May 25th, 2010
|02:36 am - Excellent article on states and markets|
It isn't often that I find a New York Times Op Ed piece that I wholeheartedly agree with, but this piece, Toilets and Cellphones, about public and private goods is well worth reading and considering. It ends with:
We have entered what Tony Judt has called “an age of insecurity.” By any measure, at least in the West, we are living a crisis of the market economy, or at least of the pure market-driven individualism (with the spiraling debt that accompanied it) that predominated in the first two decades of the post-Cold-War period. The binge has reached its limit and the tabs are in. Which in my opinion is a truth about society and governments that is too often forgotten these days, at least in the US.
But some new balance between state and market, one that provides toilets as well as cellphones, awaits definition. Dignity should not be incompatible with opportunity. We don’t need to look too far back in time to see the violent consequences of financial collapse and social disaggregation. The Garbo retreat is not an answer. Private networks alone cannot salvage the commonweal.
Current Mood: impressed
We also live in an age of immaturity. In our collective haste to buy more, more, more, we have plunged ourselves into a downward debt spiral. It is to our disadvantage that we have put aside the work ethic of our forefathers for an ethos of consumption.
If we didn't buy more than we could afford, the crisis may not have been as bad as it was.
NOTE: I am not faulting people for going into debt to pay medical bills and other essential expenses, or those who are unemployed. I am referring to people who bought million-dollar houses when they could not afford said houses and other items along those lines.
I think there's been actually a lot more of the 2nd sort of unavoidable debt- what we've seen far too much of is the very rich getting richer at the expense of everyone else and a disastrous mixture of power, irresponsibility, and lack of any checks on the people who actually control the money in much of the first world, and especially in the US. Naturally, they preach the doctrine of limited government and no controls to everyone else, because this doctrine specifically benefits the ultra-rich.
While I'm generally in agreement with the underlying sentiment, Cohen makes a poor choice of illustrative commodities. Specifically, Cohen seems to imagine that cellular telephones are playthings of the middle class. And if one's perspective is completely limited to the conditions of the developed world, that would make sense. In a part of the world in which inexpensive and extremely reliable land-line communications is ubiquitous, in which the physical infrastructure for land-line telecom has already been built, and in which there is a long-standing regulatory framework with a structure of cross-subsidies intended to make basic service universally affordable, cell phones are indeed "extras". And since cellular technology was deployed first in the developed world, it was, at the time of its introduction, also very expensive, and thus a luxury item and a status symbol.
Things look very different in the less developed world. In much of that world, cell phones are the first -- and by far the cheapest -- telecommunication technology available. And in an environment in which the commonest mode of transportation is walking (or, if one is more fortunate, bicycling), telecom is all the more important. (Imagine not being able to make an appointment to see a doctor, but, instead, having to walk two days to the nearest town, only to find out that the doctor is away in another town that week, or simply has no time to see you. This is not an uncommon scenario in the less developed world.)
Cohen seems to be under the impression that Indians with cell phones are somehow isolated from Indian poverty. That is, he appears to imagine that there are five hundred million middle class people in India. If only! For better or worse, the bulk of cell phone owners in India aren't isolated from the poor; they are the poor. They must be...there simply aren't that many non-poor people in India.
As it happens, Muhammad Yunus -- who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on micro-lending and related initiatives in Bangladesh -- was in Portland last Saturday. One of the initiatives he talked about made it possible for women in villages in Bangladesh to purchase cell phones (and service) and to go into the business of "renting" phones to their neighbors on a per-call basis. This was very successful, but today it is becoming obsolete, because cell phones have become ubiquitous in Bangladesh.
In a way, I suppose Cohen does make his point -- that middle class people are out of touch with the practical realities of the lives of poorer people. Perhaps unintentionally, he demonstrates this by example. That is, it seems clear that Roger Cohen -- and, in all probability, many like him -- is out of touch with the lives of poorer people.
Again, I'm sympathetic to Cohen's overarching point. But I think he does the cause poor service by making it appear to be little more than the product of middle class fastidiousness ("What? No toilets?!").
which link I might have gotten of John in the first place.
Even in the developed world: well, I'll assume for lack of knowing better that landline phones were ubiquitous. But from what I read back in 1999, they were rarely as cheap as in the US. The US had a particularly solid and cheap phone network, compared to Europe or Japan; Britain never had flat per month pricing like the US. Between that and the greater ease of covering a denser population, the cell/land price ratio might be 2 in Sweden vs. 7 in the US at the time, from cell being a bit cheaper than the land being more expensive. So it'd make more sense to pay the bit extra for the convenience, earlier than it did in the US.
When I finally got a cell, it made sense -- a bit more expensive per month than land, but I anticipated having to help my parents a lot and didn't want to be locked to their line (with my mother on dial-up a lot) and most of my calls were long-distance, which is free on cells. And since then... I found that when everyone else is assuming cell convenience, having one yourself is necessity more than luxury, else you're second class in social arrangements.
I completely agree about the utility of cellphones in the 3rd world. However, it's also true that they are a perfect commodity for private markets to distribute, since there's very little infrastructure necessary, while plumbing is essentially all intrastructure. Cohen using cellphones as an example is fairly innacurate, but the overall point is correct in that there needs to be a whole lot more attention (in the first and thirds world) to basic infrastructure.
That wasn't my reading. The article seems to be saying that all Indians inhabit parallel universes, the cell phone universe of economic opportunity and the physical universe with its crises of physical survival. As I remarked to my father sometime a year or two ago, what does it say about our culture that someone who works at minimum wage can save up to buy cell phones and other marvelous devices, but the price of food and shelter has pushed even the middle class into the canyon of economic insecurity? Homeless people, rural villagers in the remotest corners of the world, and young teenagers can and do use satellites to communicate with anyone they know. We have inconceivable wealth and power, yet how little of it has been invested in infrastructure, stability, security, social mobility, and justice.
Yes, I can see that as a plausible reading of the paragraph in question, but I'm not sure what it would mean in the context of the whole op-ed. For example, when he refers to "people who are increasingly autonomous -- linked globally through technology, able to choose their own real or virtual gated communities, outstripping controls and taxes in their frenzied networking...," who is he talking about? Anyone, rich or poor, with a cellular phone? Why would he think that a Bengali villager with a cell phone is "contemptuous of the government and the state"? (For that matter, why would he think that a Bengali executive with a cell phone is "contemptuous of government and the state"?)
I think the real problem with the op-ed is that it's really about current American politics, but it uses India (and, more or less out of the blue, China) as vivid, but very inapt, illustrations. Cohen appears to have given no thought at all to the actual countries of India and China.
Here's what I mean. Cohen feels able to write: "China and India grew to the beat of a globalized get-rich-quick generation and financial masters of the universe rather than social responsibility. The consequences are now before them." Splorfl! Note to Roger Cohen: when you are making an argument for stronger state involvement in the economy, please do not use countries that experienced decades of stagnation in a state of grinding poverty under communist and state socialist regimes (respectively) and which have only begun to claw their way out of poverty by committing to more market-based development as examples of what's wrong with unregulated markets; it makes us look very stupid. There are plenty of reasons to worry about markets; that they have not yet completely undone the results of decades of government neglect and incompetence is not one of them.
Again, let me repeat that I agree with what I take to be Cohen's opinions, namely that (a) the Tea Party is silly and annoying and (b) more investment in public goods and stronger regulation of the financial sector would be good things. The fact that I agree with these things is precisely why I object to careless and incoherent arguments made in their favor. Also, India and China are in fact real countries, with histories and actual living people in them, not metaphors for the hijinks of the American political system.
OK, done ranting now. Huff puff. :)
|Date:||May 25th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)|| |
I like this.
I think there are a great many things which are not, by strict definition, living at the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but which are basically essentials in our culture if one is to be qualified to do more than dig ditches for a living. It's a double standard, and one which a lot of people get onto high horses over.
Food for thought.
Wait, we have entered an age of insecurity? AFAICT, we've been in an age of insecurity for pretty much my entire life. In fact I remember a serious conversation I had with a college professor 20 years ago where he talked about the U.S. being in "a time of troubles" a term that he used to describe a slump all civilizations go through, before they rebound briefly, and then fade away. I think we're dealing more with an inability to see long-term cycles, and the tendency to see the Now as special.
Likewise, while I do agree that there is an important role in government infrastructure development (we're communicating on one such project), I think his example of cell phones vs. toilets is ludicrous. He's completely ignored the fact of differing infrastructure costs between cellphone networks and plumbing; it's much cheaper to set up transceivers that can be put up on any high point, than it is to dig out pipes, and the costs of a transmission network can be much more easily amortized among users. Likewise, a cellphone is a tool, not a luxury, one that can now be afforded by members of all social classes- in most cases a cell phone is far cheaper than a land line.
So, nice sentiments, but really lousy examples. He needs to go back and start over.
Wait, we have entered an age of insecurity? AFAICT, we've been in an age of insecurity for pretty much my entire life.
Absolutely, but it's only recently become obvious to both the wealthy and to the majority of the middle class. It's fairly pathetic that this wasn't obvious to most people before, but such is how most people are.