Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an all-American Town by Mirta Ojito and The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

In Hunting Season, Mirta Ojito tells the horrific story of the killing of an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, in Patchogue, Long Island at the hands of a group of brutish teenagers. It is a small-town story with international reverberations. At first blush, it is an investigation of American intolerance for the other run wild. Lucero was a poor, hard-working man, searching for a better life. His attackers are themselves lost souls, largely unknown to one another prior to the evening of Lucero’s killing. Each kid seems to lack the basic human understanding that there is something wrong with beating up a man simply because he is a ‘beaner.’ Patchogue is or was a community where the blood sport of attacking random Latinos goes unremarked. It is a dreadful story Ojito presents, and Patchogue appears as a dreadful place.

So what has happened in Patchogue? What does the killing of Lucero constitute? The knife-wielding 17-year-old points to his Latina girlfriend to demonstrate his open mind. Another attacker is both Puerto Rican and black -- the kids embrace him as their friend. Our American experience with racism -- and hence hate crimes -- largely involves victims from established and permanent communities (including the native community). Nativist violence may fall into a different category. The Patchogue 7 conceded they identified and attacked Lucero because of his ethnicity -- but there seems to be more that drew Lucero into their trap. They also understood that Lucero was a foreigner -- and likely one with a shaky immigration status. Lucero’s vulnerability invites this community reprisal.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Post-Financial Crisis Spiritual Reading: the 2013 FT/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book Award

The readers of business books are a fragile lot. They’re uncertain of their talents and the scope of human possibility, confused as to direction (they’re largely not one-percenters). Their anxieties lead them to seek reassurance - from authors who project an understandable and manageable world. It is little surprise that business books resemble spiritual books - they are marked by a confident if not omniscient tone, they judge the unrighteous, they show us the way. The six finalists for the 2013 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award extend these comforts.

For more of this essay, see "Post-Financial Crisis Spiritual Reading" at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

On November 18, the 2013 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award was awarded to Brad Stone for The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

See my Attraverso review of The Everything Store here.

And you can find below links to my reviews of the five other finalists:

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

Brad Stone’s treatment, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, is the talk of the business press this week. Jeff Bezos’ wife, MacKenzie Bezos, posted a ‘one-star review’ of the book on the Amazon site. In it, she expresses concerns about the book’s ‘factual inaccuracies’ and ‘narrative tricks.’ While she certainly had a better view of the recounted events than did Stone, her objections seem quibbling. This is a thoughtful and well researched book, with a surprisingly balanced tone: Stone neither praises Jeff Bezos nor does he bury Bezos.

Stone’s book is both a CEO biography and a corporate history. Bezos is the exception that proves the rule; he is the visionary founder who wasn’t pushed aside for a professional ('adult') manager. And given Bezos’ continuity at the helm of Amazon, one can fairly charge much of Amazon’s success -- and its bullying behavior -- to Bezos.

Stone’s book is a prosecutor’s dream -- it is a catalog of unfair business offenses (were such behavior disciplined today). There is a zone of indeterminacy involved in most bargaining: between the terms a party would accept and the better terms a party might exact (before driving the other party away). Bezos is shown to consistently drive for the very best outcome in Amazon’s dealings -- where the greater part of the joint benefit falls to Amazon and a bare minimum is left for the ‘cooperating’ counterpart. Perhaps this is to be admired; we’d all like to be ‘tough bargainers.’ But Bezos (as depicted by Stone) doesn’t pull punches. He is capable of ‘refusing to deal.’ He applies price pressure against smaller firms. He levers Amazon’s immense power against competitors and partners.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Euro Money as Euro Language

This is the first of a series of reflections on the social meaning of the Euro.

Investigations of the social character of money often feature an analogy to language. Like words, money forms intelligible signs. Money, like language, is a critical medium of social exchange. Money, like language, is constitutive of identity: the particular kind of money we use, in part, makes us who we are. And money, like language, is both stable and unstable over space and time.

The architects of the European Monetary System (EMS) anticipated that the Euro would serve as an institution around which a European consciousness could be built. The Euro (at least in its material forms) functions like the EU flag or the EU passport to construct a new identity that plays on commonplace nationalist expectations. That is, when we see flags or passports or money, we have been acculturated to expect national sponsorship. The European Union thus displaces the traditional state in presenting itself through these institutions; if not precisely declaring itself to be a state, the European Union is, at a minimum, asserting that it is like a state for various intents and purposes.

But notice the peculiarly assertive case of the Euro. The EU flag often flies alongside the traditional flags of the EU Member States. The EU passport is formally issued by the respective member states: while it prominently features “European Union” on its harmonized cover, it also bears the name of the relevant member state. The EU passport in fact overstates the EU nature of the document. A passport begs the admission of a members state’s nationals into another state’s territory; it is only secondarily evidence of nationality (and in the case of EU passports, evidence of the bearer’s status as an EU citizen). Through flags and passports, the EU and the relevant EU member state co-occupy a space in the EU citizen’s imagination that had been occupied by the state alone.