Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Rich in sunshine is the city of nine-teen-sixty. Fresh air, fine green parkways, recreational and civic centers, modern and efficient city planning, breathtaking architecture, each city block a complete unit in itself." If you want an idea how we got where we are today, just check out To New Horizons, a 1940 documentary about the General Motors' "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. The world of 1960 features uncongested urban highways, highways that ascend into mountain passes, rationalized farming, and plenty of leisure time for all the girls and boys. GM was staggeringly efficient in getting their future to come true, although without the lilting, soothing accompaniment of Robert Stein. Oh yeah, and with the pollution and misery.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bolivia is "the Saudi Arabia of Lithium." Lithium-ion is what powers the batteries that will run our electric cars, and Bolivia has the largest deposit in the world. This is interesting: what will Morales' socialist government do with/about its new-found "riches." I like the quote from the Bolivian Minister of Mining, Luis Alberto Echazu: "Any company that would like to work with us will have to develop industries here. Otherwise, there's nothing. It's very simple: we will not continue exporting raw materials for another five hundred years. That is over." The problem, as the minister appears to recognize, is that raw-material export countries tend to have huge levels of wealth stratification. If Bolivia can put tight controls on its exports and develop the industry within Bolivia, it may be able to actually benefit from the lithium deposits. Here's CNN's take:

Monday, April 20, 2009

I apologize in advance for this post. Pass it by if you are at all squeamish. Georges Franju's 1949 film, Le Sang des bĂȘtes, about slaughterhouses in France. I found it at Limited, Inc., where there is an ongoing discussion of the abbatoirs in France.

I have to say, I like this a lot:

“It’s a reminder for us in the United States,” President Obama was quoted in the New York Times, “that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence.”

I think he may end up being better than a lot on the left are willing to give him credit for. Of course, lets see if he follows through on his words. The CIA thing this week is rather depressing, to say the least.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I just wanted to make a brief comment on the so-called "easing of the embargo" between the U.S. and Cuba. First of all, there is no easing of the embargo, but rather, an easing of the travel ban. Secondly, this is not some radically new shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, but simply a movement to a travel policy slightly more permissive than during the Clinton era (yes, certain people could legally travel to Cuba all the way up until 2005; I lived there for four months in 2003). Good, yes. But the left and the right should not delude themselves about what this means. If the embargo ends, that will be something significant. That's not what this is, however.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I've had at least three conversations lately about begging. I found myself more or less in agreement with one of the people I was discussing this with (less so with the other two), who argued that, while she has respect for begging, one cannot possibly cure the problems of a society by giving money. This is true, and I agree. But perhaps we need to rethink the position of begging in societies. In his book, Shadow Work, Ivan Illich speaks of "a right to beggary that for a thousand years was never challenged" (103). Begging, in other words was a legitimate part of European society for most of its history. What's more, if you look at other cultures today, many have a completely different view of begging than the dominant European one. My parents have been Buddhist for over forty years now (much longer than I have been alive), and for about 10 years of my life, they had a Buddhist teacher who came directly from Tibet, spoke no English and always taught with a translator, and who was completely un-Western in most of his mannerisms. One of the teachings he would constantly reiterate was the need to give to beggars, regardless of what one thought they would do with the money. There was a mandate to give because begging itself was not seen as illegitimate, a subjective "lack," or some kind of result of a deficiency in the beggar. I visited Tibet, myself, when I was 18 and the begging there was completely different than what we see here. It never involves an individual; it always involves groups, and once you give to one person, you are asked by more and more people until you either refuse to give more or have no more to give. There are a number of things to bear in mind here when thinking about begging in so-called "underdeveloped" or "developing" nations: 1) it acts as a kind of global redistribution on a negligible scale: in Tibet, we gave things that the Tibetan beggars didn't have access to; eyedrops were particularly popular, because of the dust in Tibet and the lack of availability of eyedrops at reasonable prices; 2) the existence of a dual economy makes what for me seems like a drop in the bucket actually have some value elsewhere; as tourists, we generally know this, but don't understand it; it does not mean that begging releases beggars from poverty (and a genealogy of the uses of the word "poverty" might be interesting in itself), but that the dollar can buy imported commodities, whereas the local currency usually cannot at any reasonable price (unless the "local" currency is the Yen or the Euro). Now, unlike in Tibet, in the U.S., it is always individuals, and their begging generally relies on "selling themselves." In other words, they try to appeal to emotions, or they try to entertain, or occasionally, they try to intimidate (I've seen this twice in my life). In other words, in a society of producing monads, even begging is a monadological phenomenon.

These are the preliminaries. To better understand begging, we need to stop viewing it as an isolated phenomenon: the (lazy) beggar asking for my (hard-earned) money. This should be patently obvious to most leftists and even to most liberals. Poverty is an outcropping of society and not some effect of laziness. What I think is less obvious is that begging is quite simply an activity that aims to redistribute social wealth in a very direct manner. Begging, like investment, takes wealth from one portion in which it might be swelling or overflowing, and deposits it in a portion where there is a (relative) lack. It is probably not the most effective form of wealth distribution, partly because in liberal societies we are so thoroughly trained to view property rights as unassailable and to view beggars as sub-human, but partly because, structurally, begging is a very "inefficient" way of extracting surplus from those who have it.

The comparison of begging and investment is not an accident. Both of these ask people to hand over surplus. In one, we are giving such a small share of our surplus, in general, that the thought of it going to, say, alcohol rather than food (although anyone who thinks about this should realize that, if I give someone five dollars on the street, and s/he spends the bulk of it on alcohol, he nevertheless has to eat; and he will probably spend something on food, unless s/he gets it from another source) should not particularly distress me. On the other hand, with investment, the idea is to get back more than what is invested - gambling. In this latter case, the figure who is being compared with the beggar, the investor, gets a share; this share is legally his once you have gone through with contracting, and as long as he "plays by the rules" he gets this share. He has begged you to trust him with your wealth; you have done so; he gets something out of it; you may ultimately not. We know how it's played. But what is important is that both begging and investment rely on social surplus; they are means by which individuals and groups secure for themselves a share of the social surplus. In one case (investment), the promise is held out that more surplus will come back the way it came; in the other case (begging), no such promise is made.

An anecdote: The similarity between begging and other forms of wealth redistribution really hit home for me recently. Last summer, I had a job of sorts, for Grassroots, Incorporated. I got paid minimum wage (and I didn't get paid for every hour I was working) plus commission (which adds up to nearly zero no matter how much money you make, because commission comes by beating the office average for the week; if you make seven hundred one day and one hundred the next, and the office average is 300, you make 25% of the 100 dollar over the office average, or twenty-five dollars for those two days; sounds good, but if that remains your average for the week, you get a grand total of twenty-five extra dollars for the week). I went door-to-door from about 4 PM to 9 PM asking people to donate money to the Democratic National Committee. I would stand on their doorsteps, asking them from the bottom of my wallet (which was pretty sparse just then) to help fund the war against John McCain. I met some interesting people, some nasty people, some hostile people, and a lot of people who couldn't afford (and others who "couldn't afford") to give me money. I memorized a script and repeated it over and over again until my mind went numb, my personality evaporated, and I was nothing but a smile and a minute-long prefabricated request for money. I began to speak in an obnoxious lilting tone and feel as though I didn't have a self. I quite the job after two weeks, which were the two most emotionally exhausting weeks of my life. More recently, I ran into a beggar while I was in a bit of a hurry. He began talking about his kids, and how he lost his job, and I realized while he was talking that everything he was saying had been rehearsed. Instead of making me hostile to the man, it made me realize just how similar my job knocking on doors was to his job standing on the street corner. I gave him more money than I probably otherwise would have. A beggar is someone who can get five dollars out of you; a fundraiser is someone who can get five thousand.

Of course, the rise of the welfare state has allowed us to forget that in many societies there is no solid line between "beggars" and "workers." In Ecuador, for instance, children beg as a supplementary income for the rest of the family. In other words, the original postulate, i.e., that "we aren't going to fix society by giving money away," is absolutely true, but with this caveat: we should begin to look at begging as a trade; it is thus not about fixing society, at all. If we want to fix society we need to look elsewhere, at larger forces and institutions around us. Begging is simply a means by which one group gains some of the surplus that large civil societies almost inevitably produce. It is not about work and laziness; after all, in a highly capitalized society such as ours, begging has, as I have shown through the comparison to my work at Grassroots, all the appearances, including many of the drawbacks, of a "job." It is about the ways in which social surplus gets redistributed, whether it be to a two dollar 40 Oz bottle of malt liquor, a four dollar hamburger, a ten dollar martini or a two hundred dollar iPod.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It doesn't get any more blunt than this:
It was the US dollar that was monetized, or more specifically US debt obligations, which are now substantially worthless and will have to take a significant haircut in real terms. This is similar to the Japanese experience in which they monetized their real estate.

Ironically, those expecting this deleveraging to result in a stronger dollar could not be more mistaken. The Obama Administration is scrambling to obtain relief from Europe and Asia, getting them to inflate their own currencies through 'stimulus,' in order to continue to hide the unalterable truth - the US must partially default on its debt as expressed in the dollar and the Bond.

This is the inevitable outcome of all Ponzi schemes. Several smaller, private schemes already have collapsed. The big one is yet to come down. And when it does, the foundations of democracy will shake, several governments will fall, and we will once again experience the kind of uncertainty more familiar to those who lived in the first half of the twentieth century.

The sad truth is that the Obama Administration has barely begun the real work of rebuilding the economy. Everything to date is simple looting, paper-hanging, and the rewriting of history.

Until the median wage improves signficantly in real terms, and the economy is put back on a productive basis without relying on the unsupported expansion of credit, there will be no recovery, merely sound byte opportunities for the smoke and mirror crowd.

This is the reality.
The census is done only once every ten years, which means it's pretty important that it's done right. We all know that Republicans have a huge investment in doing it wrong, in counting only the people who come to the door and answer the phone and not using statistics and probabilities to figure out who was missed. This year, there are going to be more problems, because of the huge number of foreclosures and the large numbers of people living in tent cities:
“Many people now who have lost their homes to foreclosure are doubling up with relatives, with other families. They might be living in motels . . . tent cities are popping up,” said Terry-Ann Lowenthal, a consultant for many non-profit organisations co-operating with the bureau on the 2010 census. “All of these new living situations create really significant challenges to traditional counting operations.”

One in nine US homeowners with a mortgage was behind on home loan ­payments or in some stage of foreclosure by the end of last year and reports are growing of the desperate measures to which people are turning when they lose their homes. Almost 300,000 homes received foreclosure filings in February alone, according to RealtyTrac.

There is little data on the rise in “non-traditional” housing, which is something the Census Bureau will generate for the first time as it seeks people out this year.

“Some of the first really hard data we have will come from this census, and it’s a big concern, there’s no question about it,” said Burton H. Reist, assistant to the associate director for communications at the bureau.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"With RectSYS, fruit pickers living in India can pick tomatoes grown in the USA!"

And see how happy she is. It must be progress we're watching here:

Lest I need to remind you, "Este es el sueño americano: todo el trabajo, sin los trabajadores":

Life is sweet: I found out today that I have a job for the summer. 20 hours a week, which is what I had asked for.