I have grown to like the twitterterm, receipts. These are not proofs but finds – finds like a photograph of one person next to another, which attests to a relationship denied by one or other of the persons. Finds like articles, or blog posts, or twitter comments, that are under the sign of denial. The “factoids” in the case, the business of pinning down who owns what, who says what, who has power, who is silent. The names, the names, they are harder to get than you’d ever think.
So here are some receipts for the week.
- A plutocracy or aristocracy or party nomenclatura is, for the most part, a small part of the population on which they sit. They are concentrated power, but they are few. So after amassing power – positional money power, name power, or bureaucratic power – they need heat. They need police, and they need intellectual police. Not of course that anyone at the top is known for intellectual acuity. That is a rare thing to match with outsized greed. No, the intellectual police are the ideologues that beat down any critics of the system. They may be pundits, they may be economists, they may be bots. For the plutocracy, the most reliable heat has come from economists of the Chicago school and their collaborators across a broad range of disciplines. They have produced an apologetic that casts their fundamental position – subservience to the wealthy – in more heroic terms. The wealthy become, against all previous economic thought, from classical liberals to Marxists – “producers”. Not administrators, not investors, but producers, entrepreneurs. And the predatory activities that concentrate their wealth are cast as an index of freedom. The first read for The Receipts this week is this article in the Guardian by Quinn Slobodian (who is becoming one of my favorite writers):
The headline of the piece misses the tragicomic here: it should be called, Freedom indexes as fraud. Or: economic freedom vs. Democracy – how freedom fell into Orwellian hands. Or something. Slobodian shows how bogus those freedom indexes are and somewhere, a writer for the Economist is crying. Here’s a nice graf:
The Friedmans gathered a crowd of luminaries, including Nobel prize winner Douglass North and The Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray, to figure out whether something as nebulous as freedom could be quantified and ranked. They ended up with a series of indicators, measuring the stability of currency; the right of citizens to own bank accounts in foreign countries and foreign currencies; the level of government spending and government-owned enterprise; and, crucially, the rate of individual and corporate taxation.
When Walker’s Fraser Institute published its first index in 1996 with a foreword from Friedman, there were some surprises. According to its historical overview, the second freest economy in the world in 1975 was Honduras, a military dictatorship. For the next year, another dictatorship, Guatemala, was in the top five. These were no anomalies. They expressed a basic truth about the indexes. The definition of freedom they used meant that democracy was a moot point, monetary stability was paramount and any expansion of social services would lead to a fall in the rankings. Taxation was theft, pure and simple, and austerity was the only path to the top.
- David Leonhardt is not one of my favorite writers, since he so often falls into the stultifying NYT centrist jargon that is, when all is said and done, more Heat. But sometimes he breaks through his own predetermioned settings. His article on the malign effects of another Chicago School pet – the destruction of anti-trust – references a book I must read by Thomas Phillipon: “The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets.” In the book Phillipon makes an argument that James Galbraith has been making, now, for about 20 years: the right has long given up on free markets except as an empty slogans. They are really about making sure that market domination by big corporate players is allowed to flourish, and that the real action becomes pure-rentseeking in swollen financial markets.
When Thomas Philippon moved to Boston from his native France 20 years ago, he was a graduate student on a budget, and he was happy to discover how cheap American telephone use was. In those days of dial-up internet connections, going online involved long local phone calls that could cost more than $10 apiece in France. In the United States, they were virtually free.
Philippon eventually got a Ph.D. in economics at M.I.T. and decided to stay here. He’s now a professor at New York University. And over the years, he has noticed something surprising about his adopted country: Internet usage is no longer a good deal.
Today, his parents pay about 90 euros (or $100) a month in the Paris suburbs for a combination of broadband access, cable television and two mobile phones. A similar package in the United States usually costs more than twice as much.
- Sara Selevitch writes about a topic dear to my heart right now: street signs. Her “Signs, Signifiers, and Rambo’s Tacos” is about signs in LA – and LA does, to my mind, have a very distinct sign culture. Because it is an entertainment industry capital, perhaps even now, in terms of legend (and what is a capital without a legend?) the capital, it crawls with signs for tv shows, movies, and video games, plus signs making reference to the screen world, that florescent bottle we crawled into in 1910 and never came back.
“Even the wallpaper in the McDonalds near my house is made up of photos of older McDonalds.”
Yes. There’s no business like show business – and show business is now all business. What I love in Paris is the luxuriant interface between advert and graffiti. There is, for instance, a protest newsletter that is simply glued to walls – it appears regularly on the exterior wall of our building. At the moment, the great controversy is over a feminist group that has posed up slogans against femicide and been fined for it, since they violate the anti-posting laws. Everybody does, but this group is findable, rather than anonymous, so they’ve been fined. Myself, I’ve been photographing stray bits of advert and picture – weirdly, wonderfully enough, Paris is full of corners in which people for whatever reason – aesthetic, religious, or just to follow a whim – will put up photographs, little sculptures, whatever. I have certain streets I go to – like Rue des Pyrénées near Gambetta – where I know I’ll find interesting things. Selevitch has her signworld L.A.; she notices, as anybody who comes to L.A. to live does, that there is something strangely archaic about the signage. To me, this is a sign of the white settler L.A., all those midwesterners come to the Pacific Ocean like extras in Day of the Locusts.
Myself, I have my Paris signworld – but the urban frequencies, here, are of a piece. I suppose the key difference is that Paris, with all its cars, is still a city of walkers. LA has a shitload of walkers too, but they water the grounds and serve up the meals to the carowners and they don’t count except as bit parts, walkins, xtras.