Back To Reality
For the end of the year holiday period I decided I was going to embrace my lazy side, let her be in charge. The first thing she did was get rid of all those routines that had kept her repressed most of the year. I went to sleep and woke up without the nagging of my alarm clock. I gave in to any urge I had first thing in the morning. Watch an episode or two of a TV show? Yes! Stay lying in bed for hours? Absolutely! Any thought I had to be productive was quickly overtaken by the compulsion to watch just one more episode of whatever show I was watching. It went on like this until the tingling, throbbing and numbing of my limbs ( I suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)) would force me to get up and move. I would then very reluctantly go and exercise, for there would be no further rest and comfort without it–rigorous and generous amounts of daily exercise is one of the ways to manage RLS. This is a mixed blessing because I could later on munch my way through an entire packet of twice-fried (nope, once isn’t good enough) plantain chips guilt free. It was AMAZING! I wanted it to go on forever. Alas the arrival of the 3rd of January put an end to all that and I had to go back to reality.
For the next few days I watched my lazy side and productive side battle for dominance. On the surface, the productive me was winning, having gone back to work, routines and discipline, but internally the lazy me was leading. She couldn’t see the point of working and having goals. I was worried. I turned to a source that never fails to inspire, books! Of the many books I had waiting to be read, I settled on Edible Economics by Ha-Joon Chang. I figured reading about the economy would help to fully bring me back to reality. Plus I had been looking forward to reading this book because Chang’s previous book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism was so illuminating and one that I’ve returned to multiple times. I was also curious to see how he was going to make economics, a topic often tasteless and hard to swallow, edible. At a glance the chapters with titles such as okra, spices, noodles, chocolate etc…read more like a content list of a cookery book.
I started at the Okra chapter. Chang starts with the story of his experience with okra. When he first encountered okra, he found it off-putting due to its slimy texture. After that, over the years he tried it again in various forms but he didn’t come to appreciate okra until he tasted it in Southern US stews of gumbo (sometimes used to call okra in parts of the US) and Creole succotash. He was blown away by the magic quality the gooey texture okra gave to the stew which made the dish so smooth, so comforting, so heart-melting. This completely resonated with me as I too fell in love with okra when I first ate okra soup (a Nigerian stew). Since then I feel comforted and uplifted every time I eat it, hence why I was drawn to this chapter first. The author proceeds to explain the origin of okra. I was surprised to discover it is from the Malvaceae plant family, the same as cotton, cacao, hibiscus and durian. How? I stopped there to Google images of the plants/trees in case I could detect some family resemblance but I couldn’t. The word okra came from the Igbo language of Nigeria. Okra was taken to the US by African slaves. The enslaved Africans without whom “the US could not have become the economic superpower that it is today. And this is not a rhetorical statement.” (Edible Economics p. 14). At this point is where Chang starts the schooling in economic history! He continues: “We all know that enslaved Africans in US plantations were whipped and tortured to produce cotton and tobacco. But not many of us know how important these crops were for the US economy. These two products alone accounted for at least 25% and up to 65% of US exports throughout the nineteenth century. At its height in the 1830s, cotton alone accounted for 58% of US exports. Without the export earnings from cotton and tobacco, the US could not have imported the machines and the technologies that they needed for economic development (Edible Economics p. 14).”
The other important fact many don’t know is that the enslaved Africans were also a very critical source of capital. They were used as collateral for mortgages at a time when land wasn’t worth much. Further, these individual-slave-based mortgages were then lumped together to form tradable bonds, just like modern-day ABSs (asset-backed securities), and were sold on to British and other European financiers, enabling the US to mobilise capital on a global scale and also to develop its financial industry into a global player.
Slavery in the US, Brazil and in the European colonies ended formally in the 19th century but didn’t end ‘unfree’ labour. It was replaced by millions of indentured labourers of Indian, Chinese and Japanese origin, who were brought in to work in place of the freed slaves. Though they were not slaves they worked under similar conditions, and they had no freedom to change jobs during their contract period of typically 3-10 years. It took decades for large scale indentured labour to be abolished in 1917.
The Narrowness of Freedom
So what is the point of all this okra sprinkled economic history? That the freedom we are told is provided by capitalism, the economic and political system that our modern world was founded on and is run on, has always been for a narrow section of society. We are told that in a capitalist society workers have the right to choose their occupation, consumers buy what they want, and businesses can produce and sell what they want. All true so long as their ‘freedoms’ benefit the leading economic power, that is the property class (e.g. landlords, financiers, moguls). If other people’s economic freedoms clash with those of the proprietors they are ignored, branded as counterproductive, or worse still violence and war are used to suppress them. Slavery in the US wasn’t eliminated until there was a war and on top of that the proprietors had to be financially compensated while the freed slaves got nothing. If we look at more recent events, big corporations such as Starbucks and Amazon have been found to use intimidation tactics to prevent workers from unionising. The current UK government’s (I consider them as part of the proprietors class, just look at the backgrounds of the ministers) first response to nurses and ambulance workers striking to demand fairer pay and safer working conditions for themselves and patients, was to ignore, denounce and refuse to negotiate. These same health care workers were hailed as heroes when they worked tirelessly when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak. Now, the UK government is in the process of introducing a law to prevent them from exercising their freedom to strike.
The rest of the book is bubbling with so many tasty insights. It is impressive how Ha-Joon Chang used stories about food to make learning economics, often full of jargon, complex equations and statistics, easy to digest and fortifying. Not only did I learn a lot about food but more importantly I gained a broader understanding of our economic system. For example, I learnt about the many different ways acorn is eaten around the world which segued into an explanation of how policies trumps culture when it comes to economic development. Chang used the story of how the banana arrived in and is cultivated in the Americas to illustrate the positive and negative impact of multinational companies. Strawberry leads the argument that automation doesn’t necessarily destroy jobs, in fact, it can create them. After I finished reading this book I felt motivated that there was work to be done this year.
The Extraordinary Attorney Woo is my favourite show of 2022! It is about a rookie attorney who graduated at the top of her class from the best law school in the country. But no-one would hire her because she is autistic. Eventually she got hired at a law firm as a favour to her father. The show follows how she navigates life as an attorney. What I loved about this show is how it tackles prejudices in such a unique, quirky and endearing way. Every time I watched it I was filled with hope.