Archive for April, 2011

Mainstream economists will no doubt seize on the new book [ht: mfa] by Robert Fogel et al., The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700, as evidence that capitalism (especially capitalist technologies in the areas of food production and health care) saved humanity from being doomed to hunger and disease.

Technology rescued humankind from centuries of physical maladies and malnutrition, Mr. Fogel argues. Before the 19th century, most people were caught in an endless cycle of subsistence farming. A colonial-era farmer, for example, worked about 78 hours during a five-and-a-half-day week. People needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to produce more food without being stronger.

Another way of looking at the facts produced in The Changing Body (based on an essay summarizing the book by Robert W. Fogel and Nathaniel Grotte, since the book is not yet available) is that capitalism faced a fundamental problem: it needed capable bodies to produce surplus-value but, during the course of its development, it had disrupted existing food systems and concentrated people in urban centers, which led to widespread malnutrition and communicable diseases. It eventually fixed this problem by securing more food (through increases in domestic agricultural productivity and importing food from abroad) and providing better health care (through advances in medical technology and public health programs).

Taking it one step further, this is the advent of capitalist biopower. Keith Crome [pdf] interprets Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower as designating the set of techniques and technologies through which the basic biological features of the human species become the object of political strategies in modern Western societies:

Like disciplinary techniques and procedures, the technologies of biopower are addressed to a multiplicity, but they are addressed to that multiplicity in so far as it forms a global mass affected by the biological processes of life itself: birth and death, health and illness. To the techniques of discipline that came to hold sway over the human body and which are individualising are added the techniques and technologies of biopower which, on the contrary, but in a complimentary way, are massifying, directed towards humans in the genetic and species sense. As Foucault puts it, biopower involves:

A set of processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of the population and so-on. It is these processes—the birth rate, the mortality rate, longevity, and so-on— together with a whole series of economic and political problems which […] become biopolitics’ first objects of knowledge and the targets it seeks to control.

The changes documented by Fogel et al. would then be evidence of the extent to which capitalism, over the course of the past three centuries, has successfully (although, of course, unevenly and in a contradictory fashion) created the means to regulate human bodies and to harness life’s forces for work.

What Fogel et al. refer to as “technophysio evolution,” then, is what Foucault summarizes as the “introduction of life into history”—on capitalism terms.

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 29 April 2011 in Uncategorized
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Those were the days. . .

Posted: 29 April 2011 in Uncategorized

James Gillray

William Hogarth

Charles Williams

James Gillray

“Oops, we did it again”

Posted: 28 April 2011 in Uncategorized
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Exxon Mobil did it again. So did Shell. Even BP reported massive first-quarter profits.

The increase in profits is so obscene that, apparently, “Exxon is kinda sorry.” According to Chris Kahn [ht: ja] of the Associated Press,

Exxon made almost $11 billion and practically apologized for it.

Sensing public outrage over gasoline prices that have topped $4 in some states, the company struck a defensive posture Thursday after posting some of its best quarterly financial results ever. . .

Before it even came out with the quarterly results, Exxon pleaded its case on a company blog, saying it was not to blame for high gas prices.

Then Cohen took an unusual step and spoke to reporters after Exxon reported the big profits. He said Exxon pays more taxes than any other company in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index — $59 billion in the United States over the past five years.

Let’s see: American consumers are paying through the nose, as gasoline has risen 81 cents a gallon this year. And they’re paying through some other orifice, since the United States continues to give the oil industry $4 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies.

Perhaps Americans should just get lubed before they get screwed again.

I’ve often told students one of the peculiarities of the United States is that everyone thinks they’re middle-class.

I was wrong. People make the same mistake in Argentina.

According to a recent study, lots of people—both poor and rich—think they’re in the middle-class. As the authors put it,

a significant portion of poorer individuals place themselves in higher positions than they are, while a significant proportion of richer individuals underestimate their rank.

Here’s what the bias looks like:

The other interesting part of the study is the experimental portion: when the participants were told where they were in the real distribution of income, they’re attitude toward redistribution changed. In particular,

Those who overestimated their relative position (who thought of themselves to be relatively richer than they were) and were provided consistent information demanded more redistribution than those in the control group.

Argentines, like Americans, appear to suffer from false middle-class consciousness. Capitalism thrives on such mistaken identities—with people being lied to about the actual distribution of income and wealth, and at the same time lying to themselves about what they are in that profoundly unequal distribution.

I disagree with Bill Moyers: he sees David Simon as a modern-day Dickens whereas my preferred comparison is Balzac. No matter, his interview with Simon is well worth watching or reading in Guernica [ht: nk].

Here are some choice excerpts:

Bill Moyers: I did a documentary about the South Bronx called The Fire Next Door and what I learned very early is that the drug trade is an inverted form of capitalism.

David Simon: Absolutely. In some ways it’s the most destructive form of welfare that we’ve established, the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. It’s basically like opening up a Bethlehem Steel in the middle of the South Bronx or in West Baltimore and saying, “You guys are all steelworkers.” Just say no? That’s our answer to that? And by the way, if it was chewing up white folk, it wouldn’t have gone on for as long as it did. . .

Bill Moyers: There’s a scene in the third season of The Wire where the Baltimore police major Bunny Colvin, a favorite character, gives some rare straight talk on the futility of this drug war.

David Simon: I don’t think we have the stomach to actually evaluate it.

Bill Moyers: What do you mean?

David Simon: Again, we would have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions. The people most affected by this are black and brown and poor. It’s the abandoned inner cores of our urban areas. As we said before, economically, we don’t need those people; the American economy doesn’t need them. So as long as they stay in their ghettos and they only kill each other, we’re willing to pay for a police presence to keep them out of our America. And to let them fight over scraps, which is what the drug war, effectively, is. Since we basically have become a market-based culture, that’s what we know, and it’s what’s led us to this sad dénouement. I think we’re going to follow market-based logic right to the bitter end.

Bill Moyers: Which says?

David Simon: If you don’t need ’em, why extend yourself? Why seriously assess what you’re doing to your poorest and most vulnerable citizens? There’s no profit to be had in doing anything other than marginalizing them and discarding them. . .

Bill Moyers: Why do you think, David, that we tolerate such gaps between rich and poor?

David Simon: You know, I’m fascinated by it. Because a lot of the people who end up voting for that kind of laissez-faire market policy are people who get creamed by it. And I think it’s almost like a casino. You’re looking at the guy winning, you’re looking at the guy who pulled the lever and all the bells go off, all the coins are coming out of a one-armed bandit. You’re thinking, “That could be me. I’ll play by those rules.” But actually, those are house rules. And most of you are going to lose.

And finally:

There are about 749 different shows, dramas and comedies, on television right now. Seven hundred and forty-eight of them are about the America that I inhabit, that you inhabit, that most of the viewing public, I guess, inhabits. There was only one about the other America. And it was arguing, passionately, about a place where, let’s face it, the economic rules don’t apply in the same way. Half of the adult black males in my city are unemployed. That’s not an economic model that actually works.

The fact is, it’s not just about the other America. The economic rules do apply in the same way. That’s one of the brilliant strategies in The Wire over the course of 5 seasons, showing the parallels among the inner-city drug economy, law enforcement, underemployed dockworkers, politicians, the educational system, and newspapers—all haunted by the specter of Capital.

The Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality has collected 20 facts about inequality in the United States that “everyone should know.”

The sixteenth one, illustrated above, shows the decline in intergenerational income mobility (measured in terms of family background and income in adulthood, for men age 30 to 59):

Intergenerational income mobility can be measured by calculating the rate at which individuals move to income quintiles that are different [from] that of their families of origin. The proportion of sons who remained in the bottom quartile declined between 1961 and 1972 and stayed the same afterward.

The existence of intergenerational income mobility is the usual excuse for income inequality. We need to keep in mind that, even if there was more mobility before, it still presumed the existence of inequality. Now, there is even less mobility.

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 28 April 2011 in Uncategorized
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Colleges and universities are certainly banking on student debt—four-year schools so that they can raise tuition, for-profit schools so that they can engage in deceptive practices and outright fraud.

Wall Street is also banking on student debt—by first lending to students (with government guarantees) and then slicing and dicing the loans into Student Loan Asset-Backed Securities.

The only ones losing out are students—who in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans, and now face almost twice the rate of unemployment they did in 2007.

Rising student debt is both a condition and consequence of the new corporate university:

If overfed teachers aren’t the causes or beneficiaries of increased tuition (as they’ve been depicted of late), then perhaps it’s worth looking up the food chain. As faculty jobs have become increasingly contingent and precarious, administration has become anything but. Formerly, administrators were more or less teachers with added responsibilities; nowadays, they function more like standard corporate managers—and they’re paid like them too. Once a few entrepreneurial schools made this switch, market pressures compelled the rest to follow the high-revenue model, which leads directly to high salaries for in-demand administrators. Even at nonprofit schools, top-level administrators and financial managers pull down six- and seven-figure salaries, more on par with their industry counterparts than with their fellow faculty members. And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges. A bigger administration also consumes a larger portion of available funds, so it’s unsurprising that budget shares for instruction and student services have dipped over the past fifteen years.

When you hire corporate managers, you get managed like a corporation, and the race for tuition dollars and grants from government and private partnerships has become the driving objective of the contemporary university administration. The goal for large state universities and elite private colleges alike has ceased to be (if it ever was) building well-educated citizens; now they hardly even bother to prepare students to assume their places among the ruling class. Instead we have, in Bousquet’s words, “the entrepreneurial urges, vanity, and hobbyhorses of administrators: Digitize the curriculum! Build the best pool/golf course/stadium in the state! Bring more souls to God! Win the all-conference championship!” These expensive projects are all part of another cycle: corporate universities must be competitive in recruiting students who may become rich alumni, so they have to spend on attractive extras, which means they need more revenue, so they need more students paying higher tuition. For-profits aren’t the only ones consumed with selling product. And if a humanities program can’t demonstrate its economic utility to its institution (which can’t afford to haul “dead weight”) and students (who understand the need for marketable degrees), then it faces cuts, the neoliberal management technique par excellence. Students apparently have received the message loud and clear, as business has quickly become the nation’s most popular major.

In the end, the new corporate university and Wall Street have combined to bank on ever-higher levels of student debt.

Public art of the day

Posted: 27 April 2011 in Uncategorized
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The Art of Turning Art into Money

[more here]