‘Life and Debt’: Who can explain the price of carrots?

June 5, 2008

Life and Debt (2001, Stephanie Black) is a documentary film that discusses the machinations of international finance in the country of Jamaica. Although it is not riveting in its execution, it does beautifully combine narrative and documentary to effectively communicate some things about how global finance has functioned in so-called third world countries. Through a short first person text by Jamaica Kincade entitled ‘A Small Place’ in which a Jamaican narrator addresses words to a tourist visiting her island, the director speaks to the audience, situating the viewer in the story, in their potential role as ‘tourist’. On the one hand, there are the glistening azure beaches; on the other, hidden in the foliage, there is massive poverty, currency devaluation, and deep social unrest.

Although the film comes from a ‘globalization’ perspective – which often, in this kind of media, tends to be an ideological critique and a diatribe against obvious injustices – this film is somewhat more subtle. It does an excellent job of capturing how trade policies create situations on the ground that affect agricultural practices, employment conditions and state finance. Rather than simply inflaming the viewer at how many panties a Hanes Jamaica pieceworker in the ‘free zone’ is expected sew per shift, the director is also careful to point to bigger issues, to the deep ironies of a tax free manufacturing area whose infrastructure is paid for by the Jamaican government indebtedness, for the benefit of American industry.

Nevertheless as the film progressed I was left with many pressing questions that nobody who studies globalization seems to be able to answer. The heart of the film was to document the slow erosion of Jamaican agriculture by the importation of cheaper food products from the U.S. An influx of powdered milk drowns out fresh dairy; frozen brown chicken meat (what’s left after the white has been taken to make chicken nuggets) floods the market at 20 cents a pound; imported carrots replace locally grown carrots. Ok, so this is happening, I see it on the screen… But my question is how?

It seems to me that trade policy alone is not a sufficient answer to the pricing puzzle. Beyond policies that lift trade barriers and do away with preferential tariffs there is still the burning question of price calculation: How is it possible for the price of an imported carrot, coming on a refrigerated, oil powered containership, to cost less for a Jamaican citizen on the marketplace than a carrot pulled out of local soil and transported by truck? (It takes only 12 hours to drive around the entire island.)

Most stories about prices in the globalization studies will show how so called free market prices are either not free because of hidden subsidies, or will defer to the ‘fact’ that superior farming practices create supply that drives prices down. But what nobody seems to show is the actual valuation process, the (calculatively legitimate) cost accounting mechanisms that constituts one carrot as being less expensive than another carrot. Is it sufficient to say that political interests fix prices so that they benefit some parties over others, or is there something to be said about how the technical processes of pricing confer differential value on goods?

My question is: Is there a problem here for the social studies of finance?

‘Life and Debt’ is available on streaming video from Netflix.

5 Responses to “‘Life and Debt’: Who can explain the price of carrots?”

  1. yuvalmillo Says:

    Well, SSF (and SSF-related) scholars have touched upon this. For example, there’s a paper by Koray Caliskan – “Price as a Market Device: Cotton Trading in Izmir Mercantile Exchange” – that deals with a pricing/qualification mechanism of a global commodity. The paper appears in the Market Devices edited volume, a book that you really ought to read, Martha…😉
    Another example, from a different direction is the chapter “Accounting and Objectivity: The Invention of Calculating Selves and Calculable Spaces” from Miller and Rose’s Governing the Present.

  2. spiritwealth Says:

    Maybe I’m just old or something, but I’m having trouble reading the font on your blog and I really wanted to read this posting. It sounded interesting…

  3. marthapoon Says:

    I do agree that Koray Caliskan’s work comes closest to addressing this type of question, however, Koray focuses on a different dimension of calculative inequality in that work: that between the cotton producer and global price makers.

    The carrot question goes beyond this question because it requires tracing two price streams and showing how the price of a locally grown carrot is subverted by a carrot traveling to market through a much longer and more sophisticated chain of cost calculations.

    The Miller and Rose piece focuses on how cost calculation was a means of governing workers’ activities, but not on constituting goods as being more affordable than others.

    The question is not trivial as this price differential has apparently been enough to sink the agricultural sector of a tropical island with the exception of bananas, which at the time of filming were part of privileged trade agreements with Europe.

    This suggests that the nature of biology (to be prolific in tropical places) is reconfigured by new market arrangements such that it no longer makes ‘natural sense’ to produce fruit on these islands which were once kept as colonies (i.e. an economic arrangement with an alternative global production path and sense of nature) for precisely those kinds of purposes…

  4. yuvalmillo Says:

    First, I’m glad that my comment motivated you to read these two pieces🙂 Second, you make some good points here. So, this calls for under blog post
    PS – I’m not sure about your distinction regarding Koray’s paper, but, as said, this can be developed in a blog post.

  5. Zsuzsanna Says:

    Subsidies (and lack thereof) and the lifting of trade barriers are probably the most often cited causes, I agree. See today’s NYTimes piece(http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/business/worldbusiness/30trade.html?pagewanted=2&hp) on the larger issue of food allocation, brought up by the recent food shortages and export bans. The article addresses the problem of countries who have eliminated dimensions of their own agriculture and are now in a vulnerable position because they can’t import enough and their farmers are no longer equipped to produce enough. For the carrot case especially:

    “In some of the nations concerned about shortages now, past policies have discouraged farming. From Indonesia to West Africa to the Caribbean and Central America, poor countries have frequently cut farm assistance programs and lowered tariffs to balance budgets and avoid charging high prices to urban consumers. But they have found that their farmers cannot compete with imports from rich countries — imports that are heavily subsidized.”

    There is a story of shifts in government calculation here, which is not trivial, but it falls short of demonstrating that this was enough for differential prices to appear, just as Martha argued. So the question is how you can accomplish the price difference technically. I read this quote as saying two things for the task of tracing the technical valuation process: 1. the systems and policies of subsidies, taxation, and trade do play into constituting prices, but in complicated ways that have to be specified as part of concrete calculative chains 2. our technical account will likely have a strong historical line in each case.


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