Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cash on the Table: Markets, Values, and Moral Economies
Moral values inform our economic behaviors. On its face, this is an unassailable proposition. Think of the often spiritual appeal of consumer goods or the value-laden stakes of upward or downward mobility. Consider the central role that moral questions regarding poverty, access to health care, the tax code, property and land rights, and corruption play in the shaping of modern governments, societies, and social movements. Ponder the meaning of fair trade coffee and organic produce as well as Walmart’s everyday low prices. The moral aspects of the marketplace have never been so contentious or consequential; however, the realm of economics is often treated as a world unto itself, a domain where human behavior is guided not by emotions, beliefs, moralities, or the passions that fascinate anthropologists but by the hard fact of rational choices.

A great deal is at stake in understanding the moral dimensions of economic behavior and markets. In this volume, we bring together anthropologists, economists, and management scholars to look at the moral implications of markets.  Anthropologists tend to focus on the corrosive effects of markets on traditional lifeways and the ways in which global markets disadvantage marginalized peoples. Economists often have difficulty recognizing that markets are embedded in particular social and political power structures and that “free” market transactions are often less free than we might think. If anthropologists could view markets a bit more ecumenically and if economists could view them a bit more politically, then great value—cash on the table—can be found in bringing these perspectives together.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

German Works Councils, the UAW, and VW's Stakeholding Culture

Workers at VW's Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant rejected UAW unionization by a vote of 712 to 626, the NY Times reports. This was a blow not only to the union, but to VW management as well. In a stance U.S. auto executives found as foreign as month-long holidays, VW leaders not only did not oppose the organization move, they seemed to welcome it as a way to introduce works councils.

By law and corporate culture, VW takes seriously the German model of "co-determination," with labor treated as stakeholders alongside stockholders. And they have exported this system of labor relations from their home in Wolfsburg to factories around the world.

The practice of co-determination is built around "works councils," tiered organizations of employee representatives (blue and white collar) elected by their peers. At the grassroots level, shop-floor works councils help organize employee schedules and make tweaks in the production line. Two years ago, middle management works councils successfully lobbied VW to have its corporate Blackberry server to stop sending message to employee's devices 30 minutes after their work day ends (and begin again 30 minutes before the next shift).

At the upper level, works council representatives hold half of the seats on the company's supervisory board, which introduces new voices and incentives in boardroom deliberations. VW obviously thinks this approach brings value, as they have implemented the system abroad.

So, with VW supporting the union, how did it lose this crucial vote? Union supporters have pointed out that the vote was much closer than other southern auto plant votes in recent years. And Republican politicians and pro-business groups took an aggressive, to the point of hysterical, public stance against the union (even threatening future expansion of the plant if the UAW won).

In fact, in the quotes I have read, workers are very open to works councils, and see VW as a good employer. The vote, then, should be seen as a commentary by basically satisfied workers on the UAW's confrontational model of labor relations, a perceived affinity for striking over stakeholding.

Paradoxically, U.S. labor laws meant to protect worker rights appear to prohibit the works council model in the absence of a union, thwarting the sort of organization that both labor and management prefer.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Romance, Wellbeing, and the Work of Love

For a long time, historians thought that romantic love (as we understand it, in a Hallmark Valentine's kind of way) was a Western invention, constructed by the romantic troubadours in French courts of the thirteenth century (see this piece by Catherine Winter).

Recent years, and the rise of brain scanning technologies and evolutionary psychology, have seen the conventional wisdom shift. Most explanations of romantic love these days focus on serotonin and dopamine levels, blood flow and MRIs; and these biological mechanisms are postulated to have emerged early in human history to promote pair bonding and care of our especially helpless young.

But it does not have to be either social construction or evolutionary mandate. Social and psychological triggers can flip the switch on chemical processes in our brains. This is the argument I make on a new PRI show titled The Really Big Questions, hosted by Dean Olsher.  My bit starts at 38:00 into the episode.

In previous posts I have argued that wellbeing requires a lot of not always pleasurable work. Fulfillment is distinct from giddy happiness; and it derives from the hard work of becoming the sort of person you want to be. Likewise, as I claim in the Love episode of The Really Big Question, more than biochemical, and it requires a lot of hard work.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Economic Lessons from Abroad: Workers, Wages, and Inequality

There are many varieties of capitalism, and, given our current travails, we in the U.S. are starting to realize that we may have a lot to learn from other ways of organizing the economy. 

By law, half of the board of directors at German companies are elected by the workers through a system of "works councils." This is a remarkable fact, and introduces all sorts of different incentives into corporate strategy (as compared to a narrow focus on shareholder value).

Adam Davidson, writing in the NY Times Magazine this week, notes the "beneficial constraints" the German system of worker/capital "co-determination" has on manufacturing there.  Similarly, Davidson shows how Harley Davidson has worked with his highly paid and skilled workers to turn around their failing production. He wonders if this would have been possible without experienced union workers.   

(I write about co-determination in my new book, and have blogged about VW's work's councils and their efforts to institute one at their new Chattanooga facility.)    

And it is not just our other OECD countries that have lessons--and cautionary tales--to offer. Levels of income inequality in the U.S. have over the last decades approached the level of developing countries. The Times today reports that middle class consumption is steadily eroding--from hotels to appliances to restaurants, the high-end and the low-end are growing at the expense of the middle. The Harley workers appear to be the exception. This may result in what Alain de Janvry, writing about developing countries, calls a "disarticulated economy," put simply, one in which workers cannot buy what they make, the opposite of the Fordist promise (to pay workers enough to afford the cars they make).       

Brazil in recent years has made great strides in re-articulating its economy, pulling millions into the middle class and stimulating domestic consumption. Perhaps, then, we should look to Brazil as well as to Germany for economic policy ideas.

Distribution of Value in Anglo-American and German Firms (based on Vitols 2004:371)

Anglo-American (early 1990s)
Germany (early 1990s)
Germany (late 1990s)
retained earnings

Monday, January 20, 2014

Positive Anthropology and Public Planning

Social scientists, and anthropologists in particular, bring what should be a privileged perspective to public policy debates. Taking as our starting point not idealized theory (say, of rational actors) nor (hopefully) partisan moralization, anthropologists look at, and take seriously, what folks actually say and do.  This deceptively simple methodology-cum-epistemology can produce policy insights that respond to actual conditions and the hopes and aspirations that fill our lives. Oppenheimer, in a recent NY Times Magazine piece, discusses the ethnography of public spaces conducted by sociologist William H. Whyte in the 1960s and 1970s and more recently picked up again in recent years by Keith Hampton. By actually watching people in places like NYC's Bryant Park and talking to them about what they valued, Oppenheirmer writes that Whyte and others realized that is we knew how "the placement of benches, or a plaza's orientation to the sun, affected people's enjoyment of a public space, then we could go beyond mere observation into the realm of smarter policy. We could make people happier."

Interestingly, Hampton's follow-up studies show that use of the public spaces in his sample has gone up over the last decades; that there are many more women in those public spaces; and that there is more, not less, social interaction going on despite the ubiquity of cell phones and other technology.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Wellbeing and Wages

Inequality has a huge impact on wellbeing, more so than even absolute income levels. A lot of what we feel about how we are doing, depends on how those around us are doing and our relative standing.
President Obama has been turning attention to inequality lately, and development measures have long taken it into account in terms of general economic wellbeing. And a number of recent studies from psychology, behavioral economics, and management not only help explain this, but point the way toward more optimal solutions:

Mat Richtel reports on recent research that suggests "a deeply rooted instinct to earn more than can possibly be consumed, even when this imbalance makes us unhappy" and that higher income levels may promote "mindless accumulation." In an experimental setting (and uses pieces of Dove chocolate as pay), researchers found that higher earners would work harder to accumulate more chocolate than they would be able to eat (during a limited period after the round of play), while low earners were content to work at a more relaxed pace. The pull of endless accumulation, it seems, can be so powerful as to overwhelm choices that might result in greater overall wellbeing.

Adam Davidson, in his excellent column in the NY Times Magazine argues that "paying [workers] and treating them better, will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and--surprisingly--larger corporate profits." Citing research by Marshall Fisher (Wharton School) and Zeynep Ton (M.I.T.), he shows that good paying jobs are not only better for workers but also in many ways for the bottom line, to less turnover to more engagement.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Purpose and Wellbeing

As Tony Schwartz (in the NY Times) argues in a recent column: a sense of purpose--contributing to something meaningful and larger than yourself--is a core element of life satisfaction, wellbeing, and the good life. He quotes Nietzsche's observation: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

We often hear purpose and passion as extolled virtues these days: find your passion, live life with a purpose. This is the sort of self-help that resonates with the demographic represented by readers of the Times.

Indeed, yesterday's paper ran an article about Martha Beck ("the merchant of happiness") who has built a small empire around life coaching: she says “Everything I’ve ever taught in terms of self-help boils down to this — I cannot believe people keep paying me to say this — if something feels really good for you, you might want to do it. And if it feels really horrible, you might want to consider not doing it." 

But, as readers of this blog will know, having a larger purpose in life is not the exclusive purview of the affluent and middle classes. The poor as well as the rich give purpose to their lives; it is in many ways what makes us human. And such larger purposes must not be as lofty or laudable as the passions featured in the paper: political extremism, racist ideologies, and other such projects may increase individual wellbeing among their adherents while harming collective goods.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Culture as Strategy, and the Relevance of Anthropology

The demand for anthropological knowledge is great. This might surprise many of my fellow anthropologists--there is growing lament about our irrelevance in big debates--and certainly all those graduate students looking at a bleak job market. But I almost daily I hear from colleagues in medicine, political science, business, and other fields how they try to incorporate notions of "culture" (our discipline's signature concept) into their work and business practice.

Most often, the ideas of culture thus borrowed would seem antiquated to a contemporary anthropologist. Treated as a static thing with clear boundaries, the notions of culture used in other fields most resemble early trait-list approaches. In current parlance, such views do representational violence to the folks they hope to describe. Today, we see culture as dynamic, creative, imbued with power, fluid: Arjun Appadurai argues that it should be used as an adjective (cultural) rather than a noun (culure).

In translating this into other fields, we might look at culture as strategy, intentional orientations toward the future that guide decisions but also depend on serendipity, adapting to changing circumstances, and shifting hopes and dreams. For development programs, public policy, and business, this means that being culturally "appropriate" isn't about handing your business card in just the right way or knowing dinner table etiquette, but taking seriously the aspirations of those with whom we collaborate, seeking common futures.

The Financial Times reports that the Swedish appliance maker Electrolux has started to take some strategic direction from emerging markets, essentially breaking down the walls for a division for poor places and another for rich ones, and that this has invigorated their growth in both markets.     
 We may also seek to orchestrate serendipity and cultural creativity through institutional and architectural arrangements.  Michael Soto reports on Institutionalizing Serendipity in a company environment, a model with much broader implications.  (And a conversation with Michael yesterday inspired this post.)     

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Higher Pleasures, the Work of Wellbeing, and Public Policy

Perhaps the good life is not a state to be obtained, but, as Aristotle suggests, it is the the pursuit and the journey that give meaning and fulfillment. Striving for the good life involves the arduous work of becoming: creating meaning, aspiring for something better, the act of becoming the sort of person and living the sort of life one deems worthy and desirable. 

Thus, the good life is not made up of simple "happiness." It requires trade-offs, often forgoing hedonistic pleasure for long term goals. I have previously written on the distinction between hedonic happiness (are you happy right now?) and eudaimonic wellbeing (with its longer horizon of life satisfaction), showing that the two can well be at odds with one another.

Steven Mazie, on, argues that the current fashion for happiness studies distracts us from what is really important: "Not every costly, challenging endeavor we take up is a recipe for happiness, but our world and our individual lives would be sapped of all meaning if we made life plans based on the results of happiness studies like these [measures of hedonic happiness]. Who would learn Chinese or advanced calculus? Who would spend all night volunteering in hurricane relief emergency shelters? Who would ever have a child?"

Mazie calls on John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures in his attempt to calculate utilities: "If, on reflection, we would refuse to give up Pleasure A in exchange for a bottomless trough of Pleasure B, that’s a good sign Pleasure A is a higher pleasure for us. If we wouldn’t forfeit our religion or our children for the promise of a keg of cold beer that never runs dry, we should consider the former to be more valuable than the latter. Lower pleasures are fantastic — and reading the results of laughable happiness studies may well be one of them — but they are not the pulp of life."

Indeed, when we look to provisioning the good life as broadly as possible, as we should in markets and government, we must take care not to privilege hedonic happiness over long-term wellbeing.

(On a separate but related note: The WSJ reported this week that its CEO Council identified five top priorities for the country: immigration reform, education reform, tax reform, business-government cooperation, and health-care quality. It is remarkable not only that these could all have been pulled from an Obama speech, but also that they are all broadly consistent with a wellbeing approach to policy, even if the devil is in the detail of means to these ends.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Ethics of Possibility and a Positive Anthropology

Arjun Appadurai argues that our society struggles with a tension between “the ethics of possibility” (of hope, aspiration, desire) and the “ethics of probability” (of systematized rationalities, risk management, and cost/benefits). And the ethics of probability is currently crowding out the realm of possibility. In his timely new book (The Future as Cultural Fact), Appadurai calls for a renewed commitment to an ethics of possibility "grounded in the view that a genuinely democratic politics cannot be based on the avalanche of numbers—about population, poverty, profit, and predation—that threaten to kill all street-level optimism about life and the world. Rather it must build on an ethics of possibility, which can offer a more inclusive platform for improving the planetary quality of life and can accommodate a plurality of visions of the good life.” (299-300)

Indeed. Reading this book, I was both exhilarated and a bit crestfallen that Appadurai so eloquently makes a number of arguments that I thought were my own, and that feature in my forthcoming book The Good Life (Stanford U Press)Appardurai calls for greater attention to the "capacity to aspire" and the politics of hope in understanding development, wellbeing, and the economy. As I also argue, wellbeing requires a sense of aspiration, hope for the future informed by ideas of the good life, and a commiserate degree of agency, a sense of control over one's own destiny.  Living up to the expectations of particular values is in many ways the stock and trade of human existence; and it is this forward-looking, aspirational quality that drives agency. The will is important, but there also has to be a way, and the effectiveness of aspiration and agency is often limited by available opportunities, the legal, social, and market structures.

Such a perspective opens the door onto a “positive anthropology.” Anthropology is more comfortable offering critiques than positive alternatives, but the possibility exists to combine our critical proclivities with non-prescriptive, ethnographically informed positive alternatives that engage public policy debates. If a society’s goal is to have folks live meaningful and fulfilled lives—and not just increase income and consumption at all costs—then we should look to ways to help folks realize their longer term goals, the moral projects of their lives, affluence (and its converse, poverty) as seen in all of its multiple dimensions. This is to advocate studies of economic behavior that work between the “is” and the “ought” of David Hume’s distinction, between how the world can be empirically shown to work (the “is”) and how the competing and diverse value systems that anthropological research documents can be linked to moral reflection about things might be different (the “ought”).  

In Appadurai's words: “we need to commit ourselves to a partisan position, at least in one regard and that is to be mediators, facilitators, and promoters of the ethics of possibility against the ethics of probability.”