Friday, April 30, 2010

Typical Visit To This Blog: Tick, Then Click!

Wow! This is the 2,665th post to this blog that has been visited by more than 14,000 visitors since the "Hello, World!" post of June 24, 2003. Time flies when you're havin' fun or, as they say in any prison in this country, "Fun flies when you're doin' time." Today, this blog features a critique of what the Internet hath wrought. Tracking software shows that nearly all of the 14,000+ visitors (identified only by location) to this blog spend one second before clicking the back button of their browsers. One tick of the clock and then they're outta here. If this is the (fair & balanced) march of time, so be it.

[x American Scholar]
Reading In A Digital Age
By Sven Birkerts

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

The nature of transition, how change works its way through a system, how people acclimate to the new—all these questions. So much of the change is driven by technologies that are elusive if not altogether invisible in their operation. Signals, data, networks. New habits and reflexes. Watch older people as they try to retool; watch the ease with which kids who have nothing to unlearn go swimming forward. Study their movements, their aptitudes, their weaknesses. I wonder if any population in history has had a bigger gulf between its youngest and oldest members.

I ask my students about their reading habits, and though I’m not surprised to find that few read newspapers or print magazines, many check in with online news sources, aggregate sites, incessantly. They are seldom away from their screens for long, but that’s true of us, their parents, as well.

But how do we start to measure effects—of this and everything else? The outer look of things stays much the same, which is to say that the outer look of things has not caught up with the often intangible transformations. Newspapers are still sold and delivered; bookstores still pile their sale tables high. It is easy for the critic to be accused of alarmism. And yet . . .

Information comes to seem like an environment. If anything “important” happens anywhere, we will be informed. The effect of this is to pull the world in close. Nothing penetrates, or punctures. The real, which used to be defined by sensory immediacy, is redefined.

From the vantage point of hindsight, that which came before so often looks quaint, at least with respect to technology. Indeed, we have a hard time imagining that the users weren’t at some level aware of the absurdity of what they were doing. Movies bring this recognition to us fondly; they give us the evidence. The switchboard operators crisscrossing the wires into the right slots; Dad settling into his luxury automobile, all fins and chrome; Junior ringing the bell on his bike as he heads off on his paper route. The marvel is that all of them—all of us—concealed their embarrassment so well. The attitude of the present to the past... well, it depends on who is looking. The older you are, the more likely it is that your regard will be benign—indulgent, even nostalgic. Youth, by contrast, quickly gets derisive, preening itself on knowing better, oblivious to the fact that its toys will be found no less preposterous by the next wave of the young.

These notions came at me the other night while I was watching the opening scenes of Wim Wenders’s 1987 film "Wings of Desire," which has as its premise the active presence of angels in our midst. The scene that triggered me was set in a vast and spacious modern library. The camera swooped with angelic freedom, up the wide staircases, panning vertically to a kind of balcony outcrop where Bruno Ganz, one of Wenders’s angels, stood looking down. Below him people moved like insects, studying shelves, removing books, negotiating this great archive of items.

Maybe it was the idea of angels that did it—the insertion of the timeless perspective into this moment of modern-day Berlin. I don’t know, but in a flash I felt myself looking back in time from a distant and disengaged vantage. I was seeing it all as through the eyes of the future, and what I felt, before I could check myself, was a bemused pity: the gaze of a now on a then that does not yet know it is a then, which is unselfconsciously fulfilling itself.

Suddenly it's impossible to imagine a world in which many interactions formerly dependent on print on paper happen screen to screen. It’s no stretch, no exercise in futurism. You can pretty much extrapolate from the habits and behaviors of kids in their teens and 20s, who navigate their lives with little or no recourse to paper. In class they sit with their laptops open on the table in front of them. I pretend they are taking course-related notes, but would not be surprised to find out they are writing to friends, working on papers for other courses, or just trolling their favorite sites while they listen. Whenever there is a question about anything—a date, a publication, the meaning of a word—they give me the answer before I’ve finished my sentence. From where they stand, Wenders’s library users already have a sepia coloration. I know that I present book information to them with a slight defensiveness; I wrap my pronouncements in a preemptive irony. I could not bear to be earnest about the things that matter to me and find them received with that tolerant bemusement I spoke of, that leeway we extend to the beliefs and passions of our elders.

AOL SLOGAN: “We search the way you think.”

I just finished reading an article in Harper’s by Gary Greenberg (“A Mind of Its Own”) on the latest books on neuropsychology, the gist of which recognizes an emerging consensus in the field, and maybe, more frighteningly, in the culture at large: that there may not be such a thing as mind apart from brain function. As Eric Kandel, one of the writers discussed, puts it: “Mind is a set of operations carried out by the brain, much as walking is a set of operations carried out by the legs, except dramatically more complex.” It’s easy to let the terms and comparisons slide abstractly past, to miss the full weight of implication. But Greenberg is enough of an old humanist to recognize when the great supporting trunk of his worldview is being crosscut just below where he is standing and to realize that everything he deems sacred is under threat. His recognition may not be so different from the one that underlay the emergence of Nietzsche’s thought. But if Nietzsche found a place of rescue in man himself, his Superman transcending himself to occupy the void left by the loss—the murder—of God, there is no comparable default now.

Brain functioning cannot stand in for mind, once mind has been unmasked as that, unless we somehow grant that the nature of brain partakes of what we had allowed might be the nature of mind. Which seems logically impossible, as the nature of mind allowed possibilities of connection and fulfillment beyond the strictly material, and the nature of brain is strictly material. It means that what we had imagined to be the something more of experience is created in-house by that three-pound bundle of neurons, and that it is not pointing to a larger definition of reality so much as to a capacity for narrative projection engendered by infinitely complex chemical reactions. No chance of a wizard behind the curtain. The wizard is us, our chemicals mingling.

“And if you still think God made us,” writes Greenberg, “there’s a neuro­chemical reason for that too.” He quotes writer David Linden, author of The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God(!): “Our brains have become particularly adapted to creating coherent, gap-free stories.... This propensity for narrative creation is part of what predisposes us humans to religious thought.” Of course one can, must, ask whence narration itself. What in us requires story rather than the chaotic pullulation that might more accurately describe what is?

Greenberg also cites philosopher Karl Popper, his belief that the neuroscientific worldview will gradually displace what he calls the “mentalist” perspective:

With the progress of brain research, the language of the physiologists is likely to penetrate more and more into ordinary language, and to change our picture of the universe, including that of common sense. So we shall be talking less and less about experiences, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, purposes and aims; and more and more about brain processes.... When this stage has been reached, mentalism will be stone dead, and the problem of mind and its relation to the body will have solved itself.

But it is not only developments in brain science that are creating this deep shift in the human outlook. This research advances hand in hand with the wholesale implementation and steady expansion of the externalized neural network: the digitizing of almost every sphere of human activity. Long past being a mere arriving technology, the digital is at this point ensconced as a paradigm, fully saturating our ordinary language. Who can doubt that even when we are not thinking, when we are merely functioning in our new world, we are premising that world very differently than did our parents or the many generations preceding them?

What is the place of the former world now, its still-familiar but also strangely sepia-tinged assumptions about the self acting in a larger and, in frightening and thrilling ways, inexplicable world?

Let me go back to that assertion by Linden: “Our brains have become particularly adapted to creating coherent, gap-free stories.... This propensity for narrative creation is part of what predisposes us humans to religious thought.” What a topic for surmising! I would almost go so far as to say that it is a mystery as great as the original creation—the what, how, and whither—the contemplation of how chemicals in combination create things we call narratives, and how these narratives elicit the extraordinary responses they do from chemicals in combination. The idea of “narrative creation” carries a great deal in its train. For narrative—story—is not the same thing as simple sequentiality. To say “I went here and then here and then did this and then did that” is not narrative, at least not in the sense that I’m sure Linden intends. No, narration is sequence that claims significance. Animals, for example, do not narrate, even though they are well aware of sequence and of the consequences of actions. “My master has picked up my bowl and has gone with it into that room; he will return with my food.” This is a chain of events linked by a causal expectation, but it stops there. Human narratives are events and descriptions selected and arranged for meaning.

The question, as always, is one of origins. Did man invent narrative or, owing to whatever predispositions in his makeup, inherit it? Is coming into human consciousness also a coming into narrative—is it part of the nature of human consciousness to seek and create narrative, which is to say meaning? What would it mean then that chemicals in combination created meaning, or the idea of meaning, or the tools with which meaning is sought—created that by which their own structure and operation was theorized and questioned? If that were true, then “mere matter” would have to be defined as having as one of its possibilities that of regarding itself.

We assume that logical thought, syllogistic analytical reason, is the necessary, right thought—and we do so because this same thought leads us to think this way. No exit, it seems. Except that logical thought will allow that there may be other logics, though it cannot explicate them. Another quote from the Harper’s article, this from Greenberg: “As a neuroscientist will no doubt someday discover, metaphor is something that the brain does when complexity renders it incapable of thinking straight.”

Metaphor, the poet, imagination. The whole deeper part of the subject comes into view. What is, for me, behind this sputtering, is my longstanding conviction that imagination—not just the faculty, but what might be called the whole party of the imagination—is endangered, is shrinking faster than Balzac’s wild ass’s skin, which diminished every time its owner made a wish. Imagination, the one feature that connects us with the deeper sources and possibilities of being, thins out every time another digital prosthesis appears and puts another layer of sheathing between ourselves and the essential givens of our existence, making it just that much harder for us to grasp ourselves as part of an ancient continuum. Each time we get another false inkling of agency, another taste of pseudopower.

Reading the Atlantic cover story by Nicholas Carr on the effect of Google (and online behavior in general), I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation. In that thought-world it’s clearly desirable to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the other, the contemplative thought-world—where reflection is itself the end, a means of testing and refining the relation to the world, a way of pursuing connection toward more affectively satisfying kinds of illumination, or insight—information is nothing without its contexts. I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed kinds of thinking. Then I realize that the Internet and the novel are opposites as well.

This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes—that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself. Enhancement. Deepening. Priming the engines of conjecture. In this way, and for this reason, the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes.

This makes an end run around the divisive opposition between “realist” and other modes of fiction (as per the critic James Wood), the point being not the nature of the representation but the quality and feel of the experience.

It would be most interesting, then, to take on a serious experiential-phenomenological “reading” of different kinds of novels—works from what are seen now as different camps.

My real worry has less to do with the overthrow of human intelligence by Google-powered artificial intelligence and more with the rapid erosion of certain ways of thinking—their demotion, as it were. I mean reflection, a contextual understanding of information, imaginative projection. I mean, in my shorthand, intransitive thinking. Contemplation. Thinking for its own sake, non-instrumental, as opposed to transitive thinking, the kind that would depend on a machine-drive harvesting of facts toward some specified end. Ideally, of course, we have both, left brain and right brain in balance. But the evidence keeps coming in that not only are we hypertrophied on the left-brain side, but we are subscribing wholesale to technologies reinforcing that kind of thinking in every aspect of our lives. The digital paradigm. The Google article in The Atlantic was sub­titled “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” ominous in its suggestion that brain function is being altered; that what we do is changing how we are by reconditioning our neural functioning.

For a long time we have had the idea that the novel is a form that can be studied and explicated, which of course it can be. From this has arisen the dogmatic assumption that the novel is a statement, a meaning-bearing device. Which has, in turn, allowed it to be considered a minor enterprise—for these kinds of meanings, fine for high-school essays on Man’s Inhumanity to Man, cannot compete in the marketplace with the empirical requirements of living in the world.

This message-driven way of looking at the novel allows for the emergence of evaluative grids, the aesthetic distinctions that then create arguments between, say, proponents of realism and proponents of formal experimentation, where one way or the other is seen as better able to bring the reader a weight of content. In this way, at least, the novel has been made to serve the transitive, goal-driven ideology.

But we have been ignoring the deeper nature of fiction. That it is inwardly experiential, intransitive, a mode of contemplation, its purpose being to create for the author and reader a terrain, an arena of liberation, where mind can be different, where mind and imagination can freely combine, where memory and sensation can be deployed, intensified through the specific constraints that any imagined situation allows.

The question comes up for me insistently: Where am I when I am reading a novel? I am “in” the novel, of course, to the degree that it involves me. I may be absorbed, but I am never without some awareness of the world around me—where I am sitting, what else might be going on in the house. Sometimes I think—and this might be true of writing as well—that it is misleading to think of myself as hovering between two places: the conjured and the empirically real. That it is closer to the truth to say that I occupy a third state, one which somehow amalgamates two awarenesses, not unlike that short-lived liminal place I inhabit when I am not yet fully awake, when I am sentient but still riding on the momentum of my sleep. I experience both, at times, as a privileged kind of profundity, an enhancement.

Reading a novel involves a double transposition—a major cognitive switch and then a more specific adaptation. The first is the inward plunge, giving in to the “Let there be another kind of world” premise. No novel can be entered without taking this step. The second involves agreeing to the givens of the work, accepting that this is New York circa 2004 as seen through the eyes of a first-person “I” or a presiding narrator.

Here I have to emphasize the distinction, so often ignored, between the fictional creation “New York” and the existing city. The novel may invoke a place, but it is not simply reporting on the real. The novelist must bring that location, however closely it maps to the real, into the virtual gravitational space of the work. Which is a fabrication.

The vital thing is this shift, which cannot take place, really, without the willingness or intent on the reader’s part to experience a change of mental state. We all know the sensation of duress that comes when we try to read or immerse ourselves in anything when there is no desire. At these times the only thing possible is to proceed mechanically with taking in the words, hoping that they will somehow effect the magic, jump-start the imagination. This is the power of words. They are part of our own sense-making process, and when their designations and connotations are intensified by rhythmic musicality, a receptivity can be created.

The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing stimuli is that the first part of the transaction will be foreclosed by an inability to focus—the first step requires at least that the language be able to reach the reader, that the word sounds and rhythms come alive in the auditory imagination. But where the attention span is keyed to a different level and other kinds of stimulus, it may be that the original connection can’t be made. Or if made, made weakly. Or will prove incapable of being sustained. Imagination must be quickened and then it must be sustained—it must survive interruption and deflection. Formerly, I think, the natural progression of the work, the ongoing development and complication of the situation, if achieved skillfully, would be enough. But more and more comes the complaint, even from practiced readers, that it is hard to maintain attentive focus. The works have presumably not changed. What has changed is either the conditions of reading or something in the cognitive reflexes of the reader. Or both.

All of us now occupy an information space blazing with signals. We have had to evolve coping strategies. Not merely the ability to heed simultaneous cues from different directions, cues of different kinds, but also—this is important—to engage those cues more obliquely. When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a necessarily fractured attention. It is not at all surprising that when we step away and try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble. It is not so easy to suspend the adaptation.

When reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, I am less caught in the action—there is not that much of it—than the tonality. I have the familiar, necessary sense of being privy to the thoughts (and rhythmic inner workings) of Hans, the narrator, and I am interested in him. Though to be accurate I don’t know that it’s as much Hans himself that I am drawn to as the feeling of eavesdropping on another consciousness. All aspects of this compel me, his thoughts and observations, the unexpected detours his memories provide, his efforts to engage in his own feeling-life. I am flickeringly aware as I read that he is being written, and sometimes there is a swerve into literary self-consciousness. But this doesn’t disturb me, doesn’t break the fourth wall: I am perfectly content to see these shifts as the product of the author’s own efforts, which suggests that I tend to view the author as on a continuum with his characters, their extension. It is the proximity to and belief in the other consciousness that matters, more than its source or location. Sometimes everything else seems a contrivance that makes this one connection possible. It is what I have always mainly read for.

This brings me back to the old question, the one I have yet to answer convincingly. What am I doing when I am reading a novel? How do I justify the activity as something more than a way to pass the time? Have all the novels I’ve read in my life really given me any bankable instruction, beyond a deeper feel for words, the possibilities of syntax, and so on? Have I ever seriously been bettered, or even instructed, by my exposure to a theme, some truism about existence over and above the situational proxy-experience? More, that is, than what my own thinking has given me? And how would this work?

I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.

What is the point, the value, of this proxy investment? While I am reading a novel, one that reaches me at a certain level, then the work, the whole of it—pitch, tonality, regard of the world—lives inside me as if inside parentheses, and it acts on me, maybe in a way analogous to how materials in parenthesis act on the sense of the rest of the sentence. My way of looking at others or my regard for the larger directional meaning of my life is subject to pressure or infiltration. I watch people crossing the street at an intersection and something of the character’s or author’s sense of scale—how he inflects the importance of the daily observation—influences my feeling as I wait at the light. And the incidental thoughts that I derive from that watching have a way of resonating with the outlook of the book. Is this a widening or deepening of my experience? Does it in any way make me better fit for living? Hard to say.

What does the novel leave us after it has concluded, resolved its tensions, given us its particular exercise? I always liked Ortega y Gasset’s epigram that “culture is what remains after we’ve forgotten everything we’ve read.” We shouldn’t let the epigrammatical neatness obscure the deeper truth: that there is something over and above the so-called contents of a work that is not only of some value, but that may constitute culture itself.

Having just the other day finished Netherland, I can testify about the residue a novel leaves, not in terms of culture so much as specific personal resonance. Effects and impacts change constantly, and there’s no telling what, if anything, I will find myself preserving a year from now. But even now, with the scenes and characters still available to ready recall, I can see how certain things start to fade and others leave their mark. The process of this tells on me as a reader, no question. With O’Neill’s novel—and for me this is almost always true with fiction—the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.

What—I ask it again—what has been the point of my reading? One way for me to try to answer is to ask what I do retain. Honest answer? A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche. Certainly I believe I have gained something important, though to hold that conviction I have to argue that memory access cannot be the sole criterion of impact; that there are other ways that we might possess information, impressions, and even understanding. For I will insist that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it. Also, there are different kinds of memory access. You can shine the interrogation lamp in my face and ask me to describe Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and I will fail miserably, even though I have listed it as one of the novels I most admire. But I know that traces of its intelligence are in me, that I can, depending on the prompt, call up scenes from that novel in bright, unexpected flashes: it has not vanished completely. And possibly something similar explains Ortega’s “culture is what remains” aphorism.

In a lifetime of reading, which maps closely to a lifetime of forgetting, we store impressions willy-nilly, according to private systems of distribution, keeping factual information on one plane; acquired psychological insight (how humans act when jealous, what romantic compulsion feels like) on another; ideas on a third, and so on. I believe that I know a great deal without knowing what I know. And that, further, insights from one source join with those from another. I may be, unbeknownst to myself, quite a student of human nature based on my reading. But I no longer know in every case that my insights are from reading. The source may fade as the sensation remains.

But there is one detail from Netherland that did leave an especially bright mark on me and may prove to be an index to everything else. O’Neill describes how Hans, in his lonely separation from his wife and child (he is in New York, they are in London), makes use of the Google satellite function on his computer. “Starting with a hybrid map of the United States,” he tells,

I moved the navigation box across the north Atlantic and began my fall from the stratosphere: successively, into a brown and greenish Europe.... From the central maze of mustard roads I followed the river southwest into Putney, zoomed in between the Lower and Upper Richmond Roads, and, with the image purely photographic, descended finally on Landford Road. It was always a clear and beautiful day—and wintry, if I correctly recall, with the trees pale brown and the shadows long. From my balloonist’s vantage point, aloft at a few hundred meters, the scene was depthless. My son’s dormer was visible, and the blue inflated pool and the red BMW; but there was no way to see more, or deeper. I was stuck.

At the very end of the novel, Hans reverses vantage. That is, he pursues the satellite view from England—he has returned—looking to see if he can see the cricket field where he worked on Staten Island with his friend Chuck Ramkissoon:

I fall again, as low as I can. There’s Chuck’s field. It is brown—the grass has burned—but it is still there. There’s no trace of a batting square. The equipment shed is gone. I’m just seeing a field. I stare at it for a while. I am contending with a variety of reactions, and consequently, with a single brush on the touch pad I flee upward into the atmosphere and at once have in my sights the physical planet, submarine wrinkles and all—have the option, if so moved, to go anywhere.

I find this obsession of his intensely moving, a deep reflection of his personality; I also find it quite effective as an image device. To begin with, the contemplation of such intensified action-at-a-distance fascinates—the idea that one even can do such a thing. And I confess that I stopped reading after the first passage and went right upstairs to my laptop to see if it was indeed possible to get such access. It is—though I stopped short of downloading what I needed out of fear that bringing the potentiality of a God vantage into my little machine might overwhelm its circuitry.

This idea of vantage is to be considered. Not only for what it gives the average user: sophisticated visual access to the whole planet (I find it hard to even fathom this—I who after years of flying still thrill like a child when the plane descends in zoom-lens increments, turning a toy city by degrees into an increasingly material reality), but also for the uncanny way in which it offers a correlative to the novelist’s swooping freedom. Still, Hans can only get so close—he is constrained by the limits of technology, and, necessarily, by visual exteriority. The novelist can complete the action, moving right in through the dormer window, and then, if he has set it up thus, into the minds of any of the characters he has found/created there.

This image is relevant in another, more conceptual way. The reality O’Neill has so compellingly described, that of swooping access, is part of the futurama that is our present. The satellite capability stands for many other kinds of capabilities, for the whole new reach of information technology, which more than any transformation in recent decades has changed how we live and—in ways we can’t possibly measure—who we are. It questions the place of fiction, literature, art in general, in our time. Against such potency, one might ask, how can beauty—how can the self’s expressions—hold a plea? The very action that the author renders so finely poses an indirect threat to his livelihood. No, no—comes the objection. Isn’t the whole point that he has taken it over with his imagination, on behalf of the imagination? Yes, of course, and it is a striking seizure. But we should not be too complacent about the novelist’s superior reach. For these very things—all of the operations and abilities that we now claim—are encroaching on every flank. Yes, O’Neill can capture in beautiful sentences the sensation of a satellite eye homing in on its target, but the fact that such a power is available to the average user leaches from the overall power of the novel-as-genre. In giving us yet another instrument of access, the satellite eye reduces by some factor the operating power of imagination itself. The person who can make a transatlantic swoop will, in part for having that power, be less able, or less willing, or both, to read the labored sequences that comprise any written work of art. Not just his satellite ventures, but the sum of his Internet interactions, which are other aspects of our completely transformed information culture.

After all my jibes against the decontextualizing power of the search engine, it is to Google I go this morning, hoping to track down the source of Nabokov’s phrase “aesthetic bliss.” And indeed, five or six entries locate the quote from his afterword to Lolita: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss.” The phrase has been in my mind in the last few days, following my reading of Netherland and my attempts to account for the value of that particular kind of reading experience. “Aesthetic bliss” is one kind of answer—the effects on me of certain prose styles, like Nabokov’s own, or John Banville’s, or Virginia Woolf’s. But the phrase sounds trivial; it sounds like mere connoisseurship, a self-congratulatory mandarin business. It’s far more complicated than any mere swooning over pretty words and phrases. Aesthetic bliss. To me it expresses the delight that comes when the materials, the words, are working at their highest pitch, bringing sensation to life in the mind.

Sensation... I can imagine an objection, a voice telling me that sensation itself is trivial, not as important as idea, as theme. As if there is a hierarchy with ideas on one level, and psychological insights, and far below the re-creation of the textures of experience and inward process. I obviously don’t agree, nor does my reading sensibility, which, as I’ve confessed already, does not go seeking after themes and usually forgets them soon after taking them in. What thou lovest well remains—and for me it is language in this condition of alert, sensuous precision, language that does not forget the world of nouns. I’m thinking that one part of this project will need to be a close reading of and reflection upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to find occasion to ask—and examine closely—what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.

We always hear arguments about how the original time-passing function of the triple-decker novel has been rendered obsolete by competing media. What we hear less is the idea that the novel serves and embodies a certain interior pace, and that this has been shouted down (but not eliminated) by the transformations of modern life. Reading requires a synchronization of one’s reflective rhythms to those of the work. It is one thing to speed-read a dialogue-rich contemporary satire, another to engage with the nuanced thought-world of Norman Rush’s characters in Mating. The reader adjusts to the author, not vice versa, and sometimes that adjustment feels too difficult. The triple-decker was, I’m theorizing, synchronous with the basic heart rate of its readers, and is now no longer so.

But the issue is more complicated still. For it’s one thing to say that sensibility is timed to certain rhythms—faster, slower—another to reflect that what had once been a singular entity is now subject to near-constant fragmentation by the turbulent dynamic of life as we live it. Concentration can be had, but for most of us it is only by setting oneself against the things that routinely destroy it.

Serious literary work has levels. The engaged reader takes in not only the narrative premise and the craft of its realization, but also the resonance—that which the author creates, deliberately, through her use of language. It is the secondary power of good writing, often the ulterior motive of the writing. The two levels operate on a lag, with the resonance accumulating behind the sense, building a linguistic density that is the verbal equivalent of an aftertaste, or the “finish.” The reader who reads without directed concentration, who skims, or even just steps hurriedly across the surface, is missing much of the real point of the work; he is gobbling his foie gras.

Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position. Ω

[Sven Birkerts edits the literary journal Agni and directs the Bennington Writing Seminars. He is the author of eight books, most recently The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again (2008). He is completing The Other Walk, a collection of short prose. Birkerts is a graduate of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.]

Copyright © 2010 The American Scholar

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Roll Over, Ida Tarbell & Lincoln Steffens! Matt Taibbi Rakes Up Some Real Muck In AL!

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi is not your great-grandmother's muckraker. He uses the f-word and calls sh*t what it is: shit. In fact, Taibbi's latest story on predatory bankers has disappeared from the online version of Rolling Stone. It must have gotten a little hot in the kitchen for Jann Wenner and the RS legal department. What happened to Jefferson County (Birmingham), AL has happened to cities and counties all across this land as well as entire countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Ironically, as U.S. Senators were perp-walking Goldman Sachs through a hearing room this week, it might have been worse. Goldman Sachs took a $3M-bribe from JP Morgan Chase to stay out of Jefferson County, AL. (As Matt Taibbi puts it — more colorfully — "JP Morgan at one point even paid Goldman Sachs $3 million just to back the fuck off, so they could have the rubes of Jefferson County to fleece all for themselves.") Although RS deep-sixed this story, Matt Taibbi rakes the Alabama (and Wall Street) muck in this blog. If this is a (fair & balanced) exposure of scandal, so be it.

[x Rolling Stone]
Looting Main Street
By Matt Taibbi

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

If you want to know what life in the Third World is like, just ask Lisa Pack, an administrative assistant who works in the roads and transportation department in Jefferson County, Alabama. Pack got rudely introduced to life in post-crisis America last August, when word came down that she and 1,000 of her fellow public employees would have to take a little unpaid vacation for a while. The county, it turned out, was more than $5 billion in debt — meaning that courthouses, jails and sheriff's precincts had to be closed so that Wall Street banks could be paid.

As public services in and around Birmingham were stripped to the bone, Pack struggled to support her family on a weekly unemployment check of $260. Nearly a fourth of that went to pay for her health insurance, which the county no longer covered. She also fielded calls from laid-off co-workers who had it even tougher. "I'd be on the phone sometimes until two in the morning," she says. "I had to talk more than one person out of suicide. For some of the men supporting families, it was so hard — foreclosure, bankruptcy. I'd go to bed at night, and I'd be in tears."

Homes stood empty, businesses were boarded up, and parts of already-blighted Birmingham began to take on the feel of a ghost town. There were also a few bills that were unique to the area — like the $64 sewer bill that Pack and her family paid each month. "Yeah, it went up about 400 percent just over the past few years," she says.

The sewer bill, in fact, is what cost Pack and her co-workers their jobs. In 1996, the average monthly sewer bill for a family of four in Birmingham was only $14.71 — but that was before the county decided to build an elaborate new sewer system with the help of out-of-state financial wizards with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. The result was a monstrous pile of borrowed money that the county used to build, in essence, the world's grandest toilet — "the Taj Mahal of sewer-treatment plants" is how one county worker put it. What happened here in Jefferson County would turn out to be the perfect metaphor for the peculiar alchemy of modern oligarchical capitalism: A mob of corrupt local officials and morally absent financiers got together to build a giant device that converted human shit into billions of dollars of profit for Wall Street — and misery for people like Lisa Pack.

And once the giant shit machine was built and the note on all that fancy construction started to come due, Wall Street came back to the local politicians and doubled down on the scam. They showed up in droves to help the poor, broke citizens of Jefferson County cut their toilet finance charges using a blizzard of incomprehensible swaps and refinance schemes — schemes that only served to postpone the repayment date a year or two while sinking the county deeper into debt. In the end, every time Jefferson County so much as breathed near one of the banks, it got charged millions in fees. There was so much money to be made bilking these dizzy Southerners that banks like JP Morgan spent millions paying middlemen who bribed — yes, that's right, bribed, criminally bribed — the county commissioners and their buddies just to keep their business. Hell, the money was so good, JP Morgan at one point even paid Goldman Sachs $3 million just to back the fuck off, so they could have the rubes of Jefferson County to fleece all for themselves.

Birmingham became the poster child for a new kind of giant-scale financial fraud, one that would threaten the financial stability not only of cities and counties all across America, but even those of entire countries like Greece. While for many Americans the financial crisis remains an abstraction, a confusing mess of complex transactions that took place on a cloud high above Manhattan sometime in the mid-2000s, in Jefferson County you can actually see the rank criminality of the crisis economy with your own eyes; the monster sticks his head all the way out of the water. Here you can see a trail that leads directly from a billion-dollar predatory swap deal cooked up at the highest levels of America's biggest banks, across a vast fruited plain of bribes and felonies — "the price of doing business," as one JP Morgan banker says on tape — all the way down to Lisa Pack's sewer bill and the mass layoffs in Birmingham.

Once you follow that trail and understand what took place in Jefferson County, there's really no room left for illusions. We live in a gangster state, and our days of laughing at other countries are over. It's our turn to get laughed at. In Birmingham, lots of people have gone to jail for the crime: More than 20 local officials and businessmen have been convicted of corruption in federal court. Last October, right around the time that Lisa Pack went back to work at reduced hours, Birmingham's mayor was convicted of fraud and money-laundering for taking bribes funneled to him by Wall Street bankers — everything from Rolex watches to Ferragamo suits to cash. But those who greenlighted the bribes and profited most from the scam remain largely untouched. "It never gets back to JP Morgan," says Pack.

If you want to get all Glenn Beck about it, you could lay the blame for this entire mess at the feet of weepy, tree-hugging environmentalists. It all started with the Cahaba River, the longest free-flowing river in the state of Alabama. The tributary, which winds its way through Birmingham before turning diagonally to empty out near Selma, is home to more types of fish per mile than any other river in America and shelters 64 rare and imperiled species of plants and animals. It's also the source of one of the worst municipal financial disasters in American history.

Back in the early 1990s, the county's sewer system was so antiquated that it was leaking raw sewage directly into the Cahaba, which also supplies the area with its drinking water. Joined by well — intentioned citizens from the Cahaba River Society, the EPA sued the county to force it to comply with the Clean Water Act. In 1996, county commissioners signed a now-infamous consent decree agreeing not just to fix the leaky pipes but to eliminate all sewer overflows — a near-impossible standard that required the county to build the most elaborate, ecofriendly, expensive sewer system in the history of the universe. It was like ordering a small town in Florida that gets a snowstorm once every five years to build a billion-dollar fleet of snowplows.

The original cost estimates for the new sewer system were as low as $250 million. But in a wondrous demonstration of the possibilities of small-town graft and contract-padding, the price tag quickly swelled to more than $3 billion. County commissioners were literally pocketing wads of cash from builders and engineers and other contractors eager to get in on the project, while the county was forced to borrow obscene sums to pay for the rapidly spiraling costs. Jefferson County, in effect, became one giant, TV-stealing, unemployed drug addict who borrowed a million dollars to buy the mother of all McMansions — and just as it did during the housing bubble, Wall Street made a business of keeping the crook in his house. As one county commissioner put it, "We're like a guy making $50,000 a year with a million-dollar mortgage."

To reassure lenders that the county would pay its mortgage, commissioners gave the finance director — an unelected official appointed by the president of the commission — the power to automatically raise sewer rates to meet payments on the debt. The move brought in billions in financing, but it also painted commissioners into a corner. If costs continued to rise — and with practically every contractor in Alabama sticking his fingers on the scale, they were rising fast — officials would be faced with automatic rate increases that would piss off their voters. (By 2003, annual interest on the sewer deal had reached $90 million.) So the commission reached out to Wall Street, looking for creative financing tools that would allow it to reduce the county's staggering debt payments.

Wall Street was happy to help. First, it employed the same trick it used to fuel the housing crisis: It switched the county from a fixed rate on the bonds it had issued to finance the sewer deal to an adjustable rate. The refinancing meant lower interest payments for a couple of years — followed by the risk of even larger payments down the road. The move enabled county commissioners to postpone the problem for an election season or two, kicking it to a group of future commissioners who would inevitably have to pay the real freight.

But then Wall Street got really creative. Having switched the county to a variable interest rate, it offered commissioners a crazy deal: For an extra fee, the banks said, we'll allow you to keep paying a fixed rate on your debt to us. In return, we'll give you a variable amount each month that you can use to pay off all that variable-rate interest you owe to bondholders.

In financial terms, this is known as a synthetic rate swap — the spidery creature you might have read about playing a role in bringing down places like Greece and Milan. On paper, it made sense: The county got the stability of a fixed rate, while paying Wall Street to assume the risk of the variable rates on its bonds. That's the synthetic part. The trouble lies in the rate swap. The deal only works if the two variable rates — the one you get from the bank, and the one you owe to bondholders — actually match. It's like gambling on the weather. If your bondholders are expecting you to pay an interest rate based on the average temperature in Alabama, you don't do a rate swap with a bank that gives you back a rate pegged to the temperature in Nome, Alaska.

Not unless you're a fucking moron. Or your banker is JP Morgan.

In a small office in a federal building in downtown Birmingham, just blocks from where civil rights demonstrators shut down the city in 1963, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Martin points out the window. He's pointing in the direction of the Tutwiler Hotel, once home to one of the grandest ballrooms in the South but now part of the Hampton Inn chain.

"It was right around the corner here, at the hotel," Martin says. "That's where they met — that's where this all started."

They means Charles LeCroy and Bill Blount, the two principals in what would become the most important of all the corruption cases in Jefferson County. LeCroy was a banker for JP Morgan, serving as managing director of the bank's southeast regional office. Blount was an Alabama wheeler-dealer with close friends on the county commission. For years, when Wall Street banks wanted to do business with municipalities, whether for bond issues or rate swaps, it was standard practice to reach out to a local sleazeball like Blount and pay him a shitload of money to help seal the deal. "Banks would pay some local consultant, and the consultant would then funnel money to the politician making the decision," says Christopher Taylor, the former head of the board that regulates municipal borrowing. Back in the 1990s, Taylor pushed through a ban on such backdoor bribery. He also passed a ban on bankers contributing directly to politicians they do business with — a move that sparked a lawsuit by one aggrieved sleazeball, who argued that halting such legalized graft violated his First Amendment rights. The name of that pissed-off banker? "It was the one and only Bill Blount," Taylor says with a laugh.

Blount is a stocky, stubby-fingered Southerner with glasses and a pale, pinched face — if Norman Rockwell had ever done a painting titled "Small-Town Accountant Taking Enormous Dump," it would look just like Blount. LeCroy, his sugar daddy at JP Morgan, is a tall, bloodless, crisply dressed corporate operator with a shiny bald head and silver side patches — a cross between Skeletor and Michael Stipe.

The scheme they operated went something like this: LeCroy paid Blount millions of dollars, and Blount turned around and used the money to buy lavish gifts for his close friend Larry Langford, the now-convicted Birmingham mayor who at the time had just been elected president of the county commission. (At one point Blount took Langford on a shopping spree in New York, putting $3,290 worth of clothes from Zegna on his credit card.) Langford then signed off on one after another of the deadly swap deals being pushed by LeCroy. Every time the county refinanced its sewer debt, JP Morgan made millions of dollars in fees. Even more lucrative, each of the swap contracts contained clauses that mandated all sorts of penalties and payments in the event that something went wrong with the deal. In the mortgage business, this process is known as churning: You keep coming back over and over to refinance, and they keep "churning" you for more and more fees. "The transactions were complex, but the scheme was simple," said Robert Khuzami, director of enforcement for the SEC. "Senior JP Morgan bankers made unlawful payments to win business and earn fees."

Given the shitload of money to be made on the refinancing deals, JP Morgan was prepared to pay whatever it took to buy off officials in Jefferson County. In 2002, during a conversation recorded in Nixonian fashion by JP Morgan itself, LeCroy bragged that he had agreed to funnel payoff money to a pair of local companies to secure the votes of two county commissioners. "Look," the commissioners told him, "if we support the synthetic refunding, you guys have to take care of our two firms." LeCroy didn't blink. "Whatever you want," he told them. "If that's what you need, that's what you get. Just tell us how much."

Just tell us how much. That sums up the approach that JP Morgan took a few months later, when Langford announced that his good buddy Bill Blount would henceforth be involved with every financing transaction for Jefferson County. From JP Morgan's point of view, the decision to pay off Blount was a no-brainer. But the bank had one small problem: Goldman Sachs had already crawled up Blount's trouser leg, and the broker was advising Langford to pick them as Jefferson County's investment bank.

The solution they came up with was an extraordinary one: JP Morgan cut a separate deal with Goldman, paying the bank $3 million to fuck off, with Blount taking a $300,000 cut of the side deal. Suddenly Goldman was out and JP Morgan was sitting in Langford's lap. In another conversation caught on tape, LeCroy joked that the deal was his "philanthropic work," since the payoff amounted to a "charitable donation to Goldman Sachs" in return for "taking no risk."

That such a blatant violation of anti-trust laws took place and neither JP Morgan nor Goldman have been prosecuted for it is yet another mystery of the current financial crisis. "This is an open-and-shut case of anti-competitive behavior," says Taylor, the former regulator.

With Goldman out of the way, JP Morgan won the right to do a $1.1 billion bond offering — switching Jefferson County out of fixed-rate debt into variable-rate debt — and also did a corresponding $1.1 billion deal for a synthetic rate swap. The very same day the transaction was concluded, in May 2003, LeCroy had dinner with Langford and struck a deal to do yet another bond-and-swap transaction of roughly the same size. This time, the terms of the payoff were spelled out more explicitly. In a hilarious phone call between LeCroy and Douglas MacFaddin, another JP Morgan official, the two bankers groaned aloud about how much it was going to cost to satisfy Blount:

LeCroy: I said, "Commissioner Langford, I'll do that because that's your suggestion, but you gotta help us keep him under control. Because when you give that guy a hand, he takes your arm." You know?

MacFaddin: [Laughing] Yeah, you end up in the wood-chipper.

All told, JP Morgan ended up paying Blount nearly $3 million for "performing no known services," in the words of the SEC. In at least one of the deals, Blount made upward of 15 percent of JP Morgan's entire fee. When I ask Taylor what a legitimate consultant might earn in such a circumstance, he laughs. "What's a 'legitimate consultant' in a case like this? He made this money for doing jack shit."

As the tapes of LeCroy's calls show, even officials at JP Morgan were incredulous at the money being funneled to Blount. "How does he get 15 percent?" one associate at the bank asks LeCroy. "For doing what? For not messing with us?"

"Not messing with us," LeCroy agrees. "It's a lot of money, but in the end, it's worth it on a billion-dollar deal."

That's putting it mildly: The deals wound up being the largest swap agreements in JP Morgan's history. Making matters worse, the payoffs didn't even wind up costing the bank a dime. As the SEC explained in a statement on the scam, JP Morgan "passed on the cost of the unlawful payments by charging the county higher interest rates on the swap transactions." In other words, not only did the bank bribe local politicians to take the sucky deal, they got local taxpayers to pay for the bribes. And because Jefferson County had no idea what kind of deal it was getting on the swaps, JP Morgan could basically charge whatever it wanted. According to an analysis of the swap deals commissioned by the county in 2007, taxpayers had been overcharged at least $93 million on the transactions.

JP Morgan was far from alone in the scam: Virtually everyone doing business in Jefferson County was on the take. Four of the nation's top investment banks, the very cream of American finance, were involved in one way or another with payoffs to Blount in their scramble to do business with the county. In addition to JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns paid Langford's bagman $2.4 million, while Lehman Brothers got off cheap with a $35,000 "arranger's fee." At least a dozen of the county's contractors were also cashing in, along with many of the county commissioners. "If you go into the county courthouse," says Michael Morrison, a planner who works for the county, "there's a gallery of past commissioners on the wall. On the top row, every single one of 'em but two has been investigated, indicted or convicted. It's a joke."

The crazy thing is that such arrangements — where some local scoundrel gets a massive fee for doing nothing but greasing the wheels with elected officials — have been taking place all over the country. In Illinois, during the Upper Volta-esque era of Rod Blagojevich, a Republican political consultant named Robert Kjellander got 10 percent of the entire fee Bear Stearns earned doing a bond sale for the state pension fund. At the start of Obama's term, Bill Richardson's Cabinet appointment was derailed for a similar scheme when he was governor of New Mexico. Indeed, one reason that officials in Jefferson County didn't know that the swaps they were signing off on were shitty was because their adviser on the deals was a firm called CDR Financial Products, which is now accused of conspiring to overcharge dozens of cities in swap transactions. According to a federal antitrust lawsuit, CDR is basically a big-league version of Bill Blount — banks tossed money at the firm, which in turn advised local politicians that they were getting a good deal. "It was basically, you pay CDR, and CDR helps push the deal through," says Taylor.

In the end, though, all this bribery and graft was just the table-setter for the real disaster. In taking all those bribes and signing on to all those swaps, the commissioners in Jefferson County had basically started the clock on a financial time bomb that, sooner or later, had to explode. By continually refinancing to keep the county in its giant McMansion, the commission had managed to push into the future that inevitable day when the real bill would arrive in the mail. But that's where the mortgage analogy ends — because in one key area, a swap deal differs from a home mortgage. Imagine a mortgage that you have to keep on paying even after you sell your house. That's basically how a swap deal works. And Jefferson County had done 23 of them. At one point, they had more outstanding swaps than New York City.

Judgment Day was coming — just like it was for the Delaware River Port Authority, the Pennsylvania school system, the cities of Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles, the states of Connecticut and Mississippi, the city of Milan and nearly 500 other municipalities in Italy, the country of Greece, and God knows who else. All of these places are now reeling under the weight of similarly elaborate and ill-advised swaps — and if what happened in Jefferson County is any guide, hoo boy. Because when the shit hit the fan in Birmingham, it really hit the fan.

For Jefferson County, the deal blew up in early 2008, when a dizzying array of penalties and other fine-print poison worked into the swap contracts started to kick in. The trouble began with the housing crash, which took down the insurance companies that had underwritten the county's bonds. That rendered the county's insurance worthless, triggering clauses in its swap contracts that required it to pay off more than $800 million of its debt in only four years, rather than 40. That, in turn, scared off private lenders, who were no longer interested in bidding on the county's bonds. The banks were forced to make up the difference — a service for which they charged enormous penalties. It was as if the county had missed a payment on its credit card and woke up the next morning to find its annual percentage rate jacked up to a million percent. Between 2008 and 2009, the annual payment on Jefferson County's debt jumped from $53 million to a whopping $636 million.

It gets worse. Remember the swap deal that Jefferson County did with JP Morgan, how the variable rates it got from the bank were supposed to match those it owed its bondholders? Well, they didn't. Most of the payments the county was receiving from JP Morgan were based on one set of interest rates (the London Interbank Exchange Rate), while the payments it owed to its bondholders followed a different set of rates (a municipal-bond index). Jefferson County was suddenly getting far less from JP Morgan, and owing tons more to bondholders. In other words, the bank and Bill Blount made tens of millions of dollars selling deals to local politicians that were not only completely defective, but blew the entire county to smithereens.

And here's the kicker. Last year, when Jefferson County, staggered by the weight of its penalties, was unable to make its swap payments to JP Morgan, the bank canceled the deal. That triggered one-time "termination fees" of — yes, you read this right — $647 million. That was money the county would owe no matter what happened with the rest of its debt, even if bondholders decided to forgive and forget every dime the county had borrowed. It was like the herpes simplex of loans — debt that does not go away, ever, for as long as you live. On a sewer project that was originally supposed to cost $250 million, the county now owed a total of $1.28 billion just in interest and fees on the debt. Imagine paying $250,000 a year on a car you purchased for $50,000, and that's roughly where Jefferson County stood at the end of last year.

Last November, the SEC charged JP Morgan with fraud and canceled the $647 million in termination fees. The bank agreed to pay a $25 million fine and fork over $50 million to assist displaced workers in Jefferson County. So far, the county has managed to avoid bankruptcy, but the sewer fiasco had downgraded its credit rating, triggering payments on other outstanding loans and pushing Birmingham toward the status of an African debtor state. For the next generation, the county will be in a constant fight to collect enough taxes just to pay off its debt, which now totals $4,800 per resident.

The city of Birmingham was founded in 1871, at the dawn of the Southern industrial boom, for the express purpose of attracting Northern capital — it was even named after a famous British steel town to burnish its entrepreneurial cred. There's a gruesome irony in it now lying sacked and looted by financial vandals from the North. The destruction of Jefferson County reveals the basic battle plan of these modern barbarians, the way that banks like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have systematically set out to pillage towns and cities from Pittsburgh to Athens. These guys aren't number-crunching whizzes making smart investments; what they do is find suckers in some municipal-finance department, corner them in complex lose-lose deals and flay them alive. In a complete subversion of free-market principles, they take no risk, score deals based on political influence rather than competition, keep consumers in the dark — and walk away with big money. "It's not high finance," says Taylor, the former bond regulator. "It's low finance." And even if the regulators manage to catch up with them billions of dollars later, the banks just pay a small fine and move on to the next scam. This isn't capitalism. It's nomadic thievery. Ω

[As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi has written Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats (2005); Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire (2007): and The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (2008). Taibbi graduated from Bard College in 1991.]

Copyright © 2010 Rolling Stone

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Wrong Recipe For World Hunger?

What the world needs now is a Coca-Cola to wash down a KFC Double-Down. Nothing like a healthy dose of sugar, sodium, and fat to solve world hunger. If there is a Hell, we're going there in a handbasket. If this is a (fair & balanced) world crisis, so be it.

[x FP]
Attention Whole Foods Shoppers
By Robert Paarlberg

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to Michelle Obama's organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are full of good intentions. We want to save the planet. Help local farmers. Fight climate change — and childhood obesity, too. But though it's certainly a good thing to be thinking about global welfare while chopping our certified organic onions, the hope that we can help others by changing our shopping and eating habits is being wildly oversold to Western consumers. Food has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion.

Helping the world's poor feed themselves is no longer the rallying cry it once was. Food may be today's cause célèbre, but in the pampered West, that means trendy causes like making food "sustainable" — in other words, organic, local, and slow. Appealing as that might sound, it is the wrong recipe for helping those who need it the most. Even our understanding of the global food problem is wrong these days, driven too much by the single issue of international prices. In April 2008, when the cost of rice for export had tripled in just six months and wheat reached its highest price in 28 years, a New York Times editorial branded this a "World Food Crisis." World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that high food prices would be particularly damaging in poor countries, where "there is no margin for survival." Now that international rice prices are down 40 percent from their peak and wheat prices have fallen by more than half, we too quickly conclude that the crisis is over. Yet 850 million people in poor countries were chronically undernourished before the 2008 price spike, and the number is even larger now, thanks in part to last year's global recession. This is the real food crisis we face.

It turns out that food prices on the world market tell us very little about global hunger. International markets for food, like most other international markets, are used most heavily by the well-to-do, who are far from hungry. The majority of truly undernourished people — 62 percent, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization — live in either Africa or South Asia, and most are small farmers or rural landless laborers living in the countryside of Africa and South Asia. They are significantly shielded from global price fluctuations both by the trade policies of their own governments and by poor roads and infrastructure. In Africa, more than 70 percent of rural households are cut off from the closest urban markets because, for instance, they live more than a 30-minute walk from the nearest all-weather road.

Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers' labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse. The number of "food insecure" people in Africa (those consuming less than 2,100 calories a day) will increase 30 percent over the next decade without significant reforms, to 645 million, the U.S. Agriculture Department projects.

What's so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we've developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

Original Sins

Thirty years ago, had someone asserted in a prominent journal or newspaper that the Green Revolution was a failure, he or she would have been quickly dismissed. Today the charge is surprisingly common. Celebrity author and eco-activist Vandana Shiva claims the Green Revolution has brought nothing to India except "indebted and discontented farmers." A 2002 meeting in Rome of 500 prominent international NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, even blamed the Green Revolution for the rise in world hunger. Let's set the record straight.

The development and introduction of high-yielding wheat and rice seeds into poor countries, led by American scientist Norman Borlaug and others in the 1960s and 70s, paid huge dividends. In Asia these new seeds lifted tens of millions of small farmers out of desperate poverty and finally ended the threat of periodic famine. India, for instance, doubled its wheat production between 1964 and 1970 and was able to terminate all dependence on international food aid by 1975. As for indebted and discontented farmers, India's rural poverty rate fell from 60 percent to just 27 percent today. Dismissing these great achievements as a "myth" (the official view of Food First, a California-based organization that campaigns globally against agricultural modernization) is just silly.

It's true that the story of the Green Revolution is not everywhere a happy one. When powerful new farming technologies are introduced into deeply unjust rural social systems, the poor tend to lose out. In Latin America, where access to good agricultural land and credit has been narrowly controlled by traditional elites, the improved seeds made available by the Green Revolution increased income gaps. Absentee landlords in Central America, who previously allowed peasants to plant subsistence crops on underutilized land, pushed them off to sell or rent the land to commercial growers who could turn a profit using the new seeds. Many of the displaced rural poor became slum dwellers. Yet even in Latin America, the prevalence of hunger declined more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2005.

In Asia, the Green Revolution seeds performed just as well on small nonmechanized farms as on larger farms. Wherever small farmers had sufficient access to credit, they took up the new technology just as quickly as big farmers, which led to dramatic income gains and no increase in inequality or social friction. Even poor landless laborers gained, because more abundant crops meant more work at harvest time, increasing rural wages. In Asia, the Green Revolution was good for both agriculture and social justice.

And Africa? Africa has a relatively equitable and secure distribution of land, making it more like Asia than Latin America and increasing the chances that improvements in farm technology will help the poor. If Africa were to put greater resources into farm technology, irrigation, and rural roads, small farmers would benefit.

Organic Myths

There are other common objections to doing what is necessary to solve the real hunger crisis. Most revolve around caveats that purist critics raise regarding food systems in the United States and Western Europe. Yet such concerns, though well-intentioned, are often misinformed and counterproductive — especially when applied to the developing world.

Take industrial food systems, the current bugaboo of American food writers. Yes, they have many unappealing aspects, but without them food would be not only less abundant but also less safe. Traditional food systems lacking in reliable refrigeration and sanitary packaging are dangerous vectors for diseases. Surveys over the past several decades by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that the U.S. food supply became steadily safer over time, thanks in part to the introduction of industrial-scale technical improvements. Since 2000, the incidence of E. coli contamination in beef has fallen 45 percent. Today in the United States, most hospitalizations and fatalities from unsafe food come not from sales of contaminated products at supermarkets, but from the mishandling or improper preparation of food inside the home. Illness outbreaks from contaminated foods sold in stores still occur, but the fatalities are typically quite limited. A nationwide scare over unsafe spinach in 2006 triggered the virtual suspension of all fresh and bagged spinach sales, but only three known deaths were recorded. Incidents such as these command attention in part because they are now so rare. "Food Inc." should be criticized for filling our plates with too many foods that are unhealthy, but not foods that are unsafe.

Where industrial-scale food technologies have not yet reached into the developing world, contaminated food remains a major risk. In Africa, where many foods are still purchased in open-air markets (often uninspected, unpackaged, unlabeled, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized, and unwashed), an estimated 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases, compared with an estimated 5,000 in the United States.

Food grown organically — that is, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides — is not an answer to the health and safety issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year published a study of 162 scientific papers from the past 50 years on the health benefits of organically grown foods and found no nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, "No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food."

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant. Pesticide exposures remain a serious problem in the developing world, where farm chemical use is not as well regulated, yet even there they are more an occupational risk for unprotected farmworkers than a residue risk for food consumers.

When it comes to protecting the environment, assessments of organic farming become more complex. Excess nitrogen fertilizer use on conventional farms in the United States has polluted rivers and created a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, but halting synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use entirely (as farmers must do in the United States to get organic certification from the Agriculture Department) would cause environmental problems far worse.

Here's why: Less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture. Organic field crops also have lower yields per hectare. If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined.

Mass deforestation probably isn't what organic advocates intend. The smart way to protect against nitrogen runoff is to reduce synthetic fertilizer applications with taxes, regulations, and cuts in farm subsidies, but not try to go all the way to zero as required by the official organic standard. Scaling up registered organic farming would be on balance harmful, not helpful, to the natural environment.

Not only is organic farming less friendly to the environment than assumed, but modern conventional farming is becoming significantly more sustainable. High-tech farming in rich countries today is far safer for the environment, per bushel of production, than it was in the 1960s, when Rachel Carson criticized the indiscriminate farm use of DDT in her environmental classic, Silent Spring. Thanks in part to Carson's devastating critique, that era's most damaging insecticides were banned and replaced by chemicals that could be applied in lower volume and were less persistent in the environment. Chemical use in American agriculture peaked soon thereafter, in 1973. This was a major victory for environmental advocacy.

And it was just the beginning of what has continued as a significant greening of modern farming in the United States. Soil erosion on farms dropped sharply in the 1970s with the introduction of "no-till" seed planting, an innovation that also reduced dependence on diesel fuel because fields no longer had to be plowed every spring. Farmers then began conserving water by moving to drip irrigation and by leveling their fields with lasers to minimize wasteful runoff. In the 1990s, GPS equipment was added to tractors, autosteering the machines in straighter paths and telling farmers exactly where they were in the field to within one square meter, allowing precise adjustments in chemical use. Infrared sensors were brought in to detect the greenness of the crop, telling a farmer exactly how much more (or less) nitrogen might be needed as the growing season went forward. To reduce wasteful nitrogen use, equipment was developed that can insert fertilizers into the ground at exactly the depth needed and in perfect rows, only where it will be taken up by the plant roots.

These "precision farming" techniques have significantly reduced the environmental footprint of modern agriculture relative to the quantity of food being produced. In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a review of the "environmental performance of agriculture" in the world's 30 most advanced industrial countries — those with the most highly capitalized and science-intensive farming systems. The results showed that between 1990 and 2004, food production in these countries continued to increase (by 5 percent in volume), yet adverse environmental impacts were reduced in every category. The land area taken up by farming declined 4 percent, soil erosion from both wind and water fell, gross greenhouse gas emissions from farming declined 3 percent, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use fell 17 percent. Biodiversity also improved, as increased numbers of crop varieties and livestock breeds came into use.

Seeding the Future

Africa faces a food crisis, but it's not because the continent's population is growing faster than its potential to produce food, as vintage Malthusians such as environmental advocate Lester Brown and advocacy organizations such as Population Action International would have it. Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region's known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent's cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. Africa is failing to keep up with population growth not because it has exhausted its potential, but instead because too little has been invested in reaching that potential.

One reason for this failure has been sharply diminished assistance from international donors. When agricultural modernization went out of fashion among elites in the developed world beginning in the 1980s, development assistance to farming in poor countries collapsed. Per capita food production in Africa was declining during the 1980s and 1990s and the number of hungry people on the continent was doubling, but the U.S. response was to withdraw development assistance and simply ship more food aid to Africa. Food aid doesn't help farmers become more productive — and it can create long-term dependency. But in recent years, the dollar value of U.S. food aid to Africa has reached 20 times the dollar value of agricultural development assistance.

The alternative is right in front of us. Foreign assistance to support agricultural improvements has a strong record of success, when undertaken with purpose. In the 1960s, international assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and donor governments led by the United States made Asia's original Green Revolution possible. U.S. assistance to India provided critical help in improving agricultural education, launching a successful agricultural extension service, and funding advanced degrees for Indian agricultural specialists at universities in the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development, with the World Bank, helped finance fertilizer plants and infrastructure projects, including rural roads and irrigation. India could not have done this on its own — the country was on the brink of famine at the time and dangerously dependent on food aid. But instead of suffering a famine in 1975, as some naysayers had predicted, India that year celebrated a final and permanent end to its need for food aid.

Foreign assistance to farming has been a high-payoff investment everywhere, including Africa. The World Bank has documented average rates of return on investments in agricultural research in Africa of 35 percent a year, accompanied by significant reductions in poverty. Some research investments in African agriculture have brought rates of return estimated at 68 percent. Blind to these realities, the United States cut its assistance to agricultural research in Africa 77 percent between 1980 and 2006.

When it comes to Africa's growing hunger, governments in rich countries face a stark choice: They can decide to support a steady new infusion of financial and technical assistance to help local governments and farmers become more productive, or they can take a "worry later" approach and be forced to address hunger problems with increasingly expensive shipments of food aid. Development skeptics and farm modernization critics keep pushing us toward this unappealing second path. It's time for leaders with vision and political courage to push back. Ω

[Robert Paarlberg is B.F. Johnson professor of political science at Wellesley College, an associate at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010). He received his B.A. in government from Carleton College in Minnesota and his Ph.D. in government from Harvard.]

Coyright © 2010 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (Foreign Policy is published by the Slate Group, a division of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.)

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves