August 21st, 2021

13 Hour Cymbal Spiderclock


Observers in the past decades have commented on increased urbanization in India, which has led to new challenges for development, housing, and labor. But the majority of India's population, and thus electoral power, remains in rural regions.

In a 2018 article, SAI BALAKRISHNAN examines how agrarian political power manifests in urban spaces, looking to real estate markets in Mumbai.

From the paper:

"The electoral power of the agrarian countryside is evident in the relationship of Mumbai to its hinterland. India is the second largest exporter of sugar in the world and more than 40% of India’s sugar exports come from the western Maharashtra region. Sugar production in the region is organised in the form of cooperatives. These sugar cooperatives have been heavily subsidised by the state: 90% of sugar cooperative finances came from state-guaranteed cooperative bank debt; over three quarters of the equity was a direct handout from the state budget. It was Mumbai’s thriving industrial economy that was the source of sugar subsidies. Mumbai’s industrial classes tolerated the diversion of capital from the city to the countryside, as they understood that the state government legislators relied on the peasants for their votes, and that capital diversion was the price to be paid for the political stability from subsidised agrarian prosperity.

In a market-oriented urbanising economy, these elites continue to influence the making of urban real estate markets by flexing their regulatory muscle. The price of a plot of land increases when it is well connected to roads and transport networks, when it has uninterrupted water supply, when it can rise high in the air and thus maximise development rights. Politicians control these road, water and air resources, and in a context where local governments are not yet fully empowered as decisionmakers, state-level politicians wield immense control over resources that get capitalised into the price of land."

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May 8th, 2021

The Spell of the Lake


In the late 2000s, the term "land grab" rose to prominence to describe large-scale acquisitions of farmland in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Reports of "land grabs" also inspired debates around the specific functions of foreign investment, domestic policies in the global South, and commodity prices in development.

A 2012 article by LORENZO COTULA takes a critical approach towards "land grab" literature and distinguishes contemporary land acquisition patterns from their historical counterparts.

From the article:

"There is nothing new in the acquisition of land in the global South to produce crops for export to the global North, and some crops have a long history in tropical plantations (e.g. rubber). However, the biofuels boom has brought new actors (e.g. constellations of energy, agribusiness and biotech companies) and new crops (e.g. jatropha), or has reinvigorated interest in longstanding crops (e.g. sugar cane, palm oil). Carbon markets are changing the nature of the financial returns at stake and, more fundamentally, the very relationship between humankind and nature. The growing participation of financial players in the global land rush brings to the land arena a new set of players, motivations and investment models. In the words of Peluso and Lund, 'there is no one grand land grab, but a series of changing contexts, emergent processes and forces, and contestations that are producing new conditions and facilitating shifts in both de jure and de facto land control.'

However one looks at it, the land rush, if sustained over the next few years, will have profound implications for the future of world agriculture, including the roles of states and markets, of agribusiness and family farming, and of the global trading system. For example, as companies increase their degree of vertical integration and as governments acquire land overseas to import agricultural produce, a growing share of world agricultural trade will occur within the 'closed circuit' of corporate or country systems – deepening a trend that has emerged over the past few decades. In turn, this trend may have repercussions in multiple directions: to name a few, greater vertical integration of value chains can squeeze local operators; intra-firm transactions may increase opportunities for tax avoidance through transfer pricing; and mercantilist approaches to outsourcing agricultural production for national food security can ultimately undermine the multilateral trading system."

Link to the text.

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September 12th, 2020

Technological Improvements


Land acquisitions have been on the rise since 2008, when rising oil prices and an international food crisis dramatically increased demand. Changing ownership patterns have the potential to influence not only the terms of agricultural supply chains, but the structure of political power in economies across the Global South.

A new book by MADELEINE FAIRBAIRN analyzes the trajectory of global land grabs, focusing especially on the expanding role of the financial sector.

From the introduction:

"The giant US pension fund Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), one of the largest players in the emerging farmland investment sector, illustrates how recently financial interest in farmland has emerged—and how rapidly it has grown. In 2007, TIAA suddenly began acquiring enormous tracts of farmland as part of the investment portfolio it manages on behalf of retired teachers and other professionals. By 2012, it already controlled $2.8 billion worth of farmland in the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Eastern Europe, making it one of the largest farmland owners and managers in the world. This included more than four hundred individual farm properties totaling 600,000 acres, most of them leased out to tenant farmers and operating companies. By the end of 2017, less than a decade after its first farmland purchase, TIAA—a firm created to manage the retirement accounts of teachers—had come to control over 1.9 million acres of farmland worldwide.

The amount of financial-sector capital so far invested in global farmland markets is fairly paltry. But financial-sector spittle has the potential to buy a lot of land. In Iowa, where farmland cost an average of $7,943 per acre in 2014, $40 billion could buy slightly over 5 million acres—approximately a sixth of the state’s farmland. In Brazil’s soy frontier state of Piauí, where farmland cost around $1,000 an acre in 2014, it would buy well over half the state. Ultimately, the prospect of landownership concentration in the hands of the financial sector matters because it has the potential to propel economic inequality. It matters greatly if the financial institutions that control much of the accumulated wealth of society decide that land is a preferred route for storing that wealth and generating income from it."

Link to the book.

  • "We devised a new methodology for uncovering corporate organization and actors who benefit from farmland investment through an analysis of creditors and proprietors." Loka Ashwood, John Canfield, Madeleine Fairbairn and Kathryn De Master draw on county-level tax parcel data to analyze corporate land ownership structures in Illinois. Link.
  • International investment law, which construes land as a commercial asset, can facilitate access to land for foreign investors and impose discipline on the exercise of regulatory powers in land matters. But shifts in the political economy that underpins international investment law can create new opportunities to reflect the non-commercial relations within which land rights remain embedded in many societies." Lorenzo Cotula's 2013 article on the legal underpinnings of global land acquisition. By the same author, a 2013 book looks at landgrabs across Africa. Link, link.
  • Another new book by Stefan Ouma presents an ethnography of agricultural-focussed asset management, through case studies of New Zealand and Tanzania. Link.
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July 6th, 2020

Desert Walk


Historically, the expansion of the American frontier symbolized a unity between political liberty and economic growth, at the same time as it justified the violent expropriation that continues to define the country's racial and distributional politics.

In a 1998 article, environmental historian DONALD J. PISANI analyzes these dynamics through the monopolization of California's mining industry, arguing that legislation enacted during the California Gold Rush shaped the trajectory of property relations in the American West.

From the piece:

"Those who flocked to California at the end of the 1840s carried with them strong ideas about the nature of property, the right of American citizens beyond the pale of law to govern themselves, and the power of American citizens to make their own rules concerning the acquisition and use of public lands—including those containing mineral deposits. Nevertheless, Congress had authorized the sale of lead and copper lands. Would it now authorize the sale of gold-bearing land to the highest bidders? This was the question that faced the U.S. Army in California when gold was discovered in January 1848.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, free mining provided reasonably equal access to wealth. But during the 1850s, as corporations increasingly dominated mining, the law changed from encouraging economic democracy to protecting capital. Perhaps the best example was the legal permission to "follow the vein." Initially California's mining camp codes limited hardrock miners to part of a vein, often one hundred feet. As early as 1852, however, Nevada County modified its laws to encourage miners to follow a vein downward to any depth and in any direction, even if they tunneled under an adjoining claim. The new laws were designed to protect investors from financial loss when only the tail end of an out cropping was located within their claim. For decades after the golden years of the mining industry had passed, these monopolies enjoyed disproportionate power in the legislature."

Link to the open access article.

  • "War and emancipation brought profound change not only to the lives of enslaved people but also to broader patterns of economic development, forms of governmental activity, and, above all, property relations." Emma Teitelman examines the "transregional wave of land enclosures" that took place during reconstruction. Link. (Stay tuned for Teitelman's forthcoming piece in Phenomenal World.)
  • Paul Gates' History of Public Land Law Development offers a comprehensive account of legislation regulating the use of the public domain. Link.
  • "The claim club or squatters' association has long occupied a place in western history. No historian, however, has fully explored the social interactions in these frontier groups." Allan G. Bogue examines the dynamics within the squatters associations which proliferated across the West in the early 19th century. Link. And Alan Derickson's excellent book tells the history of hardrock miners' self-organized health and welfare programs, which emerged in the following decades. Link.
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June 15th, 2020

Green Stripe


As debate and discussion continues over reforms to US policing, attention has been drawn to the share of municipal and state budgets dedicated to police departments. While a useful proxy of governmental priorities, these budgets only tell part of the complex story of the role and function of police in society.

In a their 2008 book chapter titled "The Enforcement-Equality Trade Off," ARJUN JAYADEV and SAMUEL elaborate the role of what they term "guard labor"—the labor units "devoted to the maintenance of order."

From the chapter:

"In order to maintain order, all societies allocate resources to defence, policing, surveillance, contractual monitoring and other activities that sustain the property rights and other claims that characterise status quo institutions. Data from the United States indicate a significant increase in its extent in the USA over the period 1890 to the present. Cross-national comparisons show a significant statistical association between income inequality and the fraction of the labour force that is constituted by guard labour, as well as with measures of political legitimacy (inversely) and political conflict.

Continental European welfare states devote considerably less resources to the maintenance of order than do the English-speaking economies. A possible explanation is that these economies divert fewer resources from directly productive uses to guard labour by undertaking larger transfers of claims on resources in the form of social expenditures and higher wages."

Link to the report.

  • For more on guard labor, link to a 2019 newsletter, in we shared Jayadev's classic 2006 paper with Samuel Bowles on guard labor. Also shared in that letter, a 2014 Times op-ed by Bowles and Jayadev on the subject, with an unbeatable infographic comparing the US' share of guard labor to other rich nations.
  • See Jayadev's paper "Estimating Guard Labor" for more on the employment statistics behind their analysis. Link. And link to a 2018 blog post on police and prison spending in the US and Europe. Link.
  • For more on the relationship between the labor market and policing and prisons, see this recent paper by Seth Prins and Adam Reich. Link. See also a 2002 paper by Eric Gould et al on crime rates and labor market opportunity from 1979-1997. Link.
  • "Inequality and Guard Labor, or Prohibition and Guard Labor?" by Vincent Geloso and Vadim Kufenko. Link.
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