Zombies & Race

imagesIn the U.S. the legends of zombies grew out of the cultures created by African slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean. Folklore experts have traced the idea of zombi back to the Vodoun practices in Haiti, where stories about people being brought back from the dead have been passed down over the decades. Sometimes these zombis are under the control of a master, and sometimes they simply wander mindlessly.

However in modern American pop-culture Zombies have taken on a different persona often being a reflection of societal ills. The first appearance of the “American Zombie” was probably 1932 when Bela Lugosi starred in White Zombie, a film about a white slave owning colonialist in Haiti whose sugar mills are run entirely by zombies. It was the first time that zombies became uniquely and distinctly American. These zombies are instantly recognizable and instantly  connected with slave labor and African-Caribbean culture.

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This connection would persist into the 1940’s with the masterpiece I Walked With A Zombie, in which race and sexuality are explored. Here a white nurse arrives on the island of St. Sebastian to care for the zombified wife of plantation owner. Without spoiling too much the film shows a white man using Voodoo traditions of the local people to work on a plantation.

Other often over looked works include Revolt of the Zombies and King of the Zombies and in both films zombies are firmly rooted in slave culture and the comparison should be obvious. The zombies are how the plantation owners viewed their slaves–sub-human. Much has been written on the colonial powers equating the citizens of their African colonies as being more savage and animalistic. Luckily times have changed and progressed but the zombie lore has persisted and grown with us.

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The 1960’s saw Night of the Living Dead as an allegory for Civil Rights and featured a black protagonist battle hordes of white zombies. In the end the black hero saves the day only to be killed in the final scene very akin to the lynchings of the 1960’s.

After the Civil Rights movement zombies became more interested in consumption–and not just brains. In the 1970’s Dawn of the Dead takes place in shopping mall and this time the genre tackles consumerism. The dead are confused so they return to a place that was important to them in life–a place of consumerism. The zombies are still hungry for brains, but also new Gap jeans.

Zombies and their place in pop culture won’t die because you can’t escape the past. Zombies are the like memories that we’ve tried to stash away and forget but keep resurfacing. Furthermore, it’s not just your memory it’s a mass memory of loss, like a horde. It makes sense that the millennial generation would be so enthralled with zombie lore. Studies show that this generation feels that things are getting worse. That they will not enjoy the comforts that their parents had and they may not be wrong. This is a generation tasked with fixing global warming, born into 9-11 and coming of age in the worst economic downturn in U.S. history. Why not throw zombies into the mix?

Dune, Economics and Podcasts!

Loyal Followers!

The Falcon Files made friends this weekend with the great folks over at Geek Progress and the result was some great conversations on Political Economy, the Middle East and Dune. Click here to give it a listen and be sure to visit some of there other works.

 

Quick edit: It seems some people have had a problem with the links working and I’ll look into that. In the meantime here is a the site: geekprogress.com.

 

 

Violence and the State: Protecting and Threatening

Iraq_Military_pic_1One of the fundamental questions in conflict today is simply, “How do we develop a state that is strong enough to deter rebels and attackers while assuring the citizens that its power will not be used for ill?” This problem has reared its head in Iraq, Ukraine and now…the U.S.

The fundamental problem in Iraq is not the government did not have enough coercive power but that the governors were using that power against the Sunnis. The Iraqi government could have assured the Sunni population that force would only be used against those that opposed the government. Instead, promises were broken and the focus was on exerting dominance, which the reduced both the capacity and legitimacy of the army. The Sunnis who had joined with the U.S. in 2007 have now opted with the Islamic State.

The balance of power has shifted in Ukraine conveniently after the Presidential election as the government has begun to do a better job of assuring the people of Ukraine that they will only harm those who are fighting the government. The use of violence is not as selective as it could be but to many people the government has begun to seem like a better option.

The Israel-Gaza is an extremely complicated conflict but one clear aspect is the difficulty of balancing deterrence and assurance. Hamas as shown little interest in promising Israel anything and Israel insists its only trying to deter attacks. Whether or not you believe this to be true one of the factors of deterrence is that status quo must seem attractive. There must be something to go back to. After all deterrence is both a threat and a promise…”If you do nothing bad, nothing bad will happen to you.” Or, “if you stop we can go back to the status quo”…but what if I don’t like that status quo?

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Democracy is often touted as a solution to this problem however even democracies struggle with this balance. The situation in Ferguson illustrates this very well where protests and riots have broken out over the killing of a young African-American male. Police need to have the capability to use force but that force needs to be backed with legitimacy. Furthermore the pattern in the U.S. suggests that the wrong kind of discrimination was at work in Ferguson. Rather than being discriminate in their use of force the police seems to be targeting people on the base of race as in New York.

This is why due process is so vital to a legitimate state. Due process is not just about justice…but also about being careful that the targets of state power are deserving. Like Democracy, due process is not perfect…some innocents are convicted and some guilty go free. But it is much better than when the use of violence is applied wholesale and unfairly by the state.

Limits to Growth III: The Steady State

If there are limits to growth and therefore how far our economies can grow what can be done about it? Economist Herman Daly has a possible answer in the Steady State Model.

“An economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance ‘throughput’, that is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy from the first stage of production to the last stage of consumption.”

Daly, Herman. 1991. Steady-State Economics, 2nd edition. Island Press, Washington, DC. p.17.

What Daly is describing is an economy that has reached a stable population level and a low-level of consumption. For most of human history our struggle has been about getting enough resources to survive but now we have surpassed that need. We have more than enough for everyone and are reaching the point where continuing to produce is a danger to us all.

The Steady State would be smaller in size, consumption and environmental impact as it would need less to sustain itself.  It’s as much a new form of economics as it is a new way of evaluating progress and value.  GDP would no longer be an adequate measurement  as production and consumption are not the pillars of progress in the Steady State.

The massive accumulation of wealth needn’t be the focus of a society and in face the Steady State requires that it not be.  Money could exist but massive accumulation tends to promote inequality which breeds an unstable society.

Achieving a steady state economy requires adherence to four basic rules or system principles:

  1. Maintain the health of ecosystems and the life-support services they provide.
  2. Extract renewable resources like fish and timber at a rate no faster than they can be regenerated.
  3. Consume non-renewable resources like fossil fuels and minerals at a rate no faster than they can be replaced by the discovery of renewable substitutes.
  4. Deposit wastes in the environment at a rate no faster than they can be safely assimilated.

The Steady State is a simple concept but politically is extremely difficult.  We’re not just discussing a policy change but instead a changing of principles and values.

Limits to Growth II: The Myth of Infinite Growth

stateofworldMore and more people have begun to question the possibility of human economies ability to grow forever.  The overuse of Earth’s natural resources as well as the destruction regional ecosystems and global ecosystems should tell us that something is wrong.  However many mainstream economists seem to not be concerned with these facts.  They are still claiming that economic growth is not only possible, it’s necessary to improve our well-being.  This maybe true in some cases–no one would argue that Uganda or Pakistan should not work for more economic growth but this distinction should not be generalized.

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The problem is that the whole model of macro-economic growth is built on a fatal flaw–we assume that we can grow forever. The theory states that the resources are fungible and substitutable simply put: “Natural resources are not an issue as long as our technology is improving.” This is not only irresponsible, it’s insane.

What will technology use if we run if we run out of the resource which we use to build the resources? Herman Daly put it nicely  “You can not build the same wooden house with half the wood just because you have more or better saws.”

The question now is one of responsibility: do we want to proceed with “business as usual” and naively assume that technology will solve all our problems and run the risk of a catastrophe? Or shall we back pedal and think about the development and balance of Western economies versus those of the developing world?

Limits to Growth Part I: GDP

 

SONY DSCWith President Obama’s new green policy that seeks to limit carbon emissions there has been and will continue to be heated discussions about the impact this law will have one economic growth in the U.S.

Inspired by these debates the next several posts will discuss the limits of growth, steady state economics, and how we measure growth.

GDP (gross domestic product) is a measure of economic activity which is narrowly understood however this does not stop politicians and policy makers from making welfare decisions and comparisons based on this data.  The basic argument goes like this: GDP is a proxy measurement of how much people can consume and consumption is a proxy measurement of well-being.  We therefore use GDP per capita for comparing welfare between nations and an increase in GDP as an indicator of social progress within a society.  This is a compelling case and we are used to hearing this from figures in authority and the media but it is misleading to think that a higher GDP leads to better social welfare.

GDP is computed as the sum of all end-use goods and services made in an economy during a period of time weighted by their market prices.  Too illustrate if Pakistan began building war drones and hired many people for this skilled manufacturing their GDP would increase. However, would this necessarily make the people of Pakistan better off especially considering that many of those drones will be used on other Pakistanis in the northern region?  Simply put this proxy measure does not measure happiness or well-being it only measures what we can consume. From that definition its GDP is a pretty narrow measure of our daily lives and should be taken to be just that…limited. can-stock-photo_csp10758311

According to Richard Easterlin people do not become happier when they become richer and this has become known as the Easterlin Paradox.  There are many possibilities for why this is true including the idea that a threshold of affluence vs leisure time exists.  If you do not have time to enjoy the fruits of your labor will they truly make you happier? Has this new wealth increased your well-being? Or as Fred Hirsch suggests there could be a correlation between increasing affluence and increasing competition for “positional goods” that can be bought by anyone but not always everyone. This idea creates a consistent need to buy more and more.

Furthermore GDP does not take into account the limits of natural capital.  Since natural ecosystems provide resources like coal and oil and there are limits to them both in quantity and in negative impact these must be considered in the overall measurement.  This is called “greening GDP,” where we subtract the negative impacts from the total GDP. For instance the cost of the BP oil spill in man hours, clean up costs, oil revenues lost and negative effect on wildlife which in turn affects the lives of the locals would all be subtracted from the GDP of the U.S.

Even by measuring some negative outcomes of a consumer based economy as mentioned above GDP does not give us a clear look at well-being.  There have been several experiments that have attempted to tackle that issue such as the Gross National Happiness used in Bhutan. While this one is highly qualitative and has some issues it is a thoughtful approach by a government to measure their people’s well-being. Another is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which uses a long list of indicators to measure well-being ranging from air quality, crime, leisure time and personal wealth.  GPI also boils all those indicators into one neat number which economists love.

As an economist I’m not saying that we should abandon GDP altogether only that it should be taken as a small part of a larger picture.  A measure of a small piece in a large puzzle that is human well-being.  With that in mind, when politicians threaten to block legislation meant to protect the environment because it could hurt our GDP you should ask whether a high GDP is worth it.  In an economy where we have been taught to consume, GDP not only doesn’t reflect well-being…it could harm it.

 

 

Boko Haram & Social Media

m_obama_girls_twWith the recent mass murdering of 310 people and the kidnapping of 276 school girls in Nigeria at the hands of Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, the world has joined in outrage via social media.  The emergence of the #BringbackOurGirls hashtag may not be offering the help you think and may in fact be harming the people in Nigeria.

Terror is a tactical use of violence by groups or governments to coerce the enemy rather than weaken him militarily. That is, it has little military use but more a strategic use of violence that will “terrorize” an audience by appalling them. When this strategic use of violence is employed by groups like BH the purpose is typically one or more of the following:

1. Incentivize the terrorized audience to pressure a government to change policy

2. Demonstrate a government’s inability to provide security (and therefore govern)

3. Visibility for the org and cause-often for the purpose of recruitment

Terror as a tactic fails then if we “keep a stiffer lip,” as the people of London were said to do during Hitler’s Blitz of WWII, and ignore it. By doing this objectives 1 & 3 are undermined.

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The kidnapping of these girls is a dramatic event made for mass consumption. Groups like BH don’t want attention…they require it. The hashtag plays a small but collectively substantial role in aiding the group’s cause.  Are people making demands on government to change its policy? Is BH more visible today than it was prior to the kidnapping? Do possible sympathizers to BH now see them as a force to reckoned and possibly worthy of their support? YES.

So, as a member of BH’s audience what will you do? Will you emote on social media or will you act strategically? If you’d like to take some real action and follow your intent to your impact then sign up for one of the great organizations below.  Send them a check or become active in a human rights campaign, but please do not give stage to any hate group or terrorist organization.

Amnesty International

Global Fund for Women

Human Rights FIRST

Human Rights Watch

CWIS