Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A possible, though subconscious reason why Americans dislike sociology

Well, sociology studies power and hierarchy, as it applies to how society is divided up, and according to the official version of American life, we don't have serious social divisions such as class, and if we do they don't have too many power differentials associated with them. Sociology doesn't respect anyone's self definition, and instead looks at how things work out in practice. Because of this, looking at these divisions in the United States is a little like writing about the market system in the Soviet Union: you're talking about something that's not supposed to exist, and pointing it out makes things look bad. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Sexual exploitation and power relationships

One of the best conceptualizations of these things that I've found separates sexual relationships into ones based on difference and ones based on incestuous impulses. Difference is just that, seeking out the other, someone who is not an extension of yourself, in a relationship, whether that other is your own sex or a different one. Incest, in this definition, consists of seeking out someone who isn't different from yourself but is in a way linked to you by sameness, which translates out into having them be an extension of yourself that you are using. Sameness, in turn, doesn't just mean blood relationships but also means being part of the same hierarchy,with the exploited being someone further down in the hierarchy that is subordinate and therefore can be treated as an extension of the self.  The hierarchy in question can be based on power, it can be based on an age difference, it can be based on money, or it can be based on internal family power dynamics, both in the personal and extended family. This can also be extended to pedophiliac priests.

The incestuous impulse doesn't seek an equivalent in the other that's being pursued, but seeks a subordinate who can also be used for sexual activity.

I don't think that this conception necessarily includes sex work, whether 'dancing' or otherwise, in it, though, if what's being transacted is between two free, and therefore equivalent, people, as opposed to one person who's being controlled and manipulated and another who is paying for it.

People often talk of others using people as objects, but object in this case implies possession, it implies that it's mine, under my control, and is part of my personal hierarchy. Our possessions often function as extensions of ourselves, that we use for particular purposes. If someone is using someone as an object, perhaps the type of object is one that functions, like a car that you use to take you from one place to another, that you own, that becomes an extension of your self, rather than a static object like a book.

*on edit: the incestous and control part of it also explains the repressiveness, in that what's being repressed in a power relationship like this is the individual's self hood or individuality, which is being put down so that the other party can absorb and use them as part of his or her own self.


The myth of the silent Geman, the Communist Party of Germany

It's often said that people in Germany just let what transpired happen, that they passively accepted, and implicitly approved, what the Nazis did. However, if you look at the election results from 1932, what you see is that a little over 14% of the public voted for the Communist Party of Germany, which was committed to destroying the Nazis and constructing a hardcore socialist republic. The KPD did not mince words, and so the people who supported it were knowingly supporting a party that was about as far to the left as was possible at the time. Surely, those 14% of Germans, including those who voted for Ernst Thälmann in the Presidential election that saw the Nazis take power, count as opposition. The people who supported the Communists didn't go anywhere.

The Communist leadership was one of the first victims of the Nazi state, with many leaders either executed or sent to the camps, and the Nazis instituted a reign of terror not just against people who were Jewish but against internal opposition, specifically against the Communists, so that it became lethal to publicly oppose the State. Perhaps, then, the "silent Germans" were silent because they feared being executed rather than because they approved of what was going on.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Perhaps some humanitarian intervention is warranted....

Not to overthrow regimes or to decide the winners or losers in a fight, but instead to enforce the rules of war. If one side is doing things that are illegal within the scope of the laws of war, it may be a good thing to intervene to prevent them from doing so. For instance in Syria, intervention on the side of the rebels would be interfering with the domestic politics of the country, but doing some sort of tactical intervention to prevent the Syrian forces from committing atrocities against civilians may be all right. Nothing pre-emptive would be permitted, in distinction to folks who have said that since Syria has chemical weapons we should just destroy them before they can use them. It would be a more assertive form of UN Peace Keeping.

Of course all of this can be manipulated for the benefit of capitalist interests, yet it's heart breaking to see the overt, direct, intervention by the U.S. in Libya, which should have been more cooperative, be complemented by a lack of any action whatsoever in Syria. In the interest of not opening up the potential for geo-politcal exploitation we've turned a blind eye to things that are outside of the realm of the permissible.

Again, neutrality is the goal, letting the conflict fight itself out lawfully, to whatever conclusion it comes to.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The weaknesses of post-modern literature and film, and a way out of it

For me, what has been labeled "post-modern" is really just a reshuffling of the referents of modernism. Classically, the problems with modernism have been that it attempts to create a totalizing field of meaning, done with the help in literature and film of references to assumedly shared background material that it draws on, for instance the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance classics in literature. While T.S. Eliot wanted people to be familiar with the western cannon to really understand his poems, the post-modernists do the same thing, only their referents are cultural and obscure, and instead of putting the unified, totalizing, structure out there in front of people it sits implicitly in the background of the apparently structureless chaos, whether it's on the page or on the screen.

A person still has to be very literate in order to understand post-modern creations, indeed they may have to be more literate in order to understand the implied meaning, but the type of literacy is simply different. We haven't gotten away from totalizing meaning, we've just rearranged it. A great example of how this is comes from Dusan Makavejev's truly post-modern "Sweet Movie".

"Sweet Movie" is a masterpiece in its own right, but although very little of the symbolism is overtly explained, a person has to be highly literate within the realms of the history of Eastern Europe during the Soviet era to really understand almost anything that's happening, among other topics. The "ship of socialism", a literal ship staffed by a revolutionary who, sailing down the channels of either Amsterdam or another, similar, city, picks up a sailor from Kronstadt, a city famous for its sailor's working class revolt against the Bolsheviks, then acts out scene after scene that in unspoken symbolism look at the relationship of the professional revolutionaries to the working class. In the middle of all of it you have scenes like documentary footage of the discovery of the Katyn massacre in Poland, briefly identified and then followed by a shot of blood being poured out of a vessel onto a table, with the words 'These things we shall never talk about' (loose paraphrase).

Now, the meaning of those two shots, of the footage of Katyn, the blood, and the phrase, is at least partially this: the Katyn massacre was committed by the Soviet occupation forces in Poland in the wake of the invasion of Poland by the Nazis. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, or the Hitler-Stalin pact, take your pick, had a secret clause that said if the Nazis invaded western Poland the Soviet Union could occupy eastern Poland. They did, and they rounded up a large part of the Polish officers' corp and executed them, the Katyn massacre. Now, the massacre was denied for a long time as being nothing but Nazi propaganda. It was the Nazis who, in declaring war on the Soviet Union and now occupying eastern Poland as well as western Poland, found the bodies and presented it to the world, ironically to show how barbaric the Soviet Union was.

Yet, according to my understanding, as someone who's an American, the massacre during the Communist days in Poland became a symbol of Soviet oppression, a symbol of exactly what Makavejev put in his scene: that which cannot be talked about, but which everyone knows has occurred.

Now, all of that is what's assumed that the viewer knows, for just those two shots, located within the much longer set of "ship of socialism" sequences, that go throughout the whole movie, and make up one of the main strands of it. Quite a lot of background, right? That's why I argue that post-modernism doesn't truly get away from the totalizing tendencies of modernism, and that in certain cases because of the ambiguity put on the viewer through the lack of clear identification of symbols it might be even more totalizing than a modernist experience itself, despite the apparent chaos.

So what's a possible solution, a "true" post-modernism, as the case may be? I think that the strategy of magical realism offers a potential out, in that if totalization is a problem, then leaving the ultimate scope of meaning open is a way to address it....and fantasy, by its very nature, leaves meaning open instead of putting a locked box on it. The magical realists address the problem of referents by creating their own, new, ones, in the process of making their stories, drawing not solely on cultural references themselves but on the basis by which cultural references are formed. Through creating the necessary referents as we go, while of course drawing on some common cultural knowledge, we can break out of the trap of being bound by a series of already given meanings that we take as comprising a total field of meaning as a whole.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Throwing my opinion out there: a dis-endorsement of Bruce Harrell for Mayor of Seattle

I went to a number of City Council meetings last year, around the time that the police drone issue was flaring up, and got to see the folks there in action...and let me tell you, taking my hat of journalistic objectivity off for a second, of the council members, Bruce Harrell is one of the most conservative, and conservative in a kind of nasty way. Of course, because this is Seattle, he isn't exactly a Tea Partier, but is pro-business.

So, don't pay attention to his ethnic background, any more than a person would to that of Condoleeza Rice. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Culture and education are things that are portable, that don't require lots of technology to acquire

Yet folks in the U.S. seem to think that they're way too expensive. Much more expensive then, say, all of the industrial production needed to make some of the more extraneous goods around us. I'm amazed sometimes that pre-literate or literate but non-industrialized societies often have higher levels of general education than many places in the United States, but it's the truth. In the case of the pre-literate societies, what they lack in actual schooling is often made up for by culture, stories, ideas, that are passed on by word of mouth, but that people know and revere in ways that are similar to the ways that people approach formal learning. In certain places in Greece it was common for people to have memorized parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and to be able to talk about it intelligently. Philosophy, or at least an interest in the big questions of life, was also pursued by people.....because although it took time, it didn't take any extra money. You don't need to buy anything to pursue philosophy except a few books.

In contrast, look at what we have today, here where we have so much materially: folks whose idea of the world is shaped by the worst, dumbed down, pandering of "reality" and sitcom television, where the most idiotic people are presented as being a-ok folks. Television plays to the worst in human nature, the desire to be lazy and indulgent in whatever sort of consumption or lack of impulse control helps advertisers to sell their products. The sort of Bro, just go for it, ideal, is just what people selling goods need: just chug it, buy it, do it. Don't think about the bigger things in life, just lead your life like it's another episode of Fear Factor.

Self reflection, to say nothing about contemplation of any deeper questions, is not encouraged, because if people checked themselves, they may not go for what's being pushed at them.

As William S. Burroughs once said in his skit about talking dinosaurs "Where can this end? In a natural museum, our bones gawked at by pimply adolescents saying "I wonder how big his prick was?"

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Why the "Jewish Lobby" comment isn't a bad thing to say

Well, the reason is this: every group out there, ethnic, political, labor, religious, has a right to lobby the U.S. and present its concerns and interests to it. Every member of these groups are citizens, and this is the functioning of representative democracy. We have the NAACP, which lobbies on the behalf of African Americans, and that's perfectly appropriate. The Israel Lobby does what it does because most of the members are Jewish Americans who have a strong connection with Israel itself, and wants to see those concerns reflected in U.S. policy. In that it's a foreign country, this isn't that out of the norm, if, for instance, you compare the lobbying efforts of Irish Americans for specific consideration of the problems going on there. The "Irish Lobby", so to speak, is also responsible for immigration to the U.S. from Ireland having a much larger cap on it than other countries have. They too are connected to the country that their members are originally from, and they communicate their concerns to the U.S. government in hopes that the policy of the U.S. will reflect that concern.

I personally think that denying that there's a "Jewish Lobby" in the sense that I'm talking about, not as some sort of conspiratorial entity but as a very specific and real series of groups, is about as logical as asserting that the NAACP represents African Americans is a racist statement. Calling the NAACP the "Black Lobby" would be kind of rude, but still somewhat accurate.

Instead, it would be great if people involved would just come out and say: "We're folks who have a strong connection to Israel because of religious and cultural reasons, as well as relatives living there, and we as Americans want to see our government reflect that concern", with the proviso that after saying that they outline just what the government does as a reflection of that concern---i.e. outlining in detail all the military aid that goes to Israel, and all of the other financial support that Israel receives from the U.S. government.

It would be basic transparency: folks lobby for a cause, the U.S. government grants it, the American people then have a right to know just what is being given. Then, when folks actually know how, diplomatically, militarily, and financially, the U.S. is supporting Israel, they can decide if these actions are in the interest of the United States as a whole, taken as representing the total of American citizens, and not just one interest group.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Seattle and Portland

Seattle is just like Portland, only we have industries that actually make things, i.e. Boeing and Microsoft, which makes it less of a boutique economy and makes the place more anchored to the necessary practical nature of the world. 

Monday, January 07, 2013

Tale of the Trinket Makers final draft, or, how the economic collapse happened, with reference to Marx and Sraffa

This is the last version of the story. 



Marxian economics still provides a very good guide to how things work, even if it doesn't adequately cover the cultural sphere. The assertion by some that culture actually creates the economy is something I consider absurd. Piero Sraffa, the Italian Marxist economist, made a great breakthrough in reframing and clarifying just what Marx was trying to accomplish in his economic theory. I've used some Sraffa’s ideas here to talk about the economic downturn, by picturing the speculation that preceded it as a misallocation of resources that was bound to lead to trouble.

Say you have an agricultural economy where most people work the land and exchange what they make with each other. Each household isn't self-sufficient, there is an economy, if only to trade food stuffs. There are a few small industries on the side to provide other goods that are very essential, but they’re insignificant. Everyone works, and society as a whole has enough to eat. Now, let's say that someone comes up with an innovation that lets farmers produce the same amount of food with only half the work. This would mean that everyone in society could be fed with only half of society working. Consequently, many people become unemployed.

 Some of the folks who are unemployed get the idea that they can get more food by making trinkets and selling them to the farmers. They make their trinkets, farmers buy them, the trinket makers get their food. Other people follow suit. Some decide to make a different sort of trinket. They now trade with both the farmers and the first trinket makers, because they too want some of the new trinkets.

Now in this economy, the folks who farmed also made many things for themselves, like clothing and possibly some farm implements, and came together as a community for large projects like building houses. Some of the folks who are unemployed get the idea one day that they can get their food by specializing in making clothing, or building houses, by doing things the farmers previously did for themselves. This not only improves the lives of the farmers, but frees up more time for their farming, making it easier for them to grow the food that feeds people. Soon, people begin to think of all sorts of useful objects in regular life that can be independently produced, improved, and exchanged for food.

At this point, it has become burdensome to exchange all these goods using food or products in kind, so a generic marker for goods is produced, money. Money, although apparently based on food in this case, is actually based on the amount of labor needed to produce the food, since the price of the food is determined by how productive agriculture is. The price of food decreases as less labor is needed to produce it. Because of this, money serves as an indicator of the labor put into the product, and buying and selling all products becomes the exchange of tokens of labor for goods made with an equivalent amount of labor.

However, while money itself appears as an independent thing, as something you can pile up and spend any way you want, the underlying economic structure of society still exists and determines how that money will likely be spent. The economy is still highly intertwined under the surface, providing food and products that improve quality of life, the efficiency of business, such as clothing, transportation, and machinery. The production of all of these are interdependent, with each often making use of the others, such as businesses benefiting from the transportation provided by trains, and trains in turn benefiting from the developments in engineering that make new trains more efficient. Ideally, only after the essentials have been provided for are trinkets, enjoyable shiny things that provide no added productivity, made.

For society to function properly, the money a person gets from work needs to be fed back into this structure of society according to real needs. The farmers need to be paid, the folks who provide transportation have to be paid, clothing has to be produced, or else the quality of life will eventually collapse. In fact, people already spend their money in this way, as reflected in their budgets: food, rent, electricity, water, phone, internet, transportation, clothing, and car insurance get first priority. All of these goods facilitate productive life and work. It's only when these have been provided that people, ideally, spend money on items they want that are non-productive, that are items of pure consumption.

It works the same way on the other side of the fence with production as well. Businesses constantly economize on essentials, the difference being that the surplus that exists after they are paid for is either given to owners or reinvested in the business itself.

When the two sides of consumption and production meet, when what is bought supports what is produced and both serve a productive purpose, the market not only clears, but it achieves a stable state that can accommodate the less essential production.

Now, what would happen if a large percentage of society decided not to spend their money on essentials, but instead chose to spend it on pure consumer goods? These people would soon be without housing, without transportation, and without food, but with lots of shiny trinkets. On a social level, if this was possible over a sustained period of time, the trinket makers would prosper, but the rest of society would suffer, because the essentials would not be bought. This would put many people out of work. Funds would be redirected to pure consumption that were necessary for the maintenance of other parts of society, and that were ultimately necessary for the goods of pure consumption to be made at all.

That would be a terrible thing, but, usually, sustaining such a situation would be very difficult. What would happen, though, if all of the sudden people found that they could invest in trinket making, and get lots of money back, without having to support the normal, productive, economy? You'd get lots of money, markers of value, produced by your investment, made without any actual useful production backing them up.  In the short term this money could be used just like any other, apparently with no consequences. After all, bills would still get paid, some businesses would still be supported. But as more and more funds that should have been going to build up the real economy are spent investing in trinkets, certain weaknesses in the economy would start to emerge, and society as a whole, by using the trinket money to support itself, would start to go in directions increasingly unconnected with the necessary functions of the economy. Society itself would also become more and more dependent on the money from the profitable trinket making industry for its sustenance.

One day, the trinkets generating money without productive labor suddenly aren't there anymore. What happens next? What's now exposed, what the trinket economy previously masked, is what now everyone needs more than ever: the underlying, interdependent, structure of the economy that was previously hidden by the glut of money from the trinkets, that developed in unsustainable, inefficient, and haphazard ways that did not make the most efficient use of the funds. Businesses that geared themselves to the dynamics of the trinket dominated economy as opposed to meeting the productive needs of society are now out of luck, and either have to retool very quickly or find themselves out of business. This includes boutique businesses made possible only by this influx of trinket money.

Since the trinkets provided so much money, a whole section of the economy will now have disappeared. If the society wanted to maintain its basic standard of living, it would have to build enough industry based on truly productive manufacture and exchange equal what the trinket industry previously provided, which is a much more difficult job to do. On top of that, society would also need basic investment in infrastructure to fix it up and get it to par with the state it was at before.

This is my take on what happened in the run up to the collapse of the housing market in 2008 and the general economic collapse that followed. We had our own non-productive trinket economy making money while providing neither real goods or services essential to individuals or to society itself, no real goods at all. The only thing produced by the housing bubble produced was bare money. Marx often said that the money economy, and the status given to money itself by society, is an illusion that masks the true life of society, and if you pay attention to the money instead of to what’s beneath it you miss the point. People might think that everything is fine simply because cash is rolling in, but the cash can flow while the actual life of the economy can be anything but steady. I think the economic crisis demonstrated the truth of Marx’s belief. The illusion of money created by non-productive means was ultimately set against the underlying productive reality, and the productive reality won.

Milton Friedman, the neoliberal economist, coined the term TANSTAAFL, or There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, and while his take on economics is very different from what's described here, the acronym can easily be applied to the disjunction between the money economy and the real economy. If the action of the money economy strays from real production and becomes based on non-productive activity, going further and further away from supporting industry in a way that intelligently builds and supports the real economy, there will eventually be a crisis, and people will find that the economy they’ve been living in is not really supportable.  The real economy will reassert itself, with all the consequences that follow.


"Hagel must address 'Jewish Lobby' comment"

Says AIPAC. Just kidding. But, my friends, there's a very good reason why the U.S. was the only main country in the world, besides the Czech Republic, that voted against recognizing Palestine, and it to do exactly with that: the Israel lobby. Folks wouldn't say that having the NAACP or the Urban League lobby Congress is a bad thing, but instead an extension of a community advocating for itself. Why is it impermissible to recognize that the Jewish community in the United States does the same thing? Special interest groups were originally formed to advocate for the interests of the community they represented: you have the disabilities group, labor, old people, and ethnic and racial minorities, each talking about what issues really concern them. The Israel lobby certainly fits into that, yet pointing out that fact, and that what it pushes is sometimes not in the best interest of the world community, is taken as being tantamount to supporting the policies of Nazi Germany.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The tale of the trinket makers, an intermediate draft: or, how the economic collapse happened, with reference to Marx and Sraffa


This is a cleaned up and clarified version of what was posted yesterday. It's still a work in progress, but, stylistically, this is an improvement.

Marxian economics still provides a very good guide to how things work, even if it doesn't adequately cover the cultural sphere. The assertion of some, that culture actually creates the economy, is something I consider to be absurd. Piero Sraffa, the Italian Marxist economist, made great breakthroughs in reframing just what Marx was trying to accomplish with his economic theory. I've used some Sraffa’s ideas here to talk about the economic downturn, through picturing speculation as a misallocation of social resources that was bound to lead to trouble.

Say you have an agricultural economy where most people work the land and exchange what they make with each other. Each household isn't self sufficient, though, there's an economy, even though there are a few small industries on the side to provide things that are very essential. Everyone works, and society as a whole has enough to eat. Now, let's say that someone comes up with an innovation that lets people produce the same amount of food with only half the work. That means that everyone in society can be fed with only half of society working, and consequently many people become unemployed.

 Some of the folks who are unemployed get the idea to get food by making trinkets to sell to the farmers. They make their trinkets, the farmers buy them, the trinket makers get their food. Other people follow suit, and some decide to make a different sort of trinket, which they now trade with both the farmers and with the first trinket makers, because the people who make the new ones want some of the first trinkets too.

Let's say that now in this economy, the folks who farmed made many things for themselves, like clothing and possibly some farm implements, as well as coming together as a community to build houses. Some of the folks who are unemployed get the idea that they can specialize in making clothing, or building houses, in exchange for their food. This not only works, but frees time up for the farmers to devote to farming, thereby making it even easier for them to grow the food and feed people. Soon, people begin to think of all sorts of useful objects from regular life that can be independently produced or improved, and that can be exchanged for food.

At this point, it has become burdensome to exchange all of these goods with food or products in kind, so a generic marker of goods is produced, money. Money, although in this case apparently based on food, is actually based on the amount of labor needed to produce the food, since the price of the food is determined by how productive agriculture is, with the price going down the less labor is needed to produce the food. Through this, money serves as an indicator of labor put into making a product, and buying and selling becomes the exchange of tokens of labor for goods of an equivalent amount of labor.

However, while money itself appears here as an independent thing, as something you can pile up and spend any way you want, the underlying economic structure of society still exists and determines how that money will likely be spent. The economy is still highly intertwined under the surface and provides food, products that improve quality of life or are generally useful, like clothing and transportation, and only after that non essentials like trinkets, that are basically just enjoyable shiny things that provide no added productivity to a person's life.

For society to function properly, the money a person gets from work needs to be fed back into the structure of society. The farmers need to be paid, the folks who provide transportation have to be paid, clothing has to be produced, or else what supports a high quality of life will collapse. In fact, this path of spending is reflected in most people's budgets: what gets priority are things like food, rent, electricity, water, phone, internet, transportation, clothing, car insurance. All of these facilitate the process of productive life and work. It's only when these have been provided for that people, in an ideal world, spend money on items that are non-productive, that constitute pure consumption.

It works the same way on the other side of the production fence as well, in the decisions that businesses make, only the surplus that exists after the essentials are paid for is either given to owners or reinvested.

When the two sides of production and consumption agree, when what is bought supports what is produced, and both buying and selling serve a productive purpose, the market hopefully clears, achieving a stable state that can accommodate less essential production.

Now, what would happen if a lot of people in society decided not to spend their money on essentials, but instead chose to spend it on pure consumer goods? These people would soon be without housing, without transportation, and without food, but with lots of shiny trinkets. On a social level, if it was possible to sustain such a thing, the trinket makers would prosper, but the rest of society would suffer, because the essentials would not be bought. That would put many  people out of work. Funds would be redirected to pure consumption that were necessary for the maintenance of other parts of society, that were indeed ultimately necessary for goods that served the purpose of pure consumption to be made at all.

That would be a terrible thing, but, usually, really sustaining such a situation would be very difficult. But what would happen if all of the sudden people found that they could invest in trinket making, and get lots of money back, without having to support the normal, productive, economy? You'd get lots of money, markers of value, produced, without any actual useful production  behind it In the short term this money could indeed be used just like any other, because of its face value.  The money would be there, but as more and more funds that should have been going to build up the real economy are spent investing in trinkets, weaknesses in the economy would start to emerge, and society as a whole would become more and more dependent on the money from the profitable trinket making industry for its sustenance.

One day, the trinkets that generate money without productive labor suddenly aren't there anymore. What  happens then? What's now exposed, is what now needs to support everyone: the underlying structure of the economy previously masked by the glut of money from an unproductive source. Businesses that geared themselves to the dynamics of the trinket dominated economy as opposed to meeting the productive needs of society are now out of luck, and either have to retool very quickly or find themselves out of business, including boutique businesses that were only made possible by this influx of money.

The lack of investment in the productive industries will now show itself in the form of a generally weakened economy, one that needs basic investment to fix it and get it up to par with how it was before. On top of all of that, since the trinkets provided so much money, if society wants maintain its standard of living as before, it will have to build enough industry based on true productive needs to equal it, which is a much different and more difficult job to do than trinket making.

This is  my take on what happened with the collapse of the housing market in 2008 that lead to the general economic collapse. We had our own non-productive trinket sector that made money while provideding neither anything essential to individuals or to society itself, no real goods or services. Instead, the only thing that the housing bubble produced was bare money. Marx often said that the money economy, and the status of money itself, was an illusion that masked the true productive life of society, and that by paying attention to the money economy instead of to the productive infrastructure of society people missed the point. I think the economic crisis demonstrated that the illusion of money created by non-productive ultimately has to be against that underlying productive reality, and that that reality will always win. While people might think that everything is fine simply because the cash is rolling in, the actual life of the economy can be anything but steady.

Milton Friedman, neoliberal economist, coined the term TANSTAAFL, or There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, and while his take on economics is different from what's described here, the acronym can easily be applied to the disjunction between the money economy and the real economy. If the action of the money economy strays from real production and becomes based on non-productive activity, if it goes further and further away from supporting the industries that meet the needs of the real economy, there will eventually be a crisis.  The real economy will then reassert itself, with all the consequences that follows.


Saturday, January 05, 2013

The tale of the trinket makers, or, how the economic collapse happened, with reference to Marx and Sraffa

Marxian economics still provides a very good guide to how things work, even if it doesn't cover the cultural sphere. The assertion of some, that culture actually leads to economics, is something I consider to be absurd. Piero Sraffa, the Italian Marxist economist, made great breakthroughs in describing just what Marx was trying to accomplish. I've used some of his ideas to talk about the economic downturn, by comparing speculation to a misallocation of social resources that was bound to lead to trouble.

Say you have an agricultural economy where most people work the land and exchange what they make with each other. Each household isn't purely self sufficient, there's an economy, and there are a few small industries on the side to provide things that are very essential, but not many. Everyone is working, and everyone has enough to eat. Now, let's say that someone comes up with an innovation that lets people produce the same amount of food with half of the work. This means that everyone in society can be fed with only half of society working, and consequently many people are unemployed. Some folks who are unemployed get the idea of making trinkets to sell to the agricultural producers in order to get their food. They make trinkets, the farmers buy them, they get food. Other people follow suit, with some making a different sort of trinket, which they now trade both with the farmers and with the first trinket makers, makers #A, because they want some of them too.

Let's say now that in this economy, folks who farmed also made many things for themselves, like clothing and maybe some farm implements, as well as community built houses. Some of the folks who are unemployed get the idea that they can specialize in making clothing, or building houses, in exchange for food. This not only works, but also frees the farmers to have more time to devote to farming, thereby making it even easier to feed people. Soon, people are thinking of all sorts of things from regular life that they could produce or improve, and get food in exchange for.

At this point, it's burdensome to exchange all of this with food or goods in kind, so a generic marker of goods is produced, money. Money, although based on food in the immediate, is actually, then based on the amount of labor needed to produce the food, since the price of food is constantly going down the more productive agriculture becomes. Through this, money comes to be an indicator of labor put into a product, so that buying and selling becomes the exchange of tokens of labor for goods produced by labor.

However, while money itself appears as a static thing, as something that you can pile up and spend any way you want, the underlying economic structure of society still exists. The economy is still highly intertwined under the surface providing essentials like food, things that improve quality of life and are useful, like clothing and transportation, as well as non essentials like trinkets, that are basically just shiny things that provide no added productivity to a person's life but are just enjoyable.

To function properly, the money a person gets needs to be fed back into the structure of society. The farmers need to be paid, the folks who provide transportation have to be paid, clothing has to be produced, and, in fact, this is reflected in most people's budgets: what gets priority is things like food, rent, electricity, water, phone, internet--if used productively, transportation, clothing, insurance for your car. All of these things facilitate the process of productive living and working. It's only when these things are provided for that it's possible to spend money on non-productive, pure consumption, items.

It works the same way on the other side, in production as well, only the surplus is either given to the owners or reinvested. When the two sides agree, the market hopefully clears, meaning that what's produced is consumed and what needs to be consumed is produced.

Now, what would happen if many people in society decided not to spend their money on essentials, but instead chose to spend it on pure consumer goods? First of all, on the individual level, people would soon be without housing, without transportation, and without food, but with lots of shiny trinkets. On a social level, if it was possible to sustain such a thing, trinket makers would prosper, but the rest of society would suffer, because the essentials would not be bought, putting people out of work. Funds would be redirected to pure consumption that were necessary for the maintenance of other parts of society, that were indeed ultimately necessary for pure consumption good to be made at all.

That would be a terrible thing, but, usually, the unsupportability of this would preclude it. But what would happen if all of the sudden people were convinced that they could invest in trinket making, and get money back, without having to support a normal, productive, economy? Let's say they weren't just convinced, but that, somehow, for a while, it was possible to invest in trinkets and get much more money back than would normally be possible. What you'd get would be lots of money, as markers of value, without anything behind it, that, however, in the short term could indeed be used just like any other sort of money, because it had the face value.  The money would be there, but as more and more funds that should have been going to build up the real economy was being spent investing in trinkets, weaknesses would emerge. Not only that, but the economy as a whole would become more and more dependent on this new industry for its sustenance.

One day, the trinkets that generate money without productive labor suddenly aren't there anymore, what  happens? What's now exposed, and what now needs to support everyone, is the underlying structure of the economy that was masked by the glut of money coming from an unproductive source. Businesses that geared themselves to the dynamics of this trinket economy as opposed to meeting the needs of more productive parts of society are now out of luck, and either have to retool very quickly or find themselves out of business. This includes people involved in industries that served those who had access to trinket money. The investment that should have been going on in the productive industries that are necessary to make society work and function, but that went to trinket investment, will now show itself in the form of a weakened economy in general, that needs basic investment to fix its structure and get it up to par with how it was before.  And, on top of all of that, since the trinkets provided so much money, if society wants to live at the same standard of living as before, it will have to build enough industry based on true productive needs to equal it, which is a much different and more difficult job to do than trinket making.

That's my take on what happened with the economic collapse in 2008 in the housing market. We had something that was a money maker that provided neither anything that was essential to an individual or anything that was essential to society itself, in terms of real goods and services. Instead, what it produced was bare money. Marx often said that money and the money economy was an illusion that masked the true productive life of society, and that by believing in the money economy as the director of economic life people missed the point. I think the economic crisis demonstrated that the illusion of money created by non-productive means ultimately has to reckon with the underlying productive reality, and that while people in general might think that everything is fine simply because the cash is rolling in, the life of the economy can be anything but.

Milton Friedman, neoliberal economist, coined the term TANSTAAFL, or There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, and while his policies are quite the opposite of what's being described here, the acronym could easily be applied to the difference between the money economy and the real economy. If the action of the money economy becomes based on non-productive activity, and strays further and further away from meeting the needs of the real economy, eventually there will be a crisis and the real economy will reassert itself, with all the consequences that will follow from that.


Thursday, January 03, 2013

On top of abolishing a corporate right to speech, why not abolish their "right to privacy"?

Because this too is something that's imputed to corporations. The Right to Privacy isn't specifically spelled out in the Bill of Rights, but is something that people see as naturally following from the rights that are outlined. Since corporations are not only legal fictions but are actually composed of the accumulated work of society, shouldn't the members of society be able to examine what the corporation is doing internally? If Boeing, or Microsoft, or Ford, or GM employ so many people, and are so much a part of their local economies, surely the public in the areas where they dominate have a right to know what goes on inside the locked doors of these entities.

"Chris Christie Calls 'Disgusting' Boehner's Decision to Yank Sandy Funds"

Here. Very true. Republicans write off the Northeast, the West Coast, and contest the Upper Midwest....but unfortunately for them that's where the majority of people in the United States live. The South, while a regional power in itself, is much more thinly populated. The Republicans from "real America" have a disproportionate amount of power over the lives of the majority of Americans. "Real America", often means ignorant, rural, America, the places where they actually think that the world was literally created in seven days. I prefer the majority America, which does not believe this. Democracy demands that the majority, and not a special interest, rule, and that's what should prevail here. Preserving "Real America" is undemocratic.