The other day I thought to myself, "what the world needs right about now is yet another blog". So here it is.

I wish I could tell you what it's about. All I can say is that I'll attempt to string together a few decent sentences every once in a while. We'll see what develops.

Feel free to register and - may god have mercy on my soul - leave comments. Try to behave.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Changing the Subject

(#3 in My Ongoing Attempt to Understand Argentina's Latest Meltdown)

On March 11, Martin Lousteau (then Argentina's Economy Minister) announced that the tax on the export of soy would be increased to about 44%, with that percentage being indexed to the price on the international market. As that price went up, so too would the tax. Taxes on exports, or "retenciones", were first applied (at a level of 20%) in 2002 by then President Eduardo Duhalde. The agricultural sector ("El Campo") had gone along - likewise when the rentenciones went up to 25%, and then 35%. But 44% was seen as confiscatory. The fact that it was announced in the middle of the harvest, without consulting the agro sector, and decreed ex cathedra only aggravated the situation.

After that announcement, the farmers (driving tractors and pickup trucks) took to the streets in hopes of getting the President's attention. Highways were closed to any trucks transporting agricultural goods - whether soy or wheat on their way to the port, or beef and dairy on their way to the Central Market in Liniers (just outside Buenos Aires). There were food shortages. In a country with a population of 40 million and argicultural capacity to feed almost ten times that number, supermarkets had to resort to placing limits on the amount of milk or flour one could buy. For about a week, beef - the cheap availability of which is the birthright of every Argentine - was nowhere to be had in Buenos Aires. As one local blogger succinctly put it, "Argentina without beef. Not good."

Perhaps calculating the shortages would turn public opinion against the farmers, in the late-afternoon of March 25 President Fernandez de Kirchner directly addressed the situation in a widely-anticipated speech. Many hoped that she would choose this moment to make good on indications she had given during her campaign that she would leave behind the heavy-handed, take-no-prisoners style of her predecessor (husband Nestor Kirchner) and adopt a more conciliatory, magnanimous tone. Instead, the farmers got a petulant, finger wagging dress-down, in which she accussed them of being motivated by nothing other than greed. In other words, instead of sitting down and talking with the representatives of what is arguably the economic engine of the country, she gave them a spanking.

The response to the speech was immediate, not only among the farmers and the vast numbers of people in the interior who depend upon them economically, but among many residents of Buenos Aires. By 8 pm that same evening, while a fair amount of porteños (as the residents of BA call themselves) was banging pots and pans, either out on their balconies or in the streets, more tractors and farm machinery were deployed to highways throughout the country. Later, a few thousand people - mostly middle and upper-middle class - converged on the Plaza de Mayo, the political epicenter of the country, in a peaceful demonstration in support of the farmers.

Being a citizen of a country which seems largely to have lost the will to take to the streets in the face of the many recent outrages committed by its rulers, my first reaction to the pot-banging and the protest in the Plaza de Mayo was one of admiration. Agree with them or not (and what the hell do I know about agricultural policy anyway?), what's not to like about a group of citizens peacefully manifesting its displeasure with the policies of its government? We could use a little of this spirit in Washington DC right now.

As the protest was winding down, a group of counter-demonstrators entered the Plaza. Again, nothing wrong with this - except for the fact that some of them were wielding yard-long lengths of wood. Their banners announced their intentions. "La Plaza es de las Abuelas y del Pueblo" ("the plaza belongs to the grandmothers [of the Disappeared] and to the people"). Another read, "Ahí Estan los que Apoyaron el Gobierno Militar" ("These are the ones who supported the military government"). With the police suspiciously absent, the second crowd made quick work of the first, which had no stomach for a brawl. It dispersed into the side-streets, though some (incuding at least one prominent journalist and one Diputado Nacional) did not get out unscathed. By midnight, the Plaza had been restored to its rightful owners and the real meaning of the crisis had been laid bare: the farmers, along with their urban middle-class supporters, are just a bunch of unreconstructed, dictatorship-sympathising running dogs of neoliberalism bent on overthrowing the government and handing over the country to the tender mercies of international capitalism. Right then, now that we've got that all cleared up....

Anclao en B'Aires

The fires went on burning for a couple of weeks. Strangely, the task of putting them out seemed not to be very high on anyone's agenda. Instead, they were deployed by the goverment as evidence of Agro's malevolence and greediness. According to this view, the farmers set the fires intentionally, as part of their disagreement with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who (along with the majority of the country's population) currently lives downwind. Agro's uncanny ability to enlist the cooperation of the sun and the wind was taken by the government and its supporters as further proof of "powerful interests" pulling the strings, no doubt from somewhere up north. Finally it rained, putting the fires out and fueling hopeful speculation about a rift (una interna) between the elements.

The smoke may have disappeared, but almost three months after the now-ex Minister of the Economy started all of this by announcing yet another tax increase on exports of soy, this crisis shows every sign of just gathering steam. What began as what in any other country would've been an easily-resolved dispute over agricultural policy has turned into a full-blown national donnybrook. As the smoke managed to penetrate everywhere, so has this latest example of Argentina's astounding talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Argentina, one of the world's top-three soy producers has ceased exports precisely at the moment of greatest international demand. Ships that should've long since unloaded in Shanghai are still anchored in B'Aires or Rosario or Bahia Blanca, meters running. This week, truckers in the thousands began parking their rigs on major highways to protest the fact that the farmers in the hundreds of thousands have been parking their tractors alongside major highways, intercepting any trucks carrying grain for export. The new President, insecure, paranoid, and pig-headed, would rather watch the country go up in flames than run the risk of being seen as having given in to the farmers, who are equally intransigent. Problem is, while their approval ratings have gone up, hers have plummeted, right alongside the country's bond ratings. Inflation is way up. Whatever (relatively minor) gains that might've been gotten from those nine percentage points have long since been erased. Meanwhile, throughout the country, link after link in the economic chain is being snapped. The whole thing is just stunning. How did it come to this? How is it possible that Argentina looks about to tear itself apart again?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Busking - Part One

So the record business is lurching toward oblivion. Retail sales are in the tank. Most record companies are no longer willing to cough up the kinds of recording budgets that they used to. Threatening to prosecute half the planet (including, I've just learned, a certain someone very near and dear to my heart) seems impracticable, not to mention reprehensible. Even the head of EMI has admitted that "Suing fans does not seem like a winning strategy." Got that right. DRM (digital rights management) succeeds only in annoying and insulting those who are still willing to pay for music. I'm reminded of "The Future", one of Leonard Cohen's many prophesies:
things are going to slide
slide in all directions
won't be nothing
nothing you can measure anymore
the blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and has overturned the order of the soul

Granted, the old music industry - or, "the devil's riding crop" (see verse 2 of that song), now wielded with such enthusiasm by the RIAA - was never a great defender of the "order of the soul," but you get the idea. It's all sliding. The RIAA, record companies, distributors, artists... everybody knows (thanks once again to L. Cohen).

Now, perhaps the advent of free music is just the harbinger of a glorious new era dawning, one in which nothing costs anything. If so, fabulous. But, absent the full-blown arrival of that blessed event, the rules of capitalism still hold sway. Every other transaction in the chain (studio time, fees for the engineer, producer, and musicians, gear, electric bills, food, parking, parking tickets, car detailing, tarot card readings) all are still measurable the old-fashioned way.

This being the case, my first reaction upon becoming fully cognizant of this disorienting state of affairs (say, circa 2000) was one of consternation. Thieves! How dare they! That's my intellectual property their stealing! How do they expect us to make a living?! Etc. I've driven many a pleasant conversation into awkward silence upon learning that my interlocutor had just the other day downloaded my entire catalogue via Limewire. "Really!? Gee thanks. Say, I hear you sell riding lawnmowers for a living. How would you feel if I just drove one off the lot tomorrow?" But I don't do that anymore. I've seen the light.

Many years ago, I was a busker in Paris for a time. My favorite spot was the Métro - specifically, one well-travelled corner in the hive of tunnels around the St. Michel station. It was dry, the acoustics were great, the police didn't bother me, and the parisians were, well, if not effusive, then at least not totally unsympathetic. Those parisians were comprised of three groups: those who ignored me (unfortunately, a majority), those who stopped to listen (without contributing), and those who stopped, listened, and were then kind enough to leave some money in the guitar case. I did not get rich, but I did alright.

Come to think of it, there was a fourth group, comprised of exactly one person: the station-master inside the ticket booth down the hall. One afternoon, after having been hammering away for a while at some pointless, endless, drony, open-tuning guitar dirge, I began to notice many of the people passing by were smiling at me. Some were chuckling. I began to wonder what was up. I also noticed that that man in the booth had for some time been broadcasting a message over the station's PA system. Since the PA system was just as lousy as my french, I had understood nothing. Finally, one of the passersby approached me.
"Excusez-moi," he said. "Do you understand what he is saying?"
"No, not a word."
"He is saying that your song is very very boring, so please play a different one." Then, just as I was about to thank him for enlightening me, he added his own commentary:
"And may I say also that your costume needs pressing." I'm sure it did.

Anyway, I would argue that P2P networks are like the Paris Metro, or the choice street corner, with the users of those networks falling into the same three groups. I would no more expect every person who downloads my music on Limewire to pay for it than I would every passing commuter in that tunnel. Some are in a hurry. No doubt many agree with the station-master and just don't like what they hear. Others just don't happen to have any spare change at the moment. Is it reasonable to tell those people to cover their ears as they pass by? Does it make sense to banish them from the tunnel? Would any sane person advocate barring the doors of the Metro? Should we serve them all with subpoenas? Blow up the whole system? Of course not. And yet that is exactly what the RIAA and its lawyers would have us do.

Anyone encountering a busker in a subway tunnel knows that the music they're hearing could just as easily be heard for free as not. Why is that? Is it because the listener has found a new way to "steal" it without getting caught? No, it is because the music is - a priori, de facto - free. In the confines of the Metro, the music is soundwaves floating through a public space, offered up to the passing crowds, no strings attached. I can no more force you pay for those soundwaves than I can make you pay for the air they're floating through, or than two people standing in a crowd can charge anyone else who might have overheard their conversation.

And so it is in the case of file-sharing over P2P networks. In my view (that of a person trying to make a living creating music intended for other humans to hear), your downloading my song is functionally the same thing as hearing it in a subway tunnel. All of those zeros and ones that make up a digital file are analogous (reversing the relationship) to those soundwaves. The air in the tunnel is the software (the codec, the P2P program it travels through, your operating system). The floor, ceiling, walls, escalators, and doors of the Metro are hardware (servers, switches, modems, hard-drives).

The last word of the previous paragraph brings us to the "problem" (and to why this comparison is "functionally" rather than "exactly" the same). In the subway, once you've heard me play the song, you then continue on your merry way, carrying with you only a memory of the event. In the case of the downloaded song, the "memory" you carry with you is not really a memory at all. It is the thing itself, a perfect copy (more or less, depending on what codec you're using). If you want to hear it again, you do not have to return to the Metro, find me, and hope that I play it again. Whenever you want, you can hear it just the way you heard it the first time. So can an unlimited number of others, for free. You get to keep it.

That copy is what economists call a non-excludable, intangible, non-rival good (in plain english, something you can't hold in your hands, which can be used simultaneously by many people who cannot be kept from using it by the fact of their not having paid for it). The RIAA says that this "good" is (and must always be) "excludable". It "demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay. Alternative traditional forms, made newly viable by the technology of interconnection, comprising voluntary associations of those who create and those who support, must be forced into unequal competition with ownership's overwhelmingly powerful systems of mass communication" (Eben Moglen, the dotCommunist Manifesto).

For the busker, the free offer of music does not mean that payment is not possible (or desirable). On the contrary, the fact of its being offered freely creates the very conditions that make payment possible. Given the choice between someone who throws me a coin and someone who does not, I'll take the former. But, in keeping with the spirit in which the music offered, that payment must be voluntary, non-coerced. And this is what sticks in the throat of the RIAA. They have lost the ability to coerce payment. The nature of the medium has made it so. Moreover, this same medium has also taken from them the ability to coerce artists. We no longer need their permission to make a living. Because we now have at our disposal the mother of all busking spots: everywhere, or here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Burning Fields

The smoke has cleared, for the time being, although one night about three weeks ago the entire slumbering population of Buenos Aires collectively awoke, put on its slippers, and ran to the kitchen in search of the fire. Finding nothing, those who could went back to sleep. The rest of us made coffee and waited for the sun to come up.

For the lucky few with river views, it might've been worth the wait, rising as it did a stout blood-orange over Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata. For everyone else, daylight was just backlight diffused through the thick, acrid smoke that during the night had crossed the General Paz and advanced (block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood) until it was everywhere. Windows were sealed as best they could be. There was a run on surgical masks. Anyone with access to a house sufficiently south went there. Then, with just enough wind to carry it but not enough to carry it away, the smoke reached there as well. And there it stayed for a few days, irritating eyes and throats and lungs, causing a number of catastrophic pile-ups (after which several major highways were closed), and sending everyone - or their domestic employees - scurrying out to gather the laundry.

As it turns out, the fire was (and still is) about 100 kilometers to the north, up in the province of Entre Rios (or, "between rivers"), where 60,000 hectares of grassland have been burning out of control in the Paraná Delta. Apparently it had been burning for quite a while. Some of the locals had been complaining about it to any government official who would listen. Few did, until the wind shifted, sending the smoke down here to the capital, where it promptly hit the fan: that is, the federal government's ongoing, very nasty, ideologically-charged, potentially explosive confrontation with "El Campo" (that is, the entire agricultural sector, along with the various regional economies that depend upon it).