Monday, June 23, 2014

Michael Kinsley reevaluated

For years during Michael Kinsley's tenure on Crossfire, as editor of the New Republic, and then for a shorter while at Harper's, I admired his success and often agreed generally with his thoughts, but at the same time found him annoyingly arrogant and rigid in his opinions.  Today's Michael Kinsley seems to be a different person, quite admirable now from this perspective.

After a variety of writing and editorial roles in recent years, he is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.  His vagabond job style of late is likely due to the fact that he announced about 15 years ago that he has Parkinson's disease.  This disease has many shapes and sizes, and not all are of the commonly thought of shaking and physical disability attributes.  Parkinson's is a neurological disease and can have cognitive effects that are just as troubling as physical ones.  Fortunately there are many medications and treatments for the condition, and many like Kinsley lead successful if perhaps somewhat less than completely desired lives for many years, in Kinsley's case for the last 23 years with the disease.

In the late April issue of "The New Yorker" Kinsley wrote a lengthy article about the perils of aging of the less self destructive members of the boomer generation.  Part of it focused on dementia and his sort of humorous thesis is that the real competition among boomers is not who ends up with the most money but who ends up with their marbles intact for the longest period of time.

The article eventually led into a discussion about Parkinson's which was found to be fascinating here.  Kinsley writes well and thoroughly discusses the disease and the treatments and conditions that he has been through.  Yet there he is, writing cogently and informatively.

This week he did many of us a big favor by writing a two page commentary on Thomas Piketty's much heralded book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century".  The bet here is that the ratio of the number of people who have talked "knowledgeably" about the book or actually read it is at most 10%.  Piketty's more than 600 data dense pages of "of translated French philosophy" is not by any means a glib Malcolm Gladwell advice book or a James Patterson novel.

Kinsley describes reading the book "as a bit of a shock.  It's both much more radical and much less radical than its reputation."  He goes on to say that "I was anticipating a left-wing rant, but Piketty's tone is modest and polite, not at all what you would expect from a rock-star French intellectual."

Kinsley's brief article was helpful, as there has been no attempt to enter the fray of data based academic economics here.  It would be hopeless really.  This summary of Piketty's thoughts in Vanity Fair offers great challenges, no easy answers, and some improbable suggestions, but it does raise important issues that need to be addressed more seriously in many countries.  Vanity Fair is available on line, and reading Kinsley's piece there might interest many who want to avoid the 100 or so pages of displays of amazingly expensive fashion in its print edition.  Sort of ironic isn't it.     


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