Wednesday, August 09, 2017

I thee pay

Here’s what everyday life has become in the Western world: economic speed-dating.

You try on a shirt at a department store but purchase it from a discounter. You browse the shelves at your local indie but buy books from Amazon. And, as you do all this, you engage in a series of wanton financial encounter sessions with a variety of intermediaries – the phones, tablets, laptops; credit cards, passwords, security codes; signatures, clicks, swipes that are the matchmakers of the never-ending hook-up between product and payment.

Paid: tales of dongles, checks, and other money stuff – edited by Bill Maurer (a legal and economic anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine) and Lana Swartz (a media studies prof at the University of Virginia) and published by MIT Press – aims to be a compendium of these oft-ignored financial friends with benefits. It’s a bestiary of the tools of trade. Not just money itself, but things that have existed through history that make it possible to pay and record your payment: plastic cards, signature panes, receipts, ledger books, magnetic strips, wooden tallies. In Paid, these wonky workarounds get their 15 minutes of fame.

The volume features a seemingly endless roll of fun factoids that involve paying, an act almost all of us have occasion to do multiple times a day.

  • Did you know, for instance, that the term ‘credit card’ was coined by the Victorian-era writer Edward Bellamy in his 1887 novel Looking Backward.
  • Or that Ben Franklin put leaf designs on the currency he printed for the State of Pennsylvania in the 1730s because leaves are fiendishly difficult to counterfeit.
  • Did you know that the shell bead money created and traded by the Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest were a ceremonial currency – dealt between clan leaders to honor and pay tribute to important occasions, such as funerals and births – but not often used by ordinary individuals.
  • Or that in racist America of the 1950s, there was a special publication to let African-American travelers and tourists know what enterprises along the highway would serve them and where they would be safe stopping off.
  • Did you know that the ancient Norman method for keeping track of debts was to break a stick – the longer part of which (the stock) was held by the creditor and the shorter (the stub) by the debtor, giving us the modern phrases stockholder and ticket stub. (The Oxford English Dictionary, for its part, tells a slightly different tale: the creditor’s half of the tally was the stock but the debtor’s part was the foil or counterfoil, a usage the OED dates to the 15th century.)
  • Or that workers who handle used cash at the Federal Reserve offices in Miami and San Francisco wear masks and gloves because so many bills are infused with cocaine (Miami’s vice) and THC (from having hung out at SF’s medical marijuana dispensaries).
  • Did you know that France had a government-run national dial-up chat, commerce and gaming platform that debuted in ­1979.­­­
  • Or that there was a music streaming service designed to bring synthesized tunes to your house via the telephone that debuted (and failed) a hundred years before its time, in 1906.
  • Or that we’ve never fully deciphered the ancient Incan khipus – lengths of knotted string that anthropologists and scientists believe were the blockchains of their day, distributed ledgers whose knots recorded tax payments, transactions, government expenditures, etc.

Nothing’s orderly or complete in this financial breviary. The ubiquitous Square credit/debit card reader is here. But the chip reader is not. Apple Pay is here, but not Paypal. The pin code but not the bar code. Silver but not scrip. We learn excellent info about the written ledgers of one extended family in Ecuador but nothing about the handwritten shared title deeds people buy into in Turkey. Coin dispensers don’t show up here – neither the electronic ones connected to cash registers in certain once-cutting-edge stores nor the hand-held ones that once were the contrivances of bus drivers, train conductors, and ice-cream men. Nor do bill counters, fare boxes, coin slides or change-making machines.

This haphazardness is annoying in small ways (the editors of Paid tell us the exact serial numbers of the National Science Foundation grants that funded some of the research, but neglect to give us any background – bios, affiliations, anything – about the writers who cheerfully contributed to the book) but winds up being part of this volume's charm. The logic here is digression and tangent – and, thankfully, in many of the essays, the meandering approach pays off.

Perhaps my favorite entry in Paid seems to have little to do with modes of payment. Keith Hart, the economic anthropologist who coined the phrase “informal economy” to describe the multitude of ways people did business on the streets of Accra, Ghana, offers a gentle confession, admitting that he funded his stay in the Ghanaian capital in the 1960s though his own entry into the illicit economy he was studying. Hart bankrolled a thriving illegal business as a money lender and a fence of stolen property (he was the behind-the-scenes guy, his landlord, Ananga, the public face of the enterprise). “I extended my fieldwork by eighteen months solely on the revenues of my business,” he reports, adding that his foray into illicit trade gave him additional compensation because it was also how he got some of his richest field notes.

Understandably, Hart felt guilty about his profitable doings, so he hosted “large rice, beer, and sheep parties” and gave sandals and blankets to the needy. This gift economy, he notes, turned out to be a good business strategy, too: “I was now seen as a big man redistributing to the people and became even more popular with the thieves.”

Hart fondly remembers a bunch of soldiers who were outraged when he couldn’t exchange a wad of out-of-date Egyptian currency, and asks, “What do you say to a disappointed soldier with a Kalashnikov?”

You can’t read Hart's piece and not agree that “money is a means of communication.”

Still, tangential reason can also cause some writings to lose the thread. An essay on the gifts Airbnb guests sometimes leave for their hosts takes no account of the modern reality that these personal relationships are being elbowed aside by investors who buy or lease apartments with the express purpose of pimping them out on Airbnb.

Another contribution, chronicling a pop-up espresso bar in which payment is destabilized, disturbed, and dirtied (buyers are encouraged to throw their payment on the floor) emphasizes the idea that it is an art project but misses the fact that the world is flush with analogous experiences. Early this year, I got on a near-empty C-train in Brooklyn and witnessed what seemed like a spontaneous piece of performance art: a disheveled guy with a grey food-flecked beard pulled a bunch of dirty and crumpled dollar bills from his pocket, smoothed them across what looked and smelled like shit-stained pants, and then placed them at equal intervals on the plastic bench next to him. He stood and surveyed his work, then turned his back on the installation and shuffled into the next subway car. Three teens – two boys and a girl -- were watching him along with me. The boys eyed the cash and one of them made a move. But the girl grabbed his arm: “Don’t you dare. You have no idea where that money’s been.” The boys slumped back on their seats and, a few stations later, we all got off to change trains. As the doors closed, I looked back at the dirty dollars resting peacefully on the blue plastic seat, secure in the knowledge that a special someone would come along soon to pocket them.

A few weeks ago, on a central Brooklyn street, I walked alongside a fellow who, perhaps inadvertently,  critiqued the modern world by shouting, again and again, “My heart is bigger than fucking money.” And late last year, in another subway encounter, a burly bearded man stood at the top of a flight of stairs in the morning rush like a biblical prophet. “Heavy are your moneybags,” he intoned. Streams of people parted like the Red Sea as they dashed around him.

Paid proves this Moses of the MTA right: though you pay them little heed, there’s hidden meaning in your devices of desire.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

a poet’s economics

John Crowe Ransom’s long-lost book, Land!, was written in the early 1930s, when fifteen million people, almost a quarter of the nation's working population, were unemployed, the dust bowl was still a reality, and the New Deal not even an inkling (hint: Herbert Hoover was still President.)

At the time, this poet’s prose-work on economics must have seemed oddly conservative and paltry. The book, a plea for a return to the family-based economy that had fueled Southern agricultural traditions for decades, was rejected by several of Ransom’s publishers, and, seeing no possibility of shepherding it to print, the author ultimately jettisoned it as well. He threatened to burn the typescript, and most scholars assumed he had followed through on his promise.

Now, Ransom’s 85-year-old cri de coeur has been found in the archives and released to the world by the University of Notre Dame Press and Front Porch Republic. Despite its age, you might say that Land! has landed at just the right time. This three-generation-old work is exceedingly present tense. What Ransom articulates seems less a retreat to Eden than a critique of capitalism that would appeal to the inner anti-Davos protester in all of us: an indictment of a system that values accumulation, shareholder profit, and the pursuit of maximum gain over autonomy, self-sufficiency, and solidarity.

“Nobody at this moment will deny that our capitalistic economy suffers from an organic defect,” Ransom writes. While “capitalism is an economy of investments measurable by money, and of returns also measurable by money,” he calls for a rival system – “an economy in which money plays a subordinate and occasional part, or into which it even fails to enter.” Ransom calls this system agrarianism, but it could also stand for the future envisioned by many who think globally and act locally – fair trade rather than free trade.

Ransom comes at economics from the bottom up. For him, what people feel is more important than what shareholders earn: “Surplus of production, fierce competition, crowded occupations: the condition is so prevalent that it forms for a sort of economic atmosphere; we feel it and breathe it everywhere we go.”

He honors the free market’s achievements, but chafes at the inequities built into the system: “Capitalism has performed wonderful feats in the production of useful commodities, which is good; but it has conferred the ownership and direction of the producing tools upon a comparative few, which is bad,” he writes. The conundrum, he adds, is that “the thing which is bad has been the precise means of obtaining the thing which is good.”

Ransom points out that entrepreneurs continually fail to invest in growth at times when nations need it most. Big businesses, he notes, “never work so hard to cut down labor requirements as during hard times. And this reduction is in each case permanent. Labor is forever dispossessed of that much of its specific occupation, and can only live in hope that some other need for it will turn up.”

He sends up the god of efficiency with a farmhouse adage: “If you try to make money on the farm, you will go broke; but if you try to make a good living on the farm, you will make money.” You can automatically update this mantra for the gig economy by noting just how many start-ups have gone bust because they sought to scale before they knew exactly what their business was and how to sustain it.

Ransom also implicitly challenges Schumpeter's notion of “creative destruction” (though the phrase was coined ten years after he quit work on Land!) by asking just what makes the destruction creative. “For what purpose is the new capital entering the new industry?” Ransom queries, and offers a devastating answer: “To reproduce itself, of course.” Creative destruction may create more capital – but it doesn’t necessarily yield more jobs, higher wages, better possibilities, improved lives. Uber may have upended the taxi biz by reducing the friction in all the transactional aspects of hailing a ride. And it may have made some early investors a trunk-full of cash. But has it helped society in any meaningful way?

Though it was written just a decade and a half after the Russian Revolution, Land! offers a refreshingly non-ideological impression of Marxism. “Karl Marx was evidently a man sensitive to the iniquities of the industrial-capitalistic revolution, Ransom writes, but at the same time sensitive to the technical superiority of its processes and its products, else he would not have tried to conserve them.” Marxists, Ransom continues “do not propose sabotage and destruction, they want to preserve the whole magnificent productive plant that constitutes our national wealth, modifying only the distribution of its ownership, responsibility, and income.” While this might seem a revolutionary act, Ransom suggests that it’s primarily a “moral or psychic” subversion rather than an economic upheaval. “There is no great surface difference between what we call our capitalism and what they call their socialism,” he writes, adding that if the communist revolution would come to pass, “we shall not be exchanging capitalism for socialism, but individualism for socialism.”

Ransom is not a policy wonk, and this leads to some serious lapses in his treatise. For instance, it seems odd that a book called Land! would ignore the one federal law that actually promoted Ransom's favored agrarian republic -- the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered every American the chance to purchase 160 acres of the public domain at a reasonable price. Further, I would have liked to have seen some concrete proposals about redress for the millions of farmers who had been turned into tenants or sharecroppers through foreclosure or bankruptcy (at the height of the Depression, more than half of all American farmers no longer held title to the land they tilled.) And Land! also fails to reckon with the manner in which the self-reliant Southern plantation culture in which Ransom clearly feels at home (he was born and raised in Tennessee) skews right wing and racist (see Nixon's Southern Strategy). Indeed, in this slightly more self-aware time, Land! might be read – unfairly – as a veiled justification for Southern complacency in the face of rural poverty and an argument for land remaining in the hands of the select few who have always had it—namely, white people. Finally, Ransom's analysis of the sins of the market centers on overproduction – hardly a key concern these days.

Despite these shortcomings, in its central tenet, Land! remains remarkably au courant. As I was starting in on this essay, a colleague tweeted about an article on efforts to increase the food supply in Africa. Despite the undeniable importance of smallholder farms economically and for food production on the continent, the economists interviewed trashed Ransom’s agrarian ideal. A program that invested in small farmers, they insisted, would be doomed to failure. Rather, they advocated consolidation to achieve economies of scale. Or, as the reporters summarized it, “a virtuous cycle in which better-equipped, better-capitalized farmers buy out their neighbors, some of whom become laborers and some of whom find jobs in cities.”

It's astounding that, in 2017, economists (and reporters) are still trying to convince us that it's virtuous to force the global majority to give up autonomy and self-sufficiency for a life of low pay and a home in a shantytown.

Ransom freely admits his book goes against the grain. “I am justifying a movement that does not yet exist on any conscious or concerted scale,” he writes early in Land!. And with Donald Trump and his fellow faux-populist oligarchs ensconced in Washington, Ransom's vision of striving smallholders – stable, self-sufficient and sometimes even making a profit – may seem further off than ever. But Ransom says he’s not waging war against the obscene excesses of commercial culture but fighting for individual hearts and minds. “The villain is generally called ‘capitalism,’” he asserts, but “the piece is not a tragedy. I would not want to put my villain to death if I knew how. I propose to rescue some unfortunate people from his clutches and then leave him to his own devices.

Most activists would shout him down on this, arguing that it's naïve and even dangerous to believe that you can change the system by leaving it to its own devices. The empire, they know, always strikes back.

Still, one of the key takeaways from reading Land! is how much better off we'd be if more poets wrote economics (though please, let's not talk about the opposite externality--if the economists applied their invisible hand to free verse.) With poets in charge of finance departments and treasuries, I can begin to imagine a joyous noise as millions of acts of rural and urban resistance collide to form a global sound cannon that could blow the sagging system away.