I'm the author of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover, 2011). I write about big ideas, culture, creativity, and the interaction of complex systems.
Posts tagged "culture"

As a lot of people already know, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) are two American bills before Congress that are opposed by many because of Net censorship issues.

Google’s take on the whole thing demonstrates how the economic story typically gets referenced as an ultimate justification for why something should or shouldn’t happen.

The bold type headline:

Millions of Americans oppose SOPA and PIPA because these bills would censor the Internet and slow economic growth in the U.S.

I came across this Spiegel interview via @brainpicker (Spiegel is a big European newsmagazine), and had some thoughts about the assumptions being made by the interviewee, 76-year-old Hilmar Kopper, the former head of Deutsche Bank, and a man who is described as “once the most powerful banker in Germany.”

The interview begins with the Spiegel introduction: “The three main constants [Kopper] has seen in the world, he says, are “money, avarice and greed.”“

The excerpts from the interview that particularly struck me are below, and my comments follow after.

SPIEGEL: And you don’t think that the scope of all these virtual financial transactions [occurring worldwide] should be limited?

Kopper: How? And where? But you’re discussing this in less of a legal sense than in an ethical and moral sense, right?

SPIEGEL: Indeed.

Kopper: That’s the difference between us. The virtual world isn’t a manifestation of the financial industry alone! And I have no moral arguments to make here, either. If the markets allow such deals to take place — and that is the case today — then they do take place.

SPIEGEL: You can’t simply ignore morality. Speculation, for example, exacerbates the food supply problem. All of a sudden, food staples threaten to become so expensive that the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh or Africa can no longer afford to buy them — merely because of the decisions made by a handful of dealers in Chicago or London.

Kopper: Maybe that’s true, or maybe it isn’t. I haven’t read any studies that clearly pointed to a relationship (between these two things). The prices of most commodities recently plunged, despite the fact that alternative energy production using plants is and remains the biggest driver of prices.

SPIEGEL: Speculation can exacerbate the up and down. And these days not even you would still defend the theory that markets always regulate themselves and that, for this reason, nothing can ever go wrong.

Kopper: I’ve never believed in that. Markets have a compensatory function. This doesn’t mean that good behavior on the part of the players is automatically guaranteed. Unfortunately, the hope that people will behave with decency isn’t always enough. The players need laws. Money needs laws. And laws are the responsibility of the state. It makes the rules, monitors compliance and imposes sanctions, if necessary.

When you look over these excerpts, it’s clear that Kopper is making a basic assumption about the neutrality of the market - meaning, he accepts the assumption that the market is morally neutral. That means that if something good or bad happens in the vicinity of the market, it’s assumed to have nothing to do with the market itself, because the market, in theory, has nothing to say about the morality of this or that.

That’s a fundamental assumption of the economic story that positions the story as being value neutral - when in fact the economic story is value-laden: heavy with values, though most of them are unarticulated.

So let’s briefly articulate this one.

After the discipline of political economy split into two disciplines, political science and economics, the arguments for how things ought to be were left to political science. Economics, which is considered to have originated with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776, was presumed to be morally neutral. Smith thought that a further end existed beyond economics, but that those ends were outside the scope of economics itself, and left to “higher” disciplines like philosophy and religion.

So Koppler’s comment, “I have no moral arguments to make here either” and his suggestion that laws about financial regulation are the responsibility of the state, and not of the market, is directly tied to that idea that political science is about shoulds and oughts, and the market is not.

The other thing that struck me was this comment: 

SPIEGEL: How close are people to normal life in the mahogany-paneled executive suites at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt?

Kopper: Perhaps they have trouble operating the ticket machines on commuter trains. But otherwise, the differences between banking executives and normal people aren’t that great. As a banker, you have no lack of opportunities to look into the human soul. This entire nation, the entire world, is ultimately running after money. The amount of influence money has on people has always fascinated me. You forget almost everything while in its shadow.

SPIEGEL: Have you lost illusions when it comes to your image of humanity?

Kopper: Completely. I used to think that the world was shaped by love. I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense. It’s shaped by money. Money, avarice and greed — these are the three main constants. Why did retirees buy Lehman certificates? Because Aunt Anna said that she had something that was earning 4 percent interest, and suddenly everyone else wanted it. That’s when reason is suspended and the herd mentality takes hold. In this context, it’s still true that the higher the return, the greater the risk.

If reality is largely perceptual, then your perception is shaped a lot by your experience. I would suggest that Kopper’s claim that the world is shaped by money says more about his experience of the world and the nature of the people he has come into contact with over the years than the nature of the world itself.

And I’d imagine that some of the world, being lifelong eyewitnesses to other qualities like love and compassion, would argue the other way.

As 2011 draws to a close, it’s fun to be able to report that the brilliant Maria Popova, editor of Brain Pickings, and contributor to The Atlantic, picked Monoculture as one of the top psychology books of 2011.

Thanks, Maria!(If you haven’t signed up yet for the brainpickings newsletter, do. You won’t be sorry.)

I’m looking forward to reading the other books on the list too - interesting stuff.

occupy photo(Image via wikipedia creative commons)

On September 17th, a few individuals in New York began the Occupy Wall Street protests, calling for ” a revolution of the mind as well as the body politic.” By October 5th, protests in New York had swelled to a reported 20,000 people, with further demonstrations spreading to other cities across America, and demonstrations held around the world on October 15th.   

As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to develop, its outlines are beginning to parallel what poet, playwright and first president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel wrote about in an essay called The Power of the Powerless. Havel outlined how relatively powerless people stood up to the ideological rigidity of the Communist government of Czechoslovakia in the last weeks of 1989. That power of the powerless culminated in what came to be known as The Velvet Revolution (velvet because it was non-violent and saw the overthrow of the government).

Here in North America, the Occupy Wall Street protests reveal a growing collective belief that though we live in a democratic and free society, we too have become ideologically rigid by wholeheartedly adopting an economic paradigm that many believe is now failing us.

In an audio-taped address to Canadian university students, award-winning documentary filmmaker Velcrow Ripper, on location in New York, says that protestors are ultimately calling for a paradigm shift that recognizes that our economic system, constantly held up as our saviour, is actually broken. The protests, he says, are an opportunity to reinvent that paradigm and to figure out what gives us a source of meaning.

Ripper echoes Havel, who wrote that a rigid ideology in society creates the illusion that the way things are is a natural extension of the human order and the order of the universe. Havel said that when people finally stand up to the illusion, they show that it’s possible to live outside that “world of appearances” — and which is why their behavior tends to be suppressed swiftly and brutally.

The rigid ideology that creates that world of appearances is made up of a tangled web of beliefs and assumptions that form our understanding of who we are as human beings, what the world is like, and how we and the world are supposed to interact. Those beliefs and assumptions become the story we tell about how the world works — the structure for our collective unconscious that shapes how we think, feel, and act. Based on the assumptions of the economic paradigm, we’re each encouraged to believe that we don’t have to be responsible for anything other than our own survival in the system, and that in order to survive, we must each be a wolf among wolves. That lack of responsibility eventually creates, Havel said, a deep moral crisis in society.  

A central problem with our economic ideology here in North America is that it isn’t just limited to the economic system. The economic ideology is truly a cultural phenomenon, spreading through our other social systems over the last 40 or 50 years and overwriting values that we once understood to be primarily non-economic. That means our political, religious, intellectual, aesthetic, and kinship systems are increasingly based on the same beliefs and assumptions that underlie our economic system - and so we come to understand our government, our faith, our education, our creativity, and our relationships with others in increasingly economic terms — all of which serves to reinforce the dominance and rigidity of the economic paradigm.

Havel also would have agreed with Ripper’s conviction that the slogan “We are the 99%” (which pits the 1% of the population that controls much of the wealth against the 99% that doesn’t) should be “We are the 100%” — meaning we are so interconnected that any attempt to divide us into “us versus them” falls apart under closer analysis. Havel believed that people who are powerful in the system are not directing it, but are caught up and constrained by the system too. To be fair, that seems hard to take in when even in times of crisis, hedge fund managers take home hundreds of millions of dollars a year in salary and bonuses while thousands of workers below them clear out their offices and start looking for other jobs.

Nevertheless, Havel believed that we are all “involved and enslaved, not only the greengrocers but also the prime ministers…Both…are unfree, each merely in a somewhat different way. Everyone,” he said, “in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. What we understand by the system is not, therefore, a social order imposed by one group upon another, but rather something which permeates the entire society and is a factor in shaping it…which is expressed by the entire society as an important feature of its life.”

The growing support for the Wall Street protests suggests that more and more people are coming to believe — and are willing to publicly state — that the economic system as we know it constrains us, limiting our humanity and our ability to live in a wider spectrum of human values. Protestors are demonstrating their awareness of the limitations of those beliefs and starting to question the many manifestations of that “world of appearances.”

Still, what remains to be seen — and what history will ultimately decide — is whether or not the protests will lead to our own velvet revolution, and whether that revolution will in turn result not just in the transformation of the system, but in the more fundamental transformation of the mind.

The ever-on-the-lookout @ffantastica alerted me to this article on time banks, from the opinion pages of The New York Times. In time banks, people exchange hours for hours instead of for money. It’s a kind of bartering system, except all hours are created equal: an hour of teaching is worth an hour of gardening, is worth an hour of counseling.

Apparently, over 300 time banks exist in 23 countries. Author Tina Rosenberg writes:

There is something old fashioned about a time bank.  Home repair, child care, visiting shut-ins and taking someone to the doctor are now often commercial transactions; a time bank is a return to an era where neighbors did these tasks for each other.  But a time bank is also something radical.  It throws out the logic of the market — in a time bank, all work has equal value.  A 90-year-old can contribute on an equal basis with a 30 year old.  Accompanying someone to the doctor is as valuable as Web design.

The idea comes from Edgar Cahn, a legendary anti-poverty activist.  (Cahn and his late wife, Jean Camper Cahn, established the Antioch School of Law to train advocates for the poor, and were instrumental in founding the federal Legal Services Corporation.)  In his book “No More Useless People,” Cahn writes that time banks were a response to cuts in social programs during the Reagan years.   Cahn wrote: “If we can’t have more of that kind of money, why can’t we create a new kind of money to put people and problems together?”

(Cahn’s book is actually called No More Throw-Away People: The Co-Production Imperative(Essential Books, 2004), and you can read the first few pages here.)

One of the things I wrote about in Monoculture was how organizations that once charged nominal user fees or none at all are jacking those fees up as they take on the economic story and look for new revenue streams. That means library card fees go up, tuition fees go up, and, even in the case of the New York Museum of Modern Art, museum entrance fees go up.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that MoMA is raising its admission fee 25 percent - from $20 to $25. The author of the piece, Laurie Fendrich, does a good job of laying out the bare bones of two very different stories about museums - one that supports keeping admission fees lower so the public has art access, and one that supports raising prices as long as there’s still enough demand from some kind of audience (typically the kind with high disposable income). These two stories have very different consequences for what art museums end up being about, and who they’re for.

MoMA tossed a bone to those objecting to the increase in admission by reminding everyone that there are four hours on Friday evenings (courtesy of Target) when admission is free. No matter that for many people, that particular window doesn’t work, or that free nights draw so many people you can’t see the art without standing on tiptoe.

Some argue that given the increased costs of running a museum, the new admission fee is a necessity, and even reasonable. Bean counters, measuring everything in the world in terms of money, money, money, discuss the steep increase in terms of supply and demand: If people will pay the new fee, why shouldn’t the museum charge it? Those with a libertarian bent look at the increased admission price as a non-issue. People can choose to go to the museum or not. It’s their free choice.

Progressives like me think differently. In the modern age, the accessibility of art has enabled masses of ordinary people, many of them without a dime, to see imaginative alternatives to their lives. Art is an antidote to the meretricious, consumer society that always beckons people to find meaning in the mall and popular entertainment. Young people—especially artists on their way up—have often more or less camped out in museums, wandering the galleries in search of inspiration, or simply in order to soak up visions by great artists of the past.


Yet I can’t help but see the effect the increased fee will have, which will be to keep the riffraff (i.e., ordinary people on a budget), and students (also on a budget)—away. This is a nice move if you want to preserve the museum as a playground for the privileged and the rich.

For a long time now, museums have placed little shops, selling Leonardo umbrellas and Van Gogh pencils, in the final room of just about every exhibition. This is on top of offering large shops on the main floor, as well as satellite shops around town and online shopping opportunities. And this is in addition to fine wining and dining offered in fancy museum cafes and restaurants. I’ve swallowed my objections to this development because I bought the argument that shops and restaurants were necessary to keep museum doors open.

But now I see the insidiousness of these money-raising ventures. Shopping and dining have melded perfectly with looking at art—so much so that museums are now high-level malls, attracting audiences with money to burn, and, inadvertently or not, driving up admission prices.

In the economic story, even peace can be explained economically.

This article in Bloomberg Businessweekexplains how Israeli and Palestinian economists are “trying to put a price tag on peace.”

The group thinks that “translating the conflict [in the Middle East] into the data-driven language of economics might enable the two sides to cut through the rhetoric and begin to think dispassionately about the details of what peace would look like and cost in actual shekels.”

They began with the premise that eventually the six-decade-old conflict would, somehow, end in a two-state solution. They foresaw countless economic questions that would require concrete answers: What would it cost to resettle more than a million Palestinian refugees? What kind of trade agreements would exist between the two states? How would Jerusalem function economically as a divided capital?….

They concede they have no way of reliably calculating how many Palestinians will want to resettle. They estimate there could be as few as 900,000 or as many as 1.8 million. They put the total cost for absorbing refugees at between $8 billion to $19 billion, depending on how quickly they would arrive, how much they would pay in taxes, and what the government could afford to spend.

Says a former Deputy Director General in the Israeli Finance Ministry,

"Sure, it’s nice to talk about safe passage, and relocation, and repatriation, but what is it going to cost? People are very good about talking about politics, but at the end of the day, there is a reality on the ground that costs money, and someone will have to pay for it."

Photo by Robin Holland, found on GuernicaMag.comI liked this bit on the lack of incentive we have to explain complex systems from an interview that David Simon, co-creator of the critically-acclaimed TV series The Wire, did with Bill Moyers:

Bill Moyers: Politics is supposed to be about solving the situations you describe. But it’s constantly creating its own reality, right?

David Simon: It’s about money and it’s about advancement. As a reporter, I got to see some politics. I wasn’t a political reporter per se, but I got to see enough of city politics to absorb it. And Ed Burns taught in the Baltimore city school system and pulled all that through the keyhole for season four of The Wire. I got to see the war on drugs. I got to see policing as a concept. And I got to see journalism.

And when it came to explaining complicated and sophisticated systems and trying to say, “This is what’s going on and if we change this or do that, or if we actually implement this policy, we can, you know…” The hard work of looking at it systemically, there was no incentive to do it and nobody did it, and that’s as true in Baltimore today as when I started as a reporter, and I think it’s true in America.

And from an interview Simon did with Salon:

Simon: … Look, American television has been a juvenile medium for most of its existence. This is true. Because of the commercials, because of the need to placate the maximum number of eyeballs, happy endings abound, redemption abounds, perfect revenge is often achieved in an action sequence. It’s very much unlike life as I have experienced it, and as most people have experienced.

Life is glorious and vibrant and joyous at points, but it is essentially tragic. That’s not a unique David Simon perspective. That’s the perspective of anyone who contemplates anything as simple as mortality. You’re gonna die, and everyone you love and care about is gonna die. Life is finite. Some of them are gonna die too soon, and some of them are gonna die with things unsaid and things unfinished. And if you look at life in a fair and accurate context, you see that it is often deeply tragic, regardless of how well or poorly you live portions of your life — and certainly some people get luckier than others.

Television, by and large, has not dealt with that—

Salon: No—

Simon: —because first of all, there’s no money in it. And second of all, because they’re scared of distracting you for a moment from what you have to do, which is buy Lexuses, or buy iPods, or buy bluejeans, or buy feminine hygiene products. Every few minutes, they need you reassured enough that you’re gonna pay attention to the ads.

There’s been this wonderful, relatively brief window on premium cable where they haven’t had to worry about that, so you can tell a grownup story. A little bit, I think. You can try. That’s the challenge.

Today, the CBC reported the results of an economic impact study it had commissioned by Deloitte and Touche, in an attempt “to measure the value of having a publicly funded broadcaster in Canada.” The results? CBC was worth $3.7 billion to the Canadian economy in 2010.

This kind of blatant economic argument for a public service is the same kind of attempt to secure public funding that’s now common across schools, libraries, and social service organizations in an economic monoculture - a primarily economic argument that justifies why public funding shouldn’t be cut.

In the case of the CBC, the government is supposed to leave the CBC’s budget alone, not because of the broadcaster’s cultural contribution to Canada, and not because the CBC strengthens our national identity, and not because it brings attention to important issues that otherwise might not receive attention, and not because a national public broadcaster maybe represents the public good in an age of media consolidation and corporate influence.

No, in the monoculture, the government is supposed to support a national public broadcaster because it would literally cost them more if they didn’t.

If CBC did not have a parliamentary allocation and was forced to rely on advertising and other commercial revenue streams, the public broadcaster would contribute much less to the economy because it would be forced to buy more foreign programming, would crowd out private broadcasters and would contribute less to creative communities across Canada, the study says. It suggests that a solely privately funded CBC would also be forced to spend less on both news and Canadian programming.

In other words, economic impact becomes the final, and only, arbiter of value.

So, investors are buying up Canadian farmland, according to this article in Maclean’s.

Investors are buying Canadian agricultural land, betting that rising food prices, a ballooning global population and growing worldwide scarcities in farmland will mean a payoff for them.

“The interest we’re seeing has gone exponential,” said Stephen Johnston of Agcapita, one of a handful of private companies in this country that are investing in land on behalf of high-net-worth individuals and creating farmland funds because, he says, compared to other parts of the world, Canadian farmland remains cheap. Prices range from about $500 an acre in Saskatchewan or $700 in Manitoba to a steeper $1,200 in Alberta (versus anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 an acre in Iowa, say, where prices have risen dramatically in the past year). Many predict that one day the land will be as precious as gold—or even better. “Unlike gold, farmland generates ongoing income,” said Johnston.

Not only are investors speculating on land, they believe they can make a profit leasing the acreages to farmers while they wait for the right time to sell. Investors in Saskatchewan are charging rent equal to seven per cent of a property’s worth, said Johnston. That would mean a farmer pays around $70,000 upfront in rent, per year, for an average-sized 2,000-acre farm from Agcapita. The number could climb with farm prices, which are already rising. According to Statistics Canada, the price of Alberta farmland almost doubled between 2000 and 2009. According to Marvin Painter, a business professor at the University of Saskatchewan, the dividend yield from the rent and the predicted capital gain from a future land sale works out to be only slightly below what a blue-chip stock would reap.

Yes, that’s right, we’re headed toward farmers in Canada renting land from investors to grow food for the rest of us. Sounds like the feudal system for the twenty-first century, doesn’t it?