Theory Teacher's Blog

Marriage

I got married a few weeks ago, and I feel compelled to blog about this because some students and colleagues have teased me a bit, saying something along the lines of, “Didn’t you once proclaim that you would never get married? Didn’t you teach a whole class that deconstructed that institution?” And yes, even on this very blog [here], [here], [here], [here], and [here], I have made arguments that not only suggest alternatives to marriage but also imply that getting married and buying a house might even be an unethical response to 21st century socio-economic conditions. So, I’ve decided to momentarily come out of my blog-o-sphere vacation to justify my ways to my students, colleagues, and friends. This blog post will take three steps. Step one will be to outline my problem with the institution of marriage. Step two will be to observe changing socio-economic conditions that put that institution in question and suggest other possible ways of living in the world. Step three will be a detour through some Christian theological discussions about marriage. And finally, I will come to my own philosophical conclusion.

Step One: Hegemony

In my view, the social pressure to get married actually prevents human beings from imagining a more ethical relationship with each other. Even more seriously, it prevents people from acting on their own imagination. Personally, I have for years felt pressured to get married, have children, and buy a house — a pressure that theorists call “hegemonic.” In this case, hegemonic means not merely that there are deep cultural pressures to do these things, but also the force of law, taxes, insurance, and various other privileges and rights, so that, in effect, when a colleague, family member, or friend teased me for not getting married, it was a teasing accompanied by some very sharp and very powerful teeth. In other words, it is not even possible to do a lot of things that, in my view, should be possible. The obvious example that the media talks about a lot is gay marriage, and in most of the world, a significant percentage of the population is barred from legal matrimony.  Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have famously said they would not get married until everyone acquired that right, a right that some might consider to be a basic human right, and I have a lot of respect for their taking such a strong and clear ethical position. But, as the gay-activist, literary theorist, and scholar Michael Warner has argued in The Trouble with Normal, we should be looking beyond that rigidly simple binary of married/not married towards other alternative relationships. For instance, Jane Juffer’s book Single Mother points out that single mothers might want to form cooperative living arrangements with other women in order to manage the challenges of raising children without a husband.

Lately, numerous novels, movies, and television shows have begun to imagine such alternative, cooperative living arrangements, but such arrangements are discouraged by laws about taxes, benefits, and even home ownership. For instance, there is a long contentious legal history about the definition of “family” for neighborhoods zoned for “single family homes” as you can read about [here] and [here]. Cities, suburbs, and towns have passed zoning laws deliberately to promote traditional nuclear families, but complicating the implementation of those laws, the national Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination against non-traditional families. For instance, the courts have ruled that a state’s law can’t define “family” so narrowly that it excludes uncles, grandparents, and various sorts of dependents. Nevertheless, questions remain about whether the definition of family means biological, legal, or functional relationships. For instance, clearly two people who live together and raise children can be considered a “family” even if they aren’t legally married and even if the children aren’t their biological offspring. But what about five elderly women who want to live together and support each other? (This was a real case, Baer v. Town of Brookhaven, by the way.) Despite the obvious benefits, as we can see in the popular TV show The Golden Girls, this sort of living arrangement has been legally discouraged. In my view, it should be encouraged. (Notably, The Golden Girls show had four women living together, which is legal, and not five, which would put them over the legal limit asserted in the Baer v. Brookhaven case.) Moreover, home ownership is always tied to the market, and cultural assumptions about family affect the value of homes as does direct government policy that artificially manipulates the market. For instance, according to this article, so-called “multi-family homes” (e.g., a duplex) may be a more efficient and less expensive alternative to single-family homes, but they are also harder to sell. In addition, the recent “Hope for Homeowners” government program created to boost the housing market targets traditional single family homes.

And all this is what I mean when I say that the traditional nuclear family is a “hegemonic” institution, supported by all sorts of laws, including laws that manipulate market conditions. And given the power behind this hegemony, it sometimes felt to me a little bit cruel when people would make remarks implying that I had problems with committment, that I hated children, or that I secretly wished my life were like theirs.

Step Two: Living in a Post-Fordist World

Now that I’ve discussed the hegemony of the nuclear family — a “tradition” arguably created in the early twentieth century alongside the modern industrial “Fordist” economy, as historians have argued. See, for instance, [here]. The ideal for this economy was life-long employment at a single company such as Ford. I now turn to the twenty-first century socioeconomic conditions, which have been called “post-Fordist” because of the market demand that labor and capital be more flexible and mobile. An effect of this new economic world order was the demise of automobile manufacturing cities Detroit and Flint, Michigan, as documentary film maker Michael Moore famously narrated in his classic Roger and Me. Considering the destructive impact on families caused by such capital flight as well as the increased cost of living and the environmentally destructive effects of suburban sprawl, the old white-picket-fence image of the 1950s model for the nuclear family would seem at the very least out-of-step with the world we live in today, if not downright immoral. Such social conditions of our so-called post-Fordist world include heightened geographic mobility, civil rights for women and people of color, shocks to the labor market due to rapid capital flight, an increase in the cost of living, and the environmental effects of over-population and industrial capitalism.

A great essay about what all this post-Fordist stuff means for college educated women that wonderfully rips apart the hegemony I discuss above is The Atlantic.com piece “All the Single Ladies,” but let me try to illustrate what it means for working class people through the following example. It  has become increasingly easy for large corporations and investment banks to move large amounts of capital very quickly. For instance, as in the case of Ford and GM, a company might move an entire factory or simply outsource production to another country. Such “shocks” to the local economy would seem to demand a more mobile and flexible labor force. However, at the same time that the government permits such capital flight and encourages easy financial speculation, it also encourages individuals to buy homes even if they can’t really afford them. The recent housing bubble and subsequent recession has alerted everyone to this problem. As one economist has recently explained [here], the artificially propped up housing market has a negative impact on the labor market because it discourages individuals from moving to where there is a better job. Another example is the environment, as land once populated with wild animals is now “exurbs” of McMansions, and people drive great distances from their single-family homes to their place of work. Thus, in response to the vicissitudes of the new economy and to the foreseen dangers of global warming that contradict the ideal of the nuclear family, more and more people are forced to look for practical solutions to life’s problems, and these include more flexible, cooperative living arrangements. And for me, these arrangements are already being practiced by many different kinds of people, despite the ways in which they are discouraged by the hegemonic system I described above.

In my view, it seems more praiseworthy to aspire to something greater than mere marriage. And this is why, before she became my wife, she was my grrrl-comrade, not my girl friend — the name alluding to the feminist “riot grrrl” punk movement during the mid-1990s. Its “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” aimed to foster a revolution of everyday life. This is what I believed in and tried to practice with my own grrrl-comrade, who was my political partner as well as my romantic partner. I have also discussed what this means with two of my colleagues who have made an even greater effort than I have to foster a broader sense of community and an expanded sense of what it meant to be responsible for the raising of children.

But now I’ve gotten married, so have I sold out? Have I succumbed to the incentives offered by insurance companies and the Internal Revenue Service? Have I given up the dream and settled for settling down? Are my friends and former students justified in making fun of me? What does it mean when my friends and family say things like “Finally!!!” as if I were merely a deluded fool for not getting married before. What does it mean when people now jokingly welcome me “to the club”?

Step Three: A Theology of Potential

Before I answer those questions, I want to step back a bit and address the Christian view of marriage. One of my students, a double theology and English major, recently pointed out to me that the Catholic church’s position on marriage has changed a lot over the course of history. I don’t know much about that, but since my wife and her family is Lutheran, I went to my bookshelf and took down a book I hadn’t read since I was a college student majoring in religious studies, around the same time the punk band Bikini Kill published its Riot Grrrl Manifesto. And that book is Martin Luther:  Selections from His Writings, edited by John Dillenberger. To my surprise, I discovered that Luther was quite the radical for his day and in many ways agreed with me. He argues that marriage and the need for humans to combine in various practical ways is a human mystery that historically predates church authority or any cultural instantiation of it, and thus, when the Catholic church (or any church)  claims that marriage is a sacrament and that therefore it has the authority to decide who can and can’t marry, it is in effect acting like a pimp selling the “male and female pudenda” and therefore is the Antichrist (p. 331). Yes, he really does say that. In other words, to put Luther’s argument in the terms of literary theory, the so-called traditional nuclear family is an ideological social construct, and the human energy and potential for social combination can express itself in a multitude of forms. In less hyperbolic language, John Calvin makes a similar argument in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first book to systematically outline the entire protestant Christian faith. Luther goes further than Calvin, even arguing that bigamy/adultery are preferable to divorce, so if the husband turns out to be sexually impotent, it’s preferable that the wife have sex with someone else than they divorce, because marriage is a spiritual bond and practical work, not a sexual definition. And the real point of course is that marriage is not about sex (contrary to the constant harping on that subject by people who claim to be Christians), but about building community.

The particular passage of the Bible that Luther and Calvin focus on is when St. Paul talks about marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Luther and Calvin argue for a reading of Ephesians that today most Catholic theologians also agree with — that Christ is speaking metaphorically, not literally, about husband and wife becoming one flesh. In Paul’s letter, marriage is a metaphor for the open potential of human beings to end warfare and suffering and become Christ-like (i.e., becoming one flesh metaphorically means the political body of Christ, not holy matrimony.) Understood metaphorically in this way, marriage is an opening to grow beyond the limits of one’s individual self. Ironically, this Christ-like understanding of marriage as an opening up of human potential is the opposite of the narrow definition of marriage usually endorsed by people claiming to be Christians, whose literal and stupid understanding of the Bible actually enforces limits on our Being.

Conclusion

My detour through some old theological statements was meant to reconcile my earlier critique of marriage with my decision to get married. It might seem that Luther’s theology of marriage has a little bit more in common with the Riot Grrrl Manifesto than most Lutherans and Bikini Kill fans would admit. So, in conclusion, what I believe in is the opening or unfolding of human potential in the context of complex conditions. Those complex conditions place very material demands on us that we can’t simply ignore or dismiss. We make our way in the world as best we can and ethically aim for something better than what is. My wife is my partner in this endeavor, and our marriage is, I hope, an opening up of both our individual potentials as well as our potential relationship with others and with the world we aim to change.

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November 27, 2011 Posted by | feminism, finance | 6 Comments

Economist Plunders Caribbean of Its Existence

Occasionally, I bring my Pocket World In Figures to my classes to begin the hour with a few “fun facts.” I get this nifty little book every year through my subscription to The Economist magazine, and on those rare days when I remember to bring it to class, the students and I enjoy playing a guessing game for a few minutes before the real lesson. The first half of the book is rankings of various sorts, such as biggest producer of copper (Chile), highest education spending per person (Cuba), most consumption of beer per person (Czech Republic), and most people in jail (United States). The answers are sometimes surprising, and offer what we college professors like to call “teachable moments” because students will usually guess according to their stereotypes, and often the real data will contradict those stereotypes. For instance, they always guess Ireland to have the most beer consumption per capita, but it’s not even in the top 25. (The United States is 7th, and Ireland is actually 16th for wine consumption.) Also, the data will reveal very interesting things about current events, such as the top ten largest companies in the world being all oil and automobile companies with the exception at the number two spot being Wal-Mart. And the two countries in 2008 taking care of the largest refugee populations from other countries are not the United States and Canada, as my students always guess, but Iran and Pakistan (i.e., the two countries that border Iraq and Afghanistan.) Like I said, teachable moments. Sometimes the answers are somewhat obvious, but sometimes I’m just as surprised by the data as my students are.

The second half of the Pocket World In Figures — and the reason for this blog post today — are country-by-country profiles. So, if you want to quickly find out Germany’s population, biggest exports, unemployment rate, health-care spending, etc., this is where to go. Now, here is where my story really begins and why I’m writing this blog post. Right as I was leaving my office to head over to the very last day of my class on Caribbean literature and theory, it occurred to me to bring this book and have a little fun. I hadn’t brought the book to this particular class all semester because it didn’t seem relevant, but on this last day doing a few “fun facts” about some Caribbean countries seemed like a good idea. Anyway, I headed to class curious about what we would discover, but I was very unpleasantly surprised when I discovered that not one single Caribbean country is included in the “Country Profiles” section. Not one!

And that’s the reason for my rather absurdly provocative newspaper-style headline for the title of this blog post.

So much for the fun facts game in class that day, but nevertheless, it was still a teachable moment. After all, the students themselves had already experienced this blind spot when their parents said to them, “Um… you’re taking a class on… what?!?!… I didn’t know there was such a thing as Caribbean literature and theory.” My students and I heard this kind of thing a lot over the course of the semester, despite the fact that the Caribbean can boast two Nobel prize winners (V. S. Naipaul and Derek Wolcott), a few people who probably ought to win the Nobel prize (e.g., Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Maryse Condé), one of the hottest young authors in the world writing today (Edwidge Danticat), the most important pop musician of the twentieth century (Bob Marley), and some of the most influential and world-renowned anti-colonial political theorists of all time (e.g., Aime Césaire, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, etc.) Moreover, looking back in history, from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the Caribbean islands were by far the most economically profitable and productive colonies the European empires had. So, why are people so surprised that my course exists? And for sure this cultural blindness to the Caribbean is exactly one of the reasons I taught the course…. But it still begs the question, why this blind spot?

Now, to be fair to The Economist, clearly they can’t include all 192 countries, because the book would be too big. It is a “Pocket World” after all, not the whole world. But in this case, the book strangely excludes an entire geographic region from its world — no Jamaica, no Haiti, no Trinidad and Tobago… not even Cuba. Now, we also know that The Economist tends to be somewhat neocolonialist in its attitude towards the world, a bit racist at times, and almost always smugly chauvinistic in its tone when describing any culture not Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps, so far as The Economist is concerned, the islands in the Caribbean are not really separate countries at all, but just extensions of the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. And technically, many of the islands really are under the formal dominion of the United States (e.g., Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands), Britain (e.g.,  Montserrat, Cayman Islands), France (e.g., Martinique, Guadaloupe), and the Netherlands (e.g., Aruba, Curacao), but most of it is politically independent. However, as Éduoard Glissant observes in his Poetics of Relation (an observation also made by Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place and by the movie Life and Debt),  nominally independent is not the same thing as really independent. Economically, they are still in many ways controlled primarily by the United States (who has tended to invade countries that didn’t obediently fall in line with its political and economic interests, e.g., multiple invasions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic over the course of the twentieth century as well as the invasion of Grenada.)

Culturally, this neocolonialist relationship that much of the Caribbean has with the United States and Europe can be seen in the images Americans tend to associate with the Caribbean. Typically, if you ask someone what images come to mind when you say the word “Caribbean,” they think of beautiful beaches, spiced rum, and Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the most financially successful film series of the past decade.) In other words, in this cultural imagination, the Caribbean isn’t a real place; it’s just entertainment.

What I think my American students most enjoyed about our class is that the Caribbean gradually became a very real place to them, a place where ordinary people are born, grow, learn, and express themselves. The politics are complicated, the economics even more complicated, and if any one culture could be truly called a “world culture” it is the diverse and varied cultures of the Caribbean (as theorist Glissant implies in his complicated explication of the word “Creole” and as Tiphanie Yanique illustrates in her recently published book of wonderful short stories.) Perhaps The Economist magazine’s Pocket World in Figures doesn’t include profiles of Caribbean countries because the Caribbean is itself the whole world in microcosm. Or perhaps the editors of The Economist just need a spanking.

December 18, 2010 Posted by | finance, global, race, teaching | 1 Comment

The Economy of Wikipedia — Prosumer, Contripreneur, or Amateur

A coincidence of two events is inspiring this blog post today. One of the events is a recent discussion I had with several of my colleagues about the value of Wikipedia. Every year, Wikipedia has a fundraising drive so that it can continue to exist on the internet. Their goal this year is $16 million, and as I am writing this blog, Wikipedia claims [here] to have raised $8.5 million so far. (It is almost like the fund drive for National Public Radio.) I casually suggested to my colleagues that perhaps our university’s library ought to financially support Wikipedia just as it supports so many other useful internet programs such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Early English Books Online. However, my colleagues pointed out to me that these other internet tools are produced by professionals, not by amateurs as Wikipedia articles seem to them to be. I have a different understanding of Wikipedia that I will explain shortly.

The other event is my fellow blogger Topspun’s wonderfully audacious creation [here] of a new concept — contripreneur — over at the Seven Red blog earlier this month, and indeed when I googled this word, the only search result that came up was his blog. (And after I finish writing this post, of course, then my blog will also come up, heh, heh, heh. I’m getting in on this venture early.) Topspun’s argument stems from a dissatisfaction with an older neologism coined in 1980 by Alvin Toffler — prosumer — a dissatisfaction that I share. Topspun and I both blogged extensively about our dissatisfaction way back in April 2009, [here] and [here] from Topspun and [here] from myself. Basically, the word prosumer (which you can read all about in Wikipedia [here], but not, significantly, in the Encyclopedia Britannica.com) is a combination of the words producer/professional and consumer, and it is meant to suggest a new economic relationship in which consumers don’t just consume value but actually produce it. The most obvious examples of the prosumer relationship would be open-source software, blogs, YouTube, the recent and highly controversial WikiLeaks, and of course Wikipedia. On these websites, valuable information and entertainment are produced and distributed not by salaried professionals but by consumers/users.  These consumers/users are not paid for their labor, but presumably get satisfaction from the enjoyment or from the social connection or from the usefulness for the common good of society that it possibly facilitates. Consequently, one might call them “amateurs” in contrast to “professional” except that many of them will have expert knowledge and skills (e.g., the specialized information that appeared on Wikileaks.) A less obvious example of a prosumer would be Amazon.com, which makes use of consumption patterns and input from consumers to help other consumers find the books they want. As many of my colleagues have noticed, sometimes (though certainly not always) Amazon.com is a better tool for finding books than the library databases.

But the concept of the prosumer is a problematic concept. If I can boil down Topspun’s highly sophisticated argument down to one sentence, I’d boil it down this way — all the punditry and hype about the prosumer concept usually fails to take into account the financial relationship. And of course, in my view, the ambiguity of the financial relationship implies a political situation that the word prosumer conceals and mystifies. Therefore, Topspun suggests the word contripreneur, which combines the words contributor and entrepreneur, is both more precise and broader in its application. I’m looking forward to Topspun’s future blog posts in which he promised to explain his concept further.

So, the task for my blog today is to assess the value of Wikipedia by thinking about it in terms of the concepts prosumer and contripreneur and to assess the value of those concepts by thinking about them in terms of the exemplary example Wikipedia. Do you catch the double movement of that sentence? And of course, as you can tell from my blog post’s title, I’m also wondering whether the neologisms “prosumer” and “contripreneur” are really any different from a rather ordinary old word, amateur.

My starting point for this inquiry will be a very simple question, the sort of simple question with which Adam Smith began his famous Wealth of Nationswhat is the value of Wikipedia really? Apparently, its directors need $16 million, but that figure is not a measure of exchange value on the open market. It is a measure primarily of cost (i.e., capitalization, energy, time, labor, machinery, land, etc.). What if we turn to one of John Locke’s concepts from his Second Treatise of Civil Government, use value? It is widely recognized that Wikipedia is something that both faculty and students use a lot. Therefore, it is useful, and in fact, in this case, the more it gets used, the more it grows, and consequently the more it grows, the more it costs to maintain. Such is the nature of the internet. So, is the $16 million an accurate and pure reflection of its use value? I don’t know. What I do know is that faculty use it when they need quick information, and students use it when they are beginning a research project. In some ways, it is superior to the older kind of encyclopedia or technical glossary because it requires its writers to cite their sources and it covers a far wider range of topics. (The older encyclopedias and glossaries usually don’t have citations because they bank on their reputation, and we’re supposed to trust their editors.) Most of my colleagues seem to allow that Wikipedia might be an acceptable starting point for their students’ research papers so long as the students focus on the works cited at the end of the Wikipedia article and don’t cite Wikipedia itself. In other words, so far as this reasoning goes, Wikipedia only has use value insofar as it leads one to “real” sources.

This reasoning is misguided, in my view. It misunderstands that the “real” sources (e.g., newspapers, press releases by politicians, websites, etc.) might be more likely to contain factual errors and biases than the Wikipedia article. It also fails to recognize the real intellectual labor in which Wikipedia articles often do a better job than newspaper and television journalists at checking for bias and factual accuracy. (If only Americans had looked up “Iraq” on Wikipedia — or any encyclopedia really — instead of trusting CNN and the NY Times, for instance, perhaps we wouldn’t have started that war. See, for instance, this article in which the NY Times recognizes its own failure.) My speculation is that few teachers trust Wikipedia as a source because they don’t fully understand how Wikipedia works. The “wiki” is a very specific kind of computer technology designed to maximise the efficiency of collaborative work. It was originally invented for large businesses, but was quickly picked up by some educators as a teaching tool. In any wiki, the entire history of each draft is accessible, so anyone who wants to add content or revise content can see the myriad of drafts written before. There is also often a discussion board so all the people contributing to the writing of an article can debate content. Therefore, it is wrong to think of Wikipedia as just another website. In a sense, Wikipedia is truly an open and accessible “public sphere” — almost in the idealistic Habermasian sense of the public sphere — where reasoned debate can take place. In this way, Wikipedia can be thought of in contrast to newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet in general which are supposed to be public spheres but are so often beholden to the profit motive of their stockholders (i.e., hype and entertainment) and the political biases of their owners (as Habermas himself complained, though not as bitterly as did the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer). Hence, many young people today rightly recognize Wikipedia to have a real social value, and not just a quick and easy source of information. In addition, the prejudicial notion that Wikipedia’s contributors might be mere amateurs (and not professionals) is clearly false, since even a cursory glance at most Wikipedia articles will reveal that the writers have considerable expertise. In other words, one might call these writers prosumers because they are both users and producers, or one might more accurately call them contributors… or one might even call them concerned citizens, some of whom are amateurs and some of whom are experts. However, in response to Topspun, I’m not sure how “entrepreneurial” any of the activity on Wikipedia is. It might depend on how we are understanding the word entrepreneur — beyond a simple business sense of the word, and towards a more socially contextualized sense of it as an agent of meaningful innovation.

Significantly different from what I see as the incorrect understanding of Wikipedia apparently held by most teachers is the perspective of libraries (or “information commons” as so many college libraries are being re-branded nowadays.) Many librarians now recognize the democratic potential of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia of the people, by the people, and for the people (a truly common “information commons”), but Wikipedia is not a priority for library budgets. Instead, since the university is itself an academic institution (often publicly owned), libraries prefer to support the more institutionalized academic and public projects. This affiliation seems very natural and sensible to me, and I think the library’s position is both wise and on target. Clearly, however, this is a political affiliation, not an affiliation based in the quality or value of the product. In other words, academics know how their bread gets buttered, and the public recognizes that there is more to knowledge and teaching than mere “information”, so we make the obviously intelligent political decision to devote our somewhat meager educational budgets to the support of the various professional institutions and associations we are members of.

In conclusion…. I don’t know if I have a conclusion. I’m tired of writing this blog today, and I have other work I need to do (i.e., the professional work I get paid for, get it? Not my contripreneurial work for which I get nothing.) And also, I’m not entirely sure yet where Topspun is going to take his contripreneur concept…. Stay tuned!

December 12, 2010 Posted by | finance, media, Theory--capital T | 2 Comments

Finfinne Diaries 3: Construction and Inflation — How to Demystify Ethiopia’s So-Called Economic Development?

What impressed me most during my brief 16 days in Ethiopia was the amount of construction. I have never in my life seen so many building projects going on all at once. Concrete and scaffolding were everywhere in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa and in the other cities that I visited — Jimma, Adama, Dire Dawa, and Harar. In Addis’s new suburban sprawl, I drove through almost a whole mile of recently completed but still empty apartment complexes only to discover yet another mile of halfway built complexes further down the road (a road which was also under construction.) And in Harar, I saw a lone Chinese engineer directing a group of Ethiopian laborers in the laying of phone cable, and at my hotel I talked with another engineer from Nepal who worked for a Japanese company that did land surveillance. I took a lot of photographs to document what I saw, but this morning I found a couple of YouTube clips [here] and [here] that have the exact same stuff I was taking pictures of. The development models in these two clips resemble models I saw on billboards and inside the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. 

This morning I did a little more research on this subject and read the websites for important civil society organizations — the Ethiopian Business Development Services Network and the Construction Contractors Association of Ethiopia — which detail the challenges that they believe the construction industry faces, such as government regulations, lack of resources (e.g., oil and steel), and lack of skilled labor. I also discovered a group called ICDCONGlobal that conveniently lists weblinks to brief articles on the amazing array of new construction projects currently going on in Ethiopia so that you can see them all [here]. And I actually recognize some of those projects, which I can remember driving past.

The intensity of this development is a mystery to all the people with whom I spoke — who wonder how so much construction is happening while their economy is still in bad shape. Where is the money coming from, and what is it all for? And in light of the recent global recession triggered by the bursting of America’s housing bubble, I am very worried what might happen if Ethiopia’s economy crashes. (Though, I should note that unlike the United States whose economy is truly based on land speculation, in Ethiopia all land is technically owned by the government — first under a feudal system and then under a communist system — and is simply leased to private individuals through a complicated bureaucracy, which I had a chance to briefly witness when my friend had to renew his lease. So, it would be a big mistake to draw simple analogies between America’s housing market and Ethiopia’s recent development.)

But in addition to all the construction, what those YouTube clips and websites don’t show are other things that I saw — things such as an enormous “Eastern Industrial Zone” with signs in Chinese letters about twenty miles outside Addis; a billboard with plans for a huge Oromo Culture Center complex right in the middle of Addis; a now completely defunct railroad; a bustling dry port for trucks carrying the standardized containers of global trade; an equally bustling and large khat trade; a bunch of young Japanese white-collar workers having lunch in an upscale restaurant and who could speak Amharic but not English (I talked to them in my limited Japanese); miles and miles of villages of small huts made of the traditional mud and thatch; miles and miles of farms still ploughed with traditional oxen right next to modern industrial farms and right next to miles of industrial-scale greenhouses for the global flower market, etc., etc., etc.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Every day I was struck by the proximity of traditional local economies and global capitalism to each other. The relationship between these two phenomenon was in no way clear to me, since as I mentioned in my blog [here] a few months ago, global capitalism and foreign investment have had both positive effects and negative effects. How do we make sense of all these disparate facts? It was clear to me that foreign investment was producing some good things, but it was also clear to me that some manifestations of global capitalism are little more than government-sanctioned theft. And as this recent article argues and as this YouTube clip shows, some of the big development projects cause tremendous environmental damage and displace thousands of people. One has to wonder about the wisdom of many of the projects, some of which are promoted by far-away business interests without much input from local constituencies.

Meanwhile, the two biggest complaints I heard from various people I talked to (whether they were Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, or whatever) were (1) fears that the Chinese were going to move in and take over, and (2) fears about inflation and the devaluation of Ethiopia’s currency, the birr. The first complaint is largely irrational, and such racist expressions of fear that single out China (rather than any of the many other countries that invest in Ethiopia or the presence of the U.S. military) is in my view simply a paranoid reaction to the real problems of inflation. It should be obvious that some foreign investment has improved the quality of life for many in Ethiopia. To put what I’m saying here in theory-teacher-blog terms, the fear of the Chinese is a psychological symptom that displaces the hard-to-conceptualize vicissitudes of globalization onto the easy-to-conceptualize-but-false metaphors of racial identity. And hence I worry about propaganda in the form of political speeches and TV dramas that would encourage such paranoia. 

In contrast to the first complaint, the second complaint is very rational, considering that the exchange rate between the Ethiopian birr and the U.S. dollar has been gradually devalued each year since the mid-1990s from 2 to 14, and consequently the prices of basic food staples such as grains and beans (notably the culturally important tef and shiro) have increased dramatically. When it becomes so difficult for the poor to afford food, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong. Economists have long recognized this problem and sought answers; last month, the IMF’s doctrinaire recommendations were, not surprisingly, to promote the private banking sector, reduce tariffs, and liberalize currency exchange, etc., etc., etc., which is the IMF formula for everything and for all problems, no matter what country they are in or what the circumstances are — a rather simplistic formula that the Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz criticizes in his book Globalization and Its Discontents and  journalist Naomi Klein criticizes in her books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine and in her husband’s movie The Take. It is a formula that some might even suggest would make the problem worse, not better, and instead of helping the average Ethiopian would help the interests of the American, European, and Asian businesses.

But this is a matter of economic debate, and as I always tell my students in my various classes on cultural theory, globalization, and eighteenth-century mercantilist culture, I am not an economist, so they shouldn’t expect answers to basic economic questions. Rather, what they can expect is for Theory with a capital “T” to do three other things: to pose important questions that IMF economists generally do not deal with but perhaps should, to point out the often unseen connections between a cultural phenomenon and an economic one, and to reveal the often irrational or unjust economic decisions and policies that are a result not simply of economic doctrine but of the messy wrangling among various public and private interests whose articulation is always filtered through cultural symbols.

With all that in mind, now is the moment in this blog where I piss off all my friends…. Breathe in… breathe out. 

OK, you’ve breathed and taken a short break, so here it goes. What is obvious to everyone (no matter what their political or economic position) is that sometimes development projects don’t actually lead to real development. The big ideas of Ethiopian bureaucrats, private corporations, the American or Chinese empires, and/or well-meaning charities and other non-government organizations (NGOs) are often misguided or corrupt. However, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to lay all the blame on the corruption of the government… or on the ruthless greed of the corporations… or on the so-called evil empires (whoever they may be)… or on the ignorance of many NGOs… especially since more often than not development projects are enacted through a complex partnership among all of these sectors of society. Considering that such partnerships and collaborations are the norm, let’s forget about the “free trade” mythology, since that’s clearly irrelevant to the reality on the ground. And let’s also move beyond the 1960s version of postcolonial theory which leads us to blame all things on the legacy of Europe’s racist imperialism or on conspiracies led by evil Darth-Vader-like American imperialists such as Dick Cheney. And clearly, with all these various factors in mind, we can’t seriously continue to lay all the blame at the feet of Ethiopia’s infamously corrupt and dictatorial Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. And let’s please also stop whining about the inability of our world-community leaders (whether they are democratically elected or self appointed, e.g., Barack Obama, the Oromo Liberation Front, the board of the Oromia International Bank… whoever) to simply solve such complex problems for us, since that clearly has nothing to do with anything. (Nothing is more tiresome than listening to the same finger-wagging, moralistic bullshit year after year by old and embittered Oromo expatriates about the failure of their ethnic community’s leaders — speeches full of empty slogans about unity and freedom, blah, blah, blah.)

Instead, we ought to identify real problems and work towards real solutions. One problem — as the civil society activist Kumi Naidoo has smartly argued [here] — is the lack of transparency in how decisions get made and the lack of accountability to local civil society organizations (CSOs). In addition to Naidoo’s argument about transparency and accountability, I also agree with the arguments of many NGOs and activists for the importance of access to various cultural resources (such as schools) and the means of empowerment. In my opinion, these are useful things to think about. In contrast, I think vacuous pronouncements about cultural unity by ethnic nationalists don’t always lead to real forms of empowerment or to real access to cultural resources for the poor. Likewise, vacuous pronouncements about free trade by the IMF do little to promote real transparency or accountability. In other words, it does us no good to pretend that unicorns exist.

Now, all of that said, I must acknowledge that the arguments of ethnic nationalists do carry some important weight, considering that the chauvinist government of Ethiopia has for over a century systematically redistributed much wealth from the hands of one ethnic group into the hands of another ethnic group. For instance, as we were driving down the main street of the town of Metahara (a town in a largely Oromo region), one of my new friends pointed out to me that almost every hotel and restaurant was owned by Tigray and Amhara rather than by Oromo — most likely due to the ethnic prejudice and corruption rampant in Ethiopia’s land tenure system. And it was pointed out to me that inside the city of Jimma the main language is Amharic and the main religion Orthodox Christianity, but outside the city the main language is Oromifa and the main religions Islam and Protestant Christianity. But arguments about ethnic unity will not solve the corruption problem and might instead just replace one corrupt government with another. Nor do slogans about cultural unity and freedom necessarily lead to the building of schools or the engendering of local civil society. And such slogans most definitely do not give us the tools to think through the challenges of governance in a world whose dominant economic form is global capitalism. Such slogans are, after all, the manner in which a culture mystifies the real relations of production and daily life.

And likewise, I must also acknowledge that the IMF has a good point that the Ethiopian government’s rigid control of land and its obstruction of capital flows not only impedes economic growth but also encourages the kind of corruption that leads to badly conceived development projects. However, because the IMF measures the quality of life in terms of the stock market and GDP, it is painfully tolerant of economic exploitation and the growth of slums, and its economists are often willfully ignorant of the economic, environmental, and cultural effects of global trade on local communities who struggle to adjust. This is why the work of ethnic nationalist to recuperate their local cultures is not anachronistic to modern capitalism as the IMF economists wrongly believe, but rather such cultural work is an essential feature of globalization. To put it another way, it is never good for the economy in the long run when the traditional culture that binds a community together rapidly disintegrates or when its drinking water is polluted and other essential features of daily life destroyed; hence, leadership by ethnic nationalists can be important to the local economy in that they maintain a sense of community. Moreover, such local cultures are often able to build local civil society whose unique knowledge and skills might be crucial to the successful implementation of any development project. And beyond the notion of economic development narrowly conceived, local cultures can suggest viable alternatives and real solutions to problems that IMF economists and Ethiopian bureaucrats are too arrogant to recognize.

So, what to do? I have no answers today, but stay tuned for future blog posts.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | finance, global, Oromia, Theory--capital T | 2 Comments

Taxes: a Psychoanalysis

It’s tax time, and because I’m a single guy with a firmly middle-class salary but no dependents, no equity, and no fancy accountant to find me a bunch of loopholes, I have to pay a lot. A lot. So in this post, I’m just going to babble randomly about taxes and try to say something clever. So, here goes….

First, I should admit that I’m kind of a weirdo because I actually like paying taxes. For the most part I think my tax dollars do good things — roads, schools, police, hospitals, social services, disaster relief efforts, clean water. It’s hard for me to honestly imagine living in a world without an effective government. So, I feel the same way about paying taxes as I feel when I donate money to my undergraduate alma mater, to Minnesota Public Radio, to the ACLU, to Partners in Health’s relief effort in Haiti. I think most people would agree with me that donating money to a good cause feels good, right? Then why do people always complain about taxes? Why doesn’t paying taxes feel good? After all, a lot of the tax revenue goes to some of the same things that our donations go to — to a news media accountable to the public rather than to corporate advertising, to education and health services so that even poor children have access to the means of survival and self improvement, and to disaster relief. And arguably, as the recent cases in Haiti and Chile illustrate, a single government is often more efficient at coordinating the allocation of resources than a multitude of private charities who might get in each other’s way or end up being merely redundant. There may be a lot of non-governmental organizations working to help Haiti and Chile, but it was the Haitian government and U.S. military and the Chilean government that coordinated and performed most of the initial relief to save lives.

I think the obvious answer here is our own egos. When we donate money, we feel like we’re in control, we feel like we’ve done something good, but often our donations or our volunteer work are motivated by emotions rather than by reasoned debate or by thorough research into the most effective solutions. In contrast, when we pay taxes the thing we most feel is precisely a lack of control. Where is my money going to? Why do I have to pay this much? How do I know it’s going to a good cause (or a cause that I happen to personally think is “good”)? But I think ultimately, being a good person puts one in the ironic position of being selfless in a way that’s not being self assertive. That’s hard, perhaps even impossible. It’s certainly one of the main paradoxes that Christian theology has wrestled with ever since the very beginnings of Christian theology — that being selflessly charitable as Jesus suggests we be seems to go hand in hand with an egotistical self-satisfaction and an assertion of one’s own emotional interests and baggage. But I think that dialectically overcoming our own egos is precisely one of the things I find valuable in the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan and Zizek. (It is also a way in which psychoanlaysis and Christian ethics actually agree with each other instead of disagreeing as many seem to assume they do.)

One could argue with me that I’m missing the real point here — that really we don’t like paying taxes because we don’t trust the government. But then maybe we should all be a bit more involved in our government. This is a democracy, right? Or maybe it isn’t a real democracy, and that’s the problem that we’re all deeply afraid to admit. We don’t trust a government that seems (if you’re a democratic socialist like me) undemocratically beholden to greedy corporate interests or seems (if you’re a conservative Tea Partier) undemocratically beholden to a tree-hugging-gay-socialist-Islamofascist-liberal elite. But that said, I can’t honestly imagine a world in which the government weren’t effectively making sure that my water is clean, that the bridge doesn’t fall when I’m driving on it, that poor people are not dying on the street from dangerously communicable diseases, etc. In a lot of ways, our cranky, whiney attitude towards our government is a symptom of our own feeling that we aren’t in control of our own lives, not a real problem with the government itself. And maybe democracy is besides the point. In many ways, our government is so effective that we don’t even notice how it makes our daily lives better until you’ve spent time in another country that has an even more efficient and accountable government or a less efficient and accountable one.

That said, I’m not completely happy-go-lucky about paying taxes. There are things that bother me about paying taxes. One of the ironies of our tax code is that our government is quite willing to extend breaks to home-owners, car-buyers, job-getters, and children-havers (stuff that “stimulates” our consumer economy and secures a labor force and seems generally “good”), but no breaks for stuff like organic locally grown food, community building, and other progressive yuppie things that people such as myself tend to fetishize. I totally support the tax break for dependents (children and sick relatives, for instance) and for unemployed people looking for work. That makes complete sense. But for buying a new car? Really? How about tax breaks for people who can’t afford a car and have to take the bus? Or for people who simply choose to live within walking distance of their place of work? No, no, no, that’s not the case here. Our tax code artificially props up the automobile industry, real estate, and the stock market. I am always struck by the irony of the pro-free market people (like those on CNBC’s ridiculous Squalk Box) who yell and scream about how big government is bad and how we need free-market solutions for everything… and then they want special tax breaks, handouts, and exemptions designed to artificially prop up that market economy. For all their quoting Adam Smith’s notion about the “invisible hand” of the market, they seem to forget how critical Adam Smith was of all those artificial props in his book The Wealth of Nations. If the free market works so well and the government works so poorly, why is the free market constantly needing help from the government? And getting back to the question of my taxes, I have to wonder how much of my taxes are going into the pockets of the infamous CEOs at General Motors and AIG. It’s those kinds of scandals that gives me a bad feeling about paying taxes. I’m perfectly happy to have my tax dollars help a child (and even an adult) get an education and have access to health care, but I think the CEOs of corrupt corporations should be left to suffer the consequences of their own greed. In that way, I’m more pro-free market than the people who say they are pro-free market. I say, free market and Adam Smith all the way, and no special supports for corporate interests. Or,  on the utterly other other hand, the flip side of my emotional response to all this is a bit less principled and more whiney and self-centered — if we’re going to be tossing around these government props, then where are the props for my own lifestyle choices, dagnabit? I want a tax break for a 100% eco-friendly lifestyle, not for a new car.

With all that in mind, I want to return to the special tax breaks for home ownership that I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago. I’ve ranted about my problems with home ownership before, much more eloquently back then than I am now in this blog post which I’m writing rather hastily and off the top of my over-caffeinated head. I completely understand why we’d want to help first-time homeowners and working-class families achieve the American dream, however misguided or anarchic the dreaminess of their dreams might be. But this American dream stuff is all about what theorists Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek call the imaginery. The question I want to direct attention to is how the imaginary relates to the symbolic order and the Real. What few realize is how much our economy needs people to keep buying land and how much our tax code is set up to encourage land speculation. As Benjamin Franklin argued long ago when he argued for paper money instead of gold and silver is that the real value of money is based not on its shiny-ness but on its ability to enable productivity and trade. Few of us today ever think about why the pieces of paper in our wallet have value. What gives it that value? Basically, a faith in the continued productivity of markets, which is why politicians are always freaking out when Americans aren’t buying enough crap at the mall. But also a faith in the continued increase in the value of land, which is why politicians also freak out when Americans aren’t buying bigger and bigger houses in ever-more racially exclusive neighborhoods. The economic productivity of land has been fundamental to the functioning of paper currency since its beginning in the 18th century. Essentially, our economy rests in part on an assumption that the value of land will always go up, and so the paper money in our pockets is essentially a futures market — a relatively secure futures market when you think about it, so long as we don’t try to manipulate that market and hedge our bets the way we sadly all witnessed a couple years ago when the housing bubble crashed.

So, this is how I read the tax breaks and handouts for homeowners. Basically, it’s in the economic interest of the country to take the money away from well-off renters (i.e., me) who can afford it and give it to less well-off homeowners. This is the symbolic order that structures the reality of our economic and our individual positions within that economy. Like paper money itself, our tax code is related to our overall productivity (GDP) and the metonymic workings of Wall Street (a metonym because it simply stands in as one representative instance of a larger network of economic relations.) In other words, to borrow the language of Lacanian theory as Slavoj Zizek has used it in his recent book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, the logic of financial speculation is the symbolic order that structures the economic Real behind our tax codes. So, does this mean I should be happy with the fact that other people are getting tax breaks and I’m not because it ultimately supports the overall production of wealth for everyone? (If only this were really the case, since it seems the wealthiest of the wealthy are the ones most positioned to take advantage of our convoluted tax code.) Or given the fundamental inequities in the system and the scandal of our government’s handouts (both under Presidents Bush and Obama) to Wall Street, should I (as Topspun over at the Seven Red blog seems to suggestlively ask) exit the whole program?

March 6, 2010 Posted by | finance | Leave a comment

Immaterial Bowl Games

I have to admit, I’ve never been a “fan” of sports. I’ve always liked playing sports quite a bit, and I like watching some sports (football, basketball, and tennis are my favorites), but even as a kid I never cared enough to keep track of a team’s performance, a star athlete’s digits, or whatever. However, recently I have to wonder whether even the die-hard sports fanatics are questioning the proliferation of college bowl games. EagleBank Bowl? Little Caesars Pizza Bowl? Sports commentators joke about “toilet bowls” — their term for bowl games whose significance is laughable. But whatever the debates among sports commentators about the pageantry of bowl games and how we decide the number one team of the year, all this seems less interesting to me than the names of the bowl games, the changing nature of sponsorship, and what this suggests to me about the changing nature of our economy. My hypothesis is that the rise of immaterial bowl games reflects the rise of immaterial labor — note the pun.

For example, this morning I just watched the Capital One Bowl, which used to be called the Florida Citrus Bowl. As everyone knows, Florida’s economy, because of its climate, is based largely on citrus fruits. And as everyone knows, Capital One is one of the largest credit card companies (a.k.a. “consumer lending”). What people may not know is that Capital One was created as recently as 1988, and in the short span of a decade became a powerful enough company to sponsor one of the premiere bowl games. So what? What’s the difference? Well, the difference is a shift from a bowl named after an agricultural crop to a bowl named after a credit card. And this shift seems symptomatic of a larger economic shift from an economy based on efficient commodity production to an economy based on services.

The earlier economy is what (almost a century ago) theorist Antonio Gramsci called a “Fordist” economy after the innovations of Ford Motors, and today our economy based on financial services is sometimes referred to as a “post-Fordist” economy. Building upon the concept of “post-Fordism,” theorists Negri and Hardt made a big splash in 2000 with their book Empire that argued (among other things) that there has been a shift from material to immaterial labor. This “shift” does not mean that the production of actual material things is no longer important. Of course it still is. Rather, it means that services such as credit, finance, health care, etc. have become the hegemonic form of production that dominates. Think back to the 19th century during the “industrial revolution” when economists claimed that industrial production — i.e., the factory — had become the most important form of production. At the time, however, when people were first noticing this change in the makeup of their world, factories represented a relatively small amount of the economy. Most of the economy was still rural farms. Analogously, today is the same deal. While the economy may still be about commodities (food, clothes, cars, toys, etc.), the form that is emerging as a dominant form is immaterial. For example, as most car companies are well aware, they don’t make much profit off the production of automobiles. The real profit is in their financial services, insurance, and other services.

And so, in college football, we don’t have a General Motors bowl, Ford bowl, or Toyota bowl. Rather, since 1999 (the year before Negri and Hardt’s book was published), we have a GMAC Bowl — GMAC basically being the bank that provides financial services for General Motors. And following this trend towards immaterial global capitalism, some of the most recent additions to college football include the EagleBank Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, Humanitarian Bowl, and International Bowl. I’m surprised there isn’t a bowl named after a health insurance company. In the near future, will there be a bowl game named after an unregulated hedge fund?

I’d be curious if someone has ever written a “cultural studies” history of the bowl game. What might that history look like? The first bowl game was the Rose Bowl begun way back in 1902 to celebrate East-West rivalry. This bowl was symptomatic of the rise of California as an economic power after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Most of the other major bowl games emerged during the Great Depression or right after World War II — Orange Bowl (1935), Sugar Bowl (1935), Cotton Bowl (1937), Gator Bowl (1946), Citrus Bowl (1947). One might speculate about why bowl games were created during the devastation of the Great Depression and (ironically) the Dust Bowl. My guess is bread and circus for the poor and a nice patriotic stimulus to the economy. Obviously, the names of these bowls all suggest the warm climate in which they are located, since nobody wants to play a bowl game in the snow, and that’s why there aren’t bowl games reflecting the identities of northern climates (e.g., corn, wheat, and steel bowls), though it doesn’t explain why there isn’t a rice or indigo bowl. (South Carolina missed an opportunity there.) Significantly, for the point of my blog, the names of bowls generally tend to suggest the agricultural product associated with that climate.

By the 1960s, this was no longer the case. Certainly, the invention of television had something to do with the rising importance of bowl games, and so we have more TV-oriented names such as the Liberty Bowl (1959), Fiesta Bowl (1971), Holiday Bowl (1978), and Hall of Fame Bowl (1986).

If the 1960s was about television, the post-1990 era is about globalization, immaterial labor, and life-style branding, so we have the creation of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (formerly the Peach Bowl), Champs Bowl (formerly the Tangerine Bowl),  Outback Bowl (formerly the Hall of Fame Bowl), PapaJohns.com Bowl, and Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Noticeably all of these are named after popular brands of food services rather than actual food. In addition to the food services bowls, credit card bowl, and the Meineke Car Care Bowl mentioned above, there is also the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas (another car services company) and the Insight Bowl (information technology services.) In other words, the shift is from things to services — what Negri and Hardt conceptualize as the shift to immaterial labor. In addition, I think we can see evidence of what Naomi Klein famously argued in her book No Logo (published in 2000), that the 1990s saw the rise of the “brand.” In other words, agreeing with Negri and Hardt’s thesis about immaterial labor, what Klein notices is the rise of branding and life-style management alongside the outsourcing of industrial production to third-world nations.

But so what? Is this a bad thing? That’s a question for another day, and I don’t know enough about the sports world, because as I mentioned earlier, I don’t really care about it. But as many sports commentators have lamented on ESPN (which I have to watch when I use the gym at my school), the changes in corporate sponsorship have created a cultural dynamic that is bad for players, bad for coaches, and bad for fans. In sum, from what I gather from listening intermittently to the ESPN sports commentators, it has made the game worse, not better. But how were bowl games sponsored before? Who was in control and who is in control now? I don’t know, which is why I really think somebody should write a theoretically and economically informed “Cultural History of the Bowl Game.”

January 2, 2010 Posted by | finance, global, media, sports | 4 Comments

Volvo, Ford, Zhejiang Geely

Ten years ago, in 1999, one of the largest American car manufacturers, Ford Motors, bought one of the largest Swedish car manufacturers, Volvo. But things haven’t gone so well for Volvo since then… or for Ford… so now Ford, according to the newspapers [here and here],  is selling off Volvo to the Chinese company, Zhejiang Geely. And if you’re a globalization theory freak (like I am), then you’re thinking, “oooh, that’s globalization, wowee zowee.” And that darling globalization columnist/cheerleader for the NY Times Thomas Friedman is doing a little jig, singing, “See? See [here]? I told you so! I told you so! It’s a flat world after all.”

I got curious about the Geely Holding Group that owns the car manufacturer. According to the Wall Street Journal [here], they were created in 1986, are based in Hangzhou, and their publicist is the Brunswick Group, based in London. According to a NY Times blog [here], Geely means “lucky” in Chinese and has the backing of Chinese banks, as well as a lot of investment from the famous bank holding group Goldman Sachs, based in New York. Apparently, they’re selling quite a lot of nifty cars these days, and that is pretty dang nifty… apparently….

one of Zhejiang Geely's cars

But BUT BUT, according to its own website, the automobile company was incorporated in the Cayman Islands, and its company structure includes 17.9% ownership by the TOSCAfund, 58% by Proper Glory, and only 24.1% by shareholders. The TOSCAfund, according to its own website, most of which is inaccessible without a password, is a British company that mostly engages in “unregulated collective investment” (i.e., a hedge fund.)… …Oh, by the way, the villain of the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace (which I’ve blogged about [here] before) has his secret meeting at a performance of the opera La Tosca by Puccini… …As for the Proper Glory Holding Company, apparently based in the Virgin Islands, I haven’t been able to find much about it on the internet. Both TOSCA and Proper Glory seem to be somewhat inaccessible to the general public and lacking in transparency, as the Volvo union discovered [here]. The investment bank JP Morgan was involved in Proper Glory’s attaining a controlling stake in Geely according to Reuters [here]. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s hard to find out who these people really are.

So, after about half an hour of a little digging with our trusty friend Google, this is what I found, and so, apparently, it’s pretty easy to go much deeper than the reporting of the Wall Street Journal, and it’s even easier to reveal something more complex than anything that that “flathead” idiot Friedman ever observed in his bestselling novel, uh… er… I mean, book.

Now what should we do with this information? It’s creepy and weird and hard to make sense of, but oughtn’t we be able to come up with a better, more persuasive theory of globalization than Friedman? Unfortunately, truth isn’t always the same as persuasion… but still….

December 27, 2009 Posted by | finance, global | Leave a comment

Jon Stewart Demystifies CNBC and Wall Street

Here is a wonderful clip of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show using a combination of satire and research to demystify the fundamentalist, free market, “neoliberal” ideology of CNBC and Wall Street. I couldn’t figure out how to insert a Daily Show clip into my blog like Seven Red did, so here is the link to it.

March 21, 2009 Posted by | finance | Leave a comment

Why House? Economic Crisis and the Drive to Home Ownership

In his first speech to the Joint-Session of Congress [text and video],  President Barack Obama observed that one of the causes of our economic crisis was that, “People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway.” The causes of our current economic crisis are complex, and I started to try to understand them last fall in my blog [here]. I can’t say that I succeeded, but I found lots of good sources and links… and all things considered, it seems to me that Obama’s explanation of what precipitated the crisis and his rationale for why we need strong credit markets — and therefore some kind of socially responsible stimulus bill — was generally consistent with what most economists have said.

But the politicians and economists often seem to be talking in circles, recognizing that spending beyond our means causes problems but then passing legislation that artificially props up a market system that enables and encourages the same problematic behaviors. In other words, it’s easy to observe that people are buying houses they can’t really afford, but what would motivate somebody to do that in the first place? Obviously, to explain all this is beyond what anyone would expect a president to talk about, and we should give credit to Obama for at least recognizing the problem and talking about it. But, if we understand that people are buying houses when they shouldn’t, why does the government then want to prop up this market? Shouldn’t we just let the market forces naturally correct?

One way of looking at it is that the market basically works just fine except for a few bad apples that ruin it for everyone, but I don’t think it’s useful to just blame individual greed or individual error since the phenomenon is so widespread. Clearly, there is something more systemic here, and I suggest that Lacanian psychoanalysis (which my class is studying right now, having just read “The Agencyof the Letter in the Unconscious Since Freud“) might offer us some useful insight into what both Obama and economists have noticed is an excessive “drive”  to own a home. 

While economists (and Obama in his speech) use the word “drive” simply to mean what drives the market, for Lacan the term Drive is a complex concept, and the important thing to realize about the Drive is that it’s not just instincts or repressed desires as pop psychology would have you believe, and neither is it just ideology or culture. So, what is it?

Before, I give the pat answer to that question, let’s acknowledge that there is something rather unnatural about the housing market, because it’s clear that people don’t just buy houses because they need a place to live. That would be the “natural” reason to own a home, but in our modern society today, when young adults are so mobile, it’s in many ways easier and more sensible to rent an apartment. It’s also a more efficient use of resources and space, if one cares about the environment. But “the house” seems to mean (or signify) a whole lot more than just a place to live. It also signifies that you’ve made it, that you have control of your life, that you have not just a house but also a “home” with all the lovely Norman-Rockwell-painting connotations of home… that you are now a responsible member of society.

As George Bush even argued in a somewhat famous speech in 2004, “We are creating an ownership society.” That speech is well-known enough to have an entire wikipedia entry dedicated to it [here], and our favorite journalist Naomi Klein has critiqued it [here]. Bush’s argument is that our economy would be stronger, and citizens would be more invested in our nation’s future, if they owned a home. Now, this is the interesting thing here, that in a sense home ownership is not just about home ownership, but is also a metaphor for something else. In other words, to put it in Lacanian terms, the home is a metaphorical compensation for what is lacking in our core being. Just as romantic lovers will say to each other, “you complete me,” so too in the postmodern ideology of home ownership, we can say of the home that it completes us, that it gives us citizenship. (Incidentally, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, ownership of land was a prerequisite for the right to vote. This perhaps made sense in a society that was largely agricultural and that lacked the technological means for tracking its citizens such as the modern identification card and census. But, if the home ever had some kind of real relationship to citizenship in the past, today the home as an expression of citizenship is purely metaphorical.) And so, one part of the Lacanian drive is how it works metaphorically.

But this is just one part of the drive. It also works metonymically, and this is why the Drive is not just a mystical ideology or false consciousness, but something very, very real. What the government did at this moment in 2004 was actually encourage a housing bubble, and it did so with all sorts of artificial incentives such as tax breaks, special loan programs for first-time home buyers, lax regulation of hedge funds and other investment firms, etc. In other words, what made the home valuable was not its value as a place to live or even its real market value, but a speculative future value. Even first-time home buyers who really didn’t have enough money saved could still buy the home because they believed they could count on its value going up. And, likewise, the bank who lent them the money believed they could count on its value going up, so it was willing to take risks with the loan.

You may think I’m just being paranoid, but back then there was a real push for the housing market, and many of my friends, who never considered buying a home before, suddenly bought them in 2004 and 2005 — and what was striking about these particular friends of mine buying a home is that they were all graduate students who were earning very little money and knew they would have to sell their house and move in just a few years. But it was hard to resist the housing-market buzz; one felt foolish for not taking advantage of it, except that it was being pushed so hard by the President and media hype that we all should have been at least a bit skeptical.

The upshot of all this is that people bought homes because of an artificially stimulated housing market. They assumed that the value would increase, and so it was worth making a risky investment. And this is a metonymical relationship, because as Lacan argues, the meaning of a signifier is not just in what it represents — its “signified” (which, in this case, is simply a place where one lives.) It’s also its relation to other signifiers. And here is why it is a mistake to think that Lacan’s analysis of language and dreams is not about real stuff… to think that it is not materialist. To the contrary, it is materialist because these signifiers (which, in this case, is the market value of the home) are the symbolic relations through which people and things relate, i.e., the social relations between things and material relations between people, as Karl Marx put it in his famous chapter on the commodity fetish. And more importantly, they produce real world effects. This is why Lacanian theorist Slavoj Žižek observed in a recent, and already freqeuntly cited, op-ed for The London Review of Books [here] that even left-leaning Democrats and socialists had to support the bail-out of the finance sector because of the extent to which the lives of working-class people were entangled in it.

The problem, of course, is what Lacan reminds us all along (and which economists and banks should have known from their own Econ 101 textbooks), that the market can’t just go up and up… and up. Or, as Lacan put it, the metonymic chain of desire is a displacement of a fundamental “lack.” We know that ultimately there is something missing from the equation, and that we are building castles partly out of air. Or, as my favorite Lacanian theorist, Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, put it, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

Admittedly, I’m being a little simplistic here, but this is part of how Drive works in our society. It’s not just natural instinct, and it’s not just ideology or culture. It’s more complex than that.

I could stop my analysis there, but since I began this blog post with Obama’s observation that there was something excessive about the drive to own a home, I want to speculate a bit further about the nature of what seems to me to be a pathological excess. Following the theoretical model of Lacan and Žižek, I suggest that the drive to own a house is a psychological symptom… but a symptom of what?

There is something, after all, a little bit creepy about the irrational desire to own a nice house with a picket fence and all of that lovely loveliness at a moment when global warming has been discovered to be a real threat. Houses in America have been getting bigger and bigger (obscenely large, just like SUVs), as Americans have moved from the cities to the suburbs and now to the exurbs. Indeed, the recent creation of the exurb seems to suggest a changing American geography just as the creation of the suburb in the 1950s did. And as such, these houses not only require more and more energy for heat but also create a society completely dependent on the gas-guzzling automobile. Not only do these houses and cars consume more than the world’s fair share of oil, they also take up land that could be used for farming or just left for forest. Ironically, it is often the nature-and-animal-loving individuals who push suburban life outward in their quest for that authentic, natural feeling, and in the process disrupt the very ecosystems they want to protect.

It should be pretty obvious that cooperative living arrangements are more efficient and increasingly necessary. No amount of technological innovation such as hybrid cars or ethanol is going to solve what is essentially a cultural problem — and not a scientific one. Unfortunately, these kinds of reasonable, cultural solutions are not encouraged by government investment like technological solutions are, nor do they receive the kind of artificial incentives that home-buyers receive. In fact, there are even laws on the books in some places that discourage cooperative and alternative living arrangements.

But there is more to the issue than that. When one looks at the history of the American suburb, one can easily discern two basic causes. First, Ford’s development of the affordable automobile, the Model T, in 1908,  and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that committed the government to an automobile-based infrastructure. But another spur to the growth of suburbs was the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision two years earlier in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964. As soon as the government began to force schools to integrate, the nation experienced something popularly known as white flight. As a result, according to census data, the United States is more racially segregated now than it was in 1954, despite years of civil rights legislation and the election of a black president.

Now, we can return to the metaphorical aspect of the drive to own a home. As Lacan says, the metaphor (or condensation, to use Freud’s term) is a cultural symptom, and it is symptomatic of our relation to so-called others — others who are psychically, socially, and politically constructed as others… as others supposedly different from ourselves. For theorists such as Slavoj Žižek and Ernesto Laclau, who use Lacan to analyze political relations, such metaphors might be symptoms of social antagonism. In this case, the metaphor of the home, with all its connotations of citizenship, responsibility, and safety, is a symptom of America’s racist history. After all, if I asked you to picture in your mind the perfectly safe, idyllic community full of educated citizens, what would you imagine? And then if I asked you to picture the opposite of that, what would you imagine? And would not race factor into those images, despite all your noble, politically correct intentions?

Hence, though it would be quite a leap of logic to claim that our current environmental problems were entirely caused by a deep, unconscious racism, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to argue that the Drive for home ownership and idyllic suburban life is a symptom of that racism. I would argue that it is. Moreover, this is a racism that still exists but which Americans repress, not wanting to believe it’s still a factor.  But, it exists powerfully in the housing market, as shown by a recent study about how racial discrimination in the lending practices of many banks exacerbated our current housing-market crisis. Liberals eat their organic food, go camping, vote for Obama, and wring their hands about the environment… but they also buy into the racist, environmentally destructive logic of the ever-expanding, suburban and exurban housing market.

February 27, 2009 Posted by | finance, race | 2 Comments

economic crisis? take one…

Every three months for the past two and a half years, I open my mailbox to find a “quarterly statement” about my retirement portfolio. The statement shows how much of my paycheck I put into my retirment and how much my plan has earned from its investments in stock, real estate, etc. Last week, for the first time ever, the statement had a big minus sign. And next to that minus sing was a shockingly large number. Suddenly, all the abstract and confusing stories in the newspapers about our economic crisis became something very concrete and real, and this morning National Public Radio’s show Marketplace Money [here] was all about what people like me should do — apparently nothing.

But even before I got this statement in my mailbox, I’d been meaning to write something about the economic crisis and the bad home loans that precipitated it. So, I’ve done a little research. Here are some of the best explanations of both events that I’ve found. First, for those of us who’ve never taken an economics class ever in their lives, the radio program This American Life had two wonderfully lucid episodes in May [here] and October [here]. Second, several articles in this week’s special issue of The Economist dedicated to the topic [here]. Third, a forum in the new November issue of Harper’s [here]. And finally, along the lines of the psychoanalytic approach that I often take in this blog, one of my favorite theorists Slavoj Zizek wrote up a short piece for The London Review of Books [here].

And just this past Tuesday, some of my First Year Seminar students themselves wanted to talk about the issue in class, and the very day that we had our discussion, George Bush suddenly announced a revolutionary change of plan (revolutionary for the United States, that is) — instead of buying up bad assets, as was originally planned in the bill passed by Congress about a week ago, the Treasury was going to invest directly into the banks. In other words, some banks would be partly nationalized!!!

Wow!!!

I still need some time to think about all this, and every time I think I know what I want to say, something new happens. But stay tuned.

In the meantime, I just want to share a silly little poem I wrote last May about the housing market crisis and its global nature that borrows shamelessly from the beginning of the famous poem by T. S. Eliot. Since the poem was recently rejected by a third-rate, local literary magazine, I figured I might as well just post it here.

    The Love Song of J. Lender Truetown

    Let us, you and I, lay ourselves down on designer sheets
    spread across our bed like housing market woes
    tight across the globe.

    Though you ran away to Dublin to a once-cozy one bedroom,
    now feverish and shivering with negative equity
    from a subprime infection,

    Just as far away taxi drivers in New Dehli were holding their bellies
    complaining of market influx, that sighs
    and seeps like a colorless gas,

    And the world’s iconic lovers were no longer bubbling in the alleys of Madrid,
    their hearts as empty as housing units, swooning,
    from mortgage malaise,

    Yet will I dare to disturb your musings on anticipated wakes,
    to inflate for us an airy bed, as fresh and new
    as my American dream.

October 18, 2008 Posted by | finance, poetry | 3 Comments