Tag: globalization (page 1 of 2)

We Need More Metal! The Political Economy of Heavy Metal

The following is a guest post by Dr. Robert G. Blanton, Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

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For as long as it has existed, heavy metal music has been associated with controversy – the aggressive nature of the music and lyrics arouses seemingly constant suspicion and often deep dislike, and metal bands have long been the target of controversies and even legal actions (some unfounded, some not). Somewhat ironically, there is an increasing awareness of the beneficial impacts of heavy metal for emotional well-being and possibly governance. Indeed President Obama famously noted, “Finland has perhaps the most heavy metal bands in the world, per capita…and also ranks high on good governance. I don’t know if there’s any correlation there.” Given these benefits of metal, the important question for scholars and policymakers is obvious – what factors facilitate the creation of heavy metal bands within a society?

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Globalization Edition

Why show a trailer for an Indian zombie movie?

Two reasons: it has the word globalization in it; and it helped me make it to the Final Four of Twitter Fight Club 2013.  To newbies, the first rule of #TFC13 is to talk about it.  So, check out the competition of the international security wonks, and then vote for me on Monday.  That way, I can be utterly distracted at the ISA for the finale is Wednesday.

Enjoy your weekend.

Lessons in Globalism from Patong

Current Intelligence has published some ruminations of mine from my trip to Phuket last month. Lead paragraph follows:

Though I definitely passed through customs and back, it’s hard to know whether I traveled to a country called Thailand these past two weeks or whether I was actually just in one of those many outposts of globalization where a multi-national cacophony of Western tourists connect superficially with caricatures of a place’s pre-globalized culture.

At the invitation of an old friend who largely controlled the itinerary, I found myself on beaches and in bars, on dive boats and in spas, but never far from the American muzak and English-language-dominant service industry of Patong, never forced to navigate or speak in a local tongue, dis-incentivized to take seriously local governance, culture and politics except where it could be commodified, and mostly encouraged to have fun instead of thinking or talking too much about the place in which I found myself.

Full essay here. I am on the road again this next two weeks, so beyond reviews of travel books I may post in the next few days, blogging will be light.

What I Ended Up Reading in Between World Cup Matches Abroad

Last month during the Greece/South Korea World Cup game, my eight-year-old son noticed the players speaking to one another in English, and asked me: “Mom, is English the official language of soccer?” As with so many of his astute little queries, I didn’t know the answer at the time. But while in Asia, I read three fabulous books that kept bringing me back to this question and finally not only answered it, but helped me see why it matters.

First: How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer: sort of an empirical, if anecdotal, validation of FIFA’s claim that the world’s language is not English, but soccer itself.

This is a great read, if a bit simplistic. I know professors who have their students read this book freshman year, and Jon Western’s discussion of traveling in the Middle East over the past few weeks of WC finals echoes some of Foer’s insights. But Foer doesn’t actually explore the relationship between the English language and the globalization of soccer.

For that, I browsed through most of Robert McCrum‘s Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language. As the subtitle implies, McCrum’s central argument is that English has already become a sort of global Common.

Of course, I’ve long noticed the same trends my son picked up on: English as a kind of lingua franca in transnational spaces. [I was traveling, for example, with a native Arabic speaker, a native Filipino speaker, a brother fluent in Indonesian and Thai locals, but conversation within my group unfailingly took place in some form of English.] I have always tended to chalk this up to some combination of Anglo-American hegemony and the linguistic incompetence of Americans [my Kuwaiti friend rightly trusted his English more than he trusted my Arabic]. But McCrum demonstrates that it’s more than that. The success of English, he argues, is due in large part to the attributes of the language itself: its average word length and lack of diacritical marks make it easy to pick up, write and transliterate. [Try texting in Welsh or in Chinese characters for example.] Most importantly, it’s versatile, capable of transmogrifying (and how), evolving to fit many cultural and class contexts; and it possesses low barriers to entry (unlike say French). McCrum argues that this bundle of characteristics makes English uniquely suited to global spaces and accounts for its rapid proliferation worldwide.

An interesting functionalist account. But is it right that a particular language like English, so mired in imperial history, should take precedence over others? What does this mean about the global culture taking shape? The alternative of course is to build a global Common disconnected from such particularisms, which is precisely what the inventors of Esperanto attempted in the 19th century. But despite a small transnational community of speakers that persists to this day, Esperanto has never really filled its intended function of proliferating as a global lingua franca. Why?

McCrum doesn’t consider how English out-gamed its invented competitors, but this question is explored in the third book I read, the humorous and incisive In the Land of Invented Languages (many, many thanks to the commenter who suggested this one to me). If I had to recommend a single book this summer, here it is. I mean, it begins:

“Klingon speakers, those who have devoted themselves to the study of a language invented for the Star Trek franchise, inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder. Dungeons and Dragons players, ham radio operators, robot engineers, computer programmers, comic book collectors – they all look down on Klingon speakers…”

Author Arika Orent continues:

The lessons the Klingon phenomena can teach us about how language does and doesn’t work (trust me on this) can be fully appreciated only in the context of the long, strange history of language invention, a history of human ambition, ingenuity and struggle that, in a way, culminates with Klingon.”

This brilliant little book is a journey through some of the world’s 900 invented languages and the “mad dreamers” who made them up, pitched them to the world, and failed to get any takers. I put it down halfway inspired to become an Esperantist, for there is something beautiful in the decision to choose a global tongue for its very trans-nationalism, rather than having it chosen for you by syntax and historical circumstance – the process that McCrum documents.

But in the end, I put down my paperback (or my brother’s Kindle, whichever I happened to have) and went back to studying Thai phrases, not Esperanto, and to speaking English with my Arab and Filipino counterparts rather than struggling along in either Thai or Arabic. When Spain finally beat Holland in that dreadful final match, it was in some dialect of English – or Globish, rather – that the cheers and groans alike resounded through the beach bar, packed with Dutch, Spanish and other European tourists, where we watched. And as McCrum explains, English is indeed not only an informal working language of soccer, a game originally imported from England, but the official default language of FIFA.

So the basic answer to my son’s question is yes, but it’s what the question invites us to explore about world history, linguistics and the globalizing human mind that’s really interesting.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

Congratulations Spain!


I’ve been traveling in the Middle East and Europe for the past month and watched all, or parts of, 15 World Cup games in ten or so cities — including a kibbutz in northern Israel — with commentary in at least seven languages. I watched the games –mostly in bars — with Algerians, Mexicans, Germans, Italians, Palestinians, Israelis, French, Australians, etc…. I also watched kids playing and dreaming of their own World Cup on street corners, parks, and alleyways in most places I visited. Truly a joy to watch — especially in so many different places.

So, it’s been a bit of an adjustment since returning to the US a few days ago. On Friday, I got into my car and turned on WEEI Sports Radio in Boston and home of the Red Sox broadcasts — the morning show hosts (both right wingers who often plunge into political diatribes) were in the middle of a nasty rant against soccer and the World Cup. The hostility was striking and reminded me of Franklin Foer’s book How Soccer Explains the World. Foer argues that globalization, in part, explains the hostility by many in the US towards soccer because it is seen as part of “the rest of the world’s program” and a threat to American culture and pastimes — so be it.

My favorite book on the topic though is National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer by Stefan Symanski and Andrew Zimbalist. Both are economists and the book lays out the historical evolution of the organizational structures of modern baseball in the US and soccer in Europe and South America. It provides an interesting cross-cultural comparision of how these organizational structures and subsequent financing and marketing in earlier eras created the identities and cultural claims and of each pastime. It also has an excellent analysis of the mega-businesses that now control both sports across the globe. Worth a read.

In the meantime, they’ll be celebrating in Madrid tonight!

Isn’t All Politics Global?

Dan Drezner is among those who today bemoaned the absence of foreign policy content in President Obama’s State of the Union Speech. He’s not the only one. Max Boot calls foreign policy “AWOL” from the speech. Eric Ostermeir at Smart Politics has quantified the foreign policy content at only 13.9%. Whether they were very worried or not about Obama’s foreign policy message, most commentators agreed it was a weak one relative to the domestic policy content in the speech.

My off-the-cuff reaction to the speech echoed this concern as well. But then I began thinking about the assignment I have my World Politics students doing right now, which is to write about their lives using a global perspective. Lots of them are struggling with it as they always do: if they haven’t traveled abroad, served in the military, supported a global social movement, or watched BBC regularly, they don’t feel like they are really participants in world politics. I challenge this thinking by asking them to reflect on the ways in which their everyday lives are impacted by, and in turn impact, the world beyond our borders.

The purpose of the assignment is to get them thinking past their identity as Americans and situate themselves globally. However the assignment – and the era of globalization we live in – begs the question about the entire notion of the domestic politics / international politics divide. One way to look at the distinction we draw between domestic and foreign policy is as a boundary-maintenance project that is part of the practice of sovereignty. If we make the choice to suspend this practice for a moment, we might realize that Obama’s speech had more foreign policy in it that we may have recognized.

For example Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, whom I linked to earlier describes the Obama’s foreign policy talking points as consisting of “trade, export controls, Afghanistan, Iraq, nukes, North Korea and Iran” and says he touched on all of this for only “a couple of minutes at the end.” Rogin categorizes energy policy, jobs and financial reform as domestic issues. So do those who have tallied the foreign policy content of the speech and found it wanting.

Yet what could be more global – in their impetus and impact – than a turn toward clean energy and alternative transportation in the US, which until recently led the world in global carbon emissions per capita? Given the global impact of the US banking crisis, is not financial reform a global issue? And is not a policy of “ending subsidies for firms that ship jobs overseas” a foreign policy as well as a domestic one? Certainly it will impact individuals abroad who rely on manufacturing jobs with US companies as a stepping stone out of poverty. This in turn will affect those individuals’ abilities to consume the products Obama also wants to export in greater volume. I’m not saying this is good or bad, just that these things are interconnected.

And actually, Obama said as much. Consider his rationale for financial, education and energy reform:

China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations — they’re not standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.

We think of foreign policy as that subset of policy that is directed at relations with other countries. But since so much of what happens here affects (and can be affected by) what is happening elsewhere whether we intend it or not, perhaps this perspective is behind the times. Drezner concludes his post by saying:

“I would have liked to have seen a more robust effort to link foreign policy priorities to domestic priorities – because the two are more linked than is commonly acknowledged.”

What would it mean to our practices of citizenship if our policymakers and pundits routinely thought past that distinction entirely? As Drezner himself once said, in today’s world “all politics is global.”

Or maybe this is all bunk. But it sure is a useful teaching tool. Thoughts?

[cross-posted at LGM]

Bernanke op-ed in the Wall Street Journal

Ben Bernanke wants to assure people that the Fed isn’t just throwing money at the current problems, unaware of the long-term impact on inflation.

My colleagues and I believe that accomodative policies will likely be warranted for an extended period. At some point, however, as economic recovery takes hold, we will need to tighten monetary policy to prevent the emergence of an inflation problem down the road. The Federal Open Market Committee, which is responsible for setting U.S. monetary policy, has devoted considerable time to issues relating to an exit strategy. We are confident we have the necessary tools to withdraw policy accommodation, when that becomes appropriate, in a smooth and timely manner.

Gee–is everybody confident now? He goes on to tell how it will be done. A few observations:

1) The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is worried enough about confidence that he chooses to make this statement.

2) He does so in a form that allows no questioning or rebuttal.

3) To the extent that he discusses the tools to contract the money supply, it’s all pretty much the same as before. They aren’t nearly as all-powerful as he wants us to believe.

4) Bernanke says almost nothing about the international dimension–including foreign exchange and the impact on what has been the world’s reserve currency.

5) All his promises miss the political dimension altogether. Are we really to believe that those who have been personally helped by recent policies–bailed out banks, investment houses, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, etc.–are going to sit by and watch the Fed crank up the pain? The relation of Congress and State governments to the stimulus package is similar to that of an addict to cocaine. The American people will want their freebies, and they won’t want to pay for them.

I’m supposed to feel more confident after reading this?

Bernanke Op-ed in WSJ: The Fed’s Exit Strategy – WSJ.com

Voting with their feet

Here’s an interesting factoid: For the first time since the Great Depression, the migration of people from the less-developed to developed countries may have reversed. Remittances are expected to be dropping next year by 8 percent. On the other hand, many of the returnees have skills and capital, and that may help back home.

What if…?

… a mechanism existed by which citizens of countries around the world could weigh in on the elections of a particular country, proportional to that country’s impact on their country’s politics, as computed by some impartial international authority, and actually have their opinions count for something?


Regime adaptation and anti-regime collective action

Mark Beissinger, in a fantastic article entitled “Structure and Example in Modular Political Phenomena: The Diffusion of Bulldozer/Rose/Orange/Tulip Revolutions” (abstract), develops an account of what he terms “modular revolutions”:

In the study of collective action, the notion of modularity has often been applied to the borrowing of mobilizational frames, repertoires, or modes of contention across cases. The revolutions that have materialized among the post-communist states since 2000 are examples of a modular phenomenon in this sense, with prior successful examples affecting the materialization of subsequent cases. Each successful democratic revolution has produced an experience that has been consciously borrowed by others, spread by NGOs, and emulated by local social movements, forming the contours of a model. With each iteration the model has altered somewhat as it confronts the reality of local circumstances. But its basic elements have revolved around six features:

1) the use of stolen elections as the occasion for massive mobilizations against pseudo-democratic regimes;
2) foreign support for the development of local democratic movements;
3) the organization of radical youth movements using unconventional protest tactics prior to the election in order to undermine the regime’s popularity and will to repress and to prepare for a final showdown;
4) a united opposition established in part through foreign prodding;
5) external diplomatic pressure and unusually large electoral monitoring; and
6) massive mobilization upon the announcement of fraudulent electoral results and the use of non-violent resistance tactics taken directly from the work of Gene Sharp, the guru of non-violent resistance in the West.

Beissinger also contends that not only do anti-regime movements learn–and derive inspiration–from past revolutions, but that regimes learn as well; in fact, they take proactive steps to disrupt the processes that lead to successful “color revolutions.”

Regimes have adapted by preventing adequate election monitoring, particularly by western organizations such as the OECD; in consequence, there’s no independent authority around to declare elections fraudulent. They’ve gone after independent media and otherwise attempted to limit the ability of regime opponents to coordinate with one another or get their message to the broader public. And so on and so forth. (We’ve even blogged about this kind of thing a bit in the context of Russia’s last national election).

Beissinger’s conclusion on this front is pessimistic for the success of future “color revolutions.” Regime adaptation, he argues, will outpace the strategies and tactics of democratic (or, at least, anti-regime) movements.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because we’re seeing a stunning example of such adaptation in Iran: access cut to social networking technology and websites (including, possibly, Tehran Bureau), cutting cell phone communications, as well as a media blackout that extends, apparently, to jamming BBC reports, shutting down foreign media bureaus, and throwing out foreign journalists. They’ve deployed a massive presence in Tehran (and presumably in other major cities); some of their security forces as roving the streets on motorcycles in an attempt to quickly, and brutally, crack down on unrest.

In at least one respect, the true facts about the Iranian election–which we are unlikely to ever know–are secondary to a basic fact: we’re seeing a vivid example not only of regime adaptation to a particular “revolutionary” process, but also strong evidence–at least so far–that modern communications technologies have failed to tip the balance when it comes to “networks” against “the state” to the degree that many, many scholars, pundits, and social theorists have claimed.

Which, oddly enough, is what my recent book concludes is a “lesson” of the Reformations Era for the present period.

Henry Paulson as “The Stabilizer”

The US bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was a massive government intervention into the securities market. Why do this?

Dan Drezner gives some insightful instant analysis, noting how the fall-out has reverberated through the global economy, hitting China, Russia, Sovereign Wealth Funds, and many other key international actors. The US Government:

is also trying to soothe financial markets and-more important-please foreign creditors. China is far and away the largest foreign investor in long-term U.S. government agency debt-more than $375 billion. In the past month Chinese officials had warned about the implications of a collapse of the two housing giants.

Beijing was not the only foreign government to raise hackles about the status quo-other foreign officials voiced their concerns directly to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Senator Chuck Schumer told the Wall Street Journal that, “There was a real fear that foreign governments would start dumping Fannie and Freddie…and not buy the bonds.”

As long as the United States runs a current account deficit of more than $500 billion a year, it will need the trust of foreign capital and foreign governments. Judging by the global market reaction, seizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac helped preserve that goodwill abroad. One reason this happened on a Sunday was so that Asian stock markets would have the first opportunity to respond.

How necessary was this reassurance to international capital markets? The nightmare scenario Paulson faced was:

But let’s say that the Treasury did not support the debt of the mortgage agencies. The Chinese bought over $300 billion of that stuff and they were told that it is essentially riskless. The flow of capital from them and from other central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and plain old ordinary investors would shut down very quickly. The dollar would fall say 30-40 percent in a week, there would be payments system gridlock, margin calls at the clearinghouses would go unmet, and only a trading shutdown would stop the Dow from shedding half its value. Most of the U.S. banking system would be insolvent. Emergency Fed/Treasury action would recapitalize the FDIC but we would lose an independent central bank and setting the money supply would be a crapshoot. The rate of unemployment would climb into double digits and stay there. Many Americans would not have access to their savings. The future supply of foreign investment would be noticeably lower. The Federal government would lose its AAA rating and we would pay much more in borrowing costs. The deficit would skyrocket.

Charles Kindleberger famously observed:

For the world economy to be stabilized, there has to be a stabilizer–one stabilizer.

Here you have the US acting to stabilize the international economy in the face of a potential global meltdown. They left themselves no choice.

Skills Revolution

How would this column read if David Brooks had actually read Rosenau?
A skills revolution that drives elements of globalization– it would be a fantastic new discovery if it wasn’t an idea that could be old enough to vote.

Globalization and the new world food crisis

Today’s Washington Post has an excellent story that I strongly recommend on recent rise in food prices worldwide and resulting international upheaval.

Its the exact story I would assign to my World Politics class– an example of how this thing we call Globalization brings international trade, poverty, financial speculation, climate change, domestic farm subsidies, energy prices, and environmentalism together for a perfect storm of rising food prices around the world, leading to massive world hunger, destabilizing governments, and turning much of world politics upside down. Moreover, this is a story that you can watch and feel, as you watch the price of bread at the grocery store climb up and up.

the [commodity] traders discerned an ominous snowball effect — one that would eventually bring down a prime minister in Haiti, make more children in Mauritania go to bed hungry, even cause American executives at Sam’s Club to restrict sales of large bags of rice….

“We have never seen anything like this before,” Voge said. “Prices are going up more in one day than they have during entire years in the past. But no matter the price, there always seems to be a buyer. . . . This isn’t just any commodity. It is food, and people need to eat.”


And that’s what makes this such a slow-moving tragedy–when oil prices rise, people can not drive and still eek out a way to survive. When food prices rise, its much, much harder to not eat.

Today’s article investigates the broad causes that led to the crisis(graphical depiction here).

The root cause of price surges varies from crop to crop. But the crisis is being driven in part by an unprecedented linkage of the food chain.

A big reason for higher wheat prices, for instance, is the multiyear drought in Australia, something that scientists say may become persistent because of global warming. But wheat prices are also rising because U.S. farmers have been planting less of it, or moving wheat to less fertile ground. That is partly because they are planting more corn to capitalize on the biofuel frenzy.

This year, at least a fifth and perhaps a quarter of the U.S. corn crop will be fed to ethanol plants. As food and fuel fuse, it has presented a boon to American farmers after years of stable prices. But it has also helped spark the broader food-price shock….

The global food trade never became the kind of well-honed machine that has made the price of manufactured goods such as personal computers and flat-screen TVs increasingly similar worldwide. With food, significant subsidies and other barriers meant to protect farmers — particularly in Europe, the United States and Japan — have distorted the real price of food globally, economists say, preventing the market from normal price adjustments as global demand has climbed.

To recap, this implicates:

  • Global Warming causing a drought
  • High oil prices, raising costs for farmers, shippers, and sellers
  • Ethanol and bio-fuels (meant to reduce the first two) sucking corn off the market
  • Farm subsidies distorting food prices
  • Lack of open markets
  • Development in large countries (China, India) leading to increased meat consumption
  • Integrated global commodities markets, allowing for speculation

And there are real political consequences to be felt. Governments toppled, people rioting, starvation–and this is only what we’ve seen so far. Far more is sure to come.

Readers are encouraged to follow the rest of the Post’s series, which will continue throughout this week.

Harry Potter: from hero to global commonplace


For those who might be interested, my lecture notes from my address at Prophecy 2007 follow.

Keep in mind that I departed a great deal from the text, particularly when talking about nationalism and not all of my notes add up to coherent sentences.

Also, the notes I’ve reproduced below constituted prompts rather than text to be read verbatim. I may clean it up one day, but I don’t really have the energy to do so right now.

The clever subtitle of Prophecy 2007, “From Hero to Legend,” raises an interesting question: has Harry Potter passed, in one way or another, into the realm of legend? Or, to put it in broader terms, what are the various relationships between the category of “legend” and Harry Potter, both within the confines of the series and in terms of the Harry Potter phenomenon writ large?

It seems appropriate to begin with some “textbook” definitions of three categories relevant to my discussion: myth, legend, and folklore. These definitions have their own problems, and experts in these fields will rightfully question my use of them, yet they provide good benchmarks for the claims I will make later on.

1. Myth, in the first definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, embodies

A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures , which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

Myths often refer to events “out of time”: the origins of gods, the primordial mist from which a society springs, and so forth.

In popular and some scholarly usages, myth refers to stories that are uncommonly believed to be false. “That’s just a myth.”

2. Legends, in contrast, operate in “human time.” They take place in “our world” and describe people and events that, while at least one element may be of ambiguous veracity, have some plausibility to them. We can argue about whether or not legends really happened in the precise manner described, but they, unlike myths, are in principle verifiable. While Arthur may not have established a “round table” or may not be lying in Avalon to await a new threat to Britain, there may have been a historical figure to which the legends of King Arthur refer—if only in some distant and distorted way.

3. Finally, contemporary understandings of folklore originate in nineteenth-century Romantic Nationalism. For those concerned with the apparently pernicious effects of what we would now term “modernization,” recording and interrogating the “folktales” of rural society became a way of capturing the essence of national character. Folklorists, of course, did not merely record “national culture,” they produced it by enshrining local variations in European peasant culture as exemplars of national difference. Hence the joke that all European “national folk dances” are basically variations on the same theme with a few different moves and shifts in styles of dress.

Regardless, when we speak of folklore we refer to common cultural currency—much of it mythological or legendary in character—that informs and enables communication between members of a community. In doing so, it defines social and cultural communities through shared referents, themes, and narratives.

I am no expert in literature or the analysis of genre, but even to a luddite such as myself it seems that the fantasy genre has a complicated relationship with myth, legend, and folklore. J.R.R. Tolkein, whose work for many defines modern fantasy, built a fully realized world out of an analysis of myth, legend, folklore, and linguistics. His world was more than simply borrowed from these elements, but presented a theory of them.

Consider, also, the late Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Alexander bases his world in the myths, legends, and folklore of premodern Britain—specifically its Celtic inheritance. But while he lifts elements, he radically reinterprets many of them. Thus the Castle of Llyr bears only some resemblance to the lore surrounding the Children of Llyr from which he borrows the name. The Black Cauldrun is the Cauldrun of Mabinogi, but its narrative role in the Prydain Chronicles is quite different from that of the Second Portion of the Mabinogi. Here legend, transformed into folklore, provides the “source material” for a different story.

The last paragraph of the Prydain Chronciles—of the High King—holds special interest for us. After his costly victory over Arawan, Taran forsakes voyage to the Summer Lands—and hence immortality—in order to set about the hard task of bringing to fruition the many small and large works of those who have perished in the conflict. His love-interest, Eilonwy, forsakes immortality as well:

And they lived many happy years, and the promised tasks were accomplished. Yet long afterward, when all had passed away into distant memory, there were many who wondered whether King Taran, Queen Eilonwy, and their companions had indeed walked the earth, or whether they had been no more than dreams in a tale set down to beguile children. And, in time, only the bards knew the truth of it.

What Alexander describes here, of course, is the passage of “real events” into the realm of legend and even, ultimately, myth. This serves a double purpose. First, as with the Harry Potter series—and so many of the best works of children’s fantasy, such as LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy—the acceptance of death reflects an acceptance of one’s humanity, and thus of one’s interconnectedness with other human beings. But death claims more than self—it ultimately effaces memory of deeds. Second, it locates the Prydain Chronicles in the realm of myth and legend. We might, if we so choose, view them as accounts of “real events” that have been transformed into traces of folktales.

In contrast, Evangeline Walton’s classic Mabinogian Tetrology is a straightforward adaptation of what would once have been legend, but now we think of as folklore. She adapts the narrative elements and introduces mid-20th century interpretations of the transition from pre-Indo European to Indo-European societies, but her work stands as a modern retelling of folkloric source material.

Now these are all examples of so-called “high fantasy,” and some have suggested that Harry Potter is best thought of as “low fantasy.” I think this is wrong, but I’ll return to this later.

So, between such disparate re-workings of legend-cum-folklore we can identify some basic functions of contemporary fantastical fiction. A great deal of fantasy literature might be understood in terms of the disenchantment of the modern world. Reading fantasy provides many with an opportunity to “suspend disbelief” and enter into a re-enchanted world; many examples of fantastical fiction thus mimic the structures of legends. Without confidence in the legendary—that is to say, somewhat true—character of folklore, we produce and read explicitly fictional legends.

In “high fantasy”, much of it derivative of Tolkein, authors invent entire worlds with their own myths, legends, and even folklore. But even in other examples of the fantasy genre, a problem emerges: how to give the constructed world sufficient resonance for it to seem “plausible” or “grounded”? The answer, for many (and here again we see Tolkein’s influence), is to fill the world with real or pseudo-tropes from existing folkloric traditions. This lowers, if you will, the barriers to entry for readers and provides short-cuts for writers.

But regardless of the particular genre of fantasy, any fictional narrative that re-enchants the world creates interesting possibilities: folklore may be, and often proves to be, real. Plots often hinge on how the deeds of great heroes, wizards, or what-have-you—sometimes viewed by characters as suspect—turn out to be, at least to some degree, factual. Separating the “real” from the legendary and folkloric drives plot development. Heroes themselves often are inserted into an ongoing flow of legend and must, if good is to triumph, take up their appointed roles. Perhaps one of the most straightforward—and interesting—examples of this kind of narrative can be found in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Finnovar Tapestry.

So a great deal of fantastical fiction is structured as myth or legend—with various borrowings from our own folklore—with internal myths, legends and folklore in an often unstable conceptual relationship.

How, then, might we cut into the question of “Prophecy… from Hero to Legend” in Harry Potter? Here let me make four arguments: First, as is often the case in fantasy, the shifting relationship between myth—and particularly legend and folklore—is often important to the plot of Harry Potter. Second, Harry’s journey is not from hero to legend, but from legend to hero to legend. Third, Harry Potter is structured as “legend” in a way that helps to explain its tremendous appeal. And, fourth, and I think most important, the Harry Potter phenomenon involves not the translation of hero into legend, but the emergence of a “global commonplace” akin to the conceptual category of folklore.

Myth, Legend, and Folkore in HP

Folkloric elements; legend and myth. Status of certain things as myth/legend/folklore crucial. Characters discuss or dismiss the Chamber of Secrets, for example, as a “legend.” The Deathly Hallows may or may not be a “fairy tale.” But it is particularly interesting that characters in the Harry Potter universe—unlike in many other examples of fantasy—discuss these issues with a “modern” vocabulary. As the Lovegoods’ various obsessions make clear, the Wizarding world is full of fairytales and mythical animals that do not refer to anything real. Within the universe of Harry Potter.

Myth, Legend, and Folklore: HP himself

It encapsulates Harry Potter’s own story. When Harry arrives at Hogwarts he is, after all, something of a legend in the Wizarding World; “the boy who lived”: the only person ever to survive Voldemort’s Avada Kedavra curse. For most of the Wizarding World, and for Harry himself, his survival is the stuff of legend. How he survived, and why he survived, remain—for most of the novels—cloaked in mystery. For Harry to find his place in the world, and to triumph over Voldemort, he must travel a specific kind of hero’s journey in which he transforms himself from a legend into a hero. But having defeated Voldemort, Harry’s heroism will inevitably transition back into the realm of Wizarding legend.

Harry Potter has, from our perspective, the architecture of “legend.”

Harry Potter demands very little “ontological displacement.” Harry exists in our world, in our time, and at least partly in our geography. The fantastic elements of the Wizarding World are almost entirely drawn from European folklore—from the magical creatures, to the language of spells which is either Latin or Latin-esque, to the practice of witchcraft and wizardry which mirrors medieval and early modern accounts. In many ways, the Wizarding world is quite mundane. Magic functions as an alternative technology, bureaucrats bumble, reporters twist the facts, the Ministry regulates international trade, and we even have a World Cup.

Harry Potter does not, therefore, take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” or on a parallel world with its own geography, history, myth, legend, and folklore. Harry is not LeGuin’s Ged, Nix’s Sabriel, or one of the countless heroes and heroines of fantasy who step through a magic portal and find themselves in a cosmological struggle between good and evil. He is a boy who discovers, on his birthday, that he is part of a “secret society” with its own—mostly familiar—rules, practices, and struggles—ones that bleed seamlessly into 20th and 21st century Britain. Harry Potter is, as some people say, “low fantasy.” But unlike many examples of “low fantasy,” the Wizarding World looks more like that of “high fantasy” with its clear-cut distinctions between “good” and “evil” (even if individual characters face moral struggles) and its menagerie of elves, goblins, phoenixes, centaurs, and so forth.

But this has certain implications. First, all bets are off about which of our own legends and folklore are “true” and which are merely myth or fairy tales. We know that some stories in the Wizard World are in fact nothing more than folklore, and that some magical creatures do not exist. We must, as I suggested above, reorient the lines to draw when we “suspend disbelief.” Second, it gives Potter the architecture of a successful Muggle legend.

Because Potter’s world intermixes seamlessly with our own—our world of Playstations and early modern witchcrazes and prime ministers—it has the infrastructure of plausibility associated with “legend.”

Now, much fantastical fiction apes the structure of legend. After all, they provide us with an escape into a re-enchanted world of swords, sorcery, and magical creatures that once seemed quite real to every human being. A protagonist enters into an unfolding legend; he or she fulfills the prophecy and therefore both acts out and produces the legendary arc of the fantasy world. But the Harry Potter novels go further, by presenting us with—at least in its structure—a “plausible” legend of our own world.

This helps explain, I think, the wild success of the novels. Because they present themselves as a legend rooted in our—and the stress should be on “our” as in those of us in this room—time and space, they bring with them a familiarity—the lack of a demand for strong ontological displacement—which makes the books accessible to people who might otherwise never read works of fantasy, let alone children’s fantasy

Of course, and this brings me to my final “riff,” only a very young child or a crank would read this literary architecture as imply that Potter’s story is—or could in fact be—true. Thus, I think that “legend” is the wrong way to think about the nature of the Potter phenomenon.

Harry Potter isn’t actually becoming the “stuff of legend,” but rather the stuff of folklore.

What do I mean by this? As many people much better informed on these matters than I have noted, the “commercialization” of folklore is a major staple of the last century or so. In its most basic sense, we have Disney and other appropriations of folklore as mass media. But in a more profound sense, the narratives, myths, legends, themes, and figures that used to provide common currency and structure community through oral tradition—as public property—now disseminate through mass, commercial media. Our “folklore,” in fact, is found in television dramas, movies, and novels.

This is actually a very significant development, one with precedents that date back at least until the 19th century. The famous scholar of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, argues that “the nation” is an “imagined community.” In a “real” community, people know one another and interact directly with one another. But, in his account, nineteenth century newspapers and state propaganda played a key role in creating the social fact of “nations”: the sense that members of a national community are, in fact, connected to one another through common experiences and orientations. The experience of temporal “simultaneity” plays an essential role in our ability to “imagine” communities. (And here we should think about the simultaneous worldwide release of the English-language editions of Deathly Hallows, and the experience we had of reading the book knowing that millions of others were doing the same thing. The academic blogsphere, to take one example, basicall stopped in its tracks in the hours after the book was released.) Now, newspapers are now less important than this sense of an “imagined community” than television, film, and even the experience of, say, going to any mall in the US and seeing the same stores.

So Harry Potter is not merely a reinterpretation of folklore, it is a, functionally speaking, contemporary folklore. And more than that, it is folklore on a global scale. Or, as I’ve argued in various settings, Harry Potter is cultural globalization: it is part of the creation of transnational common currency of narratives, personages, themes, and other circulating commonplaces.

Let me illustrate this through the history of the volume I edited. Put together a panel—which was packed (albeit in a small room) and sparked lots of conversation. I met scholars from France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and India who got easily and enthusiastically discuss Harry Potter.

But we’re talking about a peculiar stratum here. There’s significant evidence that Harry Potter has become transnational cultural currency. Over 350 million books sold worldwide; over 3.8b in international revenue, 66+ translations. But what we want to see even more than that is evidence of Potter showing up “outside” of the text, in, for example, political settings.

And we have some evidence for this. As I recently argued, Harry Potter, in fact, functions something like a Rorschach Blot: In countries around the world, it captures various national anxieties about contemporary culture and international affairs. French intellectuals, for example, debate whether or not Harry Potter indoctrinates youngsters into the orthodoxy of unfettered market capitalism. Some Swedish commentators decry what they perceive as Harry Potter’s Anglo-American vision of bourgeoisie conformity and its affirmation of class and gender inequality. In Turkey, we find a significant discussion of Harry Potter that pivots around issues of Turkish civilizational identity: whether Turkey is part of the West, the East, or a bridge between the two.

A few Turkish writers have even asserted that controversies over Harry Potter in the United States demonstrate how Turks are more “Western” than Americans. And in Russia, a country whose concern over international status and prestige becomes more apparent each day, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta created a minor firestorm when it claimed that the film visage of Dobby the House-Elf was a deliberate insult to President Vladimir Putin.

We also have other indicators of Potter’s status of global folklore. Folklore, of course, involves common themes that are adapted and translated into local contexts, that evolve over time in particular settings. The Cinderella story, for example, has variants across Eurasia. We see this in fanfiction, but also in the official and unofficial—read, unauthorized—“translations” of Potter. India. China.

I don’t know how long this will last. What, HP’s “half life” will be. A generation? More? But Harry Potter is one of the most recent, and most profound, examples of commercial folklore achieving transnational status. Of creating a commonplace for people speaking different languages, living in different countries, and with otherwise distinctive cultural settings. And I think that’s pretty interesting, and pretty exciting.

Sea of boxes

By now, you have probably heard about the recall of Thomas the Tank Engine toys, which are decorated with lead paint. While Lead-Foot Thomas is getting a lot of media attention right now, it’s only the latest in a string of serious safety problems associated with products imported from China. Over the last few years, there have been repeated recalls on children’s toys and jewelry due to lead contamination–all produced in China. Then there was the pet food debacle, in which wheat gluten tainted with melamine–a chemical that makes the protein content of the product appear higher and therefore more valuable– was associated with the deaths of hundreds–perhaps even thousands of pets. Less notice has been paid to another chemical contamination that is deadly to humans–the substitution of diethylene glycol, the primary ingredient in antifreeze, for pharmaceutical grade glycerin in toothpaste and cough syrups. Both are sweet, but poisonous diethylene glycol is cheaper than glycerin. The diethylene glycol-contaminated products were primarily destined for the Third World (Latin America and Bangladesh), though some tainted toothpaste has been found in dollar stores in the US. And today, there’s yet another recall, this time on imported tires, which are apparently missing an important safety feature that prevents tread separation.

All these products have something in common: made in China. Although the vast majority of products made in China seem to be perfectly safe, China’s lax regulatory environment means that the market can do what it wants. And the market wants cheap products, often with no questions asked. Scrupulous producers are at risk of being undercut by the unscrupulous, who have an incentive to shave off pennies by any means possible. Sure, they might get caught, but the chances are slim. You can thank Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and the other muckrakers for the fact that it’s so much harder to get away with these tricks in the US.

Some people seem to have taken these incidents as evidence that one shouldn’t buy products made in China. On one parenting board, a poster admonished members to “know where the products they buy come from.” I nearly laughed out loud when I read that. Unless you are buying toys made by the Amish, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid “Made in China.” Low skill, labor-intensive jobs have almost entirely been exported to countries with abundant cheap labor–and China has become the largest world supplier of cheap labor.

Once upon a time, though, the relative cost of labor was not the primary determinant of the location of production. Sure you might be able to produce a product more cheaply overseas than in the US, but the cost of moving it to market was so high that it just wasn’t worth it. Instead, most products were produced locally–and imports were often luxuries rather than discount goods.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I actually managed to polish off a book I’ve been working on for a while: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Most people, when asked about what drives globalization, would probably talk about the internet and McDonald’s and Coca Cola and American movie blockbusters. But if you really want to contemplate globalization, start looking at the labels in your clothing. The shirt I’m wearing was made in Indonesia, my pants in India. My daughter’s shirt was made in Guatemala. I have clothing made all over the world: Vietnam, Sri Lanka, even Kazakhstan. My computer was “assembled” in China, though heaven knows where each of the component parts where made. The phone sitting next to me was made in Malaysia.

As I said, it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that the vast majority of things you bought were made close to home. New York City, for example, had a thriving garment industry because it was close to both the designers and the customers. Why? Because it cost a fortune to move things around. Remember “On the Waterfront?” In the “old days”, longshoremen loaded and unloaded ships’ cargo piecemeal. It often took over a week to unload and reload a ship during a port call, and it was easy for valuable cargo to “walk”. The bulk of the cost of transporting goods from one place to another was incurred as labor costs in port.

Containers, on the other hand, are efficiently loaded on and off ships and easily transferable to land-based transportation (rail or truck). The labor efficiencies are enormous. Container shipping has transformed the world economy by reducing the cost of shipping products to the point where shipping is a tiny fraction of the overall cost.

The transition to container shipping didn’t happen overnight, and it was punctuated with false starts and bad decisions. Arriving at a standard for containers–their size, their crane couplings, etc.–took years, and in the meantime, shipping companies invested in ships, containers, and port cranes that would become useless if and when standards were ever agreed upon. The longshoremen also suffered–though Levinson argues that the unions largely managed to negotiate deals that smoothed the transition (The Wire notwithstanding). It is telling, though, that the older, more established ports, where the unions fought hardest and most successfully to hold back the transition to container traffic, are also ports that died: New York, San Francisco, Boston. On the other hand, those older ports were also poorly situated for container traffic: old cities, with narrow streets that are difficult for tractor trailers to negotiate.

For the most part, The Box is a fascinating book (though my attention did wander during the lengthy and detailed discussion of the various labor negotiations and the extended wrangling over the standardization of container sizes). The explanation of the impact of the shift from traditional shipping to container shipping is, I think, extremely important to building an comprehension of the true drivers of globalization. I know it’s unoriginal to trash Tom Friedman, but having suffered through The World Is Flat last year, I was struck by the fact that nowhere in his pontification on the “global supply chain” did he mention container shipping. Large metal boxes, I guess, aren’t as sexy as open source software–nor is “Maersk Sealand” as compelling a brand name-drop. But the reason why it makes economic sense to make “Virgin of Guadelupe” statues in China and ship them to Mexico is that it’s so bloody cheap to ship them, and the reason it’s so bloody cheap to ship them is the container. If the shipping weren’t so cheap, it wouldn’t matter that labor is marginally cheaper in China than in Mexico.

By reducing shipping costs to a footnote, container shipping has made shipping itself into a footnote rather than a limiting factor. Instead, production decisions are made according to factor input costs–the relative costs of labor and capital. Container shipping has made classical trade theory (basically) true by reducing shipping costs to the point where they can be nearly assumed away, as typical in trade models. No wonder (orthodox) economists love the modern era of “free trade”–it makes them look right. But the dropping of trade barriers isn’t what drives globalization, it’s shipping, shipping, shipping.

So why is Thomas made in China? Because it’s cheaper to ship him here than to produce him here. The fundamental premise of the market, as my favorite econ professor liked to intone, is “buy low, sell high.” The logic of the market means that production of anything that is low-skill labor intensive will flow to a low-skill labor abundant market–China effectively exports its cheap labor to our expensive labor market. Buy low, sell high. And safety will continue to be a concern for these imported products until we can figure out how to effectively internalize the external cost of ensuring higher safety standards. Don’t think for a minute that the recall-associated costs to the owner of the Thomas franchise are higher than the profits associated with long-term production in China–this recall is merely a “cost of doing business”. Safety problems with products imported from China will not resolve themselves unless there is a genuine economic incentive placed on the producers (presumably by the American importers). The toothlessness of Chinese officialdom in face of the imperatives of market is on display in this account by a New York Times reporter who attempted to visit the factory producing the tainted Thomas toys. Don’t expect a robust regulatory regime to appear on its own, folks.

Beisbol has been very very good to me

— Sammy Sosa

The fun thing about this blog is that we’re IR scholars and baseball fans, and sometimes those two issues overlap in very interesting ways. The globalization of Major League Baseball has been all the rage in the past few years. A wealth of international players–now a full 29% of MLB opening day rosters in 2007–has brought an influx of tremendous talent into the game. MLB is actively promoting the game globally, paying games outside the USA and helping to set up baseball leagues in other countries (most recently in Israel– notice how the Israel Baseball League website looks alot like the main MLB.com page–you can even play fantasy Israel Baseball…). And, lets not forget the World Baseball Classic, won by Japan (indeed, featuring an entirely non-US semifinal round).

Unfortunately, there has been an ugly underbelly to growth of baseball’s quest for global talent. While US players coming out of high school and college are regulated by strict eligibility rules and must go through the draft, all non-US players are free agents and can be signed very young– as early as 16.5 years old. All MLB teams now operate academies in Latin America, particularly the Dominican Republic the number one source for Major League talent outside the USA. There has been criticism of these academies exploiting young kids hoping to realize the Sammy Sosa dream only to fail and be condemned to a life of poverty.

Now that might be changing. Slowly, somewhat, but in a positive direction. Sports Illustrated has a fascinating story about how the Cleveland Indians are leading the way adding an educational component to their Dominican Academy.

When the Cleveland Indians signed Dominican prospect Angel Franco, he knew he’d been given the opportunity of a lifetime. He just didn’t know that that opportunity would have nothing to do with baseball.

Franco, under a revolutionary program pioneered by the Cleveland Indians, graduated from high school. Yes, a Dominican baseball prospect graduating from high school is revolutionary, and no, I’m not exaggerating. In the Dominican Republic, where $7,000 is the per capita yearly income, eighth grade is when free and compulsory education ends and the chase for a fraction of the $50 million in signing bonuses invested annually begins — with much of that money doled out to 16 1/2 year-olds, the earliest age a prospect can sign. For a 14-year old boy with even a whiff of arm strength or a hint of foot speed, the idea of continuing his education almost seems economically unwise.

So Major League academies throughout the Dominican Republic fill up with players whose average educational levels fall somewhere between the sixth and ninth grades. The players know full well that only odds smaller than them making the big leagues are the odds that they’ll make a sustainable living away from the field. Once cut from a team, they become moped drivers, cement workers or sugar cane cutters. Sometimes they are fruit peddlers and occasionally drug pushers. But under new educational initiatives introduced by the Indians and replicated by the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, pursing baseball no longer means abandoning school.

In the spring of 2004, the Cleveland Indians started requiring their Dominican prospects to attend Prepara, an adult education program that teaches players core subjects such as math, geography, and history. Depending on the time of the year and the intensity of the playing schedule, players become students anywhere from three to five times per week with classes lasting 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, with at least a half-dozen completing their high school educations.

But before you start thinking that the Indians are going all Amnesty International on us, make no mistake that the estimated $40,000-$50,000 the team spends annually educating its players is a business decision.

“It heightened our ability to understand and know the players we were evaluating, signing and developing,” says Cleveland’s Director of Player Development Ross Atkins, who helped implement the team’s educational programming. “We wanted them to think analytically. Increasing aptitude is a competitive advantage.”

Underscoring his team’s emphasis on aptitude rather than altruism is the fact that Atkins can’t tell you quite how many players have received high school diplomas as part of Prepara. “The actual graduation is not something were focused on,” he says. “It’s a nice bonus.”

What is interesting here, and, potentially, a model for other globalizing businesses, is that overall education (or what some might call, gasp, liberal arts education) that increases a worker’s overall aptitude is a very sound investment. Critical thinking skills are valuable, even to a baseball player.

There are no statistics or studies to show if education translates to winning, but Perez says the Mets have noticed more focused, better behaved baseball players. The benefit of educating young recruits has been one of the central arguments of authors Arturo J. Marcano Guevara and David P. Fidler in their book, Stealing Lives: The Globalization of Baseball and the Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz. Both compliment the Indians’, Mets’ and Red Sox’s efforts to educate their workforce but question why all 30 Major League Baseball clubs aren’t required to offer a core curriculum to their players.

“The fact that a couple of teams are now experimenting with something that has long been policy in North America is not impressive,” says Fidler, a law professor at Indiana University.

The main problem in this case stems from what Fidler and Marcano argue is a disparity in the way Major League rules treat players born in Latin countries versus U.S. or Canadian prospects. Major League rules prohibit teams from signing U.S. and Canadian high school players during the years in which they are eligible to play scholastic baseball. Dominican and Venezuelan players need only be 16 years, six months. While the NBA last year enacted an age minimum requiring its players to be at least 19 after mounting concerns about the physical and emotional readiness of its athletes, Major League Baseball has signed the U.S.-equivalent of high school juniors routinely and consistently.

Marcano, a Venezuelan native and sports lawyer in Toronto, has seen hordes of kids cut from the Major League programs with no backup plans and no education. “They are sending this message that baseball is a way out of poverty,” he says, “but if they don’t make it there’s no future for these kids because they are not prepared to reincorporate into society.”

Because of the Indians’ Prepara program, Franco is not one of them. Educated and later released by the team, he is now enrolled in law school. Perez, too, has seen the changes. One player, he recalls, loved learning so much that he asked to continue his education even though he’s shown promise as a major-league prospect. “And,” Perez says, “he did it in English.”

Now, will this have a major impact that turns around the entire Dominican economy? Probably not, lets not be naive. The lesson, rather, is that these academies are trying to become somewhat less exploitative and leave the people who are their core product better able to handle life after baseball. Not every kid will become a Pedro Martinez or Sammy Sossa, but if they get a decent education for trying, well, that’s good for them, good for the Dominican, and good for baseball.

(and yes, I am a Cleveland Indians fan, so yes, I’m very glad to see that they are a leader in this field)

Globalization, ca. World War II

Via John Holbo.

Image from http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v602/bensanaz/All-Star%2024/AllStarComics24-01.jpg.

Speaking of glocalization

Does anyone know of a systematic comparison of the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials? The US and UK ones don’t seem very different–as much as it pains me, the UK PC stacks up surprisingly well against John Hodgman.

The German and French variants look to be just dubbed version of the US editions. I can’t parse the Japanese ones, but they seem to be about as localized (or not) as the UK versions.

At the very least, the ads might provide a snapshot of similarities and differences in “loser suit” and “laid-back dude” archetypes across multiple countries. I wonder, however, how well the ads travel to other settings; do the Mac commercials work as well in the UK, France, or Japan as they do in the US?

The relentness march of outsourcing

The Super Bowl score is the AP’s lead story right now; needless to say, I dropped down through the wire reports. I discovered that India not only leads the US in cheap call centers, but that the country also enjoys a capital/labor comparative advantage in surrogate motherhood.

Surrogate motherhood is among the latest in a long list of roles being outsourced to India, where rent-a-womb services are far cheaper than in the West.

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

The cultural dimensions of the whole thing seem rather interesting. Supporters stress India’s “special” suitability for globalized reproduction:

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates — usually lower middleclass housewives — money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or — some claim — educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

But there is also a social dimension to their service, an empathy with the childless in a society that views reproduction as a sacred obligation, and believes good deeds performed in this life are rewarded in the next one, experts say.

“Surrogate mothers are giving their (the eventual parents’) lives a new meaning. For them the money they pay is just a token gesture that by no way substitutes their gratefulness,” said Deepak Kabir, a Mumbai-based gynaecologist.

The rest of the article suggests we might see Kabir’s claims as just so much marketing.

Surrogacy as a temp job may be a lucrative deal but traditional attitudes to sex and procreation, especially in the countryside, mean Indian surrogate mothers often invent cover stories for their neighbours.

Most say they are carrying their husband’s child, and once the baby is delivered to the intended parents, they say the newborn has died. Some go to other towns and return after delivery, telling neighbours they were visiting relatives.

“It’s a lie we have to tell, otherwise how can we earn this much money?” said a 29-year-old prospective mother at a Mumbai clinic. “A lie told for a good cause is not a sin.”

I don’t find any of this completely outrageous; all things being equal (and they never are), I’d rather we see third-world countries as having a comparative advantage in life than in death. But I do think there’s a story here about the relentless internationalization of, uhh, production in the contemporary international economy.

Hello Kitty, Globalization, and Localization

I gave My final lecture for “Introduction to International Politics” today. It focused on the cultural dimension of globalization. After my daughter insisted I bring her Hello Kitty doll to work with me, I decided to use Hello Kitty as a thematic anchor for my discussion of various ways of thinking about identity, culture, and contemporary global processes.

It turns out that this makes even more sense than I realized at the time. My wife pointed me to the introductory chapter of Ken Belson’s and Brian Bremmer’s Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon. The creators of Hello Kitty, it turns out, eschewed creating any sort of a back story for the character, allowing consumers to project their own fantasies and aspirations onto her. She’s a brand qua brand; a global product with infinite possibilities for localization.* At the same time, she’s been an important vector for the spread of Japanese kawaii sensibilities into other cultures. Many American toys and cartoons, for example, now involve stereotypically kawaii elements.

*On this point, I highly recommend Patrick Jackson and Peter Mandavelle’s discussion of translation in Harry Potter and International Relations, which I assigned for the lecture. An extreme form of Hello Kitty “translation” can be found at the venerable website of the “Hello Cthulhu” cartoon.

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