Upcoming OAC online seminar: Finance, Value, and Inequality (April 15-22, 2016)

When you think about capitalism, globalization, or neoliberalism, does your thinking stop with conventional stereotypes of greedy corporations exploiting the weak or unwary? If someone asked you how private equity investors, venture capitalists, commodity traders, and hedge fund or family office managers differ in how they conceive of markets, their investing styles and personal habits—could you answer their question? Have you thought about financialization--the process of shifting financial transactions from material goods and processes to abstractions traded and managed as if they had value in their own right? Can you imagine anthropology and archeology having important things to say about this process and the way its different forms shape social inequality?

If any of these questions interest you, the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) invites you to join a seminar on Finance, Value, and Inequality: Towards a comparative anthropology of wealth and poverty, a paper by Brandeis University anthropologist Daniel Souleles. The paper can be downloaded here:

http://openanthcoop.net/press/2016/03/28/finance-value-and-inequality/

The seminar is NOW CLOSED! Thanks everyone for taking part!!!

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A further short note: As the paper at hand attributes key importance to numerical abstractions in distributive economic technologies, when discussing the longue duree of finance, I think one can't get around the GDP-concept. Recently, Anthropology Quarterly invited Lorenzo Fioramonti (a colleague of yours Keith?) to write a piece on its ideological history, The World's Most Powerful Number. Over the last century, finance seems to have risen as the master antidote to stagnating GDP-growth wherever matured industrial production has reached the point of saturating commodity-markets. Going deeper, it might also be worth noting that GDP was originally invented by an Irish Cromwell-era manorial Lord as a means to resist rising taxes following Britain's aspiring imperial ambitions.

I am late to this seminar, but a very brief response on how khipus worked. First, there is a lot that is vague (though see Sabine Hyland's work for newer developments), but one feature is dualism and vertical integration. Inca government is famous for creating niche ethnic intersystems. A key tactic, as mentioned in the paper, was to take conquered ethnic groups from one area and simply move the entire population in between other groups somewhere else. The effect was to create 'islands' in a literal divide-and-rule framework that worked with 'combination/opposition' throughout (https://jsa.revues.org/12817) and that extended to rules of marriage/affinity between sections.

Some of the 'translated' khipus (Hyland) suggest that there is a relation between knot direction and balanced moiety systems within communities, where different moieties were seen as taking on different economic tasks and hence engaged in clearly demarcated, organised exchanges of particular categories of goods. Groups were integrated 'vertically' in relation to agricultural activities since some crops / animals only thrive at different altitudes in the Andes. So, khipus were very much indexical of the social structural arrangements created by governmental institutions. The comparison with contemporary carpet bagging / financialisation tactics is intriguing because both use bureaucratic techniques, one in a very clear, religiously endorsed, way, the other in a secretive way where there is a pretence that the market being created is quasi-natural. The Inkas had their own extractive models -- gold and mercury mining for example which were then expanded by the Spanish.

The ethnographic comparison raises an intriguing point since contemporary financialisation is seen largely as only about minimally structuring some proximal exchange process toward maximum extraction; whereas perhaps there may be longer term social-economic-structuring practices being created here too akin to the ones the Inka set up. Andean communities continue to exchange goods based on their structural position in the 'vertical archipelago' initiated by the Inkas in the centuries before the arrival of the Spanish (as an interesting thesis I read by Jonathan Alderman the other day notes -- communities coming up the mountain to play football bring tropical oranges with them to the game where they may get string beans or whatever). 

And thanks very much for bringing such an interesting topic to the OAC.

You refer to Urton's (the contemporary Khipu-authority) 2007-publication. Superficially scanning his other work, I think there's a lot more to get here. For instance in this report (page 7), he's elucidating how the khipukamayuq-institution was shaped as a complex hierarchic system of higher- and lower level officials, as defined by the number of subjects administered by the respective khipukamayuq. Presumably, just as among the finance-players, time/value-understandings varied among the differentkhipukamayuq-levels. To pursue this hypothesis, if possible (courtesy Harvard's Khipu Database Project) , I think it would be very interesting to explore differences between khipus as used at the different administrative levels.

Then there is Urton's 1997-book, the Social Life of Numbers, which I think present a more severe challenge to your comparison. Here, as the ultimate argument goes, the practice of khipukamayuq-arithmetic was based on a well-articulated body of philosophical principles and values that reflected a continuous attempt to maintain balance, harmony, and equilibrium in the material, social, and moral spheres of community life. If this holds, then the Khipus constitute a distributive technology that did not carry cultural marks of wealth extraction. Insofar, it contrasts fundamentally to the explicit siphoning logic of most financial technologies.

Huon, one small question, please. When you write about the Inka "in the centuries before the Arrival of the Spanish," where are you talking about? I ask because, during a visit to Ecuador last year I was informed that the Inka had conquered what is now Ecuador only sixty years or so before the Spanish arrived. I went from thinking of the Inka in temporal terms appropriate for Ancient Egypt to imagining them as a transient state along the lines of, say, A Visigothic Kingdom following the sack of Rome or the former Yugoslavia before the death of Tito. I know, however, that I am only spinning cobwebs in my brain.

Fair comment; the Inka empire as such appeared pretty quickly over about a century. Which suggests that the expanding administration did not have to do too much to integrate the elements of the tributary-extractive system : the well established lines of long distance exchange of prestige goods (Bolivian silver was moved all the way to the rio de la plata in Argentina before Spain arrived) and shorter distance exchanges. The basics were already there, the Andes having a much longer history of inter-group exchange and state administration.

One of the contrasts with financialisation is that financialisation effects depend (in the stereotype at least) on breaking up stable social arrangements because that is how the margin of profit is derived, even though it takes for granted that people will understand the logic of credit-debt on which the disruption is based; whereas a system like the Inka very much depends on fixing particular groups of people into categories and intersecting dualities to make for a steady flow of tribute. But it is interesting to think about how the two are similar too. 

There are clear points of intersection -- early twentieth century U.S. railway builders, working in e.g. Ecuador, were sent indigenous workers by the local haciendas in a manner akin to paying tribute. The railway engineers would then use these workers as slave labour in railway projects that generated vast cash flows in a spirit of pure financial speculation back on the U.S. stock exchanges. For example, Rosa Luxembourg on the Primitive Accumulation of Capital.

Hi John and lee,

I think there is somethign to recommend in both of your analogies. Certainly there are times when wall street actually acts as one team, say in some forms of industry lobbying. And many times I find myself in agreement with the more diffused olympics style analogy John proposed. I think, though, this gets at a larger point these people are both "wall street", "finance people," in addition to whatever given particular professional specialty they claim. There are social scenes in which wall street is invoked and treated as such, and there are scenes in which private equity is sharply juxtaposed to investment banking. Depending on what you want to say about wall street or private equity will effect the frame you pick.

To take Lee's example of the Bernie supporters, they're right about something systemic going on whether you see it in the unfolding of a commodity logic or a more ad hoc history of policy initiatives that led to financialization (or some combination). However, when you make the switch to what you are going to do about it, my argument suggests it would behoove you to understand how financial practices of value recognition and capture vary. It can be a fallacy to take wall street as private equity regardless of context. I don't really see problem, particularly among anthropologists, with accepting that private equity investors are wall street, and wall street is usefully and not usefully conjured in certain cases. And sometimes private equity is usefully disaggregated from a generalized wall street. It really just depends on what you want to say. And so, I feel if you want to say something about the creation of inequality, then this conjures an analysis that needs to make a distinction between different types of financial actors.


John McCreery said:

Lee. I agree that "Wall Street" has become a powerful cultural construct. But let me repeat, I think you misread Daniel's purpose, which is not to explicate the implications of that construct but rather to describe in depth one of several distinct financial games whose differences "Wall Street" and the stereotypes associated with it obscure. You suggest that people see Wall Street as something like American football, a game whose technical nuances are of interest only to experts and players on the field. Daniel is saying, in effect, no, Wall Street and the stereotypes associated with it are  not a single game. A better analogy would be the Olympics, a collection of different athletic events going on at the same time. The gymnasts, the swimmers, the sprinters, the long-distance runners, the archers, the weight-lifters, the wrestlers. etc., etc., are in some broad sense all athletes, but their games are very different. In a similar way, finance is an industry where many games are played, and depending on the game the players are visibly different in their customs and habits. 

Hi Keith and John,

My apologies if my wrists are excessively limp in some estimations. I'm with Keith on this one, I think I understand at this point a bit better where his seeing financialization as a specialization of commoditization takes an analysis. I also think I appreciate how a sort of historical specificity can productively bring in the ad hoc nature of any given historic economic sequence. Given that I've already written the paper, I'm not sure how much further I could go, at least in this exchange.

To a meta-point, I'm very happy the tone of the conversation has stayed relatively friendly. Internet exchanges can be tenuous even in an academic context in which people are identified by name. Going forward this is a split in analytic approaches that I'll very much be keeping in mind, and certainly continuing to write about. In person or electronic, the best academic exchanges, to my mind, are the ones where I ultimately see where the other person is coming from. Then the hard work of integration comes in.

OK! Back to numeracy...

Keith Hart said:

John,

This is the end of an extended sequence, not the beginnning. In the course of it, I often failed to engage directly with the paper and Daniel sometimes missed my point. He has brought an extraordinary degree of politeness to his answers and that rubbed off on me. These are huge questions and I doubt if we will soon reach accurate and agreed terms of debate that might allow us to slug it out, as you wish. Our seminar is of limited duration and I would not want to outstay my welcome. I thought we made a lot of progress without beinng confrontational and perhaps others would want to take up the thread, which you did.  Incidentally I think I said that fnancialization is a specialist component of commoditization. But I see benefit in both broadening the inquiry historically and keeping it narrowly contemporary. This contrast might describe my and Daniel's approaches and it suggests why we might find it hard to have a focused argument. To call the affair postmodern is to express dissent wthout precision.

John McCre to his answersery said:

There are clues in your paper to how all this plays in private equity, but then there is no reason why you should follow my agenda.

Keith, you are being very gracious. Please stop and think for a moment.

There are two black and white possibilities here. One approach may be clearly superior to the other. Alternatively, the two approaches may complement each other. There are,of course, also likely to be grey areas in which neither approach accounts properly for important details. But we will never know if we adopt the postmodern view that,"You do your thing. I'll do mine. We're all good here" and stop the discussion just when it's getting interesting.

You say that you are interested in commoditization. I would suggest that what Daniel calls financialization is a specialized form of commoditization applied to "products" abstracted from material things. This is where abstraction, the second dimension in the space I described in an earlier post becomes a vital consideration. But what can we say about it that is more precise and informative than the binary matter/abstraction?

A thought occurs to me. Let's treat it as an hypothesis. Commoditization emerges from standardization of material things. Next comes standardization of transactions, e.g., a bushel of wheat is worth five fish. Money is a standardized product that, in its developed form, becomes a universal medium of exchange but, here the devil is in the details, then becomes a product in its own right, with a price that fluctuates depending on supply and demand. Financialization in Daniel's sense continues this evolution toward more complex and specialized forms increasingly abstracted from the root form, the exchange of material things regarded as being of equivalent value.

Allow me an ethnographic example. My wife makes marmalade, using whatever citrus fruit is seasonally available and storing it in whatever empty jars and bottles are within easy reach. The product is non-standard, the packaging is non-standard, a jar or bottle may be given to friends or neighbors, but no price is attached to the gift. My mother made jams, using seasonally available berries. But these were grown for this purpose and the jam was made in large quantities, stored in standard size (pint or quart) glass jars. These were proudly displayed as a sign of domestic virtue. But once again, while a jar might be given as a gift, this jam was never sold. No price was attached to it. This second example illustrates how standardization of product may occur independently of standardized forms of exchange.

Turning to the other end of the abstraction dimension, I think of the work of the economic sociologist Donald MacKenzie, especially since I own them both, his An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (2006) and Material Markets: How Economic Agents are Constructed(2009). MacKenzie is particularly interested in how technologies, broadly construed to include abstract models embodied in software as well as material hardware shape the ways in which markets operate. In one particularly memorable example,he points out how the smallest unit used to price market transactions was once a quarter point. Why? Because on a trading floor filled with jostling human traders, a raised hand represented a bid and there were four fingers on the hand. Computerized trading systems now allow transactions where prices can vary in minute quantities to the right of the decimal point, allowing automated trading systems to literally go where no human has gone before.

But, returning to the original point. I would very much like to see Daniel and Keith thrash out their differences and, best of all worlds, arrive at an approach superior to those with which they have begun, instead of having the debate end with a limp-wristed agreement to amicably go their separate ways.

Hi Kristian,

Thank you so much for this further nudge. Given how often it's been observed on this thread that we are generally bad at comparison, and that any comparison we might make should be scrutinized for the derivation of some potential comparative ground-rules, this is a great opportunity.

Towards the end of your post you noted:

  • Here, as the ultimate argument goes, the practice of khipukamayuq-arithmetic was based on a well-articulated body of philosophical principles and values that reflected a continuous attempt to maintain balance, harmony, and equilibrium in the material, social, and moral spheres of community life. If this holds, then the Khipus constitute a distributive technology that did not carry cultural marks of wealth extraction. Insofar, it contrasts fundamentally to the explicit siphoning logic of most financial technologies.

I think here it is worthwhile to reflect that there are a few different interpretive levels on which the interpretation of what Khipu are ultimately doing might proceed. You noted externally it certainly seems extractive. But internally there is a cohesive set of explanatory notions (perhaps an ideology?) that point towards balance, harmony and equilibrium (four parts together...). I think you can find a similar rhetorical register among the financiers that I'm writing about. In their own estimation they are definitely not "wealth extractors" (those are always the other guys) but wealth creators, who make use of and co-opt existing social forms (corporate organization) to make life more efficient and richer for our whole society in aggregate. My question is why are we so much more quickly inclined to take the thoroughgoing notion of perpetuating harmony from a relatively shorlived imperial hegemon that built on existing state societies and institutions in the high land andes, but are relatively quick to dismiss similar rhetoric from financiers and write them off as just "extractive".

As to the de facto form inequality occurred I tried to gesture towards this in illustrating the dirtibuted labor system. I also stopped short of making a moral judgment as to what inequality should be cross culturally significant and politically actionable (perhaps an instance of infuriating relativism). I don't know the answer to this and I don't know that we've come up with a theory that allows us to compare misery, oppression, or life satisfaction cross culturally. My current feeling is that this is where a system of morality and ethics should help. Given that, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you would start comparatively assessing unequal social systems.


Kristian Garthus-Niegel said:

Thanks Ryan/Daniel for setting up/providing a textual starting point for this paramount topic of our day, and thanks to the rest of you for feeding the discussion. I'm learning a lot from all of this.

I also think that one of the most exciting contemporary anthro-trends is the return to more ambitious cross-cultural+diachronic comparison to address deeper questions of the human condition. Thus, I principally celebrate Daniel's inclusion of the Inca-case, yet, as several have indicated, it's a parcel which has quite a way to go to level with the finance-case.

My latter question (if the Khipus were explicitly tied to wealth accumulation) was a nudge in this direction. From an external point of view, it seems fair to argue that the Kiphus and their masters carried central functions in aggregate Inca wealth distribution processes. Now, you demonstrate excellently how your finance-informants distinguish by differential categories of value and temporal wealth-realization. The question is if the archaeological record may bring similar data to court for the khipukamayuq. 


You refer to Urton's (the contemporary Khipu-authority) 2007-publication. Superficially scanning his other work, I think there's a lot more to get here. For instance in this report (page 7), he's elucidating how the khipukamayuq-institution was shaped as a complex hierarchic system of higher- and lower level officials, as defined by the number of subjects administered by the respective khipukamayuq. Presumably, just as among the finance-players, time/value-understandings varied among the different khipukamayuq-levels. To pursue this hypothesis, if possible (courtesy Harvard's Khipu Database Project) , I think it would be very interesting to explore differences between khipus as used at the different administrative levels.

Then there is Urton's 1997-book, the Social Life of Numbers, which I think present a more severe challenge to your comparison. Here, as the ultimate argument goes, the practice of khipukamayuq-arithmetic was based on a well-articulated body of philosophical principles and values that reflected a continuous attempt to maintain balance, harmony, and equilibrium in the material, social, and moral spheres of community life. If this holds, then the Khipus constitute a distributive technology that did not carry cultural marks of wealth extraction. Insofar, it contrasts fundamentally to the explicit siphoning logic of most financial technologies.

Now, if time/value-considerations are meant to serve as a higher-order comparative device (as I think you intend), this contrast begs for an analytic synthesis, which to my mind should include a discussion of their respective social consequences (i.e. what characteristic de facto forms/patterns of inequality did/does each paradigm create?).

 

Ursula Dalinghaus does work on monetary policy and currency change in Europe, here's her website: https://ursuladalinghaus.com/research/

Hi Huon,

Thank you very much for joining the seminar and bringing some more specificity to bear on what we know about Khipus.

Your point about the difference between financial extraction is certainly worth considering:

  • The ethnographic comparison raises an intriguing point since contemporary financialisation is seen largely as only about minimally structuring some proximal exchange process toward maximum extraction; whereas perhaps there may be longer term social-economic-structuring practices being created here too akin to the ones the Inka set up. Andean communities continue to exchange goods based on their structural position in the 'vertical archipelago' initiated by the Inkas in the centuries before the arrival of the Spanish

I think there are longer term relationships being set up in the case of private-equity, though certainly not on the order of maintaining localized islands or an ethnic group. And often these enduring relationships are between corporate people (as opposed to "two-legged" people). I'd have to think more about what more I might be able to add to this comparison. Thanks again for the kick in this direction.



Huon Wardle said:

I am late to this seminar, but a very brief response on how khipus worked. First, there is a lot that is vague (though see Sabine Hyland's work for newer developments), but one feature is dualism and vertical integration. Inca government is famous for creating niche ethnic intersystems. A key tactic, as mentioned in the paper, was to take conquered ethnic groups from one area and simply move the entire population in between other groups somewhere else. The effect was to create 'islands' in a literal divide-and-rule framework that worked with 'combination/opposition' throughout (https://jsa.revues.org/12817) and that extended to rules of marriage/affinity between sections.

Some of the 'translated' khipus (Hyland) suggest that there is a relation between knot direction and balanced moiety systems within communities, where different moieties were seen as taking on different economic tasks and hence engaged in clearly demarcated, organised exchanges of particular categories of goods. Groups were integrated 'vertically' in relation to agricultural activities since some crops / animals only thrive at different altitudes in the Andes. So, khipus were very much indexical of the social structural arrangements created by governmental institutions. The comparison with contemporary carpet bagging / financialisation tactics is intriguing because both use bureaucratic techniques, one in a very clear, religiously endorsed, way, the other in a secretive way where there is a pretence that the market being created is quasi-natural. The Inkas had their own extractive models -- gold and mercury mining for example which were then expanded by the Spanish.

The ethnographic comparison raises an intriguing point since contemporary financialisation is seen largely as only about minimally structuring some proximal exchange process toward maximum extraction; whereas perhaps there may be longer term social-economic-structuring practices being created here too akin to the ones the Inka set up. Andean communities continue to exchange goods based on their structural position in the 'vertical archipelago' initiated by the Inkas in the centuries before the arrival of the Spanish (as an interesting thesis I read by Jonathan Alderman the other day notes -- communities coming up the mountain to play football bring tropical oranges with them to the game where they may get string beans or whatever). 

And thanks very much for bringing such an interesting topic to the OAC.

You refer to Urton's (the contemporary Khipu-authority) 2007-publication. Superficially scanning his other work, I think there's a lot more to get here. For instance in this report (page 7), he's elucidating how the khipukamayuq-institution was shaped as a complex hierarchic system of higher- and lower level officials, as defined by the number of subjects administered by the respective khipukamayuq. Presumably, just as among the finance-players, time/value-understandings varied among the differentkhipukamayuq-levels. To pursue this hypothesis, if possible (courtesy Harvard's Khipu Database Project) , I think it would be very interesting to explore differences between khipus as used at the different administrative levels.

Then there is Urton's 1997-book, the Social Life of Numbers, which I think present a more severe challenge to your comparison. Here, as the ultimate argument goes, the practice of khipukamayuq-arithmetic was based on a well-articulated body of philosophical principles and values that reflected a continuous attempt to maintain balance, harmony, and equilibrium in the material, social, and moral spheres of community life. If this holds, then the Khipus constitute a distributive technology that did not carry cultural marks of wealth extraction. Insofar, it contrasts fundamentally to the explicit siphoning logic of most financial technologies.

Hi all,

Regarding John's question about dimensions. If I understand correctly, we have one dimension in which people's manipulation of the financial system ranges from reproducing the status quo (inequality) to contesting the distribution of wealth (redistribution). But I am unclear about who the main actors are in this. Does this just refer to a financial elite (old money and new brokers in a "meritocracy") or is it something that can be applied more broadly? Could we apply ideas from material culture about appropriation of financial products by ordinary people, or is this stretching it? 

This relates to John's second dimension, abstraction, which also appears to be a domain of elites. Abstraction facilitates scalability, which facilitates wealth creation. Finance no longer based on production. Reminds me of of Taussig's observations in "The Devil and Commodity Fetishism." But entrepreneurs coming from non-privileged backgrounds might have access to scalability too (esp. through the Internet), but this doesn't necessarily do much to impact inequality. However, I'm getting a sense that John was talking about much more than this. 

E



John McCreery said:

Daniel,

First, allow me to add my latecomer's thanks for your sharing this paper with us. Then, a few remarks and a question.

Remark 1: Those interested in the history of counting and its relationship to government and finance should take a look at China.This reference is to official propaganda but may nonetheless be useful as a place to begin: http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_madeinchina/2005-08/18/content_71...

Remark 2: Keith's comments on the naive anthropologist resonate strongly with my own current concerns. Serendipitously, I will be giving a paper at the IUAES meeting in Dubrovnik in which I point out that business anthropologists frequently deal with "natives" who are industry insiders. How does one learn the language required to get ethnographic interviews beyond superficial platitudes? Reading the industry trade press is a good place to begin.

Question: As I consider the relationship of different forms of financialization to social inequality, I find myself imagining a space of possibilities. One dimension ranges from conservative,maintaining existing inequalities, exemplified by family offices to innovative, creative destruction that transforms existing hierarchies, exemplified by venture capitalists. The other dimension is degree of abstraction from transactions involving material goods, ranging from barter at one extreme to securitized debt in regions of abstraction largely floating free from material goods, except, of course, at the margins where debt is transformed into payment for the sorts of goods that masters of the universe purchase to display their financial success. Does this approach make sense to anyone but me? And, if so, where would private equity investors, commodity brokers, and hedge fund managers fit on the map?

I don't think there would be very many anthropologists who know what to do with monetary information. But I do feel, Keith, that you are right. Who's up for delving into the Panama Papers?



Daniel Souleles said:

Hi Ketih,

I appreciate this line of criticism. I'm certainly not an ascetic in terms of money or what types of political or social arrangements different monetary technologies necessarily create. Appelbaum and Batt (2014:1) open their book on private equity with an example of private equity investors successfully helping to grow a company, creating wealth and jobs (Aidells Sausage Company) and private equity profiting, despite trashing a company (Mervyn's Deparmtment Store). More to the point, my current project is on employee stock ownership plans (which I found a few private equity funds creating towards the end of my PE field work). There are somewhere between six and seven thousand of these in the United States, with around 12-14 million employees and around one trillion dollars worth of wealth. These ESOPs do something like an internal LBO to finance themselves--so the machinery of a PE deal used to create a retirement fund for employees.

Your point about getting mired in language and discourse and intellectual products, as though I were representing an academic department, is a good one. I do focus a lot on language, as much of my fieldwork took the form of recording people talking. It also gives me some though as to how to revise the conclusion of the paper, as you are right, in sofar as we're going to talk about inequality you gotta show what it looks like--and it's not in the paper in any sort of detail right now.

Following the money, at least from a big picture point of view, is not all that hard. Prequin does an excellent job tracking the size of the private equity industry (much of what follows is drawn from their 2014 and 2015 private equity report--a hard copy document with a cover price of $175, which I grabbed for free in the course of fieldwork at conferences). When I was doing field work PE managed $3.5 trillion, of which they had invested about $2.5 trillion. The rest was "dry powder" or a "capital overhang" (something that blows up, or something that sounds eerily like a hangover). Moreover, we know that private equity investors collect a standard fee of 2% of what they manage for breathing (a management fee to pay overhead salaries and keep the lights on). So 2% of $2.5 trillion is going to the industry. We even know average salaries for various size fund and investment strategy as well as employee rank. And then whatever profit is returned on investments is usually divided 80/20. 80 percent goes back to investors, and 20 percent goes to the private equity fund, mostly to managing directors and people who have equity shares--so this then becomes the ethnography of this class of super managers and how they use their money. As to the 80%, we know a reasonable amount about this, at least at a high level. The five largest university endowment investor in 2015 PE were Harvard ($10.6 bn), Yale ($7.6 bn), Princeton ($6.1 bn), University of Texas ($5.6 bn), Stanford ($5.4 bn). The five largest public pension funds were CPP Investment Board ($36.9 bn), California Public Employees' Retirement System CalPERS ($31.1 bn), California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) ($21.1 bn), ABP ($20.2 bn), Wshington State Investment Board ($16.6 bn). We have similar information for insutrance companies, family offices, sovereign wealth funds, and world region. This starts to illustrate the way in which private equity identifies, extracts, and redistributes value and by turn money from one company and restributes to themselves and their large investors.

I confess, I'm agnostic politically about this. On the one hand, much of what they distribute goes to savings schemes which are hard to fault. On the other hand, the politics of any given company getting taken over, and the creation of a class of super wealthy financial managers is distressing. I for one see the sort of difficulty that sort of class power creates in a university with a board of trustees that come from finance, or a legislature influenced by this kind of manager.

Your larger point, though, is well taken. Happily, I think we actually have a lot of data that starts to map the money, at least in a big picture way.


Keith Hart said:

Erin has brought up the ethnography of finance, to which your study could be said to be a contribution, Daniel. It is worth pointing out that a good part of this field is produced by science studies, sociology, cultural studies and history, in addition to anthropology. Probably the leading figure in the non-economic study of economics and finance is Michel Callon who once was Bruno Latour's sidekick. I believe that we should not be exclusive or partisan in this interdisciplinary area; but there are some features that have come to infect it which we should be more critical of than usually appears to be the case.

Horacio Ortiz and I have a review of the anthropology of money and finance in ARA (2014) where we point out one of these flaws:

"Much ethnography of finance focuses on cognitive aspects of the situations observed, as if knowledge production were the firms’ principal objective. We learn how barriers to the communication of information challenge the regulators’ assumptions concerning “efficient” markets and the optimal allocation of resources. But in these studies, we rarely discover where the money goes and in what quantities, yet these are businesses, not academic departments. An inability to examine the relationship between money and knowledge reflexively risks reproducing the finance industry’s own vision of itself."

An emphasis on how knowledge gets from the back office to the trading floor, for example, is compatible with the tradition of science studies. But most of these ethnographies avoid money like the plague, especially in its manifestations as the main point of 'finance'. If you say you are in interested in finance and inequality, it is almost impossible to avoid the politics of distribution and money is its measure. Think of how difficult it would be to follow the plot of 'The Big Short' without concrete calculations of the money transfers involved. Are ethnographers of finance uninterested in how the mortgage debt of US subprime homeowners once dominated western financial markets, while Brazilian bonds had hardly any takers and the national debt of the Democratic Repubic of Congo none at all? Douglas Holmes ('Economy of Words', 2105) goes further. He says that words have replaced money in public economic discourse. This would be great news for American cultural anthropologists if it were true. But it is not.

So what do you want first, Daniel, the good news or the bad news? You use the word money two-dozen times in this paper, usually in a positive, not pejorative sense. This shows that you are definitely not in the Paul Bohannan school of Brahminical anthropology which holds that money destroys all we hold sacred, like tradition or culture. But there are no $ signs in your text. Maybe some other time. The fact is it is hard to get good monetary information. Safer to stick with less controversial matters.

FYI everyone: I've managed to log into my original OAC account.

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