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June 12, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

"Cultural Authenticity and the Market"

What is authenticity? When people begin selling authentic artifacts, and market preferences alter what is produced, are the items still authentic, or has the interaction with the market changed the authenticity of what is produced?:

Cultural authenticity and the market, by Daniel Little: People often return from their travels with objects they've purchased to represent the culture and traditions of the place they've visited -- Alsatian pottery from Betschdorf, masks from Kenya, or Navajo pots from Arizona. And sometimes they purchase such artifacts at home in Cleveland or Sacramento to gain a little resonance from a distant culture -- Tibetan temple bells, Chinese funeral figures, Mayan woven goods. And there is generally a desire that these goods should be "authentic" -- that is, they should have been produced by artisans situated in a continuous tradition with the culture the artifact represents. Imagine the traveler's disappointment to find that his beautiful artisanal Alsatian vase was mass-produced in a factory in Guangdong.

Here I'd like to dwell a bit on this idea of authenticity. The idea seems to have two somewhat distinct components: expression and artisanship. The first involves the idea that the artifact is to be valued because it somehow expresses and reveals some of the meaning, symbols, and practices of the other culture. This relates the idea of authenticity to one of Clifford Geertz's most famous statements about culture: that a culture is a web of significance (The Interpretation Of Cultures). The "authentic" cultural object is valued because it reveals some of those meanings and relationships; it fits into this web of signification. The second dimension here involves the idea that the artifact is the material product of social practices embedded within or deriving from that culture. Here the idea is that the actual human, practical history of the object makes all the difference between authentic and inauthentic -- the way it was made, the human communities and practices within which the artisan performed his or her work in creating the object. We might imagine a fishing net created by a team of anthropologists who have painstakingly reproduced the techniques of knot-tying, braiding, and decorating that were characteristic of a certain human community at a certain point in time. The product may be highly "accurate" from the first point of view, in that it accurately depicts the results and signification of the product within its historical setting. But it is nonetheless not "authentic" because it is an a posteriori simulation of the culture's fishing net -- not a direct product of the culture. Take a few examples at the extremes. At one extreme are the African dolls one might buy in the Disney store in conjunction with the latest cartoon adventure about Africa. No one would imagine that these dolls are authentic in their correspondence to any real African culture or artisanal tradition, past or present. (Though perhaps they are authentic expressions of Disney culture!) At the other extreme, consider the objects on display from Benin at the Chicago Art Institute recently, representing local society and Portuguese colonialism (Benin--Kings and Rituals; Court Arts of Nigeria; link). No one would doubt the authenticity of these beautiful and engaging artifacts -- even though they embody a deep and complex collision and mingling of western and African modalities. Or consider the sculpture that Kwame Anthony Appiah used as the cover illustration of his important book, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. It looks highly traditional and "African" -- until we look closely and discover the old bicycle parts incorporated into the design. Is this sculpture an authentic expression of African culture? Or is it "contaminated" by the intrusion of western technologies and products? Appiah's view is a nuanced one: it is an authentic expression of something, but not of a hypostasized essential "African cultural identity." And the story only gets more complicated. What could be more authentic to the native American cultures of North America than Inuit carvings and Navajo blankets? Surely each emerged from the material cultures and aesthetic sensibilities of Inuit and Navajo people. But there are two complications here. First, there certainly are workshops in China and elsewhere industriously turning out soapstone bears and woolen Navajo rugs. And their products may be very persuasive imitations indeed. But they aren't "authentic" -- they are simply well executed fakes. They lack the second characteristic mentioned above; they don't have the right lineage of production. But here is the deeper problem. The genres themselves are deeply intertwined with external market forces and consumer tastes. The Navajo blankets of the 1850s existed; but they were utilitarian, drab productions, intended for use rather than display. It was the tastes of eastern consumers, conveyed through brokers, traders, and trading posts, that shifted the design and coloration of the rug to its current "traditional" form. (Here is a rough and ready summary of the history of Navajo rugs.) And the tradition of Inuit carving is even more market-driven.

While Canada's Inuit do have a rich visual history that dates back more than a millennium, Inuit carvings, prints and jewelry are actually the product of a relatively recent transformation in the Arctic, beginning with the emergence of an "outside" market during the whaling years, which gave rise to the birth of the contemporary Inuit art movement starting in 1949. (link)

So the practice of animal carving in soft stone perhaps did not even exist in Inuit culture prior to the arrival of traders. So we might say that blankets and soapstone polar bears are inauthentic in the first sense above: they don't correspond to deep and abiding features of the other culture, but are rather informed by the tastes and preferences of the consumer market. (This fits the history of Chinese export porcelain as well; I'm sure there are endless additional examples that could be provided.) Are either of these artifact traditions "authentic"? Do they express Navajo or Inuit culture and tradition? Or does the fact that an indigenous artisanal tradition has been self-consciously directed towards creating products that "fit" with the tastes of a distant public undermine the authenticity of the work? The issue is more difficult than it might appear, because there is one interpretation of "authentic" that will not stand up, cultural essentialism. This interpretation depends on the idea of a cultural essence underlying a given people at a certain time -- a pure form of Hopi, Navajo, Alsatian, Tokugawan, or Armenian culture in terms of which we might define the authenticity of cultural products. Here the misguided idea would be that a product is authentic if it corresponds accurately to the cultural essence to which it refers -- a strict interpretation of the first characteristic mentioned above. This won't do, however, because cultures are not fixed, uniform realities, but rather ongoing, dynamic processes of creation and change. So the story told by the Benin exhibition above is very illustrative; the cultural content and depictions of the two communities -- Benin and Portugal -- interpenetrate each other in the next moment in time, and neither is unchanged as a result. So we cannot understand authenticity as "correspondence to a cultural essence"; there are no such essences.

Appiah[1]

Neolithic2[2]

Images: cover illustration from Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House; Chinese neolithic pot c. 1500 BC

There is, however, a weaker form of correspondence that remains a valid characteristic of "authenticity" -- the idea that an artifact is itself a meaningful object, and its meaning needs to be fitted into the meanings and practices of the broader culture from which it emanated. The Chinese neolithic pot depicted above is dated from about 1500 BC. The distinctive crosshatching pattern can be found on many of the pots of this period, and it is striking. Why does the culture incorporate this decorative feature into many of its small pots? It is hypothesized that clay pots replaced an older container technology of tightly woven baskets; and the artisan was offering a representation of quality and continuity by decorating the pot to resemble a woven basket. This may or may not be a valid explanation; but plainly the decorations of the pot are meaningful, and -- if historically authentic -- the pot can provide content for an interpretation of various elements of the contemporary culture and its artisanal practices. (See the Minneapolis Institute of Arts page on Chinese neolithic ceramics.) Perhaps the reason that market influences on artisanal traditions are unsettling and "inauthentic" goes back to a tension between the first and the second criterion mentioned above (expression and artisanship). A market-shaped artisanal tradition satisfies the second criterion; it results in products that are created by an artisanal tradition linked to the other culture (blankets, carvings, export porcelain). But there is the nagging fear that the influence of external consumer demand has deformed the artifact with respect to the first criterion -- fit with the culture's own values and meanings. The influence of consumer tastes may have driven the product and the tradition far away from more genuine expressions of local culture. Here, we might say, authenticity requires that the product be created according to the values and meanings of the indigenous culture -- not the profit-seeking adaptive behavior of skilled artisans aiming to create the "traditional" product that will sell best with the tourists. If forced to answer my own question here, I think I would focus on the second criterion -- the concrete historical relationship between the product, the artisan, and the tradition. And I would then look at it as an open question for hermeneutic investigation to attempt to determine the complex and fluid ways in which the product corresponds to, expresses, contradicts, or invades the meanings of its background culture.


Kauffman Blogger's Forum Video

It's been many weeks since I did this so I don't really remember what I said, and I'm too chicken to watch myself, so hopefully I don't say anything more foolish than usual:


Rogoff: Rebalancing the US-China Economic Relationship

Kenneth Rogoff is worried that we'll rebuild the same economy we had before the crisis and risk another financial meltdown:

Rebalancing the US-China Economic Relationship, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Project Syndicate: As the global economy stabilizes, there is a growing danger that the United States and China will slip back into their pre-crisis economic patterns, placing themselves and the rest of the world at risk. ... Short-run stability certainly seems attractive right now. But if the US-China trade and debt relationship merely picks up where it left off, what will prevent recurrence of the same unsustainable dynamic that we just witnessed? After all, huge US foreign borrowing was clearly a key factor in creating the recent financial mess, while China's excessive reliance on export-driven growth has made it extraordinarily vulnerable to a sudden drop in global demand.

A giant fiscal stimulus in both countries has helped prevent further damage temporarily, but where is the needed change? Wouldn't it be better to accept more adjustment now in the form of slower post-crisis growth than to set ourselves up for an even bigger crash?

True, both the US administration and China's leadership have made some sensible proposals for change. But is their heart in it? US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has floated a far-reaching overhaul of the financial system, and China's leaders are starting to take steps towards improving the country's social safety net.

Both of these measures should help... Nevertheless, there is cause for concern. As the world seems to emerge from its horrific financial crisis, it is human nature for complacency to set in, and the domestic politics of the US-China trade and financial relationship is deeply rooted. ...

Another reason to worry is that the global recovery is still fragile. US and Chinese leaders have fought the crisis with not only massive fiscal stimulus, but also deep intervention into credit markets. Such extraordinary fiscal largesse, all at taxpayers' expense, cannot continue indefinitely.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has rightly warned that all this massive temporary fiscal stimulus is a "sugar high" that will ultimately pass without deeper reforms. As I have argued before, the endgame to the financial bailouts and fiscal expansion will almost certainly mean higher interest rates, higher taxes, and, quite possibly, inflation.

For better or for worse, it may not be possible to turn back the clock. The US consumer, whose gluttony helped fuel growth throughout the world for more than a decade, seems finally set to go on a diet. ...

Frankly, higher US personal saving rates would not be a bad thing. It would almost certainly help reduce the risk of an early repeat of the financial crisis. The obvious candidates to replace them are Chinese and other Asian consumers...? Outside Japan, Asia policymakers certainly don't seem amenable to exchange-rate appreciation

Since the beginning of this decade, at least a few economists (including me) have warned that the global trade and current-account imbalances needed to be reined in to reduce the chance of a severe financial crisis. The US and China are not solely responsible for these imbalances, but their relationship is certainly at the center of it.

Prior to the crisis, there was plenty of talk, including high-level meetings brokered by the International Monetary Fund, but only minimal action. Now, the risks have spilled out to the entire world. Let's hope that this time there is more than talk. If US and Chinese policymakers instead surrender to the temptation of slipping back to the pre-crisis imbalances, the roots of the next crisis will grow like bamboo. And that would not be good news for the US and China, or anyone else.

I think he gives himself a bit too much credit for foreseeing the crisis, the type of financial meltdown he and others predicted - a sudden unwinding of international imbalances - didn't occur.

But the question is how much risk there is of a big international meltdown in the future, and this is what Rogoff is worried about. On that score:

Where's the money coming from?, by Paul Krugman: The huge borrowing by major governments, the U.S. government in particular, has confused many people — and not just Niall Ferguson. What I hear again and again is either the assertion that all this borrowing must drive up interest rates, or worries that the Chinese won't be willing to lend us the money.

We know as a matter of principle that these concerns are misplaced: if there were a shortage of savings, the economy wouldn't be depressed. Indeed, one way to think about our current problem is that the world as a whole wants to save more than it's willing to invest.

But it's always nice to have some real-world data illustrating a principle. From Brad Setser, private and public borrowing in America, as a percentage of GDP:

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We're actually borrowing less from foreigners than we were before.

Rogoff asks "where is the needed change?" We are already undergoing structural change, we have a smaller financial sector, a smaller housing sector, a smaller domestic automobile sector, and an increase in household saving. And though the actual degree of change that we will see in things like household saving is unknown, we will see permanent change. Thus, the type of structural reforms Rogoff would like to see are, in fact, underway already and they will continue. But because so much has to change - minor tweaks to the economy won't be enough - it will delay the recovery relative to the more usual case when the economy is able to return to what it was doing before.

As the financial, housing, and domestic automobile industries shrink, resources and labor are freed up and become unemployed. They must, somehow, find their way into other sectors. Some have to move geographically, and that process can be lengthy. Building new industries that can absorb the idle resources takes time, rebuilding the financial sector, household deleveraging, one of this will happen overnight. (And it doesn't help that, on top of all this, housing markets are notoriously slow to adjust so that the needed shrinkage and adjustment driving the structural change is itself a slow process.)

So the process will be slow. Does deficit spending to combat the recession slow this adjustment process down even further? Is Rogoff right that we'd be better off just letting things crash and burn so that the new and improved version can be rebuilt faster?

The economy is already changing as described above, and in other ways too, and it is doing so about as fast as it can. Any faster than this, which would involve even more unemployment and more stagnation of resources and the economy, more ensuing foreclosures, etc., and we'd risk undermining the very foundation we want to rebuild upon. Structural change and social programs to help people who are struggling due to poor economic conditions are not at odds with each other, and infrastructure spending supports rather than hinders future growth and change.

We will get the change we need, it's underway already, and that change does not require the government to sit by idly while people struggle with the poor economic conditions. Worries about inflation and high interest rates, and about the negative effects of higher taxes on those who can more than afford them are overblown. Those worries should not stand in the way of extending a compassionate hand to the struggling, or to spending money to stimulate the economy and build the social and physical infrastructure we need to support robust economic growth in the future.


Paul Krugman: The Big Hate

The conservative media and political establishment are aiding and abetting "the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism":

The Big Hate, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Back in April, there was a huge fuss over an internal report by the Department of Homeland Security warning that current conditions resemble those in the early 1990s — a time marked by an upsurge of right-wing extremism that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Conservatives were outraged. ... But with the murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion fanatic, closely followed by a shooting by a white supremacist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the analysis looks prescient.

There is, however, one important thing that the D.H.S. report didn't say: Today, as in the early years of the Clinton administration but to an even greater extent, right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.

Now, for the most part, the likes of Fox News and the R.N.C. haven't directly incited violence, despite Bill O'Reilly's declarations that "some" called Dr. Tiller "Tiller the Baby Killer," that he had "blood on his hands," and that he was a "guy operating a death mill." But they have gone out of their way to provide a platform for conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric, just as they did the last time a Democrat held the White House.

And at this point, whatever dividing line there was between mainstream conservatism and the black-helicopter crowd seems to have been virtually erased.

Exhibit A for the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism is Fox News's new star, Glenn Beck...—... a commentator who, among other things, warned viewers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might be building concentration camps as part of the Obama administration's "totalitarian" agenda (although he eventually conceded that nothing of the kind was happening).

But let's not neglect the print news media. ...The Washington Times ... saw fit to run an opinion piece declaring that President Obama "not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself," and that in any case he has "aligned himself" with the radical Muslim Brotherhood.

And then there's Rush Limbaugh. ...[W]hen Mr. Limbaugh peddles conspiracy theories — suggesting, for example, that fears over swine flu were being hyped "to get people to respond to government orders" — that's a case of the conservative media establishment joining hands with the lunatic fringe.

It's not surprising, then, that politicians are doing the same thing. The R.N.C. says that "the Democratic Party is dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals." And when Jon Voight, the actor, told the audience at a Republican fund-raiser this week that the president is a "false prophet" and that "we and we alone are the right frame of mind to free this nation from this Obama oppression," Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, thanked him, saying that he "really enjoyed" the remarks.

Credit where credit is due. Some figures in the conservative media have refused to go along with the big hate... But this doesn't change the broad picture ... that supposedly respectable news organizations and political figures are giving aid and comfort to dangerous extremism.

What will the consequences be? Nobody knows, of course, although the analysts at Homeland Security fretted that things may turn out even worse than in the 1990s — that thanks, in part, to the election of an African-American president, "the threat posed by lone wolves and small terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years."

And that's a threat to take seriously. Yes, the worst terrorist attack in our history was perpetrated by a foreign conspiracy. But the second worst, the Oklahoma City bombing, was perpetrated by an all-American lunatic. Politicians and media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.


links for 2009-06-12

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