June 07, 2008


The Cricket to the Cicada

(From a poem by Meleager, Greece, circa 100 B.C.)

O resonant cicada, drunk on dewy droplets.

You sing your rustic song that sounds in lonely places.

Perched with your saw-like limbs, high up among the leaves

You shrill forth the lyre's tune with your sun-darkened body.

But, dear friend, sound forth something new for the woodland nymphs,

A divertissement, chirping a tune for

Pan as the song which you sing in your turn,

So that I, escaping from Eros, can catch some noon-time sleep

While reclining there under the shady plane tree.

Translated by Rory B. Egan, University of Manitoba

June 06, 2008


Mammon from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme lately at Goat Rope is the economy and how we think about it. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Short summary: the way we think about things matters because it can effect our actions. We often speak of "The Economy" as if it was an independent being endowed with a will of its own--and sometimes it seems that way.

In recent years, we've even witnessed the rise of a new religion, the cult of the market god--and market fundamentalists aren't a whole lot better than any other type of fanatic.

It is the view of El Cabrero that a healthy way to think about it was suggested long ago by a certain Jesus, who knew a thing or two about a thing or two. When he was busted for violating Sabbath regulations, he responded by saying "The Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath." Just substitute "economy" for "Sabbath."

TURNING UP THE HEAT. A Senate panel blasted the Bush administration for exaggerations and misstatements leading up to the unnecessary war in Iraq.

OH GOOD. Some folks think the Bush administration is gearing up to attack Iran.

BOOTY SHAKING, BEE STYLE. Bees from different parts of the world understand each other's rear-end wiggling. I just thought you should know.

IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Here's a critique of apocalyptic religion.

OH MY PROPHETIC KNEE! There's scientific evidence that people with aching joints really can predict storms.


June 05, 2008


"The Worship of Mammon," a 1909 painting by Evelyn De Morgan, courtesy of wikipedia.

Back in the 1990s, Protestant theologian Harvey Cox wrote an interesting essay called The Market as God.

In it, he chronicled the rise of a new "religion," which is a parody of biblical monotheism.

In that theology, The Market is all wise, all good and all knowing. It too is a jealous god and becomes most wrathful when anything (like taxes, labor laws, regulations, or public spending for infrastructure or social services) gets in its way.

For true believers, The Market can do no wrong. If the global economy wipes out some communities or kills lots of workers on the job, we are supposed to remember that its ways are not our ways nor or its thoughts our thoughts.

Although humans have probably been exchanging things almost as long as we've been around, this elevation of Market to deity status is pretty new. As Cox put it,

Since the earliest stages of human history, of course, there have been bazaars, rialtos, and trading posts -- all markets. But The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning, other "gods." The Market operated within a plethora of other institutions that restrained it. As Karl Polanyi has demonstrated in his classic work The Great Transformation, only in the past two centuries has The Market risen above these demigods and chthonic spirits to become today's First Cause.

Initially The Market's rise to Olympic supremacy replicated the gradual ascent of Zeus above all the other divinities of the ancient Greek pantheon, an ascent that was never quite secure. Zeus, it will be recalled, had to keep storming down from Olympus to quell this or that threat to his sovereignty. Recently, however, The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament -- not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals.

Alas, the Market=God equation makes for bad religion and bad economics. Markets, generally speaking, are a good thing. I buy most of my stuff on them. But like any human institution, they sometimes fail and are always shaped and influenced by other factors, including values, communities, laws and policies.

The less we think of it as a God, the more likely we are to make markets work as a good.

ON A SIMILAR NOTE, here's a critique of the "gospel of consumption."

STUFF THIS. Self-storage is an American growth industry. Could this be the market's way of telling us we have too much stuff?

STUFFED AND STARVED. A new book argues that obesity and world hunger are flip sides of the coin of a messed up food system.

TWISTED PRIORITIES. The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute highlights more skewed priorities and anti-labor bias.


June 04, 2008


You know who, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme this week at Goat Rope is the economy and how we think about it. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts. There are also links and comments about current events.

One irony about the economy is that while people make it, we often act like it made us and rules over us. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in the 1800s when America's market revolution was in full swing, "things are in the saddle and ride mankind." Henry David Thoreau made similar observations in Walden.

Marx called this "the fetishism of commodities" in Das Kapital. He believed it was pervasive when goods are produced primarily for exchange rather than use. You don't have to buy his whole package to see his point:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor...To them their own social action takes the form of the action of things, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.

Picture an auto worker getting her car repossessed because nobody is buying cars because there are too many cars...

The idea of human creations getting away from their creators and doing damage is an image that has haunted the western world since the early days of the industrial revolution. A classic example of this is Mary Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein (search this blog for an earlier series on that), but the theme (meme?) is alive and kicking in the post-modern imagination, as films like Blade-Runner and television series like Battlestar Gallactica show.

Again, it doesn't have to be that way. While command economies have proven to be failures, people do have the ability to make conscious economic decisions at the individual and group level and to set up the groundrules and policies under which markets operate.

OIL EATING FOOD. This is a good summary of the problem with biofuels and how these impact poor people around the world.

CREATIVITY. Here are some suggestions for boosting yours.

ARE YOU A MIND READER? The answer is probably yes, with no psychic abilities needed. The trouble is, we're not very good at it.

THE SCIENCE OF SARCASM explained here.

GREAT NEWS! Red wine may slow aging. That being the case, El Cabrero needs to come up with a plan for the next 100 or so years.



June 03, 2008


Russian icon of Isaiah the prophet, courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has a certain friend who regularly reads this blog and who breaks out in hives anytime the topic veers toward the Bible or religion. I think this may be due to early exposure to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian. You know who you are...

Here's hoping the person in question can momentarily endure because I'm about to make a non-sectarian biblical allusion.

One of the coolest passages in the Hebrew Bible is the 40th chapter of Isaiah, which deals with the return of exiles from captivity in Babylon. In the middle of all that is a short and sweet critique of idolatry:

The workman melts a graven image and the goldsmith covers it with gold and casts silver chains. He who is poor chooses a tree that won't rot and seeks out a skilled workman to make a graven image that shall not be moved.

The speaker here thinks it is absurd for people who can think, see, hear, and feel to make something that can't and then worship it. We do that all the time with the economy, which we often speak of as if it was a conscious being ruling over us.

I suggest that the way we think about things is important since it can affect how we respond to them. If we think of a given situation as intractable, we're not likely to do anything to change it.

But here's the deal: people make the economy and people can change it and are doing so every day and have done so ever since early humans began to barter and produce. The Greek word from which economy is derived means something like the rules of our household. The Greeks also distinguished between things that exist as a part of nature (phusis) and things that people create (nomos). That's the "onomy" in economy.

In other words, the economy is a good, not a god.

WATER AND WEATHER AND FOOD, OH MY! It's scarier than lions and tigers and bears.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN? Several scientists weigh in here.

SPEAKING OF SCIENCE, could you use a little more in your life?

MORE PIE IN THE SKY for the late great Utah Phillips is here.

CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT DEPARTMENT. Vice President Dick Cheney dissed El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia recently. Many of our elected officials were not amused. The best response came from Congressman Nick Rahall, who said "We may owe the vice president a debt of gratitude for yet another great West Virginia slogan: 'Dick Cheney is not from here.'"


June 02, 2008


Nicolas Poussin's Adoration of the Golden Calf, courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero was recently asked to give a talk on the economy to a Catholic rural ministry conference in my beloved state of West Virginia. The diocese has made a special priority of health and well-being and it occurred to me that that's not a bad lens to use in thinking about economic issues.

Religiously speaking, I'm a theologically laid back Episcopalian with periodic Buddhist and Taoist inclinations working for a Quaker group. (I kind of like the Greek gods too, but try not to talk about that in public very much.) I have a great deal of respect for the economic and social justice teachings of the Catholic Church and have found the diocese to be a valuable ally in working on public policy issues.

Lincoln once said that while he'd like to have God on his side, he had to have Kentucky. When I'm working on economic policy stuff, I'd like to have God on my side but need the Catholic church. Not that I'm saying they're mutually exclusive or anything...

Anyhow, it occurred to me that when it comes to the economy, idolatry is alive and well. I'm using the term in the non-sectarian sense of both elevating any relative good to the level of an absolute and in the sense of worshipping a human creation. Although people make the economy through their own actions, we often act and speak as it it were some kind of god ruling over us.

More on that tomorrow.

SAD NEWS. The number of Army suicides increased again last year, with about a quarter of those taking place in Iraq.

GOOD QUESTION. This item asks why America executes people with mental disabilities.

OH THE WATER. You've heard of peak oil. What about peak water?

BAD "FARMING." Here's a good editorial from the NY Times about the horrible way our industrial food system treats animals in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). It's bad for workers, the environment, consumers, and causes a great deal of unnecessary misery for the animals involved.

A SEA CHANGE? Here's yet another indication that the religious right no longer has a lock on evangelicals.