Archive for July, 2009

Taliban land reform?

Posted: 28 July 2009 in Uncategorized
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Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, one of the largest landowners in Pakistan and head of the Bhutto tribe, poses in front of portraits of his forefathers at his estate in Mirpur Bhutto

Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, one of the largest landowners in Pakistan and head of the Bhutto tribe, poses in front of portraits of his forefathers at his estate in Mirpur Bhutto

What’s missing from most analyses of Pakistan is a class analysis, especially the role of feudal lords and peasants. Clearly, feudal class exploitation and the growth of rural poverty have created the conditions for the Taliban, which according to the NYT is engaging in its own project of land confiscation and redistribution.

The authors, Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah, can’t help but refer to the “wealthy landowners” as “the economic pillar of the rural society.” But their article does offer valuable snippets about the class structure of rural Pakistan, the landlords’ use of private militias to protect their holdings, and the Taliban’s project of redistributing land to the landless peasants.


Here’s Tariq Ali on “Obama, Pakistan, and U.S. Empire”:

P.S. Ah, the wonders of a computer archive! (It’s amazing what one finds when searching through one’s files.)  I just noticed that the same NYT reporters published almost the exact same story back on 16 April: “Taliban Exploits Class Rifts in Pakistan.” Then it was “exploits” class rifts, now it’s “foment” a class struggle—as if class struggle didn’t already exist throughout Pakistan. . .


Today is the 40th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, based on the 1900 book by L. Frank Baum. . .


Not surprisingly, the book and movie have been subject to many different interpretations.

For Henry M. Littlefield, the book was a parable on William Jennings Bryan and the late-19th-century Populist movement. For example:

The Wicked Witch of the East had kept the little Munchkin people “in bondage for many years, making them slave for her night and day.” Just what this slavery entailed is not immediately clear, but Baum later gives us a specific example. The Tin Woodman, whom Dorothy meets on her way to the Emerald City, had been put under a spell by the Witch of the East. Once an independent and hard working human being, the Woodman found that each time he swung his axe it chopped off a different part of his body. Knowing no other trade he “worked harder than ever,” for luckily in Oz tinsmiths can repair such things. Soon the Woodman was all tin. In this way Eastern witchcraft dehumanized a simple laborer so that the faster and better he worked the more quickly he became a kind of machine. Here is a Populist view of evil Eastern influences on honest labor which could hardly be more pointed.

For Hugh Rockoff, the book is a monetary allegory, replete with references to the monetary debates of the 1890s. For example:

Dorothy is in her home when it is carried by a cyclone (tornado) to the land of Oz. This is Baum’s fantasy counterpart to America, a land in which, especially in the East, the gold standard reigns supreme and in which an ounce (Oz) of gold has almost mystical significance. The cyclone is the free silver movement itself. It came roaring out of the West in 1896, shaking the political establishment to its foundations. A cyclone is an apt metaphor. Bryan was first elected to Congress in 1890 and made his first important speech in Congress on the silver question in 1893. Three years later he was the leader of a national movement. Dorothy’s house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East. The Witch dries up completely, leaving only her silver shoes. These represent the silver component of a bimetallic standard and are given to Dorothy to wear by the Good Witch of the North, who has been summoned to the scene. The silver shoes have a magical power that the Wicked Witch of the East understood but which the Munchkins (citizens of the East) do not.

While Helen M. Kim sees the movie as a parable about mass consumer culture (including the possibility of resisting that culture):

opening in rural, hard-working, plain, and virtuous Kansas, the film grounds Dorothy’s magical adventures in the land of Oz firmly in the context of “real” life. The early scenes of her industrious aunt and uncle and their three farm hands, securing their animals and equipment against an approaching storm, are shot in “realistic” sepia tones. The small, bare, weather-worn Kansas farm and the aged, humble appearance of the adults evoke the harshness of midwestern rural life during the droughts and depression of the 1930s. Significantly, the characters’ anxiety and haste to prepare for the storm create an atmosphere in which work, responsibility, and industry are of the utmost importance to the preservation of their frail subsistence from an unpredictably destructive nature. Such iconography in the year of the film’s release, 1939, strongly enforces a sense of the harsh economic realities of “ordinary,” “everyday” American life. Nature, as represented by the land and the weather, dictates the limits circumscribing human existence. The Kansas setting represents the extreme of the natural and the unmediated, against which Dorothy’s “wild” flight into the fantastic, utopian, and ultimately mass cultural realm of Oz constitutes an entry into the possibilities of the artificial, mediated, or constructed-possibilities, in other words, which provide the necessary means to critique, contest, and demystify the category of “the natural,” which underpins the power of hegemony.

. . .

The drama of Dorothy’s movement between “real” and “utopian” spaces, then, works itself out through the ensuing plot of the film, which immediately reverses itself in the direction of Dorothy’s desire to return home. I would like to read her attempt to do so as the film working through the oppositional possibilities open to consumers: to “get out” of mass culture’s system of power once they have been enticed into it.

Thanks to Baum and Judy Garland, an important story—one that is rich in political, economic, and cultural alternatives—lives on.


Perfect game!

Posted: 24 July 2009 in Uncategorized
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Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, 23 July, at Comiskey Park U.S. Cellular Field. His first perfect game (and second career no-hitter), only the 18th in Major League Baseball history.

Here’s the line score:

Rays White Sox Baseball

And the box score.

And this one’s just for the Cubs fans out there:



Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just got rid of all the economists? We certainly wouldn’t be subject to their nonsense, like productivity measures. . .

Just recently, a friend in the psychology field related their story: of how their productivity was being measured by “unique contacts.” So, their productivity went down when they met the same person for multiple sessions (in either individual or group sessions) as against meeting with different people (for one or a small number of sessions). That’s what matters, not the actual condition or the quality of the treatment.

The same is true in higher education, as you can see in this new report [pdf] from the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability [ht: ja]. According to author Patrick J. Kelly, Florida, Colorado, Washington, Utah, and North Dakota are the most productive states because their cost per credential is the lowest in the nation.  The report then goes a step further, saying that the less-costly degrees also provide a greater economic value to their states. Degrees are most expensive in Alaska, Wyoming, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, which are the least-productive states. Kelly’s method compares median earnings of people at each degree level, by state, to the cost of each degree.

That’s what happens when we accept productivity as the appropriate criterion and let economists loose to measure productivity.


coat of arms of slavetrader John Hawkins

The Brits are rediscovering the links between slavery and capitalist finance. A small team of researchers with the University College London is making a list of every British company that had historic links with the slave trade. They were interviewed on Marketplace. Some of their results—including the role of Nathan Mayer Rothschild and James William Freshfield—were recently discussed in the Financial Times. (Among the institutions that have apologized for their predecessors’ role in the slave trade is Wachovia Bank, which has “set up a programme offering $1bn in loans for black car dealerships”!)


And there’s a new exhibition, “London, Sugar & Slavery,” at the Museum of London in Docklands. According to Colin Prescod, Chair of the Institute of Race Relations
and advisor on the gallery,

Over some three centuries, transatlantic slavery and the associated ‘triangle trade’ generated extraordinary profit, amassed unimaginable wealth, and spawned obscenely inhumane brutalities on a massive scale. Museum in Docklands’ bold new gallery demonstrates that these events were pivotal in the history of London’s and Britain’s rise to world dominance, and that they bequeathed a discomfiting legacy in a complex heritage.

Rising exploitation

Posted: 22 July 2009 in Uncategorized
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As I explained to students in a course this past spring, the existence of a constant profit-wage ratio (which is often used to argue that income inequality is not getting worse) is consistent with increasing exploitation, i.e., rising S/V.

The reason: a growing share of “wages” is actually executive compensation, i.e., distributions of surplus-value.

That’s one way of interpreting the data discovered by Kevin Drum in an article published by the WSJ:

Executives and other highly compensated employees now receive more than one-third of all pay in the U.S., according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Social Security Administration data — without counting billions of dollars more in pay that remains off federal radar screens that measure wages and salaries.

The pay of employees who receive more than the Social Security wage base — now $106,800 — increased by 78%, or nearly $1 trillion, over the past decade, exceeding the 61% increase for other workers, according to the analysis. In the five years ending in 2007, earnings for American workers rose 24%, half the 48% gain for the top-paid. The result: The top-paid represent 33% of the total, up from 28% in 2002.

Selling body parts

Posted: 21 July 2009 in Uncategorized
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They buy and sell blood, eggs, plasma, sperm, and the services of surrogate mothers. So, why not, asks Virginia Postrel, create a market for kidneys? Eliminate the gift and barter economies of kidney transplants and replace them with a market.

What would this mean? The wealthy, who already take advantage of “transplant tourism,” would get their kidneys while the rest. . .


Modern NEOCLASSICAL economic theory, that is. . .

It’s pretty amazing, this avalanche of books and articles blaming mainstream economic theory—which they refer to as “modern economic theory,” since the authors are simply ignorant of all the other forms of contemporary economic theory, from Marxian and feminist to institutionalist and postcolonial—for the current crisis. For not predicting it and for not providing any guidance in actually solving the crisis.

The latest is from the Economist [ht: ms], which backtracks even before the argument begins:

In its crudest form—the idea that economics as a whole is discredited—the current backlash has gone far too far. . .Economics is less a slavish creed than a prism through which to understand the world. It is a broad canon, stretching from theories to explain how prices are determined to how economies grow. Much of that body of knowledge has no link to the financial crisis and remains as useful as ever.

The problem, as the Economist sees it, is that economists work in “professional silos”—macroeconomists know little about finance, and financial economists failed to think about the larger context. So, the inevitable advice:

a broader change in mindset is still needed. Economists need to reach out from their specialised silos: macroeconomists must understand finance, and finance professors need to think harder about the context within which markets work. And everybody needs to work harder on understanding asset bubbles and what happens when they burst.

That’s it! Build bigger silos on the same neoclassical farms (blame the metaphor on the fact that I’m writing this in Vermont)—and continue to ignore the many other theories that never took the “efficient market hypothesis” seriously and didn’t celebrate capitalism the way mainstream economists did. . .and still do.

to each

So, now we have a growing discussion of the Critique of the Gotha Programme, focused on Marx’s famous definition of communist justice, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Robert Waldman, Brad Delong, and James Wimberley have chimed in.

For Waldman, the phrase is a nasty inside joke, a critique of the Lassallean program as an impossible Christian fantasy. DeLong, for his part, adheres to the traditional interpretation, that it refers to a distant “higher phase of communism society.” While Wimberley views it as referring to a “fundamentally self-contradictory” way of conceiving of an optimal allocation of consumer goods and a criterion of efficient production.

I must admit, I am pleasantly surprised (as I have written in previous posts) to see various aspects of Marx’s writings and Marxian theory being discussed and debated these days. Ah, the contradictions of capitalism! But it is also the case that few of these people—certainly not Waldman, DeLong, or Wimberley—ever refer to the wealth of scholarship on these questions.

They certainly haven’t read George DeMartino’s excellent article, “Realizing Class Justice,” published in the January 2003 issue of Rethinking Marxism (vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 1-31).

According to DeMartino, the famous maxim refers to 2 moments of class justice: productive class justice (“fairness in the allocation of the work of producing the social surplus”) and distributive justice (“fairness in the processes by which the social surplus is divided among society’s members (and, perhaps, other people) for their personal use, and in the ultimate distributive patterns that emerge from these processes”). Together with appropriative class justice (“fairness in the processes by which some individuals and/or groups in society receive the social surplus produced by themselves or by others”), they form the Marxian notion of class justice.

Finally, DeMartino argues that “class justice is a legitimate and compelling standard for evaluating policy regimes”—in the here and now, not in some distant future or fantasy.

Cultivating a desire for class justice, then, might be a bit simpler than it appeared a moment ago. It might require making visible what is largely suppressed in hegemonic discourses that refuse the legitimacy of class—and even in Marxian discourses that ignore the prevalence of class diversity in contemporary society—so that people can recognize that they already experience class justice. Not in all their workplaces (though there are many exceptions), perhaps, but in virtually all their civic organizations and churches and families and neighborhoods. And it may require demonstrating that class justice can be affirming, empowering, compassionate, nurturing and indeed enjoyable when compared to the class injustice that obtains in other aspects of their lives. Such a demonstration might go some way toward restoring the normative force of Marxian theory while strengthening local
and global movements for economic justice.

Crises in Vermont

Posted: 12 July 2009 in Uncategorized
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So, what does the current crisis look like in Vermont?*


That’s part of the story.

So, is the crisis in dairy farming:

It costs the farmer about $1.50 to produce a gallon of milk, and until recently they were receiving about $1.50 per gallon, maybe a little more. But now they’re receiving only $1.20 for that gallon of milk – that means they are losing money on every gallon of milk they produce.

While students have been protesting the massive budget cuts at the University of Vermont:

And housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many Vermonters:

• The median purchase price of a home in Vermont has remained stable in the last year, at $200,000.
• A Vermont household would need an annual income of $63,000, as well as $14,000 for a downpayment and closing costs, to afford that home.
• The median household income in Vermont is just under $52,000, enough to afford a $163,000 home.
• The Fair Market Rent for a modest two-bedroom home is more than $900 a month, and more than half of Vermont’s workforce earns less than the $36,550 needed to afford that rent.
• Vermont’s rental housing market is the tightest in the nation, and its homeownership market is the fourth-tightest.
All this leaves many Vermonters scrambling to keep a roof over their heads.

Not a pretty picture. . .

* where I’m spending the year, on leave from ND.