Tag Archives: economics

north dakota + occupy wall st.

28 Nov

Next to the cash register of a small cafe in Chicago is a sign that shows a photo of the JP Morgan Chase Building, downtown, and an image of the cafe’s logo. Next to the Chase Building, it says, TOO BIG TO FAIL. Next to the cafe: NOT TOO BIG TO FAIL.

The sign encourages people to use cash, not because the owners are scrooges, but because they don’t want to support big banks and because they lose a percentage of the money paid via credit and debit cards. The sign was up long before Occupy Wall St. and that day a while back when we were all supposed to switch to local banks. It was just smart business and good for the community.

What might also be good business is if Illinois itself created a central bank. This article from GOOD, published this spring, describes how North Dakota beat the Occupy folks to the anti-bank punch.

The [state-owned Bank of North Dakota] does very little direct lending and instead helps prop up a large network of community banks throughout the state, financing parts of loans to farms and businesses. This mitigates some of the risk for the smaller banks and frees them up to make more loans, thus spurring industry and, subsequently, job growth.

In essence, this is socialism providing the means for capitalism, and it’s working very well.

Interesting stuff. The article is worth reading.

food service < factory work

20 Jul

In a report by GOOD on the state of the American waiter, the magazine notes that the food-service industry has added more than 216,000 jobs in the past 18 months, growth that is twice the national average. This has been going on for some time, not just in the past two years, and interestingly, these food-service jobs are what’s replacing old factory jobs. The benefits, however, are much worse.

“Back in the ’60s, so much of the working class was employed in factories. The jobs we’ve seen taking their place have been service sector jobs that don’t have labor protections. Only ten percent of workers get paid sick days and 90 percent don’t get health insurance from their employers. The fact is, most of these jobs are replacing work that used to be better.”

the barcode :: history & future

28 Jun

Today is the anniversary of the purchase of a pack of gum.

“On June 26, 1974, a white male by the name of Clyde Dawson entered Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. He loaded up his cart with groceries and approached the checkout line. The cashier that day was Sharon Buchanan. At 8:01 a.m., she picked a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum out of his cart and scanned it. The gum has now been immortalized at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.”

The reason the gum has become something of a national treasure, writes Peter Smith for GOOD, is because it was the first item to be scanned using the Universal Product Code, or UPC, “the nondescript, monochrome rectangle that adorns nearly every retail item we purchase.”

Creative branding by Vanity Barcodes

Oddly, though the barcode has since been used as a “social surveillance tool, a sign of the devil, and an embodiment of the dull commercial uniformity of packaged supermarket goods,” the concept is evolving to something rather interesting. We look to Smith again (yet via a different article) to explain a phenomenon known as “ichthyologic name-swapping,” an intimidating term that simply refers to the fact that fish vendors are making up new types of fish, or selling one species as something else.

“Argentine Roughy, Cherry Snapper, and Salmon Trout only exist at the fish market. They’re fictitious names for fish that don’t exist. … Despite growing awareness about the origins of our food, we’re often served a completely different fish species than the ones we order. This comes with economic costs…[and] obfuscates the origins of fish, so contaminated or toxic food causing health problems often can’t be traced to the source.”

It’s in the next part that the barcode comes back into play.

“What’s interesting is that the same technology scientists and amateur sleuths have been using to detect mislabeled seafood could help combat the confusion and fraud. It’s called DNA barcoding, and it works by comparing gene sequences of a sample fish flesh to the 8,000 varieties stored in the International Barcode of Life Project.”

That project seeks to use its DNA barcodes to combat the market substitution Smith is talking about, but also assist researchers in understanding the natural history and ecology of fish species. Thirty-seven years ago, the barcode was first used to price a pack of chewing gum. In another ten, Smith conjectures, we might see inspectors with hand-held DNA sequencers, reading the genetic codes of the fish being sold around the world.

right hand / left hand

14 Feb

“He repairs with his right hand what he ruins with his left.”

Slavoj Zizek discusses our pithy, artificial solutions, those mere band-aids we slap on our gaping societal wounds. I agree with him on a number of points. The quote above, for instance, follows the issue private property. How we try to use it to alleviate poverty, when private property—in practice, if not in theory—is part of the problem.

We see this all the time. I see it all the time. I’ve written about it often. I’ve even written about me writing about it. But Zizek touches on a few very different points, each which deserve to be addressed.

1) TOMS Shoes. It’s not the model. It’s an anomaly and should be treated as such. Zizek derides the company for acting as if charity should be part of the consumerist action. What I want to know is why blame the company for making it work? TOMS is successful. They have a recipe that gets thousands of kids shoes and still brings in a profit. And if you talk to Blake Mycoskie, you see he loves what he does. Where is the harm? However, do we need 1-for-1 T-shirts, sunglasses, and messenger bags? No. And so I agree that we’re silly to act as if buying, buying, buying as long as it’s accompanied by giving, giving, giving is as good as living contentedly and with deeper notions of stewardship, love, and flourishing.

2) “Charity degrades and demoralizes. The worst slave owners were the ones who were kind to their slaves.” I see where he’s coming from. As a philosopher, it’s his job to take things out of context and think about ideals. But what slave owner, feeling in his gut that to torture another man is wrong, should be condemned for having mercy? Is it not worse for him to forsake his human, perhaps superhuman desire for grace (which then robs both slave and owner)?

3) Which leads to this notion that in order to dismantle the institution of slavery, slave owners ought to have seen the future and acted collectively. Throughout human history, foresight on a societal level is nonexistent. We are always trying to predict the future, but rarely do we do so. Unintended consequences are perhaps our reigning contribution to the world. Zizek is a fool to act as if, in their place, he would do things different and bring about a nicely packaged outcome.

4) As far as “reconstructing society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible,” I don’t think I need to say a lot. It will always be with us. No “arrangement” can forcibly corral the evil we’re capable of, and surely not forever. Gandhi led India to independence, only so it could race toward its social and environmental death in the 21st century. Not that we should restrain hope for an end to suffering. But suffering takes many forms, and many outside the realm of traditional poverty. It is in our response to this—which should not equal what Zizek calls “charity,” that large-scale, perpetual aggravator, but rather love, in all its mysterious, wise, reciprocal binds—that we can live with incurable disease.

5) I mention love because this is what Zizek does not account for. He is interested only in economic health. Which is not health. (Or rather economic health is very different than economic prosperity. (And here I should mention that it is also very different than economic destitution.)) Economic prosperity is as artificial as a “coffee ethic.” Love has power not accounted for in the data. I am not talking about the love most would think of here. I am talking about a love that encompasses grief and wrath and sacrifice. It is not always simple or pleasant or even understood. It is not an agent of some euphoric utopia.

Despite these small quibbles, Zizek’s intentions are good, and he urges what I might also urge if I was addressing a large crowd. Addresses are for idealistic pronouncements. They are for widening the realm of possibility. For exploring the adjacent possible. For me though, not an addresser of large crowds, I have little choice but to enact a smaller, more personal restructuring, one of lifestyle more than society.

There is much more to say, but I’m interested now in listening. Thoughts?