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Vanity activism

The Economist takes on the notion of socially responsible food shopping, attempting to debunk notions that buying organic or fair trade or locally grown foods in any way helps accomplish anything other than making yourself feel better. I'm actually extremely sympathetic to this position -- shopping activism seems a bogus proxy for actually political power (as the editorial writer also points out) and it seems mainly a product of vicariously projecting oneself into some helpless other (a peasant farmer, a migrant worker, an animal bred for slaughter, an indigneous tribesman, etc.) in alien, complex situations created and driven by many different factors and then acting as though one's emotional response yields all the relevant facts. One is led through moral vanity to believe that one's own personal emotions are superior to and more significant than historical reality and the social systems that reproduce it and the conscious decision making of all those people whose lives we have no wherewithal to be making assumptions about. And our consequent actions are ultimately only about making ourselves feel good, and more powerful and influential perhaps than any individual can be, absent the tools of political power. Our own deeply felt good intentions don't make out individual piecemeal actions free of perverse, unintended consequences (Albert O. Hirschman's warning about reactionary rhetoric notwithstanding). Neverthess I'll try to temper my gullibility for this species of right-wing argument in the following summary. (Brad Plumer has a nice corrective here as well.)

The editorial argues that organic food, because it is produced less efficiently, consumes more land and has the perverse consequence of destroying more of the natural environment via deforestation. (I liked this bald statement: "Farming is inherently bad for the envirnoment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale." I don't think, however, The Economist is advocating a return to hunting and gathering.) Fair-trade arrangements distort the price system and encourage farmers to produce goods for which there is insufficient demand, rather than diversify into viable crops. (Whether that option exists for many of these third-world farmers is not addressed -- but if they must be wrung out in the market's creative destruction processes as agribusiness consolidates, so be it.) And locally-grown food can't help change the finding that most of the miles food travels (in England, anyway) from farm to plate occur in our cars as we drive it home from the grocery store. The editorial also points out the futility of working against comparative advantages available in food being raised the locale where it can be achieved with greater efficiency -- we waste resources if we insist on ignoring those possible gains.

So in lieu of these solutions, the editorial proposes carbon taxes to address energy waste (Harvard economist and Pigovian tax crusader Greg Mankiw surely agrees) and the eradication of agricultural subsidies of all kinds (i.e. ensure real free trade in agriculture, which would be fairer -- though perhaps not for some individual farmers who would be driven out of business and have nothing else to do -- than matching subsidies with more subsidies in protectionist tariff wars).

Mark Thoma at Economist's View links to an essay from the journal Democracy that asks a related question: "Can progressives really change Wal-Mart–or any other company, for that matter?" Authors Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin argue that working to make corporations behave in a socially responsible way independent of binding, state-backed law is a futile endeavor. Corporations, due to their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, will always do what is most profitable. If that course also happens to also socially responsible, then so much the better. But they won't surrender big profits for lesser ones simply because they want to be considerate, even if they wanted to -- the hierarchical organization and the spontaneous order in the economic system that distributes decision making militates against it. That's where government can step in and let us all off the hook by reigning in the profit motive in certain instances when, unfettered, it demonstrably harms the public good. Thus we must engage with the political process to push government to achieve these goals, and dismantle governments that put forward corporate interests at the expense of the public good.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

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Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

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