Collidoscope: Of Spicy Food, Trump and Community Land

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Linda Flores/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Credit: Linda Flores/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Linda Flores/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here.  If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.


A spicy revolution

Credit: FrolickingDruid/CC BY-NC 2.0

Credit: FrolickingDruid/CC BY-NC 2.0

Does our personality determine how much we like spicy food?

Mao Zedong once said that “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper. And he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight,” according to Soviet agent Otto Braun.

I have to admit, the first time I ate ‘authentic Chinese’ food (and before I realised there was no one such thing), I was disappointed. It was nothing like the ‘Chinese’ I’d grown up eating in Delhi, in fact it had qualities I would never associate with the Chinese food I knew and loved – it was subtle, not oily, simple and, to my spice-craving palate, even a little bland. While I was still reeling from this shock, someone took me to a restaurant from southwestern China, the province of Hunan, to be precise. And it was everything I wanted – food so spicy and so delicious that I had to pretend that my eyes were watering out of joy and not because I couldn’t handle the chilli. Hunan and its neighbouring province Sichuan, I later learnt, are the known as the “chilli belt” of China.

Mao was from Sichuan, and it was here that chillis first became an integral part of the local cuisine. But why there? Was there any truth to Mao’s statement?

Andrew Leonard is looking at all of that and more in his article in Nautilus, from how chilli peppers got to Sichuan in the first place to whether a connection can be found between personality traits and spicy food.

Scholars and historians have often thought about how the imported chilli pepper got to become so completely embedded into southwestern Chinese culture. It was ‘New World’ import, ‘discovered’ by Columbus when he didn’t quite make it to India.

Sichuan’s climate and its relationship with Chinese traditional medicine are thought to have something to do with the popularity of the chilli pepper, Leonard writes. But in Mao’s favour is the fact that people in Sichuan are known for thier rebellious spirit.  Wu Dan, the manager of a hotpot restaurant in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, told a reporter (and Leonard quotes): “The Sichuanese are fiery. They fight fast and love fast and they like their food to be like them – hot.”

The chilli pepper was quick to become a sensation not just in China but in other parts of the world as well – all the way from India to Hungary. However, within China, textual references to chilli peppers are first found in coastal regions, where it was never completely adopted; other parts of China too “sampled and shrugged”, Leonard writes. But in Sichuan, the chilli pepper stuck. And how.

Sichuan has a dramatic history that involves massive depopulation (around 75% of the population are believed to have left in the 17th century). The province was then repopulated by people from the neighbouring provinces of Hunan and Hubei, around the same time as the chilli paper would have made it to Sichuan, driven by overpopulation and economic necessity.

The people from Sichuan are known for not just their courage and passion but also for their fiery tempers, Leonard writes. According to Hongjie Wang, an academic specialising in Sichuan culture, the people of Sichuan may have even triggered modern Chinese political development, by protesting ‘imperialist’ control of newly-constructed railroads and triggering a nationwide uprising that led to the fall of the Qing dynasty.

In Sichuan, Wang writes, “eating spicy food has come to be regarded as an indication of such personal characteristics as courage, valor, and endurance, all essential for a potential revolutionary.”

So here is where we start formulating some sort of an answer to the question we started out with. In Leonard’s words:

“The puzzle starts to take shape. Personality: risk-taking immigrants on the move. Economics: a cheap and easy-to-grow option for adding flavor to a constrained diet. Weather and culture: a hot and humid climate, and yin and yang medical philosophy. Taken together, we see the formation of a culture, the beginning of an identity.

The final stroke cementing this modern act of identity-formation may not have arrived until the Sino-Japanese War, when the elite classes of China, fleeing to Sichuan from both the Communists and Japanese, found themselves in precisely the same kind of dire economic straits as those refugees who had immigrated to Sichuan centuries earlier. Then they too began to turn to the cheap, spicy, peasant fare that the lower classes had inadvertently nurtured into one of China’s great cuisines.”

The chilli pepper, then, was an expression of a survival instinct, of a population at the mercy of economic and historical forces. It was a show of resilience in a regional identity that began to form. And while this may not answer Leonard’s original question, it does tell us about one of the cultural identities of people from Sichuan. Their revolution started from the kitchen: “Out of poverty and war and the currents of globalization they fashioned fire for their palates, and ours.”


Minsky and the ‘artful’ dealer

A doorman stands as people walk past the Trump Tower in New York, US, May 23, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

A doorman stands as people walk past the Trump Tower in New York, US, May 23, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

If I sat down to make a list of what has not already been said about US President-elect Donald Trump, I’d have a hard time getting very far. Before, during and after his campaign, his policy proposals, personal attacks on others and sweeping derogatory statements about various social groups have been hard not to react to – and there has been no dearth of reactions.

But I came across an article recently that looks at Trump before politics was on his radar, an analysis of his business practices and related self-image by none other than renowned economist Hyman Minsky.

In his article in the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, Kevin W. Capehart argues that Minsky’s analysis of Trump’s The Art of the Deal is a useful point of entry into the economist’s work, though he is known for his commentary on Keynes’s The General Theory. Minsky himself did not give his analysis of Trump much importance – it was never published and is found only in a small part of talk that was never published, but can be found in the Hyman Minsky archives at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

What is The Art of the Deal about? Trump’s self-image to a large part, at least in how Capehart portrays it. According to Trump, “he was an artist when it came to making deals, and appreciation in the value of his assets was proof of his deal-making artistry,” Capehart writes. The book talks about various deals he made en route to becoming wealthy (according to Trump, the Forbes Magazine estimate that placed him as the 59th richest American in 1987 was a miscalculation, he places himself closer to number two). But these deals were not for the money, Trump wrote, but for the love of the art. ““Deals are my art form … Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals”. He even said he had an “almost perverse attraction to complicated deals”.

However, as Capehart says, even if Trump was not in it for the money, would he have considered a deal to be ‘artful’ if it didn’t bring immense profits? Other than big and complicated, profitable must also have been a criterion for Trump’s affinity with his deals.

Like an artist’s talent, Trump believed his deal-making skills were a talent he was born with. “More than anything else, I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with. It’s in the genes … . It’s about instincts,” he wrote. And he gave as evidence the business success and profits he had accumulated over the years. This self-image was also pretty much replicated in the media at the time, Capehart writes, given that “the media often suggested that Trump seemed to have an ability to make the sort of big, complicated, and profitable deals that he described in his book”. While Trump called it artistry, the media was more prone to referring to it in more mythical terms, like the “magic touch”.

Minsky portrays a slightly different picture than Trump himself. The talk was about ‘bubbles’ that had developed and collapsed in the preceding years, “including bubbles in the price of baseball cards, the quantity of external debt held by developing countries such as Brazil, the price of real estate in regional markets in the United States, and the price of real estate and corporate equities in Japan”.

Unsurprisingly, the reference to Trump came up during Minsky’s analysis of the regional real estate bubble in the US. Minsky talked about Trump’s fast-increasing wealth, detailed in business magazines and by Trump himself (who continued to value himself much higher than the magazines did). This increase was a “puzzle” for Minsky, Capehart writes.

But why should that puzzle an economist? Real estate was known to be a fortune maker. “Many large fortunes have been made in real estate, since real estate is highly leveraged,” Minsky said. While leverage (put simply, using borrowed capital for an investment because of the expectation of higher gains) may not be a necessary to make a fortune in real estate, Capehart writes, Trump’s deals were definitely highly leveraged.

The puzzle was, Minsky said, a factor that made Trump’s increase in wealth “somewhat unique”: “the cash flows on most of Trump’s properties were negative”.

A Forbes Magazine article in 1990 actually suggested that Trump’s net worth was then declining by about a billion dollars a year (again, Trump said his assets were undervalued). The media blamed this on a real estate slump that even the “magic touch” couldn’t get around. But wasn’t all the article said.

“In the same article, Forbes Magazine also estimated the cash flow after debt service from each of Trump’s assets in the year 1990. According to the magazine, Trump had eighteen assets (or categories of assets). Ten of the eighteen assets had negative cash flows after debt service, three had cash flows that were about equal to (i.e., within $100,000 of) their debt-service payments, and only five had positive cash flows after debt service. Therefore, most of Trump’s assets had debt-service payments that exceeded their cash flows. In total, Trump’s debt-service payments exceeded his cash flows by about $38 million.”

And this was gateway into Minsky’s understanding of the puzzle of Trump’s wealth increase. In the economist’s words:

“Trump’s wealth surged because the market value of his properties—or, at least, the appraised value—was increasing faster than the interest rate. Trump obtained the funds to pay the interest on his outstanding loans by increasing the draw on what was in effect a home equity credit line …. Trump was golden—he had the magic touch—as long as property prices were increasing at a more rapid rate than the interest rate on the borrowed funds.”

Minsky was alleging that Trump was openly and repeatedly using “Ponzi” financing (when debt service payments exceed contemporary cash flows). The financial position of a business unit engaged in this sort of unit is quite fragile, as Minsky himself said elsewhere. The puzzle was not that Trump was doing it, but that he was getting away with it. Minsky said:

“The puzzle is that the lenders failed to recognize … the arithmetic of his cash flows …. In the short run, Trump could make his interest payments with funds from new loans—but when the increase in property prices declined to a value below the interest rate, Trump would become short of the cash necessary to pay the interest on outstanding loans.”

Slightly after Minsky’s talk, the media also began to raise some questions about Trump’s debts. Reports said that he was in talks with banks to restructure his debt, concerned that he would not make certain payments. Banks gave him more loans as he extended his collateral. Eventually, the banks wrote off hundreds of millions of dollars of Trump’s debt – to the extent that his cash flows could then service the remaining debts. He sold a few luxury personal good (like a yatch) and transferred some assets to banks.

Minsky didn’t go on to talk about why this puzzle came to be, why banks continued to trust Trumps. The media blamed it on the blind belief that Trump’s assets would always appreciate fast enough. There are then different possible ways to look at Trump’s ‘artful’ deals: clearly the deals themselves, and his business, were far less successful, with higher risks, than Trump ever let on – maybe not an ‘art’ after all. But despite all of that, he managed to convince lenders that he knew exactly what he was doing, even when things started to go downhill and they should have questioned otherwise. Is that what Trump was really referring to as his ‘art’?

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The ‘self’ and land in contemporary Tarabuco

Truck from Tarabuco to Sucre, Bolivia. Credit: Szymon Kochański/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Truck from Tarabuco to Sucre, Bolivia. Credit: Szymon Kochański/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How do communities define themselves in a changing situation?

In 2009, Bolivia approved a new constitution that gave indigenous groups the right to self-governance according to their various customs. Eleven municipalities decided to adopt the new framework and institutionalise their own norms. But the process of defining these norms was not without tensions and conflict – and that’s what Verónica Calvo is looking at in her article in Development and Change. This is perhaps to be expected – it is unlikely that there exists a regional community anywhere that is completely homogenous and where everyone wants the same thing. But what creates the differences?

Calvo focusses on the municipality of Tarabuco, arguing that the tensions around regulating the new social order emerge from different groups that have different conceptions of land, property, ownership and how all of these shape a community.

There are three main social organisations that stand on different sides on the debate in Tarabuco – the peasant union, indigenous communities and neighbourhood assemblies. The construction of community regulations is deeply affected competition of material and immaterial resources and how these should be governed, Calvo argues, though the groups express themselves in terms of their ‘morals’.

The Tarabuco Peasants’ Syndical Association is the largest organisation in the municipality, with 80% of the population as members. Sixty-six of the 73 communities in the municipality fall under this group, while the other seven are in the Yampara Nation, an organisation of indigenous communities. The third group, neighbourhood assemblies, represent the voices of those living in the municipality’s capital (also called Tarabuco).

The conflict in how to define the values of the community lies mainly between the first two groups. Calvo did an ethnographic study of the assembly meetings where representatives from all three communities argued bitterly over their differing ends. “Who are we?” the assembly is trying to answer – and that answer, Calvo says, has much to do with how communities relate to land and want it to be governed.

Historically, land in the region has been governed by ideas of reciprocity and redistribution, Calvo shows as she takes the reader through different regimes. A good example of this is that agricultural labour was often paid only very marginally (or not at all) in cash, with the owner of the land instead providing food, drinks and entertainment for the duration of the work. Workers were often very demanding in their requests for food, asking only for things that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Why is this important? Because from this, “We may reasonably assert that agricultural work, more than market goods, is viewed by the inhabitants of Tarabuco as a form of energy that cannot be matched by the payment of a wage dependent on the labour market. This energy must not be reduced to a mere economic relationship of monetary exchange,” Calvo writes.

In Tarabuco, indigenous communities legally changed the land earlier known as ‘rustic’ or ‘native’ territory – territories that were historically not under landowners’ areas and were governed by indigenous communities – to community property titles.

But for the peasants, who still have fresh memories of the hacienda system (of large scale landowning), individual ownership of land is extremely important, Calvo writes. It was individual property rights that got them out of an oppressive regime, something they are unwilling to go back to. Some indigenous communities have sided with the peasant syndicate on this, afraid of losing their land.

But for the indigenous groups, territory is closely linked with social values such as reciprocity, rotation of duties and justice, which they feel are not in line with a commercial outlook on land. “We have suffered the expropriation of our territories because of business interests. The government says that we are engaging in blackmail, that we represent a risk for businesses. They want to commercialize our resources,” a representative of Yampara Nation said at a meeting.

Both of these groups have differing views on progress and breaking away from subjugation. Both claim history and tradition in their arguments – breaking away from the bad memories of it while trying to reclaim and maintain the good. The moral ‘self’ is then portrayed differently by both groups, in opposition to the other.

The state is sponsoring this need for the heterogeneous community to allocate identity, Calvo argues, given the nature of the framework. So even while the state is advocating for self-governance, its involvement has governed the range of possibilities when creating the identity of an autonomous indigenous subject, even if it cannot govern the outcome.

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