The Growth of Wealth and the Rate of Return on Capital


Interesting analysis of Piketty.

Originally posted on Rugged Egalitarianism:

Justin Wolfers has posted some slides purporting to deal with the arguments of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Unfortunately, the discussion outlined in Wolfers’s slides suggests that while he has read some of the more prominent recent responses to Piketty –  including Lawrence Summers’s review of Piketty in Democracy: A Journal; a recent paper by Per Krussel and Tony Smith on Piketty’s second fundamental law of capitalism; and some posted comments on Piketty by Debraj Ray –  he doesn’t seem to have read much of Piketty himself. I say this because Wolfers repeats some of the same interpretive errors that appear in those other works, despite the fact that the errors are quite easy to avoid, and even obvious, to anyone who has worked directly with Piketty’s text.

I commented on some of Debraj Ray’s criticisms of Piketty in my post “Why Is r >…

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My new post at IATP’s ThinkForward: “‘Sustainable intensification’ is unsustainable”

“Sustainable intensification” is unsustainable

Posted September 3, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell    

(Photo used under creative commons license from leisaworldnet: Technicians and farmers discussing the results of sustainable intensification on a rice farm in Nepal.

In a new paper led by collaborators at Leuphana University Lueneburg (Germany) and just released in print in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, my colleagues and I question one of the buzzwords in international conversations about hunger and conserving the environment: sustainable intensification (SI). Explained briefly, sustainable intensification seeks to produce the most food, on the least land, with the lowest environmental impact.

SI has been the subject of a recent European Union report, proposals by  prominent scholars, and is a major theme area of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. SI is often seen by some experts as “key” to agriculture’s future, particularly in Africa, and has been the subject of a number of high-profile publications in some of the world’s top scientific journals. It is, in short, an idea on the rise.

Despite the term’s popularity among national and international aid organizations and top thinkers, it is getting more attention than it warrants, at least in its current form. Given how readily powerful groups are taking to it, there’s a serious danger that it will drain both funds and attention from the larger and altogether different reforms necessary to fight hunger and food insecurity today, and in the future.

My colleagues and I question, however: Is it a good idea, or a sufficient one, for the problems at hand? Our piece addresses two basic arguments:

  1. A focus on agricultural intensification is, by definition, a focus on production. Yet production is not even the most important factor in reducing hunger, much less the only one. So the phrase “sustainable intensification” cannot be viewed as a proper goal in itself, or continue to be treated as the most prominent “tool” in our efforts to sustainably nourish the planet. This point may be an object of some confusion, given that SI is so often mentioned in the context of growing population, food demand, and persistent current hunger. However, documents promoting SI rarely explain how it will directly fight hunger, rather than resting on the tempting-but-incorrect notion that making more food, in and of itself, will do the most to fight hunger. We plainly know that this is not the case. It will take much broader social action and multi-factor approaches to achieve sustainability and fight hunger, because neither one is simply related to how much food we can produce per acre.
  2. Extensive research in the areas of both nutrition and sustainability affirms our point that “[w]ithout specific regard for equitable distribution and individual empowerment (distributive and procedural justice)” increasing productivity cannot claim to be “sustainable”—sustainability requires addressing inter- and intra-generational justice (i.e., justice for today’s generations, and considerations for future ones) and simply “producing more with less” can actually lead people to consume more, swamping out benefits from efficiency and causing a net increase in unsustainable consumption.

In other words, if our goal is dignified and rightful access to culturally appropriate, healthy food for everyone at all times (food security) while being environmentally sustainable, we should not confuse this with undue emphasis on “sustainable intensification.”

In light of persistent misconceptions around sustainability and food production, some relevant basic facts we reference in our piece:

  • Simply producing more food does not necessarily feed more people. Consider the fact that 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted; that many of the world’s farmers lack reliable access to education, infrastructure, credit or fair markets; the fact that intensification often goes hand in hand with squeezing out the small farmers and landless rural laborers most likely to be suffering from hunger. In this light, simply producing more cannot be thought of as sustainable without looking at how that food is distributed, who it is distributed to, and who gets to make those decisions—the food sovereignty movement argues that it cannot simply be left to concentrated and corporate-dominated “free markets.”
  • In some places where “maximum yields” are not obtained for all products, almost any intensification would likely disrupt local ecosystems with no clear benefits for food security—which depends on political and economic power, not just yields, in a world with enough food for everyone already.
  • Vast amounts of land and energy are poured into feed for animals and biofuels—with the benefits going overwhelming towards large companies, not the hungry, and by and large not struggling farmers (despite the potential for biofuels to have done so).
  • The “distribution gap” is several times larger than the “nutrition gap”—that is, in many countries, it would take 2-4X as much food to address hunger if we don’t address unequal distribution as it would take to address hunger and provide nutrition if it were evenly distributed.
  • Producing “more food on less land” in no way guarantees that less land will be used for agriculture, and in some cases increases the amount of land used because as yields go up, the potential profits entice more people to enter the market and farm more land.

With upcoming meetings this fall like the FAO International Symposium on Agroecology and the Committee on World Food Security, and the nascent Global Alliance on (so-called) Climate Smart Agriculture, it is imperative that these issues be understood, and that addressing these complex problems not be simply swapped out for the far less effective idea of producing more food using less land and fewer resources.

It is true growing more food in a more sustainable manner is something that will need to be done in some places, and at some times. But whenever it’s talked about in the context of hunger, food security or feeding the future, it must come after discussion, participation and planning specifically with those who face hunger and food insecurity, be they small farmers, landless workers or urban residents. Ignoring the issues of procedural justice (who gets to make the decisions and how) and distributive justice (how and who has access to the food produced) is ignoring both the established science and the need for democratic justice that will truly bring us into a food secure and food sovereign future. Organizations and scholars embracing SI need to rethink its usefulness, and its potential to distract us from evidence-based and effective approaches based in human dignity and food sovereignty

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Why Does the U.S. Test More Often and Earlier than Any High-Performing Nation?


And now for something completely different.

Education blogging from Diane Ravitch. Interesting and wanted to pass it on.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

Education policymakers in the U.S. seem to think that more tests will produce higher achievement, but there is no evidence for this assumption. As this article from the Center on International Education Benchmarking shows, the U.S. tests more frequently than any of the world’s high-performing nations.

Jackie Kraemer writes:

“Unlike the top-performing countries on the 2012 PISA, the United States stands out for the amount of external testing it requires for all students. As the chart below shows, the United States is the only country among this set to require annual testing in primary and middle schools in reading and mathematics. A more typical pattern among the top-performers is a required gateway exam, or an exam that allows a student to move on to the next phase of education, at the end of primary school, the end of lower secondary school and the end of upper secondary school. This…

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Paper recommendation: Changing the intellectual climate

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

The following paper may be of interest to readers of this blog:

Changing the intellectual climate by Castree N, Adams W, Barry J, Brockington D, Büscher B, Corbera E, Demeritt D, Duffy R, Felt U, Neves K, Newell P, Pellizzoni L,Rigby K, Robbins P, Robin L, Rose D, Ross A, Schlosberg D, Sörlin S, West P, Whitehead M, Wynne B. Nat Clim Chang ; 4(9):763-768, DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2339 nclimate2339

 This is an extremely important paper that all global change, sustainability and conservation scientists should read. It highlights a very important point: that the type of research on “human dimensions” of global change represented by much existing work is too narrow.

The authors argue that critically important questions about fundamental questions of value, responsibility, rights, entitlements, needs, duty, faith, care…

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Most attempts at scientific communication are unscientific

Don’t remember if I’ve posted this piece before, but it emphasizes something I’ve been trying to draw attention to for some time now.

Simply: scientists wishing to communicate with the public effectively would do well to engage with the science on how to communicate to people. It seems like scientists in my field (ecology) tend to fall into the well-worn trap of thinking it’s just about getting the hang of the right techniques, because clearly once the right information is presented in the right way, people will “naturally” believe it. This is inherently problematic (as Bernhard Isopp explains in this post, assuming people believe true things because they are true, but reasons must be investigated for why people believe things that are not true is intellectually problematic and arguably irrational).

Rather than just trying to think of the right ways to get the public to believe truefacts

science communicators (and, let’s face it, any scientist who wants to communicate effectively) need to treat their communications interventions scientifically — as hypotheses. To work with social scientists on experimental design.  To collect data and measure their results. And to publish their results so others can learn from them. – See more at:

In other words,

“Genuinely evidence-based science communication must be based on evidence all the way down,” says Kahan, without pity. That’s strong beer to a lot of science communicators and scientists. It means we can no longer just be factory-style communicators — getting our findings out, getting a little media and social media attention for them, maybe generating some buzz on, and then moving on to the next paper with little or no metrics to measure our impact outside being asked to testify at a policy hearing. Science is slow, and alongside the very real need to address climate change has arisen a culture of rhetorical urgency that will resist waiting years to assemble data. Do we have the patience for this kind of long game?

It’s clear from his new paper that Kahan doesn’t think we have much choice…”

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There’s more to the story than the models Prof. Kahan offers, but it’s a good start, and I have long agreed with him: communicating science should be based on science and evidence “all the way down”. This is not something I have seen an eagerness, or even understanding of, from many scholars–a phenomenon that I myself have found confusing, and don’t have a completely satisfying answer for…

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Pieria: The Rise and Fall of Piketty Critiques

Originally posted on Unlearning Economics:

I’ve been dragged back into the Piketty melee by a review of Piketty from ‘New Institutional’ superstars Daren Acemoglu & James Robinson. Unsurprisingly, they focus on the institutional aspects of Piketty’s work, charging that his framework doesn’t pay much attention to institutions. I disagree:

The claim that Piketty’s work is ahistorical and ainstitutional is an odd one which is easily belied. For a start, Piketty states that the truth of r > g “depends, however, on the shocks to which capital is subject, as well as on what public policies and institutions are put in place to regulate the relationship between capital and labor.” Piketty’s obvious awareness of institutions is presumably the reason he spends four chapters documenting the kinds of political institutions that might be put in place to counteract a rise in inequality.

They dispute Piketty’s use of ‘general laws’, but they misinterpret the laws in numerous ways –…

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The Right to Farm Right


GDS on recent and ongoing “Right to Farm” battles, including what he calls the “Right to Farm Wrong” as opposed to the “Right to Farm Right.”

Originally posted on fieldquestions:

I’ve got an idea: why don’t we Missourians follow up on passing our ALEC-supported ag-gag law with a full-blown amendment to the state constitution to shield industrial agriculture?  That way, even if someone risks being officially listed as a terrorist and exposes factory farm conditions, it might be unconstitutional to force them to clean up their act.

Damn, they beat me to it: we’re already voting on an amendment that would guarantee the right of “farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices.”

First, wherever you stand on factory farming, agribusiness, or ALEC, this is the most idiotically vague wording I have ever seen in a law (again, I’m not making it up — here is the text).  It manporkyages to say literally nothing, because anything a farmer does in the operation of a farm is a farming practice.  Until farming itself is outlawed, farmers by…

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Economists Dissing Economics

Originally posted on Unlearning Economics:

For whatever reason, I found myself compiling a list of 20 or so quotes, mostly from well known economists, criticising mainstream economics. What’s most interesting is that although the quotes come from a wide range of economists, with different political views and from different times, they seem to have a lot in common.

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.

― Joan Robinson

Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.

― John Kenneth Galbraith

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

― John Kenneth Galbraith

…the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.

― Thomas Piketty

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Stick to Physics


Excellent analysis of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent foray into commenting on GMOs.

Originally posted on Farming Pathogens:

xjrf95-neil-degrasse-tyson-cosmos-gif-gbfaThe stranger promises to return. They both know they’ll never see each other again. Alone now, and before he puts out the lamp, [Jorge Luis Borges's] Paracelsus scoops up the ashes and utters a single word in a low voice. And in his hands the rose springs back to life.Roberto Bolaño (2004)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has parlayed his sudden Cosmosfame into succinct and biting critiques of anti-intellectualisms of a variety of stars and stripes.

On creationist notions of the age of the universe,

If the universe were only 6,500 years old, how could we see the light from anything more distant than the Crab Nebula? We couldn’t. There wouldn’t have been enough time for the light to get to Earth from anywhere farther away than 6,500 light years in any direction. That’s just enough time for light to travel a tiny portion of our Milky Way galaxy.

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The Sad Science: Depression is an illness; you can’t fight it with “success”

I wasn’t really going to comment on the sad passing of comedian and actor Robin Williams. But just yesterday, at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Sacramento, the Chair of our Student Section momentarily “dressed as a student” by taping a sign that said “Impostor” on her forehead. (In reference to the “impostor fallacy/impostor syndrome”, which especially occurs in women, graduate students, and minorities–the sneaking idea that you, secretly, are FAR less qualified than those supposed peers around you, and you are a fraud, an impostor, always on the edge of being “found out”.)

Depression and the impostor fallacy are not the same thing, but they have an overriding similarity that compels me to discuss this in light of Williams’s apparent suicide. The issue is this: depression is an illness, and the impostor fallacy a psycho-social effect, that are NOT due to personal weakness, to a lack of ambition or competence, or anything else one can “fix” just by working hard, accomplishing, or just pushing yourself to be better or happier. In any serious manifestation, they require help, therapy, and appropriate support from friends, families, and mentors. Williams is a sad example that success, acclaim, hard work, “paying your dues”–they’re not enough to get you through, because the afflictions are not some logical error, they’re deeper than that and must be faced as such.

You will not “success” your way out of most depression, or the impostor fallacy. Williams was arguably one of the most successful men alive–an innovative and acclaimed comedian, an acclaimed actor, and a beloved public figure. His death shows us that mental illnesses and serious issues of self-doubt cannot and should not be swept away easily as something to barrel through, as something that working harder, succeeding, or excelling will fix–they are afflictions that require help and can, and so many cases, be improved and significantly relieved with appropriate help. We should remember that any person, in any position, may need this help and may be suffering. We can’t wave it away as undeserved self-pity or an argument to be countered with evidence. We need to help and support those in our own lives, and as a graduate student of color once said in a conference, just because someone is excelling, “don’t assume we’re okay.”

I say all this as I’m surrounded by hundreds, thousands of scholars in a competitive and often dispiriting set of professions. (One booth had a “paper rejection bingo” coaster.) Everyone who is here is, by all measures, already in a very rarified air of scholarship and achievement in global (and national) terms. But many or most of us feel like we’re at the bottom of the rungs, or an impostor amongst real achievers.

If this is a feeling you commonly have–not just right before a poster or presentation or work outing or some such–you owe to yourself as a person (and if you’re a scientist, as a scientist) to know that your deep feelings of inadequacy or sadness, no matter how strong, have no relationship with your true worth, your accomplishments, and say nothing about your potential. If you consistently, persistently doubt yourself, feel depressed about your life or career, please reach out to find the help–from friends, therapy, mentors, family–and DON’T STOP until you DO find those that can truly help you rise out of the self-reinforcing spiral. Don’t rely on the thought that simple hard work and accomplishment will “fix things” (especially if it then guilts you into feeling like your feelings of inadequacy or depression are rational self-evaluations!!!!) The most important hard work you can do is to find sources of support and of therapy or medication that help you start to shift your mindset. (Remember: peer-reviewed science says that you can. Yes, YOU. Yup, that’s right, you. Yes, even you, who’s thinking “except for me.”) Don’t forget–or become a tragic reminder of–the fact that “success” won’t cure sadness, and no amount of accomplishment and recognition from the outside world will “fix you”–you will need to find and get the support to see your value in yourself. That is the most important and most valuable work you can possibly do, for yourself, your career, and your loved ones.

“You are a [person] of infinite kindness, and infinite wisdom.”

–J. Michael Stracyznski, Babylon 5

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