Friday, January 22, 2010

A few days ago, I finished Life Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff.

I felt so strongly about it, that it has taken me a few days to organize my thoughts, but at bottom they are this: ignore the glowing quotes on the back, this is an extremely stupid book.

The subtitle, "How the world became a corporation and how to take it back", is unexpected enough to make it sound intriguing but even a reading of the foreword should make readers who are paying attention take notice that of the author's shallow thought process. Early on, he compares a neigbourhood being gentrified to a country being colonized. That may seem like a trivial comparison, but the lack of understanding of the essentials on an issue exhibited there is typical of everything else in this book. Similarly, he compares loans from the World Bank/IMF with gunship diplomacy and loans from the mob. Again - the essential difference eludes him. If a country defaults on loans from the IMF, the worst that will happen is that they don't receive any more loans. If you default on loans to the mob, they will burn down your business and kill your family. Do those seem like they are essentially the same thing?

Early on he comments on chartered companies and how they were granted monopolies by the state. Throughout the book, he associates these with corporations even though modern corporations, outside of public utilities, are not granted monopolies.

Again, and again he misrepresents people, or things. He quotes John D. Rockefeller talking about how he believed God had given him his ability to make money, but prefaces it to say he is bragging about monopolies even though the quote doesn't mention them at all.

He talks about the Secret, the Oprah promoted New Age mumbo jumbo that believes positive thinking can literally shape your life. I can understand criticizing this junk, but he does it not because of its ridiculous magical thinking but because it is too egotistic!

His main thesis is that starting with the Renaissance, corporations have corrupted not only the business world but the way people look at themselves and everything else. The Renaissance is picked as a starting point mainly for the reason that this is a time that some places moved from using a mix of local and national currencies to using government fiat central currency. The role of government fiat central currency seems to be a major bee in his bonnet. Of course, a good clue to deciding if someone is a crank is if they are not an economist but want to tell you about their theories that society is messed up mainly because of monetary theory. If you think I'm exaggerating, notice that he blames changes in monetary policy for the plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century.

His confusion on political and economic points is astounding. Throughout the book he gives example after example of how corporations, working governments (or governments, working with corporations) collude against everyone else, but it never occurs to him that the problem is government having this kind of power in the first place, instead he thinks we should do away with corporations. He seems to have no understanding of the difference between actual free market policies and mercantilist ones (or "corporatist", as he calls it). He also states explicitly that the work of almost all economists is bunk, including free market advocates like Hayek, because they did their work in the context of a government fiat currency, ignoring history of comment on exactly that issue, and ignoring that Hayek's work on price as information would apply under local currencies as well as under fiat ones.

He talks about how corporations created a lot of the drive for individual, rather than community satisfaction and desires, including the desire for owning a house. He goes on to prove his point by quoting that noted corporate shill, Walt Whitman!

Page after page, he gives some ridiculous sounding fact or interpretation, and if you try to go to the end notes to find out where this comes from, you will mostly find nothing. The end notes are very short with gaps of multiple pages between notes in most cases. Most of his claims are totally undocumented in any way. For example, he claims that the Rand Corporations secretaries that were the original subjects of Prisoner's Dilemma experiments didn't act the way they were expected to and cooperated instead of betraying each other. Sounds like an interesting fact, if true. The end notes give no source, and no way of tracking down where it came from. Similarly, he claims that most medievalists agree that European quality of life between the 11th and 13th century was higher than even today, due to the use of local currencies. Again, no end notes or citations.

While reading this book, it felt somewhat familiar, though I was sure I had not read it before. Then I realized what it was - it reminded me of Behold A Pale Horse, by the confirmed nut bag William Cooper. From the misapplication of technical theories (monetary in this case, electrical in Cooper's book), to the habit of jumping from fact to fact on superficial resemblances and then tying them together into a grand theory, this book reveals itself as a modern example of conspiracy theory.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Last night we went to see The Threepenny Opera, put on by Berkeley's Shotgun Players.

I haven't seen The Threepenny Opera before, so some of my comments here are about the play itself, rather than this staging. The story is a strange and silly little adaptation of a story from the 18th century, with the antihero nature of Macheath, "Mack The Knife" amped up. The lyrics give forth a depressing and squalid view of life, but are married to memorable tunes in a way that makes them enjoyable and ironic. Macheath is described as viscous, a rapist and murderer, but he is portrayed as a sometimes gallant, sometimes weaselly free spirit since none of his more terrible acts are shown on stage. This allows the audience to cheer for him, rather than wanting to see him executed.

The production marries a punk ethos to Brecht's Marxist lyrics in a way that seems obvious in retrospect, but I can't find any online discussions of it being done before. The result is a brutal but vital looking play with more energy than is good for it at times. The opening rendition of "Mack The Knife" is sold so energetically and "punk" that it almost ruins the song itself. Other songs have the background singers/dancers pounding around in such chaos that a similar result ensues. Thankfully, this is not true of some of the other numbers, such as "Pirate Jenny", which is sung beautifully by Kelsey Venter, who plays Polly Peachum. In general, Venter's numbers were all highlights. She went for a more restrained approach, allowing her powerful voice and the lyrics/music to create the moment, instead of a punk schtick overselling the emotion.

The brutal look, with prostitute's having visible bruises on their face and limbs and beggars having exaggerated torn clothes and dirty faces, was distracting at times, acting against the story. At other times, it worked better, giving weight to lyrics that describe their brutal lives and underscoring descriptions of Macheath's brutality.

Overall, it's a good production with some strong standouts. I'd recommend you go see it, but even it's extended run is sold out. There are a few tickets that come up for sale just before show time, but from listening to others in the line/lobby, they seemed difficult to get.