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Even Karl Marx, who saw Capitalism as a production system governed essentially by inescapable laws, acknowledged the key role of special actors who made it their job to advertise the benefits of the market. The market, a political project, needs these people to create the “right” environment. Marx often called them “sycophants”, an ancient Greek word denoting servile persons who would flatter potentates, and even denounce their own peers, in order to garner favour.

Christoph Deutschmann’s fascinating new book, which analyses Capitalism as equivalent to a modern secular religion, also sees these actors performing an important function. He views many economists and business “experts” as performing for the market a role equivalent to that of priests in the Christian church – to interpret the signs given by the deity and to make predictions based on them.

Be they high priests or sycophants, the PR workers of global Capitalism (those who haven’t, at least temporarily, defected to the pro-government side, so long as it subsidises business) are getting in gear again – they literally have a world to lose. However, in this present crisis, neither the numbers, nor the facts, nor people’s everyday experience, really speak strongly for the priests’ side. So some turn to a rather “liberal” treatment of the facts.

Take for instance the statement that luxury goods are cheaper than ever thanks to mass-production. True. But most people in the world haven’t had much from this, while they are getting a taste of the flipside; the massive rise in grain prices over the past years is literally causing riots and civil wars in the South (Haiti, Sudan, Congo…).

Grain Prices

Yesterday’s special business section in the German broadsheet “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ) opened with a bleeding-heart appeal for more faith in the market, based on the view that everything isn’t so bad after all. If Capitalism has served us so well for so long, why rebuke it just because of this crisis? Maybe we can bring out the sun simply by wearing sunglasses? Read the rest of this entry »

In the realm of transnational copyright regulation several struggles are fought in parallel: Stylized and simplified, these are Free/Open Source Software movement vs. the proprietary software industry, the free culture movement around Creative Commons vs. the established music and film industry, and, of course, there is the industry-spanning battle against “pirates”, sometimes even literally and in court (see Wikipedia on “The Pirate Bay trial”). For a long time the publishing industry in general and the field of scientific publishing in particular  seemed to be the only copyright field without open and severe conflict. While the former prevents both piracy and growth of the e-book market with strict digital rights management (see “The Kindle Controversy: No Right to be a Reader?”), in the latter Open Access initiatives for free and open availability of scientific publications – for example by the European Research Council (PDF-statement) or by the “Alliance of German Science Organisations” (English Version of its founding document), which includes the Max Planck Society and the German Research Foundation (DFG) – did not raise substantial public opposition.

At least for Germany, this description is yesterday’s news. A series of articles in German newspapers during the last weeks criticizing “expropriation” of authors by a sinister coalition of “Open Access” zealots and Google culminated in a petition called “Heidelberger Appell” (English Version). This petition was not only signed by numerous renowned researchers, publishers and authors but also inspired an immediate thunderstorm of reactions including a joint statement by the “Alliance of German Science Organisations” (for an extensive list of reactions in German see infobib.de; a concise overview of the genesis of the whole uproar is provided by Matthias Spielkamp at perlentaucher, quite readable in Google Englisch – now available in English at signandsight.com).

Without reproducing these extensive discussions here, I would like to mention just three reasons why I think the “Heidelberger Appell” misses the point: Read the rest of this entry »

The financial crisis is turning many things upside down. Nevertheless, it is amazing to see how the positions of key market actors on financial reporting standards have changed since the crisis started. While investment banks, accounting firms, regulators and governments in the heyday of financial market capitalism stood firmly together in unanimous and unfettered support of fair value accounting, this front has been collapsing.

In April 2008, Neue Züricher Zeitung reported Claude Bébéar, president of the French Insurance Group Axa, as saying that mark-to-market rules which require firms to value assets according to (hypothetical) market prices had contributed to the financial crisis. Henri de Castries, CEO of the same group, was quoted as referring to a “conceptual mistake” which had forced companies and banks to write down billions of assets. In September 2008, Newt Gingrich commented on Forbes.com “Suspend Mark-to-Market Now!”, quoting Brian S. Webury, chief economist at First Trust Portfolios of Chicago:

“It is true that the root of this crisis is bad mortgage loan, but probably 70% of the real crisis that we face today is caused by mark-to-market accounting in an illiquid market.”

With the financial crisis lingering on and politicians, regulators and banks still searching for solutions, debates on the pros and cons of mark-to-market accounting have perked up again during the last weeks.

On March 11, 2009, investor Warren Buffet admitted in an CBNC interview that mark-to-market had been “gasoline on the fire” while remarkably equivocally maintaining that Read the rest of this entry »

A few days ago, the MIT faculty unanimously adopted a university-wide OA mandate, which establishes as a default rule the obligation for MIT researchers to hand over a pre-print version of their scientific works for publishing it in an open access repository (see Open Access News). In a note on this decision, the chairman of the drafting committee Hal Abelson explains the context of this decision:

“Our resolution was closely modeled on similar ones passed last February by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and by the Harvard Law School, also passed by unanimous vote. Stanford’s School of Education did the same, as did Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government just last Monday.”

So, MIT’s step towards open access is an illustration of  both an example of elite universities’ regulatory power and of the power of their example. When MIT announced its Open Courseware program it was soon followed by hundreds of unversities all over the world, many of which joined the Open Courseware Consortium. But most of these universities followed the MIT example not only generally in making course materials openly availble but they also adopted MIT’s relatively restrictive Creative Commons license policy, namely an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

Today, people at Creative Commons’ subdivision “CCLearn” struggle with MIT’s historical license decision and try to convince educational institutions to adopt more open licenses such as Attribution-Share alike or mere Attribution to foster exchange and remix of open course materials. As I see it, there is a good deal of regulatory path dependence emerging in the domain of Open Access as well…

(leonhard)

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has recently started a dual certified timber pilot project with the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) and is now recruiting a manager for it. While this may seem to be a mere routine, it is in fact an interesting and significant development for the FSC. It may help it strengthen its credibility as an environmental certification organization.

The FSC is an international nongovernmental organization that seeks to promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests through the certification of forest management and supply chains. In order to achieve this, forest certification uses conventional market channels. In contrast, fair-trade organizations challenge the conventional market organization by providing poor farmers and communities in developing countries with higher prices for their products compared to global market prices. The adherence of the FSC to conventional market logics caused concern among the FSC stakeholders. They argued that communities and small-scale forests operations, especially in the tropics, did not benefit from the FSC certification program because they were excluded from global markets and because reforming their forest management practices would be too costly. By implementing fair-trade projects, the FSC addresses these concerns. Read the rest of this entry »

“It never got weird enough for me.”

     – Hunter S. Thompson

Development and finance are increasingly intertwined, and both fields have over time produced their share of strange but successful, but also many odd and failed ideas. Here are a few recent bits of news from the weird world of finance and development.

#    Since February, East African villagers can buy themselves carbon-efficient stoves to replace their tradtional fireplaces, financed via microcredit. This contribution to reducing global warming then pays off for them via carbon-offsetting credits which they can claim via mobile phone SMS.

The father of this brainchild, Carbon Manna Unlimited, estimates that in this way, an African family can save around 3 tonnes of CO2 per year, earning them between 20 and 30 US Dollars worth of carbon credits on European markets…

Carbon efficiency, mobile banking and emissions trading applied to African cooking – it sounds adventurous, to say the least. But I was also wondering whether, sociologically speaking, is this an immense act of pragmatic creativity or rather simply one mimetic behaviour? After all, emissions trading, mobile technology and carbon footprint reduction are recieved wisdom at the moment in the north.

On another sociological note, the project’s name, Carbon Manna (TM) Xchange, has a both distinctly religious and capitalistic ring to it – what would Weber say? Read the rest of this entry »

The second version of Amazon’s relatively successful ebook-reader “Kindle” comes with a new feature, the so-called “text-to-speech function”: it enables ebooks to be read aloud. So, while you are cooking or driving to work this feature allows you to continue “reading” a book. Computers have had this feature for a long time (e.g. to read aloud PDF documents) but the Kindle with its specialization on ebooks is the first to bring it to the world of mobile devices. Or better, it could be the first.  Soon after the president of the US Authors Guild, Roy Blount, had publicly critized the feature in a New York Times piece titled “The Kindle Swindle” as a potential threat to audio books, Amazon gave in and agreed to disable text-to-speech on a title-by-title basis at the rightsholder’s request (see Slashdot). In his blog, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig describes this as “caving into bullies“, emphasizes that Amazon did not violate any exclusive copyrights with this feature and bemoans that “users and innovators have less freedom“. Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
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