Monday, January 01, 2018

A Tralfamadorian view of the U.S. economy from James C. Scott

 I have been reading James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State, which argues repeatedly that centrally planned communities and economies cannot subsist without the unsanctioned return of small-scale, below-the-radar activity of people forced to circumvent the master plan.

The quick-fire examples below, offered in a final-chapter overview, brought me up short. The workarounds prompted by a "formal command economy" have been elaborated in depth and reiterated throughout the book. What got my attention is the throwaway final sentence, asserting something that has been not elaborated at all in preceding chapters:
Many modern cities, and not just those in the Third World, function and survive by virtue of slums and squatter settlements whose residents provide essential services. A formal command economy, as we have seen, is contingent on petty trade, bartering, and deals that are typically illegal. A formal economy of pension systems, social security, and medical benefits is underwritten by a mobile, floating population with few of these protections (p. 352, Kindle edition).
It's no news that American businesses and citizens profit from the cheap labor of the "mobile population" -- which I would assume includes not only undocumented immigrants but also legally present immigrants who are ineligible for Medicare or Medicaid and have not accumulated significant social security income -- and citizens who lack health insurance and also have scant stakes in social security. But is it true, as I think is implied here, that the formal economy in the U.S. couldn't function without the informal one?  That we're dependent on unsanctioned labor? There are welfare states in Europe that leave far fewer people outside the "protections" of the formal economy.

I'm reminded of the unseen actors alleged to "underwrite" human procreation in Slaughterhouse 5:
One of the biggest moral bombshells handed to Billy by the Tralfamadorians, incidentally, had to do with sex on Earth. They said their flying-saucer crews had identified no fewer than seven sexes on Earth, each essential to reproduction. Again: Billy couldn't possible imagine what five of those seven sexes had to do with the making of a baby, since they were sexually active only in the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians tried to give Billy clues that would help him imagine sex in the invisible dimension. They told him that there could be no Earthling babies without male homosexuals. There could be babies without female homosexuals. There couldn't be babies without women over sixty-five years old. There could be babies without men over sixty-five. There couldn't be babies without other babies who had lived an hour or less after birth. And so on. 

It was gibberish to Billy (p. 114, Dell edition). 
Oh well, so much for profound uninformed thoughts. Happy New Year!

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