“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Enron, the Washington Post, Oprah

“On August 27, 2002, the LAUSD board voted unanimously to ban the sale of soft drinks on its campuses, which included 677 schools with 748,000 students.” Which is the center of a case study on trust done by Jagdip Singh, Jean E. Kilgore, Rama Jayanti, Kokil Agarwal and Ramadesikan Gandarvakottai and published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

Actually, there are two case studies described in “What Goes Around Comes Around: Understanding Trust--Value Dilemmas of Market Relationships,” but the Coke case is more fascinating to me, simply because Coke’s struggle to retain its “pouring rights” in schools was a sorta typical 'we want to own your soul" corporate ploy. As the authors put it:

“Although Coke attracts a wide variety of consumer segments, our focus is the youth segment, especially school-going children. Children ages 5-14 spend $35 billion each year and influence the spending of approximately $200 billion annually (Harvey 2000; Rosenberg 2001). In an aggressive effort to reach school-going children, Coke entered into exclusive 5-10 year contracts that involved large, up-front, and distributed payments to school districts over the contract period. In return, the schools stocked their vending machines exclusively with the company's products and guaranteed exposure to the company's advertising in schools. Referred to as "pouring rights," these contracts include a comprehensive strategy to attract children with logos on school equipment, Channel One, and the Internet, as well as advertising, contests, free samples, and coupons (Nestle 2002, p. 202). As Coke's spokesperson noted, "Our strategy is to put soft drinks within arm's reach of desire and schools are one channel we want to make them available in" (Pear 1994, p. A15).”

In order that the arm’s reach of desire would be just in dollar distance of the third grade math class, Coke would grant school districts money – and in fact set up very cute programs to get the school districts (who were, in the nineties, busy putting up signs that read “drug free zone”) to actually push the stuff on the kiddies.

“A particularly troublesome aspect of pouring-rights contracts for parents and consumer advocates was the bonus incentives tied to soda sales (Kaufmann 2001). For example, Coke offered the schools a commission of 30% for each soft drink can sold compared with 15% for each noncarbonated drink sold (Day 2003). Higher commissions for soft drink sales coupled with bonus incentives for exceeding quotas resulted in many schools' initiating their own aggressive efforts to boost soft drink consumption on school premises. For example, in 1999, a widely publicized memo from a Colorado school administrator who signed himself "The Coke Dude" admonished the school district for not doing its fair share to attract more funds and offered prizes of $3,000, $15,000, and $25,000, respectively, to his elementary, middle, and high school principals. His memo read:
We must sell 70,000 cases of product … at least once during the first three years of the contract. If we reach this goal, your school allotments will be guaranteed for the next seven years…. If 35,439 staff and students buy one Coke product every other day for a school year, we will double the required quota. Here is how we can do it…. Allow students to purchase and consume vended products throughout the day…. I know this is "just one more thing from downtown," but the long-term benefits are worth it. (Bushey 1999, p. 1)”

Well, with Coke dudes in various districts, everything seemed to be working when the Gov'mint, and parents looking down at their children growing fat as pigs and insulin deficient, started coming around. What Singh, et al. were trying to trace is the network of trust nodes, as they call them, that activated as Coke was shoved out of the neighborhood of some lucrative little desiring units.

“… we approach a firm's diverse market relationships through a lens of simultaneity and interactivity. Specifically, we draw on the work of Drumwright (1996), Hutt, Mokwa, and Shapiro (1986), Menon and Menon (1997), and Wilkie and Moore (1999) and focus on four nodes of a firm's key market relationships: (1) consumers who are, have been, or will be end users and/or buyers of a firm's products/services; (2) regulatory and institutional agencies that are entrusted by society to act as "guardians" of the marketplace; (3) commercial intermediaries that participate in vertical arrangements with the firm to create time and place value for the latter's products/services; and (4) noncommercial intermediaries that act as independent gatekeepers and/or activists and thus influence access (e.g., parents of schoolchildren, media, scientific community) and/or provide value through information (e.g., consumerist agencies, activist organizations) to end users and buyers. A distinctive aspect of our study is that we extend previous research by examining explicitly how a firm's market relationships across the preceding four nodes intersect and interact.”

I like the authors’ model, even if it does lead to pretty complex mappings of the ‘diverse market relationships…” They trace the various factors that went into the LA school districts decision using the lens of trust, and in particular the way the sugar lobbyists and their allies in the food industry tried to filibuster legislation that would ban or regulate Coke and other sweets from being sold in schools. Coke, in 2001, began to realize it had a huge problem on its hands, and so was backpedaling from exclusive pouring rights contracts – but its bottlers were angry in turn, since they made a lot from those school venues in a market that had long reached saturation.

All of which brings us to the issue of media trust. LI has long maintained that the media fallout from the great media depression of 2001-2004 has concentrated way too much on a simple quantitative explanation: it was all an advertising shortfall, the result of the Net crash. We think that is bs. In fact, the pumping strategies that had fed the market in the late nineties was assiduously abetted by the media. I was looking back to newspaper and magazine articles about Enron, thinking of putting up a couple of where are they now posts for the likes of Rebecca Marks, and I was amazed, again, to be reminded about what was being published back in the nineties. For instance, I found something called Success Magazine – I haven’t checked to see if it is still around – and it published an article in Success magazine 1998 extolling “Visionaries. (profiles of five innovative business leaders) (includes related article on eight visionary entrepreneurs)” Of the five visionaries Stephen Rebello was awestruck by, one has now gone to jail and one, Bernie Ebbers, is almost certainly going to jail. And of course, where would visionaries be in the 90s without Ken Lay and Jeff S?

“Kenneth Lay CEO, Enron Corp. Houston, Tex. Number of employees: 14,000 worldwide Revenue: More than $13 billion yearly Lesson: One good idea can break the stranglehold of a monopoly
Most of us grew up with this impression: Flick on a light switch or fire up the furnace, and you're trafficking with a friendly monopoly -- the local utilities company, regulated by the fed. After all, what were our alternatives? A battery pack and a cache of firewood?
Kenneth Lay wanted to rearrange all that. In 1985 the former deputy undersecretary for energy of the U.S. Department of Interior helped forge Enron Corp. from two gas-pipeline firms. In short order, Lay pushed Enron to became something bigger -- a gas-marketing company that, by the '90s, was servicing Argentina, India, and the Philippines. With deregulation fervor brewing, Lay envisaged expanding to exploit an even bigger potential gold mine: freemarket electricity.
Open to competition the nation's $215 billion retail-electricity market? Sell electricity directly to homeowners, businesses, and industrial users? Sounds like a great idea -- unless, of course, you're a deeply entrenched utilities supplier.
"We simply made a commitment to providing consumer choice and competition for retail natural gas and electricity, much like what we've seen in the telecommunications industry," asserts Lay, who manages to sound like an underdog David tackling a monopolistic Goliath despite his power company's output's recently having jumped by 286 percent in one quarter alone.
What took him, md others, so long? "The electricity utilities, which, by the nature of their business, are very skilled at working the political regulatory process," he fires back, like a born zealot. "Few of the larger electricity facilities are pushing for consumer choice and competition."
Okay, so the gloves are off for a fight to die finish, but once the dust settles, how will die services provided by Lay and other free-market suppliers be any different?
The differences between a market and a monopoly will finally mean innovation," he explains, with contagious enthusiasm. "Consumers are going to save $60 million to $80 billion a year, more than $200 million a day. We won't use antiquated analog meters, and there'll be no more guys jumping over fences and fighting dogs to read meters. Digital meters and instantaneous readings will mean that consumers can start making choices as to when to turn on the washing machine or die dishwasher, taking advantage of lower rates that can save them 40, 50 percent."
I’m sure the people of California appreciated that.
But it wasn’t just fly by nights like Success. Fortune, in 1996, published perhaps one of the unintentionally funniest tongue baths of all Lay’s pleasure centers. It begins with that hoary but always good profile grabber, the CRISIS. In this one, our intrepid Lay is on the ski slopes when disaster seems to threaten:
“Kenneth Lay skied down Ajax Mountain in Aspen, Colorado, on a cold dark afternoon last December, blissfully unaware that the stock of his Houston-based energy conglomerate was taking an even steeper plunge. The Enron chairman returned to his vacation home on Roaring Fork River to find an urgent message from President and Chief Operating Officer Richard Kinder: "We've got a major problem, and we've got to talk."
That afternoon, Enron's stock had lost 2 7/8 points, or roughly $750 million in market capital, amid rumors that the company's natural gas marketing arm, Enron Capital & Trade Resources, was shorting the market even as the January futures contracts expired and a pre-Christmas cold snap was sending prices up the chimney. The crisis of confidence was compounded by rumors that Jeffrey Skilling, the 42-year-old wunderkind chairman of Enron Capital & Trade, had been led off the company trading floor in handcuffs.”

Imagine that. And of course the crisis, here, is all about stock prices. Which it might have behoved the author of the article to ponder.

These and a zillion other articles not only got things wrong – they actually got in the way of getting things right. They obstructed rationality and made skepticism into a “contrarian” stance – when of course skepticism is just the way one should approach a narrative involving a lot of money and people with an interest in skewing your perception of the narrative in a certain way.

The business press articles percolated through the four nodes of Singh, et al.'s article in peculiar and depressing ways…

About which, more tomorrow.

Friday, January 27, 2006

the pre-game report

On the eve of the Enron trial, LI watched the Smartest Guys in the Room yesterday. And we scanned the Economist tout sheet of the prosecuted and the let off. Of course, as we know, corporate law is designed, basically, to allow the governing class to rob people without the expense and fuss that comes from having to buy pistols and wave them in various strangers faces. That the prosecution has to prove an epistemological point to the jury – viz, that Skilling and Lay knew they were committing a crime by signing off on various deals to conceal Enron’s debt while pumping its stock, thus making it a crime – is funny in itself, like one of Zeno’s paradoxes – how can you prove someone knowingly committed a crime when the crime depends on knowingly committing it?

If I decide to knock somebody down, steal their credit cards, and use them, the police don’t have to bother convincing the jury that I knew I was committing a crime. But the more money one has, the more murky the line between the criminal and the legal becomes. Law is where class issues can no longer be latent. If they could, the governing class would simply have two sets of laws, one for them and one for the rest of us. That has practically been achieved by Congress and your state legislature, anyway, but they put both those laws together in one lawbook.

Of course, far be it from LI to discourage entrepreneurship. We surely don’t want to do that.

In LI’s opinion, Lay’s defense, here, should be watched carefully by the employee and investors he ripped off, since the defense is basically that he collected his total what, 400 million from his time at the company by doing one of the most pisspoor jobs ever concocted by a timeserving CEO supermensch. Useful info to have at the civil trial – although it is funny, corporate shills complain all of the time of useless due diligence laws and corporate greenmail by greedy lawyers, but outrageous fraud never seems to fall under these laws.

This, of course, was one of the things Enron, the movie, chose not to concentrate on, which is too bad, although understandable. They made the decision to be serious and not to juice up their account with the effects of unearned wealth on Enron’s bright lights. But … iIt wasn’t that the sex and money story line was peripheral to what happened at Enron – it was central. Rich Kinder, whose resignation moved Skilling into the top spot at Enron, resigned because he was having an affair with Ken Lay’s secretary – and Lay didn’t like it, although of course his second wife was his previous secretary, with whom he’d had an affair until he divorced his first and married her. They actually interviewed Amanda Martin for much of the Smartest Guys in the Room without ever explaining that she had a pretty well publicized affair with Ken Rice, one of the great looters at Enron – a dealmaker whose time as the head of the Enron Broadband division was one of the great jokes of the company. He spent more time, by all accounts, worrying about getting ever new motorcycles on Enron expense accounts “for” the division than he did about anything so mundane as the business itself, and what did he carry away from those grueling, three hour days? 53 million, more or less. It is very hard making decisions about which motorcycle your divison will use as its motorcycle symbol, as we all know. That is why we have to pay our upper management so well. They are so, well, smart.

Skilling actually is going to face the hottest time about the Broadband scam, which was a more than usually egregious goldbricking effort – a scheme that depended the synergy between Enron’s pipes and optical fiber, don’tcha know, and how all those easements and that infrastructure put Enron in the primo position to wire every household in America and pump in the videos.

And we are also all going to OZ on my balloon…

According to Elkind and Bethany McClean's must-read (if you care about Enron, you have to accept that tired cliché in the case of two reporters who became central to the Enron unwinding) in this week’s Fortune, Rice and Causey are going to lighten the prosecutorial task as they have made deals to keep them from spening too much time away from the various millions that were left over from the fines. In the case of white collar law, unlike, say, bank robbery, you get to keep a considerable portion of your loot. We will see, although the preliminaries don't look good -- the government should combat completely the idea that this case is too complicated. Any housewife or bowling alley attendent knows how earmarked money works. The prosecutors should look to seed the jury with the divorced, because what Enron did is, on a grand scale, what many a husband seeks to do in divorce cases -- hide assets. In this case, negative assets. Lay, unlike HealthSouth’s Scrushy, is not a personable man – he is an arrogant prick, and is seemingly even unaware that he is an arrogant prick. He is the same man who used the Enron corporate jet to shuttle his kids to the French Riviera like it was a taxi-cab, all of course on the company ticket. Well, you have to do things like that, as any economist can tell you, to align the interests of the truly brilliant management with the company. Economists in the middle ages made the same kind of arguments for droit de seigneur. Economists exist to excuse the inexcusable – theologians of the pathomarkets.

ps – there are couple of warnings to take to Smartest Guys in the Room One is that there is a gaping hole in the political story told in the movie. The hole is the hand in glove relationship of Enron and the Clinton administration. The Hollywood affection for the Elvis president makes this kind of thing, apparently, hard to see. Simply put, the waiver by Wendy Gramm that allowed Enron to operate in the energy market largely without regulation was continued in the Clinton years even as it became obvious that that Enron was operating as a bank. The India deal became an issue between the U.S and India, as Clinton’s Commerce department, under Ron Brown, put pressure on India to cooperate with Enron, even as it became apparent that Enron had built the equivalent, in energy terms, of the Spruce Goose in India. The neo-liberals at Treasury and Commerce made it very hard for Latin American governments to resist privatizing water, for instance, which was another large Enron project – under Rebecca Mark, Enron ended up owning Buenos Aires Water. And to treat Gray Davis as the martyr of the brownouts is to understand nothing of the (legally) peculating Dem administration which put through the deregulatory program. Alas, in a discourse in which the only sides allowable are Clinton and Bush, how a company like Enron operates is essentially hidden. Maybe that is the reason for the pseudo-division? That energy should have been privatized in the first place, or deregulated, was unquestioned, even though the reasons for it were clearly either untrue or unproven. Almost all energy deregulation feathered in large, sometimes absurdly large, provisions for energy companies that had crippled themselves building unnecessary, expensive nuclear power plants – another boondoggle that went by the name of synergy and that energy execs love to foist off on gullible populations, and not only Iranian ones.

The second is more puzzling. While the film explains mark to market accounting, it doesn't really explain why it didn't work at Enron. While it is true that the way Enron used it was not good, mark to market accounting does have some good effects in theory -- for instance, it smooths out turbulence markets in goods, like natural gas, in which turbulence can act as a bar to use. The problems that can come with mark to market accounting -- massaging the numbers -- were aggravated not by the accounting itself, but by the parallel set up of the "incentive" structure. Dealers at Enron gained bonuses not on real profits, but on book profits. Enron basically screwed itself out of the advantage it could take from mark to market accounting by distributing benefits, asymmetrically, to the management. This is why Rebecca Mark, who, conservatively, cost the company 1 to 2 billion dollars with the massive losses in India and from the water purchases, could cash out with 84 million dollars, and Ken Rice could run the broadband division, that lost 30 million, and gain options worth 30 million. In essence, the company set up an incentive structure in which the incentive was to cheat the company.

And of course the dealers proceeded to bleed Enron. Something like 1.3 billion was taken out of it by execs in the last two or three years, according to Robert Bryce.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Continuing from yesterday…

Wilson finds few direct criticisms of road building. But she does find one, and she contrasts it with the standard argument:

“Few outright critiques of road building can be found. One that stands out
is Fairhead’s (1992) analysis of the destructive effects of road-building in Eastern Zaire. There, he argues, roads represent ‘paths of authority’ and need to be understood as qualitatively different from the flow of goods and people that take place along local pathways. ‘From colonial times, roads were associated with the exercise of power by the state or the chiefs; forced labour was recruited to build them, personal movement along them was taxed and controlled and indigenous land near them was expropriated for plantations and mission stations’ (Fairhead, 1992: 21). In the current phase of roadbuilding financed by the World Bank, relations of power and violence have not changed; indeed, Fairhead claims, roads have further depleted and impoverished a region already suffering acute economic decline. This argument drawing on political economy has strong resonance in the Andes. But more common in the literature are analyses drawing an opposite conclusion. Porter (2002), in a study of off-road villages in sub-
Saharan Africa, emphasizes the human costs of isolation and difficulties faced by women and men who live ‘in a walking world’, unable to access services available at rural centres or make their voices heard in local politics. And at a regional level, as Bebbington (1999: 2022) notes, when seeking to account for instances of agricultural intensification and other forms of livelihood transition, ‘access becomes perhaps the most critical resource of all if people are to build sustainable, poverty alleviating rural livelihoods’.
Clearly, when rural producers must compete in domestic and export markets they are penalized when transport costs are excessively high.”

In these cases, the question of the penetrative power of the road, and who benefits from the “opening up” of territory performed by the road, doesn’t really distinguish road types from one another. They flow from some central, translocal authority, and are considered from the point of view of that authority. But there is another way in which roads operate as tools to close off territory. In Austin, you see this in the way a interstate highway, I-35, provides a barrier between East Austin – dangerous, black and Hispanic – and central and west Austin – which, since the African-American neighborhood in Tarrytown was pretty much liquidated in the sixties, is generally white and middle to upper class. This kind of barrier is made possible by the relative lack of transportation on the east side – the lesser number of motor vehicle owners, the greater number of bus riders, etc.

But Wilson is more concerned with what you might call the functional economy of roads – what not having and having roads can mean to a community. The community she studied, in Peru, from 1994 onwards, is a sad case of road lucklessness. In the eighties, as she gathered from memories of people in the hamlet of Cayesh, the world was defined like this:

“No roads connect the hamlets to the world outside; cayashinos must walk some 50km to 60 km south to reach the paved road to Tarma, or 25 km to 30 km north to reach a dirt road leading up the Ulcumayo valley to the high mining centres.”

The six hundred some inhabitants used pack animals to take their produce to Tarma. But the more well to do also began to desire schooling for their kids, and – operating just as a liberal like me would hope that they would operate – they took their kids to Tarma, too, to be educated. The road to Tarma had opened up the place to the world.

But that doesn’t mean that the world was kind. The Cayashinos were considered second rate, savage Indians. They learned enough to know what this meant. And they learned about resistance. They came back and formed the support groups around which Sendero Luminoso centered.

“Following the invasion of some 200 militants, municipal and community authorities were disbanded, the population prohibited from moving without authorization, and documents of identification confiscated. Several comuneros were killed and the few families who managed to slip away forfeited their lands, livestock and household goods that were distributed amongst the poor. Militants took over as authorities and organized frequent political meetings where they preached that the aristocratic state had deliberately neglected to attend to community needs; the state had treated them with disdain and transformed them into las comunidades mas olvidadas (‘the most forgotten communities’).”

After a year, disaster struck, in the form of an army attack that scattered the Cayeshinos, many of whom emigrated to the city. And it wasn’t until the mid nineties that the hamlet’s population started coming back. They came back to find that most of their land had been claimed by another hamlet. They came back to a shattered system of exchanges. And again, in response to this, they did something hearteningly liberal – they decided they really needed a road.

After five years of intense campaigning, a road plan for Cayash was approved in 1998 by the Ministry of Transport in Lima and a three year construction programme began. The state undertook to contribute technical assistance and heavy machinery while local government provided fuel and Cayash unskilled labour. The project document’s preamble made the political orientation clear. The road would: (i) allow the substitution of traditional systems by new modern techniques of cultivation and livestock raising;
(ii) provide access to credit; (iii) allow greater control by entities of the state; (iv) offer capitalists access to known reserves ofmineral wealth; (v) facilitate an intensive training of peasant producers; (vi) allow an increase in productive infrastructure; and (vii) make possible the establishing of a new socioeconomic structure in the region. What is presented here is a familiar picture of colonization directed from outside, a vision far removed from the social justice and recuperation that the struggling Cayash authorities had in mind. By 2001, with 15 kmof the 50 kmcompleted, the road works stopped. Funds had run out, charges of embezzlement circulated and following the ignominious fall of
Fujimori, the Ministry of Transport refused to be bound by any moral obligation
to finish what the earlier corrupt administration had started.”

This is not a happy story on any level. Theoretically, the road that was supposed to make the territory legible to the state, that was supposed to give control, even oppressive control, to the combination of corporate and political interests, had gone so haywire that Wilson ends her study with this graf:

“One might have assumed that the end of violent conflict would have been marked by a greater presence of state forces of law and order, and a more concerted attempt by the central state to make Andean provinces legible by road-building, but this does not seem to be happening. In the case of Tarma, although the intelligence service survives, police presence has been greatly reduced. Here on the eastern slopes of the Andes, adjacent to the blurred borderlands of the lowland zone, state authority is still under dispute, and
roads are no potent symbols of state-ness. On the contrary, roads are known places of ambush and assault, frequented by delinquents, terrorists, smugglers, drug-dealers; they are the place where deals are done with bad cops. Roads on the fringes of the state are themselves war-zones, a reminder of the fragility of sovereignty and emptiness of the central state’s claim to territoriality. In Peru, the ‘security’ of marginal regions seen from a national perspective remains in doubt; so does the future response of the state.”

The road, here, is Artaud’s alchemical theater, where trade is transfigured into the vehicle of the plague, and where the basic sign of control is really the scene of multiple and shifting anarchies. Not the path of authority after all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

seeing like a biker

“All these cities were connected with each other, and with the capital, by the public highways, which issuing from the Forum of Rome, traversed Italy, pervaded the provinces, and were terminated only by the frontiers of the empire. If we carefully trace the distance from the wall of Antoninus to Rome, and from thence to Jerusalem, it will be found that the great chain of communication, from the north-west to the south-east point of the empire, was drawn out to the length of four thousand and eighty Roman miles. (85) The public roads were accurately divided by mile-stones, and ran in a direct line from one city to another, with very little respect for the obstacles either of nature or private property. Mountains were perforated, and bold arches thrown over the broadest and most rapid streams. (86) The middle part of the road was raised into a terrace which commanded the adjacent country, consisted of several strata of sand, gravel, and cement, and was paved with large stones, or in some places, near the capital, with granite. (87) Such was the solid construction of the Roman highways, whose firmness has not entirely yielded to the effort of fifteen centuries. – Edward Gibbon, Book One, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Last month, on Christmas in fact, I penned a negative review of Rodney Stark’s book, The Victory of Reason for the Austin Statesman. Stark has long been arguing that religion is a neglected factor in sorting out the rise of the West and its triumph, and in this book he distilled his argument in more popular terms. I thought his treatment of the mix of factors that gave rise to liberty, progress and capitalism distorted the place of the Church by treating it, so to speak, undialectically – that is, as a unilateral and autonomous force -- and I thought his method of “proving” that the Church was responsible, for instance, for the notion of “progress’ was surprisingly unscientific – cherrypicking quotes from the church fathers is not a method, and it certainly isn’t intellectual history, either.

One of Stark’s hobbyhorses was the respect we accord the damn Romans and Greeks, so he spent some time attacking the ancients. To attack the Romans, he dissed their roads. Oh sure, the Romans had these great roads, but – Stark insisted – the roads were pisspoor for transport because they were too narrow, as opposed to good, Christian early medieval roads. It was pretty obvious on the road issue that Stark was unacquainted with Raymond Chevallier, the greatest scholar on the subject, and that he was confounding all roads with “viae militares.” However, the symbolic equation between road and civilization is powerful, and Stark chose his target for its maximum symbolic value. My quote from Gibbon, with that endnote like the flourish of trumpets (“Such was the solid construction of the Roman highways, whose firmness has not entirely yielded to the effort of fifteen centuries”) is typical of the admiration roads draw out in us.

All of which brings me to Fiona Wilson’s article in Autumn, 2004’s Development and Change, “Towards a Political Economy of Roads: Experiences from Peru.” Wilson proposes in this article to ask a simple question; who benefits from roads?

Wilson takes James Scott’s position, in Seeing Like a State, that roads make territories “legible” to state power. She notes that road building seems to be the one non-controversial infrastructural project that has remained constant in the development paradigm from the sixties, where development was all about building up import substituting industry, to the Washington Consensus, where development was all about privatization and export.

And she notes the human scale of the road, from the point of view of development geography:

“it would be presumptuous, not to say patronizing, to suggest that village people are misguided in their desire for greater accessibility. Most understandably, they wish to be relieved of the drudgery and isolation of living in a walking world (Porter, 2002), to stand a better chance of gaining and interweaving livelihoods
(Bebbington, 1999), to qualify for a higher level of service provision, especially in education and health, and to feel themselves incorporated as citizens in national life.

My concern in this article is not to question the legitimacy of this demand but to discuss the considerations that lie behind it and ask whether greater accessibility can always be assumed to bring lower transaction costs, greater prosperity and an easier, more secure, way of life for rural people. The current privileging of
accessibility partly reflects the unproblematic way that infrastructure is addressed in development planning literature where rural or feeder roads tend to be considered as socially and politically neutral, or as a technological fix. But as Samoff (1996) argues, there is a wide gulf between the literature that simplifies
and adopts a facade of precision in order to draw policy recommendations and the literature that remains wedded to the importance of understanding messy reality, power relations and the uncertainty and unpredictability of outcomes in everyday life.”

This grabbed me. I live, if not in the walking world, at least in the bicycling world. That world is sometimes difficult to embed in the world of cars. It is a fact unnoticed, in fact, by your average car driver that a road can make access more difficult, rather than less, depending on your vehicle. A biker has to get around the highway system, and the variations in traffic flow to which certain main roads are subject. In a place like Austin, where there is a heavy sport biking population but no consideration, otherwise, of biking as a real form of traffic, this leads to innumerable itinerary compromises. For instance: I once had a job as a phonemarketer with a EMR software company that was located on Capital of Texas Highway. To get there on my bike took twenty minutes, not bad really – it was about seven miles from where I live. I actually liked the scenery I took in biking there, since I had to back route myself by way of Mount Bonnel on roads that have the steepest grade, I believe, in the city. The last fifth of my journey, however, required a dog leg up Capital of Texas Highway, and that was always a little hairy. Yet the “world” that I had to navigate had been created to accelerate transportation, and I do not think it occurred to any of the engineers planning the roads to question, even once, their P.O.V. – this, even though there is a whole world of children and teenage transport that comes out of the very houses that the roads are integrated with. In my (off the cuff and screwball) opinion, surely one of the great factors in the rise of children’s obesity is not the food we eat, which is probably much healthier than the prepackaged foods of the sixties, but the blind shutting out of children’s transportaition – i.e. bike world – that has occurred since the sixties.

But to get back to Wilson’s essay. Wilson poses a simple question:

“From the perspective of rural populations, road building may lead not to benefits but to an undermining
of fragile livelihoods and dispossession of resources. There may be considerable advantages to be gained from holding on to spatial ‘autonomy’ notwithstanding the costs — a concept having a far more positive ring than ‘inaccessibility’ or ‘isolation’. For the sake of ‘autonomy’, can a case be made for making do with tracks and trails instead of building roads?”

I’ll take up Wilson’s responses to this question tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

liar, accessory, nullity

LI has grown tired of punching the President. It is like punching one of those blow up punching bags that were popular when LI was a kid – the bag just wobbles and comes back up, the cartoon figure imprinted on it bearing the same goofy, factory made smile.

So, knowing that this is the man who left the country vulnerable to the 9/11 attack to fulfill the Bush mandate – to take as many vacations as possible – it comes as no surprise that the man who said, three days after Katrina, that nobody expected the levees to break, was warned three days before Katrina that everybody expected the levees to break.

“In the 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit, the White House received detailed warnings about the storm's likely impact, including eerily prescient predictions of breached levees, massive flooding, and major losses of life and property, documents show.
A 41-page assessment by the Department of Homeland Security's National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), was delivered by e-mail to the White House's "situation room," the nerve center where crises are handled, at 1:47 a.m. on Aug. 29, the day the storm hit, according to an e-mail cover sheet accompanying the document.
The NISAC paper warned that a storm of Katrina's size would "likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching" and specifically noted the potential for levee failures along Lake Pontchartrain. It predicted economic losses in the tens of billions of dollars, including damage to public utilities and industry that would take years to fully repair. Initial response and rescue operations would be hampered by disruption of telecommunications networks and the loss of power to fire, police and emergency workers, it said.”

“President Bush, in a televised interview three days after Katrina hit, suggested that the scale of the flooding in New Orleans was unexpected. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm," Bush said in a Sept. 1 interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."”
A liar, murderer and nullity – and the crème rises to the top in the America! Or as Fred Barnes might put it, the Rebel in Chief – our national cheerleader - rides again.

Monday, January 23, 2006

lifeless life

When W.G. Sebald, in a famous essay, asked why no German literary response to the massive bombing of Germany ever developed, he had to make a partial exception for Hans Erich Nossack Der Untergang, an account of the firebombing of Hamburg written in 1943 and published, I believe, after the war was over. There is a trove of Nossack material at this site. One autobiographical essay, Lifeless life, is not, I believe, well known in the English speaking world. In fact, I’m not sure that it has been translated. Anyway, it is a partial account of normal life in Nazi Germany by a man who did, actually, oppose the Nazis before they took power, was harassed by them, but never joined a resistance movement – in other words, your normal liberal German. I include the latter not to blame Nossack, but to give you the circumstances that make Lifeless life a peculiarly interesting vision of living in a Western country in which the presuppositions of the liberal society are visibly crushed, and a highly intelligent man’s reaction to that.

"The fearful illusion rests on the fact that there is no private life, no individual existence, no really independent though under a totalitarian regime. Everything is infected with the bacillus of the epidemic; even the opponent, who believes he has made himself immune, stands under its law. The ideology of the powerful are deposited over everything like steam in a bell jar and takes away the reality of all human action. Recordings from this time give the effect of being spoken in a sleep, or under the influence of a nightmare. All photos collectively seem to be under-lighted, or to be irreproducible negatives. That was what I was? one asks incredulously. Clearly, the official registrar’s facts are all in order, but the bureau of birth, marriage and death certificates only register the lifeless life. Here must lie the real reasons why the national socialistic everyday escapes representation. It isn’t a question of someone wanting to forget a process or a breakdown, and thus it isn’t about the unmastered past – the moral, psychological and punitive issues of the past may be allowed to be filled in. It is more of a question of a lack of the past, of a hole in the existence of the individual, as though it were some ultimate physical weakness. One remembers the last words of the surgeon and the nurse before anaesthetic is applied, and afterwards the strength it required to return to consciousness. But what was in between? Time advanced, that can be confirmed by the clock. But where was I when that was going on?

I don’t think that I could make precise statements even if my journals and letters out of those years had not been burned in the air attack. I have a suspicion that the means with which I sought to preserve my self-respect would seem childish and shadowy to me. That we did not put out flags once, when it was ordered, that we never once used the greeting Heil Hitler, that we never gave a penny to the Winter Aid drive, and various other drives, that we vanished into a building or an alley whenever we came across a procession with music and officials – all of these were laughable pokings of a needle of an unarmed opponent. Otherwise such negligences were reported on the index cards of the block warden, perhaps he reported in order to make himself important in some predetermined place further up the chain and that went still further up the chain. The secret police could thus produce a picture of the mood of the public and direct the organs of propoganda accordingly. Nobody would have taken these prickings of the needle too seriously. The Regime didn’t really care about the money collected in the drives, and maybe they had a few banners left over. Money can easily be printed. Everything had only one goal, which was to keep the mass of prisoners continuously occupied and breathless, in order to delude them over their situation and to blind them to their fate. And, in fact, even the small number of opponents were breathless. Foreigners asked us after the war, why did you let this happen and put up no resistance? Whoever poses that question has obviously never lain on an operation table or lived under the conditions of an epidemic.”