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MOOCs and my discontents

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Massively mixed feelings about the rise of “MOOCs,” as featured this weekend in articles in both the New York Times and the Washington PostWhat are MOOCs? As the Post describes:

“Massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, have caught fire in academia. They offer, at no charge to anyone with Internet access, what was until now exclusive to those who earn college admission and pay tuition. Thirty-three prominent schools, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland, have enlisted to provide classes via Coursera.

For his seven-week course — which covers advanced math and statistics in the context of public health and biomedical sciences — [Brian Cafo, who teaches public-health at Johns Hopkins] posts video lectures, gives quizzes and homework, and monitors a student discussion forum. On the first day, the forum lit up with greetings from around the world. Heady stuff for a 39-year-old associate professor who is accomplished in his field but hardly a global academic celebrity.

In other words, these systems allow universities to create web-based versions of the courses that they teach their paying students. In general, these MOOCs has thus far been free to take: a sort of public-service cum branding operation for the universities (largely elite) who participate.

Ignoring for a minute all of the limitations on what’s happening (especially in terms of credential-distribution and also the probability that the companies that run these systems will eventually start extracting profit from them), these MOOCs seem to be a version of  exactly what we want: the (albeit incremental, limited) expansion of access to educational facilities to anyone who would like to use them.

It’d be, at least from one angle, massively hypocritical for someone to gleefully feel that the ability to suck down so much of what I want from the internet, even or especially in evasion of the copyright rules in play, represents a sort of technologically-inevitable communization of media and information, but on the other hand to hold that that the communization of the commodities that I distribute should somehow be exempt from such liberation.

So of course there are reasons to be pleased by the development of these courses and systems. It is a cheering thought that some kid without access to great teaching is sitting in her bedroom doing MIT engineering courses in her spare time. And why shouldn’t anyone be able, if only virtually, wander into my lecture hall and hear what I have to say about this novel or that movement? There’s no way that I or anyone else should be able to dismiss that possibility with a shrug.

But on the other hand: as often is the case when capitalist enterprises (or non-capitalist enterprises stuck within a surrounding capitalist system, like publicly-funded or not-for-profit private universities) take up utopian and even pseudo-communist aspirations, we should know by know to check that our wallets are still in our pockets.

First of all, there’s the issue of academic labor. It’s not as if these institutions, under the guidances of the consultants who swarm their corridors, haven’t been at work on a decades-long experiment in reducing staffing costs. As of yet, that experiment has focused on the casualization of academic labour: the replacement of tenure-track and tenured staff with contingent lecturers and cheap graduate students. It’s hard not to imagine that the development of MOOCs isn’t a sort of sandbox in which universities play with the possibility of even further reductions in staffing. If you could, for instance, record my lectures and then somehow throw me off the payroll (or, as is more likely, simply not hire another me now that I can literally appear in more than one lecture room at the same time), while simultaneously sticking far more students in my now-virtual lecture hall, well, what’s to stop that?

If you think I’m being paranoid, check out the attention to the issue of marking in both articles. According to the one in the Times:

Assignments that can’t be scored by an automated grader are pushing MOOC providers to get creative, especially in courses that involve writing and analysis. Coursera uses peer grading: submit an assignment and five people grade it; in turn, you grade five assignments.

But what if someone is a horrible grader? Coursera studied the peer grading of 2,500 student submissions for a Princeton sociology MOOC by having them graded a second time by Princeton instructors — yes, the professors hand-graded all 2,500 assignments — and found comparable results. Still, Coursera is developing software to flag those who assign very inaccurate grades to give their assessment less weight.

Ah – just as the airlines have passed the work of checking yourself into your flight and getting your bags on the conveyor belt to the consumer (in order to find themselves massive savings on payroll), now students will mark themselves, thus saving universities the cost of employing actual human beings to do such things. Never mind that marking and commenting on students work is actually what I consider the aspect of my job that requires the most expertise (anyone can read a lecture aloud, while knowing how to fix problems with students’ writing is an art) – the students in aggregate can achieve enough accuracy in clicking the “like” button or not underneath their peers essays that people like me with the red pen in hand late at night are no longer necessary!

(By the way, those of you that think of the credentialing aspect of universities as merely some sort of half-and-half mixture of a tyrannical ISA and a class confirmation machine, should remember that the less grades have to do with things the more other metrics will take over. “Everyone gets an A” in the US system, sure, but that simply means that out of all those students with the same marks, the ones who went to the most elite schools or have the most hookup are those that get to proceed to the next level. In other words, strict meritocracy is deeply suspect, but it is also better than its utter absence…  While of course I understand the very obvious problems with it, marking fairly and accurately still seems to me an essential part of higher education and my place within it. Sure, eliminate marks, degree classifications and the like – it will only make it all the more likely than it already is, and it’s already plenty likely, that the kid whose parents go to the right cocktail parties will get the opportunities that should have gone to a more deserving candidate…)

Secondly, beyond the issue of academic labor, and very much true to the direction that higher education is rapidly moving in the UK due to the recent and massive government cuts, these MOOCs seem like a precursor step towards the further “consolidation” of the higher education sector. Notice who, for the most part, is involved in these schemes: elite universities. If they could find a way to credential the students who take them, who’s to say that a free or cheap “Harvard Extension Degree” for those who never once pass through the gates of the campus wouldn’t be seen as “better value for money” that a regular (and state-funded) degree at UMASS-Boston down the road? Why even bother continuing to fund the non-elite universities, where there’s a perfectly good and exquisitely branded degree available at low-cost and in a radically scalable way right there on everyone’s home computer or mobile device?

Finally, from inside the whale, there is something ominous about how these developments are being pushed on us from within the university, the rhetoric that’s used to push it, that sets off very clear alarms. Someone came in to one of our recent department meetings to preach to us the virtues of the recording of lectures and their eventual mass distribution. He let us know that this is on it’s way and we had better get used to it. When I asked, given that I might disagree with his list of virtues, or at least formulate my own list of non-virtues, why I “had better get used to it,” why we “had” to do it, he informed me that it was because it was “already happening elsewhere,” and that if we didn’t do it, we would be “left behind by other universities.” Right. If there’s one way not to go about convincing me to do something, this is the way to do it. After all, from austerity outward, this is the mode of collective and mindless non-decision making that basically rules and systematically fucks up our world on a day-to-day but ever intensifying basis. Just as “if we don’t impose austerity measures the same or deeper than nation X, the banks will destroy us” is basically the trumping argument at play in the wider world, the deployment of the argument “Harvard is doing this, and if we don’t follow suit, whatever the possible consequences” is to me a sign that we are probably about to set sail into the lowering tide that sinks all boats.The way things have generally been going, it’s hard for me to imagine that it doesn’t end somewhere the looks more like the following than the system that we have now. (Go to 3:48 on the video).

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November 4, 2012 at 3:02 pm

taking its course

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From Glen Newey at the LRB blog:

Last week, Keele University announced plans to shut down its philosophy programme, in the name of ‘efficiency’ savings. It’s beside the point here that the methodology underlying the calculations is flawed and its specific application to philosophy very suspect. The 27-page document presented for consideration by the Senate on 23 March is a fully fledged statement of the post-Brownean credo, apart from the latter’s insistence on student demand as a touchstone of academic worth. Philosophy at Keele doesn’t enrol enough students to make money; but then, it is subject to a cap imposed by the government: there are fewer than 60 places this year. You break somebody’s legs then complain that they can’t keep up.

“You break somebody’s legs then complain that they can’t keep up.” Yes… Just about every internal political and bureaucratic wrangle I’m involved in at the moment follows the selfsame logic. Take what is fit, starve or mangle it for a bit, set it back into the wild, watch it struggle, watch it starve… then deliver with a shrug the aperçu about the wonders of natural selection, the sublimity of nature taking its course, that you had prepared well before the start of the entire process.

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March 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm

wish they had an ipad app: communist monopoly

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This via Der Spiegel, but ultimately the excellent Marginal Utility’s twitter feed:

A Polish research institute has developed a board game to teach young people about life under Communism. In the game, which is inspired by Monopoly, players must wait in endless lines at stores for scarce goods. For added realism, they have to put up with people cutting in line and products running out — unless they have a “colleague in the government” card.

There are no glamorous avenues for sale, nor can players erect hotels, charge rent or make pots of money. In fact, a new Polish board game inspired by the classic Monopoly is all about communism rather than capitalism.

The goal of the game, which will officially be launched on Feb. 5, is to show how hard and frustrating it was for an average person to simply do their shopping under the Communist regime in Poland. The game has been developed by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a Warsaw-based research institute that commemorates the suffering of the Polish people during the Nazi and Communist eras.

Just like in the original Monopoly, acquisition is the name of the game. In this case, however, that means struggling to get basic necessities such as food, clothing and furniture. “In the game, you send your family out to get items on a shopping list and they find that the five shops are sold out or that there hasn’t been a delivery that day,” the IPN’s Karol Madaj told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday, explaining that the game “highlights the tough realities of life under Communism.”

The name of the game is Kolejka, which according to the article is the Polish word for queue or line. I’ve written recently about communist queues – but while I’ve just about given up the pretense that this blog is still pseudonymous, I still won’t link at this point. (There isn’t a link anyway – it’s in a collection from Verso, released last year. Take a look around and you’ll find it if you’re really interested…)

For now: there is something interesting about the fact that fascination with the communist queue seems to be making something of a comeback just as the last vestiges of unrationed or less rationed goods provided by the former welfare states of the West. Fewer university places, more expensive mass transit, more expensive health care – the thought that here, in the liberal capitalist wonderland, we never wait in queues, there’s no such thing as insufficient distribution of goods, and, in particular, that no one is able to jump in front of anyone else is a bit of a stretch. The right side of the US health care debate has long run with the fallacious notion that medical services aren’t rationed there. Of course they’re rationed – just by those who extract profit by doing so rather than efficiency savings. I just watched the brilliant series of episodes from The Sopranos which blur together American college admissions and mafia-type offers that can’t be refused, which was slightly, though not entirely, hyperbolic – speaking from personal experience here. And in Britain, there’s been a persistent interest in what has been called the “Ryanairification” of civic services, a system in which one straightforwardly bribes the council pays a fee in order to jump the line – among other things, of course.

Anyway, lots more to say about this but have to run… I’d like a copy of the game for the little Isotype people, pictured above, alone…

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January 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm

china, chips, seeds, scale, scales

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1. According to Bloomsberg Businessweek, “In 2010, the U.S. added 937,000 jobs; Foxconn, the Taiwan-based maker of nearly every consumer product you wanted this year, added 300,000.” But on the other hand, from another article in the same magazine,

Ah Wei has an explanation for Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou as to why some of his workers are committing suicide at the company’s factory near the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Among other things, Foxconn manufactures the iPhone and the iPad for Apple.

Further, China moved at the end of 2010 to limit its exports of the “rare earth metals” whose supply it almost entirely controls and which are necessary for the production of most electronic devices so as, it seems, to protect its share of the manufacturing market as its workforce begins to expect ever higher wages. In other words, if there’s fancy strange rocks hiding in the engine room of your Device, they’re likely going to have to be made in China for the foreseeable future.

2. On the other hand, the guy who made the art installation pictured above – which seems to me about the most sublimely appropriate artistic representation of the global economy imaginable – had his studio demolished in Shanghai last week.

Chinese demolition workers have torn down the Shanghai studio of the artist Ai Weiwei – a move he says is linked to his political activism.

Mr Ai said the demolition crews arrived without warning on Tuesday and flattened the building within a day.

He originally had permission to build the studio, but later officials ordered it to be destroyed, saying he had failed to follow planning procedures.

Mr Ai has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of China’s leaders.

The work pictured above is “Sunflower Seeds,” which was recently on display in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Here’s the description from the Tate’s website:

Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

Without getting all Pater-before-La-Gioconda on you, I hope that you can even vaguely imagine the overwhelming power – at once critical and, well, crushingly aesthetic in some sort of very old fashioned sort of sense – of seeing this work. When the visual titanicness of the display meets your recognition that each of the 100,000,000 seeds was painstakingly handpainted by human beings working for a wage, one comes as close as one can – as I ever have – to a painfully concrete yet at the same time marvellously abstract sense of the absurd scales, absurdly tipped scales, that orchestrate our world today.

3. Francis Fukuyama, Sisyphusianly obligated to revise forever his early call of time at the pub of history (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), has recently written a piece for the FT titled “US democracy has little to teach China.” Here’s an extract:

The most important strength of the Chinese political system is its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well, at least in economic policy. This is most evident in the area of infrastructure, where China has put into place airports, dams, high-speed rail, water and electricity systems to feed its growing industrial base. Contrast this with India, where every new investment is subject to blockage by trade unions, lobby groups, peasant associations and courts. India is a law-governed democracy, in which ordinary people can object to government plans; China’s rulers can move more than a million people out of the Three Gorges Dam flood plain with little recourse on their part.

Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

Fukuyama focuses, as he would, on autocratic China’s ability to force infrastructral development and to please it’s new and growing – yet still demographically insignificant – urban middle classes. The infrastructure is important sure, and the middle classes may well be happy with the fruits of upward mobility, but we all know that the real competitive advantage – and human cost – of China’s “democracy deficit” is the fact that it is able to manipulate its internal labour market and keep its currency artificially weak, thus keeping standards of living artificially depressed.

Despite the fact that Fukuyama stages his piece as a question begging affair -

During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, student demonstrators erected a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolise their aspirations. Whether anyone in China would do the same at some future date will depend on how Americans address their problems in the present.

- the title gives the game away. Fukuyama hasn’t really described a question so much as yet another equipoised situation, a roadmap of the configuration that, whatever the grumbling of our leaders, is basically the baserock foundation of our current and miserable status quo.

4. What causes Foxconn workers to kill themselves is that which permits Foxconn alone to add a third of the number of jobs as the entire US economy in 2010 is that which depresses wages around the world, and is that which renders Ai Weiwei obnoxious to the PRC, and is that which sanctions the race to the bottom that we’re all suffering through, the rise in in what the BBC was chirping away this morning about as the “misery index.”

We are suffering separately, and somewhat differently now. The ebb tide of the economic cycle is rapidly lowering all of our boats – our separate little skiffs that float on the sea of production. Would that we could figure out how to suffer, and thus perhaps to alleviate the suffering, together.

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January 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

oikonomeia

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Despite the massive increases in productivity that have come of computerization and roboticization, the massive efficiencies that come of the continuous rerevolution in transportation and thus the globalization of markets, despite the possibility of “just in time production” and its low over-heads, despite the development of the internet and vaccines that render horrific diseases a thing of the past in much of the world, despite the end of the cold war and the necessity of massive state spending on armaments, despite incredible advances in the sciences of agriculture and mineralogy, despite labor saving advances in informational technology which render the necessity of expensive bureaucracy obsolete, despite steps forward in cheap and sometimes green energy and the introduction of the ethos of recycling and a general social campaign against waste, and despite the fact that nearly all of what would have been single-earner households have now been turned into dual-earner households, somehow we’ve run out of money and all of those mid-century advances, like cheap or free education, cheap or free medical care, cheap or free mass transit, welfare benefits for those who need them, the possibility of a reasonable state or private pension, the probability of a job for life, and affordable housing must now be phased out as they are no longer affordable. Sorry. Despite the fact that the future was supposed to be better than the past, and that capitalism is most tremendous engine for economic growth and social development that the world has ever known, we’ve discovered that the standard of living we’re accustomed to as citizens of modernity has to change profoundly and the free ride is now over. We’ve apparently run out of money.

Except for things like this:

It’s a funny old world, but that’s simply the case. And everybody knows, right, that a national economy is exactly like a household wherein when things are tight, you have to cancel the satellite tv subscription, put off the renovation of the kitchen or… end the public funding of universities altogether.

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December 3, 2010 at 3:33 am

Posted in crisis, rationalization

picket line

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Huh. Looks like I’m going to be going on strike next week. First time I’ve ever been involved in one of those. Luckily the union is (thus far) permitting us to run our exams… Was very worried about the idea of screwing up my students in service of the cause (exams aren’t easily rescheduled where I work… and they also make up just about all of my students’ marked profile… so it’s no trivial matter…)

I’m starting to have a feeling that things are about to get a wee bit pitched and contentious – even more they than already have been – in and around the UK higher education sector in the coming weeks before everyone goes home for summer break.

Was just talking tonight to my wife about how utterly disconnected I feel from politics. Not in the sense that my fundamental beliefs have changed or lightened – I’m still very much the same democratic socialist that I’ve always been. Just feel like I don’t have anything to say, any insight to contribute on that front – the front of politics writ large, politics played out on television and in the papers – anymore. Back in the early days of this blog (and the blog before that, in particular) I was constantly writing about the political churn, what was in the front sections of the papers, etc. Now, not so much.

But on the other hand… I’ve taken a small but significant step lately towards becoming more involved in my union, getting trained for further and grander participation in it. I am and have been haunted by the sense that people have me pegged out for university administration. I mean the upper bits – head of department, dean, whatever. I am the rare but true alpha male in a humanities department, one of those swaggering ex-athletes with a booming voice and an air of definitiveness about me when I speak in public. People like to be led by me, it seems. My dad was in management (erm, human resources) so there’s something about it all that makes sense.

But I’ll be damned before I go into it though – everyone knows that they carrot and stick you with a big salary and extracted promises to sort things out down on the farm, if you know what we mean. And I wouldn’t do that. But with the union – maybe there’s a place I can take all that half-oedipalized paternal training and put it to good use. And maybe in doing so, find for myself a place where my ever-more-humbled and generally-disenchanted political instinct can find somewhere new to set down roots. We’ll see…

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April 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm

our enclosures and theirs

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From the front page of Saturday’s Guardian:

James Murdoch repeated his call for the BBC to be reined in today, saying that the corporation should have its licence fee funding reduced by government so that it becomes “much, much smaller”.

In a question and answer session at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival following last night’s MacTaggart lecture, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation in Europe and Asia suggested the licence fee should be reduced significantly.

“If you simply constrained the expenses – with plenty of advance warning – the next [licence fee] settlement or something like that – [you say] the number is ‘X’. We have got a huge debt pile in this country. We have financial issues. I think the BBC would prioritise pretty fast,” Murdoch said.

He added that the corporation’s 24-hour news channels and website were inhibiting the ability of commercial competitors to invest in news. “The news operation is creating enormous problems for the independent news business and it has to be dealt with,” he said.

“The BBC should not be in the business of competing with professional journalists. The consequences [for] independent journalists is probably the most urgent one to deal with.”

So the point would seem to be that any public provisioning of goods or services, whether efficient or not, crowd pleasing or not, must be considered first and foremosts as an enclosure of a space where profit could have been and should be harvested. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing quite a lot of this argument in the next few years – we already are, both here with the BBC and in the US with health care reform. The problem is that according to the rules of the game as currently constituted – in the political structures and ideological atmospherics of our time – Murdoch and the like have their point. If GDP is the only metric that matters, of course they are right.

Perhaps nothing illustrates so clearly the inefficient efficiency and aggregate brutality of markets as a means to distibute things we need than the fact that if there’s something we can with relative ease give out for free we, following our logic, allow someone, set up a tollbooth, and charge a premium for access to it. Just because it’s better for someone to turn a profit than for no one to turn one.

What’s left? Those public sidewalks (called pavement here, which is something different, though similar, at home). Why should everyone happily walk around on those nicely paved paths, all for nothing, when they represent a massive opportunity to grow profit. Why not distribute contracts for corporations to build very fine wooden boardwalks, one inch above the public ground, complete with coin operated turnstiles at the begininng of every block? Perhaps just a micropayment, a penny per go.

Not only would it be a tremendous boost to the economy, but these boardwalks would foster the efficient delivery of sidewalk access, as those who didn’t really really need to go for a walk would stay off the public thoroghfares, especially during peak hours, when we might well charge more.

And once we had the boardwalks-over-sidewalks system running, I’m sure we would find lots of other opportunities for this sort of economy boosting operation. There are the obvious candidates of course – socialized systems of medical care, public or even private not-for-profit education provision (Princeton University as an infringement of the right of the University of Phoenix to operate a high-end profit-based university in central New Jersey), public libraries (could save a flagging Blockbuster Co.), police and fire protection, etc.

Perhaps when all of this was done, we could move on to the truly large untapped markets, such as that which would be generated by enclosing our living spaces in impermeable plastic bubbles, from which the air is systematically withdrawn and then reintroduced. Perhaps some state subsidy would be available for the poor, but there’s no reason that most of us should be simply breathing when we could be boosting GDP by paying for breathing rights, paying for breath on our debit cards or by bank direct deposit.

At any rate, they’re right – even the mildest, most customer friendly forms of socialism are inimicable to the efficient operation of markets. This is because public goods, in the end, tend to win. Can’t have people voting with their eyes, feet, minds, and bodies when we could have them voting with their wallets.

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August 31, 2009 at 8:16 am

the promise and peril of utilitarian philosophers writing articles for the nyt

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this sheep needs braces, but can we afford it?

Peter Singer had an almost wholly wonderful piece on socialized medicine in the NYT the other day (it appeared in the IHT today). Why almost? The first 2/3rds of the piece are devoted to debunking the myth that American medical care isn’t already “rationed.” It is, of course, “rationed,” just by ability to pay rather than medical necessity. Great stuff very clearly and cogently written. But in the last bit of the piece, and unfortunately you could see this coming once you noticed that Singer was the author, he veers off into the trickier questions involved in the rationing of medical care under and egalitarian but limited system. And in doing so, he ends up raising issues and situations that really are better deferred until a later date, as the careful but undecided reader might well walk away from this piece disturbed by the notion that a new medical order might well find more marginal value in 2000 wart removals than, say, costly treatment for a single disabled kid. Wrong point to make right now, Peter! Stop yourself when you find yourself making things harder than they need to be in context – this isn’t a graduate seminar, it’s real life complete with feelings and stuff!

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July 19, 2009 at 12:10 am

political parapraxis / detroit bailout

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When the political actors wrap the potential bailout of the American car companies in language of environmentalism, they aren’t being serious, they’re being cynical. There are reasons – some decent, some horrible – why those that want to save these dying corporations, but first on no one’s list is the prospect of forcing to market low-emissions vehicles and the like. It is a marketing strategy, and one that play on a very strange sense that is perhaps semi-subliminally resident in the minds of some voters and many commentators: If the nation controlled General Motors, General Motors could be forced to design and distribute vehicles that would be at once socially beneficial, attractive to consumers, and sustainably profitable. From the NYT today:

“They’re going to have to restructure,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “And all their stakeholders are going to have restructure. Labor, management, shareholders, creditors — everybody is going to recognize that they have — they do not have a sustainable business model right now, and if they expect taxpayers to help in that adjustment process, then they can’t keep on putting off the kinds of changes that they, frankly, should have made 20 or 30 years ago.”

Even the deployment of the slightly – though not much – more realistic sense that the goal of government intervention is going to return these companies to profitability seems to me fairly cynical and not at all realistic. Jobs and shareholders, not necessarily in that order, are being protected, full stop. The rest is windowdressing.

That said…. Each and every time they dress the windows with this sort of talk, every time the government players offer the argument that General Motors or Chrysler would have been better managed by responsible, sane, and forward-thinking bureaucrats rather than their board and corporate management, they turn the wheel of discursive normativity a click toward state management and the economics of planning. The Environmental Protection Agency together with the Department of Transportation could better manage a car company than the invisible hand of the market and the men it selects for ownership? Talk like this, however cynically deployed, was absolutely unimaginable a few months ago. Of course the chatterers on television and the papers will forget all about these arguments when (if!) things improve. But the voters, an ever larger percentage of whom are about to become unemployed, perhaps won’t if they are startled into attention by the shock of what’s coming in the next few months and years.

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December 8, 2008 at 11:29 am

noted without comment

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From a column at Bloomberg.com:

With gasoline at $4-plus a gallon, lots of thinking people see the U.S. undergoing a vast demographic shift, with millions of people moving back to cities. The suburbs, and those places beyond the suburbs, the exurbs, will dry up and blow away.

The notion appeals especially to people who like to think they’ll be in charge after the revolution. They would apparently love nothing more than for the population to be confined to Soviet-style concrete-block high-rises and be forced to take state-run streetcars to their little jobs at the mill.

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June 23, 2008 at 9:28 am

shunted off the information superhighway

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So one of the tidbits that travels back from american expats in the uk, and has for a long time, is the incredible asskicking difficulty of getting phone/internet/tv set up here. Ah, I thought, I am patient. I have a phone that gets email, and the tv gets freeview, and there’s internet at my office, so I will be so angelically calm through the weeklong wait.

Weeklong wait, weeklong wait. If only a weeklong wait.

Let me confirm what those previous expats have said. This is no fun. First, the broadband cable people (company named after a pre-sexual condition, or one who is in that condition) find the fiber-optic leash is snapped in the street, and would take digging, so I cancelled and stuffed politics to one side and went instead with the fascist operators named after the blue (gray, here) dome above us, who came today and can’t because, um, there’s reno scaffolding next door in front, and the neighbor’s new loft blocks the back, and they won’t do chimney’s because that is dangerous and so I cancelled them out too.

So now, apparently, on to my oxygeny mobile phone operator, once the telecom monopoly of espana, now just some random post-privatization conglomerate. They are cheap; they have promised access within 6 to 10 days; we will see about that.

One day, though, one day, my friends and readers, I will blog again during the sliver of time I devote to this sort of thing in the evenings.

But for now, and there’s a lot more to come on this from me soon, I hope: let’s think about advertisements for socialism. Not placards or prints or tv spots in this case, but policy and institutions that both are themselves socialist and encourages people to think well of public ownership and provision, to turn against the private sphere as corrupt and inefficient, impossibly bureaucratic (despite the incessant promises of efficiency and cost-effectiveness). Let’s think about what, say, wide-scale public wifi would do for our movement, and the reasons why it’s been for the most part prevented so far, and why exactly it’s proven so difficult for us to article the utter insanity of blocking access to something everyone, everyone would agree would be a wonderful thing simply in order to maintain an inefficiently organized market for these services.

“Yeah, we used to pay for internet access. It was crazy – crazy expensive and a pain in the ass to get fixed. Now it’s just there….”

(You can substitute medical care, eduction, effective and clean transport, housing, entertainment, books, whatever you like for “internet access.” It is, like almost every other political problem, an Overton Window issue… We’ve had rather nice but uncosmopolitan americans staying with us this week, first time international travellers. It’s so fun telling them about flat rate prescriptions – free for kids! – from the NHS and the like… If you’re a jaded britainian, let me recommend hosting middle-class americans for memphis for a week – it’ll show you full well how much is still left here, despite it all, that’s worth fighting for…)

Relatedly, I am beginning to think that the real and ultimate source of the incredibly hot antipathy that the Bush administration has for Hugo Chavez – why they (to all appearances) intervene in Venezuela’s affairs, elevate him to AofE stature, and all the rest – isn’t because he calls names, or even because he threatens to play games with the oil supply, but simply because he raises the specter of a solution to the world’s economic and perhaps even envirnomental crises so glaringly obvious and in the end simple and really with ample precident, that it is bound to start occurring in the minds of the US citizenry, popping up like little thought bubbles as they fill their tanks the morning after hearing news reports of the absolutely insane profit reports on tv the night before. That is, HC nationalized the oil industry in VZ. He thought and did the utterly thinkable that must somehow remain unthinkable, beyond the pale, lest wonderfulness break out all over and spoil the fun of dark times for those with a stake in dark times.

Too much too quickly and in the wrong order, but I’ve been thinking that we might want to be more specific about what it is that we propose, move away from amorphous think-good amelioration and nostalgia and, you know, pick a bit that seems important. I vote the communalization (used to be nationalization before I fixed it) of things. Services, maybe industries, and the like. This will be way too quick, really flimsy and insubstantial, but while watching this the other night, the part where it gets to Thatcher and the privatization horrors, Marr emphasized the way that one privatization would, in a sense, pay for the next. I wonder if that (and given all different senses of the word “pay”) mightn’t run in reverse as well. And I finally wonder if the window of opportunity hasn’t already begun to open, what with Northern Rock and almost inevitably the american airlines within a year or so, and we’ll see what comes next.

Start whispering it around to your friends and neighbors. We could have them, given the right turn of events, by force majeure. That is to say, we might have to have them. State of emergency and all….

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June 16, 2008 at 2:53 pm

loss leaders

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From the Independent today:

A draft law on the “modernisation of the economy” unveiled yesterday threatens, according to its supporters and some of its critics, to revolutionise shopping in France. Other critics suggest the draft law is too timid. Large French shops will mostly remain closed on Sundays. Little effort will be made to diminish the regional domination of French supermarket chains.

The draft presented by the Economy minister Christine Lagarde will make it simpler to build medium-sized supermarkets. That should encourage “hard-discount” chains such as Lidl and Aldi, which have a relatively small share of the French market.

If approved by parliament, the law would also abolish the existing complex rules which, in theory, forbid sale below cost and force manufacturers to provide goods at the same wholesale price to hyper-markets and village shops.

With inflation gathering pace and wages stagnating, the law is intended to help to fulfil the President Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise to increase the purchasing power of French people.

The federation of large shopowners predicted that the law would reduce prices of food and basic household goods by 2 per cent. Serge Papin, head of the Système U chain of supermarkets, predicted price cuts of up to 3 per cent.

Michel-Edouard Leclerc, head of the Leclerc chain, said the law would “cut inflation in half” by allowing shops to refuse the “excessive price rises” demanded by manufacturers. He predicted a “vast spree” of price-cutting from September, if the law is passed.

Yes, it will slightly cut inflation doubly. On the one hand, grocery prices will go down slightly. On the other hand, massive numbers of workers and owners of small groceries will likely be put out of work and either stay out of work or accept the low wages offered by the hypermarkets that walmartized their shops out of existence. We’ve seen this before – back during the boom in the US the greenspanites couldn’t stop talking about the fact that Walmart singlehandedly kept inflation at safe levels. What they didn’t discuss much is the fact that this is in part accomplished by the proletarianization of the workforce.

The French ban on loss-leaders always seemed to me an incredibly sensible piece of law, one that at once supported employment and consumer convenience and urban vitality. Prices at hypermarkets may go down some, but it seems to me the net effect has to be that prices at small shops will simply go up.

As if we needed to be reminded that each crisis – whether deflation or inflation, whether demand failure or food crisis, poor farmers or expensive food, too-expensive houses or too-cheap ones – will always be met with the same set of responses: deregulation, lower taxes, and the dismantling of the social state.

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April 29, 2008 at 12:07 pm

excellent, click thru

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February 21, 2008 at 10:30 am

the shock doctrine

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If you’ve been reading this site for awhile, you already know how I feel about Alfonso Cuarón in light of his recent work. I’m very, very glad to see the direction that Naomi Klein is headed in. I had very little time for the No Logo stuff. Going after brand lust has always seemed me like lancing a butt pimple when the melanoma patch on your forehead has metastazed into full born brain rot. This seems much better. I’ll buy the book this weekend…

(Terrific the way this video – set in our here-and-now dystopia rather than the semi-imaginary one of Children of Men - so closely mirrors “The World Has Collapsed” public-service ad playing on the bus in the film… And it’s another example of extremely fruitful collaboration between Cuarón and Foreign Office…)

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September 13, 2007 at 11:46 am

ikea glass and antiseptic urbanity

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NYC is about to start installing new newsstands around the city like this one. Now, right from the start, there’s a lot about the situation that I really don’t love. From what I can tell, these stands are the fruits of a public-private partnership (hate those) where the city gets them for “free” in exchange for the corporation in exchange for the company that installs them being allowed to collect ad revenues for the huge ad frames on the back of the box (not pictured here, obviously)… So thumbs-down on that score.

But putting that issue to the side (which doesn’t make any sense, I know, but just play along), figuring out what I make of these new stands aesthetically leaves me tangled in knots. On the one hand, I like the clean cool looks of the things a lot better than the old ones. I don’t even hate the Ikea glass, its color (even if it is sure to become dated very swiftly…) Taking care of your street furniture, having swift looking bus stops and newsstands and even public toilets, to my mind, is like a continual living advertisement for publicness, for public, common space itself. Which, in this nation, even in New York, is constantly in dire need of a good marketing campaign. On the other hand, isn’t it the small-scale humanity, the human mess, of the newsstand, as an institution, that makes it such a special place? The overstocked profusion of cheap goods and reading materials (from what I recall from a conversation with a newsstand guy at a subway station near my old place, one of those guildish NYC laws mandates that the newsstands can sell nothing that costs more than a certain price – $10? What was I trying to buy from him that yielded me this information?), the compact bazaar feel of the things – I’m sure that we will miss it, on some level, when it disappears…

The comment thread on the article behind the first link above contains some interesting amateur discussion about the aesthetics of urban life.

And this post is meant to be a forerunner to a long-plan post forthcoming entitled (probably) Ikea Socialism. 

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September 12, 2007 at 11:32 pm

Posted in design, rationalization

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