Rise of the myth busters: Why Piketty and Tyson are the icons America needs

Thomas Piketty and Neil deGrasse Tyson are the breakout stars of 2014 — and not a moment too soon

Published June 8, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Thomas Piketty, Neil deGrasse Tyson             (Reuters/Charles Platiau/AP/Frank Micelotta)
Thomas Piketty, Neil deGrasse Tyson (Reuters/Charles Platiau/AP/Frank Micelotta)

Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century" was published on March 10, 2014, the day after the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" aired on Fox and its sister networks.

The fact that both men have captured the public imagination at the same time is at least partly due to that simple fact. There's also the matter of professional ripeness, behind the appearance of fresh fame: Piketty had been around for some time, publishing papers and collaborating on constructing the Top Incomes database along with Emmanuel Saez, but he'd never published anything remotely as sweeping as "Capital" before. Similarly, Tyson had long been a prominent science communicator as well as astrophysicist, appearing as a guest on numerous shows, including both "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," as well as hosting PBS's "Nova ScienceNow." But he'd never hosted a commercial TV show before.

Yet, the two men's sudden popularity is rooted in some deeper similarities as well — an empirical hunger, and a desire to think big in shaping the future, are two that come readily to mind. These are both long-standing features of American culture, exemplified by figures like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Luther Burbank, just to name a few. But both these cultural appetites have been repeatedly stifled in 21st-century America. The Bush administration was infamous for its disdain for the empirical, as encapsulated in this famous passage from Ron Suskind:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide [later identified as Karl Rove] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

But the Obama administration has been disappointing as well, in part for pussyfooting on some empirical matters, but more broadly for its failure to truly think big, to match the soaring rhetoric of Obama's first presidential campaign. For an example of what's been missing under Obama, let's go back to Oct. 20, 2008, shortly after the financial crisis hit, when George Soros appeared on Bill Moyer's Journal, and articulated the logic for a sweeping Green New Deal:

GEORGE SOROS: You see, for the last 25 years the world economy, the motor of the world economy that has been driving it was consumption by the American consumer who has been spending more than he has been saving.... So that motor is now switched off. It's finished. It's run out of — can't continue. You need a new motor. And we have a big problem. Global warming. It requires big investment. And that could be the motor of the world economy in the years to come.

BILL MOYERS: Putting more money in, building infrastructure, converting to green technology.

GEORGE SOROS: Instead of consuming, building an electricity grid, saving on energy, rewiring the houses, adjusting your lifestyle where energy has got to cost more until it you introduce those new things. So it will be painful. But at least we will survive and not cook.

There were some furtive, disconnected gestures in this direction under Obama, such as talk of “green jobs” that quickly disappeared with a bogus scandal that led to Van Jones' resignation, for example — a clear indication of just how shallow this commitment was. But the overwhelming emphasis on “shovel-ready” projects in the stimulus bill was always ill-suited to the magnitude of need, much less the need for developing new, specifically green projects to fund.

It's long been well understood that for all the good it did, the New Deal's spending levels were insufficient to restore the economy to full employment; only World War II did that. Soros articulated what many others recognized: that the need to save us from global warming represented a World War II-size challenge that could be turned to a similar advantage, if only we had the vision and leadership to do so. The hunger for that vision and leadership is with us still — along with the still-unmet challenges — which is part of why Piketty and Tyson have struck such a deep chord in public consciousness.

But in addition to a hunger for empiricism and thinking big, there's a third hunger that Piketty and Tyson speak to -- a hunger for meaning, for a big-picture story that helps us collectively make sense of our lives. In Piketty's case, this comes from his insight that capitalism does not just naturally evolve to a state of broader general prosperity, as many optimistically came to believe in the early post-World War II era (when it temporarily seemed to be happening); but rather that political choices are necessary to shape the rules to make broad prosperity possible. This means that we have collective agency in shaping our shared future — a message that resonates historically with Tom Paine's declaration that “we have the power to begin the world anew.”

In Tyson's case, the big-picture story is that science itself can give meaning to our lives, because the hunger to know is built into who we are. “Kids are never the problem," Tyson explained in one Ask Me Anything session. "They are born scientists.”

More expansively, Tyson put the big-picture story like this:

Yes, the universe had a beginning. Yes, the universe continues to evolve. And yes, every one of our body's atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnace within high-mass stars. We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.

If this sounds almost quasi-religious, you're right. And that's really the deepest terror that conservatives have when encountering Tyson, and the whole sweep of scientific discovery he articulates. (William James, who was a graduate student when Darwin's "Origin of Species" was published, had a similar view of our place in the universe. Consequently, he reframed the analytical truths of math and philosophy as a sort of backdoor empiricism: What our brains perceive as necessary truths reflects the empirical influence of how they evolved.) It's one thing if science confirms our predetermined religious dogmas, but quite another if it challenges them. Yet, it's worst of all for religious dogmatists if it threatens to replace those dogmas by providing its own sense of meaning, order and purpose in the universe. And that's just what Tyson is suggesting.

Indeed, open-mindedness lies at the heart of what both Piketty and Tyson are up to. “My view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer,” Tyson said. It's a profoundly anti-dogmatic view, though well in keeping with mystical traditions of all faiths. As for Piketty, a similar spirit is reflected in the data openness that's an integral part of his work, which makes it particularly easy for others to criticize it — as has happened with the Financial Times recently. Lest there be any doubt, here are the first two paragraphs of his initial response to FT's criticism:

I am happy to see that FT journalists are using the excel files that I have put on line! I would very much appreciate if you could publish this response along with your piece.

Let me first say that the reason why I put all excel files on line, including all the detailed excel formulas about data constructions and adjustments, is precisely because I want to promote an open and transparent debate about these important and sensitive measurement issues (if there was anything to hide, any “fat finger problem”, why would I put everything on line?).

As Piketty goes on to explain, wealth data are not nearly as systematic as income data are, so the challenge of making them comparable is considerable, as are the benefits of open dialogue, collaboration and debate. He continues in the same spirit in his detailed response, which he begins by saying, “This is a response to the criticisms -- which I interpret as requests for additional information -- that were published in the Financial Times on May 23 2014 (see FT article here).”

Here, specifically, as is generally the case, openness is a requirement for the advancement of knowledge.

This reflects back onto one of the broadest findings in political psychology, as discussed by Chris Mooney in "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—And Reality." Namely: Liberalism is correlated with the “big five” personality trait of openness to experience. The exploration of novelty is a recurrent theme linking liberalism and science to one another, just as the veneration of tradition is a recurrent theme linking conservatism and religion. Yet, several centuries on, science and liberalism have their own venerable traditions as well, and this has been a recurrent theme in Tyson's "Cosmos" series. “Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations,” he said in one "Cosmos" segment. “It's the passing of a torch from teacher, to student, to teacher. A community of minds reaching back to antiquity and forward to the stars.” One can even go so far as to say that Tyson preaches a kind of scientific faith: a faith in doubt, in a philosophy “unsettled daily,” as he put it. In another "Cosmos" segment, he said:

There seems to be a mysterious force in the universe, one that overwhelms gravity on the grandest scale, to push the cosmos apart. Most of the energy in the universe is bound up in this unknown force. We call it 'dark energy', but that name, like 'dark matter', is merely a code-word for our ignorance. It's OK not to know all the answers. It's better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything closes the door to finding out what's really there.

If conservatives have enjoyed one overwhelming advantage over liberals, it lies in the realm of mythos, which religious historian Karen Armstrong described, as opposed to logos, as the kind of practical, empirical knowledge of the world underlying modern science. In contrast, Armstrong explained in the first chapter of "The Battle for God":

Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.

Part of what Tyson is telling us today, part of what makes his message so compelling, is that science itself can be such a mythos, a way of understanding our place in the universe, as well as finding meaning and purpose in our everyday lives, and being wise stewards as well.

This is part of the promise that Piketty's work carries as well — the promise of lifting us from despair. Ironically, economics is the one realm in which conservatives like to think of themselves as having the science on their side. And yet, they're quite mistaken. The idea that raising the minimum wage will cause mass unemployment, for example, has been refuted by numerous studies. (In the extreme, it's valid, of course. But nobody's talking about a $100/hour minimum wage.)

The dogma of trickle-down economics is another example. Cutting taxes for the wealthy was supposed to produce an economic boom — more money in the hands of the wealthy trickling down to benefit everyone else as well — producing so much more wealth that the tax cuts would actually pay for themselves. That was the theory, in 1981. But Reagan's tax cuts produced the largest peacetime deficits America had ever seen. The theory was a bust from day one.

Piketty's work obviously goes against trickle-down, but it goes much further than that. There's a much broader belief that capitalism, democracy and broad-based prosperity all inevitably go together in the long run, a view that seemed commonsensical back in the early post-World War II era, at least through the early 1970s, when those in the bottom income quintile saw their wages rising faster than the top 1 percent. But the income story since then has dramatically reversed.

Piketty's work on wealth takes the argument even further: It's not the post-1970 rise in income inequality that's anomalous, his work argues, it's the period of relative equality before it that stands out like a sore thumb. Rather than capitalism, democracy and broad-based prosperity going together quite naturally, Piketty's data suggest that they only come together in extraordinary circumstances — and thus it's up to us to create those circumstances, if we want that happy convergence to reappear.

In this view, capitalism is not an eternal given, nor is democracy, for that matter. The forms they take vary over time; they can be studied empirically, scientifically, to see how they are performing. We are not helpless creatures subject to the iron laws of economics; but instead, potential masters of the sort of future world we will live in, if we but choose to alter the guiding framework of rules.

This is all dramatically different than the views that dominate the Washington policy world. There, a large portion of neoliberal Democrats tacitly accepts the market as an unquestioned fixture, even as they might criticize some particular outcome or another. But questioning the market as a whole — the way that Tyson suggests we ought to question our beliefs — that is something entirely beyond them. Yet, as shown in Elias Isquith's interview on Friday, the “sensible,” “commonsense” neoliberal formula of privatizing government services — turning them over to the marketplace — is a long-term recipe for undermining the middle class.

By shifting our gaze to a much broader focus, over much longer periods of time, Piketty frees us to see what's happening right in front of us far more clearly than we otherwise would. And this is something that we deeply hunger for. But not only can we see plain facts more clearly, we can also begin to imagine different alternatives as well. We can imagine the broadly shared prosperity of the 1950s and '60s, not just as a distant memory, but as a possible future — this time, shared by all, not just the white mainstream. We can imagine a world running almost entirely on renewable energy. We can imagine such goals, and then, collectively, figure out how to reach them, rather than just resigning ourselves to drift whichever way the torrents of wealthy elite power may take us.

This is the possibility that Piketty's work helps open up to us. And it is powerfully reinforced by Tyson's even broader sense of human possibility and our place in the cosmos. If we are, after all, “empowered by the universe to figure itself out,” then taking care of ourselves on our home planet should not be that hard of a task. If only we own up to our ignorance, we'll be quite well equipped to figure out how to do it.

“For me,” Tyson said, “I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and along the way, lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.” Or, as Hillel would say, “The rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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