Archive for January, 2013

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Vinz, “Market”

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The Old American Dream

I just received my copy of Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics, by Kalle Lasn and Adbusters, which I’m finding to be a disconcerting critique of economics.

On one hand, Meme Wars is clearly an attempt to question and point in the direction of a radical alternative to neoclassical economics. But, on the other hand, it is discomfiting for other traditions of radical critique in economics.

Let me explain. Meme Wars is a beautifully designed anti-textbook (there are no page numbers) aimed at students of economics,which encourages them to question some of the basic assumptions of both capitalism and of the hegemonic economic theory that serves to celebrate capitalism. Throughout the book, students are prompted to “ask your professor” the kinds of questions that can only serve to make the usual teachers of neoclassical economics uncomfortable— from “Do economists suffer from an academic inferiority complex called ‘physics envy’?” to “Do you think the economic and political framework which has ruled the world for the past fifty years is about to heave?” These are exactly the kinds of questions those of us who teach economics would love our students to raise when we present neoclassical (and, for that matter, Keynesian) economics.

But Lasn’s critique is very different from the kinds of issues many of us have been raising about both neoclassical economics and capitalism. There’s virtually no discussion of class exploitation or inequality, power, discrimination, imperialism, and so on. And there’s no attempt to introduce students to the work of Marx or Veblen, Baran and Sweezy, Polanyi, Hymer, Nearing, and other previous critics. Instead, the focus of critique is consumerism and the fetishism of economic growth. Thus, students are treated to interviews with and essays by such contemporary figures as Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, and Lourdes Benería, and encouraged to become familiar with such “early pioneers” as Keynes, Frederick Soddy, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Howard Odum, Kenneth Boulding, E. F. Schumacher, and Herman Daly. (OK, I had to look up Soddy and Odum.)

Now, this is not meant to be a critique of Lasn’s critique. And, in fact, I suspect that Lasn’s approach is exactly what many of my more critical students and the young people I met in the Occupy movement are open to and want to see more of. Issues of happiness, ecological sustainability, and the aesthetics of the future.

What I like about Lasn’s approach is his rejection of a return to the supposed golden age of the old American Dream (which I detect in many critical approaches today). And, while I’m not convinced that we can move forward without paying attention to other critical traditions, including the Marxist critique of political economy, it really is up to the rest of us to make the theoretical and political connections between those traditions and Lasn’s critique for contemporary students of economics and young activitists—and to begin to sketch out what a new American Dream of spontaneity might look like.

Map of the day

Posted: 30 January 2013 in Uncategorized
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Today’s Chicago Tribune reports that the number of homicides so far in 2013 reached 42, making this month the most violent January in Chicago since 2002.

Crime experts caution it’s way too early to suggest the disappointing January numbers mean violence in Chicago will continue at a similar pace throughout this year.

But Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist, said the January numbers sure aren’t encouraging.

“It certainly bodes ill for this year’s projected homicide figures because it appears to be a continuation of the violent trends observed through many months of 2012,” says Lurigio, a professor at Loyola University Chicago.

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They try so hard, don’t they, to demonstrate that economics is a science—and that economists aren’t driven by politics?

The latest is Dylan Matthews, writing about the same paper by Roger Gordon and Gordon B. Dahl. But then, after concluding that disagreements among economists are not driven by politics, Matthews undoes the entire argument:

One shouldn’t read too much into this. The Booth surveys, while surveying both apparent liberals and apparent conservatives, omit people on the true fringes of both sides. There aren’t any Marxists or post-Keynesians on the left, and there aren’t any Austrians or ultra-libertarians on the right. The survey’s left flank is Emmanuel Saez (who supports very high taxes on the rich but is basically a social democrat) and its right flank is Robert Hall (who invented the flat tax, which, while radical in its way, has a lot of real supporters in American politics). But the study does confirm that the economics profession has a coherent mainstream consensus, with many shared beliefs about the subject, a consensus that holds across party and ideological lines.

Indeed! There is general agreement within the mainstream consensus because the discipline of economics has a mainstream consensus (whether or not it is “coherent” is another story). It’s that consensus that serves as the basis for surveys of mainstream economists and the content of mainstream economics textbooks and hiring in mainstream departments and publications in mainstream journals and research funding by mainstream agencies and. . .Well, you get the picture.

It’s a consensus marked by neoclassical and Keynesian economics, whose practitioners still battle over the specific meaning of that consensus—and exclude everyone else. My own view, for what it’s worth is not that economists’ political positions determine, in any simple fashion, their economic theories and approaches. The lines of causality run in both directions.

Richard Wolff, to my mind, put it best: we choose economic paradigms—and, at the same time, economic paradigms choose us.

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Map of the day

Posted: 28 January 2013 in Uncategorized
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This map, compiled using data gathered by the Tuskegee Institute, represents the geographic distribution of lynchings during some of the years when the crime was most widespread in the United States. Tuskegee began keeping lynching records under the direction of Booker T. Washington, who was the institute’s founding leader.

Between 1900 and 1931, Georgia led the lynching tally, with Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas rounding out the top seven worst offenders.

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Art as a commodity “appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Like chandelier bidding (when auctioneers begin a sale by pretending to spot bids in the room, although they are often do nothing more than pointing at the light fixtures), not posting prices in art galleries (thereby violating the “truth in pricing” law), and so on.

In this, art markets are not unlike financial markets, in which financial instruments (like private equity investments, hedge fund, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps) are bought and sold as if they were commodities—and with participants exhibiting a similar aversion to any kind of externally imposed rules.

“The art world feels like the private equity market of the ’80s and the hedge funds of the ’90s,” James R. Hedges IV, a New York collector and financier, said. “It’s got practically no oversight or regulation.” . . .

“Is there any reason to believe that regulating the art market will be any more effective than regulating the financial markets has been?” asked Jonathan Brown, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “Many of the players are identical.”

In both cases, participants act as if they’re buying and selling commodities like any other but they treat them as something special, with their own bespoke rules and elite status.

Dealers said posting prices on valuable works in an open gallery creates security concerns and disrupts an exhibition’s aesthetics by transforming artworks into commodities.

“We consider it tacky to do that,” Richard L. Feigen, a longtime dealer, said.

Others say posting prices would reduce the market’s elitism. Galleries, experts say, often choose to whom they will sell and favor good customers, especially those whose ownership will add luster to an artist’s market standing.

The fact is, neither works of art nor financial instruments are commodities—although they are bought and sold on markets, generally among the same small group of wealthy investors, who engage in conspicuous consumption and use the portions of society’s surplus they’ve captured to create further claims on that surplus.

Until it all comes tumbling down and we’re made to pay the costs.

The fetishism of art as a commodity, like that of financial instruments, arises not from the social relation of producers to the sum total of labor but, rather, from the social relation of a small elite to the sum total of surplus labor produced by others.