Friday, April 30, 2010

debt, slavery, and the historical emergence of a market for money

3 Quarks Daily recently posted this very interesting article on the historical connection between debt, slavery, the market, along with so many other interesting details dating back to the very first societies. A great introduction to this topic. Here's one of several excellent excerpts:
First of all, as we all know, it is another typical – perhaps defining – feature of slavery that slaves can be bought or sold. In this case, absolute debt becomes (in another context, that of the market) no longer absolute. In fact, it can be precisely quantified. There is good reason to believe that it was just this operation that made it possible to create something like our contemporary form of money to begin with, since what anthropologists used to refer to as "primitive money", the kind that one finds in stateless societies (Solomon Island feather money, Iroquois wampum), was mostly used to arrange marriages, resolve blood feuds, and fiddle with other sorts of relations between people, rather than to buy and sell commodities. For instance, if slavery is debt, then debt can lead to slavery. A Babylonian peasant might have paid a handy sum in silver to his wife's parents to officialise the marriage, but he in no sense owned her. He certainly couldn't buy or sell the mother of his children. But all that would change if he took out a loan. Were he to default, his creditors could first remove his sheep and furniture, then his house, fields and orchards, and finally take his wife, children, and even himself as debt peons until the matter was settled (which, as his resources vanished, of course became increasingly difficult to do). Debt was the hinge that made it possible to imagine money in anything like the modern sense, and therefore, also, to produce what we like to call the market: an arena where anything can be bought and sold, because all objects are (like slaves) disembedded from their former social relations and exist only in relation to money.
Full article is from Eurozine; it can be found here


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

where does class consciousness come from?

I don't like to mix emotions and morals with economic analysis since I think there are much bigger battles to be had than with those who are "silly" or "evil". So this is the closest this blog will ever get to such things. Let me just say that this quote is crucial to understanding my own views on these issues.

From "Mass Mobilisation and Ideological Transformation in the Vietnamese Land Reform Campaign," by Christine White in Journal of Contemporary Asia, Volume 13, pg. 84
In the case of the village cited above where 'outsiders' and 'insiders' did not get on, it was 'recounting of suffering' which initially brought the problem of the poor treatment of 'outsiders' into the open. During a village 'recounting of suffering' session, an 'insider', Mr Bach, was telling how poor he had been. His father, who had finally died of starvation, had been a village guard and had to sit on the ground in the communal house. 'We suffered as much as "outsiders".' At this point, the meeting went very quiet, for he had let the cat out of the bag: he had revealed to the outside cadres that whereas 'insiders' sat on the raised wooden floor in the dinh, the 'outsiders' sat on the ground. Finally a poor peasant 'insider' broke the ice with the comment, 'happiness does not come from sitting on the wooden floor'.

This led to a number of insiders telling of their sufferings. An old woman recounted that her father died when she was a young child and her mother sold her to the canton chief for money to buy a coffin. She had to work for the canton chief for 12 years as a servant without wages. The old woman wept as she told of the sufferings of the little servant girl that was her former self, and so did the listeners. According to the Nhan Dan report, outsiders realised that poor insiders had a terrible life.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

why history matters, even in economic thought

In fusing together some notes on models of state and society, I came to another reason of why history is so important, even in the case of theoretical models.

The work of Miliband, Poulantzas and other Marxists from the 1960s and early 70s examined the relationship between the state and capitalist society. Their work was motivated by the desire to explain why capitalism was still, in the 1970s, the dominant economic system, given Marx's predictions of its certain collapse.

Block, Przeworski, and Wallerstein (later 1970s and 1980s) were also motivated by a central question. They aimed to explain how labor was able to make such significant advances in terms of wages, and working conditions, and collective bargaining institutions more generally since the late nineteenth century, all of which were strong indicators of the development of the welfare state model of capitalism.

Both groups of theories trying to explain the exact same period (and arguably, depending on your notion of objectivity, the exact same phenomenon), and the difference in how the question is framed makes all the difference in the outcomes of the theories...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

bourgeois ideology?

One of my favorite Keynes quotes, from the General Theory:
It must have been due to a complex of suitabilities in the doctrine to the environment into which [classical economics] was projected. That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

anti-mankiw at its finest

Here are two articles discussing movements to displace Social Analysis 10 at Harvard, popularly called "Ec 10", with an alternative curriculum said to encourage critical thinking and attention to the social implications of economic analysis. The first is from the Harvard Crimson and details the committee rejection of the alternative curriculum (April 10, 2003). The second is from the Harvard Disguide, 2006-2007, which is a manifesto of sorts against Ec 10. These are effectively Anti-Mankiw in their view of the mainstream. Calling out the consensus in economic thought as conservative and divorced from the real world, on-campus proponents of the alternative, headed by Steve Marglin (tenured in 1968, before many of the controversies around the Harvard Economics Department began in the early 1970s), wished to replace the syllabus with one that includes alternative frameworks social thought (some of which is actually considered mainstream in other social sciences) which talk about the economy, but which see it as an embedded part of society -- not some abstract world governed by mathematical laws. They are to be commended for their efforts, and the efforts deserved to be recalled at this point, especially as the textbook queue gears up for the fall.

What surprises me most about this movement is its emphasis on the critical analysis that is apparently absent from Ec 10 as it is currently taught. I mean, isn't that what college is supposed to be about? But in Mankiw's book and presumably his classes, all social phenomena is framed in terms of market efficiency, and there is no room for a bird's eye-view critique. Mankiw is certainly "balanced" to an extent, but underlying all of his "back and forth" on the political right and left is an implicitly positive view of the market. What I have a problem with is not the "positive view of the market"part -- it's the implicit part that irritates me, to no end.

Allow me to explain.

One of Mankiw's favorite books (aside from his own textbooks!) is Arthur Okun's Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (1975). The book amazes me, not the least for the fact that conservatives love to point to the fact that Okun is a social democrat. So, it provides a nice medium where conservatives and liberals can debate the relative balance over efficiency and equality, where the "right policy" is probably something in the middle. Great!

How and why is Okun so effective, so popular, so widely regarded even today? (Indeed, among the top-selling books on economics.) Well, one way of answering this question is to note that the book frames everything in terms of tradeoffs. This is a key idea in mainstream economics. Economists love tradeoffs. See a previous post where I note the prevalence, in mainstream economic thought, of cost-benefit analysis and how a critique of that view may arise. According to Okun, any gains in equality must lead to lower efficiency because of, among other things, the existence of "leaky buckets" -- government bureaucracy which is nonproductive labor, just filling forms, etc. -- think of the DMV.

However, it's not hard to see that this view of a tradeoff is not the whole story -- just ask any citizen of a Western European welfare state about the "efficiency losses" of universal healthcare. They will probably look at you as if you are crazy (here's a hint: YOU ARE!!!). A critical analysis of Okun may question why the choice between equality and efficiency is seen as a tradeoff, and where equality and efficiency may actually complement each other. See them as complements, and the entire analytical framework of Okun, Mankiw, and others, breaks down.

Indeed, this idea of complementarity of institutions underlies much of the alternative thinking in economics and other social sciences. But it's hard to see when everything is framed in terms of the market, and then debates are framed concerning the relative gains of equality and efficiency as tradeoffs. As soon as we get rid of it as an abstract concept, that is, once we critically analyze the economic system, things become much more clear about the subjectivity of the relationships -- and this subjectivity often arises due to where you stand in the economy.

By the way, if you're interested in more of the history connected to the points made in the first paragraph, over the history of the Harvard Econ Department, you will definitely hear more about them in the coming weeks. They are integral to establishing a motivation behind Anti-Mankiw.

historical origins of private property

"The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons," an "oldie-but-goodie" by Ian Angus. I revisited this piece for some work I'm currently doing on law and economy/society in early 19th century U.S. history. It's central thesis is that throughout history, societies have found ways of maintaining communal property rights, rather than privatize, with great success. The issue is of great historiographical importance. Any attempt to explain the historical emergence of private property in a society must have some explanatory framework to govern it. And if the evidence shows that societies have been successful at maintaining communal property rights then a simple explanation of private property's emergence based on inherent characteristics of individuals (such as self-interest) may not be plausible. While Marx (Capital Vol. 1 Ch. 27) gave us one explanation for the emergence of private property a long time ago, more recent attempts, such as those of Winifred Rothenberg (From Market Places to Market Economy), have taken the view that it was an individual effort to set up private property, in order to avoid the "Tragedy of the Commons" -- she applies this to early U.S. history. Read the Angus link for how this may not have been how the institutions came about.

The question then inevitably arises -- Whose Efficiency? (by Rick Wolff) If private property arose for "efficient" reasons, when communal property has also been shown to be efficient, then we have two equilibria and we need to explain why one was chosen over the other. So, efficiency for the landowners or efficiency for the peasants?

A good quote from Angus:

The implication is that private owners will do a better job of caring for the environment because they want to preserve the value of their assets. In reality, scholars and activists have documented scores of cases in which the division and privatization of communally managed lands had disastrous results. Privatizing the commons has repeatedly led to deforestation, soil erosion and depletion, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and the ruin of ecosystems.

An argument commonly leveled against this view emphasizes the social efficiency gains of private property. However, this is by no means an absolute law. Economists such as Daron Acemoglu ("Technology, Information, and the Decentralization of the Firm", QJE 122(4)), as well as other social scientists, have studied the relationship between technology and the social relations of production. Specifically, they have identified certain technologies and forms of knowledge production with more decentralized forms of firm governance. Think about Google vs. GM, or the cooperative software companies in California.

Of course, the historians have long known these things! Great to hear this research is gaining more attention though.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

more reactions on anti-mankiw and some motivating principles of a critique

There is a lot to be said about all of the reaction to Anti-Mankiw over the last few days. Initial hurdles have been identified and existing attempts have been noted. The biggest intellectual challenge, to me, is to find a unifying framework in which to make the critique. Practically speaking, this is unnecessary. My thoughts are that we don't necessarily need such a unifying framework -- indeed, in Linder's Anti-Samuelson, several alternative methodologies are employed in making his arguments. The ideal Anti-Mankiw would, for every chapter of the book, raise the philosophical, behavioral, and/or historical criticisms of his approach. This isn't that hard to do. The hardest part is in keeping each chapter on a coherent argument. One person should write each chapter or a group of chapters -- say, part II on "How Markets Work" should be written by a behavioral specialist and possibly littered with a few historical and philosophical examples to back up these points.

In the future posts, I will discuss an outline of Anti-Mankiw and I will be eager to hear your thoughts.

Here is some more recent coverage and my thoughts on the points made:

Crooked Timber post

This post nicely describes some of the contradictions inherent in the mainstream approach to economics education -- the difference between what is taught and what is experienced. The mainstream identifies efficiency as the goal of free markets, when in reality markets are distorted consistently through, as the Crooked Timber post notes, "monopolistic rent-seeking and regulatory collusion". Garth Brazelton has a nice discussion of this principle. In the comments section of that post, I note that students won't understand the alternative paradigm until they see it in action. Recent discussions over decommodifying healthcare is one such example. The brief period in Spring 2009 when nationalization of banks was on the table, is another. In other words, relationship between the real world and the text is one of the most important motivations behind our work.

At any rate, stay tuned for some more in-depth issues in the next few days! Comments are very welcome.

Monday, April 19, 2010

anti-mankiw: prologue

Greg Mankiw has linked to my previous post which called for a collective effort at publishing something similar to the Anti-Samuelson, a book published in English 1977 by Marc Linder. I'd like to take some time to respond to the various commentaries on my post from around the blogosphere.

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Kenneth Anderson writes of the impact a book such as Mankiw's must have to garner such heated opposition. This is our whole point. Of course in doing this, we acknowledge the impact of Mankiw's book. No one would argue the strong impact this book has had -- even on myself as a Principles student in high school!

A bit further down, I explain what I mean by "bourgeois ideology", but for now -- one line of Anderson's made me worry, and it must be addressed by any who wishes to write a coherent critique, at the introductory level, of bourgeois economics. Consider this a precautionary tale. He reminisces:

I rummaged around on the high bookshelves and, lo, there was an aged paperback copy of Anti-Samuelson, Vol. 2. (No idea where Volume 1 went. Object lesson in why it is time to get rid of the books that no one will ever open again, and save future generations the trouble.) I realize that this makes me seem (i) truly econo-geeky in all the wrong ways, (ii) chomskyesque and intellectual radical-chic, but then I am the product of a passage from left to right, (iii) a middle aged academic bitterly clinging to the truths of the 1970s.

Except that I never actually read it. My problem was, I came very late to economics from philosophy — it was not until law school that I took any economics, so I hadn’t read Samuelson and couldn’t understand three sentences of Anti-Samuelson, either the economics or the radical critique. It just sat on a shelf in my library looking chic and radical, until it started looking aged and bitter.

There are many reasons for a student to quickly become turned off by radical critique. One of the most sad, however, revolves around teachers and professors who assume the student has an adequate background in bourgeois economics in the first place. In other words, a good radical critique must give the student informed and logical arguments that work against the mainstream -- not to simply set up a "straw man" economic theory. I seriously thought Linder's book was pretty good at not setting up a straw man, but perhaps I was wrong. I am, after all, a third year graduate student in economics. At any rate, an Anti-Mankiw must address the readability and (I do believe) cost issue of a textbook.

Over at Ducks and Economics, Eapen Thampy posts a very interesting and sharp comment on my post by his colleague Jack Soltysik. I agree with Jack's prescriptions near the end. However, there is an additional point I would like to point out. It revolves around this "cost-benefit analysis" Jack describes. It relates to my explanation of "bourgeois ideology." Here is the quote:
Today, the correct answer to almost every undergraduate economics exam question either is or depends on the deduction of what maximizes utility with respect to a given set of parameters. And the unspoken assumption (otherwise this is all a bunch of mental masturbation) is that this is somehow “right,” that this condition makes things “better,” without any reconsideration of modern economics’ first principles – precisely the ones Adam Smith dismissed in his day. These answers are “optimal.” They identify “bliss points.” What effect does it have on a generation of minds when the correct answer, exam after exam, semester after semester, is “maximimze utility?”
My comment on this follows -- but it deserves a prelude. Some others commenting on my post around the blogosphere are a bit confused about what precisely I mean by "bourgeois ideology." How can bourgeois ideology have an impact on the mainstream of economics? The best way to think about it is to think about other ways of decision making in our lives, aside from the cost-benefit analysis.

In capitalism, the way to make profits and to succeed in the long run is to compare future revenues to future costs. No matter if you're a Keynesian, Classical, New Keynesian, the fundamental goal in your analysis of a capitalist economy is determined within this framework of comparing costs and benefits. As human behavior becomes more and more market oriented, economists expand the scope of the cost-benefit framework. So, in labor markets, economists frame the problem of the worker as a problem of comparing the disutility of her labor to the compensation (wages) she will receive in work. In finance, the lender compares the risks of a loan to the probability of return. And so on. Gary Becker, for example, has done a lot to expand this scope of economic analysis.

Proponents of a possible Anti-Mankiw are led to believe two related things. First, capitalism is an historically contingent economic system and is therefore not absolute. Second, the cost-benefit framework is the best system within capitalism. Alternative decision making frameworks exist and are alive and well, but they are often at the margins of the mainstream field of economic science. While economic science wishes to encroach upon all areas of human life with this cost-benefit approach, the alternative asserts that we can understand economic problems through other frameworks. The alternative also must work at analyzing the foundation on which capitalism was built -- a strong state, legal system, etc.

In other words, the alternative does not take cost-benefit analysis as a given and instead searches for historical roots of this approach and alternative ways of looking at economic problems.

In the interests of keeping this short, I will stop here for now. (Here is another link on Anti-Mankiw which I will pay attention to in subsequent posts: Memoirs of an Economics Student.) There is much more to be said in terms of examples and thinkers working today, unknowingly, on the Anti-Mankiw. But please consider these arguments, as I clearly was not upfront about all of the intellectual motivations behind my call for an Anti-Mankiw movement, though many have built up over years of economic study.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

anti-samuelson, anti-mankiw?

I recently discovered Linder's 2 volume (4 in the German edition) Anti-Samuelson (1977), a virtual line-by-line critique of Samuelson's popular Principles of Economics textbook. For those not familiar with Samuelson or his work, S is one of the most prolific post-World War II economists in terms of using formal (mathematical) methods to study economic problems. It influenced scores of economic students. The Nobel Commitee's biography of him describes the impact of his work:
His Economics: An Introductory Analysis, first published in 1948, has become the best selling economics textbook of all time. The textbook has sold more than a million copies and has been translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic. It is now in its fifth edition. "The book's emphasis on different themes has changed with the changing of the nation's economic problems," wrote Business Week in 1959. "The first edition was dominated by the end-of-the-war worry that widespread unemployment would return... later editions put growing stress on fiscal and monetary controls over inflation. In the later editions Samuelson has worked toward what he calls a 'neoclassical synthesis' of ancient and modern economic findings. Briefly, his synthesis is that nations today can successfully control either depression or inflation by fiscal and monetary policies... Some economists feel that Samuelson's book... is really his greatest contribution. It has gone a long way toward giving the world a common economic language." (Source:
I very recently wrote a post about some of Linder's more recent work here. He's a very interesting scholar. His website is here.

Talking with a few of my fellow grad students at UMass, we reflected on the fact that Mankiw has effectively displaced S's text as the standard Principles of Economics text at the top schools -- indeed, it is #1 in terms of economics textbook sales now over S's book. As such, it seems fair to think that a parallel work would rise to criticize it as those students at Princeton had done in the 70s. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

But. A a quick google search of "anti-Mankiw" gives a Mankiw blog post from 2007 as the first link. See it here. The critique Mankiw mentions come from the post-autistic school of economics, a critique that is fundamentally about the argument that mainstream economics is divorced from reality to a point that it loses any practical relevance (Elisa, I'm not sure if you still read this blog but I believe you mentioned this to me 5 or 6 years ago!).

At any rate, check out the link, and let me know if you're interested in writing with me a 2-volume, 350 pg. per volume, line-by-line critique of Mankiw as an instrument of bourgeois ideology. This is the closest thing I could find!

Leave a comment!

Friday, April 16, 2010

dean baker on financial reform

Dean Baker recently wrote an article for the Boston Review (link here) that fails in explaining the relationship between capitalism and the state in regulation policy. This failure ultimately weakens his analysis considerably. Here is one telling quote:

FDIC offers banks an explicit safety net. Several large institutions also enjoy an implicit safety net because they are “too big to fail” (TBTF). This safety net allows them to borrow money (other than insured deposits) at a lower interest rate than would otherwise be the case because lenders know that the government will back up the institutions’ loans if necessary.
The argument is weak because it assumes the "escape net" role of the government in the first place. No argument is given for why the government acts as it does, it is simply assumed to be so. And thus, we may easily arrive at the kinds of conclusions that Baker arrives at in the above quote: it is not about the actual structure of the financial system, it is simply about the size of the relevant players in this system.

Competitive banking is no less an evil, because the problem actually revolves around the scope of these financial institutions. Competition, as Schumpeter argued, will inevitably lead to monopolistic economic units through such processes as creative destruction. To be clearer: an inherent aspect of capitalism is its continual requirement for innovation and technological growth. This necessarily leads to the creation of massive rents for those who do succeed, and leads to the bankruptcy of thousands of others who fail. The means of protection of those rents explains both why capitalism is successful and also why so many fail (i.e., why it contains the possibility of being vary volatile).

Here's another quote that explains Baker's position quite well:

Suppose the state of Nevada waived the 6.75 percent tax on gambling revenues for
one casino in Las Vegas. That casino could promise better odds than its
competitors and still have a larger profit margin. Wall Street financial
institutions essentially enjoy this kind of advantage: they can profit from
gambling opportunities unencumbered by the taxes paid on other forms of

For Baker, it's not about changing the field, it's about levelling the playing field so that the rules are the same for everyone. This is a fundamental misconception about the consequences of macro dynamics in a capitalist economy.

Toward the middle-to-end of the article, Baker shifts his focus from debates over financial competition vs. "too big to fail", to a focus on the benefits of long- vs. short-term investment. In this more Keynesian style of the piece, Baker argues that the short term nature of most investment encourages speculation and a lack of care about public welfare of investment:

If the government sought to level the playing field across casinos, it could
impose a modest tax on each financial transaction. Such a tax would
disproportionately affect noise trading, since short-term traders make more
transactions than long-term investors. And it could lead to more efficient
markets. Not only would fewer resources be wasted in carrying through the
financial transactions that support the real economy, but we might see prices
that more closely reflect the fundamentals of the market.

I'm not sure what to make of this, except that Baker is making an explicit link between government actions and capitalism's health that I do not think exists. Surely capitalists argue as if their system were efficient, but this efficiency is a construct of capitalism's value system. Efficiency arises in financial markets when "fundamentals" are reflected in stock prices. In other words, efficiency means financial conditions reflect the health of the real sector -- which includes industrial profits and other indicators of firm's future profit-making abilities. Baker argues that this can happen with a combination of long-term investments and smaller banks. Baker doesn't explain two things: 1. how competition can be effectively deterred in order to reduce the tendency of all financial institutions to grow; 2. and how how this will reduce the need for a safety net for the firms in the more important industries.

And why hasn't he explained 1 or 2? Simple: by this point in the article (indeed for the rest of it), Baker still hasn't given us an explanatory framework for understanding why the government takes the actions is does. This is very very important to be clear about. The government is not an a priori neutral institution. Many political economists since Adam Smith have argued that laws and state systems are at least partly designed by the dominant and wealthy classes, for the interests of these groups. Therefore the more important issue is how the state itself operates -- will it be a neutral body, or controlled by some employers and other industry interests?

No mention!

By the way -- What's this mean?

In many cases customers were either not aware of the fees or they did not
realize how damaging they would be. Customers are frequently charged fees about
which they have never been clearly notified. For example, it is now standard
practice for banks to provide overdraft protection on debit cards, whereby the
bank will cover the cost of a purchase even if it exceeds the money available in
the customer’s account. The fee is typically six to ten dollars, so debit-card
users may find themselves paying a six-dollar overdraft fee to buy a two-dollar
cup of coffee.

Hyperbole. The reader has idea how realistic this claim is. It's just another example Baker can use for how the "government helps business" -- how convenient of an argument, especially when you don't have to explain how the help arises!

And to finish, to feed my summary:

The debate must be returned to appropriate grounds: a question of how best to
structure regulation. Which regulations structure the financial industry so that
it will serve the larger economy? This means providing incentives for the
industry to better serve consumers and investors, rather than providing
incentives to prey on them. There should not be large returns for writing
deceptive contracts. Nor should short-term speculation be the most effective way
to get rich.

To summarize

Dean Baker operates under the conception that the state plays a passive role in the operation of any economy. To the contrary, state institutions, especially regulatory frameworks, play extremely active roles in the success (and failure) of economic trajectories. Without a reliable theory of why government provides the kind of regulations it does, Baker doesn't go far enough in his policy prescriptions of the economy. We are left with a situation where the carrots and sticks are rearranged while the environment itself is left untouched.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

thou hast betrayed ... and ...

See this post. Not even half a year goes by and Nintendo announces Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Yes, it looks very similar to the first one. But that's not completely a bad thing, as many people who played the first fell in love with its innovative environment.

May 23!!! Unbelievable!

contemporary labor history and the state

In the early 2000s, a series of suits were brought against employers regarding Federal guidelines on restroom usage. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations specified that employers must provide restrooms for all workers, but not necessarily where those restrooms would be located. The result? Female workers were given diapers to wear on the job.

Marc Linder, legal labor historian at University of Iowa law school, has written about this history extensively. Here is a snippet of some of the questions addressed by Linder to an OSHA director:

Question: Do you have some sense of what the effect of the interpretation
has been? Has it produced greater compliance by employers? More complaints by
workers? More citations issued by OSHA? Or are there other ways of determining
what the effect has been?

Response: Within the first year after issuing the interpretation, articles
appeared in several newspapers around the country, and OSHA's office in
Washington, DC received calls from various employer and employee groups asking
questions about the interpretation. We believe that the interpretation has
produced a greater awareness and sensitivity about this issue among the employer
community, as well as providing direction to OSHA staff in responding to
complaints and questions regarding this issue.

Since we have not asked our area offices to keep track of employee
complaints regarding §1910.141(c)(1)(i) and employee access to toilet
facilities, we have no way of knowing if the interpretation itself has produced
more complaints. But, we asked our area offices to send copies of all citations
issued to employers for failure to allow employee access to toilet facilities.
By the end of 2002, OSHA had issued only about twelve such citations.

In discussions with our area offices, we have found that the interpretation
has helped the OSHA Area Directors and compliance officers encourage agreements
between employers and workers on how to provide needed access to toilet
facilities. Issuing a citation does not in itself resolve the problem.
Therefore, the Area Directors and compliance officers first encourage employers
and employees to work together to see how they can resolve their differences and
create a system/procedure that will work in that particular workplace for that
specific employer and employee(s).
The full report is here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

review of new super mario bros. ds

The GameFAQs majority opinion is totally off on this game. See here and here for two "popular" (meaning, quite a few gamefaq'ers starred the review as being highly recommended as informative and balanced) reviews that rip the game to shreds. To sum up these accounts, many people think the game is incredibly easy, short, and lacked variety and creativity in level design.

Those of you who talk to me on a regular basis will be familiar with a complaint I've recently formed about the internet. Basically, I am getting too old for the internet. Don't get me wrong -- I love the whole democratization thing, and all the wonders that come out of the internet literally every minute of the day. It is truly a great space for knowledge production and social networking. But sometimes democracy can get out of control. A beautiful (and yes, I am speaking here in a truly endearing tone, despite my criticisms) example of this is the gamefaq's message boards. One or two people can start up an interesting argument or observation of a game and have hundreds (if not thousands) of followers within a few days. Every other main topic thread posted will have some discussion of the criticism's implications for future Mario games or gaming in general. Sometimes, good points are made but other times, it is obvious that there is little empirical support to the claims. At any rate, leave a comment if you want some more examples. Depending on the amount of response and how I feel I may just make an entire post on this subject.

Anyway, this is definitely the case with popular opinion on Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. DS, which came out in 2006. Some complained the game was too short. Certainly each level is somewhat short, shorter relative to the New Super Mario Bros. Wii levels, but there are many levels overall (more than in Wii - probably over 10 per world), and in no way does it make the game short. As with most of the newer Mario games (and some of the older ones, though to a lesser extent) there are essentially two "paths" to beating the game -- either one can plough straight through each world (there are eight total), or focus on meticulously gathering all of the star coins in each level and searching for all of the hidden exits to beat the game 100% (or, at least make that attempt).

So in fact, the game is not that "short" if one considers travelling down the second path, since there will be so many levels to play through in addition to replays through levels for star coins and secret exits. In fact, travelling down the first path, one can beat the game without even seeing every world! Two worlds require a secret challenge (I'll not spoil it) to access them. I should note that this challenge is an interesting inclusion and adds some difficulty to a game that suffers at times from being on the easy side.

I should add that, also contrary to popular opinion, the game is not dreadfully easy. Some of the star coins require a bit of thought, as well as skilled usage of the powerups. The game gives the appearance of being easy for a variety of reasons. First is the point mentioned above about how two of the worlds can be completely ignored and you can still beat the game. Second is the easy boss fights. Third, on a point related to (2), the powerups could be a bit more balanced, since the fire flower makes for some extremely easy boss fights and "big Mario" is not that useful except in getting a few of the star coins. These are good reasons to be critical of the game, but I don't think they hold the gamer back from truly having fun.

Overall, I really enjoyed this game. It was pretty easy, especially the boss fights, but there are definitely enough challenges to keep you interested in working for 100%.

By the way, I have nothing to say about the multiplayer modes since I haven't played them.

I have an experiment I seriously want to try at some point in the near future. I am going to buy some game on its release date, play it obsessively for like 2 days, and then go on gamefaqs. I will proceed to devise and persuasively and forcefully promulgate some ridiculously absurd claim about it and relentlessly attack the game on the message boards, on a review, and maybe even on some stickies ("KEEP BUMPING THIS &^()#@'). I need proof that my above claims are correct. I must see it for myself, and as a true social scientist, this means I must actually do it for myself.

Rating? 9.1/10!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

videogames 'n' social theory

I've always wondered how the things we become obsessed with as children tell us something about who we become later in life. I'm not talking about the kind of things everyone gets into -- everyone has a Lincoln Logs phase of their childhood where they become obsessed with building structures. Most people go through a phase related to playing the role of some adult figure -- like a Daddy in a game of "House," or picking a favorite player to model in the neighborhood basketball game.

What I'm talking about is a bit more subtle. When most people think about videogames, right off the bat they think of some nerdy kid who, for whatever reasons (possibly related to his social situation), has chosen to spend hours in front of a TV or monitor, rotting his brain by playing vulgar games where the goal is to kill some monsters or make it to the end of some pointless level to save a princess. Analysis by these people might get a little more sophisticated when one realizes that these kids are actually pretty smart in terms of their ability to recognize behavioral patterns to go on that "death raid" in a multiplayer game, or their ability to connect hand to eye in a way that requires quick reflexes. Videogames, might just be a good outlet for these otherwise-social outcasts. Indeed, success at videogames may predict certain quality traits that will be extremely useful later in life when it comes to solving problems quickly on the spot.

But no, sorry, this isn't what I'm thinking about either. Granted videogames may be signals of some particular highly-desired qualities of a person. But what if beliefs are molded and shaped in these games? What if fundamental aspects of one's character --such as personal characteristics or political views -- could be shaped in those formative years of adolescence through certain types of videogames?

My analysis goes deeper than simply drawing a correspondence between the levels of fitness required to play a particular videogame on the one hand and the keys to success in certain life situations on the other. It requires looking at the architecture of the game itself -- what kinds of worlds are these videogames presenting to the gamer? Their interpersonal relationships, governance structure, politics, and more informal institutions among groups? I argue that adolescents who play these games take more out of the game than abilities. They also -- most of the time subliminally (a key point) -- come to understand human interaction and politics and other matters of any good social theory in a very significant way.

Consider a classic RPG such as Final Fantasy VII (FFVII). Aside from requiring the player to think strategically in battles and character development (through experimenting with different party formations, materia combinations in weapons, etc.), FFVII is really its own world. Cloud, the main character, is working in the beginning for a Revolutionary group aimed at overthrowing a powerful corporation that essentially controls the city in which you begin the game. In the end, of course, this powerful corporation turns out to be influenced by some evil force above and beyond any realistic powers, but along the way the player is treated to several important facts about the world that one may not notice on the first (or second, or third, ... ) playthrough.

Most villages are governed on a local level. The corporation-governance certainly exists as a shadow over much of the world, but day-to-day life is not affected much. In some of these RPG's, the political entity may send in troops to the villages, and these are actively visible in the towns -- either disturbing the local pub (I just wanna rest for 50 gil a night!), or having more serious effects that I won't mention here. The point is that if you analyze the most important parts of these worlds, all of these different relationships between the characters, along with how the towns are run, how the economy operates, all of these things become an important part of the game. And what I am arguing is that people who become obsessed with games like this (not just casual gamers) in their adolescence are playing them at least partly because it appeals to some inner-political understandings they are beginning to develop.

World of Warcraft is another popular game that I would argue exhibits themes that might appeal to, say, libertarian or communist views, as long as these players are actively obsessed with the game in a seemingly-unnatural way. An example of what I am not talking about is a game like Civilization -- yes it appeals to the budding social engineers out there but that is too obvious of a connection. Looking at the type of city one would design in a game like this is another obvious connection to make. What I'm talking about is different. It suggests we analyze the actual structure of the game world itself.

I do believe, too, that this kind of analysis can be applied (again, in a nuanced way) to more "shallow" games as well, such as Mario or Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. I wish not to elaborate but feel free to bring up a question in the comments section if you want me to go into detail.

I've always felt like our childhood obsessions mean much more than an initial consideration may suggest. And, this argument is mostly a common opinion with regard to, say, mathematicians obsessed with numbers as children, or economists obsessed with Isaac Asimov novels (here or here). It's time we took videogames much more seriously as agents of social and political thought.