‘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.