Wednesday, November 26, 2014

McCloskey on Piketty: Caesar on a Pau-de-Arara.


The pictures below show a popular form of transportation in contemporary north-eastern Brazil, known in Portuguese as pau-de-arara (I'll leave details for another opportunity). Generally, impoverished refugees from the drought, those people leave their homes and flee to the cities in search of survival.

(source)
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Gaius Julius Caesar, in the cusp of his power, never owned one such vehicle; neither did the richest Roman, the quasi-legendary Marcus Licinius Crassus, Caesar's contemporary. For that matter, neither did the Egyptian pharaohs, the Chinese, Inca or Aztec emperors.

Centuries of technological advancement certainly revolutionized land travel. And that most of this progress took place under capitalism is undeniable: even a pau-de-arara available to rural migrants from the poorest regions of Brazil puts to shame the technological advancements the Caesars enjoyed.

But you wouldn't think those migrants rich, let alone richer than Caesar, would you? Could you compare the enjoyment (i.e. utility) experienced by the migrants on a pau-de-arara and Caesar in his very own sella, or sedan chair?

The point is that one cannot identify technological progress with wealth, as Deirdre McCloskey implicitly does:
"(…) In Piketty's tale the rest of us fall only relatively behind the ravenous capitalists. The focus on relative wealth or income or consumption is one serious problem in the book". 
Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx knew that, even if McCloskey chose to ignore it: You are poor(er) or rich(er) in relation to your peers and your contemporaries, not in relation to historical comparisons, which easily lead to absurd.

Augustus hailing a pau-de-arara, on his way to Río. [A]

That is, unless you can conceive a Roman Imperator merrily hanging from one of those infernal contraptions, his hopes centred on finding work as domestic help in São Paulo or Río de Janeiro. "Imagine -- thinks Caesar -- they even have those amazing $50 electrically-powered vacuum cleaners!"


Image Credits:
[A] Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century. Photographer: Till Niermann. My use of the file does not suggest the author endorses me or my usage of his work in any way. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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