Friday, March 28, 2008

A New Post!

I basically need this picture so I can link to it elsewhere. It all has to do with my obsession for Lost. This is going to be the mother of all (recent) blog posts because I promised you the story of the Valentine's Day Surprise, plus I just finished an eight-page sociology paper that I want to share with you all. And besides, it's been a heck of a while. But first, for your reading pleasure, I'll also include a transcript of a conversation that went down in my film class the other day and had me rollin'.

Girl [interrupting teacher]: Wait a minute! Didn't you say we were going to have a special guest this week!?
Teacher: Oh, you mean like we had the other week when we talked to a real cinematographer who worked on the set of CSI?
Girl: No! I mean, didn't you say you were going to have someone in here to observe your teaching, and we were supposed to make really good comments and make you look good?
Teacher [turning to the gentleman sitting next to her]: Heh heh, yeah, I kinda prepped them that you were coming last week, kind of as a joke, and kind of so they would be prepared.


Girl: Oh. This is a really great class.


So a few days before Valentine's Day this year, I decided to make some enchiladas (I make really good sour-cream-based enchiladas, based loosely on my mother's recipe). As I was at the supermarket purchasing the ingredients, mostly on a caprice I decided to buy some red food coloring and make special Valentine's enchiladas. Valentine's Day Surprise, I would call it. As I mixed tons of food coloring in with the filling, my roommates expressed their disapproval. I can't blame them; It really did look more like a Jell-o salad than anything one would want in his spicy Mexican food. But if I think something is funny enough, you can't stop me from doing it.

The Valentine's Day Surprise was a huge success! Meaning that I thought it was delicious AND hilarious, while no one else would really touch it. Over the next couple of days I ate tons of that stuff, as well as making other special Valentine's treats, like Valentine's coconut juice, Valentine's milk, etc. Man, I think I am funny.

Of course, none of that was at the forefront of my mind on February 14th when I was staring, in complete shock, at the bloody stool in the toilet in the college's men's room. My thoughts went kinda like this:

"Oh. Crap. I am broken. How far up my digestive tract am I bleeding? That is so much blood! Aaaaaaa! Do I need to take this to a doctor? How am I going to get that out of there!? Maybe there is a plastic bag in here like lining the trash or something. But then what? Do I go to the rest of my classes? Can I just carry that thing around with me in my backpack? Surely people will smell that, even through a plastic bag. Maybe I should call one of my roommates. Should I even be standing up? What could have caused this!?"

At which point I remembered the Valentine's Day.


In case you are trying to call me, don't. My phone's battery died. And then I broke it. And then I lost it. It's pretty much the Rasputin of phones. And if you left me a message at any point in the last three weeks, I don't hate you (probably); I just never got it. Some day when I have recovered from the financial crisis I like to call "tuition," I will get a new phone.

Finally, here is the paper I wrote today. It's mostly a book report for my sociology class. I find this stuff to be terribly interesting.

Analysis of “Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism”

Michael LaFeber was wise to chooses Michael Jordan and the Nike Corporation as his subjects for his book, “Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism.” First of all, because attaching the name “Michael Jordan” to the title of his book (and subsequently telling Jordan’s life story throughout) was guaranteed to sell more copies of the book, thus getting his message about a new global economy to more people. Secondly, because Jordan’s story really does align well with the history of this new economy. Jordan’s career falls somewhere between example and metaphor of American culture and technology and their effect on the world. Finally, this book is about power. It is about a powerful man, who represents a powerful nation. The central argument of the book seems to be that America’s ability to change the world is massive, and that we as American citizens must now wield that power responsibly.

The first chapter of the book (pp. 27-48) is all about basketball. This chapter details the history of basketball, its inclusion of blacks in professional leagues, and the beginnings of capitalist endeavors to make a profit from the sport. Also discussed is the subject of Michael Jordan’s home life in North Carolina and his college years of playing basketball. LaFeber uses this chapter to set the stage for the broader economic and political topics that will be discussed later, as well as to ease the reader into a long-range sociological way of thinking about things that we 21st-century Americans take for granted.

Chapter two contains an interesting section entitled “Enter the Transnational Corporation.” Here we are introduced to Nike, a company that is American, but somehow has more than half of its employees, as well as more than half of its sales, abroad. (p. 55) The idea of a corporation dealing internationally is not a new one, LaFeber informs us, but the idea of the new transnational corporations of the 1980s differed from that of their predecessors in a few major ways. These new corporations no longer relied primarily on American markets while dabbling in foreign markets, they traded less in goods than in ideas and designs and knowledge, they relied extensively on foreign labor, they committed huge amounts of capital to overseas advertising, and most importantly, they were able to transcend national barriers and therefore were immune to many of the governmental restrictions formerly placed upon corporations. (pp. 54-56)

Later in this chapter we learn of the history and impact of satellite communication technology on the world. Wealthy and powerful men such as Walter Murdoch and Ted Turner created enormous cable networks that would cross international lines that could bring the same news and entertainment (and naturally advertisement) to people all around the world (p. 71). Turner, we learn, banned the word “foreign” from his broadcasts on all stations, preferring to think of his network as global instead (p. 72). The fact that satellite television preceded the internet might help to explain the idea that America’s culture became so pervasive on the world scene; after all, the most important difference between the two is that the internet allows two-way communication, whereas satellite television allowed what America was broadcasting to be seen by the world without allowing for a response from the world back to America. According to a statistic from the book, 80 percent of European television programs came from the United States, whereas only one percent of American shows originated somewhere besides the U.S. (p 110).

The one-way nature of this exchange is supported by more statistics in chapter three. Here, LaFeber concedes that Europe and Japan did indeed supply the American market with many of their goods (mostly in the form of electronics, vehicles, and high fashion), but he is quick to point out that “(t)he $2 billion or so of high-fashion exports into the United States were dwarfed by the many billions of revenue generated overseas by Nike, McDonald’s, and Disney.” (p. 81, emphasis added)

LaFeber interweaves these facts about the early effects of huge American corporations on the world (along with the first intimations we see of resistance from a foreign nation, France) with stories of Michael Jordan’s growing athletic success and national stardom.

Michael Jordan and the head of Nike, Phil Knight, both benefited enormously from the new global communications and economy that were in place by the 1990s. Knight had found that it was lucrative for him to move his business to where there were fewer regulations imposed on employers. The first Nikes were manufactured in Japan in the 1960s, but with the boom in communications technology on the 1970s and 80s, Knight saw that “production could be done nearly anywhere.” (p. 103) As Japan became more successful and started endowing its workers with more rights, LaFeber reasons, it became more profitable for Knight to move production of his merchandise to other Asian countries, starting in Korea, Indonesia, and Viet Nam, and landing eventually in China. (p. 104). A Reebok official referred to this constant movement (in which his company also engaged) as “chasing wages around the globe,” and admitted that “[t]here has to be a better way.” (p. 155)

Sadly, these new Asian sources of labor were beneficial to Nike precisely because they exploited the workers. According to U.S. women’s groups, the “Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Chinese workers… suffer from inadequate wages, corporal punishment, forced overtime, and/or sexual harassment.” (p. 144) 90 percent of the workers in Vietnam were “women who worked twelve-hour days [and many] reportedly fainted from exhaustion and malnutrition (p. 148). Adding to the ethical problems of manufacturing in impoverished China was the 1989 killing by the communist Chinese government of “large numbers” of dissenters, which caused Congress to restrict trade with the nation. Fortunately for Nike and other transnational corporations, President Bush vetoed this restriction. (p. 105)

Not only did new communications technology supply new, cheaper sources of labor, but it also provided entirely new pools of consumers. Unfortunately, many of these target groups were unable to afford the products with which advertising aimed at them tantalized them. Reports surfaced of inner-city children selling drugs or even killing each other in order to obtain the Michael Jordan Nikes they had no licit means of acquiring (p. 91).

At the same time as these more negative aspects of the Nike company were coming to light, Michael Jordan experienced a succession of setbacks to his image. He was at the center of scandals that focused on his gambling, his association with shady characters, and his refusal to wear Adidas paraphernalia in front of the world at the Olympics (pp. 96-101). As Jordan felt his privacy diminishing, and in the wake of his father’s murder, he retired briefly from the National Basketball association (pp. 121). In the interim, he played professional baseball, though his statistics weren’t very impressive.

During all of this (the exploitation of Asian laborers, the advertising targeted at poor black audiences to whom Nike nor Jordan reached out, and Jordan’s personal tragedies and shortcomings), the media and technologies that had once elevated Jordan and Nike to their global statuses turned on them. LaFeber describes a “Faustian bargain” that they had made with the media: they had put themselves under the world’s microscope in order to make money, but were stuck under the microscope when there were certain aspects of their existence that they would prefer to have remained unexamined (p. 115). Sales of Nike products, as well as sales of other Jordan-endorsed products, continued to climb, but Jordan and Nike had to pay “a price for being dependent on the new media.” (p. 153)

As Nike and Jordan grew rich off of other countries, those countries began to show signs of change. Sneakers hit the runways in Paris fashion shows (p. 109), South African street gangs “called themselves ‘The Young Americans’ and the ‘JFKs,’” (p. 138) while McDonald’s (another Jordan endorsement) shut down German, Austrian, and Swiss street vendors (p.140) and reached the point where it was feeding “one percent of the world’s population each day.” (p. 156). This cultural influence America and its corporations was having on the world is what is called “soft power,” soft because it’s consensual and not a forced influence like military might or political maneuvering (p. 109). One is not to believe that the word “soft” implies that the power is weak; American soft power had a very real effect on other nations, “not only chang[ing] buying habits in a society, but modify[ing] the composition of the society itself.” (p. 157)

This could be a good thing. One could cite the new existence of a small middle class in China as an example if U.S. democracy beginning to have a positive influence in a foreign market. The fact that American goods were not forced upon other nations, but rather traded (p. 156), highlights a major difference between this new “cultural imperialism” and the old traditional “imperialism” against which the Americans fought in the Revolutionary War.

The problem, as the world saw it, is the same as with capitalism here in the United States: he who has more capital begins with an advantage (p. 164). And on the global scale, this means the U.S. The United States had the upper hand on capital and the new technology because at the end of the Cold War, it had “adjusted to the post 1970’s technology and Communism had not.” (p.162).

The final chapter of the book focuses on the effects of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001, on the global economy. Interestingly, the terrorists, who were fighting against the overreaching arm of American cultural, economic, and military influence, were able to accumulate power and perform their terrorist acts only by using the very communications technologies that had been used to spread that American influence in the first place (pp. 166, 181). Osama bin Laden was, in a way, the anti-Jordan, while his shadowy terrorist alliances became the anti-Nike. Bin Laden used his popularity in the Islamic world and the power of satellite television to sell people on his political ideals, while Al Qaeda took advantage of the same border-blurring transnationalism that Nike and other American Corporations had been enjoying for a few decades now (p. 173).

Also interesting is the way in which America’s vision of a peacefully globalized economy was hobbled at the same time Jordan’s career was ended due to knee injuries (p. 171). The spread of the American economy into other countries had flourished at the exact time that Jordan’s career and fame had, and in 2001 and 2002, both felt the effects of having driven too hard and too fast.

America by this point was so engrained in the cultures and economies around the world that when it suffered from a major technology crash during the years on either side of the terrorist attacks, it ended up hurting other countries (those which relied upon American purchasing power to pay for the goods they produced) even more (p. 172). The American government’s reaction to the terrorist attacks had similarly devastating effects overseas. For example, new government sanctions against immigration “prevented the movement of cheap, or highly specialized, labor from one country to another.” (p.173)

The September 11th attacks had other sociological effects on the world, as well. The American government hired an advertiser to try to sell American democratic and capitalistic values to Islamic nations (p. 182). It also began to attempt to censor the news media with regard to the war in Afghanistan that ensued after September 11th (p. 183).

LaFeber points out that not all of the effects of the new globalization are negative. One huge benefit appears to be the fact that as women in developing nations are made more aware of international issues, they have slowed their birth rate, leading analysts to believe that the once-impending crisis of an ever-expanding population has now been averted, as it looks like the world’s population might level off at 9 billion, instead of passing the 10 billion mark and continuing indefinitely. (p. 184). LaFeber claims that due to the new technology, “women were watching satellite television, [and] learning about small families and contraceptive devices from western television programs….” (p. 184) U.S. expansion and profits,” he asserts, “were neither naturally good nor naturally evil.” (p 186)

The book ends on an embittered note, contrasting Jordan, who has unprecedented international clout but has never taken a public political or social stance, with black baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, who in the 1940s inspired blacks across national lines with message of human rights (p. 188). LaFeber’s message here is clear: A powerful entity, such as Michael Jordan, or, through metaphor, The United States of America (which in actuality means each of us, the American people) has a responsibility to make sure that its considerable power, which is by nature neutral, is used responsibly. Jordan and Nike could have reached out to the inner-city youth, to the impoverished blacks of America, or to the practically enslaved workers in Nike’s overseas factories. The same technology that has created such an imbalance in the world market has also been used to educate and liberate people and to do an incredible amount of good. But if we Americans are not careful and respectful with the enormous influence this book proves we indeed wield, we have the potential to do an incredible amount of harm.

P.S. Thanks for all the feedback on the previous post! I love you guys! You inspire me to write more often.

P.P.S. I kinda came out to my entire Sunday School/bishopric & wives dating panel on Sunday. It was... great? More next time? Maybe.