Monday, November 12, 2018

‘Now is the Time of Monsters’: The Painful Birth of a New World Order

President Trump calls the WTO a “disaster” and NATO “obsolete,” and seasoned diplomats and foreign policy experts react with reasoned disdain and moral contempt. His tweets and remarks are said to be reckless, needlessly destructive, and further proof—as if any were needed—of the president’s lack of both capability and character. Whatever you make of his latest episodes, Donald Trump’s behavior is certainly disruptive—and, as progressives have argued, our outdated economic and political systems need a little shaking up. While Trump does not offer any positive alternatives with his populist takedowns, his disruptions create an opening for a new sort of world order to emerge. 

The rules-based international order relies on political structures designed for a different era and built up over two twentieth-century waves of growth and prosperity in the West, the Trente Glorieuses following WWII and the 30 years of neoliberal globalization following the fall of the Berlin Wall. But these structures are ill-suited to the technological and economic realities of the post-millennial world. 

“The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth,” observes Slavoj Žižek, paraphrasing Gramsci. “Now is the time of monsters.” While we may disagree with his solutions, and we may not like his style, President Trump is not wrong to question the UN and NATO, the IMF and World Bank, WTO and NAFTA, and other structures of twentieth-century globalization. NATO is built on the idea of a wall running down the middle of Germany that has not been there for almost 30 years. The UN rests on a notion of sovereign nation-states at odds with the explosive growth of diaspora populations and the power of non-state actors. Trump dislikes these Cold War-era institutions for disagreeably nativist reasons, but his opposition converges tightly with progressive skepticism. 

The reality is that the post-millennial world has outpaced our understanding of it. A new global order is emerging, with more flexible dynamics and multiple centers of state and non-state power. Our leaders largely lack the conceptual and political tools to deal with it, but anthropology offers some key insights.

While it is unclear exactly what the new rules will be, China will play a preeminent role. They have replaced the U.S. as the world’s strongest pro-trade voice for globalization, taken the lead in international climate change efforts, and started an ambitious (strings-attached) international development program, One Road, One Belt. The country’s Asian Infrastructure Development bank is now capitalized at half the amount of the World Bank and gaining rapidly, while the Made in China 2025 is on track to achieve global dominance in key manufacturing sectors.

This is not just a story of China’s rise, however, but also of the emergence of a more fluid and diffuse international power structure generally. Recent polls show that Germany has replaced the U.S. as the world’s most respected country. Meanwhile Russia flexes its muscles by sending comically veiled signals, brazenly poisoning defectors and riling up the social media fringes. 

It’s also a story of the rise of functionally sovereign non-state actors. Many, like the narco-traffickers of Guatemala and Honduras, not to mention Al Qaeda and ISIS, are better armed and more powerful than the governments. Or their power may be financial: East European cybergangs regularly hold not only hapless individuals but whole police departments and city governments hostage with ransomware, extracting payment in Bitcoin or other virtual currencies. Which leads to the realization that while the dollar is likely to remain the world’s reserve currency for some time, the curtain has been pulled back and governments have lost their mystical monopoly on the creation and control of money. Meanwhile, independent entities like the Gates Foundation, the Koch brothers and large transnational corporations like Apple, an American company whose stateless billions are stashed away in Irish banks, are supplanting, influencing, and circumventing governments in ways (good and bad) that we don’t have the tools to address. 

We need a political understanding of the world that accounts for not just the emergence of these non-state actors but burgeoning diaspora populations as well. International migration to high-income countries increased by almost 90 percent since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Never have we seen such massive movements of people around the world, but our governance structures are ill-equipped to represent Syrian refugees in Europe, Filipino workers in Qatar, or Kurds anywhere. We need frameworks that can account for cultural communities that may be only loosely connected to a geographic place. 

Bucking conventional economic wisdom and Republican orthodoxy, Trump sees trade as a zero-sum game in which there are losers as well as winners. Social-justice opponents of free trade largely concur, pointing out that such deals hurt smallholders and local producers (of corn in Mexico, for example) as well as dismantling the livelihoods of U.S. factory workers. While they have different victims in mind, Subcomandante Marcos and Donald Trump both see free trade pacts as mechanisms for the economic exploitation of those already in precarious circumstances.

Trump’s approach to trade deals seeks to protect certain sorts of jobs, the jobs of twentieth-century white working-class prosperity. But this idea is as retrograde as the global institutions themselves. A more forward-looking solution would be to support workers (rather than job categories) through inevitable transitions. Even that may not be enough to address the possibility of a crisis within capitalism itself, or the attendant social and political disorder, if the shiny diversions of social media prove insufficient distractions from the material realities. 

In the current age of consumer capitalism, we are so inundated with attempts to shape our opinion that ironic distance can simulate critical analysis and Trevor Noah becomes the voice of informed reason. With all that is solid melting into air, Trump begins to sound like an alt right Baudrillard in his critiques of the social construction of “truth,” fueling disillusionment with a political-economic system that wide swaths of the U.S. electorate see as stacked against them. 

In this context, Trump’s openness about “the system” being a system (that can be gamed) and his transactional view of relationships makes his insincerity come off as authentic. It also reveals an intuitive grasp of critical theory: understanding that the institutions of capitalism and democracy are human creations can empower us to make them suit our ends rather than conform ourselves to theirs. The progressive left needs to recapture this insight to offer bold, positive alternatives to outdated systems. It is time to put down the rocks and pick up a hammer.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Economy, Happiness, and the Good Life: An Interview with Edward F. Fischer

GB. England. New Brighton. 
From ‘The Last Resort,’ 1983-85, Martin Parr.  
In the second interview for the series ‘The Good Life,’ Jonas Tinius and Johannes Lenhard invited anthropologist and social entrepreneur Edward F. Fischer to reflect on his book The Good Life: Aspirations, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Well-Being (Stanford, 2014).  We spoke about the imperfect but valued opportunities of entrepreneurship for realising desires for a better life;  hopes for a better future, and the role of economies and markets in thinking about well-being.

KR: What do you understand by the notion ‘the good life’?

Edward F Fischer: I see you are starting off with the trick questions. A large part of the attraction of the phrase is precisely its semantic slipperiness and strategic ambiguity. We may all agree . . . continue at 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Eating Identity: Nourishment and the Cultural Contexts of Food

from Exeter/WHO Centre for Culture and Health:

We eat for nourishment, but food is about much more than nutrition. What we eat is meaningful, and food is an especially intimate area of daily life, tightly linked to our conceptions of self. Think about your own food preferences: a nostalgic meal from your childhood, a treat you indulge yourself with on special occasions, a religious sanction against certain foods. In these ways, food is not only at the heart of our material subsistence, it is at the core of our identity as well, deeply associated with family, hearth, home, and community. We are what we eat, conceptually as well as biologically.

Understanding this becomes especially important when we look at nutrition from a public health perspective. In a situation that would have been unimaginable for most of human history, over-nutrition has become one of the biggest problems for health and chronic diseases in many parts of Europe and the U.S., eclipsing smoking as public health enemy #1. The chronic and non-communicable diseases that are the big burden these days (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke) are often connected to diet.

The WHO’s Health 2020 report advocates people-centered approaches to public health, looking at both the whole person and the whole society. This is especially relevant for nutrition because it is so connected to different aspects of life, from our cultural and idiosyncratic preferences to state subsidies and agricultural policy.

Poor nutrition is not just an over-abundance of macro-nutrients or a deficiency of micro-nutrients: it is based on cultural traditions and personal histories; the natural environment and geographies of inclusion and exclusion; about large food corporations and grocery store marketing as well public policy and regulations. This is to say that both structural conditions and cultural practices affect nutritional choices.

Thinking of food and identity, what comes to mind first might be kosher or halal cuisines, or perhaps vegetarian or vegan preferences. These are certainly important aspects of religious and social identity, but the link works at a much more mundane levels as well. Our quotidian food choices reflect our preferences and values, and identity: eating organic (or not), eating fast food (or not), liking broccoli (or not), and so on.

Since food is so integral to identity, it is tricky to tinker with. And food choices not only reflect identity, but identities can become literally embodied through eating. For example, many Maya people in Guatemala claim not feel full unless they eat corn tortillas (often a dozen or more with every meal); I have heard Germans claim the same feeling and physical craving for black bread.
Eating is also usually a group activity, and as such a primary site for socialization, family binding, and group identity reinforcement. Yet nutritional recommendations often focus just on the individual. And since individual choices affect others, change cannot happen with just the individual, it would involve the whole family.

And just as eating is a group activity, also provisioning is often an expression of love and caring. Anthropologist Daniel Miller has show how food treats are especially important in this regard: choosing for significant others what they might want. Miller shows that grocery shopping, far from the hedonistic indulgence that the term “consumerism” invokes, is more about provisioning for one’s family, expressing one’s concerns for loved ones.

Packaged and processed foods are a big contributor to poor nutrition, and so are deservedly the target of ire among nutritionists and public health advocates. A number of efforts to impose a “soda tax” have been tried around the world; in Mexico it has had a dramatic and measurably impact in just a few years. All the same, we should also recognize that such foods are one of the few affordable luxuries for poor families, a way to demonstrate their love for their children when they cannot give them much else. It is well and good to try to curb snack food consumption, but keep in mind that it may be more than a snack that has to be changed.

Finally, when we talk about the health impacts of nutrition, we often reduce eating down to certain numbers. My colleague Emily Yates-Doerr, in her book the Weight of Obesity, calls this the metrification of diets: the number of calories and grams of fat, the percentages of daily allowances for vitamins and minerals. This metrification reduces the richness of eating and the sociality around it to these metrics of macro- and micro-nutrients. Many of us have become accustomed to this way of thinking about food, reading labels on the fly in the supermarket. Food and eating is about love and identity as much as calories, but how do we translate “love” into grams or ounces?

Just because something is supposed to be “good for you” is often not enough to change behavior. Diet and food choices need to be looked at holistically, as part of broader lifeways and family and social networks. Labeling regimes can inform consumer decisions and move the market, and soda taxes and other nudges can make a difference, but ultimately public health programs working on nutrition need to engage people through their customs and beliefs rather than work at odds with them.

In an innovative approach, Brazil has adopted what they call “food-based” dietary guidelines that seek to build on cultural norms and preferences rather than fight them. Rather than giving percentages recommended for different foodstuffs (as with the traditional food pyramid), Brazil adopted 10 broad principles and illustrate them in public service ads in terms of a plate prepared for a typical meal.

  1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
  2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts
  3. Limit consumption of processed foods
  4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed foods
  5. Eat regularly, deliberately, and with others
  6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
  7. Develop, exercise and share cooking skills
  8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
  9. Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
  10. Be wary of food advertising and marketing
This post was written by Professor Edward F Fischer, Director, Centre for Latin American Studies, Vanderbilt University, USA.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Third Wave Coffee and the Formation of Taste (and Value)

“Orange blossom, white tea, syrupy”
“Grapefruit, spicy pepper, olive oil”
“Chocolate, red berries, roasted barley”

The language used to talk about new high-end coffee comes straight out of the wine world, with exotic and evocative descriptors and even a 0-100 grading scale (à la Robert Parker). Scores above 80 mark “specialty” coffee (such as would be served at Starbucks) and scores in the high 80s and breaking 90 place beans in the rarefied world of Third Wave coffees that retail for $5, $6, $7 a cup and more than $25 a pound for roasted beans (although usually sold in 12oz, or increasingly 6oz, packages to both stress the limited supply and make the price tag slight less eye-popping).

Virtually all high-end coffees are of the species Arabica; among Arabicas there are a range of different varieties. A growing number of exclusive lots of green coffee have sold for more than $100 a pound, a ceiling first broken in 2007 by the storied Geisha varietal from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama. In 2012, a Mocca (a heirloom varietal originally from Yemen) grown by the Finca El Injerto in Guatemala sold for $500.50 a pound, still a record. (Meanwhile, the commodity price for quality washed Arabica, known as the New York C price, has fluctuated between $1.13 and $1.46 over the first 8 months of 2016)

Are these coffees worth that much? People often ask me this when I talk about Third Wave coffee. If you haven’t tried one yet, it is a different experience than either the office kitchen’s K-cup or even a solid cup of coffee from most neighborhood coffee shops. A whole range of subtle flavors come out in the clean, smooth, balanced cup profile; sugar and milk are, naturally, verboten.

Yes, but are they worth the high price? It depends on how we value them. In high-end markets that move toward singularity (limited edition prints, that particular Bordeaux vintage, the 2012 El Injerto Mocha), normal market forces of supply and demand don’t apply. Which leads us to consider what constitutes value for such non-commodities and how do we put a price on that.

Objective quality (by established tasting standards and conventions) and market scarcity play an important role, but we cannot discount the symbolic values at play: the relative positioning of conspicuous consumption; the imagined, personal relationship with a producer; and underwriting it all, the cultural and market shift among the global affluent toward artisanal and singular products. The language used to talk about Third Wave coffee borrows heavily from fine wine, ideas of terroir, and the artisanal food movement. And this provenance, these narratives, are key to its value.

Three Waves
The first wave of coffee consumption lasted from the late nineteenth century up through the 1960s, marked by the spread of commodity coffee and the rise of Folgers, Maxwell House, and all the other familiar grocery store brands.

The second wave started in the 1960s in the U.S. with Peet’s in San Francisco and Zabar’s in New York, and culminating in the spread of Starbucks to every nook and cranny of the country, and increasingly the world. Anthropologist William Roseberry describes this as a shift from coffee as being the beverage of capitalism (coffee and sugar serving as great proletarian hunger killers, as Sidney Mintz has pointed out) to being a beverage of postmodernity (an outlet for performing identity and difference).

The Third Wave coffees take this to the next, artisanal infused, level. Coming out of coffee shops in Portland, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Nashville, Washington, Philadelphia, and other cities, Third Wave has both hipster and foodie associations; it is sold by online retailers such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Blue Bottle.

Creating Taste and Value
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA, the trade group for specialty and Third Wave coffee) goes to great lengths to bolster the scientific credibility of its classifications and tasting protocols. The more objective they seem, they more they can impart the power of authenticity (discovering something rather than constructing it).

The SCAA-associated Coffee Quality Institute certifies coffee cuppers with its Q Grader certification, with applicants having to pass five “triangulation cuppings” to differentiate a total of 90 distinct coffees. A Roast magazine article on the allure of triangulated cupping, observes that even a novice will quickly learn to distinguish coffees from different world regions, then so after by country. For example, “a Latin American coffee is going to taste different than an African coffee,” and tasting them side by side reveals the differences. “Put an Ethiopia Harrar into two cups and Sumatra Mandheling in one cup, and you will know the difference,” the article claims. Or, at least, you will learn the differences in going through a cupping protocol. One Portland roaster loved “the earthiness of the Sumatra” and another noted that Central American coffees are known for an exceptionally clean acidity (Allen 2010: 58).

In 2015 the SCAA unveiled a new flavor chart for specialty coffee. Working with researchers at UC Davis and Kansas State, the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel offers a lexicon of coffee terms coming from “the frontiers of sensory science methods and analyses.” They described the process using technical language (“an Agglomerative Hierarchical Cluster (AHC) analysis was performed on the results from the sorting exercise to group the flavor attributes into different categories (or clusters) represented visually by a dendrogram”) (Sage 2016).

The flavor wheel ranges from Chamomile, Rose and Jasmine to Vegetative and Herblike to Petroleum, Skunk, and Pipe Tobacco. 

In order to calibrate such flavors, the accompaning guide gives references to ground a 0-15 scale of intensity. For example, one entry reads:
BLACKBERRY: The sweet, dark, fruity, floral, slightly sour, somewhat woody aromatic associated with blackberries
REFERENCE: Smucker’s Blackberry Jam
PREPARATION: Serve jam in a 1-ounce cup. Cover with a plastic lid.

Recently, among trendsetters there has been a shift in preference away from the more traditional deep, creamy chocolate flavors (and maple syrup, caramel, red wine) toward more floral and citrus notes.

The Cup of Excellence program has taken cupping standardization to the next level, as my colleague Bradley Wilson has observed. In Cup of Excellence competitions, each coffee will be blindly evaluated 5 times by different cuppers.  Only coffees that get consistently high scores advance in the competition, and out of hundreds of entrants each country will have 25-35 ranking winning coffees that are sold at a live internet auction.

Guatemala is ground zero for Third Wave coffee. This is due in part to its unique geographic and climatic endowments. High altitude coffees tend to command higher premiums, and Guatemala’s volcanic slopes and varied microclimates create a range of subtle flavors. But it was also visionaries such as Bill Hempstead, who as president and a director of the Guatemalan Coffee Association (Anacafé), promoted the branding of regional cup profiles which has led to the flourishing of single estate and micro-lot coffees.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Broccoli, Anthropology, and the Humanities

Broccoli, Anthropology, and the Humanities: Caitlin Patton discusses how the work of Ted Fischer, an anthropologist focused on food culture, specifically the cultivation of broccoli in Guatemala, inspired her choice to study at Vanderbilt University.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Imagining the Future & Economic Fictions

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Marx remarked in The Eighteenth Brumaire, and although we may all make our own futures, we do not make them just as we please. For such reasons, we social scientists tend to look to the past to explain the present, to show the particular historical trajectory that led things to be the way the are. All the same, privileging the past can allow us to forget that people in the present are not trying to (just) recreate yesterday, but have an eye toward tomorrow and next year and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Unlike Marx’s vivid prose, today the dismal science (qua science) often forgets about the human passions behind their numbers. In the sterile statistical world of GDP and interest rates, it is easy to loose sight of the hopes and dreams, the aspirations and fears—what Keynes termed our “animal spirits”—and the individual lives behind all economic transactions.

In a remarkable new volume, Jens Beckert (Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics) moves us toward conceptually linking the passions and animal spirits of lived experience with a macro-understanding of the workings of capitalism. He does this by focusing on the future, and the fictive qualities of imagining the future that underwrite capitalist dynamics.

In this meticulously researched and engagingly written volume, Beckert uncovers the role of imagined futures as a fundamental driver of capitalism. It is the sort of observation that makes complete sense when you hear it, but that has gone largely unremarked upon until now. He shows that the future orientation of capitalism is based on competition and credit, fundamental elements at the very core of the financial system. (I would add, also the construction of desires, especially in late capitalist formations.) The financial system is built on credit, and demands continual expansion and continual returns. We are all in bad shape if growth stops, as our retirement and much of our insurance depends on markets continuing to expand—not to mention our subjective hopes and dreams. 

Beckert makes the provocative point that a lot of what we consider to be risk (and thus manageable, knowable, predictable) is actually uncertainty. We make up stories about the future, and convince ourselves and others that these are more or less likely (in a statistically predictable manner). For example, investment in innovation requires collectively deciding to believe in a fictional future. And, as with innovation, imaginaries can create structures that make real the fictional expectations (186).

In the realm of consumption, Beckert identifies two key types of symbolic value: (1) positional and (2) imaginative. Positional values (first observed by Veblen) derive from the scarcity of a good and how many others have it; rather than absolute material utility, the positional value of a good is only given by its relation to other goods. With imaginative value, “a good functions as a link between subject and her desired but intangible ideals” (195). Imaginative value gets at what it means to the person herself, more than just positional/status importance. With imaginative value, a good embodies something transcendent.

Berkert’s new book is exhilarating, opening up new possibilities for thinking about (and acting on) the market. It gives us a way to insert the social and the cultural back into the fundamental mechanics of capitalism, from wince it has long been banished.

Jens Beckert’s Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.  2016, Harvard U Press.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Q&A: Ted Fischer of Vanderbilt | Nashville Post

Read the Nashville Post's Q&A: Ted Fischer of Vanderbilt on Social Entrepreneurship and Mani+
Ted Fischer is professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University. Over a five-year period, he teamed with Steve Moore (head of Middle Tennessee-based Shalom Foundation)  and  multiple VU students on a malnutrition-oriented and social enterprise effort called NutriPlus, which produces the supplement, Mani+.

The supplement (a fortified nut paste that provides calories, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals essential to brain development in babies and toddlers) is used to specifically address the nutritional deficiencies seen in Central American children. It is the first ready-to-use supplementary Food (RUSF)  to be both locally produced and locally sourced in Guatemala City, Guatemala, creating local jobs and supporting local farmers.

The new facility (read more here) opened on Sept. 23 and will eventually mass produce Mani+. Eventually, Fischer and Moore hope to produce 25 tons of Mani+ a month, reaching about 25,000 children.

Post Managing Editor William Williams recently chatted with Fischer regarding the effort.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wellbeing and Health

From "No Shame, No Blame: Secrets of Living Well" produced by Vanderbilt Health and Wellness

Friday, September 4, 2015

Health, Culture, and Wellbeing: Beyond Seeing Culture as Obstacle

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” And yet, for much of its history, it has (understandably) focused on eradicating disease and infirmity. There is a move afoot with the WHO to focus more on wellbeing as broadly conceived in its charter. Nils Fietje and colleagues at WHO-Europe have been looking lately at “Cultural Determinants of Health,” a project I have advised.

While there is a growing understanding that “culture” plays a crucial role in health and development, the concept as it is invoked generally relies on very traditional definitions. Common definitions of culture in public health understand it to be “shared values, beliefs, and practices.” Note that here “culture” is used as a noun, denoting bounded groups defined by lists of traits.

What is missing from such definitions is the human element: real human beings constructing their lives in active and dynamic ways.  The traditional static definition (the most common one deployed in public health contexts today) usually portrays culture as an obstacle to health.

But we should see cultural forms as opportunities, not as obstacles, to health

A human-centered approach to health and wellbeing, should adopt contemporary understandings of culture as dynamic, future oriented, and driven by agency. We in anthropology now see culture as much more of a fluid process, a process rather than a thing. Cultural actors are always improvising, actively creating meaning out of the resources at hand.

We have also traditionally put too much emphasis on the historical determinants of culture and adherence to tradition. My view is that we should think of cultural orientations not just as not endowments but as future-oriented desires.  Arjun Appadurai defines culture as “a dialogue between aspiration and sedimented traditions.”

In this view, culture opens the door for new opportunities for engaging communities and understandings of well-being.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Voting for Our Better Selves; and Rules to Flourish By

Mike Pesca, in one of his artful spiels on The Gist podcast, punctures the conventional wisdom that we Americans want folksy presidential candidates, that we yearn for a leader just like us, someone we can relate to, imagine having a beer with.  While we do like candidates to be down-to-earth (perhaps echoes of our anti-monarchical national origins), Pesca convincingly argues that what we really want is not a leader like us but one who is like our better selves -- not someone who plays to our fears and prejudices but someone who can embody our virtuous aspirations.

Indeed.  As I argue in The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing, we aspire to be certain sorts of people -- a key part of our identity is not just who we are, but who we want to be. Our aspirations reflect certain sorts of values, what matters most to us in the big scheme of things. These aspirations, and our better selves, can be undermined by short-term gains and hedonic pleasures. And so we need leaders to remind us of our better selves and guide us down the often more arduous path of long-term personal and collective fulfillment.

For these same reasons, we also need rules to hep us be our better selves.  A recent RadioLab episode (Nazi Summer Camp) looked at how the U.S. treated the 500,000 or so German and Japanese POWs in U.S. camps. It turns out we treated them exceedingly well, fully following the letter and spirit of the Geneva Convention, even when we saw that the Japanese and Germans were not so scrupulous in their adherence. Significantly, we treated the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent much worse at the internment camps. As U.S. citizens, paradoxically, there were no international rules to govern their treatment, and the country showed it worse side.  Similar examples of how rules can help us be the sort of people we say we want to be can be found in Lynn Stout's excellent book Cultivating Conscience and in my book The Good Life.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Key Words for Understanding the Germany Economy

We often speak of "capitalism" or "the market" as if they are singular things. We are comfortable talking about how the economy is doing, if "it" is up or down today. And in this globalized world it would seem that it makes little difference if the "it" we refer to is in Berlin or London or New York or Shanghai.

Yet there are huge differences in the varieties of capitalism practiced in these places. Looking beyond the big boards, we find systems wrapped up in their own histories and politics and moral values.

For example,  The Economist recently had an analysis of the huge influence German's distinct system of "ordoliberalism" has had in defining the political economy of post-crisis Europe.

To understand the German form of capitalism, it is helpful to learn a few key words:

Sparpolitik: what we term "austerity," the Germans refer to in a much more positive light as "savings policy," invoking wise stewardship more than miserly witholding. So when the Germans are negotiating with the Greeks these days about getting out of debt, they see Sparpolitik as a value that should be desired as much as an austerity to be endured.

Ordoliberalism: it stumbles over the tongue the way a good German word should. It takes inspiration from the liberalism of the Austrian School in its heyday, with a value on personal liberty and a skepticism of central planning.  That the liberal part.  But the “ordo” part is, as you would suspect, an “ordered” (i.e. regulated) liberalism, largely based on the principles of Mitbestimmung.

Mitbestimmung: ("co-determination") is a system of labor relations that treats labor as stakeholders alongside capital and management; built around "works councils," tiered organizations of employee representatives (blue and white collar) elected by their peers; through works councils labor holds (by law) 50% of corporate supervisory board seats.

Mittelstand businesses, small to medium sized enterprises that are often family or otherwise privately owned, and comprise the export engine of the German economy. Many specialize in high value, high quality engineered products. The Mittlestand have a reputation for honoring a commitment to their employees, embracing the German system of stakeholding and co-determination.

Kurzarbeit ("short work") program provides government subsidies to companies to keep their employees on the payroll but reducing their working hours; in the financial crisis this allowed companies to keep workers, reducing their productivity but allowing them to keep the talent they have built up, to save it for better times.

Solidarität ("Solidarity") is is a value extolled by the political left and right in Germany; the civic virtue that we are all in this together, and that living in a society together requires certain sacrifices for the common good.

Schuld: debt -- and guilt. 

Haftung: liability -- and responsibility

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Guatemalan Spring?

Photo: @PrensaComunitar
Recent protests in Guatemala--organized through social media and that successfully forced the Vice- president to resign--recall the Arab Spring of 2011. Known as the "Land of Eternal Spring,"  politically Guatemala is best characterized by tyranny, violence, and, most recently, narco-fueled corruption. Indeed, Guatemala's political scene eternally teeters on the edge of farce--it would be comedic if it were not so damn tragic in terms of real human suffering.

Francisco Goldman, in his masterful book The Art of Political Murder, shows how political power in Guatemala acts with such impunity as to border the magical realism of Latin American fiction. (Goldman examines the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, just days after the commission he led released a scathing report on military culpability in Guatemala's civil war atrocities.)

Even more bizarre was the 2009 murder of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg (see David Grann's brilliant dissection of the case in the New Yorker). Days before his assassination, Rosenberg had recorded a video predicting his death and accusing the then-President and First Lady of orchestrating it. Protestors were on the streets then, too, although in fewer numbers. And, in the end, it turned out that Rosenberg had commissioned his own assassination (in order to shine a light on the corruption coming from the President's office and family).   

Everyone agrees that corruption is a major problem. Indeed, the country considered itself so corrupt that it agreed to charter the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2007. CICIG, with UN backing, is a body of international jurists authorized to conduct investigations and build cases for charges filed in Guatemalan courts.

CICIG's explicit goal is to dismantle the parallel power structures of organized crime, narco-traffickers, and former military fraternities. CICIG has been instrumental in the arrests of a former president (money laundering), two national police chiefs (corruption), the head of the anti-narcotics agency (drug trafficking), and number of other well-placed officials.

Its latest investigation resulted in the current (2015) protests.

The scandal, known as "La Linea" (see Guatemalan Chimney's excellent overview here) emerged when CICIG announced 47 arrest orders for a massive tax evasion scheme, including superintendent of SAT (equivalent of our IRS commissioner) and the Vice-president’s personal secretary (named as the ring leader of the organization). The group has a special phone number (la linea) to avoid duties and a shell corporation to accept the estimated $130 million in payments for services.

The Vice-president (Roxana Baldetti) and her secretary (Juan Carlos Monzón) were in South Korea at the time of the arrests, and Monzón refused to return to Guatemala.  Wire tap transcripts make numerous references to an unnamed co-conspirator, referred to as “La Número 2,” “La Senora” or “La ‘R’,” widely believed to be Baldetti.

On April 25th massive protests filled the Central Plaza and downtown of Guatemala City, and have continued weekly. Organized through social media, these seem to be largely acephalous and non-violent.  See my thoughts in Jared Goyette's great PRI piece (

On May 8th, to the surprise of many jaded observers, including your correspondent, the normal wall of impunity crumbled, and Baldetti was forced to resign. Presidential elections are later this year; if a clean candidate could capture the energy of these protests, this could be a watershed moment for Guatemala. A new Spring.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Good Life: What Really Matters | Health and Wellness | Vanderbilt University


Ted Fischer, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies, discusses the “Good Life,” and why it is important to focus on what matters most.

Janet McCutchen:    Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Janet McCutchen with Work/Life Connections.  Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Ted Fischer who is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of Center for Latin American Studies.  He also is an adviser to the World Health Organization on well-being.  Dr. Fischer, thank you for participating in our Wellcast.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       I am so happy to be here.

Janet McCutchen:     I wanted to begin by asking you, I think, an important question as it relates to our particular department, Work/Life Connections, as part of Occupational Health.  We are designed to help all of Vanderbilt’s faculty, physicians, and staff reach a better level of well-being. What is the key finding of your cross-cultural research on how to be well?

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Well, that is a great question, and yes, because we so often think about well-being as tied to certain things.  Income is a big one.  “If I made a little bit more money, boy, I could be happier.”  Health is another, and these are all important things.  Income is important, health is certainly important, physical security is important, relationships are important, but beyond that, it is having a larger purpose in life that we are committed to, having a balance between these things, between our work life and our family life, relationships.  Investing time in relationships turns out to be really, really important to our sense of well-being.  So, well-being is more than just not being ill.  It is being well in all of these aspects of one’s life, one’s physical health, one’s mental health, one’s social standing.

Janet McCutchen:     Well, we know that you have done a lot of cross-cultural research, and you have an excellent book, one of several, that is out now entitled “The Good Life.”  What is the good life and
how can we learn to focus on what matters versus just looking at well-being from a quantitative perspective, right?  I live in such and such dollar house.  I need to lose X amount of pounds.  Help us define that from that cross-cultural perspective.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Yeah, and again a great question because we do so often attach our hopes and dreams to these things, a little bigger house, a little nicer car, and yet often, those are not the most
important things, they are not.  In fact, I can decide they are not the most important things to our sense of well-being.  We do find the cross culture is a sense of dignity and fairness that I am treated with dignity.  In my workplace, I am free from discrimination, but even more than that sort of absence of negative, free from discrimination, people respect what I do.  Whatever it may be, a sense of dignity is really important and a sense of being committed to a larger purpose in our lives, and that can be something very specific of “I am going to master this craft the best that I can be; if I am a knitter, I am going to be the best, I am going to make this design, just the best way that I can;
or, and this is nice for those of us working in either the medical side or the university side, we are part of the larger project, right?  We are making people better, we are building future citizens and leaders,
and so there is something bigger beyond just my weekly or monthly paycheck that motivates me.

Janet McCutchen:     And you found those results as far afield from Germany all the way to the Mayan culture in Guatemala.  Tell me a little bit about that experience. What did you discover?

Dr. Ted Fischer:       That’s right, and so part of the idea behind this research was, “Okay, we all want to live the good life, but we differ and sometimes violently on what the good life is and how best to
achieve it.  What is the path to the good life?”  So, I said, “Well, let’s look at some really radically different places.  The US for sure, but let’s look at Germany, another country, another wealthy country, another developed country, and see what they think about the good life, and let’s look at Guatemala, a poor country, a country inhabited largely by rural Mayan farmers, and what do they see.”  Lots of differences as you might imagine, I mean these are radically different cultures, but I
think what is most interesting are the similarities.  The sense of people aspire to something a little bit better in their lives and those aspirations, being able to cultivate those aspirations, and crucially
believing there is a real chance that I could achieve those, not a guarantee.  I grew up, I might have said I wanted to be the president of the United States, I am not president of the United States.  It is not
in the cards for me now.  So, it is not that you are going to achieve every dream that pops into your head, but you live in a world in which if I work really hard and I am a little lucky and the stars align, this could be achievable.  That is really important for people.  If you feel like you are in a dead‑end job, if you feel like for whatever reason that again discrimination sometimes or just sort of the economic circumstances in which one was born or raised in, if you feel like there is no way out, then it leads to this frustration that can turn into violence and depression and …

Janet McCutchen:     Am I hearing then there is a certain position of hope involved?  So, it is not just a matter of what you think you would like to achieve.  It is having the aspiration, that hope, that sense of possibility, and also having systems and economies that support that.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Absolutely, and that is a great way of putting it, is hope exactly, that we need to have hope.  I think it is fundamental to the human condition,  this sort of hope, and it is what
keeps us going, yes, and crucially as you said also that there are structures that we would call in anthropology and sociology institutional structures that can help that along.

Janet McCutchen:     So, when we look at this mind-set with respect to wellness and we look at this application to our lives, what is something that we might be able to implement right now to kind of jump start of our own personal journey toward the good life?

Dr. Ted Fischer:       That is a great question.  And of course, we academics, we would like to stay in the clouds and in the ivory tower, not make practical recommendations always, but there are some lessons I think that we can learn.  One is in thinking about going forward in one’s life our plans, New Year’s resolutions, or plans for the next 5 years, or our hopes for children.  It is important for us to step back from the things that might seem so pressing in the moment.  Sure, I want to lose a few pounds; sure, I need to stop smoking; sure, I need to do all of these things; and yes, I am not saying that those are not important, those are really important as well; but it is also important for us to step back and think what is really important in life, right?  What am I going to remember in 10 years’ time?  Is it going to be this little raise that I got this year?  We would all like to have raises, and that is well and good, nothing wrong with that.

Janet McCutchen:     Yes, we are knocking that.  We want Vanderbilt to know.  We are not opposed to that!

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Absolutely.  At the same time, I need to spend more time with my family, and research shows that we remember experiences more than things much more vividly, and so while we might attach our short‑term hopes to that nice suit or dress or that nicer car or these things that cost money, actually in 20 years, we will much more vividly remember that night we stayed up late with the family and watched a movie or played a game or that trip that we took together and did something, and so investing in relationships and investing in experiences is really important and as important as income in many ways.

Janet McCutchen:     Outstanding.  So, not only for our listeners, but evidently cross‑culturally, that is a consistent thing among humanity.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       That’s right.

Janet McCutchen:     That’s a great way to jump start, I think more reading.  You have books out, you have a blog as well, and what is your blog again?  Remind our listeners of your blog.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       They can reach it at .

Janet McCutchen:     Fantastic.  Thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       It was a real pleasure.

LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW HERE:  The Good Life: What Really Matters | Health and Wellness | Vanderbilt University

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Happiness Paradox of Latin America

Paraguay can't catch a break.  It is where a 19th century war wiped out half the male population; one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the hemisphere; 60 years of military dictatorship and one party rule, a brief interlude from which ended (kangaroo court style) in 2012.  And it is landlocked. 

Paraguay should be the most miserable place on earth -- and yet a recent Gallop poll shows that it is the happiest, at least in terms of a positive emotional feeling (what we term "hedonic happiness"). 

Highest Positive Emotions WorldwideIn fact, all of the top ten countries on Gallop's Positive Experience Index this year are in Latin America.  Guatemala (#4), Honduras (#5), and El Salvador (#9) all make the list -- and yet this Central American triangle is by far the most violent place on earth right now.  What gives?

If Job were a country, it would have to be Guatemala. This little land (the size of Tennessee) suffers plagues of biblical proportions so frequently as to become mundane if not banal. Seismic instability gives rise to the picturesque landscape, and the lush valleys are shadowed by active volcanoes and lay on top of major fault lines. And, looking a bit beyond the verdant fields and colorful dress of the natives, we find crushing poverty.

The murder rate in Guatemala City is 108 per 100,000; this is twice the rate for Baghdad; the comparable figures for New York and Berlin are 6.5 and 1.5. Over 1 in every thousand people in Guatemala City is killed every year—and virtually no one is prosecuted.

And yet, Guatemalans report high levels of quotidian happiness.  As I argue in my new book The Good Life, this is partly explained through adaptation to circumstances -- our hedonic happiness is relative to the norms of daily life.  We adjust our daily expectations to what is “reasonable” for us and our circumstances, and adapt our daily contentment and hedonic happiness to that norm.  It is also a function of culture, of aspirations and visions of the future.
A lot gets lost in translating the lived experiences of wellbeing and deprivation (joy and pain, hopes and fears) into the numerical metrics of such rankings. From an anthropological perspective, what is lost is often what is most important: a subjective understanding of what people value, what their view of the good life is and could be, the pathways they see for realizing their aspirations. Perhaps the subjective aspects of wellbeing are fundamentally different from the more objective and material factors (such as income and health), even if those material conditions partially determine the horizons of one’s aspirations.