Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review: Sex at Dusk by Lynn Saxon

I read this book a second time recently.  

I appreciate that such a scholarly and well-researched text was written by an amateur scientist.  It was written as a critique of a more popular book with a similar title.  This other book attempted to make a case that humans in the pre-agricultural era (i.e. over 10 000 years ago) had a much more promiscuous lifestyle, which for them was supposedly healthier and more peaceful--then with the implication that we should try to emulate this in modern society.  

Saxon's book looks at almost every claim made by the other authors, and shows how their analysis was biased, incomplete, or just completely wrong, in terms of historical and anthropological data, as well as genetics and evolutionary biology.  Saxon shows that the authors of the other book particularly do not address the very dark side of almost every case study described.  The areas of focus in both books include social and sexual behaviour in primate species most closely related to humans (chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas), as well as cultures of remote present-day groups, such as those living in the Amazon.   A particular emphasis is the genetic basis (through natural selection) of behavioural traits.  

The subject of the genetic foundations of animal behaviour, and of the mechanism of evolution through natural selection, should be part of everyone's common knowledge.  Books by naturalists, biologists, or geneticists on this subject are not only informative from a scientific point of view, but are fascinating in the same way that watching a good nature documentary would be:  most of us are unaware of the life cycles and behavioural patterns of most of the species with whom we share the earth.  The stories, often about species that many of us have never heard of, but also sometimes about familiar species, are almost always interesting, but sometimes shocking or disturbing or intensely dramatic.  The best science writer in this genre is Richard Dawkins -- whether or not you like his philosophical point of view, it is essential and often entertaining reading to learn about other species, with the eye of a great naturalist.  

Saxon shows that we cannot escape some of the problems which exist in relationship and sexual dynamics in humans, including jealousy.  There is a strong genetic foundation for pair bonding in our species, though not without tensions, jealousies, and strong desires, which differ between the sexes, to have other relationships outside of the pair bond; but such excursions outside of a pair bond cannot occur without a substantial cost, often manifest in behaviour which is in part genetically determined.  

None of these genetic factors justifies a social policy which constrains relationship choices... social and relationship freedoms, as well as guaranteed personal rights, are aspects of social justice that have thankfully grown in our country in the past century; they must be created and legislated, whether or not they have always been favoured in our species through genetic/natural selective forces in the distant past.  

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty

 Thomas Piketty is a French economist, whose book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" is a great analysis of the history of wealth, economic inequality, and taxation through the past two centuries, focusing especially on Europe and North America.  

I highly recommend this book.  It is very long and detailed, and much of it is hard to understand fully for a person not experienced in economics or finance.    For a brief introduction to Piketty's work, there is a good documentary with the same title, which is also worth watching.  But the documentary does not contain nearly as much detailed analysis of the problems and proposed solutions, compared to the book.  

This book is important to read, to become familiar with these issues.  We all pay taxes, and most of us complain about them, but few of us understand the history of taxation, and the reasons why taxes are the way they are.  Even for those who are experts in the area, it seems to me that relatively few people (such as economists) have a good understanding of economic history.  

Piketty shows that income inequality was extremely high in the 1800s in Europe, leading to some people with enormous estates, while much of the population lived near or below the poverty line.  Most of the wealth in the society was owned by a very small number of people.   This changed dramatically mainly as a result of the world wars, and the resulting policy changes after the wars.  

Prior to the wars, those with enormous wealth paid very little tax, and this wealth was also passed through inheritance with very little tax either.   After the wars, progressive taxation of income and estates led to a large improvement in this type of extreme inequality, and allowed a much larger number of people (such as those in the middle class) to own a larger portion of national wealth.   

Interestingly, the United States in the 1950s-1970s had one of the most fair and progressive taxation schemes in the world, leading to improvements in economic inequality, before regressing substantially in the 1980s and beyond.  

Piketty shows that there are not only political and social consequences of having a society allowing extreme wealth to accumulate for a small number of people, without those people having to earn this wealth through work, there is also an economic consequence, since economic efficiency is not well-served or incentivized this way.   

His suggested solutions to this problem include having a progressive income tax, a progressive tax on estates & inheritance, and a progressive tax on capital or total personal wealth.  By progressive, he means paying a higher rate for higher levels of income, and a lower rate for lower levels.  At present, there are many examples Picketty shows where the system is not progressive, but regressive--that is, people with extreme levels of wealth actually pay an overall lower marginal rate on their vast incomes, compared to those in the middle class.  

The main barrier to a progressive tax on capital (i.e. a tax on invested fortunes), is that such investments are often hidden; many extremely wealthy people hide their wealth in offshore banks, etc. so it is hard for governments to understand how much wealth there is.  These are so-called "tax shelters."  In order to solve this problem, governments across the world would have to come together and cooperate with sharing banking information, to create a type of global wealth census, or "cadastre."  

How is this relevant to psychiatry?  Economic issues, including poverty, are extremely important in the causation and management of mental health problems.  Universal health care, and universal comprehensive education (including university  college, or other training) is possible in all countries, and can be improved where it currently exists, such as in Canada.  But health care is expensive, and needs to be fairly subsidized.  Taxation issues obstruct the provision of efficient social services, including health care.  

Also, greed in general, without a principle of making social or community contribution, is a factor contributing to declining mental health, and to more social problems including crime.  

I did not find Piketty's analysis or recommendations to be "radical" at all.  They are not in opposition to free-market economics, but rather are supportive of a system where markets could be free for all, without rapidly escalating and uncontrolled excesses.