptic failure that Marx predicted. But unfortunately for Marx–and fortunately for the capitalists–permanent structural growth now appears to be a very real possibility. Thus, while Marx’s thesis is mathematically sound, it nevertheless fails to account for the seemingly infinite growth potential of capitalist production. It is my hope to soon delve into Andrew Kliman’s (who you might remember from a few posts back) thoughts in this regard, who’s Reclaiming Marx’s Capital includes, among other things, a defence of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. (For application to the recent economic crisis, see: The Persistent Fall in Profitability Underlying the Current Crisis: New Temporalist Evidence)

Setting up his next major section (which we will begin tackling in the next post), Piketty ends with the recognition that the West appears to be moving towards very low growth, “particularly zero or even negative demographic growth” (233). Thus, by his formulation, capital will continue to make a “comeback” in the upcoming years, easily achieving or even surpassing the capital/income ratio of 700-800%, common in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Modern growth,” he concludes, “has made it possible to avoid the apocalypse predicted by Marx and to balance the process of capital accumulation. But it has not altered the deep structures of capital–or at any rate has not truly reduced the macroeconomic importance of capital relative to labor” (234).


Preaching Apocalypse: Christopher Rodkey’s “Too Good to be True”


Too Good to be True: Radical Christian Preaching, Year A
by Christopher D. Rodkey
Christian Alternative, 217 pp., $22.95

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Overall Rating: 8/10

Christopher Rodkey’s Too Good to be True finds itself precariously situated at the border between the all-to-academic discourse of philosophical theology — particularly the radical theologies of Thomas J.J. Altizer, Mary Daly, and Gabriel Vahanian — and the world of the conventional homily: a position whose precarious nature appears to be fully recognized by Rodkey. Nonetheless, the work holds together well, perhaps even to thrive under this dual strain.

Having appeared as actual sermons in his various congregations, the main texts of this anthology tend to avoid the nuanced debates internal to radical theology, as well as its often obtuse jargon. Rather, this more technical work, as well as more thorough philosophical/theological citations, are reserved for the preface, the only site where Rodkey seems to flex his academic chops. Nevertheless, the sermons themselves are far from banal, rather they tend to draw out a few key themes of radical theology, most importantly: apocalypse. This choice is profound, as radical theology is primarily known, above all else, for its theology of God. This theology of God is famously recognized by Hegel, proclaimed by Nietzsche, and reaffirmed by Altizer as “God is Dead.” Yet, one would search in vain for a theology of death in this work. Rather, while a kenotic theology of the cross remains just around the corner, Too Good to be True is primarily a theology of affirmation; affirmation of life, and more importantly, affirmation of something more. This turn to the apocalyptic possibility of the in-breaking of something radically new or radically other may smack of theological conservativism (as some reviews have suggested) — and in their defense, it was of course the conservative Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth which proclaimed the incommensurability of revelation with the existing world more strongly than (nearly) any other 20th century theology — but Rodkey’s work is anything but conservative. The absolute new that Rodkey gestures toward is not the eternal paradise of evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but an immanent apocalypse. For Rodkey, and this is no clearer than in his reflections on the season of Advent, the Christian message, the message that is “too good to be true,” is that a new social-political-economic-religious order is possible. Nevertheless, in defense of the aforementioned reviewers, it is worth noting that Rodkey’s ambiguous terminology may often be read as either “traditional” or “radical” depending upon what underlying theological structure is suspected. Radical Christians, well versed in the uncompromising rhetoric of a Nietzsche or an Altizer may find claims — such as “the resurrection is too good to be true, and it’s too good to be false” (119) — to be mere repetition of a conservative agnostic-cum-fideistic logic. But it is important to situate Rodkey’s work within its appropriate context: where such theological motifs as the resurrection are employed theo-poetically, rather than naively or “literally.”

The forward by Peter Rollins and afterward by Thomas Altizer leave something to be desired. Both texts are disappointingly short and tend to rely heavily upon their respective author’s strengths (as interestign as those strengths may be), missing out on the opportunity to more fully or directly engage with Rodkey’s project (though Rollins does a better job in this regard than Altizer).

Overall, this text offers hope and inspiration to the radical theologian who finds herself within an often alien church, but who hasn’t given up hope on a new kind of Christianity. In particular, because of its avoidance of terminology specific to radical theology, this text may, most of all, benefit radical Christians working within traditional — even conservative — churches and denominations, who are seeking the types of speech that might permit them to speak a radical Christian message in a language that is comprehensible to their congregation or peers.


Caputo Lectures on the “New Materialism”

Here are John D. Caputo’s two lectures from the Philadelphia Summer School in Continental Philosophy (thanks again for a great day Leon Niemoczynski!) on the “New Materialism”/”Speculative Realism”

1.) Meillasoux + Malabou


2.) Meillasoux + Malabou (wrap up),  and Latour + Brassier


Business incentives that are a real leap of faith: State of Kentucky to help pay for Noah’s Ark

Check out TSBB contributer Michael Dise’s contribution at The Progressive Pulse“Business incentives that are a real leap of faith: State of Kentucky to help pay for Noah’s Ark”

[Edit: be sure to check out Ken Ham’s fantastic(ly bad) response to Michael’s peice — “Another Anti-Creation Museum, Anti-Ark Blitz”]

Why foundationalist logic fails at life

Gaza Child

Cogito Ergo Sum–“I think therefore I am”. Such were the words of Descartes in reference to what he perceived as a self-evidential foundation for knowledge. His cogito became the basis for a transcendental ego, or in simpler terms, a self beyond the vicissitudes of being, superior over the order of being. This contrasted sharply with what Heidegger would later call Dasein, a German term he used to describe a being in the world that was constituted by the world, inseparable from context, history, language, time, space, and death. Descartes’ foundationalist logic, which placed the ego over all as arbiter of all Being, led to the justification of the industrial manipulation of our planetary ecosystem. And by elevating the ego by differing it from other animals on the basis of soul vs. no soul, Descartes ruled that other animals have no souls and thus we can do as we please with them. Hence, animal torture in the West by the food industry has roots in Cartesian logic. This is just a small example of the negative operative power of foundationalist logic in life.

One would expect then that if a foundationalist ideology can direct one to perform harmful actions in the world, becoming foundational to one’s way of life, it likewise follows that it can direct one to perform good actions when the ideology points toward such. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The hard truth of the matter when it comes to ethics is that one’s ideological foundation only serves as the logic for one’s way of being in the world when and where one desires it to. In other words, I can employ the logic of my beliefs as foundational to my actions when it is convenient for me, but I can just as easily dismiss my beliefs or distort them when they become inconvenient. As Peter Rollins has pointed out, what we truly believe in our core is found in our daily actions: these are our operative beliefs. But our ideological beliefs–what we think we believe so as to help us sleep at night–can easily be quarantined in the cognitive realm so that our operative beliefs remain untouched. Those operative beliefs need no foundation other than desire itself.

[A quick thought: neuroscientists have discovered that sociopaths do not produce a normative response in the amygdala to emotional and moral stimuli. In other words, their brains are wired so that they are unable to respond emotionally to moral disturbances. Their consciences are inoperative. Beliefs at the intellectual level would make no difference.]

The burdensome gravity of this truth weighs down upon us very heavily these days. Those of us who live in the West–particularly the United States–are citizens of a nation politically conflicted between white Christian dominionists and a great plurality of other demographics. These Christian dominionists, while claiming to carry on the legacy of Jesus, to worship him, and to follow his teachings, have actually turned increasingly toward the spirit of anti-Christ. In other words, their operative beliefs in relation to current world crises are unequivocally anti-Christian.

Example: Jesus was an undocumented immigrant who condemned the elitists of his society who collaborated with the empire and participated in the oppression of the poor. Jesus taught his followers that the way to relate properly to God, to build God’s world and to participate in it, was to act radically and subversively against the tribalistic borders that separated the rich from the poor, the Jew from Samaritan and Gentile, etc. He argued that it is only by undermining these borders between people that the Kingdom of God will come. He regularly ate with the outcasts of his time and place, feeding the hungry and crossing boundaries to extend the friendship of God to the other. And yet, today’s Christian dominionists are fighting tooth and nail to keep child refugees from crossing the American border, not caring if we send them back to the violence and poverty they are running from. Some have even formed militias to shoot anyone who crosses over. I’m afraid that if Jesus came back he would be one of those children trying to cross the border. He might even get shot by one of his “Christ-followers,” crucified all over again.

Example: Christian dominionists in America have thrown in their uncritical moral and economic support with Israel, even as the Israelite government tears hundreds of innocent children to shreds with flechette bombs. As the death toll rises among innocent civilians in Gaza and the Israelite military pursues an act of genocide–action backed up by Zionist ideology–Christian dominionist supporters quickly forget that Jesus opposed Zionism. The people around him pushed him to enact a violent and bloody revolution. His own close follower and friend, Judas, tried to force his hand to take up the sword against the empire by betraying him into their hands. But Jesus remained firm in his commitment to nonviolence, even as he was tortured and nailed to a cross. And yet many Christian dominionists unapologetically support the use of torture on foreign enemies. Most ironic of all: while Jesus was simply teaching the oppressed not to take up the sword against the empire but to practice love, Christian dominionists are imitating the empire that crucified him and oppressed his friends, bringing the sword down on weaker enemies–even as the innocent are caught in the crossfire.

As these examples show, many Americans who claim to follow Jesus don’t actually care about what he really taught. They will even go so far as to twist his teachings into a dogmatic ideology that condemns those who would truly seek to follow Jesus! People do not act on the ideological foundation they claim. They simply adopt and shape ideological foundations to match the desires of their hearts whether for good or evil.

Jesus himself mocked the Pharisees for searching the Scriptures for salvation and missing it when it was standing right in front of them in a body of flesh. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that the ethical call to do good is not found in the words of a book but in the eyes of another. When I choose to look, to see, to open my eyes to the needs and suffering of the bodies of flesh around the world, from the homeless person on my city street to the child torn to shreds in Gaza, there is an inner call that emerges–a voice of compassion. All of us know what is right, we just don’t want to do it.

We know that it is wrong to kill children or to send financial support to those who do.

We know it is wrong to build walls and block out children who are running from violence, crime, and chaos.

We do not need an appeal to foundationalist authority, whether in religion or political theory, to know this. To the contrary, such appeals to authority are often the barriers we adopt to justify not doing what is right. 

May we listen to the light that is in us all and do what is right, lest we destroy one another.