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Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Since it is Christmas Eve, I thought I would attempt a blog post both mean-spirited and ill-advised, to get in the mood for a big family gathering to which Susie and I are going later today.  This post is occasioned by my having recently watched, on-line, a lecture that my old friend Sam Bowles gave at the Santa Fe Institute almost six years ago on "The Dynamics of Wealth Inequality."  The lecture is almost ninety minutes long, complete with a good many illustrations, graphs, charts, and equations, all projected on the board behind him.  In the format I watched, the whole thing was reproduced in a very small square on my computer screen, so that I had a great deal of difficulty making out the charts, not to speak of the equations.

The mean-spiritedness of my comments consists principally in the negative tone I shall adopt in talking about Sam's lecture.  My comments are ill-advised because I have not read the book that Sam was then promising would be forthcoming, and I could not even really see very clearly what was on the charts and tables.  Furthermore, Sam is a super-smart man.  Indeed, when I make up little lists in my head of the smartest people I have ever met [something other philosophers as well are given to doing, I imagine], Sam is always on that list, along with Willard van Orman Quine, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, and one or two others.  So making critical remarks about a lecture indistinctly reproduced on my computer, without either reading the lecture and subsequent publications or talking with Sam about my doubts, is just plain foolhardy, especially inasmuch as the subject of the lecture is in Sam's wheelhouse, not mine.  I suppose I could just hope he never sees these remarks, but the Internet being what it is these days, he will probably read them within thirty seconds of my posting them, after which, since he is incredibly nice as well as super smart, he may refrain from writing a blistering reply that castigates me as a horse's ass.  Maybe this was not such a good idea.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

In the lecture, Sam [drawing on the work of twenty or thirty collaborators whom he repeatedly thanks for their contributions to the effort] attempts a very broad overview of primate wealth inequality in the past one million years, give or take an eon.  The clever idea behind the lecture is Sam's suggestion that what we find when we look at wealth inequality over the entire history of the human species is a curve that is the inversion of the Kuznets curve.  [By the way, Sam studied with Kuznets, as he tells us at the beginning of the lecture].  For those of you who do not recognize the reference, Simon Kuznets was a Harvard economist who in 1955 argued that in agricultural economies, there is low inequality of wealth, in developing industrial economies inequality rises, and then at a certain point in advanced capitalist economies the inequality begins to decline, so that inequality plotted against time has the shape of an inverted U-shaped curve.  Those of you who read my extended review of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century will recall that Piketty rather sharply criticized Kuznets for confusing a temporary post-World War Two decline in wealth inequality, reversed not long after Kuznets published his claim, with a long-run tendency intrinsic to mature capitalist economies. 

Sam suggests [complete with a diagram, of course] that the great apes had a very unequal society -- the alpha males get to do most of the reproducing.  Then maybe 100,000 years ago, homo sapiens sapiens [a.k.a. man] appears on the scene and starts hunting and gathering across the African savannah.  Hunter-gatherer societies are extremely egalitarian, Sam says, referencing some of his collaborators who have spent years among modern-day supposed hunter-gatherers.  About ten to twelve thousand years ago, the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals [the so-called Neolithic Revolution, although Sam does not use that term in his lecture] started a long period of rising inequality, leading to slavery, empires, feudalism, capitalism, and all.  So plotting inequality against time, we get the inversion of a Kuznets curve -- i.e., a U-shaped curve of high inequality [among apes], declining inequality among early humans, and then rising inequality for the past ten thousand years.  Sam asks the question:  will the curve turn down again?  [Not surprisingly, he thinks it will, in an information age.]

All of this is tricked out with macro-economic equations, statistical regressions, and all manner of the fancy stuff that is part of the modern economist's tool kit [if I may adapt a term from the cultural anthropology about "primitive" peoples.]

As I listened to Sam's lecture, I found myself gritting my teeth at one really bad faux pas after another.  The mistakes that made me cringe were, so far as I could see, mostly ancillary to Sam's central thesis.  What is more, they were so dumb that I could not believe Sam was saying these things.  If I knew they were wrong, then Sam either did also or else could have learned up the relevant material in less time than it is taking me to peck out these sentences.  I mean, Sam really is smart.  So I kept asking myself, What is going on?  It wasn't that he was talking to a general audience.  The audience appeared to be folks at the Santa Fe Institute, which is a pretty high-powered research operation [and besides, there is no need to say wrong things even to a general audience.]    This really troubled me for a couple of days, until I finally came to the conclusion that Sam actually did not care at all about all that stuff about great apes and hunter-gatherers and the rest.  It was, in the immortal words of Pooh Bah, speaking to the Mikado in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta of the same name, "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

What precisely am I talking about?  Well, the first gaffe, early in the lecture, was Sam talking about humans as "descended" from gorillas.  But humans are not descended from gorillas.  Humans and gorillas [and chimpanzees and bonobos] share a common ancestor.  We and gorillas are descended from the same ancestor.

So what? you may ask.  So what? indeed.  The point is that it is wrong, and Sam would have known that if he had actually spent any time at all reading up on and thinking about the matter before putting it in his lecture.

The second gaffe really does make a difference, especially since Sam graced it with an elaborate rectangular diagram, to which he repeatedly referred.  Sam was talking about inheritance of wealth inequality,  and genetic inheritance, he said, is one way in which that inequality is transmitted.  Sam put up a rectangular diagram, with "genotype" on the left and "phenotype" on the right.  Then, using a term which has a very precise meaning in evolutionary molecular biology, he described the genotype as being "expressed" in the phenotype.  The example he used of a phenotype was "being a good hunter."  He then actually reported on the results of a survey he did of his collaborators, who were asked to estimate how much difference in wealth accumulation would result from [these are his words] "a one percent improvement in the hunting ability" of the son of a hunter.  With manifest pleasure, Sam told us that the estimates by his experts, who had lived for years among their hunter-gatherer peoples, was strikingly similar.

When I heard Sam talk about the genotype being "expressed" in hunting ability my head almost exploded.  This is so utterly wrong, it is inconceivable to me that Sam could not know how wrong it is.  When a gene is "expressed," the result is not hunting ability.  It is a molecule of a protein.  The production of that protein, along with vast numbers of other things, may indeed result in a change in the observable phenotype of a mature organism [it may also result in changes that are not very readily observable, of course.]  There is no gene for being a good hunter.  There is no suite of genes for being a good hunter.  There may be a suite of genes whose expression results in a certain degree of hand-eye coordination in the organism.  Whether that makes the organism a better hunter depends on many, many things -- too many to list easily.

The first mistake, about us and the gorillas, may have been a slip of the tongue.  But this one is really, really big.  I don't care what sorts of statistics Sam collects.  The fundamental rule here remains what it was in the early days of the invention of computers and programming:  garbage in, garbage out. 

What is missing here?  Dare I say it?  History, real history, is missing.  Ideology is missing.  And good, solid biology is missing.  So far as I could see [this is where Sam will probably tell me I am just full of it], all of Sam's effort went into writing the equations and building the models, and no effort at all went into really thinking about the "illustrative" examples and the interpretations of the equations.

Now, maybe I am just totally wrong, missing the point, off base.  I would really like it if someone would take the trouble to watch the lecture, the link to which is in the first paragraph of this post, and tell me whether I have just got Sam all wrong.  I would like to think I have, because Sam is really really smart, and also really really nice.  [In my Freshman class at Harvard was a young man who was super smart, super nice, and also very good looking.  We all thought it just wasn't fair.  Sam is also really good-looking, but I don't hold all of that against him, honest.]


Magpie said...


I'm afraid I haven't heard the whole thing, so I can't help with your specific request.

However, I think I can help you see the video.

If you check the lower right corner, you'll see a little YouTube icon. Click it and a new window shall open. Click again at the lower right corner (the icons change to the four corners of a rectangle, like old photo holders) and it shall display the video on the whole monitor.

Incidentally, the talk was delivered to a postgraduate school in Bogotá, Colombia. I gather it's a business school, or something.

Jerry Fresia said...

"In short, production and growth depends on material or physical capital. And while capital is a
form of wealth, a great deal of wealth is not a form of capital; i.e. it is not an input into any
production process generating hitherto non-existent commodities. Thus, the growth of an
economy cannot rely on wealth. It needs a particular kind of wealth: capital goods. So if we
conflate capital with wealth, our theory of production will suffer to the extent that we will have
wilfully misspecified a key input, mistaking all increases in wealth as increases in capital’s
contribution to the production process.” So states Yanis Varoufakis (a very good analyst regarding the EU crisis) in his critique of Piketty

The distinction between wealth and capital also seems to elude Bowles, but in a way different from Piketty.
While Piketty conflates wealth and capital, Bowles really seems to be talking about unequal distribution of capital,
not wealth. Therefore, if I were to inherit 3 houses in Malibu along with a half-dozen Van Gogh paintings, I wouldn’t
show up in Bowles’ equations but Piketty could consider me as a very important contributor to the measure of aggregate capital
in the US.

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