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Diss Me Baby!

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This transcript is offered instead of captions for a 14 minute videotaped conversation in American Sign Language with Deaf elders Winchell and Ruth Moore.

View the ASL vlog at  http://vimeo.com/loosevariable/holdingtime Read the rest of this entry »

This chapter is included in The European Public Sphere –  From critical thinking to responsible action.

Introduction

This case study presents conference-style simultaneous interpretation in the European Parliament as a dynamic microcosm for communicating Europe. In the enlarged EP, the regime of controlled multilingualism has been challenged by an emergent pluralingualism in which Members use multiple and mixed languages in addition to the services of simultaneous interpreters. This marks a temporal and paradigmatic shift in the larger game of languages in the European public sphere. First, ritual effects of jockeying for voice through the use of pluralingual communication skills establishes co-identification among the Members while also revealing the power of simultaneous interpretation (SI) to alleviate status inequality by leveling linguistic difference. Second, discourses of and about SI, language policy, and communication policy participate in an interaction taboo by overemphasizing information and technology. This reduces communication to one dimension—the transmission of information in space—by minimizing the relationship and identity effects of communication in the unfolding of time. This artificial separation of information from the social interaction of human beings is also evident in strategic planning about communicating Europe. The findings suggest that institutional inertia in communicating Europe can be altered by making SI a common resource for the pluralingual development of everyone who lives in the European Union.

 

You can view and download a (large) pdf file of the poster, Beyond Homolingualism, that  I presented at the conference hosted by the Committee of the Regions on this topic in Brussels, February 2012. The original poster abstract is here.

The book is edited by Luciano Morganti and Léonce Bekemans (2012)  in the ”Multiple Europes” series from P.I.E Peter Lang S.A. Editions scientifiques internationales, Brussels.

Action Researchredirecting phenomenological reduction

redirecting phenomenological reduction

Details, Description, Context, Bleh

It is impossible to say what happened in the roundtable on Future Change at the Dialogue under Occupation conference hosted at Lebanon-American University in Beirut. We have video, which will allow description and documentation. But so what? The important matter is what our time together comes to mean, and that depends. Determining what the meaningfulness of our gathering might become was not possible even before that Romanian dude added stuff to the white board. During the session, Sophia challenged the authority of the interpreter; Raz claimed arguments have limits; Ibrahim asked about the irony of Occupy Wall Street; Barbara was misinterpreted; Woyciech offered hope; and Stephanie [from Brazil] talked about brackets. Anne was quiet. Larry did not want me to forget presuppositions. Niam (operating the camcorder) conversed with herself ;-)

Fishing for a Future (Warning: Academic Jargon Ahead)

talking about time

talking about time

The topic was (sortof) about time – as in, how to find one’s placement in a diverse group based upon language use and dynamics of interaction so as to (attempt) to aim in the direction of a desirable future with meta-awareness of entailments (or entrailments, if you prefer the post-workshop revision). I am always wondering if it can be done, what it would look like if we tried, and how control &/or the desire for control is involved. Specifically, I asked this group if we could de-link discourses of occupation from physical places in space to temporal enactments in time by transforming our own discourse? Would it be desirable to do so? I am not sure anyone was convinced! It is hard to draw coherence from loose collections of phrases, concepts, and fragments of comments snatched from sound and written down. “Peace is hard.” “History is big.”  [(Name ye well the limits of argument!) Stop thee not the pursuit of amity!]

The Circle: A symbol of wholeness

The Circle: A symbol of wholeness

The group was game to engage the quest, at least for the duration of the session. A pluck lot, these academics, simultaneously kind and critical. Serious and generous. Diverse yet dialogic: no problematic moments (of the theoretical kind) – although desire to rename – enunciative (cf Hannah Arendt), aha, a collective break in phenomenological flow when we all notice – for an instant – what we’re doing. I barely mentioned simultaneity as counterpart and tied few knots with identity. Nonetheless I quoted Ilham (with her permission!), however that conversation slides into remission, suspended, distended, perhaps beyond local use but could it grow wings to give flight elsewhere?

Creating our own origami unicorn

Playing with jargon: indexicality can be defined but entailments may be inexplicable

Playing with jargon: indexicality can be defined but entailments may be inexplicable

At the end of the second day of workshop sessions, a bunch of us began impromptu planning for growing the conference. If dialogue is to make a difference in the world, it must be sustained. As academics, we know the theory! But can we do it? Participants in the six conferences held to date have not yet managed to move beyond the typical monologic structure: schedule, attend, present, participate in a few interesting conversations, go home. Perhaps maintain a new collegial relationship or two. Maybe this year will be different?

I linked (above) to an essay describing the history of “Common Read” programs. It may seem like a non sequitor, but the simultaneity is that I just finished reading Ready Player One, the book selected for the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s First Year Experience Program. The (2011) book by Ernest Cline projects a future in which people escape and avoid dealing with reality by playing in a global virtual simulation, a web-based interactive game called OASIS. The immersive environment of OASIS is imaginable because it extrapolates from today’s use of social media. DUO Dialoguer, are you thinking WTF? Or is a little bell going off? Connect the dots! Traverse mediums, here’s a clue – this conversation moves!

Beirut, Lebanon

3-dimensional timespace

A Golden Globe for best drama? Ouch. Most of my friends and colleagues will be disgusted. There is barely even a story in Avatar, because the re-presentation of the colonizing logic that elevates white men as heroic figures is left completely unproblematized.

I am not supposed to like Avatar. There are so many problems with it.  Really. And I did not enjoy watching much of it.  I winced, squirmed in my seat, felt bored, and was not even enthralled by the visual effects.  The three-dimensionality is pleasing at an aesthetic level, yes, and may deserve awards, but to consider Avatar drama is to cheapen the real human lives of actual indigenous peoples, women, environmental activists, and anyone else who applies their conscience to the experience of watching this film. Drama involves, by definition, “serious subject matter…usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue.” As a buddy keeps reiterating, there was not a single surprise, no unexpected twist, no nod or wink of any kind from the director, actors, script-writers, camera-operators or graphic artists of Avatar to a socially-intelligent audience.

A Window upon Us?

The drama of Avatar is less about the movie itself than how it serves as a blank screen for viewers to project a firestorm of passionate support and cynical disdain. There is a principle of feedback usually applied to interpersonal communication: whatever someone tells us about ourselves is more informative about the feedback giver, a window upon their perception – such as what they value and what assumptions they use to interpret behavior – than it is about ourselves as the target of feedback. As social and cultural critics, many academics in the social sciences/humanities believe it is our job to pounce upon popular culture to try and dismantle what we see as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the public sphere. It does not matter if the object of analysis is classified as ‘high’ or ‘low’ art, was intended for our explicit consumption, or purports to promote or hide overt political intentions. The debate over Avatar, however, is dramatic because it complements the very dynamics critical analysis intends to combat.

I cannot – nor do I want to – dispute the specific criticisms made of the racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, out-of-control capitalism, and militarism in the film. I agree with these analyses. The question I’ve been mulling is whether this mythic representation of a glorified white male savior has an equivalent meaning in today’s world as it did in the historical world that postcolonialist, social justice, cultural studies, and critical communication scholars and teachers rightly deplore? I think not. I suspect that by assuming these images and representations “mean the same” as they did in the past, i.e., that they will lead to the same kinds of attitudes and behaviors, uneven relationships and hierarchical oppressions as has enabled white domination in recent centuries, then we contribute to “making” them mean what they used to: we collaborate, discursively, in co-constructing the social continuation of stereotypical hierarchies and inhibit processes of identity development and social change.

We. Perhaps I should resist writing in the plural, but what I mean to admit and expose is that I am also part and parcel of these discursive dynamics. Does my whiteness make me more susceptible to the folkloric elements in this classic story? Am I more willing to forgive egregious excess because I overvalue the seeds of incremental change? Perhaps. What might have improved the story of Avatar would have been for Jake Sully to support and affirm Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonzo) as the heir to Aytucan (Wes Studi) instead of competing to replace him. Or he could have given the idea of riding the monster raptor, Toruk, to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and supported the matriarchs in leading completely and openly.

Calibrating to another timespace

The running debate I’ve been having with friends involves things like how so many of us got suckered by the hype, and whether or not there is any redemptive value in the film, and if so, what the heck could it possibly be? My attention was originally captured by a fan review posted by a friend on Facebook, which was followed in quick succession by a blistering anti-racist critique and a thoughtful examination of prosthetic relations and doubled consciousness. I continued reading and listening somewhat incredulously as the debate rose in pitch, arriving even to the edge of tension with friends. I keep wondering to myself, how can so much be at stake? And what do these arguments “do” as communicative work in the world? SEMP suggests the furor is evidence of addiction, an intriguing hypothesis that reminds me of how I interpreted the panic of the monied class in the early days of the financial crisis.

Here’s what I perceive. It is (on the one hand) the same ol’ same ol’ white supremacist myth but with a twist (on the other hand) that matters. The audiences who are most responsive to the positive message of ‘going native’ are among some of the ones who most need to get it: young people (mostly men and some women) who have had enough privilege and/or culturally-constructed desire to experiment with the alternative realities invoked by videogaming.  Many have grown up in such insulated conditions that patriotism (to nation, to the profit imperative, to so-called legitimate uses of violence – to name the most obvious) is so embedded as to be unquestionable.  Yet these same young people are a bit freaked out (if they’re paying attention whatsover) to the inevitability of climate change, the sensationalism of terrorism, and subsequent threats to the security and comfort that is all they’ve ever (really) known.

The lack of any sophistication at all in Avatar’s storyline (a major bone of contention from erudite friends) allows the alternative message to shine: endless consumption has to be reckoned with, and there must be other options than fighting-to-death over natural resources. As caricatures exaggerating some of what is ‘good’ (albeit in a culturally-biased and fragmentary way) and ‘bad’ about the types of people cultivated by the present global political-economic system, it seems clear that the primary intended audience of director James Cameron’s “story” is not graduate students or intellectuals – by assuming that we are Cameron’s target we miss the potential use of a culture’s particular and situated mythology to generate change from the inside.

Interrupting kneejerk belief in the bad

I was intrigued to learn that the cast was contractually forbidden to discuss the storyline. I am definitely prone to finding silver linings, and I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – just as I’m glad the Na’vi survive, I am unsettled by the intensity of academic attack, not on the film per se, but on the viewers of the film who are inspired by its story of betrayal to the military-corporate ethos. Because, ultimately, the critiques say nothing “to” the inanimate film or its characters. Whether or not they are rendered in two- or three visual dimensions they are merely symbols. What matters are the uses to which these symbols are put, and I am concerned that the main thing being accomplished is the reinforcement of cynicism and general hopelessness in the face of perceived inevitabilities.

Avatar is not science fiction; it is fantasy. Fantasy asks for the willing suspension of disbelief. Fantasy evokes a temporary reality, a vision of possibility premised on a vein of reality – emphasize the hope or dwell on dread, its your choice. I prefer to support the chance that plunder and profiteering can be made methods of the human past, rather than surrender to the empty promise of a futile future.

References/Resources:

Barbara, Speculum de L’Autre Femme, Why critics of Avatar are missing the point
Rob Beschizza, boingboing, What storytelling risks could Avatar have taken?
Mary Bustillos, The Awl, I Hated ‘Avatar’ with the Fire of a Thousand Suns
Mary HK Choi, The Awl, Flicked Off: Avatar
Adam Cohen, New York Times, Next-Generation 3-D of ‘Avatar’ underscores its message
Joshua Davis, (esp. language details – inventing Na’vi) in Wired, James Cameron’s New 3-D Epic Could Change Film Forever
Erkan, Erkan’s Field Diary, Avatar, the movie
Stephanie Jo Kent, Reflexivity, “believe the data”
Annalee Newitz, i09.com, When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?
Lisa, Sociological Images, On Avatar, The Movie
Sr. Rose Pacatte, National Catholic Reporter: Riffing with Myth
Christina Radish, AvatarMovieZone, Laz Alonzo talks James Cameron’s Avatar
Selva, The Scientific Indian, review
The Snake Brotherhood, NationStates, The whole Avatar debate
Emmanual Reagan, merinews, Avatar a Spiritual Fantasy

Coming soon: Ambarish Karmalkar and Arturo Osorio

Dr Linus Nyiwul, Resource Management
working the system: market enforcement of emission standards

Dr Siny Joseph, Resource Management
How COOL is your seafood?

Dr Anuj Pradhan, Human Performance Laboratory,
Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

Anuj in a suit
(on Risk Prevention and Awareness Training for young/new drivers)

International Relations Theory
(political science)

The quote above is from a comment by blenCOWe to a blogpost, Theory of International Politics and Zombies, by Daniel W. Drezner. Drezner’s blog entry is an example along the lines of this youtube video, Gay Science Isolates the Christian Gene, and a powerpoint presentation made by MJ Bienvenu at the recent biennial convention of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in which she offered deconstructions of audism from the organization’s official website. For example:

“English is not ASL on the mouth.”

The pedagogy of this style of teaching is aptly captured by Erin in her comment to Drezner:

“As Daniel Nexon and Iver Neumann write, “The mirror approach is broader than simply deploying popular culture artifacts as a teaching aid. IR scholars can examine popular culture as a medium for exploring theoretical concepts, dilemmas of foreign policy, and the like.” (12).”

The mirror approach operates on the simple principle of substitution: take an existing discourse, and

    a) reverse the key tropes (as in “Gay Science” or unveiling audism in “The Heart of the RID Organization”),

    b) replace the key actors with an abstraction, or

    c) combine both.

A View from Communication Theory
The engagement spawned (ha) is impressive. A communication theorist has many choices for analysis: as a media text, from the viewpoint of audience, in terms of effects, as a language game (Wittgenstein), as a social use of information and communications technology, not to mention the rich data seeded throughout regarding regional, national, and gendered points of view (classist, ableist, etc), and the production of online identities. It can be critiqued from a variety of viewpoints, including (for instance) political economy, pragmatism, or cultural studies, and at differing levels, such as mass media or interpersonal communication.
My own take is to regard the entry and comments as an instance of discourse: academic, specific to one discipline, and (probably, as goes the zeitgeist) rooted more in space than time. The use of wit (humor) to display breadth, depth, and precision of one’s knowledge in fast repartee is the most valorized contemporary mode of intellectual engagement. Everyone who can find a way in, does, and those who can’t find their way quickly enough, don’t. By the time the entry point clarifies into a path (or the perceptible path finds its entry point), the exchange is over, the event is closed. The instigators and participants have moved on to the next sexy thing. The normative behavior is that the immediate “space” occupied by this interaction has been effectively controlled: everyone (who matters?) has had their say in shining flashes of inspiration.
What strikes me, as an action researcher and a constructivist, is multileveled. First, unadulterated admiration. I envy the lightening comprehension and instant formulation of coherent, contextualized, educative information. Second, awe. We know so much. Ok, so I’m liberally folding myself into the “we,” but seriously: look at the range of knowledge pouring out! It isn’t as if there aren’t tons of “us” out here who understand the historical momentum of the social forces we’re working with – or against, as the case may be. blenCOWe continues:

In terms of his liberal institutionalist and constructivist analyses, Drezner is counting on the fact that the zombies would have the cognitive ability to calculate the benefits and drawbacks to collaborating with other actors. As such, any ideas of building an international organization, including the presence of zombies, to deal with the presence of zombies or to build a world state inclusive of zombies appears to be quite impossible.

Lastly, when he addresses neoconservatism he recognizes that the zombie threat was an existential threat, noting that the threat from zombies is from their jealously over our freedom and not from their desire for our brains. Like the faults with the other theories, this analysis is based on the faulty assumption that zombies have the ability to make cognitive decisions like that. The unavoidable fact is simple, zombies pose a threat to humans because of their desire for brains and for no other reason.

Zombies pose a threat not only because of their desire for eating brains, but – crucially – because that primal desire is coupled with an accompanying lack of brains. The implicit message in the IR discourse about Zombies is that there are, already, zombies among us. I suggest there are three broad types:

  • the undead who have accepted a singular social and ideological “programming” as the one and only way to make sense of their lives,
  • the undead who have embraced a particular intellectual framework in order to cope with existential anxiety and/or the evolutionary pressures of anarchy, and
  • the undead who have selected to master the terms of the zeigeist, “Let’s get cynical!”

Now what?
With the “what” of varying ideological understandings so thoroughly grasped in the space of two days’ interaction, enter the dimension of time. I’m speaking of deep time (esp. deep history), small time (i.e., Bakhtin), and time inclusive of the future. Politically, time is apprehendible in norms of culture and forms of institutions. Simply, what changes and what stays the same? As the Human versus Zombie IR debate unfolds, applications are posed or elaborated, such as two-level game theory and accepting Zombies as a new class to be integrated into the existing global structure. Erin, quoted above, offered

“a brief survey (n=3) I conducted in the last 5 minutes unanimously suggest[ing] that zombies should probably be considered alongside Kosovo to understand IR theory.”

She also adds “an important caveat,” to her random sampling:

“…2/3 of respondents volunteered that they conditioned their response on zombie attacks, unlike extraterrestrial visitations, remaining confined to the realm of hypothetical thought experiments.”

While I agree with the pedagogical impulse, the effect of continuing to deploy only such discrete strategies extends temporally into the future, replicating the same momentum of monological thought that substantively prevents us from finding collective means for creatively managing the diversity of human ways of being. In other words, will the brilliance of insight and potential demonstrated by Drezner & Company be translated into wisdom with a voice?
Engaging intellectual battle in the abstract can be deeply satisfying and even entertaining, the case of Zombies in point. But what about those of us who don’t speak that language? Why must we continue to demarcate the differences in such ways as to reinforce the space of separation between them? This is an illness of extreme disciplinarity. There will always be gaps. Can we ply them creatively? To do so, I suggest we need to consider multilingual models, in particular the potential of interpreted interactions. In The Language Barrier as an Aid to Communication, Rodrigo Ribeiro argues the importance of not understanding in a case study involving the steel industry, technology transfer, and Japanese and Brazilian forms of life

the ‘language barrier’, which is normally thought as a problem, can aid communication by preventing people who hold potentially clashing concepts, beliefs and customs from directly confronting each other.

While I support Ribeiro’s conclusion of value based on non-confrontation and interpreters’ strategies of mediation, I suggest this is only one manifestation of the intercultural communication practice of multilingual/interpreted interaction. The Japanese and Brazilian interlocutors are learning – through this process – how to be with difference. What we academics need to help politicians create are systems that can deal fluidly with difference – ideological, linguistic, cultural, etc – that are, in essence, multilogical rather than monological. Among the strategies that could work are finding ways among ourselves to communicate with each other across, among, and between our fields of expertise.

imagination

One of my deep interests is change: particularly the relationship between personal change and societal change, and especially the individual and group tensions that are always involved. Is changing something we do from (internal) desire or willpower, or are we changed as a result of something (external) that happens to us? How is it that some people change easily (or seem to), and others never change (appearing as if they cannot)?

Tendency of stone
I know two stories about rocks and belonging. One of my teachers, Grandmother Spotted Eagle, told us about a lesson she received as a young girl in Arizona. This is how I remember it:

One day,” she told us, “I was instructed to go out and collect ten white rocks.” It took awhile for her to find and carry the rocks back to the camp, but she accomplished the task. What happened next was a surprise: “Then,” she explained, “I was told to return each one of them to the place where I found it, and put it back in the exact same spot.

The second story is from a visit to Hawai’i. While there, I learned that there are many stories about people who take a piece of volcanic rock home as a souvenir, and then have terrible luck until they finally send the rock back. It is as if the rock curses them for removing it from where it belonged.
Some people belong to a certain space like specific stones “belong” in their particular place. These Rock People are connected by nearly unbreakable bonds to deeply felt ways of relating to each other and the environment. Whatever the weather brings, they will endure it! Take them out of that cultural milieu and unhappiness follows; watch them return and rediscover pleasure.

Drift of feathers

heron and ducks.jpg
Grandmother Spotted Eagle also inspired my interest in birds, who figure prominently in American Indian culture. Later I learned about the use of canaries in mines, and began bird-watching. After looking so hard to identify different types of birds, it seemed that my ability to watch and comprehend ASL improved greatly! Unlike stone (under normal conditions), birds travel vast distances, propelled and protected by feathers whose density compared to rock is practically nonexistent. Once shed, a feather can be blown about by even a slight breeze. Change seems constant! Yet, the bird’s flight is purposeful while the feather’s vulnerability to the wind remains always the same.
Groups – be they societies or organizations, need Rock People and Feather People. We need people who are reliable, sturdy, always present. We also need people who flit about: leaving, adapting, coming back, and being blown through by the wind. I have a rather silly hypothesis that social change – of the fundamental, lasting kind – happens when there is an overlap of agreement between the Rock and Feather Peoples of various identity groupings: a temporal merger of drift and tendency.

“Westerners have watches; we have time” (an African saying, thanks Siré!)
No one has yet been able to explain that “overlap of agreement” – it may be the kind of experience that is ineffable: “incapable of being expressed in words.” And, while we may never know how to say what it is when our social interacting culminates in change, we may be able to perceive that such events are immanent: “…within the limits of possible experience or knowledge.”

References/Resources:
milieu, definition by Merriam Webster Online
photo by Sarbjeet, Amherst Campus Pond, UMass
Independent Nation of Hawai’i (DUO), Reflexivity
IF CONDORS RULED THE SKY: Yurok Tribe seeks return of majestic bird to Northern California, by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press, in The Monterey County Herald
What does it mean to be a “canary in a coal mine”? wisegeek.com
ineffable, definition from Merriam Webster Online
Immanent, definition from Merriam Webster Online
Westerners may have watches, but Africans have time……, Notes from the Field 2007, Public health students from the University of Minnesota write about their summer field experiences.
A matter of time, GrumpyGecko

NOTE: Thoughts on ineffability inspired by Brion. I’m partial to the sentiment expressed by Douglas Adams: “We shall grapple with the ineffable, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
Resource Economics
Stockbridge 217, UMass
Amherst

Dr Linus Nyiwul’s dissertation defense was conducted almost exclusively in the language of math, with very little generic English explanation for the non-resource management layperson. So I cannot write very much about it, except that it was obvious that his faculty members are excited about the potential of this framework Dr Nyiwul has created for government regulators to exploit market mechanisms by leveraging emissions standards against the needs of firms to attract investors.
There are a couple of premises that Dr Nyiwul builds upon, including a perception that investors would prefer to put their money into “green” companies, and evidence that companies who improve their own environmental management systems experience increases in stock value (e.g., Feldman 1996). Dr Nyiwul described a whole lot of complicated stuff that needs to be properly balanced:

  • setting a standard,
  • needing to monitor to ensure companies are meeting the standard,
  • keeping the cost of monitoring low enough to be reasonable (for government) while
  • making the threat of monitoring real enough that companies prefer to comply rather than risk being caught and having to pay the penalty.

LinusGRAPH.jpgSomehow all those things get crunched through some equations that calculate

  1. “marginal damage” (whatever this means! it apparently refers wholistically to “society”) and
  2. monitoring costs (to the government) and
  3. costs of compliance (for the firms)

…. now, where it gets real interesting is when the government establishes two emissions standards: a regular standard (the minimum to be deemed “in compliance” and avoid penalties) and an overcompliance standard – which would earn a special certification proving uber-greenness (or something en route to such glorified status). There is pilot project currently underway, the National Environmental Performance Track (NEPT), which has weaknesses but whose results – plugged into Dr Nyiwul’s equations – demonstrates that TWO STANDARDS IS GOOD POLICY! Not to mention that firms which earn the overcompliance certification have a special marketing asset to appeal to investors. (They have to meet the minimum “regular” standard first, then apply and demonstrate accomplishment of the overcompliance standard.)

There was some fancy problem-framing, as Linus described one finding, saying that it came about in one way if you set the problem up this way, and comes about in another way if you set the problem up that way. (I love the fact that subjectivity can be found in math!) There are some issues with firms getting to self-report emissions (apparently without verification, unless the regulator goes to conduct the actual monitoring?) And there was quite a discussion about looking at the problem endogamously: with free entry into and out of the market. And output and size effects really matter (but cannot be reversed) in terms of the direct and indirect effects of enforcement costs. Yea, I don’t really know what those sentences mean in “real” economic terms, but there may be other things in play at times which can lead to inconclusive results.
but…. drumroll please! Dr Linus Nyiwul concludes, and his faculty agree:

“An optimal tax rate is smaller than the social marginal damage for a fixed n and no market imperfections.”

The challenges that issue forth from Dr Nyiwul’s work include (in no particular order):

signature.jpg

  1. identifying which are the important uncertainties (given that anything could be uncertain except for whatever is under direct regulatory monitoring)
  2. defining clearly what “overcompliance” means (if “compliance” means paying the right tax, i.e., reducing emissions in order to minimize tax…. does overcompliance move a firm into a “credit” situation?)
  3. how to extend the framework from a single firm to an industry
  4. identifying how the framework as it is fits within known policy issues and concerns, and
  5. extending the frame beyond emissions to look at a lot of other policy issues.
Resource Economics
UMass, Amherst

For her final oral examination for a Ph.D in Resource Economics, Siny Joseph presented an analysis of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for seafood. I echo the words of the external member of her committee, who said,

“After reading this paper, I pay more attention to my seafood.”

Dr Siny Joseph’s field is I.O. Economics – a term that I had to Google after the defense! My complete ignorance of the jargon in this field should alert you to the high probability that I have misconstrued or misunderstood major elements of her work. I will do my best to summarize and hope for correcting comments as needed.

Extrapolating from the wikipedia entry and my limited exposure to other disciplines, Industrial Organization explores the economic interaction between two dynamic forces:

  1. the strategic behavior of firms (which I believe is the purview of my friends specializing in strategic management) and
  2. the structures of markets (statistical analysis like I’ve never seen!)

Given my lowest-score-in-the-cohort competence in all things math, most of the substance of Siny’s analysis and discussion with her Committee Members occurred in a language I cannot even pretend to understand: replete with “k-bars,” and K’s with subscript L’s and H’s, “thetas” and fixed parameter values composing profit maximization formulas… Go grrl go! Her findings, however, were described in comprehensible English – and they are fascinating.
Siny answering a question.jpg
Seventy percent of seafood purchased by consumers in the U.S. is imported; of these imports, 80% comes from less developed countries. COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) is legislation introduced in the 2002 Farm Bill, and implemented with seafood in 2005, with the idea that food quality and food safety are linked with where the food originates. Coincidentally, COOL is being extended to more foods this year with continuing debate over exemptions and on-going criticism of delays, making Dr Joseph’s research findings immediately relevant. Regarding seafood, huge sectors are exempt: restaurants and other food service providers, specifically, and products deemed to be “processed.” In general, then, COOL applies to the seafood you buy in a grocery store or market to cook at home.
It seems the first major task in an I.O. economic analysis is to define the boundary between what is included and what is excluded from the study. Siny focused on the US market, presumably because the boundaries could be readily established. (In a case study on shrimp, she explained the distinction between a “covered” and “uncovered” market, explaining she’d had to go with the former – specifically an undifferentiated market – because the mathematical expressions for the latter were unmanageable. Basically (I think!) this means using idealized equations rather than ones more representative of real life.) Generally, Americans will assume that seafood of domestic origin is of higher quality than seafood of foreign origin, and consumers are most willing to pay the costs of labeling during and immediately after food scares – so that they (we, smile) can make (at least) this basic differentiation.
But (I kept thinking to myself) – labeling after a scare doesn’t do much to protect consumers during the scare and of course has no contribution to risk prevention whatsoever. So why isn’t labeling just done, as a matter of business habit? “Because,” Dr Joseph explained, “firms can masquerade low quality seafood as high quality when consumers don’t have all the information, and that’s where the profit comes from.” She and her committee members debated nuances of the statistical measurements, recommending and justifying choices of particular statistical tools, but did not question Siny’s basic finding that (now, with only three years of info available) the greatest profit comes under what’s called “voluntary COOL” (which does occur with some seafood products), followed by partial implementation of COOL (the status quo), and drops the lowest under “total COOL” – an ideal she recommends because “real consumption is greatest when there is full implementation of COOL.”
The rub for me during the whole presentation is the use of this indicator called WTP: Willingness to Pay. What I’d like to see is a complementary WTP2 (squared) equation: Willingness to Profit. Somehow the whole debate seems framed with WTP2 as an unquestionable given – companies have the inalienable right to maximize profit and consumers have to pay for safety. It just strikes me as wrong; at least out-of-balance. Firms can afford to pay much more than any individual can! Anyway, Siny’s Committee engaged vigorously with her findings: “I like the story you’re trying to tell,” said a professor by speakerphone, wondering about pursuing the angle of diversion, and all of them wondering about policy recommendations based on these findings.
There was a measure of “Total Welfare” that supposedly mixes the best consumer outcome with the best business outcome…. and Dr Joseph did present some evidence that companies would label voluntarily under certain/specific conditions (of known/demonstrated consumer demand?), but for the most part companies are trying to duck this completely. For instance, shrimp traders are required to label unprocessed shrimp, so they would rather do something that qualifies as “processing” in order to avoid labeling. Doesn’t it cost to do that, too? Honest – I get very confused! Why is one type of cost preferable to another? I think someone needs to institute an equation such that consumer WTP cannot exceed 1/2 the square root of the actual incurred cost apportioned over the entire volume in order to somehow link a decrease in the firm’s WTP2 (willingness to profit) with the increase consumers are willing to pay. (Which is probably why I’m not an economist.)
Siny's graph.jpg
Nonetheless, even if the current data is not totally amenable to a single clear and concise argumentative point, I definitely agree with Siny’s committee member: “I like your plan of attack.” I want to be able to argue convincingly that the government (through legislation) should be on the consumer’s side – not only in the grocery store, but I would also like to be able to confirm the quality of seafood purchased in restaurants.
Keep it up, Dr Siny Joseph!

References/Resources:
Industrial Organization, Wikipedia
Market coverage strategy, answers.com
Diversion, BusinessDictionary.com
LeRoy d’Espagne, Brussels
1st Meeting of The Beginning
and
Amherst, MA

Sven thought it appropriate to frame our first meeting with a bio-fact he’d just learned from the local dinosaur museum. I’m not a biologist, so I don’t know the life chances of tadpoles, but I certainly hope the light of our collaboration isn’t so bright that we get eaten by bats!
01 Saw Mill River rapids.jpg

Things happen.
Things happen and we make up their reasons.
We never know if others perceive phenomena in the same way that we do; all we have are references points of presence, perception, and language. Today, gazing upon the Saw Mill River, I wondered if I hadn’t been alone, if someone was with me, would they have been as immersed in the gentle rumble of these quick shallow rapids as I was? And what of previous shared experiences – do we remember them similarly? If we both/all recall the event, are the same or different features highlighted in memory? How did we interpret it at the time, and has that interpretation become more fixed and rigid, or has it softened, becoming more fluid with the expanded lens of hindsight?

“Science has only scratched the surface of how language affects thought.”

02small Saw MIll River approach.jpg
At any junction history stretches back, a biographical momentum that imbues each person with impetus for being in the present moment of shared spacetime. Until the moment of meeting, each person is on an independent course – a course shaped by previous relationships and experiences but as yet unaffected by the now-unfolding encounter. What will come from contact is unpredictable, yet not beyond the ken of knowledge, intuition, and intention. What do we want to result from mutual exposure, from the mixing of our life trajectories?
Upon return to Amherst I stumbled into another beginning – a friend’s dream project, well underway. Could these two beginnings, initiated so close in time albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic, complement each other? 07small onward flow.jpg And if they could, what would be my role? I’ve been thinking (metaphorically, as I do) that I want to be part of a pile supporting bridges over deep water. I’m not “a” bridge, myself, and the support I can offer is insufficient of itself to keep any bridge aloft and protected from scour. But, perhaps, from the relative stability of my own perch . . . this web of inter-relations connecting mentors, colleagues, friends, professional contacts . . .
and meanwhile, as always, the river flows on.

References/Resources:
riding on butterfly wings, Reflexivity
What’s in a Word? Language may shape our thoughts, Sharon Begley
Bridge Supports, Andy Johnson
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