Archive for December, 2015


I just learned that, while I was traveling, Benedict Anderson passed away.

Anderson was, of course, the author of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism—first published in 1983, reissued with additional chapters in 1991, and further revised in 2006.

The basic idea is that nations are not original or primordial but, rather, historically and socially constructed.

In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. . .

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations; No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.

It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices?


Special mention

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Jacques Derrida famously argued, in Given Time I. Counterfeit Money, that the gift is impossible. There are many parts to the argument but the basic idea is that a gift requires that there by no

reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me back what I give him or her, there will not have been a gift, whether this restitution is immediate or whether it is programmed by a complex calculation of a long-term deferral or differance. This is all too obvious if the other, the donee, gives me back immediately the same thing.

In fact, Derrida continues, for there to be a gift at all, it is necessary that both the giver and the recipient not even recognize it as a gift.

At the limit, the gift as gift ought not appear as gift, either to the donee or the donor. It cannot be gift as gift except but not being present as gift.

What then about academic gifts, such as the recent donations by “Papa” John Schnatter and Charles Koch to the University of Louisville ($6 million) and the University of Kentucky ($12 million) to establish new academic centers?

Are they really gifts?

Let’s look at the actual contracts between the two universities and the Koch Foundation and Papa John’s CEO (here and here). Since they are virtually identical, let me focus on Kentucky’s.

The first clause in both agreements is exactly what one would hope for in relation to a gift to an academic institution—the promotion of academic freedom:


Most of the rest of the agreement specifies the institute’s programs, the support expected from both the donors and the university, the terms under which the donors can terminate the agreement, and so on.

But then, sprinkled throughout the agreement but highlighted especially in Attachment A, is the mission of the institute:


That’s not academic freedom; it’s not an open-ended analysis of the role of free enterprise in society. The sole mission of the institute is to “discover and understand aspects of free enterprise that promote the well-being of society.”

Academic freedom means following ideas wherever they lead, a process that cannot be afraid either of the results its conclusions or of conflict with the reigning ideas or powers that be. That, as academics, is what guides our research and what we teach students in the classroom.

The terms of the agreement completely undercuts that notion of academic freedom. The stated mission of the John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise is not to study the role of free enterprise in society—the ways in which, in some cases, it might promote and, at other times, undermine the well-being of society—but to focus only on “aspects of free enterprise that promote the well-being of society.”

That’s not academic freedom; it’s dogma.

That requirement of dogma, of producing and disseminating only one point of view, one set of ideas, renders impossible the academic gift. It’s not an academic gift when it purchases a particular set of ideas. And it’s certainly not a gift that should be accepted by the members of an academic institution.

But, of course, the donors are not stupid. They may be self-interested but they know they are. Their non-gift is precisely meant, as the agreement confirms, to create an equivalent exchange—of a large monetary donation for ideas and activities that celebrate free enterprise. The same is true of the administrators who accepted the gift: they’ve sold what is most precious to their institutions—academic freedom—for large monetary donations.

As is turns out, that’s exactly what the narrator observes in Charles Baudelaire’s story, “Counterfeit Money.” After noting that his friend’s aim in giving a counterfeit coin to a poor man was both “to do a good deed while at the same time making a good deal; to earn forty cents and the heart of God; to win paradise economically; in short, to pick up gratis the certificate of a charitable man,” he concludes:

To be mean is never excusable, but there is some merit in knowing that one is; the most irreparable of vices is to do evil out of stupidity.

It’s clear, the John H. Schnatter centers for free enterprise at Louisville and Kentucky will not be established on the basis of academic gifts but, rather, from pretty straightforward exchanges. And parties on both sides have signed on to that deal—of money for dogma.

While their acts may be undermining academic freedom, I suppose there’s at least some merit in their not doing it out of stupidity. The agreements they’ve signed testify to the fact that, on both sides, they know exactly what they are doing.

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Sidney W. Mintz, a renowned cultural anthropologist who focused on the Caribbean rural proletariat and linked Britain’s insatiable sweet tooth with slavery, capitalism, and imperialism, died on Sunday at the age of 93.

The son of a restaurateur and an amateur chef himself, Professor Mintz was best known beyond the academy and his own kitchen for his Marxian perspective on the growing demand for sugar in Britain, beginning in the 17th century.

In his view, that hunger shaped empires, spawned industrial-like plantations in the Caribbean and South America that presaged capitalism and globalization, enslaved and decimated indigenous populations, and engendered navies to protect trade while providing a sweetener to the wealthy and a cheap source of energy to industrial workers.

“There was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working class, to turn them into addicts or ruin their teeth,” Professor Mintz wrote in “Sweetness and Power.” “But the ever-rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of interclass struggles for profit — struggles that eventuated in a world market solution for drug food, as industrial capitalism cut its protectionist losses and expanded a mass market to satisfy proletarian consumers once regarded as sinful or indolent.”

He added, “No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.”

For me, Mintz’s work was important for many different reasons: the importance of history in making sense of food, economic and social relations, and commodity exchange; a conception of capitalism as a global system; and a focus on capitalist and noncapitalist class structures and class struggles in both the North and the South. Perhaps most important, he turned traditional economic determinism on its head by arguing that the consumption of sugar, tea, and other commodities and their social importance in eighteenth-century Great Britain shaped British colonial policy and the production of those commodities throughout the empire.

Mintz’s work was also an important inspiration for one of my recent courses, Commodities: The Making of Market Society.


Special mention

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Annual report

Posted: 29 December 2015 in Uncategorized


Once again, WordPress has crunched the year-end numbers on my blog. Here’s what it reports:

This blog has been viewed 114,265 times thus far this year.

As it turns out, I wrote 861 new posts this year, growing the total archive of this blog to 6,696 posts.

Here are the posts that apparently got the most views in 2015:

1. It’s the class conflict, stupid! (

2. Chart of the day (

3. Falling down (

4. Capital (gains) vs. labor (income) (

5. Human capital controversy (

This blog had visitors from 173 different countries—mostly from the United States, followed by Germany and the United Kingdom.

All in a year’s work. . .


I also want to thank the folks at the Real-World Economics Review Blog for reposting some of the items that originally appear here, thus expanding the conversation.


Each of the top 400 U.S. taxpayers took home, on average, about $336 million in 2012—but they only paid 16.72 percent in federal income taxes. That’s down from tax rates in the 28-29 range in the early 1990s, according to the latest data from the Internal Revenue Service (pdf).

What happened? Basically, the tiny group at the top has used a portion of the surplus they’ve been able to capture—amounting to about $134 billion or 1.5 percent of U.S. (adjusted gross) income—to purchase favorable tax policy and hire an army of lawyers and accountants to shield much of their income from U.S. taxes.

In the meantime, their incomes have grown dramatically: on average (in 1990 dollars), from $47 million in 1992 to $76 million in 2012, and, as a total (also in 1990 dollars), from $17 billion to $76 billion.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald explained, these careless people, who smash up things and creatures, are able to retreat back into their money and let other people clean up the mess they have made. . .

We’re #1!

Posted: 29 December 2015 in Uncategorized


Last year, the United States led the world in arms sales, with a total of $36.2 billion in worldwide arms transfer agreements. Russia took a distant second place with $10.2 billion in agreements, out of a global total of $71.8 billion in 2014.

In other words, according to new report from the Congressional Research Service on “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2007-2014” (pdf), dated 21 December 2015, the United States is far and away the number one military-industrial complex in the world.

Here are excerpts of an analysis of the report from the New York Times:

Foreign arms sales by the United States jumped by almost $10 billion in 2014, about 35 percent, even as the global weapons market remained flat and competition among suppliers increased, a new congressional study has found.

American weapons receipts rose to $36.2 billion in 2014 from $26.7 billion the year before, bolstered by multibillion-dollar agreements with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Those deals and others ensured that the United States remained the single largest provider of arms around the world last year, controlling just over 50 percent of the market.

Russia followed the United States as the top weapons supplier, completing $10.2 billion in sales, compared with $10.3 billion in 2013. Sweden was third, with roughly $5.5 billion in sales, followed by France with $4.4 billion and China with $2.2 billion. . .

The report to Congress found that total global arms sales rose slightly in 2014 to $71.8 billion, from $70.1 billion in 2013. Despite that increase, the report concluded that “the international arms market is not likely growing over all,” because of “the weakened state of the global economy.”

It was the second successive year that global sales remained steady, suggesting that the market has begun to level off after several years of extreme fluctuation.

Here are the totals, in constant 2014 dollars, for the 2007-2014 period:


And the percentages of the total for the major exporters over the same period:


For the past seven years (and, of course, much longer), the vast majority of arms sales have been from developed to developing countries, especially in the Middle East and Asia:



Special mention

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One Percent

Greg Mankiw is not sure why we’re talking about income inequality now:

One hypothesis is that we don’t worry about inequality when everyone is doing well. Another hypothesis is that we now have a president with a political ideology that sees inequality as especially pernicious.

As it turns out, Daniel Hirschman [ht: tc] at the University of Michigan wrote a dissertation chapter on the topic, in the field of sociology: “Rediscovering the 1%: Economic Expertise and Inequality Knowledge” (pdf).

Here’s the abstract:

In the 2000s, academics and policymakers began to discuss the growth of top incomes in the United States, especially the “top 1%.” Newly analyzed data revealed that top income earners in the 1990s received a larger share of income than at any point since the Great Depression, and that their incomes had begun a dramatic upward climb in the early 1980s. This paper investigates why it took two decades for this increase in top incomes to become politically and academically salient. I argue that experts assembled two “regimes of perceptibility” (Murphy 2006) for producing knowledge about income inequality, and that neither of these regimes was capable of tracking movements in top incomes. Macroeconomists focused on labor’s share of national income, but did not examine the distribution of income between individuals. Labor economists, on the other hand, drew on newly available survey data to explain wage disparities in terms of education, age, work experience, race, and gender. By relying on surveys, these scholars unintentionally eliminated top incomes from view: surveys top-coded high incomes, and thus were incapable of seeing changes in the top 1%. Studies of top incomes that relied on income tax data thus fell by the wayside, creating the conditions under which experts, policymakers, and the public alike could be surprised by the rise of the 1%. This historical narrative offers insights into the political power of economic expertise by clarifying the complex linkages between observations, stylized facts, causal theories, and policy attention.

There’s a great deal to recommend in Hirschman’s analysis, in terms of both his theoretical framework (in which he focuses on “regimes of perceptibility” and the way those regimes produce both ignorance and knowledge about inequality) and the history of those regimes (especially in mainstream macroeconomics and labor economics in the twentieth century).

But I also think Hirschman overlooks or downplays significant parts of that history of the regimes of perceptibility with respect to inequality within economics. Let me briefly discuss three that strike me as important in terms of tracking or, as has most often been the case, not tracking movements in top incomes.

First, while Hirschman does mention the classical political economists’ (especially David Ricardo’s) concern with the “distribution of income between the classes,” he never touches on Marx’s critique of political economy. He therefore fails to understand how, after Marx, the distribution of income within capitalism has come to be associated, directly or indirectly, with (a) class exploitation and (b) distributions of the surplus-value capitalists appropriate from wage-laborers to those at the top of the distribution of income.

Second, while mainstream macroeconomists have historically referred to the “stylized fact” of relatively constant factor shares, those factor or class shares of income never played an important explanatory role in their theoretical frameworks. Within mainstream macroeconomics, the portions of national income stemming from or going to labor and capital have never been considered to be a significant factor in—either as cause or consequence of—the recurring boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism.

Third, the postwar rise to hegemony of neoclassical economic theory (in labor economics but also across the discipline) meant that marginal productivity theory and the notion of “just deserts” were, within mainstream economics, the predominant way the distribution of income—in terms of both the factor and size distribution—was understood. If every group and individual is getting its “fair,” marginal contribution to production, there’s really nothing else to worry about or investigate.

As I understand it, the combination of the specter of class after Marx and the discursive rules within mainstream economics created a field of ignorance that was only broken—at least partially—with the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Only then did the growing share of income going to the top 1 percent acquire some relevance in the wider society and, to a lesser extent, within the discipline of economics.

Even today, and despite the important empirical knowledges produced by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the regimes of perceptibility within mainstream economics continue to produce a profound ignorance concerning the causes and consequences of the unequal distribution of income within contemporary capitalism.