Category Archives: Economics and Business


There’s a moment (usually) around week four or thereabouts of teaching that I begin to glimpse a teensy glimmer, perhaps even a glint of comprehension. In cartoon lingo one of those little light bulbs, though often it’s kind of dim and dusty like the light at some tacky hotel you didn’t really want to stay at but you missed the train and it’s all you could find at that hour of night. And at least it seemed like it didn’t rent by the hour.

So interesting I can’t stay awake

I can’t take it for granted yet – not least because I’m never sure if it’s a real glimmer (or just gas) – and I have realized that  critical thinking, even though it’s one of those catchy  phrases always used to describe education and  learning, is not the cornerstone of higher education. Heck, it probably isn’t even the balcony railing.

Of course it may never have been, whatever us oldies like to think of our own brilliant youth. Talking to a philosopher friend who taught at undergrads some 25 years ago, I have the sense that his students weren’t much better – in fact he says he once just gave up; the blank, stolid looks unnerved him and he just up and left. Simply told them he was available in his office if anyone wanted to discuss the material.

It’s a great idea, except I don’t really have an office – as a sessional prof I have an ugly desk in a cubicle; one of many in a large, ugly, locked room that would make Dilbert weep. I just use it to store my coat on the days I teach.  And if I actually expected any students to drop by I’d have to lurk by the door to let them in, since they can’t seem me way off in the back and the door is locked. And that would be creepy. I gather it’s really not about the learning anyway, certainly not that undergraduate thing. It’s what Jane Jacobs called ‘credentialing’.

As nearly as I can make out, reductionist thinking, dull and linear, wanders the hall like some ghost of sleepy hollow – and the reverence for expertise and white coats and science and anything that smacks of authority is put up on a pedestal so high it’s bound to fall off and hurt something. Then again, what does one expect when everything from ridiculous commercials for face cream to mattresses professes to have research (clinical trials no less) backing up their claims that their product improved people’s lives 83%?

How one would know such things always fascinates me. Questionnaires? Surveys? PR thingies? You know the ones I mean, the little sheets of paper someone with a clipboard thrusts into your hands as you’re trying not to dislocate a joint finding some leg room in that airplane seat or you’re racing from one thing to another trying to find your keys. Whereupon a painfully cheerful person asks if you’d mind answering some questions about that soggy sandwich you just ate or what you think of a new strip mall they’re thinking of building where your favorite dry cleaner now resides. Er, if I’d I’d known there was going to be a quiz I’d have studied. As it stands I haven’t the foggiest. (And even if I did, would my opinion make a damn bit of difference? Likely story. It never has before. But I’m not bitter.) Numeric reasoning at present seems to take precedence over all else, including common sense.

I blame Powerpoint.

That’s right. The program we all love even if it’s made by that Darth Vader of software, Microsoft. (Apple has a variant as well I’m sure – it’s just that their ads are hipper and their numbers are smaller so it doesn’t face the brunt of our ire.)

Powerpoint’s given form to our function, our enchantment with linear thinking. And as a speaker or teacher you can even print up your cute little bullet points so nobody has to take notes. Or listen for that matter.

What I teach doesn’t lend itself to bullet points or decision trees. When I leave the class my white board looks like a hyperactive monkey was trying to write MacBeth: a mess of words that makes zero sense to anyone who hasn’t been there to hear me talk about the interconnectedness of everything or realize that those arrows actually mean something.

A/V loves me because I leave them alone. Students, well, that remains to be seen. But, sessional or no, I refuse to reduce the complexities of science and medicine into a series of bullet points. Call me crazy, but I still believe that even these texting, smartphone addled students are capable of  – and even glad to be asked to engage in – thinking. Critically. Creatively. Contextually.

They’re capable of rising to the occasion if we’d just raise our expectations of them a jot. After all, they’re our kids. Surely they’re smarter than we’ve been giving them credit for.


* I wish I could take credit for the term but it was a title from the online version of The Economist – so kudos to whomever thought it up.

No Genius, Just Insanity

Yesterday, sitting with my friend Joan, who is American but has been living in Paris for some twelve years, talk turned to the U.S. and Obama and the Republicans and the general insanity that appears to have taken over American politics. And all one could do is shake one’s head. Today, Joan sent me this link from the Huffington Post – the bit she wanted me to see was the video, her friend Jake, talking about his take on Obama – and I have to admit Jake’s points are well made. Certainly, were I American, Obama’s calmness and intelligence would seem a right treat given the general craziness of the Bush years.

Still, there’s a part of me, I admit, that wants Obama to blast the Republicans; lose some of that civility and tell them they’re bloody idiots. Not to mention the part of me that’s just so damn irritated by these voodoo economics the Republican are espousing that I think, fine, go ahead, do it. Destroy your lousy economy and your country. That’ll teach you. Of course that’s like the depressed person who wants to kill themselves and thinks, that’ll show them.What exactly it would show ‘them’ is unclear.

It just seems so ridiculous. Why would raising taxes on corporations and on those earning huge incomes be such a bad thing?  How is it that Warren Buffet is willing to pay a larger portion of his considerable income in taxes but the party that ought to be his natural ally refuses to countenance it? And finally, what kind of bonehead actually believes that an economic downturn, a recession – with unemployment hovering around 10% – can be “fixed” with harsh cuts in government spending? Even The Economist, bastion of open markets and general right winged-ness for nearly two centuries, warns against austerity during a time when the economy is grinding to a halt.

Neither national budgets nor global finance are comparable to domestic ones any more. Once upon a time one could argue that well, you take in so much in taxes, you spend so much (more or less) and things generally work out. That’s when governments were small and things weren’t so interconnected, complex and debt-ridden. Virtually all countries, even those who have weathered the recession reasonably well, like Canada, have borrowed large sums of money and the lucky ones are the ones whose debts are intra-national (in other words, the money isn’t owed to another country).

But no doubt I’m preaching to the choir here. The people who agree with me already do that and the ones who don’t wouldn’t be caught dead reading this. Not that I think there’re that many people, dead or alive, who are reading this. Voice in the wilderness etc.

Still, as I tell my students, life will go on; shops will still sell things and people will still go to work and school and day care and so on. Markets may fall at bad news from the euro but markets aren’t economies. Markets are just a bunch of jittery folks who follow the crowd(s) and are bears of very little brain.

Too bad the politicans are too.

The Wrong Stuff

So the dishwasher broke. Again. It wasn’t the first or even the second time it had broken down but this time it hadn’t even been a year – the last time took two weeks for the part and over $300 to fix. It seemed time for a new one.

The new one is from Asia somewhere, possibly South Korea (though, who knows, the South Koreans may well be outsourcing to China now). And it will probably work for a year. That’s how the nice man at Sears explained it and he made perfect sense. You buy a washer/dryer, he pointed out, and the manufacturer gives you a ten-year warranty. A dishwasher? That comes with a one-year guarantee – which means that is how long the manufacturer actually expects the dratted thing to work. I was much struck by the obvious obviousness of this as it had no occurred to me before.

(In humour it’s called simple, unexpected truth. “Why do you think you lost the election, Senator?” “Too few votes.” A response so basic it surprises, and makes one laugh. Or perhaps cry.)

Hence, the truth about this brand new stainless steel dishwasher is that even though it ended up costing a whisper below a thousand dollars it was built, manufactured, to last 365 days. I’d heard of planned obsolescence but surely this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, we are exhorted to reduce, reuse, recycle and just say no to carbon. Problem is, the one thing that life in the 21st century is not about is conserving, keeping things, reducing waste. It’s about that dishwasher, built to last a year and ending up in a landfill.

As a woman I met recently said, in our parents’ day appliances were, granted, bulky and less than beautiful but they lasted. Once you bought that new stove or washing machine or dishwasher you could relax. If it broke down (which it rarely did) you called the repairman who’d call, have the part on him and that was that. Another decade would go by without any trouble.

Today we have smug self-satisfied little stickers on our appliances and dozens of pretty buttons that let us delay start and auto this or powersave that, that’s if the damn thing actually remembers how to work.

A few years later it ends up in a landfill having forgotten how to do the job it was designed for and not worth fixing. It never was too big to fail; rather it was too small to bother. But hey, it did its tour of duty – after all, t was only expected to work for a year.

So we discard, buy the latest version and toss yet another well-made, solid piece of engineering in favour of a pretty plastic device that looks new for six months then falls apart. Is it any wonder protestors are occupying Wall Street and Robson Street and Bloor Street; people are cranky and wondering why they can’t get the jobs their parents had, the middle class lives they could aspire to or their hope for the future.

What d’you expect, when you can’t even get the dishwasher they had? In the grand scheme of things a broken dishwasher is beyond irrelevant, especially when people are losing their jobs and homes and there are people in the world without a roof over their head or enough food to eat. But it seems emblematic of the mess that we’ve made of so much. Well, I use the term “we” metaphorically since I don’t recall anyone asking me about outsourcing or globalization or corporations being people and most of the time the people I vote for don’t get in.

That dishwasher seems like a sad little paradigm for the hypocrisy of the whole thing. So go Wall Street/Bloor Street demonstrators. At least let the man know we’re tired of this nonsense.

And while you’re at it – could you ask about my dishwasher?

Riotous Living

Coming at things a bit late – no surprise there, particularly in the summer when I teach and run around like a crazy person – so it’s taken me a bit of time to get to that Stanley Cup riot thing.

Fahrenheit 451?

Like a lot of people I watched it evolve with fascinated horror on CBC television; struck by the  destruction and sheer, wanton glee in those fires and general mayhem.  The restraint shown by the VPD also impressed me – and since I have been critical of heavy police presence in the past this did strike me as … civilized.  A camera crew caught one particular young man in mid rant as he poked and yelled at a couple of cops who calmly ignored him. Poke the bear with a sharp stick why don’t you, I thought. Later, quite a bit later actually, I saw him being arrested. Frankly, I’d not have displayed such forbearance with a drunk kid having a tantrum if I was holding a baton.

Restraint aside, one did have to wonder why nobody seemed to even consider that this was a a problem in the making, A Situation, what with the number of people downtown, the amount of alcohol consumed and the sheer intensity with which this city greeted that Stanley Cup final. Feelings ran so high that last week you could cut the air with a knife, even in stores just going about your business, as I was. And it didn’t occur to anyone that trapping a whole bunch of people in a five block radius might be a bad idea? Just asking.

Then the immediate analysis that of course it was really a vile bunch of outsiders, no doubt lurking in the wings waiting for their chance to wreak havoc. Like movie extras, just waiting for their five minutes of fame (and a chance to wear those balaclavas).

Ah yes, the outsider theory. Which, as anyone who’s ever read an Agatha Christie knows, is never the case. For in the immortal words of whatshisname, we have met the enemy, sir, and he is us.

But we are fond of that notion of the outsider and hate to give it up, be it in terms of disease or terrorism or anything else. We don’t like thinking that our friends, neighbours, colleagues and those nice people living around the corner have it in them to behave so badly. Most importantly, we don’t like to believe that we have it in ourselves.

Yet that’s why we have police and judges and juries and international courts. Individuals, once tossed into a group, lose all decorum and – for the most part – are reduced to their lowest common denominator. And that all too often is all that is loutish, cruel, and bloody inelegant..

As with disease we prefer to think of the problem as somehow external to us, not our own cells turning rogue, with cancer, or our own immune system becoming destructive as in rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Far better to believe in the metaphorical infectious disease, the tuberculosis bacterium, the smallpox virus, the malaria parasite transmitted by mosquito. Even swine or bird flu. Identifiable and on the outside, attacking and therefore something we can attack, mobilize forces against, fight – be it through an analysis of its genome or killing it with chemotherapy.

Comforting thought that – that we can somehow protect ourselves if we just put our minds to it. The problem is that it’s not the way even a microbial disease behaves, given that a virus or bacterium or parasite is always, in epidemiological terms, necessary but not sufficient. The immuno-competence of the host, his or her life, diet, life circumstances and a host of other factors go into determining whether or not we get ill.

Think on that the next time you try to “fight off “ a cold or hear someone say they won’t let the cancer win. There are no winners or losers in physiology, any more than there were any winners in that Vancouver riot. We all pay for the broken windows and stolen property and we all have to deal with the moral, aesthetic and social consequences.

Maybe if we recognized that to begin with we’d be better equipped to face it in the first place. And wouldn’t have to run around setting fires and losing our heads.

Staying Alive

The absurdity is beyond irony. In a country obsessed with “proactive” health, screenings and tests; a country where celebrity figures urge everyone to “fight” this or that cancer with mammograms or colonoscopies or PSA tests; a country that spends over 16% of GDP on health care and still has the poorest health outcomes of any developed country, one of the biggest threats to health is an amendment to a 300-year-old document professing the right to “bear arms”.

Originating in a different time and frame of mind, the American constitution was a masterpiece of hope and imagination; that “well armed militia” (bearing aforesaid arms) and hope, all that stood between a young country and its colonial past.

Today, in the age of iPads and wifi, environmental change and globalization, it all seems so sad and silly. Particularly in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson a few weeks ago, where a Congresswoman and many others were wounded and six people died.

In terms of health it seems to me that that the United States would do well to stop its preoccupation with political rhetoric (not to mention those colonoscopies) and – for five minutes – consider whether the number of guns in circulation might, just might, have something to do with the incident.

bang bang, you’re dead (the healthiest corpse I’ve ever seen)

As the Economist put it:  (January 15, 2011 print edition, here)

“Opportunists who seek to gain political advantage by blaming the shootings on words would do America better service if they focused on bullets. In no other country could any civilian, let alone a deranged one, legally get his hands on a Glock semi automatic. Even in America, the extended 31-shot magazine that Mr. Loughner used was banned until 2004. As the Brady Centre, established after the Reagan shooting to commemorate one of its victims, has noted, more Americans were killed by guns in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997 than died in all of America’s foreign wars since its independence from. Around 30,000 people a year are killed by one of the almost 300m guns in America – almost one for every citizen. Those deaths are not just murders and suicides: some are accidents, often involving children. The tragedy is that gun control is moving in the wrong direction….”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Loathsome Lycra

What do Lycra, Stainmaster carpet, Dixie cups and oil refineries in Alaska and Texas have in common?

They’re all owned by Koch Industries, ranked by Forbes as the second largest private company in the United States. The biggest corporation nobody’s heard of.

Owned by the brothers Koch, the company also has the distinction of being one of the top ten polluters in the U.S. not to mention a staunch (financial) supporter of the Tea Party movement. (The brothers’ father started the company – apparently Koch pere trained Bolshevik and helped Stalin set up some oil refineries in the Soviet Union, well, until Stalin turned on him), Not only for libertarian reasons but solid business ones: after all, less government means less government meddling in pesky details like environmental laws and lower corporate taxes.

So that, girls and boys, is what you’re supporting when you pay good money for stretch material, spandex  – or, as the labels proudly hanging on virtually every piece of clothing one sees these days, “Lycra”.  Jeans, dress pants, cotton shirts, sweaters: you name it, the damn thing has umpteen percent Lycra.

mah-ve-lous stretchy Lycra

I have never understood the attraction of clothes that stick to you, refuse to hold their shape after you’ve worn them once; have that synthetic feel and make Koch Industries richer. So ubiquitous is Lycra that even Levi jeans ostensibly made of “100% organic cotton” contain 3% of the vile stuff. I know this because I fell for the “organic cotton” line (I absolve the saleswoman of all guilt; I doubt she even realized there was Lycra in the jeans) and ended up giving them to the hotel chambermaid in disgust.

Maybe it’s my shape – or my orneriness – but on me, jeans with spandex/Lycra fit too tightly when washed, then start to droop upon second wearing. In a day, not only am I tugging at myself like some demented ferret but my crotch is hanging lower and lower. And trust me, nobody will mistake a woman of a certain age for Fi’ty Cent. Worse, Lycra, being synthetic (and a particularly noxious one at that) doesn’t breathe and if there is any humidity in the air I end up hot and cranky. OK, crankier than usual.

These days I’ve taken to walking into all manner of posh stores I didn’t used to frequent, secure in the knowledge there will be no natural fibres in sight, all our fine talk of “green” products notwithstanding. I saunter jauntily into Hugo Boss, Max Mara, Holt Renfrew … Once the statuesque salesperson has realized that like the universe I really do exist and do expect service, being posh they immediately treat me like royalty.

Whereupon I pleasantly ask if there’s anything in the store – a pant suit maybe – that consists of natural fibres: cotton, silk, hemp, wool, bamboo, whatever. “Of course,” they assure me in somewhat superior tones. Then I see The Look. Perplexed, followed by darting eyes back and forth across the hangers … and then the “Umm … actually …

Actually no. Yes, there’s one wool jacket in a noxious beige my grandmother wouldn’t have worn, lined in polyester and oh, there’s 5% Lycra. Occasionally there is a triumphant leap towards a cashmere sweater or a cotton shirt, neither of which I want (or would wear on a bet).

Does anyone even remember that cotton jersey stretches? That denim jeans are briefly tight after  being washed but then have plenty of give? That good fabrics feel nice – versus petroleum by-products, aka nylon, polyester, spandex that are slimy smooth, don’t breathe, pick up very jot of ambient odour and make one hot and sweaty?

I am actually beginning to wonder if spandex/Lycra isn’t one of the reasons we’re all so fat. After all, if your clothes never feel tight, you never know if your clothes are getting tight and perhaps you should cut back on calories for a week or two and get back to your normal weight. All normal cues disappear in the absence of clothes that fit.

Wasn’t this supposed to be the age of the whatsit graph, that long tail; the age of the choice? When even people with wants outside the norm should be able to tap into an existing market? The internet and globalization were going to make it all possible.

Instead, it’s all made in China and contains Lycra.A friend who’s a seamstress and tailour tells me that spandex “eats” cotton and other fabrics so clothes don’t last as long. Maybe that’s the real point.

If it’s not finding uses for all those leftovers from some nice oil refinery. Like the Koch brothers, who, according to a long article in The New Yorker, “have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize government environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry”. Who says industrialists don’t know how to spend wisely.

Too bad the rest of us don’t.

The brand’s the thing (for a’ that)

Reading the paper today– including business pages and parts of those “special supplements” that appear now and then on technology, entrepreneurship and whatnot (whatever sells the most ads I suspect) – I am struck by this notion of branding and how anyone who’s anyone needs a brand: an easily understood meme for who they are, where they stand, in the grand scheme of things.

Like Kleenex or Xerox (which I should, by rights be adding that squiggly trademark symbol to) where the name contains what linguists call a script and normal people simply use as shorthand.

We all need a brand, at least according to this Canadian woman with some 30,000 Twitter followers whose 140-character pearls of wisdom are all about this.

The piece, alas, made zero sense to me. I read it carefully, finding out in the process that this woman has several employees so clearly makes money. Yet, she does not recommend individual brands. Um .. so who pays her? (This, incidentally, is my ongoing question with so many tech companies – where’s the damn money? If even information on the internet wants to be free, how do these companies get valued at x billion dollars? Who is buying into this, and why? And if nobody clicks on that sponsored Google site, will it continue to exist?)

Which gets me thinking. If I were to “brand” myself, what would I be? Writer? Teacher? Critic? Eccentric? Curmudgeon? Zontar, Thing from Venus?

Could I be any more last century? Writer? Surely it’s content provider. Critic? Curmudgeon? Does anyone even know what these mean, at a time when we compute in the clouds and watch movies on our phones, at least while the battery lasts.

In any event, a proper brand needs to sound important – so even more important people will notice and be impressed. Certainly all manner of people (and not just tiresome 24-year-olds like the Zuck, founder of Facebook) seem to have managed this. So surely anyone with an ounce of nous should be able to as well, non?

A brand simply reduces things down to a noun – or a phrase, max. So Starbucks is shorthand for coffee; Kleenex: tossable hankie. Xerox: photocopy. It’s a great thing, being the corporation that makes the whatsit that stands in for all the other whatsits in the world.

But you and me?  Surely we’re not that easily reduceable. Our social roles alone should take up a bit more space.

Maybe that’s why everyone’s always nattering on about how the digirati are all under 25. (The Zuck needs to watch out, he’s nearly obsolete.) That’s the time in your life when you honestly believe that what you know and feel matters more than what’s been said and done. It takes a mind that’s only recently left high school to conceive of a program that considers superficial social ties more important than, well, life. You have to have that swagger of youthful self-absorption – and, frankly, also be a bit stupid (which we all are at that age).

More important, it’s a time in your life when there’s not a lot of baggage – mortgage payments, credit rating, ageing parents, a bum knee and roots that need touching up every five weeks. Even though you don’t know it, you look and feel great even after pulling an all-nighter and pulling on some wrinkled jeans (you don’t know this of course, which is why you complain incessantly). If you screw up, well, who cares, you have your whole life ahead of you.

Then, things accumulate. Not just stuff – that needs ever larger space to enclose it as George Carlin pointed out – but life. In all its marvelous, tiresome added-on-ness. Which makes it all rich and chaotic and wonderful but it also makes it all complicated. You can’t just pick up and leave for six months to backpack through Europe and Africa. Aside from the obvious physical issues (you want me to carry that thing on my back?! you do realize I have a compressed disk in my spine, yes?) and the fact that walking down the hall to a washroom in the middle of the night is No Longer An Option, one simply has too many responsibilities and things to do to simply pick up and leave for that long. That’s why old people call it the best time of your life even as you’re wondering where they get off saying anything that daft. It’s simply harder with time, particularly if you want to pick up more or less where you left off.

As always I digress. So back to this branding thing. Are we really going to take it seriously or is that woman simply boasting about all her Twitter followers? Because really, easily half of them probably don’t even read her tweets. Here’s the thing. The people who follow my tweets number in the double digits not in the tens of thousands, but why most of them have opted to follow me defies logic. I suspect they neither read nor care about my tweets, it’s that number – following and followers – that’s the end game. The numbers game.

Expressing messy qualitative information in neat quantitative terms: popularity and importance expressed in terms easily compared and neatly understandable. Reductionism personified.


The Message in the Metaphor

We may have forgotten Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase – the medium is the message – but its aptness hasn’t faded; if anything I find my mind wandering towards McLuhan’s prescience quite a lot these days. (No matter that the Americans have co-opted him – apparently, according to The New Yorker, McLuhan was American.)

Whatever his … provenance, McLuhan’s basic point is still genius: how the message is delivered matters as much as the message itself.  And I would add that as important as the medium, moreover, is the metaphor inside.

Take the ostensibly weighty piece in last weekend’s Globe where this mega important person, vice-chair of BMO Financial Group no less (I gather the stodgy name, “Bank of Montreal”, had become too twee for this grand, globalized institution) describes the imminent dangers from the “new world order” we are so fortunate to inhabit.

Rife with boardroom logic and market metaphors, the piece explains how “broad structural trends are reshaping our world”. In fact, we face great “challenges” (in quotes because I loathe the word and were I to sink so low as to use it in a sentence, please, just shoot me) and need “fiscal-policy exit strategies” (um, pardon? why would fiscal policy require an exit strategy, particularly since it seems to depend entirely on the whims and paranoid delusions of the prime minister?) . Most important, the Canadian “productivity level” is (brace yourselves) is “only 75 per cent of that of the U.S.A”.

All together now: Produce!

I initially read the piece thinking it would contain some sort of insight. Alas, mega important or no, your man is as hollow as a bamboo shoot and not nearly as ecologically friendly. Worse, the piece makes no sense. Once you strip away the gobbledygook and the stirring pamphlet rhetoric (“tip of the proverbial iceberg”, “sapped public trust” and “gaping fissures in the body politic”) the sum total of the argument appears to be that, well, there’s been this process, globalization (which is how the banking crisis went global), and, er, we are getting get older so demographics are changing (no?! really), and, oh, then all this stuff happened like Y2K (Y2K?), 9-11, the war in Iraq and so forth – so, Canada needs to sit up and pay attention. By which I assume he means Canadian banks and financial institutions (even though the only reason they did well was that Chretien put the brakes on their megalomania back in the last century).

Buried in the market metaphors and glib nonsense, however, is a frightening implication; namely, that business – money, productivity, doing well in the “global economy” – is all that counts.

Apparently it was written somewhere – on some stone or burning bush or book of ages (don’t feel bad, I missed it too) – that the key to life, the universe and everything is really business. And New world Orders being what they are, to succeed within it one must produce. Apparently, the only value human endeavour has is in the goods it produces. And productivity, an obsolete measure of input/output if ever there was one (seeing as how it originates with factories like the one that made the Model T) – person hours expended for goods manufactured is our sole measure of worth.

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Art, music, laughter, eduction, family, the environment, friendship, silly walks – zero. Business and money: important.

What”s worse is that far too many people take this kind of bunkum seriously. To the point where such nonsense phrases as “global drivers of change” have entered the lexicon and get invited to all the best parties.

So we forget, or just don’t know, the extent to which this type of language, this level of discourse, these metaphors, affect us and our thinking. The extent to which such language and thinking diminishes us. No longer does every man’s death diminish me, as Donne wrote; today, it is the market and its metaphors that make up our moral centre.

Take just one of those phrases, “production”. Raising productivity is simplicity itself. Just dump factory waste into the river as is done in China (poisoning nearby villages with the black muck the runoff makes) or pay your workers as close to minimum wage as makes no difference. Output is easy to keep high when workers’ hours are kept just below the level at which you are legally obliged to pay benefits (as WalMart does in the U.S.) and productivity should be a breeze if your work place about as safe as an Iraqi road side and you don’t provide workers with protective gear as they use dangerous machinery or chemicals. By all means, have young workers use dangerous machinery wearing flip flops, as they do in all kinds of places.

The real “challenge” is to make production a viable part of a social world in which people can at least hope to thrive.

I am so tired of reading and hearing this nonsense perpetuated. While I do concede that a reasonable standard of living is essential and poverty sucks, how did we get to a place, here, in Canada, where we turn to bankers for advice on how to approach life? How did studies done in second rate economics departments, with college freshmen, become the bloody Oracle? (Oh, you know what I mean. Those snippets where they have people engage in the Prisoner’s Dilemma and discover we’re all as selfish and petty and unpleasant as economics has always told us we are.) Anyone stop to think that the conclusions are based on what an eighteen-year-old thinks? We were all there once. And frankly, I’d hate to think anyone was basing anything on what I thought at that age.

My point with all this curmudgeonly ranting is that these market metaphors have taken on too much power and it’s time to say ‘enough’. We saw what the result of that market belief was: financial annihilation. Unemployment. Environmental degradation. Surely life is a little more complicated than these barren business narratives would have us believe.

Remember, it’s our belief – our tacit agreement – that keeps these metaphors alive.  And we all know that aging does not mean we are are liabilities, that life is not just about the market, that sure, we face challenges but the solution isn’t with the bankers who got us into this mess.

Good grief. If this is order, give me chaos. At least it has the potential to be amusing.

Entropy and economics

Entropy. It means disorder, more or less, and refers to the tendency that all things in the universe have  to gradually lose coherence. To fall apart.

The term comes from thermodynamics – heat and work – and explains, with blinding simplicity, howeven the most efficient of closed systems will lose energy and become less efficient with time. So be it a steam engine (which Nicolas Carnot, one of the early 19th century thinkers in thermodynamics, used) or a plane, bird or Superman, its inevitable fate (at least if it’s not a fictional superhero) is to fall apart. Or, in the immortal words of my adored Flanders and Swann: “Heat is work and work’s a curse; and all the heat in the universe is gonna coooool down. That’s entropy, man.”

That’s why airplanes are painstakingly taken apart and greased, fixed and rejiggered so they don’t fall apart when we’re flying on that cheap flight to Tahiti; it’s the reason  cars and refrigerators and everything else eventually end up in landfills. And it’s why pristine comics or teddy bears or whatnot are worth a fortune: there’s not a lot of them about.

But we’ve forgotten about entropy; the term is barely used. I remember it from a 70’s era Isaac Asimov short story which gives you an idea of long ago it even touched popular culture. No, we like to think of ourselves as having imposed a lasting order – not least because of our clever algorithms and chic equations.

Take this economic crisis we’ve created. At its epicentre was the belief that markets are knowable, rational, explain-able. Of course even a  child who’s tried to trade a baseball card knows this makes no sodding sense, but greed and hubris and a lot of money all came together at once and people really came to believe that this time it was different.  What went up wasn’t going to come down.

After all, there were these equations ….

Turns out some really clever people came up with some algorithms that seemed to work for a time. So, like all greedy eejits they believed their own press clippings (not to mention the fat bonuses) and soon all of Wall Street and much of London and Zurich and the rest followed suit, rolling the dice convinced that it wasn’t luck but science. Hey, everybody loves it when things that seemed unpredictable and unknowable can be reduced down to a quantitative model – probably because so few of us actually understand any of the math. So the “quants” (for “quantitative”) directed the finance industry towards the Kool Aid. Now of course, there’s analysis and backtracking and people who knew it was going to happen (see via @globeandmail for a review of a book on the subject) but really what happened is that people wanted to believe  they understood how it all worked.

Why else would otherwise quite clever people set aside all rationality to invest in acronyms they didn’t understand? And it is a comforting notion, that markets are über-rational and what had always seemed random could be reduced down to a handful of equations. So, staggering sums of money ended up in chopped up pieces of debt,  mortgages, and then it all came tumbling down. (Of course at every step of the way a hefty commission was being pocketed so it was to many people’s advantage not to rock the boat, whatever their private beliefs in the rationality of markets.)

What these “too big to fail” banks and funds forgot was that expressing anything in quantitative terms requires thought, not computers; you have to understand,  in depth, what that equation fundamentally means. And all its ramifications. One of the most seemingly simple equations – E = mc2 – occupied Einstein his entire life. D’you think he was just slow? Or that with computers he’d have managed it in a weekend?

The universe just doesn’t give a damn. Civilization, progress, is just our feeble attempt to thwart entropy.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings …. Look on my works ye mighty and despair .. “

But here we all are, in spite of it all still bright-eyed and bushy tailed, convinced we’re so much cleverer that all those silly oafs who came before (including Boyle and Carnot and Nernst and all those other clever johnnies who actually managed to came up with thermodynamics). After all, we have Google Earth and iPads and we’re good at expressing ideas numerically. Unfortunately, no matter how much we like things to be neat and fit into those cool spread sheet boxes; no matter how much we’d like to think our rules, our ideas, are those of the universe, real rules are few and far between and almost never apply across the board to all situations.

But we don’t believe that, so we don’t agonize about the moral dimensions of our economic theories as Adam Smith did or stop to wonder if our exuberance might be irrational. No, we actually think that what we’ve come up with – our rules and theorems and guidelines and ideas and metaphors; the narratives we’ve constructed to explain how markets work (efficiently), or how physiology might function (neatly, mechanistically) or biology operates (hierarchically) – are real.

As the geneticist Richard Lewontin writes in The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology (HarperPerennial, 1992) writes, we’ve succumbed to the delusion that our metaphors and narratives exist. So often have we heard our genes described as the “blueprint” of life that we have come to believe biology is destiny. So often have we heard mechanistic metaphors used to describe our organs that we believe replacing a defective heart is akin to changing the engine on an aging Camaro. So ubiquitous is our reverence for our own cleverness that we forget previous generations thought they had it right too.

Memories are short these days and we forgot. Forgot that whether it’s finance or physiology, real life is messy.  Not quantifiable.

“Your opinion matters” (and low flying pigs such a nuisance)

It’s difficult to feel too curmudgeonly when one is in Paris, wandering around at exhibits and stopping for a coffee at decent intervals (usually when the last cup of coffee has caught up with one), but it seems as though the entire Occident – Paris included – is run by bureaucrats and administrators taking stupid pills. Or maybe they are simply individuals imbued with an inveterate desire to meddle, change things, fix what ain’t broke: insisting to the universe that yes, “we exist” and can make the changes to prove it.

Once upon a time here in Paris the RATP, the transit authority, had these terrific little bus maps. You could pick up a copy at the metro or wherever you got tickets; often they were on the flip side of the blindingly useful (and simple to read) metro map. Well, they are now gone. Are no more. Someone, somewhere decided they were just too useful and had to go.

Why they had to go is a mystery to me – particularly since it is not just tourists and visitors who used them; locals also occasionally made forays into unknown areas and needed a hand figuring out the best route. And this little piece of paper one could stuff in the back pocket of one’s jeans made that mega simple. But I guess today we are all supposed to use our smartphones or Blackberries or what-have-you. Never mind that reception can be spotty and batteries die and often you have to have the app for that. (And for those of us who are also “roaming” – well, we’d rather not pay any more thanks very much.)

Place St. Sulpice, Paris

So here’s my theory. Alphonse – or Jean-Phillippe or some other blighter sitting in some back office somewhere decided to muck about with a winning formula, perhaps to save on paper or printing or whatever. (And yes, I deliberately used male names because frankly I cannot believe that a woman would be such a nitwit. So it’s sexist. Sue me.) He grandly called a meeting to discuss the matter and somehow, sitting off in some conference room somewhere, it all seemed like a terrific idea. And poof! The little maps are gone. Making the front line personnel even more churlish and cranky than usual because now people are hounding them about the little maps they no longer have. (And they wonder why they go on strike.)

The problem, as I see it, is that the disappearing bus map is part of a larger trend, that of people meddling in the handful of things that actually work pretty well. Heaven knows there are enough things that don’t work – you’d think people would  have their hands full getting on figuring out how to fix those (not to mention building earthquake-proof housing in Haiti and dealing with malaria and TB in sub-Saharan Africa; hunger and human rights; girls getting an education etc. etc.). But noooo. Those are too difficult. So they turn their beady little bureaurat gaze to the handful of things that do work, the things most people like quite a lot, and decide to do away with those. Even though most of us really do appreciate thoughtful, well-designed, simple innovations like a bus map.

Corporations and institutions often talk of the exalted state of “customer loyalty” and spend much time and effort trying to figure out how to achieve it. What they seem to forget, as a friend of mine perspicaciously says, is about their loyalty to us, their customers. So, nobody consults us when a perfectly good product is “improved” (and magically costs more) even though the old version worked just fine. Nobody cares that some of  us actually used that thingamajig they’ve discontinued because too few people used it to make it cost-effective. (So raise the price a bit, already.)

Oh sure, everybody cares about our opinion and wants to know how we feel about the experience of having been crammed into that tiny airplane seat, how we liked that soggy sandwich, whether we enjoy shopping in their shiny new mall. In multiple choice form everyone wants to know how I felt about the damn experience. Unfortunately, nobody wants to know what I think.

Perhaps thinking, particularly the critical variety, is no longer fashionable – much like that bus map.