Saturday, October 20, 2012

I just completed reading The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel.  It was a decent read however the ending was a bit lackluster due to the author's picturesque projection of what the human civilization should be in terms of government, markets and social structure.  He presents some strong arguments as to why markets are fundamentally flawed (incorrect pricing of everything) and ties the basis of his argument to a well know quote from Oscar Wild's The Picture of Dorian Gray"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing".  I pulled a few interesting quotes:
    "There's a final route through which profit might be created, one that doesn't involve labor: enclosure.  Polanyi's observations about the creation of market society aren't mere historical curiosities.  Geographer David Harvey has written about how the capitalist search for new resources to privatize generates its own maps of crises.  When a national forest is sold for timber, biodiversity is put under patent or mineral rights are auctioned off, there's an enclosing, a privatizing of that resource that allows someone to profit from it at public expense.
    Marx's discussion of the economy works by asking where it is that value comes from.  He traces it back to labor, and then explored the dynamics of profit seeking in market society.  It's a way of thinking about market society with great explanatory power, showing the origins of externalities in the rise of capitalism and in the social forces at play withing our market society.  It explains why corporate behavior consistently skirts the boundaries of ethics and legality-- the corporation's need for profit drives it to rapacity and setting ethics firmly to one side-- even if ultimately, Marx thought, the persistent quest for profit would lead to the end of capitalism itself.
    Although today's economic crisis looks dire, Marx's predictions haven't come true quite yet.  Our current economic turbulence is a result of the way capital is invested, and the life that money takes on when it is not industrial capital, but finance capital.  Although Marx understood the importance of finance better than classical and neoclassical economists, his analyses comes with a politics that are fundamentally incompatible with the ideology of today's market society-- it's far easier to think about the crisis as the result of poor regulation or bad apples on Wall Street than to see it as emerging from a social system into which we have been folded.  It is perhaps this reason that in explaining today's recession, the theories of a much more recent economist, one who grew up amid the machinery of finance and whose thought presents only a moderate challenge to prevailing ideas about market society, have taken center stage: the twentieth-century British economist John Maynard Keynes."
    In reference to how poorly markets price the social negative externalities, they are equally inefficient at pricing social positive externalities.
    The treatments for malaria are fairly rudimentary, and in the absence of an effective cure, one way to prevent it is to stop the mosquito bites.  A cheap way to do that is through bed nets treated with an insecticide that lasts from three to seven years, which cost between three and six dollars.  They're 70% effective at preventing mosquitoes from biting.  The World Health Organization recommends that they be given away free to mothers and children...The value of these nets is much higher than their price, and if left to the market, fewer lives would be saved...
    A similar case can be made for education...The British Department for International Development reports that the Rwandan government's efforts to ensure free primary education for 100 percent of Rwandan children in the aftermath of the violence that left 1.2 million children orphaned resulted in some of the highest enrollment rates, for boy and girls in East Africa.  Enrollment rates in Rwanda have increased from 73.3 percent to 94 percent, representing an additional 500,000 children.

    "The main work of a social movement is to put the rich in their place."
-Shamita Naidoo, activist with the Abahlali baseMjondolo shackdwellers' movement

    In Argentina, researchers surveyed urban area where some shackdwellers were given land titles and others were not.  Those given land titles, the "lucky" group, were more likely to trust others than their untitled counterparts.  Curiously, "lucky" shackdwellers also though that "you can succeed on your own" at rates 30 percent higher than "unlucky" ones, despite the fact that land titles had been handed out, rather than earned.  Those who received land titles started to hold more individualistic and materialistic beliefs than their untitled counterparts, despite the fact that both the lucky and the unlucky groups earned about the same amount.  De Soto sees this as an educational benefit; "Property makes capital 'mind friendly'", he says.

    I found this passage pretty interesting because it made me question whether or not most republican families happen to have a long lineage of home ownership in their history.  The democratic party in America is largely inclusive of minorities, however many minorities and first generation Americans do not have long lineages of home ownership.  While ownership is not the only  reason to carry the mentality of 'you can succeed on your own", families with long histories of this particular philosophy may pass this mentality from generation to generation.  This could also play a part in the perceived dependency of the poor on the government and the republican motto of 'Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps'.  In the case of African Americans of whom were not allowed to own land centuries ago this experiment hints at how long lasting the effects of slavery might actually be.  The ego lift given to European Americans and the philosophy spawned from being a land owner and subsequently passed from generation could have lasting effects on the successes or failures of entire families, communities and ethnic groups as a whole.

    "But what is to be done with the waste when it's created?  Larry Summers, the director of President Obama's National Economic Council, once followed market signals to their logical conclusion in answering this question.  In a  leaked memo, written during his tenure at the World Bank.  Summers asked, "Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]?" His logic, impeccable by economic standards, was that poor people value environmental harm less than rich people, and so toxic waste could more efficiently be disposed of in Africa.   

    Rounding out the end of the book, the author closes with the perspective of John Locke:

    "In Locke's day the great crisis of value lay in the falling value of money-- coin slippers, counterfeiters and frauds of various kinds had altered and shaved the edges off silver coins so that the face value was more than 50 percent higher than its real worth...His solution was for the government to take a coin that claimed to be say, a 10-ounce piece of silver, and reissue it as a more accurate 7-ounce piece.  By turning coins into self-contained educational devices to correct the insanity of debauched currency, Locke sewed up both madness and money."
    The author digresses into a list of comparisons of John Keynes, Naomi Klein and Locke's ideologies being similar to medical doctors (and this is where he really lost me).  The assumption throughout the book is that there are at least two advanced species of the genus Homo running around.  That is homo-sapiens and homo-economus (corporations).  It is the latter species that is currently endangering the former.  Raj Patel argues that homo-econimus should be diagnosed as a psychopath (given their brazen history).  This has all been said before in other documentaries so he offers nothing new on the topic.  The author goes a step further to say that if homo-economus are a sick and depraved species of the homo genus, then economists are the only 'doctors' that can cure the species.  At this point, I decided the author had somewhat lost it and felt that his level of self importance had breached the solidity of his argument.  In my opinion, we do have two species of human running around, however the solution is not to cure corporations but to merely revoke the rights we as a civilization have afforded them.  My mother frequently quoted "People are more important than things".  As a teenager I'd get irate every time she said it because I loved the materialistic world and the value to which I thought all these 'things' were worth.  In retrospect, that bit of wisdom has been the difference between me growing up to be a cold and calculating individual with littler respect for his fellow man and an ever evolving person that strives to forge, bridge and maintain relationships on the basis that there really is nothing more sacred than our human experience and with whom and how we share it.  That being said, we must realize that homo-economus is not one of us and he cannot identify with our human experience.  One cannot value what one cannot identify and so our existence means little to homo-economus.  In essence homo-economus only needs enough homo sapiens to keep its moving parts well ordered.  I think homo-economus insures that a percentage of the homo-sapien population will survive and possibly thrive, however a great many of us are completely expendable in the name of it's own species advancement up the evolutionary chain.


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