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Archive for June 2008

cavendish bananas against consumer choice

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NYTimes, interesting on bananas:

The final piece of the banana pricing equation is genetics. Unlike apple and orange growers, banana importers sell only a single variety of their fruit, the Cavendish. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas — most of them in Africa and Asia — but except for an occasional exotic, the Cavendish is the only banana we see in our markets. It is the only kind that is shipped and eaten everywhere from Beijing to Berlin, Moscow to Minneapolis.

By sticking to this single variety, the banana industry ensures that all the bananas in a shipment ripen at the same rate, creating huge economies of scale. The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable.

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June 20, 2008 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

schadenfreude too is a form of market fundamentalism

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Britain’s social housing industry suggests £1bn spree on empty stock – Times Online

The group representing Britain’s social housing industry is in talks with the Government to free £1 billion of public money to help to bail out the new homes market.

The funds would be used to buy tens of thousands of mostly inner-city flats and family homes at a heavy discount from beleaguered housebuilders.

These properties were originally expected to be sold to private buyers but are now part-built or empty as the sector struggles to deal with the sharpest slump in sales for more than a generation.

The proposal from the National Housing Federation (NHF), the umbrella body for the UK’s housing associations, is under consideration by ministers at the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. If the package is agreed, it could kickstart the moribund housing market by buying at least 10,000 units. That would help the big housebuilders, whose share prices have collapsed over recent weeks amid fears that they will be unable to service their debts as cashflow dries up.

It would be really nice if someone a bit more economically numerate than me could maybe write some thing explaining why any coming housing collapse isn’t simply going to be the real opportunity to get on the property ladder that you’ve been waiting for – that, in fact, unless you have stacks of cash sitting around the house (and if you did, you’d likely have a house already, and thus be wrapped up on the downside of this thing) it’s not going to be any easier for you to obtain a lovely little 2 bedroom in Brooklyn or whatever than it was before. The housing crunch is structural, it has largely to do with mortgage rates, not underlying consumer demand. Have you noticed any fewer people milling about? Nope – everyone’s still here and everyone still wants a roof over their heads. The only winners will be those, say, emerging with their college degrees and a stack of dad’s cash to spend without financing. Oh, and property speculators. They’ll win because they always do.

Donc, maybe a little more thinking like the above and a little less hand-rubbing anticipation of the bargains to come. They won’t.

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June 20, 2008 at 9:26 am

Posted in economics, socialism

but not a drop to drink

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From the NYT Book Review this weekend:

That comes, unexpectedly, as Royte stands at the edge of the Ashokan
Reservoir in upstate New York. “Ignoring the bluish mountains that form
its backdrop and the phalanx of security guards in our foreground,” she
gazes “down onto the spillway which curves and drops like a wedding
cake, in four tiers, before sending its excess through a granite
passage,” supplying 1.2 billion gallons a day through 300 miles of
tunnels and aqueducts and 6,200 miles of distribution mains. There once
was grandeur in public works, and Royte captures the mythic heroism
that inspired the politicians and engineers to build great reservoirs
more than a century ago. Their outsize civic largesse makes our current
culture of single-serving bottles feel decidedly crummy. But returning
to public water’s golden age, if it’s possible, will not come cheap.
Royte says the country needs to invest $390 billion in our failing
water infrastructure by 2020.

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June 17, 2008 at 11:56 am

“you would think they were praying to it”

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A young man whose English is of rather recent vintage has been coming around just about every other day in a very sharp if cheap suit to knock on our door and educate us on the amazing opportunities to save! big! bucks! via energy deregulation. He’s caught me in moments of rage in my sleepy clothes (rage re: the previous post) and yesterday he woke up my daughter after my wife had painstakingly gotten her down for a nap so that she could get some work in.

We tell him to come back later, every time he knocks, but yesterday he caught me coming in from a smoke on the street and I got to hear the pitch. I had a bit of trouble making out what he was exactly talking about, what he was selling – I think electricty, from some company that’s not British Gas, which is what we’ve got. But what I could make out – and christ if he didn’t say the word six or seven times in the course of his 90 second pitch – was deregulation. I had not heard of deregulation, had I? I did not know what deregulation was, did I, and that what it was was an opportunity for me to save several pence per unit on my electricity consumption? Did I know that deregulation afforded me choice, unprecedented choice, whereas in previous years, the years Before Deregulation, I was forced to simply pay the rate they wanted me to pay for my energy?

It made me think of Conrad, actually, though almost everything nowadays does:

“I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

I guess Enron, not just its final implosion but more the summer of rolling blackouts that it orchestrated in California in 2000 (see the last paragraphs here) wasn’t as big a story over here. But then again, I guess you can still here the pitch back home – more to would-be pyramid scheme early-entryists than to end users, but still…

Perhaps that’s the sort of video my young travelling salesman friend has seen. Perhaps that’s what he’s up to. I love the part about the “greatest redistribution of wealth ever seen in our nation.” There’s a specter haunting America, the specter of infotainment driven microenronbots knocking on yr doors, redistributing yr wealths…

Mine is a bit more perverse perhaps and frontminded, but I think there are actually tons and tons of people who share a tendency to stick with what once were state-run monopoly operators out of a set of wholly comprehensible (if often, now, illusory) reasons. Nostalgia for simplicity and security would probably lead the pack. It drives the slimy-laissez fairists mad, the unwillingness to take the time to consider our options in full (maybe set a weekend aside to go over our literature and those of our competitors with your spouse) and to be brave and self-standing enough to take the great leap forward into market choice! This tendency – see this clip for an interesting case study – is again something that might well be a popular instinct with potential to be activated into something useful indeed.

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June 17, 2008 at 11:21 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

all your fault

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From the IHT today:

Despite rising energy and food prices, Trichet said it was vital for workers in Western countries to moderate wage increases, which economists regard as the best way to avoid an inflationary spiral.

We are being trained. There is no need to allege conspiracy – there isn’t one. The Zeitgeist gusts and guesses, and governments and the media follows the lead. It is a time for austerity, clearly, so that’s the route that the stream of instruction and soft indictment flows.

It is the nasty plastic bag you take from the supermarket that has caused the climate crisis, the spike in fuel prices! It is your wage demand, unionist, that has lodged us between the rockandhardplace of stagflation! Moderate your consumption, learn to live with less, police yourself lest you, through negligence or bad intent, set fire to the housing stock, destroy the savings in your or your family’s or your friends’ and colleagues’ savings account! It is because of you, schoolteacher or tram driver, that the children of Egypt have less bread, that the UN has no rice to bring to the hungry of Asia!

Most unexpectedly, we will soon learn that it was socialism itself, the last living, deep rooted, if withering stalks of it, that was behind all of this that is tipping our time toward catastrophe (reported daily, believed by none, but coming nonetheless). User fees, user fees, carbon based taxation. We do not, so we are told, understand that we must pay for what we use. We have learned to take for free, we have come to expect progress without pain – this was our great sin.

The joining of the fight against inflation with anti-union rhetoric and self-aggrandizing self-flagellation is not, of course, without precedent.

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June 10, 2008 at 11:46 am

Posted in catastrophe, economics

“profitable without necessarily being crass”

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I.A. Richards in Principles of Literary Criticism (1924/1926):

The critic and the Sales Manager are not ordinarily regarded as of the same craft, nor are the poet and the advertising agent. It is true that some serious artists are occassionally tempted into poster designing. It is, however, doubtful whether their work pays. But the written appeals which have the soundest financial prospects as estimated by the most able American advertisers are such that no critic can safely ignore them. For they do undoubtedly represent the literary ideals present and future of the people to whom they are addressed. They are tested in a way which few other forms of literature are tested, their effects are watched by adepts whose livelihood depends upon the accuracy of their judgement, and they are among the best indicies available of what is happening to taste. Criticism will justify itself as an applied science when it is able to indicate how an advertisement may be profitable without necessarily being crass. We shall see later under what conditions popularity and possible high value are compatible.

And the very next paragraph blurs the logic of poetry itself into the logic that has to be that of the less cynical ad writer, who fancies himself or herself to simply an engineer constructing the conduits that facilitate the efficient meeting and mating of individual choice and the offerings of the market.

The strongest objection to, let us say, the sonnet we have quoted, is that a person who enjoys it, through the very organization of his responses which enables him to enjoy it, is debarred from appreciating many things which, if he could appreciate them, he would prefer.

The bad poem, then, is bad because it at once erodes the capability to receive a better poem, and with a better poem, better attitudes and expectations about life and the world. Lots to say about this, but for now, see the relevance in light of this?

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June 9, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in ads, aesthetics