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writing for godot


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Friday, 02 February 2018 22:32


-To better learn from purported development miracles, it is necessary to demystify them. (Jomo Sundaram)

-Myths about human rights are like zombies that never seem to die. It is only a matter of time before they rise from the dead and threaten to eat our brains.

The technology myth


1. The biggest myth about globalization is that it is a process driven by technological progress. But it is economic policy (or politics, if you like) that has determined exactly how globalization has evolved.* (Ha-Joon Chang)

*: The choice of technology implies a choice of society (technological determinism). Technology can only be considered appropriate if it helps lead to a change in the distribution of wealth and power. This is why a socially appropriate technology must address human rights violations, must be labor intensive, must help to change income distribution, must take the use of resources into consideration and must be ecologically defensible. The distributional problems generated by inappropriate technologies will not be solved as long as control over their generation and utilization is concentrated in a handful of corporations and other dominant political and economic institutions. The technology found in countries rendered poor is, in general, appropriate for the rich and powerful in them and highly inappropriate for those rendered poor and destitute who constitute the majority. Technologies only become appropriate or inappropriate according to the social purposes they are supposed to accomplish! The elites in developing counties are an integral part of the international system of exploitation. They have stood in the same relation to the poorer sections in their own societies as the industrialized North has stood vis-a-vis the underdeveloped world. With rates of technological change in the developed and developing countries so vastly different, the prospect is for continuing backwardness and dependence; catching up slowly may be irrelevant. Countries rendered poor should instead try to become collectively strong in order to act as equals in the international arena according to their societal needs and interests.


The economics myth (#)


2. Economics is a 20th century branch of social sciences. It literally means ‘the science of the management of the household or estate’ But it actually is the science treating the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.


3. Come to think of it, theology and economics have actually not discovered anything much new in the last century. This, since both are based on matters of faith.** (Bernard Maris) So, when Milton Friedman was asked “What’s new?” he responded “Adam Smith” as he giggled into the questioner’s face. On the other hand, political economy is the study of wealth; of the conduct of men as desiring to possess (acquire) wealth --and it has added much new in the last century.

**: Reminds me of demography that is said to be a science, but confesses being a science of estimation. …any parallel with economics here?


4. Add to this the problems we have to translate ‘econospeak’ into ‘layspeak: Economists occupy a place in the high rent district of academia. They are so often engaged in rhetoric that it seems they lack any self-awareness about the rhetorical and linguistic nature of their endeavor. They rarely use natural references to what is perceived closer to reality by other humans. Economists choice of style and vocabulary is often supported by un-argued premises and shaky evidence (…myths?). Worse, the mathematical language so favored by economists is itself a system of metaphors (an imaginative transformation of one thing into another). This language elicits an unconscious acceptance of similarities while ignoring crucial differences. Technical jargon is used not so much to reveal truth, but to gain consent by persuading others to believe as they believe. (Les Perelman) [I am the first to admit that ‘humanrightsspeak’ also needs to more proactively translate into ‘layspeak’].


5. Let me just go a step further: The economic theory economists have us under in the dominant prevailing order is the same science that justified and condoned slavery --one of the worst human rights violations ever. (B. Maris) It is clear that those who exercise power are the ones that establish the privileges according to which some thrive and others perish. …Not being facetious, you already know all about how ‘free’ competition works, no?


The competition myth


6. If competition exists, it happens among the privileged …you know that too, no? To define and set privileges, barriers have to be set up and it is the state that must have the power to impose them --with the agreement of (or conniving with) those rendered rich and powerful. Competition has thus never been fair! ‘Small fish’ can never become competitors; instead, their rights are violated. One of the weapons of free competition is (what else?) secrecy --needed to peddle influence. (Jean Favier) The ‘magic of the market’ only thrives with those influences as a helping hand. Yes, but how much of an exposure and denunciation of this is required to bring the problems this brings-about to the fore? The human rights-based approach can help bring in a heavy touch of behind-the-scenes reality and truth to this.


The free market myth


7. In the 21st century’s global market, all goods are treated the same, because fundamentally it is about private profit-making and this means that man’s dependence on the natural world is ignored. The buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been produced. The market, therefore, represents only the surface of society to the momentary situation as it is there and then. There is no probing into the depths of the natural, social or human rights (HR) facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself. He does not, and is not expected to, accept responsibility for the country’s balance of payments either. (E. F. Schumacher)


8. So, my conviction only grows: When big transnational corporations, an odd head of state here and there (or two or three of his front men), many a politician and not few generals accumulate wealth quickly and become overnight millionaires, they use methods and resources that were with us, in some cases, already millennia ago. So, you see? During our happy modernity, we have invented nothing. (Louis Casado) Perhaps with one difference: The transnational world order has become increasingly exploitative, human rights-abusing and self-absorbed, as well as beyond effective sovereign controls. The modern TNC is probably the most adaptive institution humankind has ever devised.


9. Take rich countries: In them, national wealth by conventional measures has declined.*** But corporate ownership of the globalized economy has exploded.  (Noam Chomsky)

***: In the modern era of neoliberal globalization, the conventional estimates of national wealth in terms of GDP are misleading. With complex integrated supply chains, subcontracting, outsourcing and other such devices, corporate ownership of the world’s wealth is becoming a more realistic measure of global power than national wealth. (Sean Starrs) And never forget: People do not eat GDP; they need food, jobs education, health, opportunities --all HR issues. (S. Shadid Husain)


10. This all is why there is an imperative need to eliminate the most speculative forms of trading. It is absurd that existing tax systems still put the heaviest burden on labor. A financial transactions tax is talked about a lot, but still lingers in limbo. Reliance on ever more philanthrocapitalism is not the appropriate response either. Needed are better governance systems that truly aim for greater social justice. (Karl Falkenberg) Applying the HR framework can help bring both these to fruition.


The foreign aid myth

-In the last 40 years, countries rendered rich have become 40 times richer than countries rendered poor, but their foreign assistance has either declined or increased marginally only.

-At any time, Africa plays host to around 40,000 expatriate experts, costing a conservative estimate of about $100,000 a year each. Is their combined advice worth $4 billion a year? (Earthscan)


11. Foreign aid spends a lot of money finding out what to do and then finding who to do it to in the world. Foreign aid is first and foremost a means of exerting influence and creating dependence.**** Instead, and as an example that makes the point, foreign aid ought to be used to decrease the % of income spent on food, and not necessarily to increase food consumption. This would be compatible with HR. Making health or nutrition ‘more important’ within development policies is not enough either; it risks becoming a curative and not a human rights-based approach.

****: In foreign aid, zones-of-influence have replaced colonial empires, even though they do not cover exactly the same geographical areas.


12. The foreign aid paradigm certainly has its dose of cynicism: At points in the past, the IMF and the World Bank were beneficiaries of the flow of global funds from South to North --repayments exceeded disbursements. ***** (Not to mention the toxic argument of the IMF: “Countries have deviated from orthodoxy. So, whip them back into the discipline of the centrally dominated system”).

*****: The realistic definition of bankruptcy is the point at which a debtor can no longer borrow the interest owed.


The privatization myth


13. Privatization is considered today’s miracle cure; it has taken its place alongside trickle-down and other theories that have finally come to rest in the graveyard of panaceas for the world’s economic ills. (Daniel Nelson)


The social progress myth


14. Despite what Bill Gates wants to tell us about progress in development, wealth creation and social progress do not necessarily go together. Some countries have translated relatively low levels of economic growth into human progress while others have failed despite high rates of economic growth. Meaningful social changes and HR must override economic growth!


Bottom line


15. It is not that the above are all the myths there are in development work --or that I have reflected all there is in each of them. I have perhaps addressed the tip of the iceberg in an effort to debug some of the miracles Jomo Sundaram tells us we are fed or made to believe. Do not be surprised that I tell you that I am a firm believer in HR work as a demystifying exercise sorely missing in the sustainable development goals and in Agenda 2030 plans. Human rights violations are not a myth. We have the tools. How can our global leaders have ignored this?


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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-Between robbing a bank and owning one is not the latter the more heinous crime? (Bertolt Brecht)

-Did the call for a new international economic order (NIEO) represent the local bourgeoisies’ desire to integrate with the center of the world economy on better terms? Was it just a simple modification of the then existing order? Was it a ploy against the people in countries rendered poor? Was it just a ‘capitalism for everybody’ charter’? Did it only seek a more active role for the ruling classes in the same countries?  Did it in essence demand for more equitable shares of the same old pie rather than being an entirely different recipe? …Interesting questions …but this is by now history…(Johan Galtung)


I know this Reader has been longer than usual. But if you can spare 10 minutes, I want you to have a look at what fittingly follows.


#: How economics became a religion: some reflections whose time has come

i) The moral code of economics promises salvation; its high priests uphold the discipline’s orthodoxy. But perhaps too many of its doctrines are taken on faith. We have all been made to follow a powerful economic credo around which we have oriented our lives: such is economics. Think about it. Conventional economists offer us a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; it is an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. If you are educated to believe greed is good, then you will be more likely to live accordingly.


ii) The doctrine has its savants, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as ‘derivative’ or ‘structured’ investment vehicles. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and, above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of dissent. At the end of the 20th century, amid an economic boom that saw the Northern economies become richer than humanity had ever known, economics seemed to have conquered the globe. With nearly every country on the planet adhering to the same free-market playbook, and with university students flocking to do degrees in the subject, economics seemed to be attaining the goal that had eluded every other religious doctrine in history, namely converting the entire planet to its creed. No sooner do we persuade ourselves that the economic priesthood has finally broken the old curse than it comes back to haunt us all. Not surprisingly, our faith in the ‘experts’ has dissipated.


iii) The scholars of conventional economics, with their belief that theirs was a science, do not observe the laws of nature, they help make alternative laws! Economics neither is nor can be a science --and has always operated more like a church. You just have to look at its history to realize that. Powerful political interests that have historically included not only rich industrialists, but electorates as well, have helped to shape the canon of economics which was then enforced by the scholarly community. Once a principle is established as orthodox, its observance is enforced in much the same way that a religious doctrine maintains its integrity, i.e., by repressing or simply eschewing dissent.


iv) Studies of personality traits common to various disciplines have discovered that economics, like engineering, tends to attract people with an unusually strong preference for order and a distaste for ambiguity. Economics rests on a set of premises about the world not as it is, but as economists would like it to be. Just as any religious service includes a profession of faith, membership in the priesthood of economics entails certain core convictions about human nature. What actually sets economists apart from the clergy is that they must still test their hypotheses against the evidence. The data used by economists, however, is often disputed. In economic theory, very often, you believe what you want to believe --and as with any act of faith, your choice of heads or tails will as likely reflect sentimental predisposition as scientific assessment. It is no mystery why the data used by economists so rarely throws up incontestable answers. Some data has just simply been bad. Other data rarely throws up incontestable answers. What about spending less time in mathematical modeling? The trend has already been going in that direction. Today, the economist who wanders into a village to get a deeper sense of what the data reveals is a rare creature. Just as you can find a quotation in the Bible that will justify almost any behavior, you can find human data to support almost any statement you want to make about the way the world works. That is why ideas in economics can go in and out of fashion.


v) Economics moves in cycles. A given doctrine can rise, fall and then later rise again. Any economist who gets a following gets a pulpit. Like the person who regularly attends church, but does not always keep the commandments, we behave as economic theory predicts only when it suits us. But, does the endless accumulation of wealth always make us happier?  You see? Many of us do not fit the model. Those who belong to the ‘expert’ class, and to the priesthood of economics, ought to dismiss their behavior when it brings about a clash between faith and facts. This, since the facts are bound to win in the end.


vi) Last but not least, the conventional economics narrative has never made room for the losers of this order whose resentments were derided as being a reflection of their ignorant and retrograde character.


vii) Humility has simply been lacking in economic orthodoxy for quite some time. Although economics was starting to ride ‘the crest of intellectual respectability’, an uneasy feeling about the present state of the discipline has been growing. Pure theory is making economics more remote from day-to-day reality. Just take the palpable inadequacy of the scientific means of using mathematical approaches to address mundane concerns… Nevertheless economics departments are still attracting and promoting young economists who want to build pure models with little empirical relevance. (adapted from John Rapley, The Guardian)


viii) Bottom line: If you think describing economics as a religion debunks it, you are wrong. We need economics. It can be --it has been-- a force for tremendous good. But only if we keep its purpose in mind, and always remember what it can and cannot do! It is still time for conventional economists to look into their own history to find a narrative that avoids the evangelical certainty of orthodoxy. (J. Rapley) your social media marketing partner

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