Archive for the ‘Commerce’ Category

My German friends at Ohio State laughed to hear that I had ancestors named Biedermann. To be a “Biedermann,” in German slang, is to be someone narrow and strict, someone who merely follows orders.

That joshing came to mind while reading Rick Anderson’s recent article, in which he divides fellow librarians into two groups: those who lean towards being dutiful “soldiers” and those who lean towards being willful “revolutionaries.” While weighing the relative merits of the two groups, Anderson lays a heavy thumb on the “soldiers” side of the scale. My thumb lays on the other side.

(Where Anderson applies his thumb hardest is with the bullet points in the “Soldiers and revolutionaries” section, which are practically parody. So be it, though…as we’ll soon see, what Anderson can do, I can do, too…)

Rather than use Anderson’s “soldiers” and “revolutionaries,” let’s honor the recent Fourth of July by describing the two sides as, respectively, “Tories” and “Patriots.”

Those with a predominantly Tory mindset:

  • accept the status quo
  • go along to get along
  • reliably defer to authority
  • do the work that someone else puts in front of them

Those with a predominantly Patriot mindset:

  • ask searching questions
  • challenge received assumptions
  • work independently when needed
  • build far-flung collegial relationships
  • try new things to meet new needs

To paraphrase Anderson, hardly any individual librarian can be characterized as either a pure Tory or a pure Patriot. But which mindset would you want characterizing your library in these days of transformational change?

As Anderson notes, “tightening budgets increasingly force us to choose between worthy programs and projects.” Publishers have steadily cut into library purchasing power for decades by raising their subscription rates far faster than the rate of inflation.

The traditional Tory passivity of all too many librarians–the Biedermann mentality that meekly accepts the status quo–serves students and faculty unusually poorly as we struggle with an unaffordable system of scholarly communication created by publishers for publishers.

How, then, can libraries break out of that dead-end system? They can do it by drawing on Patriot courage, leadership, and innovation.

Anderson ends his article with a heavy-handed reminder that libraries are “ethically obligated to support the mission” of their funders. Anderson implies that only “revolutionaries” will find themselves in that sort of ethical difficulty, and, as a result, risk ending up as unemployed “freelancers.”


Back in the real world…

When a librarian timidly does what he’s always done because he lacks the courage or imagination to change, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

When a librarian just wants to write the same (if ever-larger) checks to the same publishers in the same process because that’s his comfort zone, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

Are those Tory-style lapses in meeting ethical obligations so improbable that they were not even worth mentioning?

And if they’re not so improbable, why didn’t Anderson bother to mention them?

That imbalance is the fatal weakness of his article.

Maybe he would have benefited from having some Biedermann ancestors.

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“It was a tendency [during the nineteenth century], especially after 1860, to conceive of governance not merely as control of strategic centers but as ongoing activity on the part of regional authorities. […] This territorialization was bound up with the projection of imagined shapes of the nation onto mappable space [e.g., showing the British Empire in red on a world map], with the formation of nation-states, and also with the reform of empires and the consolidation of colonial rule, which was understood for the first time as control over countries rather than simply over trading bases. In line with this revaluation of viable territories, there was a dramatic reduction in the world total of independent political entities–in Europe from five hundred in 1500 to twenty-five in 1900. […] In 1780 no one thought it strange that Neuchâtel in Switzerland should be subject to the king of Prussia, but by the eve of its accession to the Swiss Confederation in 1857 this had become a historical curiosity.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pgs. 107-08, 112.

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“The image of the Other that Europeans had when they set out to conquer the planet is of a naked savage, a cannibal and pagan, whose humiliation and oppression is the sacred right and duty of the European–who is white and Christian. The cause of the exceptional brutality and cruelty that typified whites was not only the lust for gold and slaves that consumed their minds and blinded the ruling elites of Europe, but also the incredibly low standard of culture and morals among those sent out as the vanguard for contact with Others. In those days ships’ crews consisted largely of villains, criminals and bandits, the inveterate, avowed rabble; at best they were tramps, homeless people and failures, the reason being that it was hard to persuade a normal person to choose to go on a voyage of adventure that often ended in death.

“The fact that for centuries Europe has been sending out its worst, most repulsive representatives to meet Others, and to meet them for the first time into the bargain, is bound to cast a sad shadow over our relations with Others, to shape our common views about them, and to fix stereotypes, prejudices and phobias in our minds that sometimes appear in one form or another to this day. I am sure of this even to this day, when I hear apparently serious people say, for instance, that the only solution for Africa is to colonise it again.”

–Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other (New York : Verso, 2008), pg. 22.

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“[The ability to transfer debts to another person is] what determines money’s value–and why money, even though it is nothing but credit, cannot just be created at will by anyone. For sellers to accept buyers’ IOUs in payment, they must be convinced of two things. They must have reason to believe that the debtor whose obligation they are about to accept will, if it comes to it, be able to satisfy their claim: they must believe, in other words, that the money’s issuer is creditworthy. This much would be enough to sustain the existence of bilateral credit. The test for money is more stringent. For credit to become money, sellers must also trust that third parties will be willing to accept the debtor’s IOU in payment as well. They must believe that it is, and will remain indefinitely, transferable–that the market for this money is liquid. Depending on how powerful are the reasons to believe these two things, it will be easier or harder for an issuer’s IOUs to circulate as money.”

— Felix Martin, Money : The Unauthorized Biography (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), pg. 28.


By inscribing dollar bills with “This Note is Legal Tender for All Debts, Public and Private,” the United States government, because of its ability to both honor and enforce that inscription, can persuade people around the world to use those bills in their daily commerce in a way that a random guy with a laser printer could never match.

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The right to conquer

“Precisely because chivalric ideals had little relevance for modern pike-and-artillery warfare, they became all the more cherished by those who dreamed of far-off lands. Places in that vast unknown territory called the ‘Indies’ that were either uninhabited or occupied by pagans rightfully belonged to the Church. It was the obligation of Christian monarchs and knights to bring them into due submission and to turn the natives’ labors to the rightful profit of their godly conquerors.”

— Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution : America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2011), pg. 70.

Is this rationale for dispossessing others much different from the rationale used by venture capitalists who buy companies, break them up in the name of “efficiency,” and suck out profit regardless of how well the broken pieces (and the broken people whose lives were invested in those companies) go on to do?

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“Though the Centralia Coal Mine was the fifth largest in the United States when Dave was working there, only three of its ten seams of coal were actually mined. Seven seams of valuable coal were completely wasted, treated as ‘overburden,’ dug up and plowed back into the pit, mixed with dirt, silt, sand, and rock.

“Wasting seven seams of coal meant the mine would have a shorter life, about forty years rather than 140 years if the coal from all ten seams was recovered. Dave questioned the logic of mining only three seams. The mine’s financial officer provided an explanation: ‘We make one percent more in profit by mining only the three best seams.’ Astonished, Dave argued the point: ‘But that’s one percent more profit over forty years versus one percent less profit over 140 years. The owners will make more over the long run by mining ten seams.’ [T]he financial officer replied, ‘But we want to maximize returns this quarter.’ He shrugged, turned, and walked away.”

— John de Graff and David K. Batker, What’s the Economy For, Anyway? (New York : Bloomsbury, 2011), pg. 11.


What public interest should be asserted in ensuring that non-renewable natural assets are efficiently used?

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Comcast >>> AT&T

Having given one side, I’ll now give the other.

Comcast has made a strong effort to fix the connectivity problems we have been having, and we are hoping at this point that they have been resolved. We also signed up for cable television service again, which I dropped a year ago (immediately after the Ohio State – Michigan game). I am very happy that Comcast has finally added the Big Ten Network to its channel lineup.

As for AT&T…still fine overall, but when I wanted to call a friend in Greece a few weeks ago, I just went ahead and called, figuring it wouldn’t cost that much. I just got the bill: $2.30 per minute. How in the world does long-distance to a European Union country in 2008 cost $2.30 per minute?

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Debt is real

Most people both own and owe: We have assets and we have debts.

An important distinction between the cash value of the two: Assets are speculative. Debts are real.

We can believe we know what our assets are worth, but their actual cash value is what someone will pay for them at the time we try to sell them, and we can only speculate about what that amount will be. Those speculations are often overly optimistic. Those speculations usually fail to account for how swiftly a particular kind of asset—say, a McMansion in the exurbs—can be devalued.

We can know the actual cash value of what we owe. That doesn’t change (though inflation can chip away at it over time).

All of this is to say that you want to be very careful when you hand over something real (an agreement to take on debt) in exchange for something speculative (a house, a car, a stock).

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Too big to save?

When enough financial institutions that are “too big to fail” totter at the same time, the government cannot save them all.

What worries me is the possibility that the federal government and Federal Reserve will sink $2 trillion, $3 trillion, $4 trillion into stabilizing the financial system and then simply run out of real money (as opposed to inflated money), leaving them powerless to intervene further and thus bringing on a truly catastrophic crash. The taxing ability of the federal government—its ability to back up its financial commitments with revenue taxed from Americans—is large, but it is not infinite.

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Financial maneuvering is a form of endeavor favorable to old men: The financial brain, unlike brains adept in various other areas—for example, mathematics, physics, chess, and, quite possibly, armed bank robbery—apparently deteriorates very little, if at all, with passage of time, even in the eighth and ninth decades of life.

— John Brooks, “Spanish Privateer”, 1978

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The east side of Portland is littered with ugly two-story apartment buildings of early ’60s vintage. If you live in Portland, you know what I’m talking about: The long, low bricks; the rusted metal stairs; the fading pale paint; the ratty parking lot; the juniper bushes.

So some developer bought the interchangeable ugly apartment block at Southeast 29th and Salmon, slapped some new siding on it, put in new doors, and is selling the apartments as condos for $185,000 a pop.

I wonder if anyone will buy?

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Today’s amazing fact

The rivalry between shoemakers Adidas and Puma is based on a Nazi family feud.

Who knew?

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In Book II (369a-372d) of the Republic, Socrates reasons step-by-step through what would be required to create a simple and harmonious city, one in which the citizens “will live in peace and good health, and when they die at a ripe old age, they will bequeath a similar life to their children” (372c-d).

Socrates then continues with his steps, changing his simple city into a luxurious city (372e-374a) and discussing how this change ruins the harmony and leads to “the origins of war” (373e).

George Carlin has a classic routine about “stuff”, which I have taken to heart. “That’s all your house is: It’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” I have never wanted either a house or a lot of stuff because I realized early on that house and stuff are a vicious cycle: You have too much stuff, so you buy a bigger house; your bigger house looks empty until you buy more stuff for it; and so on.

Luxury is having more than you can ever use. What is the point of that?

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In Book I (345e-347a) of the Republic, Socrates distinguishes between one’s ability to succeed at a craft (to be a craftsman) and one’s ability to succeed in being paid (to be a wage-earner); and states that the two abilities should be considered in isolation from one another. One can be a craftsman without receiving a wage; one can receive a wage for doing nothing.

We naturally tie the two together because they are so often paired, but it is worth remembering (and worth hammering home in school) that just because you are skilled at your craft does not mean that you will be paid to perform it.

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Retro handset

OK, now, this is just awesome right here.

(H/t to Smashing Magazine.)

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