Saturday, March 22, 2008

I am going to start blogging again because the US has become a much more fascinating place since I stopped. The democratic primaries provided a lot of entertainment, and although the outcome seems all but inevitable now, things might change. Recently, the financial crisis has brought up a large number of interesting issues, called into doubt the current capitalist system, and provided a wealth of interesting data for institutional sociologists.

A number of sociologists have argued that the battle over how to frame the great depression has shaped economic policy for most of the 20th century, and it is likely that the current problems will have a similar effect in the short term. While it might be a bit much to hope for objectivity, there is little doubt that discussions over how to interpret the actual economic crisis will actually be policy discussions framed as descriptive accounts. How we end up interpreting the financial crisis will largely determine and be determined by who wins the policy debate.

This article in the NY Times brings up the point that both homeowners and investors took on debt foolishly, but it seems as though banks are the only ones getting bailed out. The rationale the government gives is that banks can take the whole economy down with them if they become wary of lending money. In addition, the claim is inaccurate: borrowers can declare bankruptcy, and future administrations might modify bankruptcy law to reduce its burdens on the latest batch of borrowers. However, although the article is unremarkable, it is a good entry point into the less visible debate about lending practices in the U.S. It's pretty clear that debt was playing a major role in the U.S. economy, and things may be even worse in Britain. Not only will this crisis have major consequences on lending, it may also change how the economy works. And it will be interesting to see what shapes the new economy takes. My prediction: If the government regulates the lending (banking) industry heavily, this will lead these companies to shift their investing towards equities (especially foreign ones) and municipal bonds. However, the financial sector will shrink by up to 50% of its peak size, and only slightly outgrow the economy afterwards.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

As even a cursory glance at the chronology of this blog will reveal, I took a very long break from blogging, and the blogosphere in general. Nevertheless, after reviewing my initial posts, I've decided to make another attempt at this blog. It will be almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the blogosphere, and will focus on current events and varied extemporania (it will sometimes take license with the English language as well).

In any case, I'm going to jump straight to one of the topics that interests me most -- corporate social responsibility. As I see it, it is fairly clear that companies do things they shouldn't. Many on the left have claimed that this is an inevitable consequence of "capitalism". This approach conveniently clearly assigns blame and presents a solution -- dissolving the capitalist system, and replacing it with any number of better solutions. A still larger group attributes these problems to flaws in the capitalist system -- flaws which the government is best equipped to fix. This approach assigns blame to economic realities, and generally presents governmental intervention as a solution, barring actions by the companies themselves.
One last view is that the problem is cultural in nature, rather than economic -- even liberal consumers often buy from companies whose practices they disapprove of. This argument presents a counterpoint to the anti-capitalists, as it claims that issues in capitalism could dissipate given a more "enlightened" populace, and that changing economic systems might actually not alleviate problems.

Personally, I think all of these perspectives have something to add to the debate. To start, the anti-capitalists point out that capitalism has cultural problems, as well as economic ones. The race for "efficiency" justifies turning a blind eye to social consequences. The individuals who end up directing companies or investment may care little about "liberal causes".
The last group, the "culturalists", reply that although some elements of our culture are shaped by economics, other factors also play major roles. Companies act the way consumers want them to, and if consumers actually were interested in these topics, companies would be much more careful. This opinion makes sense. After all, companies are most interested in making profits, rather than achieving social goods. Reforming consumer attitudes, then, would probably have some sort of effect.
However, as the pragmatists point out, the economic pressures on companies are much harder to resist than the weak and divided pressure by individual consumers (which might even be attributed to other factors by companies). In addition, it is hard for individual companies to take action -- industry-wide concessions must occur. Thus, government involvement (which is, in a way, a reflection of cultural concerns) is a better solution, since it does not require all these different pieces to come together in order to be effective. However, governmental involvement poses its own problems, and is more subject to corporate lobbying.
In other words, like many issues out there, this is a complicated problem with no simple solution.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Also related to the topic of misperceptions, anInteresting Article in Foreign Affairs on whether the "terrorist threat" actually exists.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

One bit of rhetoric that comes up in a number of discussions, publications, and articles is the belief that America is more "Capitalist" than other (Western) nations. This assumption is nearly universal, pointed to as the reason for America's faster rates of GDP growth compared to other developed countries, and also impacts our perception of other nations. However, I would like to put the idea out there that America's economy is not much more capitalistic and "free-market" than Europe's. If we assume the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom is a reasonable indicator of how free-market a nation is, then we see that at least one large European country (Britain) is more free-market than the US, and several small ones (Ireland, Iceland, Luxembourg, Estonia, Denmark) are as well. A number of economies that are occassionally demonized for being over-regulatory are also close to the US on this scale (such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands). And if we can accept that government interference can be localized to specific areas of the economy (such as healthcare) without making the economy less "free-market" as a whole, then we may realize that the US is not the fortress of free enterprise it is made out to be.
I am not trying to say that the US is less capitalistic than other nations. Its rhetoric is among the most pro-market of any country. Its populace is generally individualistic and pro-market, and it has been one of the most stalwart supporters of neoliberal economic policies throughout the world. In a number of industries, there is a lot less government regulation in the US than in Europe, and a lot more innovation. Nevertheless, the widespread conception that America is far more free market than its European counterparts false. This begs the questions of why this opinion exists and how it is perpetuated in the face of economic reality.
Now, the first of these questions--why this opinion exists--is largely a historical one, and will not be treated in much detail here. I claim that it goes back to the centuries-old conception that contrasts the individualistic, materialistic, and culturally primitive Americans with the historically grounded, intellectual, cultured Europeans. We can see this contrast even before DeToqueville, and it has played an important part in the trans-Atlantic dialogue ever since. This comparisson is happily accepted by all sides, both those who idealize American culture and those who romanticize Europe. In any case, I find the question of how this perspective is perpetuated to be more interesting. And my initial hypothesis is that it is perpetuated by a focus on certain areas of economic activity--healthcare, welfare, and taxation. In all these areas, Europe's main economies are generally considered to be more anti-market than the US. And it is because the debate over these government programs combines references to Europe, market forces, and capitalism in general that the US has come to see itself as a capitalist nation and its european counterparts as "liberal democracies".
This blog has existed for a week or two now, and I've decided it's time to re-evaluate its aims. I've been looking around exciting world of the internet (and the blogosphere in particular), and I see a lot of repeated stories. News about Israel-Lebanon gets repeated, news about the Bush administration gets repeated, and news about other hot-button issues get repeated. The problem is that most of what makes it onto the news is blog-worthy, but still centered around particular events--a journalistic bias which means that we ignore large sections of the world, important parts of our culture, and just about everything else that doesn't make it into "news" form. The goal of this blog will not be to repeat interesting news which can be found elsewhere, but rather to examine society, our worldviews, and other items of interest in ways the reader might find novel, interesting, or challenging. I will post "news", on occassion, but only if I feel that the news' importance is not being recognized, or if that news provides some insight into other areas.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Here is an article from the Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2006 about Hezbollah's growing strategic threat to Israel. In retrospect, it makes for a fascinating read, provides some insight into Israel's thought process, and also examines some possible courses of action Israel could have taken. However, it is important to note the lack of actual conflict between Hezbollah and Israel--some mainstream media has portrayed Hezbollah as engaging in missile fire at Israel before the recent conflict, which is clearly not the case.
Also to note is that the article is probably at least a little pro-Israel, and may be exaggerating Hezbollah's willingness to attack Israel (it neglects to mention Hezbollah's non-military roles in Lebanon).
Information about the situation in Lebanon before the recent conflict is much harder to find nowadays, but I think the article does a good job of telling at least part of the story.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Before I start, a word on my perspective:
I am an undergraduate at a (relatively) prestigious american university. I am on course for a major in sociology. I am interested in just about everything. My political agenda is closest to that of the libertarian party, but I am currently aligned with the democratic party.
This blog will be very strongly influenced by the sociology I am reading and have read, but its topic will not be sociology per se. It is, instead, an attempt to explore the topics I am encountering in a sociological manner.
My goal is to post 3 times per week. That may be wishful thinking.