Monthly Archives: December 2011

is economics a technique of operating in a world created by economists?

Fascinating piece by David Graeber on the history of money. Graeber notes that the common belief that the idea of money originated with the barter system is a myth. The crucial ( and devastating part of the story for some) is that a historical and anthropological study of how people exchanged goods and services challenges the ‘rationality’ assumption that is the bed rock of economics; even more devastating for International Relations scholars, who out of economics envy have borrowed and built on the rational actor assumption.

“I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow.” Hence in the definitive anthropological work on the subject, Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey concludes, “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing” 

It seems to me because it goes back precisely to this notion of rationality that Adam Smith too embraced: that human beings are rational, calculating exchangers seeking material advantage, and that therefore it is possible to construct a scientific field that studies such behavior. The problem is that the real world seems to contradict this assumption at every turn. Thus we find that in actual villages, rather than thinking only about getting the best deal in swapping one material good for another with their neighbors, people are much more interested in who they love, who they hate, who they want to bail out of difficulties, who they want to embarrass and humiliate, etc.—not to mention the need to head off feuds.

This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person—basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return—but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king.



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person (number 2) of the year

Time magazine has named ‘ The Protestor‘ as the person of the year. Everyone is very excited.

But, look at person no. 2 of the year: Adm. William McRaven. The man who led the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.

Yes, Osama was a bad man. But, surely there is something wrong when the person of the year is someone seeking revenge.  TIME magazine says ‘Operation Neptune Spear stripped al-Qaeda…offered a kind of recompense for the traumas of 9/11’. What was Iraq? What was Afghanistan? Let us not forget the many many many people, american, iraqi and otherwise, who died in the pursuit of this one man.

When we start cheering about the capture and murder of an “enemy”, we inevitably paint the world in black and white, in good versus evil; we trivialize those who have died due to al Qaeda operations and we trivalize the frustations of the individuals driven to extremism.  Our language, sentiment, and opinions are reduced to the ‘Yay’ and ‘Boo’ of high school cheerleaders.

Reminds me of a fabulous  must-read piece on 3 quarks daily by Evert Cilliers, The Immensity of Killing Bin Laden vs. The Banality of Language

The killing of Osama bin Laden is very interesting in that its announcement came pre-packaged in a speech by our President, which was pitched to perform the job required of official language in these circumstances: to frame the event in the very specific terms that the President and his advisers wanted us to regard this event.

This is what happened, America, and this is how you should think about it, because in this moment, we are all Americans, who should all think the same thoughts about what your government and your military have done, OK?

So let it be spoken, so let it be felt.

Supreme among the official thoughts required from the citizenry by Obama’s speech was this: that the killing be regarded as exemplary of the greatness of our nation.

Besides this stroking of our collective ego, there was also a political calculation: the implication that our President himself is a supreme exemplar of the greatness of our nation. We should all vote for him in 2012 because of what happened.

Then there was the inevitable application of bathos to the national psyche: we suffered, it was the worst attack, we’re relentless, etc. All national psyches crave bathos, and none more than ours. We do hysteria with professional aplomb; we’re a nation of wet-eyed folks; no dry eye for us; in fact, we often wish Obama did a tad more drama.

In the aftermath of 9/11, kitsch became a patriotic duty. And rightly so: it brings us together. Yet there’s something creepy about how this works. The killing of Bin Laden, for example, demands that we consume a whole miasma of banality around the stark fact that a Navy Seal shot America’s #1 enemy above the left eye (was it twice? or once in the head, once in the chest? by week’s end, the fog-of-war excuse for the shape-shifting narratives became rather wind-blown).

We all make a bargain with TV — to enjoy its shallowness despite our smarts, because some of the crap we like doesn’t smell as bad as most of the crap we don’t. Plus we’re trained by a lifetime of viewing to bring our own irony to the party. The killing of Osama bin Laden suspended that bargain; it wanted us to swallow the corn-driven bandwagon whole. We have to stand united in kitsch.

For example: I’m not proud of those college students who gathered at the White House when the death of Bin Laden was announced, and chanted “USA! USA! USA!” in magnificently joyful togetherness. Rachel Maddow and Professor Jonathan Haidt and Amanda Marcotte were proud, but I wasn’t. I understand why the kids did it: they were in high school when 9/11 happened, and this is the arc of their entire lives. But their response lacked, well, grace — something their parents and teachers may have neglected to teach them. Taken to its logical extreme, this sort of behavior ends up in the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, or in the actions of American soldiers who cut off the ears of dead Vietnamese to string them on bad-ass necklaces as ghoulish evidence of their 100% commitment to war.

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On the US-Pak mess…

Bill Keller writes in the New York times that the Pakistanis Have a Point,

Neither country’s caricature of the other is entirely wrong, and it makes for a relationship that is less in need of diplomacy than couples therapy, which customarily starts by trying to see things from the other point of view. While the Pakistanis have hardly been innocent, they have a point when they say America has not been the easiest of partners

“The only time period between 1947 and the American invasion of Afghanistan that Pakistanis have felt secure about Afghanistan is during the Taliban period,” from 1996 to 2001, says Vali Nasr, an American scholar of the region who is listened to in both academia and government. Now the Bush administration would attempt to supplant the Taliban with a strong independent government in Kabul and a muscular military. “Everything about this vision is dangerous to Pakistan,” Nasr says.

The Bush-Musharraf relationship, Vali Nasr says, “was sort of a Hollywood suspension of disbelief. Musharraf was a convenient person who created a myth that we subscribed to — basically that Pakistan was on the same page with us, it was an ally in the war on terror and it subscribed to our agenda for Afghanistan.”But the longer the war in Afghanistan dragged on, the harder it was to sustain the illusion.

In Peshawar, General Malik talked with polite disdain about his neighbor to the west. His biggest fear — one I’m told Kayani stresses in every meeting with his American counterparts — is the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, an army of 170,000 and another 135,000 police, responsible for preventing Afghanistan from disintegrating back into failed-state status. If the U.S. succeeds in creating such a potent fighting force, that makes Pakistanis nervous, because they see it (rightly) as potentially unfriendly and (probably wrongly) as a potential agent of Indian influence.

“If you stand back,” said one American who is in the thick of the American strategy-making, “and say, by the year 2020, you’ve got two countries — 30 million people in this country, 200 million people with nuclear weapons in this country, American troops in neither. Which matters? It’s not Afghanistan.”

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hello president…

two articles caught my eye today. one by swapan das gupta on the frequent disruptions in parliament. He argues that fault lies not only with the BJP and allies, but with the Manmohan Singh government.

The Government, whose parliamentary majority rests on maverick and demanding allies, is always anxious to prevent any discussion that involves voting…[but] negating all voting is tantamount to shortchanging the electorate.’

‘ Had the government agreed to a voting resolution on FDI in retail, there would have been no logic to the disruption of Parliament. Instead, we had the bizarre situation of the Government taking a major initiative, its coalition partners and the opposition opposing it bitterly, and it finally doing a U-turn, without the matter reaching parliament at all.

‘ How will parliamentary institutions be strengthened if the Prime Minister, the UPA chairperson and the heir-designate are uncomfortable participating in the proceedings of Parliament?’

the other was by shashi tharoor. tharoor argues  that pending bills, disrupted sessions of parliament, declining growth rates, the on-going triumph of politics over governance means its time for a presidential system.

 ‘…our parliamentary system has created a unique breed of legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only in order to wield (or influence) executive power. It has produced governments obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has distorted the voting preferences of an electorate that knows which individuals it wants but not necessarily which policies. It has spawned parties that are shifting alliances of individual interests rather than vehicles of coherent sets of ideas. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office, and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions. It is time for a change.’

Tharoor has a valid point.  It is time for governance; pluralism for the sake of pluralism is  an inadequate defense. But the question is whether it is realizable; we cant get an anti-corruption bill through parliament, what are the chances of being able to change our whole political system? Jai Hind.

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an email about syria

this is a copy of an email that my housemate received from a jordanian friend.

” I am extremely pissed off at whats going on in the middle east… and I am more pissed off at all of this propaganda that is coming with it.

Yes this might come as a shock to you, I am pro- Assad. Not because I endorse a violent single party regime, but because I think it is important that we understand the conflict for what it really is as opposed to what western media wants us to think it is.

A second Lebanon anyone? This is not about a bunch of protesters who want a better way of life (as the case was in Tunisia) This is a bit bigger than that… this is a war between Saudi arabia and iran. Syria is just the battle field… and what a better time to destroy the regime than now…when the destruction can hide behind a mask of “The Arab Spring”

Do you know what would happen the moment he falls? Muslim fucking brotherhood supported by the wahabis, yet another minority…. if the fall would change this into a true democracy then fine so be it… but it wont, the forces are not from within, and what will be produced next in yet another single party regime, a wahabi regime that would too put women like “Razan the blogger” and the likes behind bars for driving! Wake up people…

yes i know, hizib allah…. i know iran.. but you know what, sometimes we have to make do with the lessor of both evils.


Simple, this  blogger discusses sectarianism and arab identity and clearly knows nothing about it. Arab identity does not exist, and we will not wake up one day and all feel it because we thought about it… it will take years, an economic revolution, and the fall of the wahabis and erosion of the muslim brotherhood for anyone to even start growing in that direction…

So for what this rant is worth, I hope they do let her out of prison, just because I dont endorse torture… but she is just another stupid woman who takes middle eastern politics at face value… as though it was ever just that…

shame on us for being so forgetful… hasnt the war in lebanon taught us anything? And Iraq??’

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Good going, have a look at this.  The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons refuses CNN-IBN’s nomination as ’ Indian of the Year’  as ’ architects and ambassadors of Brand India.’

Once again, CNN-IBN makes me want to vomit a little bit.

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the syrian game

Syria is  perhaps the best, and most worrying example, of hard-nosed realism cloaked in the rhetoric of human rights.  Western powers, the UN,  the Arab League, and Turkey have all condemned the Assad regime’s violent suppression of civilian protests.

Only the Russians have withheld criticism arguing that measures taken by the international community could de-stabilize the region.  As a result, Russia has been charged with  privileging stability and the status-quo over the welfare of the Syrian people.


Western nor regional interests in Syria have anything to do with the Syrian people and their rights;  in fact, Syria is where the liberal threads of the Arab spring begin to unravel.

Assad belongs to a minority Alawite sect, which has dominated the Syrian government since 1970.  Alawites are a sect related to Shia Muslims, and make up about 7 percent of the country’s population.  The  Alawite government has traditionally been a secular, socialist government,built around the military.

The US, and the regional Middle-Eastern governments have a vested interest in the future of the Assad regime.  Syria  has been a strong ally of Iran. The US would like to see the Assad regime overthrown in the hope that it will  cause a tear in the Iranian sphere of influence. Moreover, since efforts to reign in Iran’s nuclear, and other, ambitions have been mostly consistently ineffective, Syria provides an alternative avenue to hit the Iranian regime. The special friendship between Iran an Syria is especially significant in light of expected US withdrawal from Iraq next year.  As US forces withdraw, Iranian influence is expected to grow and combined with Iran’s stronghold in Syria, the Iranian sphere of influence could now extend all the way from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.  If Assad survives, Iran will thus be the big winer. Aside from help check US power in the region, increased Iranian influence in Syria would also serve a reminder to the Saudi’s that accommodating Iran is much more beneficial than resisting or opposing Iranian power. The threat of a wider Iranian sphere of influence has not been lost on Saudi Arabia or the Arab league more generally, who have calculated that Syria is the critical battlefield on which Iranian power can be checked. Turkey, not to be left out, has also shifted from being a Syrian ally to calling upon strong measures against the Assad regime, motivated chiefly by the desire to curb Iranian influence in the region. Israel has found itself in  bit of a pickle, as while it would like to curb Iranian influence in Middle East, Assad is the ‘devil we know’ and fear Islamists assuming power in Iran.

So, what we see in Syria has little to do with the grievances of the Syrian people, but the strategic interests of the regional powers, plus the United States. And yet, it continues to be publicly justified in terms of the rights and grievances of the Syrian people, and the responsibility of the international community to protect civilians,  to save strangers.  This rhetoric has once again prevented us from asking the critical questions about the current situations, questions and points that must be noted if there is to be an informed and nuanced international response that is is the best interests of the Syrian people.

First, comparisons with Libya are not informative. Power in  Syria is much more opaque than in Libya and Assad’s stepping down may not result in the end of Assadism. Moreover, it is unclear the extent to which the rejection of the Assad regime is spread across the wider public, with some sources noting that large parts of Syria are calm and people seek a return to business as usual under Assad. Despite the nature of the Assad regime, it is secular and many fear that the Islamists will seize power after the fall of Assad.  It is also not completely beyond the realm of imagination that at least some of the protests and violence in Syria is provoked or funded by external actors; the interlocking web of regional interest discussed above provide enough motive.  And finally, even if we are to compare with Libya, the jury is still out on the success of the intervention. True, Gaddafi is dead,but reports note that more civilians died after, or even as a result of, NATO’s intervention than under Gaddafi; more over, western nations were quick to support the rebel leaders with little to no – knowledge of who these rebels were, their future intentions for Libya, and consequences of which we are seeing today as the future of Libya hands in disarray.

Second, the success and credibility of any intervention can not be judged by good intention alone – and I hope I have de-bunked the notion of the game in Syria being motivated by good intentions – but  also the likelihood of success and the possible consequences along the route to success. First, the possibility of a successful military intervention is almost definitely zero.  Russia more than likely to veto and NATO is unlikely to be prepared. More critically, Iran is unlikely to take intervention in Syria lying down and Iranian response to any military intervention will most certainly have catastrophic de-stabilizing effects for the region.  Sanctions have a strong track record of failure, be it in Iran or Saddam’s Iraq; moreover, as sanctions normally punish the common man rather than the regime, they have the paradoxical effect of strengthening the regime’s domestic base in opposition to foreign meddlers.  Finally, the problem with such measures is  that the more pressure that is placed on the regime, the more quickly the regime’s exit option disappear.  As a recent editorial notes, ‘Assad’s problem now is that he’s lost any chance of genuine compromise and must therefore fight on in the hope that he can cow the opposition and restore order. Once an authoritarian ruler rejects compromise and liberalization and launches a bloody crackdown instead, they  have to do whatever it takes to win.’

The situation then leaves with us with a possibly peculiar paradox.  On the one hand, the moral rhetoric accompanying international and regional condemnation of the Assad regime compels western powers and the Arab League to keep the pressure on Assad and make a string of (empty?) threats.  Yet, given the complex web of interests in the regime,  any genuine action is likely to result in de-stabilizing the region with consequences too worrying to imagine. An Iranian backlash is something one hopes that none of the regional powers are willing to risk. And yet, the continued pressure on the regime exaggerates and sharpens the dividing line between the various camps, accelerating and accentuating the security dilemma and a hostile Middle  Eastern system.

Some times good intentions, are not good enough. And in the Syrian case, the pretense of good intentions has hopefully been revealed. The itch to act does not itself provide a justification to act. Especially, without a consideration of the broader and more longer-term consequences.

The Russians have been criticized by government and commentators alike for their objection to sanctions and intervention in Syria. But, the Russian position is worth re-considering in light of the above discussion.  First, they are correct to note that the toppling of the Assad could de-stabilize the region, a concern that should not be quickly forgotten in the name of human rights. Second, the Russian concern is in fact not so far off from that of the US or the Arab League  – it is concerned with securing its strategic interests in the Middle East; the difference however is that it does not need to cloak these interests in terms of human rights and instead is transparent of its preference over a stable status-quo that preserves the order of states rather than the security of people.

 Finally,  it is worth noting that arguments by western governments, against the Assad regime and critical of the Russian veto, often refer to the measures taken by the Arab League as legitimating the western criticism of the west. The Arab League’s emphasis on human rights and democracy, its suspension of  Syria from the Arab League and the the imposition of sanctions, are indeed critical points in the history of the Arab League. Some would thus argue that the Arab League is now being socialized into  liberal norms, and gradually abiding by the international rules of the game. It is worth asking however,  whether the Arab League has in fact been socialized  – or learnt the rules of the game – into using liberal norms based on the security of people as a justification for pursuing hard-nosed realist state interests?

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