BRIEFLY NOTED: For 2021-06-10
Things that went whizzing by that I want to note & remember...
We economists observe the very broad sweeps of data generated by firms and governments accounting systems. They arise out of human propensity to cement social bonds and deepen our societal division of labor by entering into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We have both extraordinarily amplified yet also narrowly focused these by mediating them via through the social fiction of “money“. Thus gift-exchange gets divided into one-shot cash-on-the-barrelhead quantified discrete episodes. And from the counted-up totals and subtotals we economists can see, plus economists’ present and past introspection into our motives and behavior, we then guess at what the cocial human reality is signalled by those particular patterns that our counts have told us are typical.
But there is a problem here. We count, and our counts tell us what interactions are typical and representative. But then we rely on introspection to help us turn our numbers into ideas of what these patterns really mean. That is not good enough. What we really, really need is for somebody who can dive deep into an individual case study—someone very sensitive to human psychology, to how it signifies itself in human actions, and how human actions combine with the actions of others to generate human group behavior. We need anthropologists.
Gillian Tett is an anthropologist. The fact that she is also perhaps the best financial and economic journalist of her generation tells us how desperately we need the types of insights anthropologist generate if we economists are to get even a small clue as to what the patterns in the numbers we have counted mean. And she has written a book, and throw vision, about what Modern economic life looks through an anthropologist. Buy it. Read it. I do not know of a better way for you to spend some of your time in the next month:
Gillian Tett: Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business & Life <https://www.google.com/books/edition/Anthro_Vision/up0tEAAAQBAJ>
Here is a quote from Anthro-Vision:
Because “gifts” are usually considered to be the mirror of market—or commercial—behavior, they tend to be excluded from economists’ models…. Anthropologists have always had a much broader vision of “economics”… study how exchanges bind societies together in the widest possible sense…. Mauss argued that gift-giving is endemic to societies around the world, and has three parts: an obligation to give, to receive, and most crucially, to reciprocate… usually delayed, creating a social “debt”….“Gifts” create trailing debts that bind people together…. Just think of how the gigantic student loan industry in America, say, is embedded in family obligations and relations which cannot be captured just by a trillion-dollar number… financial flows are about money but they also involve far more than finance, since they are rooted in kinship structures and trailing patterns…. [Thus] talking about “barter” in the twenty-first century might not be as odd as it seems…. Communities without money often have extensive and complex “credit” systems since households create social and economic debts…. In Silicon Valley information is constantly being “given up” in exchange for the “gift” of free services…. Many of the participants in this “barter” are not explicitly aware that they are involved in a barter at all. However… there is no other readily available word in English…
In Silicon Valley, the relationship created by these exchanges of information-commodities for information about customer psychology and attention patterns are never one-shot, and always have psychological valence. But this is also true in the world as a whole—even when it is strictly business, in inevitably becomes personal to some degree. Economists almost always think as if the degree it is “personal” can be neglected, and perhaps that was true in an environment in which the pressure of material necessity was immense. But perhaps not even then.
That is the first quote that struck me from Anthro-Vision.
I was, however, struck by another quote—one that made me think that even though we economists badly need anthropologists to help us do our job, we are going to be unable to get them from the discipline of anthropology as it is currently constructed here in the United States. Here is the second quote:
Kathi Kitner, another anthropologist at Intel… [and] an academic she described with the pseudonym “Trip”… got talking…. Trip… asked: ‘How do you continue as an anthropologist and work at a place like Intel?’ ” Kitner later recalled:
I knew what she really meant. Don’t they suck your soul out from within you? Don’t you hate having to sell out people’s lives for a corporate profit? What is it like to be working from the belly of a capitalistic beast? How can you work under such unethical conditions? Haven’t you sold out?
Kitner replied “No.” She believed that her work at Intel was valuable because she was helping engineers gain empathy for people different from them. Or as Bell explained: “What we are trying to do is show people that tech is not just designed for and by a group of white men in their twenties in California.” However, unease continued to bubble among some academics. Even enthusiasts for business anthropology fretted that their methods might become so diluted that they would be subsumed into activities like “user experience” (known as USX or UX) research, human computer interaction (HCI), human-centered design, human factors engineering, and so on…
Almost surely “Trip’ has a laptop computer, which has at its core a microprocessor designed and manufactured by Intel or one of its very few competitor organizations. About $200 of the money that Trip paid to buy her (notional) laptop was then paid on to Intel for the microprocessor.
Taking sand, baking it into a rock, and then spraying chemicals onto it and then etching it with lasers so that when you pass electricity through it the electrons stand up and dance in such a way as to greatly assist you in your tasks of writing words, manipulating numbers, and drawing pictures is an incredibly technologically sophisticated and glorious thing. To do so requires a world-class organization of humans that reaches heights of competence and knowledge—embedded not just in the minds of its engineers and in its organizational structure—that no single human would ever have a prayer of understanding even 1/100 of it if they spent their entire life on the task of learning just how one type of microprocessor is built. And all of this is done for “Trip’s” great benefit: the use-value she gains from her microprocessor is vastly in excess of the exchange-value she pays for it, and that exchange-value is what then gives the engineers, the janitors, and, yes, the anthropologists employed by Intel the social power that allows the, you know, to get food.
To take this process and this organization and to describe it as “soul-sucking”, “selling-out, “belly of a beast, “unethical conditions”—well, the first analogy that springs to my mind is that this is a moral fault of the same magnitude as condemning those who deal with human waste and its transformation into fertilizer and leather-curing chemicals as subhumans to be despised.
Moreover, “Trip’s” attitude seems to be 100% opposed to that of a real anthropologist. To buy into a particular subset of mythic misperceptions about the world so completely that she sees Intel not as a major benefactor of her via gift-exchange—which it is—but entirely as a caste-polluted monstrosity seems to show an extraordinary lack of judgment and a complete absence of an ability to engage in self-reflection. Bluntly: I would not trust anything “Trip” said about how any culture she was observing works, given that she has so very, very little insight into her own.1
Yes. We economists badly and vitally need assistance from a very large body of well-trained ethnographers. But I do not think we are going to get them out of current anthropology Ph.D. programs.
What I hope will become my favorite way to make electrons in sand-baked-into-a-rock get up and dance this summer:
Phil Lubin: mmhmm Chunky Keynote <https://mmhmm.app/events#welcome-to-mmhmm-summer>
Very Briefly Noted:
Wikipedia: Lynching of Sam Hose <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_of_Sam_Hose>
Matthew Yglesias: The Experts Underrate Full Employment <https://www.slowboring.com/p/underrating-full-employment>
Gillian Tett: Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business & Life<https://www.google.com/books/edition/Anthro_Vision/up0tEAAAQBAJ>
Suresh Naidu: American Slavery & Labour Market Power: ’the defining characteristic of coerced labour, the threat of violence to prevent voluntary quits from a job, can be helpfully understood by contrasting it with free labour markets that are riven with imperfect competition and agency problems… <http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~snaidu/papers/American%20slavery%20and%20labour%20market%20power.pdf>
Suresh Naidu <http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~snaidu/>
Wikipedia: Applied Materials <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Applied_Materials>
Noah Smith: America’s Scarcity Mindset <https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/americas-scarcity-mindset>
Irvine H. Anderson, Jr (1975): The 1941 De Facto Embargo on Oil to Japan: A Bureaucratic Reflexhttps://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3638003.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A50b0e40c3abcc2fc7c6028c16b0a3ffd>
Amy Maxmen: ’Al Jazeera did an admirable job here. I was glad that they noted Wade’s race-science book, commended by the KKK…. Here’s an excerpt from the “Jewish Adaptation” chapter… <https://t. co/YRnjtJVH7k>
Che Pan & Celia Chen: US-China Tech War: TSMC Helps Make Breakthrough in Semiconductor Materials that Could Push Back the ‘End’ of Moore’s Law: ’Using the semi-metal bismuth, researchers from TSMC, MIT, and NTU have shown a way to make chips smaller than 1nm. However, analysts say the breakthrough will not be ready for commercialisation for about a decade… LINK: <https://www.scmp.com/tech/tech-war/article/3134078/us-china-tech-war-tsmc-helps-make-breakthrough-semiconductor>
Laura Tyson & Lenny Mendonca: From California Capitalism to Bidenomics: ’The economic strategy now being pursued at the national level has already proven highly successful in the country’s wealthiest, most dynamic state… LINK: <https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/bidenomics-scales-up-california-capitalism-by-laura-tyson-and-lenny-mendonca-2021-05>
Arthur Burns did have a theory of the interplay between the real economy and inflation: it was that inflation was a political problem, that had to be dealt with by legislation—that the Federal Reserve would be unable to deal with it via monetary policy because the U.S. Congress would not allow it to provoke a recession deep enough to do the job. Why not? Because labor unions knew the U.S. Congress would not allow a deep recession, and so a shallow recession that they knew would soon be over would not do the job. I do not know why Roach does not know this:
Stephen S. Roach: The Ghost of Arthur Burns: ’The US Federal Reserve is insisting that recent increases in the price of food, construction materials, used cars, personal health products, gasoline, and appliances reflect transitory factors that will quickly fade with post-pandemic normalization. But what if they are a harbinger, not a “noisy” deviation?… Arthur F. Burns… brought a unique perspective to the US central bank as an expert on the business cycle. In 1946, he co-authored the definitive treatise on the seemingly rhythmic ups and downs of the US economy…. Yet Burns, who ruled the Fed with an iron fist, lacked an analytical framework to assess the interplay between the real economy and inflation, and how that relationship was connected to monetary policy. As a data junkie, he was prone to segment the problems he faced as a policymaker, especially the emergence of what would soon become the Great Inflation. Like business cycles, he believed price trends were heavily influenced by idiosyncratic, or exogenous, factors–“noise” that had nothing to do with monetary policy. This was a blunder of epic proportions…
Did this speech help induce Stalin to let slip the leash on Kim Il Sung and the other dogs of the Korean War? We have no documentary evidence that it did. But it is hard to believe that the absence of Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in 1950 did not play some sort of role:
Dean Acheson (1950): National Press Club Speech: ’The disarmament of Japan has placed upon the United States the necessity of assuming the military defense of Japan… in the interest of our security and in the interests of the security of the entire Pacific area and, in all honor, in the interest of Japanese security…. This defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold. In the interest of the population of the Ryukyu Islands, we will at an appropriate time offer to hold these islands under trusteeship of the United Nations. But they are essential parts of the defensive perimeter of the Pacific, and they must and will be held. The defensive perimeter runs from Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands. Our relations, our defensive relations with the Philippines are contained in agreements between us. Those agreements are being loyally carried out and will be loyally carried out. Both peoples have learned by bitter experience the vital connections between our mutual defense requirements. So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship. Should such an attack occur, one hesitates to say where such an armed attack could come from, the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations, which so far has not proved a weak reed to lean on…. A new day… has dawned in Asia. It is a day in which the Asian peoples are on their own, and know it, and intend to continue on their own. It is a day in which the old relationships between east and west are gone, relationships which at their worst were exploitation and at their best were paternalism. That relationship is over, and the relationship of east and west must now be in the Far East one of mutual respect and mutual helpfulness…
Do note that it may not be feudal structure so much as that sultans controlled more civilized lands with greater trade, and so could tax the resources to maintain a professional army. For, after all, it did not have to be slaves. Once the kings of Spain had enough revenue flowing in from the West Indies, they, too, raised a professional army and so stopped listening to the notables and the legislative assemblies:
Lisa Blaydes & Eric Chaney: The Feudal Revolution & Europe’s Rise: Political Divergence of the Christian West & the Muslim World before 1500 CE: ‘While leadership tenures in the two regions were similar in the 8th century, Christian kings became increasingly long lived compared to Muslim sultans. We argue that forms of executive constraint that emerged under feudal institutions in Western Europe were associated with increased political stability and find empirical support for this argument…. Feudal institutions served as the basis for military recruitment by European monarchs, Muslim sultans relied on… military slaves…. Dependence on mamluk armies limited the bargaining strength of local notables vis-a`-vis the sultan, hindering the development of a productively adversarial relationship between ruler and local elites. We argue that Muslim societies’ reliance on mamluks, rather than local elites, as the basis for military leadership, may explain why the Glorious Revolution occurred in England, not Egypt…
I don’t think that they have nailed it. But looking at the interactions is very important:
Alberto Bisin, Jared Rubin, &al.: Culture, Institutions, & the Long Divergence: ‘We… model… the joint evolution of institutions and culture. In doing so, we place the various hypotheses of economic divergence into one, unifying framework. We highlight the role that cultural transmission plays in reinforcing institutional evolution toward either theocratic or secular states. We extend the model to shed light on political decentralization and technological change in the two regions…
(Remember: You can subscribe to this… weblog-like newsletter… here:
There’s a free email list. There’s a paid-subscription list with (at the moment, only a few) extras too.)
I do find this… fairly frequently with anthropologists who talk about money. I remember reading one particular bête noire, David Graeber (favorably cited by Tett) about “rumors of secret gold vault underneath the twin towers…. The truly remarkable thing is… I did a little research and discovered that, no, actually, it’s true…” And I remember thinking: the “secret vaults” that you had to do “research” to uncover are actually detailed in a pamphlet that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York distributes to all of the middle-school students who come for their field trips. But I digress.