Friday, December 30, 2011

What I read this year

The books, as always fewer than I expected:

  1. Misha Glenny, DarkMarket: CyberThieves, CyberCops, and You 
  2. Richard Graham, The Idea of Race in Latin America 
  3. Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century 
  4. Luc Boltanski, The New Spirit of Capitalism 
  5. Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases 
  6. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babylon Revisited 
  7. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude 
  8. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers 
  9. Georges Simenon, Dirty Snow 
  10. Claudio Lomnitz, Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico 
  11. Enrique Florescano, National Narratives in Mexico
  12. Claudio Lomnitz, Death and the Idea of Mexico 
  13. Scott Carney, The Red Market 
  14. Oscar Lewis, Children of Sanchez 
  15. Christian Smith, at al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood 
  16. Boucek & Ottaway, Yemen on the Brink 
  17. Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen 
  18. Philip K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip 
  19. Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord 
  20. Francois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States
  21. Peter Tamas Bauer, From Subsistence to Exchange and Other Essays
  22. Salvatore Lupo, History of the Mafia
  23. Francis Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order
  24. Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia
  25. World Development Report 2011 
  26. William Appleman Williams, Contours of American History 
  27. Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country 
  28. Georgi Derluguian, The Deepening Crisis: Governance Challenges after Neoliberalism 
  29. Antoine J. Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare
  30. Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Crises of Democratic Capitalism

A former student of Jurgen Habermas, Wolfgang Streeck, has an important new article in the New Left Review, entitled "The Crises of Democratic Capitalism." It describes the ineluctable contradiction between two principles of allocation under democratic capitalism: the democratic, which proposes that society's resources be distributed, first and foremost, on the basis fo social rights to various benefits we have become familiar with under so-called "welfare states," on the one hand; and the capitalistic, which argues that society's resources should be allocated on the basis of individuals' contributions to marginal productivity, as evaluated by the market, on the other.

For decades, Streeck argues, the contradictions between these two modes have been papered over by various political tricks, but these tricks have finally run out as of 2008, and now the question lies nakedly before us whether the system is going to be run according to democratic principles to protect the economically marginal, or for the benefit of economic powerholders. He enlarges on this:
In the four decades since the end of post-war growth, the epicentre of the tectonic tension within democratic capitalism has migrated from one institutional location to the next, giving rise to a sequence of different but systematically related economic disturbances. In the 1970s the conflict between democratic claims for social justice and capitalist demands for distribution by marginal productivity, or ‘economic justice’, played itself out primarily in national labour markets, where trade-union wage pressure under politically guaranteed full employment caused accelerating inflation. When what was, in effect, redistribution by debasement of the currency became economically unsustainable, forcing governments to put an end to it at high political risk, the conflict re-emerged in the electoral arena. Here it gave rise to growing disparity between public spending and public revenues and, as a consequence, to rapidly rising public debt, in response to voter demands for benefits and services in excess of what a democratic-capitalist economy could be made to hand over to its ‘tax state.’
When efforts to rein in public debt became unavoidable, however, they had to be accompanied for the sake of social peace by financial deregulation, easing access to private credit, as an alternative route to accommodating normatively and politically powerful demands of citizens for security and prosperity. This, too, lasted not much longer than a decade until the global economy almost faltered under the burden of unrealistic promises of future payment for present consumption and investment, licensed by governments in compensation for fiscal austerity. Since then, the clash between popular ideas of social justice and economic insistence on market justice has once again changed sites, re-emerging this time in international capital markets and the complex contests currently taking place between financial institutions and electorates, governments, states and international organizations. Now the issue is how far states can go in imposing the property rights and profit expectations of the markets on their citizens, while avoiding having to declare bankruptcy and protecting what may still remain of their democratic legitimacy.
I have two critiques of the the piece. First, it isn't as sharp as it might be on how an ideology of endless growth was was the key point of conjunction between the democrats and the capitalists, in that it allowed all parties to imagine that politics could center on splitting the marginal extras rather than on redistribution as such. If you believe that we are in an era where growth maybe has gone away (or can no longer be presumed), then we're back to zero-ish-sum political-economics games, and the politics of such games are far nastier than the politics of splitting a growing pie.

The second critique is more fundamental, and that is that the piece sets up a too-neat division between the two poles he is describing. It ignores that the neoliberal economic order is not actually a "free market," but rather one in which the government very much takes an active role in shaping and controlling market outcomes — in favor of incumbents and the rich. In other words, Streeck takes too seriously the neoliberal claim that the political economic order of the last forty years has moved us toward a Hayekian model of "deregulation" and non-interference in the pure workings of the capital markets. In fact, the real political economy of the last 30 years has involved massive government interventions in markets in favor of the capitalists. A Hayekian world would be better than the crony capitalist one we actually have. In other words, we don't have a deregulated market (in housing, finance, energy, what have you); we have a market characterized by regulatory capture.

To see the difference, just look at what was happening three years ago. Whatever you think of the wisdom (political or economic) of the bailout of the big financial firms and automakers, it certainly was not the case that the government didn't manage the market. This is exactly what so infuriated the true believers on the right about the bailouts — it was naked government interference in the market, a clear violation of their ideological principles. For the left, on the other hand, it showed that the rhetoric of market discipline had been class-warfare malarky all along: something that only applied to poor people, not to capitalists. And for the last three years, the neoliberal technocrats have tried to sweep this naked emperor back under his rug: nothing to see here, move right along.

Hat tip: MC.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The anatomy of deviant globalization

It is well known that Cyprus is one the epicenters of deviant globalization. Located on the periphery of the European Union — in all senses: geographic, moral, economic, political, etc. — Cypriots are in a perfect position to offer all sorts of "arbitrage" services, from financial arbitrage, e.g. off-shore tax havens (and its deviant twin, money laundering) to climate arbitrage, e.g. tourism (and its deviant twin, human trafficking). But one other realm of arbitrage, which I didn't know about, is Cyprus's position as a provider of globalized medical services, particularly, fertility services.

This description of Cypriot market-making for human eggs, from Scott Carney's superb The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, is a textbook description of how deviant globalization works, at bottom, via moral arbitrage:
Cyprus has more fertility clinics per capita than any other country, making it one of the most highly egg-harvested locations on the planet. Whether licensed or unlicensed, they offer IVF as well as a range of fertility services, even some that are typically proscribed elsewhere, like selection. The fertility business here blends the shady netherworld of gray market financial transactions with the commercialization of human tissue. People travel here from Israel, from Europe, from all over the world. Couples who want a child can find cut-rate help here; while poor women find a market for their eggs. Cyprus is an egg-bazaar that capitalizes on both sides of the supply-and-demand equation. Internationalization has made oversight laughable.
As Carney tells it, the Cypriot fertility market began with the recognition that its peripheral position within "Europe" put it in a good position to exploit gaps in the global regulatory apparatus regarding a repugnant market, in this case, the market in human fertility. With the benefit of local governmental "benign neglect," medical entrepreneurs (not just Cypriots, actually) set themselves up as a broker and arbitrageur for would-be donors (mainly from Russia and the Ukraine) and eager buyers (mostly from Europe, who want "whiter" babies, and Israel, which recently banned the sale of human eggs).

The sting to this classic deviant globalization story, as usual, is in the tail: while this fertility market began as a deviant globalization pure-play, over time, it began to spill over into the local economy. Set up at first to meet global demand with imported supply, local fertility clinics began to draw on "local talent." The result is that, by now, 1 in 50 eligible women donate eggs annually in Cyprus (compared with 1 in 14,000 in the US, for example). Of course, the irony is that these "local" donors are usually also Russian and Ukrainian women, who have arrived in Cyprus for, ahem, other reasons.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Rupert Murdoch

Conrad Black on Rupert Murdoch:
Although his personality is generally quite agreeable, Mr Murdoch has no loyalty to anyone or anything except his company. He has difficulty keeping friendships; rarely keeps his word for long; is an exploiter of the discomfort of others; and has betrayed every political leader who ever helped him in any country, except Ronald Reagan and perhaps Tony Blair. All his instincts are downmarket; he is not only a tabloid sensationalist; he is a malicious myth-maker, an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism. He masquerades as a pillar of contemporary, enlightened populism in Britain and sensible conservatism in the US, though he has been assiduously kissing the undercarriage of the rulers of Beijing for years. His notions of public entertainment and civic values are enshrined in the cartoon television series The Simpsons: all public officials are crooks and the public is an ignorant lumpenproletariat. There is nothing illegal in this, and it has amusing aspects, but it is unbecoming someone who has been the subject of such widespread deference and official preferments. (via The Daily Beast.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

OK, so I had to make it 25 books

In the order in which they were published:
  1. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
  3. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
  4. George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
  5. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
  6. Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological
  7. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History
  8. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  9. Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
  10. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
  11. Christopher Lasch, Culture of Narcissism
  12. Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs
  13. Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man
  14. Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History
  15. Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert
  16. Paul Fussell, Class
  17. Griel Marcus, Lipstick Traces
  18. Donna Haraway, Primate Visions
  19. Mike Davis, City of Quartz
  20. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  21. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity
  22. James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine
  23. James Scott, Seeing Like a State
  24. John Robb, Brave New War
  25. Misha Glenny, McMafia
And, if I really had to boil it down to the ten that probably most influence my thinking today (not necessarily the same as the ones who made the biggest impression on me when I read the book), it would probably be Nietzsche, Polanyi, Canguilhem, Kuhn, Bell, Davis, Jameson, Ferguson, Scott, and Robb.

Favorite nonfiction books

Since everyone seems to be doing it, here's my dozen favorite nonfiction books (in no particular order), defined as books that changed the way I looked at the world in some fundamental way:
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
  • James Scott, Seeing Like a State
  • Donna Haraway, Primate Visions
  • George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
  • Paul Fussell, Class
  • Misha Glenny, McMafia
  • Mike Davis, City of Quartz
  • Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
  • Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs
  • Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man
  • Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert
  • Griel Marcus, Lipstick Traces
What strikes me most about this list is that I read almost every one of these books in the 1990s. Does that mean I don't read enough any more, or simply that it's hard for a book to shake me from my preceptions?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Five stages of global warming denialism

I think there are five successive variants of climate change denialism. I'll try to assign names to people who subscribe to these at some point later, but for now I'd like to just note these:
  1. Those who deny that the climate is changing at all.
  2. Those who admit that the climate is changing, but who say it has nothing to do with human GHG emissions (e.g. it is "natural variation").
  3. Those who admit that the climate is changing, and that this is a result of human GHG emissions, but who say that for the most part it won't have malign effects on humans.
  4. Those who admit that the climate is changing, and that this is a result of human GHG emissions, and that it will have malign effects on humans, but who say that there's nothing we can do about it.
  5. Those who admit that the climate is changing, and that this is a result of human GHG emissions, and that it will have malign effects on humans, and that we could do something about it, but who think that this "something" is a lower priority than other things we could be doing to improve the human condition.
I guess if I were to provide a basic summary of what I think of each of these positions it would be, respectively: delusional, anti-scientific, historically blind, defeatist, and a sign of poor priorities.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A constitutional amendment that would save $2B a year

From the Economist:
The constitution calls for an “actual enumeration” of the population. That may make newfangled census methods vulnerable to challenges from the courts. A Supreme Court ruling already limits the use of statistical sampling, which adjusts survey data to include more accurately minorities, who are generally undercounted by older methods. In December the Government Accountability Office noted that the census’s cost has on average doubled each decade since 1970. Without “fundamental reforms”, the next one could cost $30 billion. [Emphasis added.]
How about this for a simple, massively cost-saving Constitutional Amendment:
The decennial census shall be conducted using modern statistical methods.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A carbon-intensive lifestyle = the moral equivalent of slaveholding

I was listening last night to a Terry Gross interview with Adam Goodheart, Washington University history professor and author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, on the significance of this year's 150th anniversary of the Civil War. At one point (about 25:45 into the interview), Goodheart uses a fascinating analogy to explain how antebellum Americans rationalized slave ownership:
Thinking about how interwoven slavery was into Southern society, into American society… one example I use with my college students …is to talk about today, when many of us recognize that in burning fossil fuels we're doing something terrible for the planet, we're doing something terrible for future generations; and yet, to give this up would mean unravelling so much of the fabric of our daily lives — sacrificing so much, becoming these radical eccentrics, riding bicycles everywhere — that we continue guiltily to participate in the system. And, that is something that I use as a comparison to slavery, that many Americans in the North (and even, I believe, secretly in the South) felt a sense of shame, knew that this slave system was wrong, but were simply addicted to slavery and couldn't give it up.
Part of what makes this analogy brilliant is that it illuminates equally well in reverse: 150 years from now, the remaining humans (that is, those few who retain the capacity to recollect the golden age of the late 20th century) will look back at those of us who lived in huge heated and cooled houses, drove gas-guzzling cars to things we could have walked to, and jet-setted around the planet for fun — all in the plain knowledge that our actions were willy-nilly destroying the planet for the future of race — and they will wonder: what they hell were they thinking? And the answer will be precisely the one that Goodheart suggests: we knew perfectly well that what we were doing was wrong, but we were too weak to make the shift, too afraid of giving up the material and social benefits associated with a plainly immoral way of life, and frankly too afraid of the social opprobrium that would accompany actually leading our lives the right way, right now.

Sure, there are individuals out there who are trying to live carbon-neutral lives, and who spend a lot of time trying to convince the rest of us to do it. And how are they described by the mainstream? Consider Saul Griffith's profile in the New Yorker, which describes him as, well, a radical eccentric, riding bicycles everywhere. Or John Michael Greer, whose wonderful Archdruid blog gets dismissed by (a very green) Stewart Brand as "a bit woo-woo" (personal communication). But don't blame the press; almost all of us, faced with the stark reality of having to live with radically less — which is what any effective limitation of GHG emissions MUST mean — ultimately lack the moral courage to embrace the changes.

Of course, there are obvious differences between these two things. Slavery inflicted a living hell on people right there in its immediate present day (though these things were over the horizon of most Northern textile manufacturer enjoying the cheap cotton, as well as many a fine Southern lady sitting up in the plantation manor house) whereas the human destructiveness of our collective GHG-intensive lifestyle is "over the horizon" both geographically and temporally — that is, the suffering will mostly take place decades from now, in the economic and ecologically marginal communities of Asia, Latin America, and above all Africa.

Likewise, the sorts of rationalizations that people use to justify their ongoing participation in the system are also a bit different. In the case of slavery, it was an ideology of white supremacy that claimed that blacks were "naturally" inferior to whites, and therefore deserved and perhaps even needed to be enslaved by whites. By contrast, today the ideology that justifies continued GHG profligacy is techno-optimism, the cheery belief that if humanity can just get wealthy enough fast enough and/or get the carbon prices right, then a technical fix will inevitably emerge (and get deployed in time!) to prevent excessive CO2 buildup and the ensuing train of ecological and civilizational calamity. In both cases, however, the fervency with which the advocates hold these ideological commitments does little to cover for the poverty of the moral imagination involved.

I am quite sure that people 150 years from now — when the CO2 PPM is twice what it is now; when global temperatures will likely be many degrees higher than they are now; when climate-change-exacerbated hurricanes, droughts, and floods will have destroyed many of today's global cities; when hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people have been killed or displaced by climate change — will look back with wonder at the gutlessness of all of us who rationalized the lifestyles that led to the destruction of the very lifeworld we allegedly so cherish. Contemplating the ruins, our grandchildren will ask about us the same question we today ask about slaveholders: how could they possibly have thought that what they were doing was OK?

A few years ago I interviewed David Reiff about the likely impacts of anthropogenic climate change on human civilization. As we discussed the abject refusal of contemporary national or global leadership to make hard choices about cutting back emissions, David argued that the ultimate problem is not the leaders, but the followers — that is, all of us — who just don't want to contemplate cutting back, who in fact have literally no conception what cutting back means. David concluded our chat with a simple, powerful phrase: "Our grandchildren will curse us."

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

GBN in Conversation: Deviant Globalization

Global Business Network is hosting a talk next month on the topic of our new book, Deviant Globalization. Here's a precis of the conversation:
Deviant Globalization: Black Market Economy in the 21st Century analyzes the dark side of global trade: the illicit flows, black markets, and trafficking in drugs, human bodies and other 'repulsive' commodities that are as much a part of the new world (dis)order as legitimate global corporations and financial markets. These deviant industries represent more than just a stain on legitimate business or the growing pains of a global economy; they pose clear and immediate risks to supply chains, intellectual property, brands, and employees. And they deeply affect the socio-political foundation on which business rests in places from the favelas of Brazil to the slums of India to -- ultimately -- the skycrapers of Wall Street and Washington DC. But if you see deviant globalization for the human and economic energies it holds, rather than only through a moralistic lens, there's enormous opportunity to be found. What Gilman, Goldhammer, and Weber call 'deviant entrepreneurs' know things about innovation and growth that legit businesses, NGOs, and governments can and should learn from. That doesn't mean doing illegal things, it means understanding how no-holds-barred innovation works in underregulated spaces.
The event is by invitation only and will be taking place the evening of May 10, at the GBN headquarters at 101 Market Street, in the San Francisco financial district. If you're interested in attending, let me know.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya as example of R2P?

There have been not a few commentators, from the bleeding hearts on the liberal left to the usual suspects on the neocon right, who have been celebrating the raining down of Tomahawk missiles on Libya as a wonderful return of morality to foreign policy. In particular, there has been all sorts of palaver about how the much-ballyhooed efforts of Europeans in 2005-6 to instantiate a permanent "responsibility to protect" (R2P) the weak from the depredations of their own governments has finally found its clarion case in Libya, thus putting behind us all our painful failure to act in places like Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere. No sooner does Qadaffi roar about how he will pursue the rebels without mercy than "the international community" (e.g. the UN Security Council) votes to impose a no fly zone. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!

But there at least two reasons to be skeptical about this narrative of how Libya represents a new dawn for humanitarian interventionism and R2P. First, the vote in the Security Council is not nearly what it appears from the headline. Notably, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Germany abstained from the vote. Although Qadaffi has no friends left who are actively willing to cast votes to defend his regime, the BRIC nations have been increasingly vociferous in denouncing the intervention by the French, British, and Americans. Even more shocking is that Germany, one of the original promoters of the R2P principle five years ago, pointedly refused to vote in what supposedly was a black and white test case. When countries representing half the world's populations and the majority of its economic growth are refusing to participate in this new moral foreign policy, it's hard to argue that we are seeing some emergent new framework for international relations.

Second, the reasoning for applying a no fly zone to Libya is so selective as to make a mockery of the R2P principle itself. Where is the no fly zone over Yemen or Bahrain, where Western-supported dictators are slaughtering civilians? OK, you might say, but it's not like Saleh or al-Khalifa are strafing their civilian populations from the air, or vowing a war without pity. Of course, that's exactly what Israel did in Gaza yesterday, and it's just a few years ago that then-Israeli PM Olmert promised a campaign "without hesitation and without pity"... but curiously, no "no fly zone" over Palestine seems to be in the works.

Ultimately, I think Eugene Robinson gets the real story behind the Libya intervention exactly right, particularly in his last paragraph:
Gaddafi is crazy and evil; obviously, he wasn’t going to listen to our advice about democracy. The world would be fortunate to be rid of him. But war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones. If not, then please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We’ll know this isn’t about justice, it’s about power.
Cross-posted at Humanity.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Defining victory in Afghanistan

Critical to any effective strategy (corporate or military) is to be judicious about where to play. As a general rule, one shouldn't pick battles that one can't win. In Afghanistan, our biggest problem is that the United States has yet to define victory in a way that is achievable.

If the US continues to insist on defining victory in Afghanistan as "leaving behind" a social and political system in which the men there treat their womenfolk in a way we deem appropriate - the implicit argument, for example, of idiocies like the Time Magazine cover on the right - then there is little doubt that we'll be banging our heads against the mud walls of their villages for the rest of this century.

On the other hand, if the US chooses to define success as making it clear to the local Afghan leaders (yes, including the Taliban) that they must prevent terrorists from planning attacks on the West from their territory - and should they fail to do so, that we will rain holy hellfire down on their fields and villages - then we can probably find an exit in reasonably short order.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Top 10 films noir

Inspired by this post on the intellectual history of commentary on noir films (how is that for meta?), here are my ten+ favorite films noir:

Classic Noir
There are a lot of debates about what makes a film noir, and whether in fact it is a genre unto itself, or simply a style. My own sense of it is that noir began as a particular genre, growing out of interwar German expressionist filmmaking (M is often named as the originator of the genre), but evolved into a "style," that is a set of "noirish" elements -- including character types (grifters and conmen, cynical cops, private eyes, femmes fatales); stylistic points (urban nightscapes, rain or fetid heat, rotating fans, voice-overs); plot elements (heists gone wrong, adultery, double-crosses); settings and locations (from anonymous small towns and seedy hotels to Los Angeles and Central European cities) -- that can be introduced or remixed into any other genre. Thus it is possible to have "Sci-fi noir" (e.g. Blade Runner), "Western noir" (e.g., 3:10 to Yuma), "Comedy noir" (e.g. Fargo), "Horror noir" (e.g., The Brute Man), and so on.

Ultimately, what makes a film noir is less any of the above elements than a certain sensibility of what one might call alienated fatalism: a sense that the world as a whole is ultimately defined by corruption in every sense of that word (moral, financial, physical). Some critics have naturally chosen to label that attitude as a "cynical" but I would reject that; as always, the word "cynical" is just a scare word that foolish optimists use to malign realists. With that said, I should admit that my interest in deviant globalization is closely related to my predilection for film noir.

Friday, February 11, 2011

China: "There was no morality after 1989"

Michael Anti explains how China's attitude toward development changed after 1989:

It's a brief clip, but I I'd note two important things about it. First, Anti clearly has a sense of the way any economy is embedded in and posterior to a particular moral order. And while he is circumspect about why "1989" was a turning point, it's clear that 1989 represented a radical moral shift, and that in his view, this moral shift is anterior to and the basis for the mode of development which China has been pursuing ever since. (As an aside, this perspective is also interesting from a periodization perspective, since most people tend to date the definitive break point in China's economic development to the "opening up" that Deng Xiaoping promulgated from 1978-79 - though scholars like Arne Westad have argued that even this rupture was based on economic lessons learned earlier, during the Cultural Revolution.)

Second, Anti is clearly a man whose intellectual armature has been forged by a deep engagement with Marxian and Hegelian thinking. The two minute discussion is a textbook example of the dialectical imagination in action: the "one the one hand, on the other hand" turns; the sense for historical dynamics being driven by systemic contradictions; the underlying assumption that capitalism fundamentally involves melting all that is solid and profaning all that is holy; and finally, the unspoken sense that the task of the analyst is to face the realities of capitalism with sober senses, to realize what capitalism does to man's real conditions of life, and to his relations with his kind.

Hat tip: MC.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Quote of the Day: Max Weber

Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation":
The early Christians knew full well the world is governed by demons and that he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers and for his action it is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true. Anyone who fails to see this is, indeed, a political infant.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Remediating Deviant Globalization

I've written and spoken a lot about deviant globalization, and the book is coming out in a few weeks. But I want to address an issue that people often raise with me when I introduce the concept of deviant globalization, namely: what is to be done? how do we avoid just taking a cynical view of the entire lurid spectacle? what are the possible avenues of remediation?

There are no easy solutions, but I think the short answer is, "Where possible, legalize it; when it's morally impossible to legalize it, do everything you can to reduce regulatory gaps." In other words, efforts like CITES for wildlife smuggling, or the Basel Convention for waste flows (to cite two examples), are on the right track — though the latter has huge loopholes and the former doesn't address capacity issues.

Even more importantly, the concept of deviant globalization has important things to say about what policy-makers should NOT do. Above all, policy-makers should avoid indulging locally specific moral codes, since that simply creates arbitrage opportunities for bad actors. (Not to mention political perversions: Bootleggers & Baptists, QED. Note how Humboldt County, the capital of domestic U.S. marijuana growing, voted against marijuana legalization last November.)

In short: If you can't universalize/globalize both the underlying moral principle and the enforcement capacity, then you've either got to give your moral principle up, or else accept that the uneven efforts to impose them are likely to end up empowering bad actors who will profit off of your moral outrage. (And it gets worse: these deviant entrepreneurs sometimes begin to act like termites on the very framework of the state, e.g. the Taliban, the Sinaloa Cartel, the 'Ndraghetta, etc.)

That's not a very pleasant thing for policy-makers to hear, but it's the fundamental lesson of our work. And analytically, it provides powerful predictive insights.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Three-Fifths Compromise & "Radical" Reconstruction

Over on Andrew Sullivan's blog, Chris Bodenner quotes a reader pointing out a crucial but poorly understood point about the notorious "Three-Fifths Compromise" in the original US Constitution, which was that its overt function was not to denigrate blacks per se, but rather to reduce the political power of the slaveholding South:

I'm continually surprised at how many people don't understand the three-fifths compromise in the original U.S. Constitution, usually describing it somewhat like Cord Jefferson does: "the three-fifths compromise, in which the government decided that black slaves were subhuman." The clear implication here that the Constitution codified a black slave was worth only 60% of a normal human, because they didn't count as much as "free Persons" in establishing proportional representation in the House.

But this understanding is completely backwards; black slaves would have been better off if the Constitution counted them at one-fifth, or not at all. The southern states would have been much happier had the slaves counted as whole persons, or better yet, 5 persons each!

Quite as Andrew's reader says: during the Constitution, Southerners argued that slaves should be apportioned at 100 percent, whereas Northerners argued they should only count for 20 percent - or perhaps not at all. The issue had nothing directly to do with racism, but rather was entirely about political power in a broad sense.

Just as important is how this inversion of the conventional misunderstanding helps us understand what took place after the Civil War, when the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments granted blacks full citizenship status — namely the North's effort to impose what came to be known as "Radical Reconstruction," which sought to guarantee blacks' civil rights over the howling protests of the white supremacists in the South.

In the (white) South, Reconstruction was represented as a violation of state sovereignty by a vindictive and socially utopian North. But in fact, it was nothing of the sort: it was a direct effort to make sure that an unregenerate South would not be able to undermine the political sovereignty of the North. The great post-bellum fear in the North was that, if blacks were not granted full political power, then the former Confederate white supremacists would be returned to the union, but now with even greater political power than they had had in the antebellum period, since all the former slaves (who formerly had counted for only 60% for apportionment purposes) would now count at 100% for apportionment purposes, thereby granting more political weight to the old Southern political elites.

So-called "radical" reconstruction was motivated, in other words, by the "radical" idea that the former confederates should not be rewarded for their treason by being reincorporated into the national fold with even more power than they had had before the war. Only actually giving blacks real political power could prevent this outcome, as everyone at the time well understood.

Alas, subsequent history shows that those fears were hardly misplaced. As we all know, "radical" reconstruction failed, blacks were disenfranchised, and for at least the next century precisely what the Radicals feared in fact took place: the racist southern political class would continue to punch far above its national weight until at least the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and arguably until 2009.

P.S. Noah Millman makes an appropriate rebuttal to the purely political interpretation offered above:
The three-fifths compromise was, from a purely practical perspective, a positive inasmuch as it weakened the South relative to the North. But it was hugely negative from an ideological perspective because it established in America’s founding document that slaves were not analogous to women and children – that they were something less than full (nonvoting) members of the community.

Quote of the day: Deng Xiaoping

This is how Deng rationalized the slaughter of protestors in Tiananmen in 1989:
Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it'd be far worse than the Cultural Revolution.... Once civil war got started, blood would flow like a river, and where would human rights be then? In a civil war, each power would dominate a locality, production would fall, communications would be cut off, and refugees would flow out of China not in millions or tens of millions but in hundreds of millions. First hit by this flood of refugees would be Pacific Asia, which is currently the most promising region of the world. This would be disaster on a global scale. So China mustn't make a mess of itself. And this is not just to be responsible to ourselves, but to consider the whole world and all of humanity as well.
Obviously not a Kantian....

(Hat tip: MC.)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


So, we're all familiar with the concept of NGOs. But this concept has recently undergone a radiation event, and has spawned an increasingly abstruse variety of subgenres:
  • INGO: international non-governmental organization
  • GONGO: government organized NGO
  • GRINGO: government regulated and initiated NGO
  • QUANGO: quasi-autonomous NGO
  • PANGO: party affiliated NGO
  • RONGO: retired officials NGO
  • DONGO: donor-organized NGO
  • DINGO: donor international NGO
  • CONGO: co-opted NGO
  • BINGOs: business interest NGOs
  • BONGOs: business-organized NGOs
  • and finally, my personal favorite... MANGO: a mafia-organized/operated NGO
For more on what all this means, with examples, see this academic paper.