Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Don't Buy It, by Anat Shenker-Osorio

"How did this come to happen?" writes Ms. Shenker-Osorio, "How did we come to accept that how well we're doing depends entirely on how well it's doing? How did we forget that the economy is nothing more or less than what we make and consume, nothing outside of us?"

It's the sort of thing that can't be said enough. "The economy" is a description of human social activity. It's not something that exists independently of the human sphere, and people don't live to serve it. It is complex, but it is not emergent, not sentient, and even less so is it some supernatural consciousness that must be entertained or appeased lest the world be subject to its Olympian funks or avenging wrath. I find this really troubling in a study that also styles itself as a science, and when economists resort to ad hoc bullshitting and Delphic babble every time the shit gets anywhere near fanward, it triggers my pathological radar something fierce.  Even though it's only a knowing approximation, I'd prefer economics to be presented as something of a process model (with a vast quantity of inputs and parameters and so on, described by all manner of dynamic states), but instead we get simplistic metaphors dished out so smugly or grudgingly from the authorities that I suspect them to their very core.  Because I've got to give it the author here: the prevailing metaphors suck.

As a discussion of what's wrong with the language of macroeconomics, I think that Shenker-Osorio is providing a valuable service with this short, snarky book, and I'd go on that some of the remedies are greatly appreciated and taken to heart.  Proceeding from the obvious premise that the economy is a social institution, then it follows that it is the result of human decisions at various levels of scale, which can be identified.  It's not a matter of physical law, and considering it accurately as a mechanism for classifying and distributing human effort and reward, then there's surely more than way to sort it out, and it's naive to imagine that our way is the global optimum, or that we came to it by forces of pure thermodynamics.  (Hell, if we did, we wouldn't take on such utterly retarded assumptions as perpetual growth.)  The market doesn't make the decision to enrich stockholders and fuck over workers; people do.  The economy doesn't demand that poor people go without decent housing or medical services; people granted such authority choose to distribute those things or not.  There's a reason that high-visibility economic spokesmen obscure the agency of certain individuals and groups--it's because they're getting paid by them.  The pervasive use of the passive voice is used to hide exactly that, and it's probably the book's most salient point.

I do keep in mind that the author is a "message consultant" of some kind, and if human behavior is more subject to the semiotics than the physical world is, I still don't want to get carried away here.  It's good to call out how bad the discussion really is, but I think that metaphors only hold so much power.  Are we really better talking about the economy as a vehicle (that has a driver, that can go off course, that needs maintenance) than we are talking about it as a body (that can get sick through no fault of anyone)?  To an extent, but I think it's also clear that most of the concepts have passed well out of the realm of colorful evocation into the dull world of cliche.  Yes, our language does affect our perception of things--mostly to limit it--but the nature of reality also tends to undo language, doesn't it?  Talking about the economy, we're really dealing with a bunch of blunt and inapproprate conversation tools, but I think that most people who work with them, often with Friedman-esque levels of free-associative carelessness, intend and understand something other than what the words are really saying.

This sort of things shows up in some of her etymology arguments too (what is it with these social science types?), and as with cliches, I don't think people deal so deeply in the concepts that once informed the words they currently use.  And unfortunately this thinking gives some tools to throw her reasoning back at her.  Shenker-Osario sees a fundamental rivalry here between Republicans and Progressives.  (It's the sort of thing that's suitable for a long blog post, but hell, I think this sort of false dichotomy dilutes her arguement a lot, which is a damn shame, because it's pretty sharp otherwise.)  That she goes with "Progressive" in 2012 is a telling construction in itself.  It accepts the mantle of the movement from last century, which I myself see as a politically sanitized manifestation of the radical arguments that had been fomenting among the American working people for some years before.  It's used today because people like herself--wrongly, I think--have abandoned "liberal," but Progressivism carries its own highly compromised and somewhat authoritarian history.   Oddly, I'd put that word in a similar camp as American "reform," which started as a sort of in-the-system filtered-down radicalism too, and has since been diluted further.  I don't think it was fair, really, to give the word origin of that one such a beat-down: for one thing, I'd say that in terms of core meanings, reforming--forming again--implies taking something apart and reassembling it, not just giving it a nice sand and polish, and political reform, even if it's become completely meaningless at this late date, did have some pressure behind it in the 19th century, when it sure as shit wasn't part of the conservative lingo.

The tone of this book is arch, critical, and reasonable funny, which I think is entirely appropriate for poking holes in sanctimony and obfuscation, which is the main thing here anyway, and which, as mentioned, is as long overdue as it is enjoyable.  So call it recommended reading.  I'd have liked it better if it didn't also come off as a manual for Team Progressive to hold its own discourse, using another set of cheapo metaphors which better reflect their agenda.  Since she hasn't lost sight of what the economy actually is, maybe it would just be better to reduce the unconsidered use of such facile language altogether.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Review: The Green Shore, by Natalie Bakopoulos

This book was recommended to me by the poster formerly known as august (he among the quiet friends) back in, well, August, in the context of swapping around review sites. I bought it and cracked it open shortly afterward, and while I feel somewhat guilty about taking so long to actually finish the thing, it is, in all honestly, the sort of novel that is well-suited to reading in morsels like that.  It is told in several largely atmospheric segments, rich in narrative commentary, each one separated by several years. Things happen within each section, but it's not driven as a simple narrative, no hard-pressing plot advancement, not a matter of this-then-this-then-that. The Green Shore is more of an exploration of several sequential presents, each of which has proceeded naturally from the last.  You can read one of these portraits, let it absorb, and then get back later to see how the characters have changed and developed during the year or two they were offscreen.  It's somewhat like spending a few weeks at a time with distant friends, a little more like visiting your distant family.

The book follows the lives of one extended family of Athens, in the months and years after the Greek coup in 1967. There is a fairly large cast involved for a book this short, but the two daughters (Sophie and Anna), their mother (Eleni), and her brother (Mihalis) are the point-of-view characters, the interior and exterior lives of each one pulled out and elaborated in each section. They are, with varying levels of extroversion and personal compromise, instinctively subersive, liberal, urbane, and in their respective ways, they find themselves natural opponents of the colonels. As well as each other. Quite a lot of the narrative is developing the thorny relationship space they all share with one another. We find them first on the night of the coup, one in the middle of an affair, one drunk, two living worlds apart at home, and then the coup happens.

Bakopoulos is masterful at creating a kind of hollow, amorphous tension through these four. There's a sense of menace everywhere, of distrust, but as conditions evolve, after initial violence and mass arrests, and a few days of quiet, wary streets and strange radio broadcasts, life returns to most of its modern motions. The family is on the brink of several underground movements--Sophie is dating a dissident; Mihalis is an experienced one, who resisted the Nazi occupation--and they get closer to them as the years pass, but at first their first efforts seem less than futile under the distrustful eyes of newly-minted authorities, and then surreal against the token normalcy, the sham society, that follows. The sources of the paranoia are rarely witnessed directly, but are implied everywhere: an overly curious security guard, cautious conversations, prisons packed away on quaint vacation islands. We see detention and demoralization, and Eleni eventually starts a clinic that serves torture victims, but even at the climactic Polytechnic uprising, most (though by now, not all) of the action is in the form of intimidation, and then we only see damaged bodies being rushed back and forth. It's actually a very compelling and intimate expression of how oppressive power filters down, how constriction of freedom feels, and this book is well worth reading for that.  It's like It Can't Happen Here, but told with real, complex people, in a real, living place.

The general arc of the story scatters the family, and then gradually pulls them back together. They are all characters who mature under the occupation, come into their own.  They all start out a bit feckless, a little lost, but they grow in resolve, and it is as if they need the threat of the authorities to complete themselves, but only to a believable human degree. Anna is really the only one who can be said to grow up under the junta, and of all of them, she is the one who cracks the boundaries of decorum the most, the student who becomes the full-fledged revolutionary. Arguably Greece lost and found its purpose similarly over these years, which was probably an intentional parallel (with the country left as ambiguous a future as after any family reunion). The ending feels like nothing more than a fitting moment to stop, and as such, I wonder the characters do as their lives continue.  Dissolve again, become dissolute.  Lose purpose and fade out, I think, for better or worse.  But then we all do.