Friday, December 17, 2010

Pollution, Economics and STS Ngrams

My turn for some Ngrams (with the disclaimers about interpreting the results pointed out by Andrew Norton in mind).  First up we have the rise of the term 'pollution' in the 1960s, against 'nuisance', 'smog' and 'smoke' - the operative terms of 19th.  Lots of interesting things about this one. Rise of 'smoke' and 'nuisance' with Industrialization in the 19th Century, then its replacement with Pollution, primarily in the United States with the New Social Movements.  It was during the post-war welfare states that power generation and heavy industries moved away from population centres, used higher chimneys (leading to Acid Rain)

Second, Environemental Economics as a discipline co-inciding more or less with the oil shocks.  Their contributions to concepts of market failure and externalities would appear to be more modest than expected.  The peak in citations of Acid Rain gives Environmental Economics a shot in the arm and criticisms of 'Neoliberalism' follow.  I'm not suggesting a strong causal relationship between the last two, just noting the lag

And finally some discipline-specific musings

Stavins the heaviest hitter of Neoclassical Environmental Economics vs. Larry Lohmann - the standard bearer of Polanyian critique of capitalism and elite regimes of accumulation.  Astonishingly, Stavins has confessed on his blog to never having read Lohmann's work.

On to Science and Technology Studies.  Latour the clear winner here with Simon Schaffer a distant second

And some notable women in the field.  Haraway and Sandra Harding leading the field.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: What's Mine Is Your's

This is a book review of What's Mine is Your's by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. After seeing Botsman speak at TEDxSydney, I requested a review copy from the publisher.

Waste, or non-useful expenditure, is central to understanding the value of things and the cultural circuits in which they travel.  In neoliberal discourse, waste operates as an accusation of lost economic value in some piece of policy – it stands as a zero degree of value or in excess of the useful.As Will Davies has noted, 
The left has liked to define itself as being more favourably-inclined to state-led policy solutions than market-led ones. The former are indeed a better guarantee of equality of outcome. But the left has also conned itself that the state operates with a sunnier view of human nature than the market. In fact, the logic that operates in public policy formation is ultimately the same as that which operates in the marketplace. Human beings are assumed to be rational utility-maximisers, and resources are allocated to achieve the maximum aggregate utility.

Wasteful expenditure, as the counterpart to utility, therefore, is central to life itself. And yet a science of use remains elusive. From choice of clothing to cars, beverages and smartphone operating systems, displays of use are infinitely subtle games that perform our membership in social categories.  These games cannot be reduced to units of use and measured as such, even if such units are derived from them.  John Frow has suggested that such systems of symbolic use, apparently supplementary to the norms of the rational calculation of utility that dominate political economy, may in fact render those norms unworkable.  In Frow's account, Thorstein Veblen recognized invidious displays of wasteful use – conspicuous consumption - as  the very stuff of class: an assertion of one’s free time from wage labour.  Veblen attempted to revive a functionalism from such displays.  He aimed to square the Progressive era aristocratic excesses he observed with codes of reputability using primordial distinctions of productive (female) and honorable (male) work.  Bordieu stresses the ways in which social distinction is 'gamed' - even a withdrawal from playing games (for example by labelling it 'hipster' or 'bogan') is a social group marker.  In this way, 'socially responsible businesses' are a contradiction in terms - operating between, rather than across, social divisions.

Putting these contradictions aside, for a moment, Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’ book ‘What’s Mine Is Your’s’ seeks to fuse some of these divisions, promising a new mode of consumption that promotes harmony, rather than division.  There are two moral point of departure for the book.  Firstly, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (or 'recent changes to our economic landscape' as described on the back cover).  The GFC was, of course, at least partially caused by the systematic abstraction of working class status anxiety into equities.  Secondly, the Great Pacific Garbage patch.  The authors then go on to attack other evils of the current economic model: unsustainable resource usethe Diderot effect, Mad Men/Bernays style psychologically manipulative marketing, the paradox of choice, and increasing anomie and isolation.  The objective is "a healthier more sustainable system with a more fulfilling goal than ‘more stuff.’" As Rob Horning notes in his incisve review essay, the authors aim to step into the breach here, outlining a new model of consumption that "... internalizes ideas that have long animated attacks on consumerism, promising to turn them inside out. The new consumerism is not competitive but collaborative; not isolating but unifying; not massified but local; not authoritarian but entrepreneurial and empowering; not wasteful but conservative in the noblest sense of the word."  In short, not the rivalrous emulation that ‘the ponzi scheme of the last 200 years of industrial civilization has been built upon.’

This sheer breadth of activities and organizations that the authors label as forms of Collaborative Consumption are ringfenced by a number of concepts to ensure the term doesn't lapse into general analysis of the sociality of economic exchange: critical mass, idling capacity, belief in the commons and trust between strangers. I’ll deal with the first two of these before turning to the issue of trust, ‘the commons’ and expertise. 'Critical mass' is a quasi-natural process taken from Malcolm Gladwell to refer to the amount of choice available in a 'Collaborative Consumption' alternative to conventional shopping or other modes of consumption.  For example, there needs to be enough bike hiring nodes spread across a wide enough distance to make a bike sharing scheme attractive.  The authors argue that experiments with these schemes in the US seem to have been more successful than in European cities where networks have been too small, and/or the bikes systems lack technologies to prevent theft or absconding.  The concept of 'Idling Capacity' is used to implore readers to look around them for spare things that could be useful to others.  The average drill is used for just 20 minutes in its lifetime, yet there are 50 million of them in the United States.  ‘You need the hole, not the drill.’ ... which begs the question of whether you also need the Van Gogh print you'll be hanging from the hook that goes in the hole.

The authors explore three forms in which such an idle drill – or bike, car, or even silverware – could be mobilized.  Each of them operates in adversarial tension to a cultural form of consumption.  Firstly, they explore ‘Product Service Systems’ such as Zipcar or the Australian equivalent GoGet.  These are largely privately run and essentially compete with conventional care hire companies by having available cars nearby residents.  Users pay membership fees and for the time they use the cars.  The authors argue that by ‘moving our relationship with things from ownership to use, options to satisfy our needs, whether it be for travel, leisure, work food or children increase.’  The Enthusiast explored in the work of Glen Eventmechanics Fuller may have a different opinion of this particular model.

The second model is ‘Redistribution Markets’ in which the burden of wasted or idle stuff is liberated, usually through either non-commercial ‘noticeboard’ sites like Freecycle, Gumtree or commercial operations like eBay.  The authors also list a tonne of niche swap community sites (MakeupAlley, anyone?).   It’s not clear what is ‘collaborative’ about these sites – the authors don’t ever quite say.  My own experience with eBay is anything but collaborative - it is indeed my own self interest that leads to  decisions to sell old camera gear, for example.  This decision comes with very clearly delineated by rules about what is on offer, my advice and, likely, my relationship with the seller.  The cultural category these markets operate against is the Hoarder, well described by Jodi Dean in this fascinating and evocative post.  

The final, and most tenuous, category of ‘Collaborative Consumption’ outlined by the authors is ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’: organizations dedicated to sharing workspaces, goods, skills, parking spaces, travel (AirBnb, Couchsurfing).  Again, it is not clear how the most prominent of these organizations are ‘Collaborative’, rather than simply a counter-cyclical extension of capital into home economies as national economies suffer through the crisis wrought by Zombie policies.  AirBnB, for example, is a startup business that aims to compete with hotels by encouraging people to rent out spare rooms or even whole properties.  Indeed, AirBnB’s is the entrepreneurial success story that begins the book.  The startup now  has the character of a full scale corporate operation, with a new ‘collections’ branding that represent exactly the kind of marketing to social distinction that animated cultural critics like Veblen and Bordieu.

And this is precisely where sociological critiques of the concept of Collaborative raised by Rob Horning bite.  The struggle with ownership over things versus things owning us identified by critics from Nietzsche to Chuck Palinuik are recast as a fun opportunity to interact with others.  As Horning’s notes of the contradiction of ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’:  "The theoretical underpinnings for the redistribution (not of income or wealth, mind you, just the stuff you already wish you could get rid of) are a sentimental communitarianism fused with a Hayekian faith in spontaneous order... Sharing isn’t simply caring anymore; it’s becoming an alienated system for proving your trustworthiness, your willingness to play ball."  AirBnB, of course, could not operate without eBay style reputation metrics that will undoubtedly require analogous security and verification apparatuses.

It would be too easy to follow Horning’s lead and spend the rest of the review cynically criticizing the authors’ revival of ‘old time virtues’ (sic) through stories of efficiency gains made by benevolent capitalists.  Instead, I think it’s more valuable to (re)turn to the implications for public policy viz. trust and ‘commons’, and specifically its implications for climate policy.

Botsman, a highly articulated speaker, has visited Number 10 to outline implications for Collaborative Consumption to the Coalition government.  And it’s easy to see why there’d be a receptive audience for her ideas given the Neoliberals transformation of Whitehall deftly documented by Davies.  As Davies argues, Policy Utilitarianism has mostly been a clandestine operation – pursuing aggregate welfare increases with no regard to means.  For example, if there is evidence of decreased road tolls near churches, an entire secular machinery will offer religious tax credits to stimulate building more churches.

As Davies notes, these sorts of policies may be very successful in the aggregate, but unfortunately the view of ‘the aggregate’ is a view from nowhere, cannot be easily communicated and is susceptiable to the criticisms of Price Theory. For example, WRAP is a QUANGO established with the promise of ‘transforming waste to riches’ by pursuing productivity gains in government, households and corporations.  It’s not hard to see how individual focused organizations of Collaborative Consumption would perform ‘resource efficiency’ better than a government agency.  As Marx recognized well, prices function within capitalist systems to stimulate technological innovation; Chicago School economists like Coase saw prices everywhere, generalizing them to human behaviour beyond the marketplace.  The question for policy makers, therefore, became less what was worthwhile and more what could be demonstrated to provide maximum welfare gains in this abstract sense.

The appeal of CollCons is that it preserves Coase’s fascination with ‘transaction costs’ (indeed, in a characteristically broad and frustratingly facile generalization declares them ‘Collapsed’ in a 1.5 page section of Chapter 4) but provides the resources to generalize the problem of market failure into every nook and cranny of the house.  This would be receptive to Whitehall because the ‘collaborative’ label addresses policy-makers problems communicating the welfare enhancing character of alienating calculative systems whilst preserving their ability to act as centralized operators of welfare maximization.  This is where the generation of numbers of different kinds through acts of consumption appeals enormously to policy makers, for reasons I’ve explored elsewhere.  Fwiw, their use of the work of Mark Granovetter here deserves scrutiny but space forbids it.

Numbers represent the archetypal fact upon which bureaucratic authority is founded, and it’s in the generation of numbers that Botsman and Rogers’ faith in free enterprise may conflict with their concern about the global commons of the atmosphere and climate change.

Climate Policy since the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol have framed national emissions quotas, monitoring systems and transaction logs to keep track of emissions.  Most national governments have simply handed their emissions quotas to their largest polluting facilities and established their emission reduction commitments accordingly.  It’s clear that if we’re to have any chance whatsoever of closing the emissions/policy gap, relying on entrepreurial ‘Collaborative’ systems alone will not be enough.
For example, BCycle, currently operating in many US Cities, embodies the kind of successful, socially responsible 'Product Service System' that may come to play an important role in climate policy in the coming decades.  Indeed, the authors attack suggestions that the current crop of Generation X entrepreneurs are 'valueless' - rather they're 'changing the world' .  Botsman and Rogers stress that CollCons systems like bike and car sharing must consider the relative and marginal benefits of a particular service in relation to other transport options.  BCycle appears to have successfully incorporated design failures that have plagued EUropean bike sharing schemes - their nodes are close to sites of use, rather than restricted to just the centre of town like Copenhagen; they can be tracked and booked online and require a membership, rather than just the insertion of a coin.  Furthermore - and this is where it may get interesting - it tracks your mileage and also provides a figure of 'carbon offsets'

This is the collision between these new enterprises and existing forms of ('public') expert systems will be interesting to watch.  What Donald Mackenzie has termed the 'techno-politics' of climate change exists in the material calculative devices like the ones used to track BCycle bikes.  What baseline assumptions are made transport usage of the riders?  Is this a voluntary disclosure or checked against car ownership records?  How big a car do they own?  Who will get credit for these offsets?  (The collapse of the Chicago Climate Exchange suggests they're unlikely to find a market in the voluntary sector, so how will these figures be used by official authorities?)

These questions are where the 'game' like character of social life theorized by Veblen and Bordieu intersect with policy decisions relevant to 'caring for the commons'.  Expertise will be required to reassure concerned publics that their 'collaborative' efforts are not wasted.  The question is how this reassurance can take place and by whom - and these are political questions irreducible to acts of consumption, collaborative or otherwise.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stavins on the death of carbon cap-and-trade

The guy essentially made his career promoting the idea.  The money quote
But climate change is distinctly different [to the Clean Air and Water Regulation of the 1970s]. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable. You and I observe the weather, not the climate. Until there is an obvious and sudden event -- such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a disastrous sea-level rise -- it's unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that has inspired previous Congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat*

[edit: added a few clarifications to pars 4, 5, 7 and 8]

One of the things I criticize economists for in my book for their sociological naivety and political duplicity is the idea that designer markets will unleash 'innovation'.  The US Sulphur Dioxide Market (Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment), is a kind of linchpin of neoliberal market environmentalism in this regard.  Whiggish neoclassical economists like the prolific Robert Stavins and Denny Ellerman haven't just defended the scheme to justify the creation of a national carbon cap-and-trade scheme, their careers were built on constructing the original scheme itself; whilst Stavins actually lobbied for its introduction and continues to be an influential player in the US climate policy ring.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Seeing like a (NeoCon?) State

James Scott has done some interesting work on standardization and statecraft that overlaps with some of the concerns of my PhD.  His lead essay at Cato Unbound contrasts 'vernacular', organic modes of communication and organization with the legibility required for modern statecraft:
The invention of permanent inherited patronyms was, along with the standardization of weights and measures, uniform legal codes, and the cadastral land tenure survey, a vital technique in modern statecraft.... Intervention in society (or nature) for whatever purpose (e.g. delivering welfare benefits to those with particular disability or keeping watch on political enemies) requires creating the mapping or optics necessary to legibility.
Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber mounts a solid critique of Hayekian market epistemology from this: "far from communicating tacit knowledge, the price system (and the codified standards that underlie it) destroys it systematically." Farrell's argument corresponds with the central argument in Michel Callon's essay on 'framing and overflows.'  Market exchange only becomes possible through framing: the simplification of ownership and the transfer of mechanisms of exchange.  But simplifications create exclusions which become the stuff of politics: access to resources, biodiversity concerns (which raise interesting questions related to this.. for another time), competing claims to expertise. These are 'overflows' - the title of this blog - and they proliferate  as framing gets more formalised, ambitious and loses connection with the social contexts in which it became initially powerful.

My thesis looks at instances where issues become central to mitigation policies using tradable permit schemes.  Though Four Corners last night shows that it's clear that adaptation policy will be another area in which problems of knowledge, legitimacy and governance are also central.  Everyone likes a story of good vs. bad, but sometimes oversimplifying does more harm than good.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The boomers still want to have a debate about whether their values were right or not, whether they were  liberating or anti-social. Did sexual freedom unleash a new era of expression and female autonomy, or did it destroy the family? Did cultural hedonism overthrow the shackles of wartime austerity, or un-do the very basis for community? How about this, boomers: maybe it was neither. Maybe casual sex is neither life-affirming and liberating, nor immoral and self-destructive, maybe it's just casual. And maybe the bored 30-year-old smoking weed in front of an action movie is neither sticking it to the man, nor falling into the crevices of a broken society, but simply trying to forget about his boring job. Could it be that the real legacy of the boomers is neither anarchy nor utopia, but a sort of masturbatory tedium of people wondering which itch to scratch next? This is what Mark Fisher defines as neo-liberalism's "depressive hedonia... constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure."
We need more bridges out of the arbitrary moralistic language of values, and into the political-economic language of institutions, governance, ownership, consumption and work. Part of this involves recognising how those bridges have been strategically dismantled since the 1960s, such that advertising and managerialism generates a closed loop of economics and psychology (centred around the self, desire, incentives, dreams, identity, efficiency etc), which remains safely insulated from sociology (centred around inequality, power, government, authority etc). People who either praise or criticise the legacy of the 1960s, but only in terms of what it meant for the individual, have not found a critical position external to that of the boomers themselves...
 Will Davies at Potlatch

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"...Marx didn’t denounce the destruction of factory equipment and strikes as a decline in morality or a betrayal of the work ethic. Instead he wondered what was being said and what new collectives were being invented. We should ask the same questions with all these twittering, face book chatting, blogging, video game playing kiddos that don’t seem to read books so good (even though literacy and reading is greater than it’s ever been in history). Is it possible that our own fantasies of what we’d like the multitudes to be like are getting in the way of clearly seeing what lines of flight are at work before our very eyes?..."


Counter-Performativity Bashing

Yuval Millo patiently rises to the defense of performativity:

1.  Yes, it’s just like ‘self-fulfilling prophesy’ but he and Mackenzie “show in detail how self-fulfilling prophecy comes about, how it becomes institutionalized, under what conditions it is ‘reversed’ and we expose the crucial role that non-human actors play in the process.”

2. The accusation that researchers ‘go native’ to understand the performativity of a theory misses the point.  The strongest STS and SSK works “strive to understand the techno-scientific knowledge embedded in the machines/devices studied and, critically, they identify and analyze the reflections of the larger political, social and cultural circumstances where these technologies were developed … by understanding the minute details of, say, how credit derivates are designed sheds new light on the macro conditions of neo-liberalism and gain better understanding of the crash.”
3. Finally, he elaborates a point made initially by ANT scholars in the 80s: “the fact that economic theory is being ‘made accurate’ does not mean that the theory or ‘economics’ operated so that this aim is achieved. Instead, performativity is the result (which is frequently unintended) of hybrid networks of actors who operate so as to promote a variety of agendas (scientific, political, commercial, etc.).”  In other words, simple epistemologies really don’t cut the mustard because they obscure how technologies - human and nonhuman assemblages - are tamed 

Latour's critique of modernity in a single paragraph

“For Latour as for Whitehead … there is a single ontology of events, and these events function as mediators that continually work, rework, and transform other events. Over time these events come to be stabilized as either natural events and phenomena or as subjective and cultural artifacts. The modern view Latour contests, by contrast, views events as intermediaries from the start that already embody their subjective or objective essence, an essence that will be revealed. In the first case, events are historical and anti-teleological in that they reflect the contingencies of their relationships to other events that are taken up over time though without presupposing whether such collectives (as Latour calls them) are guaranteed of success. In the second case, events are ahistorical and teleological. The essence is already there and whatever contingencies occur are accidental to the nature of the event, a nature that is predestined to be revealed at the end of the day.”
— Latour, Whitehead, and Chaosmos by Jeffrey Bell

Latour on Marx

 I agree with larvalsubjects that 

In CapitalMarx does not appeal to either the social or class as an explanatory force. Indeed, class only appears very late in Capital. Rather, it seems to me that Marx practices an exemplary form of actor-network analysis throughout both Capital and Grundrisse. Marx seeks to explain society in the manner of a sociologist of associations rather than appeal to society to explain the world around us. The actants that Marx appeals to in this story are wage-labor, the money form, factories, trade routes, the availability of resources, various technologies, etc. Here class does not serve an explanatory function, but rather is an emergent effect of how wage labor functions. Class is something that comes into being through a variety of different processes.
This concisely expresses a point Jessop and the Cultural Political Economy crowd have been attuned to for some time in trying to navigate between ‘soft economic sociology’ and positivist economics.  Referring to factories and trade routes as ‘actants’ nicely encapsulates one of the crucial material aspects to Marx’s thought, the other being the labour process itself:
In this respect, we can think of wage-labor in much the same way that DeLanda– who is bafflingly ferocious in his critiques of Marx –thinks about how seashells of fairly consistent shapes and sizes come to be distributed on a beach. Here the average power of the waves and the extent that water comes up on the beach distribute sea-shells of particular shapes and sizes along a narrow band on the beach. Likewise with wage labor and capital. And where the pursuit of capital goes largely unregulated, we witness, over time, a massive disparity in wealth where the lion share of wealth comes to be concentrated in the hands of a few. In other words, we get the formation oremergence of class. When class comes into being, certain additional consequences follow. If the machine of capital is to continue running, not only is it necessary for goods to be produced, but it is also necessary for goods to be consumed so that the production of additional capital can take place. How can that occur, however, when such a system is prone to depressions and recessions that limit the amount of available money for consumers? And so on.
I’d also encourage you to read the comments on the larvalsubjects post.  Jeffrey Bell pops up with a useful comparison between Marx and Marxism on one hand and ‘Latour’s distinction between science in the making and ready-made science (or ‘textbook science’)
“…what if we were to treat prices as artifacts? Not simply as artifacts of the market mechanism, but as technological artifacts, brought about by men and women working together to make prices a real thing? What if we shifted our analytical focus from the meaning (social, symbolic, cultural) of prices to the technologies, which sustain the price system? And what if we analyzed these technologies for what they stand for –e.g. what is the price system supposed to achieve? What makes it legitimate or acceptable? (Muniesa 2000)…Treating prices not as things, but as technologies, brings us back to a point first raised, perhaps, by Karl Polanyi (1944) in his critique of nineteenth century market society but powerfully extended by Callon (e.g., 1998, 2007) in his analysis of the “embeddedness of economic markets in economics.” The real power of economics, Callon argues, is ontological –it is the power to “economicize” the material world through the imposition of a legitimate language and the proliferation of “calculative agencies.” Economics produces (performs) a world (an economy) in which calculability is a key cultural competence, thereby reinforcing the applicability and performative power of economics itself. Furthermore, this back-and-forth movement between economy and economics is itself constitutive of the stable economic objects that we call “markets” or “prices”.”