Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 685 pp., $39.95
Thomas Piketty, professor at the Paris School of Economics, isn’t a household name, although that may change with the English-language publication of his magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Yet his influence runs deep. It has become a commonplace to say that we are living in a second Gilded Age—or, as Piketty likes to put it, a second Belle Époque—defined by the incredible rise of the “one percent.” But it has only become a commonplace thanks to Piketty’s work. In particular, he and a few colleagues (notably Anthony Atkinson at Oxford and Emmanuel Saez at Berkeley) have pioneered statistical techniques that make it possible to track the concentration of income and wealth deep into the past—back to the early twentieth century for America and Britain, and all the way to the late eighteenth century for France.
The result has been a revolution in our understanding of long-term trends in inequality. Before this revolution, most discussions of economic disparity more or less ignored the very rich. Some economists (not to mention politicians) tried to shout down any mention of inequality at all: “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution,” declared Robert Lucas Jr. of the University of Chicago, the most influential macroeconomist of his generation, in 2004. But even those willing to discuss inequality generally focused on the gap between the poor or the working class and the merely well-off, not the truly rich—on college graduates whose wage gains outpaced those of less-educated workers, or on the comparative good fortune of the top fifth of the population compared with the bottom four fifths, not on the rapidly rising incomes of executives and bankers. Continue lendo “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age”
The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. By Jonathan Rottenberg. Basic Books; 256 pages; $26.99 and £17.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
JONATHAN ROTTENBERG was a depressive. Now he is a leading researcher into depression and director of the University of South Florida’s mood and emotion laboratory. He says depression afflicts many, is poorly understood and very hard to treat. If the world is to reverse what he calls the current “perfect storm” of depression risk, a radical rethink is needed on how depression is understood.
Some believe that depressive illness is simply the result of a depletion in the brain of certain neurotransmitters and is treatable with antidepressants. But Mr Rottenberg argues that it may be an evolved, protective response to certain stimuli. Depression, or rather what he refers to as the impulse to “hunker down and wait, at least for a while”, might help humans cope with grief, protect them from conflict, or even help them to avoid being socially ostracised by alerting them to “social risk”. But behavioural responses appropriate to early hunter-gatherers are not necessarily suitable for 21st-century society.
It is Mr Rottenberg’s view that the current vogue for the “pursuit of happiness” may perversely push certain people towards depression. Happiness, he argues, is the result of achieving a goal, rather than a goal itself. He cites recent evidence suggesting that depression or low mood can be triggered by setting unobtainable goals. Rather than becoming depressed because of underachievement, he suggests that perhaps depression is an overcommitment to goals that cannot be reached.
“The Depths” gathers descriptions of current research to back up the author’s theories, as well as anecdotes and vignettes from depressed patients, including Mr Rottenberg himself, who suffered serious depression in his early adulthood. The personal connection first led him into this field, and is clear throughout the book.
However, “The Depths” might make depressing reading for a sufferer. Not only is Mr Rottenberg highly critical of current treatments for depression, he also points to evidence that man’s linguistic ability may be another factor increasing depression rates; people can ruminate on their thoughts, mentally chastise themselves for not “getting better” and even develop links between negative thoughts in their memories, all of which could sustain depression or lead to a relapse during or after recovery. It is not a recipe for hopeful reading.
Yet Mr Rottenberg also offers solutions. Throughout the book he emphasises that experiencing low mood is not uncommon; more important, it is not the sign of failure it might sometimes feel like. He believes a new focus on what he calls “mood science” is more helpful than a focus on diagnoses of depression. A fresh way of thinking could be the key to revolutionising people’s understanding of depression, and even for developing new treatments. The book’s final chapter is almost a clarion call to open the discussion about depression, remove its social stigma and break with current scientific convention to help those suffering begin their recovery. As he says, “It is possible.”