GSIS, Serbia, and me

01 June 2024

One of KU GSIS's Korean Government Scholarship students is from Serbia. They just aired this short piece on this program's students at KU. And I make a few brief appearances. You can view it here. Too bad my voice isn't as rich as the dubbed voice!

Cows, devastation, and glimmers of hope

20 April 2024

In my Advanced Seminar class this semester, we read James Ferguson's The Anti-politics Machine, which employs a Foucauldian approach to evaluating development discourse and how it interacts with other institutions to generate unintended effects. Basically, the books argues that the development discourse has to objectify a national economy in order to legitimize more or less pre-determined programmatic interventions. To do so, the discourse ignores the role of politics and sociocultural practice, which typically leads to little to no genuine developmental progress but has the effect of extending state power. The book is a superb examination of how development functions on the ground when it interacts with concrete practices.

Some of the people in the class---and perhaps myself---fell into the easy trap of the questioning what the point of being involved in development is at all. Should one support the aid programs of nations or international organizations if they will only distort and perhaps damage people's lives? It can be devastating when one's optimism and passion to make the work a better place are smashed against the walls of reality. What can one person do inside a monumental, implacable organization like the UNDP, the World Bank, or USAID? If one works in the development industry or hopes to, one must either close one's eyes, reject truth, or question one's moral compass.

Ferguson's own answer is that people interested in development should do one of two things. You could work with the people of developing countries to promote particular, concrete political interests. That is, you can contribute to the efforts of a political interest in a given country. But this doesn't really contribute much, since you would be an individual in a context where you are comparatively ignorant and from which you are somewhat disconnected. Alternatively, you could work domestically to shape your own country's policies.

He doesn't elaborate on the latter, but the book itself offers some clues that Ferguson himself does not appear to recognize. Though he makes the following argument throughout the book, it is clearest in the chapter on the Bovine Mystique. In that chapter, Ferguson demonstrates how cultural practices and social relations are constantly contested and either altered or reinforced. He shows, for example, that women and men in Thaba Tseka, Lesotho regularly conflict over whether to invest the wages earned by the husband in South African mining on more cows or other productive assets. The man advocates for buying cows, since this places the resources in an asset he primarily controls (among other cultural reasons), while the woman might push for purchasing more immediately productive assets like pigs or for depositing it in a saving account, which are both assets she can access (and may genuinely generate more capital long term). He depicts this tension as an ongoing negotiation of sociocultural organization, representing the possible slow transition of social organization. And indirectly, Ferguson seems to suggest that a development practitioner might take action to support one or the other position.

I see no reason why this same anthropological argument over the slow transformation of social practice through the continuing negotiation of social disagreement can't be applied to working within the development industry itself. Development practices are constantly questioned and debated. It does appear that particular interests, especially economic interests, generally dominate the outcome of these negotiations. But these outcomes are always negotiated and this leaves open the possibility of slowly shifting the social practices of the organization for which one works. The book itself suggests that one can take a political position within one's organization, even if this comes with some risks that one must take into consideration. One can act as a guerrilla in the bureaucracy (as Needleman and Needleman argue).

Toddlers, leaps, and victories

4 March 2024

Arriving home from work on my bicycle yesterday, I came upon a toddler walking next to her mother. She saw the crack,the gaping abyss, in the sidewalk, stopped, lined herself up, and made a majestic, two-legged leap that carried her far past the danger.

That's who I want to be.

Winter months, woodworking, and wisdom

3 March 2024

I will start again with, "I can't believe it's been months since I last wrote anything on this blog." It's all too requisite and all too true. I guess I have lacked motivation.

In fact, I feel like I lack motivation more generally. I am not quite enthusiastic about cycling and hiking, though I continue to do them. I am not excited to try cooking new things, though I am curious enough to do so. And I am not passionate about teaching, writing, and researching, though I must do them.

It may well be the "must" that is my libido killer. Over the last two years I have blamed my family situation and my enervating administrative position for throttling my passion in its crib, as Blake might have had it. And I think this is to a great extent true. At the beginning of the fall semester, my family situation was significantly improved (though still challenging), and I was invested in making a new start on research and writing. Teaching was more engaging than it had been. But then I lost all my freedom as I was pulled back into administration in October. So I believe my whining was right. But I fear the frustration and limitation has now sunk in deeper, superseding its own limits. In short, I fear I have been infected by futility and depression.

More likely than not, it is not so bad and is more of an issue of transitioning through jet lag from family life in the US to solo living here in Korea. I have not yet rested up sufficiently, and I have not yet gone to campus or class to interact with others. And winter had its ups and downs, but opened some new horizons.

I learned the rudiments of most of the woodworking equipment my father left behind. I used the drill press, planer, jointer, router, and a drill countersink to make a simple monitor stand. I used the jointer, planer, and router to make railings for the high school theater production for which my daughter is running props, slightly damaging the planer along the way. Learning always involves mistakes, I guess. But though my daughter was perhaps not overjoyed that I volunteered to help build the set, I genuinely appreciated the opportunity to do so. First and foremost, it was a chance to contribute to the community, something I do not think I do enough of. Second, it provided a chance to connect with people who live in my other home. I grew up in Mystic, CT, but I don't know anyone other than family there now...I don't think. This kind of bonding---as transient and superficial as it may be---is essential to reconnecting to a place. It also offered a safe space of overlapping activities that reconnected meme with my daughter, who is actively trying to disconnect and establish her own independence.

Reconnecting with my wife went through its own winter. Though initially upbeat, trapped in the house by cold weather, our sharing took a primarily anxious and depressive form through our worry over a family issue. There was bonding, but not of a particularly generative form. Once that issue more or less resolved itself and the temperature started to warm up, we were able to reconnect as individuals and as stewards of the property that I increasingly think of as ours. We spent a couple of weeks pruning bushes and trees to create conditions for a healthier and more robust growing season. Blueberries, laurels, rhododendrons, birch, crab apple, grapes, Rose of Sharon, choke cherries, burning bush, wisteria, butterfly bush. And we purchased a fire pit to begin the process of reducing our unsustainably tall mounds of brush. We worked together to prepare the future.

I feel compelled to mention my other daughter and my mother, but there was less dynamism there. Ice cream and The Bear punctuated by UCONN basketball with my mother. Preparing for creative endeavors by setting up a computer drawing pad and an acoustic guitar that sandwiched many entertaining good night greetings for my daughter.

These were the important things over the winter. A barely net positive winter break that has me questioning the utility of the work I am paid to do and have been passionate about. Over the winter I produced tangible outcomes: a monitor stand, a stage set, a mound of brush. I began to bond more deeply with my hometown. And I worked to prepare a more robust future. But now I am disconnected, isolated, and cold in Uijeongbu, trying to catch up with externally driven commitments that I find irritating for the most part. And they are irritating precisely for having been externally imposed.

Perhaps the more robust future I should be preparing for lies after this semester with the beginning of my second sabbatical.

Surplus value, profit, and risk

9 November 2023

I love it when students push back with questions. I'm no genius, so it often leads to fruitful investigations. Like today.

I was teaching Marx's circulation of capital model and simply introduced the labor theory of value. "Under capitalism, the worker must first create enough value through labor to pay for his or her own reproduction. Then they must work extra time to create surplus value for the capitalist, the owner of the means of production." A student afterward raised two issues about owners' profits. The first was about the role of machines, which are purchased by the capitalist. This is fairly easily addressed. Machines embody dead labor, which means that their value was created by labor in the first place. Following from this (and something I failed to mention) is that the machines do pass on some of their value to the commodities they produce through wear and tear. So the capitalist contributes no value here.

It's important to note capitalists who do labor---for instance, by organizing production or making deals---do contribute value to the final commodity. But it's not nearly as much as they believe and claim it is. [Insert relevant meme here.] These claims ignore the social nature of work (we all contribute to the final product as a collective), which obscures the relative contributions of all workers and undermines the distinction between manual and intellectual labor. Instead, these claims conflate domination with labor by implying that holding power is in and of itself a form of labor.

But the student also asked about the bourgeois economic claim that the owner of the means of production deserves profits because they take such a huge risk with capital. He also accurately cited standard legal arrangements that provide for higher rates of return for investors who choose to accept the risk of being lower of the list of creditors receiving compensation in the event of a bankruptcy. (If that student is reading this, he should know that I inaccurately replied to this observation.) And this has always been one of the arguments that I have found persuasive. There is something about the entrepreneur's courage to test their mettle in the market that I do admire.

I offered the simple response I have come up with over the years. "Who is taking the bigger risk: Jeff Bezos or the person who works in one of his warehouses? The mine owner or the miner?" One could also add that workers take a risk by working for two weeks or a month before getting paid, effectively investing in or extending credit to the capitalist. One could go even deeper by claiming that any capital was expropriated from the common person at one time or another and therefore there is no moral justification for it. Though this claim is a bit harder to defend for individual capitalists who may have invested their life's savings from working in a business venture, for the capitalist class as a whole I think it basically holds up. As do the other arguments.

But these argument have never quite satisfied me. So I did a bit of reading on my subway ride home. And it seems that Marx himself provided a better explanation: risk is reflected in profit. But it's not the only thing reflected in profits and may not be a large component.

I will do a disservice to Marx with my poor explanation, but I must try nonetheless. The first thing to consider is that the value of a commodity is distinct from its price. For Marx, the value of a commodity is determined by the "socially necessary labor time" employed in producing a commodity. In essence, this is the average amount of labor required to produce a commodity across all enterprises with their wide variety of production processes. Marx claims that market prices fluctuate around this value (as measured by the average wage). (This is why surplus value in not exactly the same as profit.) Those firms that are efficient enough to use less than the socially necessary labor time make a profit. Those firms that are less efficient lose money and eventually go out of business. This pushes the socially necessary labor time (the average labor time) downward, which pushes profits downward.

Once we have distinguished profits from surplus value, it is easy to see that profits can be influenced by a number of other factors as well. Scarcity can push up prices. Artificial scarcity through monopoly power can push up prices. Borrowing can push up prices. And higher risk can push up prices. In the Grundrisse (p. 722), he suggests that the risk lies in realizing the surplus value created by labor at the point of sale. Thus, if the capitalist is obligated to pay interest on money borrowed, then risk is perceived by that capitalist as a cost of production, even though it is distinct from value.

I think this has two interesting implications that I gleaned from some internet surfing. First, risk factors into prices and thus profits, adding to the surplus value. Such risks are typical of innovative ventures that reduce the amount of socially necessary labor time and thus a component of the super-profits of innovation. As an innovation becomes more commonplace and reflected in a lower socially necessary labor time, the risk decreases along with profits and indeed accounts for some of that decline. The second observation is that the distinction between surplus value and profit opens up the strategic terrain for deflecting risk. All actors involved in commodity production will work to shift the risk onto other actors. The capitalist will push some risk onto employees by paying them only after they have worked. The capitalist will try to establish property rental and labor contracts that allow the capitalist to avoid the risk of downturns by allowing them to cancel the contract at short notice. Or the capitalist might push market risk on the government, so called social risk, as so many of the large financial firms have done. Too big to fail is, after all, equivalent to privatizing gains and socializing losses. The landlord, the banker, and the worker will, of course, try to push risk onto the others as well, but I leave that to your imagination. It is too late for me to continue.

So, thanks to a student provocation, I am now up well past my bedtime but with a renewed appreciation and understanding of the relationship between surplus value, risk, and profits.

Bike paths, trials, and Naver Maps

8 November 2023

Writing again to start building my chops again. Writing, like any other activity, requires regular practice to do effectively and efficiently. So here I am.

I haven't hiked as much as I used to when I lived in Gireum New Town. Trails are equally accessible. However, I have concluded that the drive to hike was a drive to get outdoors since the rest of my workouts were in a gym, on a treadmill, staring at the same thing every morning. Now that it is so easy to cycle, I seem to be getting my outdoor fix that way. But the leaves are dropping fast, and one should not neglect these passing moments of transitional beauty.

So today I planned to hike up Suraksan. One path up runs along a steep stream with broad, rocky faces that create the wide, smooth flows that feel so Zen. Due to the heavy rain the other day, today would have been lovely. Lots of water and reasonably dry trails.

But other responsibilities intervened and I decided to save time by going even more local but to explore some new territory. This turned out to be a mistake.

Things went well for a while. I went over the familiar territory and into a semi-rural village on the other side of the hill, where expensive homes with views are muscling in on small vineyards and vegetable plots. So I was mixing a bit of urban exploration with the autumn leaves. And things were fine until I tried to follow Naver Maps a little out of the way onto a promising path. After passing two snarling dogs on dismayingly short chains, I was abruptly stopped by a chain link fence with a camouflage tarp-covered tank behind it. The path was there, but it was base's patrol path.

So I backtracked to the main road and tried to follow another path on Naver Maps. It, too, was blocked by a chain link fence demarking someone's fancy private property. More backtracking.

And then more backtracking. Several more routes I tried were also blocked. Very frustrating. By the time I got home it was later than it would have been if I had climbed Suraksan.

Still, on the plus side, I did explore a wide new terrain and learned about my vicinity. I passed a chicken coop, a cattle shed, the local agricultural product stall strip, some pleasant views, and new developments trying to take advantage of them. Not a net loss, but not what I was planning for.


Curiously, my exploration of new routes and my encounters with the unexpected resonated quite nicely with this podcast from Radiolab that I listened to tonight while making my dinner.

Jobs, projects, and research

28 October 2023

It's been more than six months and I keep seeing the previous April date, so I decided I had to at least add something new, even if simple.

I guess the most interesting information(?) involves my position as associate dean of GSIS. My term ended two months ago on August 31st. It has been phenomenal to be be free to research and teach again. The biggest surprise was the joy of not having to check my document approval box every day to put my stamp on the myriad of pointless and half-understood documents. The new freedom has improved my spirit immensely. Unfortunately, in two weeks they're going to make me start doing the job again. There is really no other option from teh departmental view, so, alas!, my quality of life is about to tank.

More excitingly, I am about to begin a project with the UNDP Seoul Policy Centre to identify ways that AI can improve the IATI database user experience. The project will also help a couple of students move their own dissertations forward. Hope I can handle the new position, the new research project, and the new research!

Because I do think I have an emerging research project. In Chicago I presented the not yet fully written paper on smart cities as the territorial expression of the emerging systemic cycle of accumulation that I call fully automated capitalism. I'm increasing convinced that there is value (for whom?) in identifying other urban forms that represent diagrams for earlier systemic cycles of accumulation. The hope is to understand how urban form and technology reflect the ideals and needs of capitalism in their time (in accordance with Arrighi's framework).

But, of course, it is just about November. November is the month of theses, class planning, and admissions. The activities dominate all else and mean that I am unlikely to get any other work done. I'm sure that will put me in a good mood.

Going to be busy, that's for sure.

Bikes, buses, and burials

2 April 2023

As usual, it has been long since my last post. As the post suggests, I have had a lot on my plate. But things seem to be on the mend.

In particular, since the last post I made a fairly instinctive choice to move to Uijeongbu, north of Seoul. The logic was that I could get a spacious new apartment for incredibly cheap. I would be closer to the mountains. And I could ride by bicycle to work. And so far this is what I have gotten. My 85m2 apartment was built five years ago and costs $500 per month (if you account for lost interest on the deposit). In 200m I can be walking in the woods, albeit among low mountains. In 20 minutes I can be going up Suraksan, a 640m mountain. And I can ride on bicycle paths along the stream for 22km of the 26km ride to work.

That distance of 26km does have its drawbacks, mind you. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes each way (outside of stretching, prepping, and changing). But this is roughly the amount of time it takes on buses and subways, too. So I am a bit isolated and distant from the action. A little over one month in, this is not yet a problem. I'm still trying to figure out how to balance out my home and the office. I am having trouble being comfortable enough to work in the office. I always feel like I need to hurry home before the buses are too crowded or before it gets dark and cold. Hopefully with the warmer weather, longer days, and experience, this will resolve itself soon. It should be okay since I do not even need to be on a road after the first 4km.

One side not about the mountains here. Less so in Suraksan---I just realized---but the lower hills are full of burial tombs and orchards. It seems like everyone in Korea is buried up here. Then you turn the corner from the tombs and encounter an apple or peach orchard or some small agricultural plots for vegetables. It's wonderful. It is incredibly urban here, but there is still so much rural activity interspersed. It feels like the area is more relaxed and outdoorsy (though that is probably just me!).

Anyway, despite being alone, which I am sure I'll write about more in the future, life in Uijeongbu is feeling quite good. And the future looks bright.