Archive for February, 2010

According to today’s Observer, the University of Notre Dame student government has decided the dissolution of the Department of Economics and Policy Studies is one of the “issues of most pressing concern” to students, and communicated just that to a committee of the Board of Trustees.

Here are excerpts from the article:

Students are concerned by College of Arts and Letters Dean John McGreevy’s lack of transparency as he moves to dissolve the Department of Economics and Policy Studies, student government chief of staff Ryan Brellenthin said.

“The decisions were made without student input and the process was not revealed to the student body,” Brellenthin said.

“It was almost as if they were hoping students weren’t paying attention,” he said.

Students are concerned that closing the department will narrow the economics education at Notre Dame, Brellenthin said. They are also concerned that this decision sets a precedent that students will be excluded from future academic decisions.

“Very little attention has been focused on the 400 students who are economics majors,” Brellenthin said. “No efforts have been made to engage student opinion on the topic.”

Schmidt said he is an economics major, but he first heard about the plans to dissolve the department from The Observer.

“We weren’t told about it,” Schmidt said.

The dissolution of Economics and Policy Studies will be voted on at the next meeting of the Academic Council, Brellenthin, who is one of the four students who serve on the academic council, said. “We can make statements against the dissolution, and we certainly will, but it has been on the agenda to dissolve before we could put it on the agenda to discuss,” he said.

Brellenthin said faculty members are also concerned about the dissolution of the department.

“They are asking what will happen if professors who teach something that isn’t the mainstream theory are pushed out,” he said.

“The fear is that the academic council is just going to be a rubber stamp” on McGreevy’s decision to dissolve the department, Schmidt said.

One trustee expressed her surprise after Weber ranked the dissolution of the department as the second most critical issue for students, but the issue is about students’ wanting to be respected, according to Brellenthin.

Brellenthin cited reports that McGreevy described the dissolution of the department as “too sensitive an issue for debate.”

“We respect the administration and the professors as top-tier educators, but we want to be respected as top-tier students,” Brellenthin said.

Comparing crises

Posted: 5 February 2010 in Uncategorized
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Horizontal axis shows months. Vertical axis shows the ratio of that month’s nonfarm payrolls to the nonfarm payrolls at the start of recession. The blue line represents job losses in the current crisis. [source]

According to the NYTimes, Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, has placed a “blanket hold” on dozens of President Obama’s nominees awaiting confirmation before the Senate.

The reason? He wants to make sure Northrop Grumman and not Boeing is awarded the contract to rebuild the Air Force’s tanker fleet.

What are we to make of the new unemployment numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

Here’s the good news: U3 and U6 have fallen—to 9.7 percent and 16.5 percent, respectively.

But there’s also lots of bad news:

  • the not seasonably adjusted rates are 10.6 percent and 18.0 percent
  • 14.8 million people remain unemployed

And then there’s the downright ugly stuff:

  • the unemployment rate for teenagers (16-19 years old) is 26.4 percent
  • the unemployment rate for those 20 to 24 years old is 15.8 percent
  • the average duration of unemployment has risen to 30.2 weeks
  • 58.4 percent have been unemployed 15 weeks or more
  • 41.2 percent have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks

By the numbers, there’s a little good, a lot bad, and much too much ugly. . .

Gilles Raveaud, a cofounder of the Post-Autistic Economics Movement and currently Assistant Professor of Economics at the Institute for European Studies, University Paris 8, has a new article on “Pluralism in economics teaching–Why and how?” (available here).

Some excerpts:

In fact, the field of economics today is still characterised by some pluralism. But as far as teaching is concerned, it is no longer presented as a multicolour field. All courses have the same grey colour of neo-classical economics – even if modern textbooks use fancy colours to present it. . .

For me, pluralism is the central issue. In fact, taking pluralism seriously would answer all our criticisms. First, engaging with debates and controversies would necessarily reduce the place of formal models because one would have to deal with the ideas developed by various economists, not only the mathematical models they have written down (or not) to express them. Second, questioning the relevance of different theories can hardly be done without looking at the facts.

On top of that, a pluralistic curriculum would actually be more, not less, theoretical than the current one. The current curriculum does not focus on theory, but on technique. Today, students spend hours calculating ‘marginal rates of transformation’, ‘optimal inter-temporalallocation of resources’ and ‘equilibrium prices’, but this does not lead them to understand what the underlying theory is. A curriculum that would systematically confront each theory with the others would force teachers to be more specific. In each case, they would have to specify which assumptions are made, which mechanisms the theory focuses on, to which predictions these mechanisms lead, and so on. . .

That is, it can be argued that many economics departments have managed to discourage enquiry, to downplay knowledge. They have become agencies of ignorance and/or diffusion of a biased vision of the world. A crucial agent in this process are the introductory textbooks. These textbooks can be criticised in two major respects. First, they limit themselves to mainstream theory, with no mention of other theories. Second, they frequently omit many of the internal problems and inconsistencies of mainstream economics, under the guise of ‘simplifying’.

Any of the students who have taken my courses over the years will certainly recognize the kind of approach Raveaud is calling for. And many more people will recognize this is exactly the way of teaching economics the dean is seeking to eliminate at the University of Notre Dame.

Public art of the day

Posted: 4 February 2010 in Uncategorized

St. John


Noncapitalist food

Posted: 4 February 2010 in Uncategorized
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The Guardian reports [ht: lm] on Futurefarms,  a cooperative, set up in early 2004, whose purpose is to grow food within the parish of Martin in Hampshire, for sale to the people who live there.

Futurefarms grows 45 types of vegetables in two fields in the village. Within the fields, two acres are set aside for rearing free-range pigs. Chicken runs are moved regularly across the bigger field and the rest of the land is grazed by sheep. Chickens, lamb and pork are sold alongside vegetables at a Saturday morning market in the village hall throughout the year.

In the early years, the food was produced entirely by voluntary labour, and Martin remains a village full of people on rotas for various horticultural and stock-rearing tasks. But Futurefarms, which is a not-for-profit growers’ co-operative, now has an annual turnover of £36,000 and can afford to employ four part-time staff.

Snelgar says 60% of the households in Martin use the co-op to supply at least some of their food. It is not trying to expand production to sell elsewhere because that would miss the point. “We are not interested in the wholesale market. We are only interested in the Martin market,” he says.

So far the co-op has signed up 126 of the village’s families as members. They pay £5 a year, but can escape the charge by volunteering for seven hours’ work. They make no commitment to buy the produce, so the co-op has to remain competitive on quality and price.

The same article mentions a variety of other projects of local, sustainable, noncapitalist food production around England, many of them supported by the Soil Association.

Capitalism has a wide variety of ways of disciplining workers. One of them is guard labor. Another is unemployment.

Today, the Department of Labor reports that

In the week ending Jan. 30, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 480,000, an increase of 8,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 472,000. The 4-week moving average was 468,750, an increase of 11,750 from the previous week’s revised average of 457,000.

So, the overall unemployment rate is widely expected to have risen, when the numbers are released tomorrow.

And now, through a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we see the effects: labor productivity increased at a 6.2 percent annual rate during the fourth quarter of 2009, while unit labor costs in nonfarm businesses fell 4.4 percent—a result of the increase in productivity far outpacing the increase in hourly compensation.

That’s capitalism’s own unique way of restoring profitability and attempting to solve its crises.

Sam Bowles has spent a good part of his life studying the problems associated with inequality. From Schooling in Capitalist America to his participation in the investigation of “Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies.”

I had just finished adding a footnote to my current book (arguing that Bowles’s work proves that it’s not that mainstream economists can’t see capitalist inequality; they choose to downplay or ignore it), and up pops this in-depth profile [disclaimer: Bowles was a professor of mine at the University of Massachusetts; he taught my first-semester "Marxian Economic Theory].

One of Bowles’s recent papers is a study of inequality and guard labor.

Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.

The job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work discipline”—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.

The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.

And, of course, U.S. capitalism is finding new ways not only of guarding its inequality and imprisoning those who don’t obey but also of making a profit on private prisons and guards.

Henry Kissinger should have been tried and convicted for war crimes decades ago. But he just won’t go away.

And, of course, it’s the Washington Post that gives him the space to make the case for the “geostrategic importance” of Iraq.

Before the war, the equilibrium between Iraq and Iran was a principal geopolitical reality within the region. At that time, the government in Baghdad was a Sunni-run dictatorship. The Shiite-dominated, partly democratic structure that has emerged from the war has not yet found the appropriate balance among its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish components. Nor is its long-term relationship to Iran settled. If radicals prevail in the Shiite part, and the Shiite part comes to dominate the Sunni and Kurdish regions, and if it then lines up with Tehran, we will witness — and will have partially contributed to — a fundamental shift in the balance of the region.

The outcome in Iraq will have profound consequences, above all, in Saudi Arabia, the key country in the Persian Gulf, as well as in the other Gulf states and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, financed by Iran, is already a Shiite state within the state. The United States therefore has an important stake in a moderate evolution of Iraq’s domestic and foreign policies.

For Kissinger, it’s all about maintaining the empire and capturing the oil.