Category: economics

Food adulteration is nothing new

HorsesWith horse meat cropping up all over the place in food in the UK at the moment, I went back to the interview I recorded in 2008 for Princeton University Press with Bee Wilson about her book Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Ersatz Coffee.

As the book makes clear, (justifiable) concern about what’s in our food is nothing new: complaints about adulterated bread date back at least as far as the Middle Ages, and the Victorians had to contend with fake tea, ersatz coffee and cheese coloured with red lead. In this interview, Bee says:

Adulteration is a universal in history – it’s always been with us and it’s always going to be with us in some form or another. But it only seems to have become endemic in modern industrialized cities coupled with a particular kind of state. You would have editorials written in the Times between about the 1820s and the 1860s quite regularly saying things like, if a gentleman wants to sell chicory and call it coffee, that’s his business, no one should intervene…

Listening to the BBC lunchtime news today, I was surprised by just how phlegmatic shoppers interviewed on Camden High Street were about not knowing what was in the food they were eating; the prevailing attitude was, if the food’s cheap, you’re naive not to expect some corners to have been cut along the way. Where, I wonder, is the dividing line between corners cut and horses minced?

To listen to the podcast click here.

Peter Nolan: Is China Buying the World?

China is the world’s second biggest economy and its largest exporter. It possesses the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves and has 29 firms in the FT 500 list of the world’s largest companies. ‘China’s Rise’ preoccupies the global media, which carry regular articles suggesting that it is using its financial resources to ‘buy the world’.

Is there any truth to this idea? Or is this just scaremongering by Western commentators who have little interest in a balanced presentation of China’s role in the global political economy?

In this short book Peter Nolan – Professor of Chinese Management at the University of Cambridge and one of the leading international experts on China and the global economy – probes behind the media rhetoric and shows that the idea that China is buying the world is founded on misapprehensions.

To listen to extracts from an interview with Peter Nolan about this book, click on the links below. To listen to the complete interview, click here.

1. Peter Nolan begins by discussing the prevailing discourse in Western media, which maintains that China is buying the world. Click here [2:23].

2. I remarked that problems must inevitably arise when policy is built on misconceptions about China’s intentions. Click here [1:48].

3. Even if it is not the case that China owns many Western companies, isn’t it increasingly involved in infrastructure projects in the developing world? Click here [1:21].

4. Next, I asked Peter Nolan whether, even if he didn’t share the fears about China’s rise, he nonetheless understood where they were coming from. Click here [2:19].

5. It is a central component of the argument of this book that over the past thirty years Western firms have changed their way of doing business and now have a highly significant presence in countries such as China. Peter Nolan discusses this development here [8:34].

6. Following on from the point above, Peter Nolan explains why it has been so difficult for China as a recent entrant to penetrate Western companies and why those companies dominate global industries such as banking, aviation and technology, including new green technologies. Click here [10:29].

7. Finally, I asked Peter Nolan for his thoughts on how China’s leaders look on their country’s future as a global commercial power. Click here [5:21].

Merchants of Culture – new edition for a changing industry

When John Thompson‘s Merchants of Culture appeared in the summer of 2010, it was the first serious study of the publishing industry in many years. Thompson compared himself to an anthropologist studying his subjects in order to explain a field of human activity that strikes many outsiders as baffling and often irrational.

The industry recognized itself in the portrait that Thompson drew. One reviewer said succinctly: “If you want to understand the publishing industry, read this book” and one New York Times bestselling author called it “a must-read for anyone hoping to become a published writer, or who already is one”.

Now, some eighteen months later, comes a substantially revised paperback edition which takes into account the profound changes affecting the industry as print sales shrink and uncertainty grows over where power will reside in an electronic future in which the roles of publishers, authors and agents are set to change.

To listen to the complete interview, click here. For my original interview from the summer of 2010, click here. And to listen to extracts from our conversation, clink on the links below:

1. “It is to some extent a test of whether I have got it right that [publishers] recognize their world in the account that I have given.”

John Thompson reflects on the warm reception the first edition of this book received from an industry undergoing profound change. To listen, click here [2:06].

2. “By the summer of 2011, it was clear that the industry was going in a certain direction and that the ebook revolution had become a reality.”

John Thompson discusses the dramatic changes that occurred in the world of trade publishing between Merchants of Culture‘s first publication and this new paperback edition. Click here [2:56].

3. The ebooks future had been long foretold and was slow in coming. Was the advent of Amazon’s Kindle in autumn 2007 the key tipping point that changed publishing? Click here [5:22].

4. The key question: why has the ebook caused such a profound existential crisis in the publishing industry? Click here [5:35]

5. Finally I asked John Thompson if he felt publishers were doing enough to shape the future, or were they ceding control to retailers and technology companies? Click here [4:06].



Consumption and its consequences: “rethinking our relationship to the material world”

My guest in this programme is Professor of Material Culture at UCL, Daniel Miller. Daniel appeared in an earlier Polity Books podcast to talk about his previous book, Tales from Facebook, which looked at how people really use Facebook as a form of social interaction, as opposed to how media commentators would have us think they use it. In his new book, Consumption and its Consequences, Daniel takes a similar approach, examining how we behave as consumers by paying close attention to what we do, rather than heeding received ideas about consumption.

Of course, with consumption, the stakes are potentially very high, as our patterns of consumption have direct bearing on the earth’s resources and its climate. So the questions Daniel addresses here, while informed by academic research, are of much more than just academic interest. Understanding how and why we consume is, the book argues, a prerequisite for finding ways to consume without completely exhausting our planet’s resources. And to pursue these issues, Daniel opens and closes the book with an imaginary three-way conversation between advocates of different approaches to consumption. So it is more than an academic book in both its form and content.

To listen to the complete interview, click here. To hear extracts, click on the links below.

1. I began by asking Danny about this book in relation to his earlier work. Click here for his response [1:44].

2. “We’ve used the material world as a stick to beat ourselves with”. Daniel Miller on contesting the unrelievedly negative view of material culture. Click here [2:40].

3. “Everybody’s decided in a sense what consumption is without really going out there and being open-minded and going out there to ask ‘what do people actually seem to be doing?'”. Danny Miller on the contribution of anthropology to the study of consumption. Click here [2:12].

4. I remarked that the book expresses scepticism about the methodology of economists and psychologists in studying consumption, so how did Danny Miller collect his data? Click here [2:30].

5. This books maintains that consumer culture is not necessarily individualistic,  materialistic, and competitive, which will raise many eyebrows. I asked Danny Miller to explain. Click here [1:52].

6. Consumption and its Consequences is distinctive not just in its content but also its form. Here Danny Miller explains more. Click here [2:48].

7. If we follow Miller’s interpretation of consumption, do the problems of climate change appear more or less intractable? Click here [2:41]

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – James K. Galbraith

Athens reflectionThis morning I spoke to leading US economist James K. Galbraith on the phone from Athens for this month’s Le Monde diplomatique podcast. James is professor of government/business relations at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. He’s the author of six books, including The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too.

“rich countries will have a lot of new poor people on their doorsteps”

The interview accompanies and amplifies his article in the current issue of Le Monde diplo, which looks at what he calls “the Europeanization of Mediterranean debt” forced on the EU by speculators, and what he predicts will become a vicious circle of budget cutting, debt deflation and depression.

He further predicts that old patterns of hardship migration will re-emerge: “rich countries will have a lot of new poor people on their doorsteps because they weren’t willing to deal with them at home”.

To listen to the podcast, click here.