Just finished watching the BBC documentary The Century of Self. I’d heard most of the ideas before, but not all together and presented and like this. And, do you ever have moments when things just click, and stuff that had been puzzling you forever suddenly makes perfect sense? That’s how I felt watching this. It’s such a penetrating analysis of American and later British consumer culture, the forces and ideas that moved it, made it what it is today, of why people think like they do, and it had these moments when I was caught short, things that I’d taken for granted revealed to be mostly propaganda.

Watch this if you get the chance. The file quality & graphics aren’t the best (they keep on using the same two shots of Freud over and OVER again, and there are these four or five closeups of skyscrapers that make up a quarter of the movie, set to a background of REALLY MENACING music), but I love the way it talks about ideas and how they mutated, can’t recommend it highly enough for that.

These quotes are from the conclusion of the series, Eight Men Slipping Wine:

In 1939, Edward Bernays* created a vision of the future world in which the consumer was king. It was at the World’s Fair in New York, and Bernays called it DemocroCity. It was one of the earliest and most dramatic portrayals of a consumer democracy, a society in which the needs and desires of the individuals were read and fulfilled by business and the free markets.


There was this sort of notion that the free market was something that was not guided by ideologies or by political power, it was something that was simply guided by the people’s will.


But in reality, the world fair had been an elaborate piece of propaganda designed by Bernays for his clients, the giant American corporations. Privately, Bernays did not believe that true democracy could ever work. He had been profoundly influenced in this by his uncle’s theories of human nature. Freud believed individuals were not driven by rational thought, but by primitive unconscious desires and feelings, and Bernays believed that this meant it was too dangerous to let the masses ever have control over their own lives. Consumerism was a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing the responsible elite to continue managing society.


It’s not that the people are in charge but that the people’s desires are in charge. The people are not in charge, the people exercise no decision-making power in this environment. So democracy is reduced from something which assumes an active citizenry to something that’s now increasingly predicated on the idea of the public as passive consumers, the public as people as – essentially that what you’re delivering them are doggie-treats.


There are now growing demands that they [politicians] fulfill a grander vision, that they use the power of government to deal with the problems of growing inequality and the decaying social fabric of the country. But to do this they will have to appeal to the electorate to think outside their own self-interest and this would mean challenging the now-dominant Freudian view of human beings as selfish, instinct-driven individuals, which is a concept of human beings that has been fostered and encouraged by business because it produces ideal consumers. Although we feel we are free, in reality we have become a slave to our own desires. We have forgotten that we can be more than that, that there are other sides to human nature.


Fundamentally we have two different views of human nature and of democracy. You have the view that people are irrational, that they are bundles of irrational emotions, that comes directly out of Freud, and businesses are very able to respond to that – that’s what they have honed their skills doing, that’s what marketing is about. Politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best and treating people with respect in terms of their rational abilities to judge what is best.


*Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the founding father of public relations and the main architect of modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion. He seems to have worked with every major US corporation as well as the government.


ETA: Forgot to link the torrent.

As far as I can determine, conservatism has two main supporters – religious conservatives and those that are against so-called big government (I say so-called because government spending has grown considerably during the Bush administration, and yet as far as I can tell these conservatives still support the administration and the party). What’s not readily apparent at first glance, however, is that the trade-off being supported is of the private versus the public sector, of corporations making their own rules and the governments accomodating them.

Conservatives say that governments are too inefficient and wasteful, and point to corporations as models of efficiency. I agree with them on the problem – our government, today, is inefficient and wasteful – but disagree with how to fix it. Governments are only as good as the people they govern, and together we can fire corrupt and morally bankrupt politicians simply by refusing to re-elect them. I think that the citizens of this country should be made more aware so that they can elect good representatives. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to prefer getting rid of the government altogether, or squeezing it into as small a shape as possible. But, as I said before, I don’t think the trade-off here is of government control versus freedom, but rather of the rule of the majority, which is what governments are supposed to represent (I say supposed to because the recent administration so obviously doesn’t, always putting corporate interests above those of the public) versus the rule of the rich, which is the class that rules corporations.

When the Bush administration cuts taxes that corporations have to pay and supports those tax cuts with cuts in public sector programs such as those that support health care and education, it promotes the growth of corporations at the expense of the public sector, a move that bears all the hallmarks of Reaganomics. And it’s surprising to me that people still think of Reagonomics as a viable economic theory, when any rational look at the data, and just plain common sense, would indicate that wealth does not trickle down but tends to accumulate at the top. Money is spent by the poor; by the rich it is horded.

There’s the sense – mainly among conservatives but also, I think, among some ordinary Americans – that corporations are what’s responsible for the progress that our country has made. But this ignores the fact that corporations are a relatively new phenomenon (they arose after the Civil War, and they made up a relatively small part of the economy until after WWII) and also that today, what corporations are about isn’t making things as much as branding things. This is why labels are so ubiquitous, why advertising contracts run to millions of dollars. The major retail corporations don’t even make their own clothes, outsourcing that to contractors who hire the poorest in third-world countries to work in often-abominable conditions. Increasingly, what corporations are about is selling an image, an idea, that often runs contrary to reality. For the most part, they are becoming nothing more than glorified PR machines. Also, at times it would seem that they would do everything they can to halt progress. Witness the lobbying that automobile companies do, as just one example. Almost everyone agrees that in the future we will need to drive more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly cars. Yet the automotive industry of this country has done very little to make these cars, despite the demand for them as witnessed by the popularity of Japanese hybrids (and once when they did make an electric car they wasted no time pulling the plug, and oil companies bought the patents for electric batteries so they could never be used again), and has instead done all it could to make sure that it will never have to change its practices to be more environmentally friendly. Corporations do not seem to stand for progress but against it, to stand instead for maintaining the status quo.

I can’t count the number of plugs I’ve heard for corporations by the news anchors on channels such as CNBC and CNN (for obvious reasons, I tend to avoid Fox). They claim that pro-corporation policies are essential because they promote economic growth. (It used to be promote employment growth, but they obviously can’t use that slogan anymore after all the layoffs.) And I don’t see the evidence for this. The stock market is rising, but so is the cost of living, so is the price of gas and food, rent, college educations, all the while our currency is falling against that of every other country’s. There is such a huge disconnect between what I hear and what I see, and increasingly I’ve come to think that what’s good for corporations is terrible for the country, for the poor and middle class that live here, that the rising profits are coming at their expense – they are the ones that were laid off, that are being made to work longer hours for less pay. There are now 37 million people living below the poverty line, 5 million more than when Bush came into power, and they have fewer chances of getting themselves out of poverty than in years before, with declining standards of health care and education. And there are also the increasingly lax environmental regulations – properly regulating our food and air and water so that public health is not harmed might hurt a corporation’s profits, and so the Bush administration doesn’t.

As to corporations being models of efficiency, I think a better characterization for them would be that of externalizing machines. Externalities are whenever two parties carry out a transaction and a third uninvolved party has to bear some of its cost. The taxpayers are this third uninvolved party – we’re the ones that pay for the troops to secure Iraq’s oil fields, we’re the ones that bear the costs of pollution. And we have so little say in a corporation’s practices. We can’t fire the retail company CEOs that use sweatshop labor, or the oil company CEOs that are responsible for environmentally destructive practices, or that prop up repressive governments, as in the case of the Shell company (eight environmentalists that protested the activities of the Shell Company in Nigeria were hanged).

Instead of being held accountable and punished for these actions, CEOs that do these things are instead rewarded, with increasingly ludicruous pay packages granted by the boards of directors. It is not the ordinary shareholder that is benefitting from increased corporate profits as much as it is the people already in power – they would prefer to keep the money to themselves, thank you very much. Also, there was an article I read recently that said that CEO pay can be correlated to the number of layoffs performed – the more layoffs the higher the pay. So how is it, exactly, that what’s good for corporations is good for this country as a whole?

Corporations aren’t moral and cannot be held easily accountable for the public good, and it’s surprising to me how much people don’t get this. They exist for one reason, to maximize profits, and they will do this at the expense of anything. In the corporate mindset everything comes down to a cost/benefit analysis in which even things like a person’s health and life have a price, and that is the main reason why I find using corporations as the ideal governing model so laughably absurd, and why I disagree with conservatives who point to corporations as everything that’s right in our society.

I’m in the middle of reading The Lucifer Effect, which details the Stanford Prison Experiment carried out in the 70s, where volunteers were randomly assigned to serve as either prisoners or guards. (“The question there was,” he says, “what happens when you put good people in an evil place? We put good, ordinary college students in a very realistic, prison-like setting in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford. We dehumanized the prisoners, gave them numbers, and took away their identity. We also deindividuated the guards… translated the anonymity of Lord of the Flies into a setting where we could observe exactly what happened from moment to moment.”)

The experiment was planned and executed by Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist in Stanford University. He wanted to prove that good & evil were situational rather than intrinsic attributes, that under the right external conditions everyone was capable of both the most compassionate & most brutal acts. (I began to investigate what specific kinds of situational variables or processes could make someone step across that line between good and evil. We all like to think that the line is impermeable—that people who do terrible things like commit murder, treason, or kidnapping are on the other side of the line—and we could never get over there. We want to believe that we’re with the good people. My work began by saying, no, that line is permeable. The reason some people are on the good side of the line is that they’ve never really been tested. They’ve never really been put in unusual circumstances where they were tempted or seduced across that line.)

Reading the book, what I was most horrified by weren’t the things the guards did to the prisoners, but that the experiment was allowed to go on as long as it did, that Zimbardo knew everything that was going on as it was going on, and yet for five days he did nothing to stop the escalating cycle of degradation the prisoners were subjected to, and probably wouldn’t have stopped it when he did if his girlfriend hadn’t visited and been completely appalled by what she saw.

As he said himself: “There are stunning parallels between the Stanford Prison Experiment and what happened at Abu Ghraib, where some of the visual scenes that we have seen include guards stripping prisoners naked, putting bags over heads, putting them in chains, and having them engage in sexually degrading acts.” These things and more also happened in the Stanford Prison Experiments, and he not only created the conditions that allowed them to happen but was right there when they were happening. He was the ultimate authority there, he was the one who set the rules, and not only that, but he had studied situations like this, knew more than anyone else the psychology of it, and yet he was more concerned with science than the human beings that were abused right in front of him, more concerned with proving his theories than the degrading, dehumanizing acts that were being carried out that allowed him to do so. Why wasn’t he punished? Why hasn’t he faced any consequences for this, any lawsuits, being disbarred from the American Psychological Association, anything? Instead he seems to have benefitted, becoming president of the APA, one of the most well-known and respected researchers in the field.

It does not surprise me that the guards did what they did, because even before reading the book I agreed with the thesis. But it shocks me that, as their teacher, as the one person who should have known better, Zimbardo not only allowed but also implicitly approved of all the actions of the prison guards. And now he is speaking out against the current administration about what happened in Abu Ghraib, saying that it is more their fault for creating an environment that allowed the abuses to occur, for implicitly condoning those abuses, that they should be on trial and face the consequences of what they did. And I agree with this analysis, but. What about him? What consequences has he ever faced? And he was right there, instead of thousands of miles away, and morever, as a psychologist and someone who had studied this he should have known better.

That’s the one thing that I can’t let go. It wasn’t an esoteric moral debate, the question of good and evil, right and wrong. It was something that he’d spent his life studying, and he still completely failed the test, and instead of being punished was rewarded for his failure and is now going around lecturing others about what they should or shouldn’t have done, which strikes me as despicably hypocritical.

And, even today, Zimbardo defends his experiment, the lengths he let it go to, by saying the benefits gained about our understanding of human behaviour and how we can improve society should out balance the distress caused by the study. So, it’s not just okay to cause the harm and degradation to another person, but it’s actual a noble, worthwhile endeavor that will benefit all of society. Which brings up the question, why stop the experiments at all? He should’ve let them continue for weeks, months, so we could fully explore all the depths that humans can sink to. It’s okay as long as it’s for the greater good of society, right?

poli sci links pages:


Taking Sides: Clashing Views in World Politics

I got this book because I wanted to learn more about public policy, and this was one of the books the library had on the subject. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. I liked the introduction, but not the essays, which seemed rather insubstantial. (Though some did have great quotes, like the following from Mahatma Gandhi on cultural diversity: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”)

Below are my notes on the book, mainly quotes & arguments that I found interesting.


“Throughout history it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, and the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most that made it possible for evil to triumph.” – Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie

Technological changes and the shifting axes of international politics highlight the increased role of economics in world politics. Economics have always played a role, but traditionally the main focus has been on strategic-political questions such as military power. One important change in recent decades has been the rapid growth of regional and global markets and the promotion of free trade and other forms of international economic interchange. Many people support these efforts and see them as the wave of the future. But there are others who believe that free economic globalization and interdependence undermine sovereignty and the ability of governments to control their destiny. Also, there is the issue of whether capitalism offers the best economic approach for ensuring continued prosperity among the developed countries and for improving the circumstances of the less economically developed countries.

Policy is formulated on what decision-makers think, not necessarily on what is. Thus, perception becomes the operating guide, or operational reality, whether it is true or not. So it is important to understand objective reality, but also to comprehend subjective reality in order to predict and analyze another country’s actions.

Three levels of analysis: system-level analysis, state-level analysis, and human-level analysis. The first posits that world factors (the number of powerful actors, geographic relationships, economic needs, technology) virtually compel countries to follow certain foreign policies, and, as such, a country’s internal political system and its leaders do not have a major impact. The second focuses on how states make foreign policy. It is focused on internal politics, such as the relationship of the executive & legislative branch, role of interest groups, public opinion, bureaucracy. The third focuses on the role of individual decision-makers.

At the end of WWII, the world was structured in a bipolar system; with the US and the Soviet Union as the nexus points, and a tightly organized and dependent group of allies clustered around them. Now the system has faded, and the North-South axis has increased in importance and tension. – the divide between the wealthy, industrialized countries and the poor, less developed ones.

Some economic statistics: before WWII, $30 billion in annual world export total; in 2002, $8 trillion. International investment exceeds $20 trillion (real estate, stocks, bonds), flow of currencies so massive that there is no accurate measure, but it is certainly more than $1.5 trillion a day. Huge multinational corps have come to dominate global commerce: the 100 largest MNCs had sales of 4.4 trillion. So, economic prosperity in all countries is increasingly dependent on their imports and exports, on the flow of capital, and on the currency exchange rate fluctuations.

Emphasis, since WWII, on decreasing tariffs; increasingly, however, free trade is being scrutinized, for in some countries, such as those in the African continent, it has arguably lead to greater harm, and there is a trend towards protectionism.

Anne Krueger: Expanding Trade & Unleashing Growth: The Prospects for Lasting Poverty Reduction

Nothing new here. She argues that trade liberalization is the key to global prosperity, that while multilateral trade liberalization is the key even unilateral trade liberalization (in the form of MFN status) yields significant benefits. However, she present no direct evidence for this. She says things like “the evidence shows”, but does not present the evidence, which is what I was looking for, and one of the reasons her arguments felt rather insubstantial to me.

* trade tariffs & restrictions deny opportunities to a large number in order to protect a small minority, at expense to consumers & taxpayers

* that there is so much more opposition for trade liberalization because the ones who may lose have a far better idea of who they are than those who are likely to gain from it, because it’s nearly impossible to predict where new business & employment opportunities will come from, which sectors and firms would respond best; what is certain is that opportunities will materialize, not who will seize them. one example presented: during negotiations of NAFTA, a mexican manufacturer of refrigerators was one of the main opponents, for they were of very poor quality. It turned out that the fatal flaw was the compressor; mexican-made compressors weren’t up to the job, and with NAFTA he was able to obtain American ones at competitive prices and it turned out he gained market share instead of losing it.

* regional trade agreements (RTAs) have long proliferated in Africa, yet they have not yielded benefits – intra-african trade fell in the 70s and only recovered to its 70s level in the mid-90s, and is around 10% of total African trade. RTAs are most effective as a complement to and not a substitute for multilateral liberalization. (but because of poor infrastructure, as she notes later, it costs $5000 to ship a car from Addis Ababa to Abidjan, three times the cost of shipping it from Japan. this makes me think that all the problem can be due to this, and that this evidence doesn’t support or refute her claim that RTAs have yielded no benefits there because they weren’t a complement to multilateral liberalization.)

Jose Bove: Globalization’s Misguided Assumptions

This was even worse than the former! Heavy on rhetoric, weak on facts. What’s worse, it used agriculture as a poster-child for why trade liberalization doesn’t work, but I don’t know how this example is valid when, as it said later, in 2000 America offered subsidies of more than $23 billion (and I know European nations offer subsidies similar to this). This seems to me like another form of protectionism, and it’s surprising to me that it’s used as an example of the failure of trade liberalization, when it seems more appropriate for it to be an example of the failure of just unilateral trade liberalization. (Another thing that seems strange is that the latter is even an issue. Of course unilateral trade liberalization isn’t going to work, especially for developing countries, for in many cases agriculture is their main competitive export, and when developed nations started subsidize their own agriculture they are in effect imposing a form of trade tariff, and developing nations are unable to compete not just in exports but oftentimes also in imports, for the (unnaturally) cheap agricultural goods flood their market too, making their farmers poorer and possibly crippling their agricultural industry. And in this way developing countries became, for all extents and purposes, little more than consumers that cannot afford to consume. This is one of the reasons I can’t take people like Anne Krueger who advocate unilateral liberalization seriously.)

The more pertinent question, it seems to me, is how well bilateral and multilateral trade liberalization works, and that’s one issue that this article didn’t seem to address, which is the main reason I was so disappointed.

A fact I’m going to have to check later: it claimed that world market prices applied to a small fraction of global production & consumption: the world price of milk & dairy products is determined by production costs in New Zealand (New Zealand’s share of global milk production averaged 1.63% between 1985 & 1998), world price of wheat is pegged to the price in the US (US accounts for 5.84% of aggregate output from 1985 to 1998). These prices are tantamount to dumping (selling below production costs) and only economically viable for exporters thanks to substantial aid.

It also raised the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and I’m not sure what they have to do with trade liberalization? Surely countries have the power to ban them if they think they are harmful, or at least label them so that their populace knows that that is what they’re consuming and can consume organic products if they so choose. One thing this reminded me of, though, is this one situation where a biotech corp sold seeds to India (and probably elsewhere, too) that were genetically modified so that they could not reproduce, so that every planting season farmers would have to buy new seeds instead of using ones produced from the crop. It seemed like such a pernicious thing to do, and made me understand why people were so against multinationals.

One thing neither paper addressed was the damage to the environment globalization can cause, as well as the issue of cheap (exploitive?) labor.

Additional reading:
Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization & Its Discontents
Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization
Manfred Steger’s Rethinking Globalism
Gary Bland’s Getting Globalization Right