Jan
08

Capitalism, Alone

In the realm of those interested in inequality, Milanovic and Piketty have been leading intellectual voices in the last decade. A few years ago I wrote about Milanovic's 2016 book on global inequality, this post covers his 2019 book Capitalism, Alone. In general, I think anyone interested in development economics should read this, and fortunately for the rest of us who are not specialists in development economics, this book is written for a broader audiences. A few notes:

"The uncontested dominion of the capitalist mode of production has its counterpart in the similarly uncontested ideological view that money-making not only is respectable but is the most important objective in people's lives, an incentive understood by people from all parts of the world and all classes." (p. 3).

"These gaps result in what I call "citizenship premium" and "citizenship penalty." Citizenship premium … refers to the boost in income one receives simply from being a citizen of a rich country, while citizenship penalty is the reduction in income from being a citizen of a poor country. The value of this premium (or penalty) may be up to five to one or ten to one, even after adjusting for the lower price levels in poorer countries." (p. 129)

"The same role that colonialism played then, more brutally, is played today by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, hundreds of bilateral investment treaties, and other global governance bodies: they are the guardians against nationalization and the abuse of foreign property. In that respect, globalization has created its own governance structure." (p. 148)

"The existence of the welfare state is not, in the longer run, compatible with full-scale globalization that includes the free movement of labor." (p. 156)

"By our long custom of "methodological nationalism," where we essentially study certain phenomena within the confines of a nation, we are led to the position that equality of opportunity seems to apply, and to be studied, only within the nation-state. Global inequality of opportunity is forgotten or ignored. This may have been, philosophically and practically, a reasonable position in the past, when knowledge differences among nations was vague and inequality of opportunity was not addressed even at home. But it may not be a reasonable position now." (p. 159)

"The truth is that we are willingly, even eagerly, participating in commodification because, through long socialization in capitalism, people have become capitalistic calculating machines. We have each become a small center of capitalist production, assigning implicit prices to our time, our emotions, and our family relations." (p. 195)

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Mar
19

Resisting Rural Dispossession

Dip Kapoor brought together a collective of works that highlight many stories that have not been widely told, stories of localized resistance to large-scale land acquisitions and land grabs. These processes have occasionally included these actors, but often presented them as victims without agency, not actors expressing their agency. In this regard, "Against Colonization and Rural Dispossession: Local Resistance in South and East Asia, the Pacific and Africa" (2017) is a good addition. The book in an edited volume, I share three quotes that stood out:

Narrative: "These struggles are misrepresented by accounts of colonial historiographers and writers who depict our story as one of 'loss'. In their story, we have 'lost' our land and cultural knowledge. These are colonially blurred, minimizing, if not euphemizing, versions of the history of my people. In our experience, these things have not been lost, but 'taken'. These extensive and intensive experiences of a collective people so heavily and systematically dispossessed require a deeper understanding than the nouns 'loss' or 'dispossession' can only begin to offer." (p. 29)

Inequality: "While Adivasis constitute 22 percent of the population in Odisha, they account for 42 percent of the development-displaced persons (DDPs), and at the national level, of the 21.3 million people estimated to be DDPs between 1951 and 1990 due to mines, dams, industry, and parks, they account for 40 percent" (p. 71)

Gender: "The women then stood in a line as a fence of shins (pagar betis) to stop the truck. Some even climbed the truck to unload the confiscated coconuts, while others seized and hid the truck's keys. They took the police as hostages and demanded the release of their fellow villagers. Some women involved in holding the police hostage admitted that the spontaneous action was to avoid bloody fights if they let their husbands physically attack the police – so they ask their men to stay behind while they took the lead. They even provoked, if not cautioned, the police by accusing them of trying to sexually harass them. The experience of taking the police as hostages emboldened them to confront the constant threats and intimidation from police and company laborers / hired thugs, especially when their husbands were imprisoned and they were vulnerable." (p. 111)

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Dec
08

Measuring What Counts

In "Measuring What Counts: The Global Movement for Well-Being" (2019), Stiglitz, Fitoussi and Durand build upon the work that was conducted following a 2009 commission to re-think what measures are used to assess the health of the economy (particularly GDP). The financial crises forced reflections on how the vulnerabilities were not understood; to which these authors say that most "fundamentally, policy-makers ignored these warning signals because of the ideological blinders that prevented them (and their economic advisors) from seeing the dangers ahead" (p. 6). The 2009 work was led by Stiglitz, Fitoussi and Sen and the results were published in the book "Mismeasuring Our Lives" (2010). Nearly a decade later, this book broadens the areas of work, summarizes progress made, and highlights areas that require much more work / research.

On metrics: "That GDP didn't do all that was hoped of it shouldn't be a surprise: no single number can summarize anything as complex as the economy" (p. 9). Yet, there is a slippery slope in metrics, some are usefully contextualized, but then not globally relevant, or vice versa. "There is some tension, though, between the desire to have metrics that reflect the particular situation within a country and the need to have metrics that enable cross-country comparisons, i.e., to give a picture of how a country is doing relative to others. Both perspectives are important: we all want to know how well we are doing (in one dimension or another) relative to our past or relative to what is occurring everywhere" (p. 19). The authors conclude, on this tensions that "more needed to be done at the international level" (p. 19).

On inequality: First, we need to do a better job understanding the multiplication / layering of vulnerability, rather than as stand-alone metrics: "Many of these inequality indicators are correlated, with the same households or individuals experiencing disadvantage in many of these dimensions. The report argued that one should focus on the household (or even better, the individual) as the unit of analysis, looking at all the dimensions that affect well-being at the same time" (p. 67). Second, we do not have the data, nor even the definitions for the data, to provide a basis for these understandings: "Some of the criteria for comparing horizontal inequalities across countries also lack well-established statistical conventions and definitions. An example is provided by disability status where, despite decade-long discussions, no generally accepted definition applied across official surveys exists yet. In other cases, no statistical criteria exists simply because these types of horizontal inequalities (for example, those linked to sexual orientation) have only recently entered public discussions" (p. 83-84). Even more challenging, they are, is assessing inequality of opportunity, not only outcomes (p. 88). How to do that? The authors recommend that: "Data should be disaggregated by age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, education, and other markers of social status in order to describe group differences in well-being outcomes; and metrics to describe within-household inequalities, such as those related to asset ownership and the sharing of resources and financial decisions within the household, should be developed." (p. 156)

On trust: "If the measures we rely on are out of sync with how citizens experience their lives, a lack of trust in government will develop" (p. 9). Later, they continue, "trust is negatively correlated with income inequality. And rising income inequality has also been related to lower trust in institutions. High-trusting societies have lower levels of income inequality, measured by Gini coefficients, while low-trusting societies show typically higher levels of income inequality. Trust is undermined by things that run against people's sense of fairness. Since, at least in many countries, there is a general sense that income is inequitably distributed, it is not a surprise that economic equality is consistently identified as one of the strongest predictors of generalized trust, and that countries with highest levels of trust rank highest on economic equality (e.g. Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Canada; OECD, 2018a)." (p. 126)

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Nov
12

The Violence of the Green Revolution

Vandana Shiva has long been one of the key actors and advocates promoting locally-driven and owned, agroecologically-oriented and opposing corporate control of the agricultural and food sector. Although it was not her first publication, this message gained a global audience with "The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics" (1989). With the benefit of hindsight, there are two aspects I see missing from the book, one is a lack of engagement with farmer agency (as if they have no role in corporate expansion, I've written on how farmers can refuse, for example) and limited critical reflection on diversity (it is essentially good, my research suggests we need some more nuance on this). That said, this is an excellent resource and, in particular, it is good to recognize the roots of position that is now widely held so we can recognize the thought leaders. Some points I found interesting:

  • After "two decades, the invisible ecological, political and cultural costs of the Green Revolution have become visible. At the political level, the Green Revolution has turned out to be conflict-producing instead of conflict reducing. At the material level, production of high yields of commercial grain have generated new scarcities at the ecosystem level, which in turn have generated new sources of conflict." (p. 15)
  • "The knowledge and power nexus is inherent to the reductionist system because the mechanistic order, as a conceptual framework, was associated with a set of values based on power which were compatible with the needs of commercial capitalism. It generates inequalities and domination by the way knowledge is generated and structured, the way it is legitimized, and by the way in which such knowledge transforms nature and society." (p. 22-23)
  • "The linkage between chemical fertilizers and dwarf varieties that were established through breeding programmes of CIMMYT and IRRI, created a major shift in how seeds were perceived and produced, and who controlled the production and use of seeds." (p. 62-63)
  • "Unlike the traditional high yielding varieties which have co-evolved with local ecosystems, the Green Revolution HYV's have to be replaced frequently. Seeds, a renewable resource, are thus converted into a non-renewable resource, which each variety usable for only one or two years before it gets overtaken by pests. Obsolescence replaces sustainability." (p. 89)
  • "The inequality generating effects of the Green Revolution were built into the strategy of 'building on the best' - the best endowed region and the best endowed farmers. The increase in resource intensity of inputs for Green Revolution agriculture implied the increase in capital intensity of farming which tended to generate new inequalities between those who could use the new technology profitably, and those for whom it turned into an instrument of dispossession." (p. 176-177)
  • "Liberalisation has meant freedom for corporate giants to test, experiment and sell their products without constraint, without controls. This necessarily means destroying for citizens the right to freedom from hazards posed by the new technologies and products." (p. 209)
  • The "US has accused countries of the Third World of engaging in 'unfair trading practice' if they fail to adopt US patent laws which allow monopoly rights in life form. Yet it is the US which has engaged in unfair practices related to the use of Third World genetic resources. It has freely taken the biological adversity of the Third World to spin millions of dollars worth of profits, none of which have been shared with Third World countries, the original owners of the germplasm. A wild tomato variety (Lycopresicon chomrelweskii) taken from Peru in 1962 has contributed $8 million a year to the American tomato processing industry by increasing the content of soluble solids. Yet none of these profits or benefits have been shared with Peru, the original source of the genetic material." (p. 260)

Page numbers are from the 2016 print of the University Press of Kentucky.


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