Thursday, May 21, 2009

Noodling For Buttheads

I love reading about economics.  Especially the history of economics.  And the way various views on economics developed.  How leaders and experts through history saw themselves, and how we today see their perspectives.  

Most of this, of course is pretty accessible from armchair type hardbacks at the library and such.  It isn't as if I am trolling some really boring macroeconomics textbooks.  Though you gotta be crazy to never look at a Dummies book on the subject, or a cheap textbook.  If for no other reason than to make the newspaper a somewhat more relevant part of your life.  

I went to my friend Sally's tonight for dinner.  Her boyfriend is my old friend Rick, who I worked with today, and he kind of sprang me on her.  She is unbelievably nice, sometimes pathologically so, but I appreciate it none the less.  We had a strange kind of tuna casserole, which my white trash roots knew exactly what to do with... just delicious. I told Sally, "Perfect! Everything here came from the dead center of the grocery store, except for the carrots.  Everything from a can or a box.  Michael Pollan doesn't know what he's missing." She was cleaning out the fridge and I was happy to be there.  I hadn't hung out with them but one other time a week ago (took them some mesclun mix), and with some people there is such a mixture of warmth despite your differences.  We got that in spades.  Not to sound ridiculous, but when I can cut myself off from my critical side, and all the attachment to my visions of grandeur about how we live our lives, it just amazes me the people I share this world with.  From my family down to my friends.  

The only problem.... is what it means when someone really smart says, "I guess you've got some opinions."  And means why don't you just come out and say how you feel, Andy?  It's just possible the times I'm not judgemental are so few and far between, that they in fact amount to nothing but rounding errors in my personal tally.  My desire at such a thought is to not be so hard on myself.  Take it easy.  Think about something else.  Like how screwed up everyone is. 

So after that lovely end to my workday with Rick, I had an hour or so to kill before a poetry reading I wanted to go to, put on by my old friend Tony.  I went to the bookstore, broke my rather ectomorphic rule against buying coffee, and sat down with this amazing book, called False Economy (a surprising economic history of the world) by Alan Beatie.  

The book gave a bad first impression, which most books at a bookstore seem bent on doing.  Is there anything beautiful about the pathetic marketing of books?  I'll give booksellers credit that they are not selling crack.

It is not an economic history of the world.  It is a surprising book, however.  Basically he is a journalist for the Financial Times and through the lens of a journalists perspective, has conjured a number of interesting questions about economics in different places in the world, and at different times.  This gives him the opportunity to talk a little about a lot of very very interesting stuff.  And the questions are interesting.  Why don't they produce cocaine in Africa?  Or roast coffee, rather than simply grow it.  Why do Islamic countries fail to become rich?  Turns out to be a trick question, by which he explores the impact (or lack of impact) of systems of belief on the wealth of a country.  His discussion of the oh so famous Calvinist New Englanders, and the way they regarded with a great deal of trepidation the enormous potential that their colonization embodied... God, its fun to read.  Talk about dying of abundance.  

His discussion of the rise of the first vertically integrated beef processing company, The Swift company, was insanely cool.  Telegraph, railroad, demand-pull inventorying.

His discussion of Dutch East India Company, and why it was set up the way it was.  The ways in which the Netherlands was able, due to a raft of best practices in finance and shipbuilding, to out manoeuvre England, and finance on terms England could not match... I had no idea.  I also didn't realize that the Dutch East India Company was a Trust Stock.  And the term Trust Stock back then meant something enormously similar to Multinational Corporation.  In Holland, as well, some of the Trust Stock holders were common people.  Many in fact.  The almost insane stability of Holland over the course of so many centuries is just strange to consider.

Within the discussion of the various East India Companies (England, Holland and many other countries had them) The Hudson Bay Company was mentioned. It of course, had a monopoly on the North American fur trade.  I was highly amused to hear that it is still in existence today, with a slightly different line of business.  A small portion of The Hudson Bay company continues in Canada today running department stores.  I'd love to hear one of their corporate meetings, after a couple of the oldest executives had had a few.  

His discussion of the impacts of the fall of Rome on trade routes, flashed within my head more scenes of Hollywood like medieval travel than I am comfortable admitting.  The Middle Ages are so cool, it just blows me away.  Because trade, between States is so fraught with physical, financial, and moral danger, to this day the power of the state is required to secure the proper guarantees to keep real trade flowing (tell me something I do not know, your thinking.)  When the trade routes of Rome fell apart, nobody was able to guarantee anything, safety of goods and services was vastly compromised in the absence of a stable military, or police across the expanse of former empire.  Until the Enlightenment (in fact somewhat beyond it) kingdoms, fiefdoms, and various other domains that the Empire fractured into would not be strong enough to provide the required elements that make the free flow of international trade.  This helps to show how places in our modern world find it impossible to export value added coffee beans, instead of the far less perishable green ones they already produce.  So Westerners take what they cannot grow themselves, and make virtually all the gravy off of it (by and large.)  The communication systems, the transportation systems, the security of ports and air freight depots, and the hands off of private commerce attitude of benign governments are all in various states of frailty, uncertainty, or in many cases missing altogether in the third world.  I had never considered that before.  

But to continue with the wicked result of the terrible problems of InterState commerce in the middle ages... What arose to assist were off shoots of the guilds that grew up around all the centers of skilled labor throughout the continent.  These off shoots became governing bodies, and trained armies to protect the products that needed to be transported all over Europe.  While these groups never achieved anything like what a few hundred years of peaceful development and the Enlightenment would in trade, they were none the less oftentimes given complete control of crucial waterways and supply lines (like wine and food on the Seine, in France, they controlled it all) because they were the only groups, in the middle ages that could wield that State like power, and influence.  

I knew I was warming to the book when it started discussing the history of lobbying, and interest groups.  My favorite story he tells, in a ten page section that bristles with enormously amusing, billy goat like congressional/lobbyist horseshit, concerns the Catfish Farming Lobby, and their indignation at the Vietnamese for entering the American market.

The Catfish lobby simply could not believe the Vietnamese were getting away with calling their farmed fish Catfish.  The Vietnamese fish was in fact only in the same category as a Catfish.  It was not identical to the American Catfish.  The Lobby believed it to be manipulative and borderline fraud to call that Vietnamese fish a Catfish.  The various committees and agencies and representatives met, and it was decided that the Vietnamese were going to call their fish Tra (it means catfish.)  That's what they call it in Vietnam.  The Catfish lobby stood back and looked at their handiwork, smiled their broad southern smiles and touched their Dixie Cups together.  What was done to their Dixie, would not happen, on their watch, to the Catfish.  

Meanwhile, large container ships of frozen Vietnamese Catfish, were relabeling in a hurry.  Once the Catfish got to the United States border, it was essential that it be a Tra.  Since Americans speak, as a rule, English alone, there was little possibility that the meaning of the word Tra would impede the designs of the Catfish lobby.  Their best laid plans would have victory back through that old fashioned American love of the Authentic.  What could possibly be more authentic that the Great American Channel Catfish?  

American consumers had been buying Catfish, somewhat unaware of all of this.  A small percentage of them would troll the aisles of Whole Foods reading an entire afternoon away about the details of each and every foodstuffs origins.  But most Americans went to Safeway, or Albertsons, or Kroger, and simply were glad that someone was behind the fish counter, to weigh and wrap that Catfish at two dollars a pound.  If the fellow with the hair net on were to begin a fascinating discussion of the fishes origins, or to helpfully distinguish between the domestic and international Catfishes, the American consumer would more often than not be reminded of their overscheduled life, and how the grocery store has become yet another place where they must stand and smile, inauthentically.  Managers were having trouble with uppity kids, who wanted to chat about sustainable fisheries, whatever that meant in Iowa.  So they kept the kids that glumly wrapped the fish all day, and fired the ones who didn't shut up.

One day, however, a neat thing happened.  A neat new fish from Vietnam breezed in.  It was labeled "Tra" and when the person in the hairnet was asked about it, they simply said what all workers say under the circumstances, "Yeah, I'm not really sure, um... it's from Vietnam and people seem to like it."  Confronted with Tra, from Vietnam, and Catfish, the American consumers thought Tra sounded kinda exotic and interesting.  At two dollars a pound.

The Lobby was enraged.  The Vietnamese were clearly attempting to get under the wire in America by selling Catfish by a different name!  This obvious fiction, was a fraud meant to confuse the American consumer into thinking Tra was not Catfish.  And the science was clear: Tra is Catfish.  Or at least trade rules, in international trade disputes were clear, in order to establish a clear case against the "dumping" of a consumable into the United States domestic market, it had to be shown that that item was identical (or nearly so) to the threatened domestic product.  The sneaky Vietnamese Farmers were bypassing trade rules.  And they had to be stopped.

Needless to say, both Catfish farmers in America, and Catfish farmers in Vietnam have dirty jobs, that are difficult to compete at.  But the work the farmers do (whether they chose it or not) must seem like a privilege when they consider the work of those people they hire to lobby on their behalf.  Catfish guts may smell like money, but you sniff a lobbyist and you might never smell again.

You can read more about the extensively covered (in our media) "Catfish Wars" by Googling "Vietnamese Catfish."  

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