TorturePorn as The Film Genre for Nasty Times

Over at Corrente, Stirling Newberry has a mind-blowing post detailing how the torture porn genre (as represented by the Saw franchise) and its potential ending reflects what Newberry calls tortureconomy, the nasty version of the shock doctrine:

“The basic text of the torture porn genre is meant to be read several ways. The broadest audience is not for the film itself, but for the existence of the film. It is a message to others that the content is acceptable social context itself. The social context is that of the creation of complex instruments that inflict dismemberment, for imagined or created transgressions against an extra-legal moral code. In Saw 3D, the people who made a best-seller which lied about surviving Jigsaw.

It is not difficult to see how this same shape — the creation of needlessly complex instruments where by the viscera of the victims is drawn out for the benefit of the planned profit of a tormentor — is the shape of the American economy and polity over the last more than decade. Consider, for example, the housing bubble: complex loan vehicles where created, with the express purpose of sucking the life out of people who could no longer declare bankruptcy, and who were not, in fact, qualified to borrow money, but could be kept hooked, their fleshed attached to the house itself. This while others cheer about how deadbeats are ruining the economy.

It is also the means attempted to impose colonial order on both Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the ghoulish nature of Sharia is used as an excuse to impose our order, the documentation from within the Department of Defense, is that torture was a pervasive part of attempting to break politically recalcitrant or inconvenient individuals.

The aesthetic arc of the torture porn film, from the torturers side, is a search for the kind of people who will, with a full moral outrage, happily waterboard people, or restructure loans which are designed merely to drag out their pain. From the victims, it is the attempt to survive with progressive losses of what would once have been seen as vital parts: hands and intestines become symbols for parts of the developed world dream to work, and then have an end of life of some security and leisure. This meta-narrative, where by complex devices and means are used to impose a morality of pain on victims who have some transgressive feature that not merely permits, but requires, that the tortures act, less the basis of society be destabilized, is presented in a Baroque mode: the complexity itself is essential to the process to deprive the undeserving of their status, in favor of the deserving, that is to say the torturing class.

(…)

The cresting of the torture porn wave in popular culture is underlined by the rise of torture porn politics, exemplified by the tea party, but echoing across the political spectrum. The viciousness of cuts in social programs in the United Kingdom, and across Europe, compounded with a Franco-German backed initiative to clamp down on social spending even more, are torture porn economics. The reason for demanding repayment now, is not because that repayment is economically productive, but because those demanding repayment now hope that bankruptcy or insolvency is the result, which give’s them the lector’s license to slowly pull the intestines out of the victim. Say Ireland, Iceland, or Greece.

The last act of the movie saga of the Jigsaw cult, signals, clearly, to those who are listening, that both the patience of the ordinary population is exhausted, and the energy of the torturing class is also exhausted. Generation mutilate, has collapsed in a heap.

This does not mean that the rule by torture is going to come to an end any time soon, precisely because it takes more than overturn it. However, it does mean that the compliance of the courts, and of more and more members of the political class, is coming to an end. No order can long endure without its functionaries, and the underlying support of the Jigsaw cult, is how members of law enforcement and the professional world, including physicians, survive by joining it. This is framed so approvingly as to make it clear that the right wing frame of the morality is directed by an uber-law, one which mere police and other functionaries, the traditional bastions of the conservative, are insufficient. This is played out in politics by Miller’s blackshirt handcuffing of a reporter by military personnel, and by brownshirt footstomping by a Rand Paul supporter.

It is often the case that a political movement makes its most aggressive stab for power as it is ebbing: because its members, sensitive to the growth of their own echo system, realize that they must break through their growth as a social movement, and gain access to the power of fiat: the power of legal cloak for what they desire to do.”

In the case of US nasty social movements, the other problem they face is the unpopularity of their cultural stance: racist, white supremacists, homophobic and xenophobic. That is quite unattractive to younger people. Which is why such a movement cannot rely on its own members, for left on their own devices, they engage in cruel behavior in public. When Glenn Beck had his big rally, they were told to not bring signs.

Which is why such a movement ultimately has to be controlled by wealthy older white men who remain the shadows, hiding behind a few media figures who are the face of the movement. Such a movement can never be popular because only so many people like brownshirts and reactionary politics.

Which is why this movement, as Newberry notes, cannot gain power on its own. It needs both shadowy funding and bullying behavior and a culture that relishes the suffering of people it dehumanizes and whose brutalization it does not mind.

When Labor Regulations Foster Innovation

I love research that debunks commonly and unquestionably accepted stuff. Such is the case with French Econoblogger Olivier Bouba-Olga with a post on rigid regulations and innovation. According to common economic mantra, regulations are bad, rigidity is awful, hence we should have deregulation and flexibility, which will unleash the power of human innovation, unfettered. That is something accepted as religious dogma of neoliberalism, often-repeated and never examined. And because we operate in a cultural context where neoliberal ideas are given more truth-value than alternatives, we seem to accept such ideas more easily.

Not so fast, says Bouba-Olga, there is one major missing piece in the pro-flexibility argument: it assumes that social actors make plans without taking into account the institutional environment in which they plan on operating, only later to realize that there are regulations to follow, hence, they beautiful plans fail and they get discouraged and disenchanted (in the Weberian sense) or worse, they take said beautiful, innovative ideas and go someplace more flexible.

It is the wrong assumption, for Bouba-Olga. If actors have to function within a more heavily regulated environment, they are more likely to take that fact into account in the very design of their plans. They integrate the regulations from the get-go into their projects and behaviors. In other words, they do not adapt to regulations after the facts, but integrate them ex ante.

This is not just speculation on the part of Bouba-Olga, he mentions that this view is validated by a research paper on that very subject. Abstract:

“Stringent labor laws can provide firms a commitment device to not punish short-run failures and thereby spur their employees to pursue value-enhancing innovative activities. Using patents and citations as proxies for innovation, we identify this effect by exploiting the time-series variation generated by staggered country-level changes in dismissal laws. We find that within a country, innovation and economic growth are fostered by stringent laws governing dismissal of employees, especially in the more innovation-intensive sectors. Firm-level tests within the United States that exploit a discontinuity generated by the passage of the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act confirm the cross-country evidence.”

Emphasis mine.

The Consequences of Non-Regulation

Devastating, literally:

“The monsoon rains are not due for a month or so, but the “dry” season for people in West Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo has been marked by three months of unrelenting floods. The sky is clear and blue and the stilted long houses and huts are reflected in mirror image on the water: it is a strangely scenic backdrop to one of the largest unfolding disasters on the planet – the stripping of the Borneo rainforest.

Indonesia has one of the world’s largest areas of remaining forest but also one of the highest deforestation rates, ranking only behind Brazil. The vast green rainforest carpet has become a patchwork with more than half of Borneo’s tree cover and peat swamps – which absorb much of the planet’s carbon excesses – already gone after a decade’s “goldrush” of uncontrolled timber logging that was at last partially curtailed in 2006.

But now the rest is being pillaged by palm oil and pulpwood plantations and networks of illegal loggers – the “timber mafias” – in an onslaught that is endangering not only the wildlife and the people but also contributing to global climate change on a scale far out of proportion to the island’s size on the map. Indonesia’s carbon emissions as a result of its deforestation and land use changes put it in third place of the world’s worst offenders, behind only the US and China.

The timber from its rare 100- to 200- year-old diptocarp trees, each one the home of hundreds of insects, is eagerly snapped up, keeping consumers and the construction industry in the UK and elsewhere in tables, patio chairs, trinket boxes, doors and plywood. When consumers buy paper, furniture or even charcoal on the British high street there is an estimated more than 80% chance they are buying into this destruction.

Only four of the 300 timber concessions currently logging in West Kalimantan have written sustainability into their methods and only 16% of the world’s timber goes through members of the WWF Global Forest & Trade Network, companies who commit to choosing sustainable wood where they can. Meanwhile, where the trees once stood and acted as a natural barrier, the floods rage.”

The article then details the social consequences of what is un-regulated export-based development in terms of community destruction, livelihood devastation and the not surprising combination of interpersonal and structural violence that necessarily follows.

And then, there is the global demand, so, let’s have some more comparative advantage:

“The illegal wildlife trade is booming. In the street markets of Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, which sits directly on the Equator, the trade is brazenly open, although stallkeepers say the confiscation by the authorities of a baby orangutan on sale here last week has frightened a few dealers away.

But still, in one short stretch of just a few hundred metres, it is possible to count seven species of birds and fish for sale in small cages and overstuffed tanks which are on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species endangered species list. From the rare red arowana river fish to the black hornbill and spotted doves, the conditions mean they die quickly, keeping the demand high.

The “mist nets” for catching birds in the forest are also openly on sale. One man tells the Observer he has a waiting list for the endangered hill mynah, a bird prized for its ability to talk and which has been found on sale in the US for $1,000. Along with local demand, China, Malaysia and Singapore are big importers of the Kalimantan forest creatures.”

As they say, go read the whole thing.

Habermas on Nasty Times in Germany

Via Peter Levine, from the New York Times, it is not a big surprise for the social theorist who brought us the legitimation crisis to take note of the nasty times in his own country:

“SINCE the end of August Germany has been roiled by waves of political turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader population.

These trends have been apparent for many years in studies and survey data that show a quiet but growing hostility to immigrants. Yet it is as though they have only now found a voice: the usual stereotypes are being flushed out of the bars and onto the talk shows, and they are echoed by mainstream politicians who want to capture potential voters who are otherwise drifting off toward the right.

(…)

To the present day, the idea of the leitkultur depends on the misconception that the liberal state should demand more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution. We had, and apparently still have, to overcome the view that immigrants are supposed to assimilate the “values” of the majority culture and to adopt its “customs.”

That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.

(…)

I don’t underestimate the scale of the accumulated nationalistic sentiment, a phenomenon not confined to Germany. But in the light of current events, another trend is of greater concern: the growing preference for unpolitical figures on the political scene, which recalls a dubious trait of German political culture, the rejection of political parties and party politics.

(…)

Of even greater concern is the sort of street protests we are now witnessing in Stuttgart, where tens of thousands of people have come out against the federal railway corporation’s plan to demolish the old central train station. The protests that have been continuing for months are reminiscent of the spontaneity of the extraparliamentary opposition of the 1960s. Unlike then, though, today people from all age groups and sectors of the population are taking to the streets. The immediate aim is a conservative one: preserving a familiar world in which politics intervenes as the executive arm of supposed economic progress.

(…)

The motivations underlying each of the three phenomena — the fear of immigrants, attraction to charismatic nonpoliticians and the grass-roots rebellion in Stuttgart — are different. But they meet in the cumulative effect of a growing uneasiness when faced with a self-enclosed and ever more helpless political system. The more the scope for action by national governments shrinks and the more meekly politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives, the more people’s trust in a resigned political class diminishes.”

Emphasis mine. However, Habermas is wrong about his assessment of the US. He has obviously not been paying much attention.

But that last paragraph is important because it points, to me, to a related phenomenon: the dream of consumer society without democracy:

“In Dubai ‘there is no such thing as society’. Dubai, instead, is one of the real-existing authoritarian market societies of today, according to Syed Ali in his Dubai. Gilded Cage (Yale University Press, 2010). Dubai’s limitless consumers culture attracts people from all over the world. Freedom is the freedom of consumption.

Dubai became the Middle East center of financial services, tourism and real estate, a paradise for developers, architects and construction companies. Here we find the highest skyscraper in the world, the biggest shopping mall and the most beautiful gated communities.

In Dubai exists a dual class system for ’expats’. Construction workers from Pakistan and India live in worn out camps. A huge amount of Indian shopkeepers, underpaid nannies from Indonesia and the Philippines and lawless prostitutes live in Dubai as well. Labour protest is punished by expulsion from the country.

The well-off expats, working in the financial services and real estate, share the same legal residential situation with the nannies and construction workers. They are all subordinated to the so-called kafala-system of the Gulf States:  ’a system of modern slavery’, according to Syed Ali. Kafala, whose purpose is that migrants cannot profit from Dubai wealth, implies that in all companies Dubai-natives must have a majority share. Visa (3 years maximum) for foreign workers are only given to the Dubai-employers, not to individual workers. Change of jobs therefore in fact is impossible, so is becoming a Dubai national.

By the kafala-system all foreigners in Dubai (up to 90 percent) are deliberately transformed into temporary citizens, suffering from ‘permanent impermanence’. They are not allowed to engage, as citizens in political or social affairs, risking expulsion, but are restricted to be consumers of luxury only. Dubai is the wet dream of global market fundamentalism. An authoritarian state governs a market society for rootless, non-participatory consumers-inhabitants.

The signs are already very clear in many Western societies with the extension and deepening of surveillance mechanisms (justified in the name of security) from both the state (reduced to its oppressive functions: police and military) and the private sector, often in joint partnership for data-gathering. This is combined with the rise of reactionary and xenophobic social movements and complicit politicians. To use Habermas’s concept, this is the last state of the colonization of the lifeworld by the system.

Finally, Some F!@#ing Validation (With Research)

Via Carla Casilli, this:

“To see whether swearing can help change attitudes, Scherer and Sagarin (2006) divided 88 participants into three groups to watch one of three slightly different speeches. The only difference between the speeches was that one contained a mild swear word at the start:

“…lowering of tuition is not only a great idea, but damn it, also the most reasonable one for all parties involved.”

The second speech contained the ‘damn it’ at the end and the third had neither.

When participants’ attitudes were measured, they were most influenced by the speeches with the mild obscenity included, either at the beginning or the end.

It also emerged that the word ‘damn’ increased the audience’s perception of the speaker’s intensity, which was what lead to the increased levels of persuasion. On the other hand, swearing did not affect how the audience perceived the speaker’s credibility.

So it seems that light swearing can be useful, even in a relatively formal situation like a lecture. When you show some feeling, the audience notices, credits you with sincerity and takes your message to heart.”

Needless to say, I’m already there and I’m way beyond “damn it!” :-)

Let Them Eat Derivatives – The Coming Food Crisis

I have already blogged about the gathering storm that is the coming food crisis due to a series of factors not entirely related to low production:

“Rising food prices and shortages could cause instability in many countries as the cost of staple foods and vegetables reached their highest levels in two years, with scientists predicting further widespread droughts and floods.

Although food stocks are generally good despite much of this year’s harvests being wiped out in Pakistan and Russia, sugar and rice remain at a record price.

Global wheat and maize prices recently jumped nearly 30% in a few weeks while meat prices are at 20-year highs, according to the key Reuters-Jefferies commodity price indicator. Last week, the US predicted that global wheat harvests would be 30m tonnes lower than last year, a 5.5% fall. Meanwhile, the price of tomatoes in Egypt, garlic in China and bread in Pakistan are at near-record levels.”

So why the concern? Well, climate uncertainties are one:

“”Prices are volatile and there is a lot of nervousness in the market. There are big differences between now and 2008. Harvests are generally better, global food stocks are better.”

But other analysts highlight the food riots in Mozambique that killed 12 people last month and claim that spiralling prices could promote further political turmoil.

They say this is particularly possible if the price of oil jumps, if there are further climatic shocks – suchas the floods in Pakistan or the heatwave in Russia – or if speculators buy deeper into global food markets.”

Also, think failure in global governance:

“”The food riots in Mozambique can be repeated anywhere in the coming years,” said Devinder Sharma, a leading Indian food analyst.

“Unless the world encourages developing countries to become self-sufficient in food grains, the threat of impending food riots will remain hanging over nations.

“The UN has expressed concern, but there is no effort to remove the imbalances in the food management system that is responsible for the crisis.””

Well that is a bit rich. Developing countries have been encouraged, if not forced, to import food because they cannot compete with the heavily subsidized agricultural products of the US and the EU. And now, they are being told to become food self-sufficient.

And that is even before mentioning the farm land grab currently going:

“UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, says a combination of environmental degradation, urbanisation and large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors for biofuels is squeezing land suitable for agriculture.

“Worldwide, 5m to 10m hectares of agricultural land are being lost annually due to severe degradation and another 19.5m are lost for industrial uses and urbanisation,” he says in a new report.

“But the pressure on land resulting from these factors has been boosted in recent years by policies favouring large-scale industrial plantations.

“According to the World Bank, more than one-third of large-scale land acquisitions are intended to produce agrofuels.””

And finally, now that the mortgage bubble has burst, with the consequences that we know, investors have to bet and gamble on something else. Food is their current favorite:

“But the current global conflagration owes more to market forces than the forces of nature. Raw materials are the new target for investors who have plenty of money to play with, generously supplied by the Central Banks, free (or almost free) of charge. After betting on property, the financial whiz kids are turning to basic commodities, such as non-ferrous metals, and agriculture.

Last month the London hedge fund Amajaro bought a quantity of cocoa equivalent to 25% of all European stocks, and a few days later the price per tonne broke all records. The same thing is happening with wheat, rice and soya. European leaders are all upset, and some have gone so far as to speak of a need for regulation – exactly what they said during the sub-prime crisis. The consequences for developing countries are particularly serious because the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have encouraged them to turn to foreign markets and abandon local production. Unctad now recognises, at least on paper, that “a sustainable growth strategy requires a greater reliance on domestic demand” and that “this may call for a rethinking of the paradigm of export-led development”. Better late than never. A pity that all they offer is pious platitudes, which may foster our illusions but won’t feed the planet.”

And when the food riots riot, the Western media will collectively invoke ancestral hatred and whisper about savagery.

The Patriarchy Continuum – At Every Stage of Life

First, this item regarding the movie “The Social Network” (which I have not seen but it seems to have passed  one of the three criteria on the Bechdel Test) and gender roles:

“But perhaps more keenly, “The Social Network” exposes a strain of sexism that runs wide and deep among the young nerdy entrepreneurs and exalted geek geniuses — the future tech empire builders of the Web 2.0 culture, all men, aspiring masters of the universe.

Where are the women at the start-up of one of the most successful Web sites of the new century?

In the movie, at least, the women are figurines in the background, one face melding into another, one lithe body identical to the next.

There are plenty of girls, to be sure — mostly Asian (presumably because of the common wisdom that Asians are good at math). They are the Web world’s version of rock ’n’ roll groupies, toadies, trophies, gold diggers and floozies.

They’re sexy, seductive, willing and eager to serve and service the boys, not unlike the waist-cinched women in “Mad Men,” the cable television show about the dominant and domineering men who ran the Madison Avenue advertising industry at its height in the 1960s.

It’s as if no time had elapsed in more than half a century — fashions have changed, and lip service (perhaps more, now) is given to women’s equality.

But in both worlds — in the 1960s and the 2000s — it is men who are the strivers, producers, creators, innovators, entrepreneurs and, in the end, billionaires.

Few movie critics mentioned the blatant sexism revealed in the film — that is, sexism that apparently ran rampant at Harvard among highly educated, brilliant and bratty young men brought up in the age of modern feminism.

(…)

Mr. Sorkin has said he was shocked at the extent of the sexism he discovered doing research for the movie and reading the book on which the movie is based, “The Accidental Billionaires,” by Ben Mezrich.

“It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie but you have to understand that that was the very specific world I was writing about,” Mr. Sorkin wrote in a recent comment on a blog by the TV writer Ken Levine .

“Facebook was born during a night of incredible misogyny,” Mr. Sorkin said. “The idea of comparing women to farm animals, and then to each other, based on their looks and then publicly ranking them….”

“I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people,” Mr. Sorkin continued. “These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the ’80s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now.

“The women they surround themselves with aren’t women who challenge them (and frankly, no woman who could challenge them would be interested in being anywhere near them).”

The story of Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook fits into this new world of hackers and algorithms and geek geniuses. Not too long ago, a newspaper Web editor, female, middle-aged, told me that when she looks around her digital newsroom she sees plenty of female producers and editors. What catches her attention, though, are the Web developers, the creative brains, the innovators, the ones who stand a chance at glory — all young, and all male.”

Well, none of this is surprising. Gender socialization is still quite polarizing and there is still quite a bit of invisible tracking in many schools, channeling students in various majors based on their gender. Are women really welcome in the college courses and majors that would get them into these jobs. Gender discrimination and misogyny is still extreme, as those of us who remember the Kathy Sierra nastiness recall.

What is also not surprising is the amount of resentment these young men feel compared to what they think they are entitled to. That is the mark of social privilege to get nasty when one does not get what is seen as a due. And that is turned into different forms of aggressivity.

This major / job channeling, of course, turns into wage gaps. The Boston Globe had a good slideshow on the gender wage gap:

“Women age 22 to 30 with no husband or children, working full-time in large metropolitan areas, earn, on average, 108 percent of the salary of men.

This is, however, the exception to the rule. In many other salary metrics, women make less than men in the same demographic category.

Click through to see how the wage differences between male and female full-time workers break down.

(…)

All workers

Median weekly wage for men: $821
Median weekly wage for women: $668

Percentage of women’s salary compared to men: 81%”

And then, there is more specific breakdown by education and race. Go check out the whole thing.

Of course, those wage gaps accumulate over one’s career, which makes the latest “throwing women under the bus” (for the nth time) from the Obama administration even more shameful (and right before a losing election, that’s another strategic winner… via):

“”Opposing the increase in the retirement age is our top priority in 2010, because 1 in 4 older women depends on Social Security for 90 percent of her income,” Bruce said in a recent phone interview. “We are going to lobby Congress and the Obama administration full force, pointing out that raising the retirement age is a backhanded way to cut benefits for all retirees, no matter what age they retire.”

Bruce says the move will force women in physically demanding jobs to work longer because they have fewer assets for retirement than men.

Cindy Hounsell, president of the Washington-based Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, known as WISER, is equally opposed to a higher retirement age.

“This proposal is the latest attack on the fraying safety net,” said Hounsell, whose nonprofit organization provides financial information to low- and moderate-income women ages 18 to 65. “Social Security is a lifeline for older women, because it has becoming increasingly difficult for the average woman to accumulate sufficient assets for retirement, let alone women in low-paying, physically demanding jobs that don’t provide pensions.”

(…)

Hye Jin Rho, author of the report, warned that women would be harder hit than men by a higher retirement age because the gender gap increases with age. He found that about 32 percent of women 58 and older held physically demanding jobs compared to 37 percent of men in the same age group.

But when Rho analyzed the distribution of physically demanding jobs at either end of the retirement-age spectrum, he found more men doing heavy lifting earlier and more women stuck with that type of work later.

He found about 37 percent of women in the oldest age group–70 and over–were cleaning houses, stocking shelves and waitressing compared to about 30 percent of women in the youngest age group–58 to 61.

For men those figures were the other way around: About 35 percent of men over 70 were loading trucks, constructing buildings and standing eight hours a day in the kitchens of restaurants versus 38 percent of men between ages 58 to 61.

“Older women are highly motivated to keep working because their financial situation becomes more precarious as they age,” said Katherine Klotzburger, founder and president of the Silver Century Foundation in Princeton, N.J., which seeks to change the personal and cultural experience of aging. “Many widows are left with little income because they have lost their husband’s pensions or the couple’s assets were depleted paying for care during their husband’s last illness. Many older women also are supporting their parents or grandchildren.”

Proponents of raising the retirement age contend that workers in physically demanding jobs can work longer if they assume less strenuous positions.

“But this is rarely the case,” said Bruce, of OWL, who is director of the Gerontology Institute at University of Massachusetts Boston. “For workers in physically demanding jobs, finding new positions is often impossible because they work in industries or geographical areas where jobs are disappearing. As a result, they are forced to retire in their late 50s and early 60s and struggle to survive on reduced Social Security benefits for two decades.””

Corruption 2010

Transparency International has just published its 2010 Corruption Perception Index, as it does every year. Keep in mind that the CPI only measures public corruption, not private one:

Transparency International(TI) defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This definition encompasses corrupt practices in both the public and private sectors. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranks countries according to the perception of corruption in the public sector. The CPI is an aggregate indicator that combines different sources of information about corruption, making it possible to compare countries.

The 2010 CPI draws on different assessments and business opinion surveys carried out by independent and reputable institutions. It captures information about the administrative and political aspects of corruption. Broadly speaking, the surveys and assessments used to compile the index include questions relating to bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and questions that probe the strength and effectiveness of public sector anti-corruption efforts.

For a country or territory to be included in the index a minimum of three of the sources that TI uses must assess that country. Thus inclusion in the index depends solely on the availability of information.

Perceptions are used because corruption – whether frequency or amount – is to a great extent a hidden activity that is difficult to measure. Over time, perceptions have proved to be a reliable estimate of corruption. Measuring scandals, investigations or prosecutions, while offering ‘non-perception’ data, reflect less on the prevalence of corruption in a country and more on other factors, such as freedom of the press or the efficiency of the judicial system. TI considers it of critical importance to measure both corruption and integrity, and to do so in the public and private sectors at global, national and local levels. The CPI is therefore one of many TI measurement tools that serve the fight against corruption.”

The results (click on the link for interactive features):

And by country:

http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2010/results

The United States clocks in at 22.

I personally like this illustration:

Corruption 2010

Book Review – The City and The City

The City and The City is the first book by China Mieville I have read. I got myself a Kindle copy when it got the Hugo Award. It is an awesome novel, and as usual, it is a great source for sociological analysis. At its most basic, The City and The City is a murder mystery coupled with a touch of conspiracy theory. But, as usual for sociologist me, the most interesting part of the book is the social context underpinning the story.

The story takes place in an unusual urban context of two city-states, Besźel and Ul-Qoma, that occupy the same physical space somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities are divided between areas that are total (totally in one), alter (totally in the other) or crosshatched (in either). In areas that the cities share, citizens of either city have been socialized to unsense the other: to unsee, unhear, unsmell everything from the other city. And at the center is Copula Hall, the official border between the city and the city.

What this means is that when one is walking – or driving through – the streets of Besźel, for instance, one must NOT see, hear or smell anything from Ul-Qoma (and vice-versa). People from either city practice this constant act of dramaturgy of not sensing the other city that exists in the same physical space. Goffman would have had a field day with all the studied non-0bservance that takes place as people, more or less automatically and immediately unsee things happening in the other city. In fact, the entire social structure of both cities is based on that unsensing so much so that when things happen that make that almost impossible, social order is on the verge of collapse and extreme measures are taken.

So, this common space has two social structures, one for Besźel and one for Ul-Qoma, two different cultures, languages, food, clothing, etc. And it looks like Ul-Qoma (a vaguely communist country, boycotted by the US) is the more economically dynamic of the two.

In this context, people are expected to thoroughly respect the division between the city and the city. If they violate the separations, they breach. They are then spirited away by Breach, the mysterious force in charge of enforcing the division. No one knows what happens to people who have been taken by Breach. In this society, breaching is the most serious offense that deserves the most serious punishment (although what that is remains a mystery, for most part of the book). It is a given that, at some point, someone will breach and we, readers, will get to figure out what Breach really is and what it really does. Breach is perceived as a kind of omniscient Big Brother with the power to detect any breach and swing into action when that happens. Not breaching is a major fear for all the citizens of the city and the city.

Needless to say, the city and the city are themselves marked by social conflicts: each city has its own nationalist movement, strict supporters of the Cleavage (the separation between the city and the city) as well as its Unifs, the unificators, the movements promoting the reunification of the city and the city.

Throughout the book, we follow the detective in charge of solving the murder as he navigates the complexities of this intricate structure in the course of his investigation. He is from Besźel, but at some point is assigned to Ul-Qoma so that we get to compare the two cultures.

Ultimately, his own breach is what gives us an insight into the way Breach works and to the conclusion of the book, which one could read as a perfect manifesto for the social construction of reality or ethnomethodology as his Breach avatar explains to him:

“Nowhere else works like the cities,” he said. “It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.”” (5664)

“Doing” the city and the city is a matter of minutiae of social interaction (accomplished and denied at the same time) and constitutes an enormous amount of interactive collaboration (also as necessary as it is denied). It is this architecture of interaction that sustains the dual social structure and collective underpinning of the city and the city.

A fascinating read.

The Yellow Peril!!!

This political ad is profoundly repulsive, racist and inaccurate:

OMG, the YELLOW PEOPLE are going to enslave us all!

I won’t go over the lies about tax and spend, the stimulus (which was too small, for starters).

As a side note, Amy Chua (OMG, American Chinese Filippina!) has long demonstrated that declining empires are marked by an increase in racism, ethnocentrism, “close the borders” kind of attitude which actually speed up the decline as these empires turn their back on what made their success: being attractive to the talents of the world through economic and educational investment and cultural tolerance.

The nasty social movements are founded on ignorance and prejudice will only accelerate the process.

The F!@ck You Conception of Control – The Big Squeeze Edition

As this article from Le Monde details, airlines offering cheap airfares are poised to make big money by squeezing passengers of as much money as possible to the creative use of fees on… well… everything and anything. This year, these companies will earn €18.4 billion worth of fees (as opposed to €11 billion last year). For companies like Ryanair or Flybe, these fees represent almost 20% of their revenues, compared to 7% for larger carriers such as AA or Delta or United. This increase should continue dramatically. Industry analysts estimate that additional fees could increase more than 300%, earning about €75 billion)

There are no limits to the imagination that companies deploy when it comes coming up with new fees beyond the traditional baggage fees: special seats in coach, a little more leg room. Heck, why not charge for going to the bathroom, as was suggested a while back? The passengers are relatively captive when it comes to flying, so, they can be slapped around with fees on anything.

Although, things I would pay a fee for:

  • kids-free cabin
  • gross people-free cabin
  • reliable charging outlets and wifi
  • vegan food

But then, it’s only par for the course of a system turning more and more predatory.

So, in the US, it’s house grab time. In the periphery, it’s land grab time… neoliberalism for every part of the world-system:

“ROME (Reuters) – A top U.N. inter-governmental body on food security has failed to endorse a code of conduct on foreign land investments, in a blow to efforts to draft international guidelines to regulate so-called “land grabs”.

Responding to concerns about countries like China, South Korea and Gulf Arab states buying large swathes of land in Africa and Asia to secure their food supplies, the World Bank and U.N. agencies drew up seven principles for “responsible agricultural investment.”

But a meeting of the U.N. Committee on Food Security (CFS), which dragged on into the early hours of Friday, failed to endorse those principles, simply “taking note” of them, participants told Reuters.

“It’s terribly disappointing,” said Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food.

“We are not moving swiftly enough to find an effective answer to the problems posed by land investments.”

The principles advocated by the World Bank, and sponsored by Japan, say existing rights to land should be respected, investment should not jeopardise food security, and all those materially affected should be consulted.

(…)

The principles were drawn up after a spike in food prices to record levels in 2007-08 sparked a wave of land deals, as food-importing countries and major agricultural businesses sought to increase their food supplies and protect themselves from price volatility.

Some 45 million hectares worth of large scale farmland deals — roughly the size of Sweden and a tenfold increase from previous years — were announced in 2009, the World Bank said in a report released last month.

Aid groups say that such deals come at the expense of small farmers in African and Asian countries and could end up worsening poverty and hunger in less developed countries.

With the World Bank principles sidelined by the CFS, the focus now shifts to a set of as yet ill-defined voluntary guidelines which have been in the works since 2008.

A draft of the guidelines, the result of consultations between the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), member states and civil society groups, is due to be submitted to the CFS in a year’s time.

In any case, both the World Bank principles and the FAO’s voluntary guidelines are non-binding.

Critics say any new rules risk being too little, too late as land deals continue unabated and could even increase on the back of the recent rise in cereals prices due to drought in Russia and flooding in Pakistan.

In the past two weeks alone, an Egyptian private equity firm has announced plans to invest $40 million to grow crops in Sudan and the head of Qatar’s national food security programmes told Reuters talks were under way to buy land in Ukraine and Argentina for cereals’ production.”