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Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Living the News: Health Care Refugee

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 21, 2009

Soon after the inauguration of US president Barack Obama, I posted an entry commenting on Pete Seeger’s  inaugural day performance of Woody Guthrie’s  “This Land is Your Land,” including near-forgotten verses of the song that had gone underground during the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.

Since then, another of Guthrie’s songs has been on my mind, “Dust Bowl Refugee.” Dust Bowl Refugee was Guthrie’s ode to the plights of American farmers during 1930s who, driven off their farms by drought, soil erosion, and bank foreclosures, trekked westward, working, when they could find work, as migrant agricultural laborers and casual laborers. (For the lyrics of Dust Bowl Refugee, click here).

My own present-day version of Dust Bowl Refugee has a title of its own, Health Care Refugee. I’ve spent most of the past winter in Istanbul, Turkey, partly out of preference and partly out of necessity. Indeed, you might say that I am a health care refugee.

My Netherlands-based health insurance — a policy I inherited from a job in the Netherlands in the 1970s and that I have maintained throughout my “career” as a peripatetic freelancer over the three decades since — recently stopped covering all but the most critical emergency medical treatment in the US.  Not surprisingly, the insurance company had finally balked at the astronomically over-inflated costs of medical care in the US.  But, niggardliness and tighter strictures on policy claims also mark a shift by Dutch insurers from a culture of dedication to policy-holders to dedication to investors and shareholders instead. Even as far away as the once rigorously social democratic Netherlands, it seems, decades of US prating against “socialism” and in favor of leaving individual and social welfare to the whims of an imagined “market place,” has cast its indelible shadow.

My alternatives were simple: Pay for needed health care out of my own pocket in the US (impossible), go to the Netherlands to seek treatment (this would require renting and maintaining an apartment there), go to Bulgaria (where I already maintain an office), or seek treatment in Turkey (where I had the chance to  “apartment sit” and the opportunity to avail myself of  library and research facilities).  The only two feasible options, thus, were Bulgaria and Turkey. The inadequacy of Bulgarian health care, the state of Bulgarian hospitals, and the characteristic unwillingness of Bulgarian doctors and dentists to admit and honor the limits of their know-how and abilities made the decision easy — I headed to Turkey.  And, thus, I joined the growing ranks of health care refugees.

What state of inequality or desperation would it take for health care refugees (with means and without) to compromise a counter-flow eastward and southward to worldwide flows of economic, human rights, and life-style refugees moving westward and northward?  The subject of flight is finally being broached in the press and in commercially sponsored studies (see, for example, this March article in the New York Times and a few paragraphs buried in this report from an accountancy-consultancy firm).

Balkan Medical Corruption and Under-Reporting

Last month, the Times also posted this article on corruption in hospitals in Romania, a situation not unlike that which causes me to do anything to avoid hospitalization in Bulgaria.  The article, however, is characteristic of much of the reporting on the eastern Balkans that appears in the Times, i.e. it treats long-standing problems and developments as freshly discovered news.  This particular story appears about 19 years too late.  Is this because the Times had consider the eastern Balkans to a news backwater or a training ground for reporters with no knowledge of the locale or interest in doing  research.  Or is it because in the 1990s and the Bush years, the US press was so self-satisfied with the “fall of communism” and the “end of history” that anything the “free market” brought with it, including inequities and corruption, seemed laudatory?  Well, better late than never, although…

Lobsters or Lard?  The Times or the old New York Post?

In debates on the relative worth of weblogs and the traditional press, I almost always weigh in in favor of the “mainstream media,” but the Times’s Balkan coverage makes me wonder.  So does this recent piece from Jane Brody’s venerable reporting on personal health.  The thrust: Americans who live on steak and lobster and “creme brulee” now should discover the what she calls the basics that got us through the last depression — potatoes and fruit, she writes, rather than white flour and lard, the diet of the poor today.  Americans who live on steak and lobster? Who is she talking about?  Not people on my planet and not people hurt by the present state of the economy.  And fruit rather than flour and lard in the Great Depression?  In the richest of households maybe.  What readership (or, more probably, advertising demographics) is the Times targeting?  Makes me long for Dorothy Schiff and the old New York Post, let alone the belated Bronx PM and the old National Guardian (all “google-able” for those who don’t know them).

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Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Health Care, Media | 1 Comment »

Investigating the Financial Crisis and My Passion for Borsalino Hats

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 9, 2009

The mortgage, housing market, and stock market collapse were neither acts of nature nor products of cosmically ordained cycles or hypothetical laws governing hypothetical markets. They were the results of specific deeds by specific individuals — financial and corporate types out for riches at whatever cost, equally greedy and conveniently blind investors, and politicians and constituencies with minds muddled by neo-McCarthyite bashing of “socialism” and the New Deal and by the ethos and platitudes of “Reaganomics” and its successors. It is now time to assign blame where blame is due, but not necessarily for purposes of revenge …

In Where is Our Ferdinand Pecora?, in last Monday’s New York Times, author Ron Chernow wrote:

The moment calls for nothing less than a sweeping inquest into the twin housing and stock market crashes to create both the intellectual context and the political constituency for change.

And Chernow gives us an excellent model for such an inquest:

For inspiration, Congress should turn to the electrifying hearings of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, held in the waning months of the Hoover presidency and the early days of the New Deal. In historical shorthand, these hearings have taken their name from the committee counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, a former assistant district attorney from New York who, starting in January 1933, was chief counsel for the investigation. Under Pecora’s expert and often withering questioning, the Senate committee unearthed a secret financial history of the 1920s, de-mystifying the assorted frauds, scams and abuses that culminated in the 1929 crash.

He describes Pecora in action:

The riveting confrontation between Pecora and the Wall Street grandees was so theatrically apt it might have been concocted by Hollywood. The combative Pecora was the perfect foil to the posh bankers who paraded before the microphones. Born in Sicily, the son of an immigrant cobbler, Pecora had campaigned for Teddy Roosevelt and been imbued with the crusading fervor of the Progressive Era. As a prosecutor in the 1920s, he had shut down more than 100 “bucket shops” — seamy, fly-by-night brokerage houses — and this had tutored him in the shady side of Wall Street.

Last month, I thought of Judge Pecora (as Ferdinand Pecora was later known) in a much different context. It was in Borough Park, in Brooklyn, and I was just about, as they used to say back in the heyday of Pecora’s career, to “plunk down two C-notes” for a new “lid,” an old-fashioned fedora, a high-crowned, broad-brimmed, Italian Borsalino, made of soft slightly-shining green-grey felt and lined with a hat band of equally soft leather.

I buy a new “lid” every few years, always in the autumn and usually when the economy falters and my own prospects wobble. A jaunty Borsalino equips me with the courage of those who made it through the Great Depression, makes me feel as tough as Bogart, Cagney and Edward G. combined, and gives my walk a bounce that would not have been out of place in, say, Minton’s in the 1940s or the Five-Spot in the 60s. When I was a kid, my grandfather would buy a new Dobbs hat every few years but a Dobbs was a stiff hat with a pre-formed shape that embodied more the ethos of the 1950s than those of the decades before or after. You’d rarely catch a jazz musician wearing a stiffly-formed Dobbs.

The first Borsalino I remember ever seeing or trying on came straight from the head of Judge Pecora. It was in 1962 in the old Barney’s Clothing Store (“Select, Don’t Settle … at Barney’s” as the radio jingle went) on 7th Ave. and 17th St. in Manhattan. I was 15 and had lied about my age to get a job working Saturdays and Sundays “writing-up” sales. The pay was minimum wage, “a buck and a quarter an hour.” My main task was to prepare invoices for customers’ purchases, note alterations, and send customers on to the cashier. I had other tasks as well. In those days, Barney himself, the founder of the store, a squat octogenarian, elegantly dressed but with the tough confrontational edge of a one-time Lower East Side street kid, still roamed the store, hunting out and berating shoddy employees and insufficiently deferential customers. On Sunday mornings, Barney would hand me a cash-stuffed envelop to pass to the policemen who came to deliver the weekly summons for violation of municipal “blue laws” prohibiting retail sales on the Christian sabbath. And, if customers ever dared to complain, Barney would give me the unwelcome task of throwing the complaint back at them. When a woman returned with a suit bought for her husband and shipped to her home,  claiming that it had arrived in need of cleaning, Barney shouted at me:  “Tell her the suit ain’t dirty, her husband’s dirty.”

One Sunday, I saw Barney in another guise. Uncharacteristically deferential and glowing with pride, Barney led a equally short, equally squat elderly man to my counter. Barney himself held the man’s new purchases for him. The man had hawk-like eyes, a protruding nose, and a giant cigar clenched between his teeth. He wore a magnificent gray suit tailored in the style of a past age, and carried a near-floor length camel-hair overcoat over one arm. In his hand, he held a very large velvety gray fedora with the crown indented vertically and with deep parallel creases along its sides. Older shoppers noticing the man stopped and pointed as if they’d seen a long-forgotten prize-fighter or film-star: “It’s Ferdinand Pecora; it’s Judge Pecora,” they said in amazement — this a third of a century after Pecora had made his name. Barney whispered in my ear: “Kid, take care of the Judge, and if you fuck up I’ll throw your ass out on the street.” I wrote up the Judge’s invoice and escorted him to the cashier. As he paid, he handed me his coat to hold and reached up and placed the fedora on my head. “You look great,” he said to me. “Remember,” he added, “work hard, stay clean, and don’t take any crap off of anyone.”

For better or worse I’ve tried to follow the Judge’s advice. Forty-six years later, I tip my hat to him and, for that matter, to Barney as well. I also tip my hat to Ron Chernow for the very timely resurrection of Pecora, his style, ethics, and deeds.

Posted in Client Relations, Commentary, Eclectic, Economy, History, Politics, Work | 7 Comments »

Why Look Forward When One Can Look Back?

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 3, 2009

2009.  An economic crisis that begins to cut very deep, violence in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia flexes its natural gas muscles, hatred in Europe.  The end of eight years of economic, environmental, civic, and martial wrecking under the Bush administration and four decades of conservative irresponsibility and divisiveness. A new American president positioned to change the ethos of the land.  A questioning of the racist and elitist underpinning of conservative political values and economic dogmas — in parts of the West at least.  Doubts as to consumerism, exurbia, and much-touted miracle  trends such as the “flat world” about which the likes of  columnist and author Thomas Friedman cranked out thick volumes.

A few years ago, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org, I posted a New Year’s entry about Dutch-Jewish cabaret singer Louis Davids that contained a link to a humorous and touchingly dated newsreel musical clip he presented for New Years Day 1936.  In the clip, Davids sang an ode to a world stilled scarred by the Great Depression and in which Hitler flexed his muscles, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, the tax man hovered menacingly, forecasts of sun yielded rain, and aspirins cured hangovers.  For 2009, I offer (to the very many among you who understand Dutch, know history and have links to interwar Holland!) the very same song and (to all of you regardless of language or fields of interests or ethnic or social ties) its wishes for Well-Being and Blessedness in the year to come.

On Bubkes.Org, I also start the year by turning to the past, taking a few medium-format and 35mm black and white photos I shot more than a decade ago as starting points and as metaphors for considering recent economic and politic trends and their parallels with past events in obscure places.  I begin with a photo of an obscene mural in a Bulgarian housing estate and the lessons it offers for understanding economic crises, individual morality, and the history of western art, and continue with a photograph of a Turkish sidewalk weighing scale operator as an occasion to ask whether small enterprises and ordinary people will some day qualify for bail-outs or “pump-priming” infusions of capital.  The next pieces will consider face-lifts — architectural and politica — and gangsters, graveyard iconography and under-reporting by the New York Times

As to “pump-priming,” the collapse of four-decades of Republic economics and the Republican’s self-serving denigration of the New Deal and “socialism” has brought a resurgence of Keynesian thought and maybe even of Keynesian practice, which did its job well in America during the 1930s as an economic tonic, a symbol of action and unity, and, maybe, as the very last alternative to revolution.

Paul Krugman wrote these words about Keynesian thought and policy as a conclusion to What to Do: The Power of Ideas in the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the New York Review of Books:

As readers may have gathered, I believe not only that we’re living in a new era of depression economics, but also that John Maynard Keynes—the economist who made sense of the Great Depression—is now more relevant than ever. Keynes concluded his masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, with a famous disquisition on the importance of economic ideas: “Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

We can argue about whether that’s always true, but in times like these, it definitely is. The quintessential economic sentence is supposed to be “There is no free lunch”; it says that there are limited resources, that to have more of one thing you must accept less of another, that there is no gain without pain. Depression economics, however, is the study of situations where there is a free lunch, if we can only figure out how to get our hands on it, because there are unemployed resources that could be put to work. The true scarcity in Keynes’s world—and ours—was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.

We will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead. Some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men.

Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Philosophy, Photography, Politics | Leave a Comment »

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008

gatewaysofiamedium

A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The End of Exurbia and Soros on Investing in Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 15, 2008

In the US, as elsewhere, the mortgage and housing market collapse, skyrocketing motor fuel prices, overloaded highways, and the absence of adequate public transportation are serious enough by themselves. The compounded effects of their interaction, however, are just as serious and even more complex. One result is the threatened demise of exurbia, i.e. of residential communities located far from the cities and towns that provide employment to their residents and that were built on the economic premises of cheap land, cheap credit and cheap motor fuel. With fuel motor fuel prices in the US now reaching the levels that the rest of the world had learned to live with and plan around, residents can no longer afford to live in exurbia and, with housing prices low, they cannot afford to sell their homes and move elsewhere either. An introduction to this paradox is provided by Driven to Despair, part of Blueprint America, a series of programs on the US Public Broadcasting System treating issues facing the country’s flawed and neglected infrastructure.

Last week, investor and philanthropist George Soros was a guest on Bill Moyers Journal, also on the US Public Broadcasting system. Soros spoke out about the end of what he calls “Market Fundamentalism” and how an economy based on speculation and disinvestment rather than production and complicated inadequate regulation and government intervention led to the present financial crisis. “Market Fundamentalism” is a wonderful term. Blind faith in the corrective efficacy of markets is indeed on the same level as religious fundamentalism, in its irrationality, inhumanity, and surrender of individual and group responsibility. I’d add that belief in “markets” and the “invisible hand” is no less absurd than belief in dialect materialism. It is also a sign of people who never read Adam Smith thoroughly. Most important, especially for those who follow the “infrastructure” thread on this site, Soros suggested that our economy could be kick-started and sustained by investment in combatting global warming and in renewing infrastructure. Readers of this site will find this a familiar theme.

Posted in Economy, Infrastructure, Media | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure of Work and Society: Five Failed American Axioms

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 9, 2008

Both sides in the US presidential campaign and debates — albeit one side far more than the other — use language and cling to axioms that obscure reality, make “change” unlikely, and keep America out of sync with the rest of the world. Five examples follow:

1. “American workers are the best in the world”

Nonsense. Americans may be decent sprinters but Western Europeans win the race. Good health care, regular vacations, job security, employee participation in management, lower stress, and no necessity to work two or three jobs to pay the kids’ educations makes Western European workers the world’s most productive. The growth of Asian economies speaks volumes about the quality of Asian workers just as does America’s outsourcing of its most exacting tasks to them. The diligence of Central and South American workers now bolsters America’s productivity through immigration. Turkish workers spend their lives laboring at highly segmented tasks. Even Eastern European workers are on their way to surpassing Americans. In alcohol-sodden Bulgaria, for example, workers tend to be “jacks of all trades and masters of none,” the upside of which is the ability to improvise and to more-or-less fix and keep running all things in their environment regardless of scarcities or systemic collapse.

2. “The Middle Class”

Both presidential candidates talks of helping the “middle class” but neither say a word about helping the working class or the poor. Avoidance of the term “working-class” is part-and-parcel of America’s pathological fear of “socialism.” It also belies the harsh reality that social mobility in America has been on the downturn since the 1950s. Not speaking of the poor is either callousness, blindness, or the abandonment of the tradition of the party of FDR and LBJ (let alone the party of Debs and or even that of LaFollette).

3. “Families”

Candidates speak of needs, opinions, and values of “families.” This in a country where the number of single and divorced adults rivals that of married ones and in which a good proportion of those nuclear families that are intact are dysfunctional. Since World War II, housing policies, suburbanization, and westward and southeastward migration have compromised multigenerational families (except amongst the poor and marginalized ethnic minorities), as has the Americanisation of immigrants. Eastern Europe and the “third world” have far stronger family values and structures. In fact, America may have proved itself to be a family-breaker and, through this, a compromiser of its own social infrastructure.

4. “We Honor Your Service”

Both candidates become Uriah-Heep-like in their obsequiousness when talking about the military or when speaking with present- or ex-servicemen. Obsequiousness toward the military was a hallmark of Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, and other tinpot dictatorships. It is also a matter-of-fact reality in countries such as Turkey, where, in an unusual balance of power, the military, with its proven willingness and ability to stage coups, is the guarantor of the survival of a secular state in a predominantly religious country. I would like to hear the candidates also “honor” America’s war and draft resisters for their sacrifices. A few words of “honor” and thanks for “service” to America’s lowest paid workers wouldn’t hurt either.

5. “Business is better than government”

This is the mother-of-all failed axioms, especially in the month when America’s iconic financial sector turns to the government for bailouts. During the last debate McCain trotted out this worn chestnut to denigrate Obama’s modest health-care proposals.

This brings us full circle. Universal health care is one of the features of European social infrastructure that ensures productivity by keeping health high and stress low. An important question for Americans is whether health insurance should be viewed as a luxury as it is now, a commodity as McCain proposes, or an essential aspect of social infrastructure as Obama proposes in part. The answer is not just a function of one’s morality but of one’s method of accounting. If one takes a longer and broader view, money invested in infrastructure — i.e. those physical and intangible systems and processes on which the social and economic life depend — pays off in macro terms even if initially developed or delivered at a short-term loss. The consensual nature of government and its operation beyond enterprise-level constraints of profit and loss make it the ideal provider or prime-mover when it comes to infrastructure. In fact, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure might be at the very essence of what government always has been, is, and should be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Language, Markets, Work | Leave a Comment »

Transportation, SUV’s, Jingoism … and Chickens

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 3, 2008

In issues of infrastructure, as in much of life, causality is often far more complex than we initially perceive.  While going through recent newspaper clippings this morning I came across this article which links the rise and fall of America’s petrol-guzzling, pollution-spewing “Sport Utility Vehicles” not to fluctuations in the prices of motor fuel but to Detroit auto makers’ decades-long successful but ultimately backfiring exploitation of a US  backlash against European tariffs on … American chickens!

Footnote: Agglomerations, Internet, and Mansions

Agglomeration was once the essence of the economies of cities.  In the internet age, agglomerations are functions of simulatneity and virtual availability more than physical proximity.  The movement of the heart of America’s house-of-cards financial sector from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the mansions of Greenwich, Connecticut is a sub-theme of Tom Wolfe’s Greenwich Time.

Posted in Cities, Economy, Environment, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure and Height, Myopia and McCain

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 2, 2008

Since the 1970s I have worked mostly in Eastern and Western Europe, regularly returning to my native New York for occasional assignments and to enjoy the pleasures and pride of being a New Yorker.

When I first showed up in Western Europe almost four decades ago, the process of post-war recovery was not yet over.  As the years passed, however, I watched Europe slowly overtake America on a number of fronts, in part by engaging in long-term investment in its infrastructure and guaranteeing the health, education, and housing of its people as well as by curbing the extremes of economic inequality.

I’ve also watched changes in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and seen the gaps in standards and ways of life between east and west narrow, especially as former Soviet bloc nations merge into the European Union.  From a New York perspective, European upswings are mirrored in shifts in the City’s immigrant populations, for example Irish and Polish immigrant communities have declined in size in part due to recent arrivals from both countries being lured back home by comparatively more attractive work opportunities and standards of living.

America, on the other hand, seems lost in a time-warp.  In this year’s presidential speeches and debates, as for what seems time immemorial, Democrat and Republican candidates prove their patriotism by repeating over and again the well-worn claim that America is the “greatest country on earth.”   America might have been so in the immediate post- World War II years but the disinvestment in social and physical infrastructure by the Republicans since the 1980s and the rapacious corporate culling of short term profits have undermined the country — as have the effects of the inappropriateness, extravagance, and incompetence of America’s military adventures abroad post-September 11, 2001.

Inadvertently, John McCain drew attention to an objective measure of this in last Friday’s presidential debate when he pointed out that residents of communist North Korea are, on the average, several inches shorter than fellow-Koreans living in the capitalist South.  What McCain did not say, however, whether out of ignorance or cynicism, is that over the last few decades Americans have become shorter than Western Europeans, over whom they had towered less than a century before.  For what this tells us about disparities in incomes and opportunity within the US, the consequences of the dismantling of America’s “welfare state,” and the absence of adequate insurance coverage and medical treatment in the country, go to this recent posting on the Health blog of the New York Times which, in turn, offers links to longer pieces on the subject from the files of both the Times and the New Yorker.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Not a Bit Surprised: The Financial Crisis, Reading Beyond the Mainstream, Real(?) Estate, Yankee Stadium, and Impeach Palin Now

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2008

So far, the current US financial upheavals have not effected me.  I don’t own stocks or real estate and I don’t carry debt. The collapse of the housing market, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the large insurance and banking houses didn’t even cause my blood pressure to rise.  In fact, they didn’t even come as a surprise.

Reading (and Viewing) Beyond the Mainstream

One reason might be my reading.  In my student years I read Marx.  The effort I put into Marx might have cut into my time at the front lines of the sexual revolution but it paid off by prompting me to see through myths of the efficiency and beneficence of “markets” and realize the myopic inefficiencies of enterprise-based profit motives.  Most important — to my spirit albeit not to my “net worth” — it led me to look for value in the inherent worth of things rather than in their speculative potential.

I’ve also always looked beyond the traditional press.  I cut my political-reading-teeth on the legendary I.F. Stone’s courageous belated “Weekly.”  Since the 1980s, I’ve subscribed to Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer, a little known and erratically published broadsheet that uses economic analysis to see through, rather than justify or exploit, economic news and trends.  Today, in the Internet age, I read Jim Kunstler’s Clusterfuck Nation which  passionately and knowledgeably explores the relationships between infrastructure and economy and the prices to be paid for urban sprawl and SUV-driving suburbia.  And, in the age of diminishing attention spans, I’ve become a loyal viewer of the short videos of the Internets Celebrities, Rafi Kam and Dallas Penn, producers and presenters of “Bronx Bodega” and “Check Mate” (to view the videos click on the appropriate icons at the top of Celebrities’ site).

Real(?) Estate

Back in July I met Dallas Penn for bagels and lox in a luncheonette near Flatbush Avenue to discuss ideas relevant to the Celebrity’s planned new production “Real(?) Estate.”  The basic idea (without giving away plot or “MacGuffin”): The Celebrities would, in their usual mix of contrived innocence and spot-on insight, hit the streets (and apartment buildings) throughout the city to prod and expose the abstract and illusory nature of urban property ownership, down to the trade in air-rights.

The Internet Celebrities, by the way, are models of fiscal prudence.  Their productions are not financed by loans or “IPO”s and will not be bailed-out if they fail.  Instead, their videos are funded by plain old-fashioned cash donations from ordinary hard-working (or slothful) folks like you and me.  You can play your part by clicking here.   And do it quickly!  Had the Celebrities been able to get “Real(?) Estate” out six months ago, the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial implosion might never have taken place.

Yankee Stadium

During our discussion of the tulip-crisis-like trade in sliced-and-diced three-dimensional urban space, Dallas Penn pointed out that sports stadiums occupy volumes of space that could house thousands or tens of thousands of people or serve as immense urban parks, yet they are used for mere parts of each day for, on average, only 80-some-odd days a year.  This does not mean that stadiums should be done away with but that new stadium projects should be carefully weighed.

The Yankee Stadium project is a case in point.  Last week, Bill Moyers echoed Dallas Penn in a close-of-show editorial exposing the new stadium as a publicly-financed boondoggle benefiting the private sector — a Mae-and-Mac/AIG/WAMU meets the “national pass-time” as it were.  At tremendous public expense and little cost to its private-sector owners, the old stadium is being replaced with a new one that will have a capacity of 5,000 fewer seats but a greater number of corporate “private box” facilities.  The new stadium will occupy a larger footprint of Bronx territory than the old one did but will feed less back into the local economy of (as the Internet Celebrities underscored in “Bronx Bodega”) the poorest urban county in the United States.  Not least, the stadium project sweeps away a cultural if not physical monument — the “House that Babe Built” — the longest lasting of New York’s one-time legendary troika of baseball fields (the other two, Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, fell victim to … real estate development).

Footnote: Impeach Palin In Advance and Dallas Penn on the Presidential Debates

Bob Herbert writes about the crisis obscured by the current financial crises, i.e. the apocalyptic crisis that could ensue if Palin would ever accede to the presidency.  Herbert calls on Republicans to dump Palin from their ticket now — abortion for the good of the nation, as it were.  And, voters should think hard about what the Palin nomination tells us about the kind of administration McCain would appoint if elected.

Dallas Penn voices the frustration many of us felt as Obama pulled his punches during the debate, letting McCain off the hook a number of times and compromising his own positions and personality, as well as the stances of his supporters, in a possible attempt to woo centrist and “undecided” voters.  When reading Dallas’s post, however, don’t waste time on the link to the infantile video by Sarah Silverman.  Silverman’s “Uncle Moses-ing” and suburban whine are offensive.  Contrary to Silverman’s view-from-the-suburbs, out here in Brooklyn we have many Jews (this writer included) whose politics are far, far to the LEFT of Obama’s, who do not necessarily define themselves in terms of America’s racial bifurcations, and who have never been to Florida nor even thought of owning a Cadillac (well, one that runs, anyway!).

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Economy, Infrastructure, Links, Marx, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 22, 2008

Last week, I received a query from Doc Searls, who was working on an article on the infrastructure of the internet for the Publius Papers, a series of short internet-related think-pieces published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law.

Doc’s question: What did I know about the etymology and history of the word: “infrastructure”?  — a simple matter on the surface but one that cuts to the heart, not only of Doc’s subject, i.e. how the internet functions and what is required to sustain it, but also to the core of how polities enable their economies and serve their citizens, a matter at the crux of the present financial disasters and economic instability in the US.

Dictionary

A quick internet search (Merriam-Webster online) brought this crisp, near-tautological definition plus tantalizing reference to the word’s relatively recent origin:

Pronunciation: \ˈin-frə-ˌstrək-chər, -(ˌ)frä-\ Function: noun. Date:1927

1: the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)
2: the permanent installations required for military purposes
3: the system of public works of a country, state, or region ; also : the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity
— in·fra·struc·tur·al -ˌstrək-chə-rəl, -ˌstrək-shrəl\ adjective

Americanism?

A look at my bookshelves brought more surprising results.  “Infrastructure” does not appear in my 1970s Concise Oxford Dictionary and in my Oxford Thesaurus of the same period it is listed only as a synonym for “base.”  But, “infrastructure” is listed in a run-of-the-mill American dictionary of the time (Grollier) which defines it as a “foundation” and as “… the permanent structures of a military organization, esp. those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

The absence of “infrastructure” in the Oxford and its presence in the Grollier suggest that the word had been an Americanism at the time.  But what about the tantalizing reference in Merriam Webster to the 1927 debut of the word?  A trip to the New York Public Library and some rummaging within the microfilm collection of the Library’s business division (located in the magnificent neo-Renaissance pallace-like building on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue that once housed B. Altman’s department store, a mainstay of New York’s 19th- and 20th-century retail sector) began to bring clarity.

From French Railroads to NATO and the Cold War

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe.

From Socially-Financed Prerequisites to Ideological Weapon

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector.  During my stint as a graduate student at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research during the early 1970s, “infrastructure” was used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector.

Around the same time, the word had spread to the world of international development agencies where it took on a distinctly cold war ideological slant.  The best way to fight the spread of communism, it was argued, was to ensure local prosperity and economic stability (but, sadly, not the equitable distribution of wealth!) which could most quickly and effectively take place if all underlying necessities (water, power, roads, public transportation, etc.) were put in place through massive capital development projects whether financed by donations or by loans that would ensure the fealty of recipient nations for decades.

From Engineering to Abandonment

By the mid1970s, the word “infrastructure” took yet another turn, this time within the private sector.  From 1974-1982 I worked in Europe and Asia for one of the larger engineering and construction companies of the time.  At the time, in the world of oil refining, petrochemicals, and “process” plants, “infrastructure,” referred to those social or governmental capital investments — roads, sewerage, water sources, electrical power, and other “utilities” — that were necessary for manufacturing but the provision of which did not fall within the scope of a single project, the “battery limits” of an industrial facility, or the commercial “feedstocks” that were are the raw materials for industrial processes.

During the 1990’s, I worked on a number of investment attraction agencies and local projects in the Netherlands in which the provision of infrastructure was used both as a chip and bargaining point in the Dutch government’s and local authorities’ repeatably successful attempts to lure companies to locate their European operations in the country.

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

Further Investigation

At the moment, I am involved in research in a number of aspects of what infrastructure is and what its provision entails.

With Doc Searls and Kevin Barron (Institute for Theoritcal Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara), JP Rangaswami (British Telecom) and others, I am investigating what the infrastructure of the internet now is, could/should be, and how to best implement this.

Within the concept of urban studies and the contemporary home ownership and loan flim-flam, defaults, and financial disaster in the US, I am looking at the tension between two historical approaches, i.e. housing as infrastructure and housing as commodity.  As an analogue, I am also looking at the paradigmatic abandonment of socially financed public transport to privately-owned automobiles.

Further afield but surprisingly germane, I am digging into the effects of infrastructural change on the fabric of historical cities (Istanbul specifically) and the means and institutions that enabled the former Ottoman Empire to maintain the infrastructure of cities and trade for the better part of a millennium.

More to follow on each of these subjects …

Posted in Cities, Economy, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Libraries | 3 Comments »

Infrastructure of Commerce and Manufacturing: It’s All in the Heavy Lifting

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 4, 2008

Often it is the most traditional infrastructure and the oldest technology that underlies and determines the fates of seeming innovations.

Nine years ago, at the height of millennial enthusiasm occasioned by the “Dot Com Boom” and the financial sector’s disposal of billions of dollars of other people’s hard-earned money floating  “IPOs” of  internet-related start-ups without viable business plans, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a seemingly wet-blanket piece in The New Yorker that presented the then sacred-cow of e-commerce as a mere twist on the mail-order business and as nothing more than a new front-end to the US Postal Service.  In Clicks and Mortars, Gladwell proposed that the real innovation behind e-commerce was the 19th-century invention of the road-grading machine that made possible government-sponsored Rural Free Delivery of post which in turn lead to the giant mail-order houses of Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (Neckermann would be Europe’s closest equivalent) the success of which led to mass manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing.  The computer on the front-end of e-commerce was little more than a neat twist on the cataloger and payment sides of an old formula.  In the end, goods remain goods and delivery remains delivery.

The same goes for globalization.  Smart last-minute inventory systems, clever financial management, flouting of labor laws, and cozy arrangements with corrupt third-world heavies made globalized manufacturing possible but, in the end, goods need to be moved and delivered.  A summary take on the effects of rising oil prices on the house of cards that is globalization can be found in this recent report in the New York Times.

Footnotes

In keeping with the proud eccentricity of the New Yorker, the full text of the Gladwell article is not available online.  To find it, stop by your local bricks-and-mortar library or invest in the New Yorker’s proprietary full-archives-on-a-single-USB-hard-drive, a solution worthy of Eustace Tilley (the magazine’s emblematic 1920s dandy) in the internet age.

Neckermann, by the way, is the current incarnation of what was once the family business of the forebearers of pop singer Billy Joel.  The Joel family’s Berlin-based mail order house, which grew from their original dry-goods store in Munich, was “Aryanized” (read: stolen and plundered) by the Nazis and their hangers-on during the 1930s.

Posted in Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media | Leave a Comment »

Links: Confused of Calcutta Considers YouTube; Brian Lehrer Interviews “Internets Celebrities”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 12, 2008

On Confused of Calcutta, JP Rangaswami writes of an upcoming lecture on the anthropology of YouTube and muses on YouTube’s volume of programming having surpassed that of network television. JP’s words lead me to refer again to the work of my favorite YouTube contributors, the self-created “Internets Celebrities” Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam (for links to their blogs and their films go to the next-to-last paragraph of my post of May 25). The Internets Celebrities’s combination of humor and economic and social insight have created a new genre of commentary-meets-comedy-meets-NYC-street-sensibilities and of making young (and old — witness this writer) people aware of the workings of the systems and situations in which they live — this while bypassing television broadcasting and movie-houses. Via YouTube, each of the Internets Celebrities short videos have logged up to 1,000,000 views each. For insight into what they’ve done, how they do it, and the place of YouTube in the process, view this recent broadcast (“Ghetto Economics”) on New York’s Brian Lehrer Live.

Posted in Communications, Economy, Internet, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Neglected Infrastructure: On the Wrong Side of the Broadband Gap and Four Humorous Takes on Why Broadband is Important and How

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 31, 2008

In Cities Start Own Efforts To Speed Up Broadband on the front page of the May 19, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (full article available to WSJ subscribers only), Christopher Rhoads reports how many smaller cities in the US have fallen on the wrong side of a domestic broadband gap and how some are taking on huge financial risks to vault themselves onto the right side. He also details how the US at large is slipping to the bottom rungs of a growing international broadband gap. The essence of the story:

“Some 60 towns and small cities, including Bristol, Va., Barnsville, Minn., and Sallisaw, Okla., have built state-of-the-art fiber networks, capable of speeds many times faster than most existing connections from cable and telecom companies. An additional two dozen municipalities, including Chattanooga, have launched or are considering similar initiatives.

The efforts highlight a battle over Internet policy in the U.S. Once the undisputed leader in the technological revolution, the U.S. now lags a growing number of countries in the speed, cost and availability of high-speed Internet. While cable and telecom companies are spending billions to upgrade their service, they’re focusing their efforts mostly on larger U.S. cities for now.

Smaller ones such as Chattanooga say they need to fill the vacuum themselves or risk falling further behind and losing highly-paid jobs. Chattanooga’s city-owned electric utility began offering ultrafast Internet service to downtown business customers five years ago. Now it plans to roll out a fiber network to deliver TV, high-speed Internet and phone service to some 170,000 customers. The city has no choice but to foot the bill itself for a high-speed network — expected to cost $230 million — if it wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, says Harold DePriest, the utility’s chief executive officer.

It’s a risky bet. Some municipal Internet efforts, including wireless projects known as Wi-Fi, have failed in recent months. EarthLink Inc. confirmed last week it was pulling the plug on its wireless partnership with Philadelphia. A number of towns have abandoned a municipal fiber initiative in Utah, called Utopia, amid financial difficulties.

The latest efforts have aroused intense opposition from private-sector providers… “

As to the situation in the US compared with that in other developed countries: Charts in the WSJ article show to US to rank “…10th amongst the top 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and 11th in terms of affordability.” The US also ranks well below the international average in terms of download speed.

My take: The domestic and international broadband gaps are further evidence of the inability of “markets,” and the unwillingness of profit-based private companies, to provide essential infrastructure on which economic competitiveness and security on based. In the past, great leaps forward in US domestic infrastructure were made through massive public sector investments and programs that bridged distance and disparities and enabled high capacity flows of goods and services: rural free postal delivery, rural electrification, WWII Liberty Ships, and even the post-war federal highways programs (despite their disastrous consequences ecologically and in terms of fossil-fuel and “SUV” dependence). The same goes for the infrastructure required for the US to ensure its competitiveness and integration into the global economy.

Don’t understand broadband and its importance? These four magnificent short advertising clips provide a thorough and humorous first lesson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOceE7j–Oc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNzesOW2QG8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT0T4N-Hagk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaCNvONAlzs

Posted in Cities, Communications, Digitization, Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »