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Thursday, April 01, 2010

ORDINARY INJUSTICE
Even Beyond Guantanamo, Rendition, and Torture, the US Criminal (In)Justice System Is a National Disgrace
James S. Henry

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CRIMAMERICACHART (click on graph to expand)

In 1840, Tocqueville, otherwise usually an astute observer of American society, proclaimed that “there is no 8968 country where criminal justice is administered with more kindness than in the US.” 

In the modern-day  “Law and Order”/ Perry Mason made-for-TV  version of this story, the US is still viewed by many as having,  in author Amy Bachs words,  “the world’s finest criminal justice system.”

Certainly this is the preferred self-image when, as it is wont to do, the US criticizes the quality of criminal justice in other countries.

 In this sanguine view, US prosecutors, police, investigators, and judges leave no stones unturned to see that crimes are punished, justice is done, and the  US Constitution is respected.

Juries take their independence seriously and fight tooth and claw for the truth;  parole officers and prison wardens are all deeply committed to “correction.”

Public defenders are not only thoroughly informed about  the latest nuances of criminal law,  but also work tirelessly to insure that each and every defendant has his day in court.  

MainAmy_BachRachel_Gracie Fortunately, Ms. Bach, a young New York attorney and law professor,  has provided a compelling, well-researched antidote to this conventional fairy tale. 

Her new book, the product of seven years of first-hand research in the bowels of the state and local court systems of New York, George, Mississippi, and Chicago, focuses on “ordinary injustice -- the routine failure of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys as a community  to deliver on the Constitution’s basic promises.

EXCEPTIONS?

Tocqueville was not alone in his naivete'. Initially, the sheer amount of attention given to criminal justice in the US Constitution as well as state constitutions led many observers to  expect that the US  really might be distinctive.

StoryIndeed, criminal rights are the subject of Article I’s explicit reiteration of habeas corpus, plus four  of the first ten amendments (known  collectively as the “Bill of Rights”), and their extension to states and non-citizens by the XIV th  Amendment.

Of  course legal scholars have long been aware of serious gaps between theory and practice  with respect to such rights.  But the gaps have usually been regarded as exceptions. 

Many of the exceptions have occurred in times of war or perceived security  threats  – for example, the Sedition Acts of 1798 and 1918, the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, the frequent persecution of labor unions, civil rights workers,  and Left wing dissidents from the 1880s right up through the 1970s,  the 2001 Patriot Act, the NSA's illegal spying program, and the systematic mistreatment of "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo and elsewhere. 

Other exceptions have involved the application of "Jim Crow justice” to native Americans, Afro-Americans, and other minorities.

Overall,  however,  most legal scholars have treated these episodes as abnormal deviations. In the long run,  the system as a whole is supposedly always improving,  always trying to do the right thing. 

On this theory,  the US Constitution and the courts that interpret it  are a kind of homeostatic machine, with built-in stabilizers that eventually prevent any serious rights violations from becoming permanent.

THE REALITY: FAST-FOOD JUSTICE

Ccritics on the Left have long maintained that in practice, no such automatic stabilizers  exist. From this perspective,  securing human rights is not ever accomplished once and for all, but  requires a constant, repetitive struggle.

It is also conceivable that "path dependency" and "feedback loops" in the legal system may  be destabilizing. The erosion of rights in one period may increase the chance that rights continue to erode later on.

Critics of the conventional view have also argued that rich people and poor people – including the indigent defendants who now account for about 70 to 90 percent of all felony cases –  essentially confront two very different US criminal justice systems,  especially in state and local courts. 

Only a tiny fraction of mainly affluent criminal defendants ever receive   full-blown Perry Mason/ Alan Derschowitz-type adversarial trials -- and even there, as Harvey Silverglate's recent book emphasizes, even the affluent still face the hazards of vague statutes and prosecutorial zeal. 

Meanwhile, 90 percent of criminal defendants soon learn the hard way that their nominal "rights"  consist of one brief collect call from a jail cell, followed by a tango with an alliance of police, prosecutors, and public defenders whose shared objective is to talk them into pleading guilty.

As Clarence Darrow said in his 1902 address to the inmates at the Cook County Jail, “First and foremost, people are sent to jail because they are poor.” And as the American Bar Association  -- not usually aligned with wild-eyed radicals -- reiterated in 2004, “The indigent defense system in the US remains in a state of crisis.”

Gat_0000_0001_0_img0083  This pervasive “fast food”/ assembly-line plea bargain system  is hardly new, although it has recently become a much greater problem than ever before because of soaring rates of incarceration in the US, as we'll see below. 

DETAILS FROM THE FRONT

 The special merit of Ms. Bach’s book  is that she takes such pat generalizations  about “ordinary injustice” down from the shelf  and brings them to life with a series of extraordinary case studies.

In doing so, she tackles one of the main challenges that confronts any investigator who seeks to understand how the criminal justice system really works. This is the fact that “ordinary injustice,” while pervasive,  is very hard to observe without detailed, painstaking field work.

 As Ms. Bach emphasizes,  this lack of transparency also prevents the public from being able to tell  just what they are getting for the hundreds of billions of  taxes  spent on the criminal justice system --  as well as  how the courts are doing with respect to delivering what is supposed to be their key product – justice. 

 One immediate benefit of Ms. Bach's field work is a rich trove of amazing real world stories about how the system actually works.

 ✔   For example,  in her book we meet a Troy New York city judge who routinely fails to inform defendants in his court Blindjustice of their rights to counsel, imposes $50,000 bails for $27 thefts and $25,000 bails for loitering, and enters guilty pleas for defendants without even bothering to tell them.  

 ✔  We meet a Georgia public defender who runs a “meet’ em, greet’em, and plead ‘em”  shop that delivers just 4 trials in 1500 cases, with guilty pleas entered in more than half of these cases without any lawyer present or any witnesses interviewed. 

 ✔  We meet Mississippi prosecutors who are so concerned about their win/loss records and reelections  that they simply “disappear” all the harder-to-prosecute cases from their files. 

  We meet a Chicago prosecutor who allows two iinnocent young people to sit in jail for 19 years before he finally works up the gumption to examine the relevant DNA evidence. This new evidence not only cleared them, but it also helped to disclose a much larger  police conspiracy.

  Ms. Bach also reminds us of the unbelievable 2001 case before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (Texas)  where the court labored hard to overrule a lower court decision that would have permitted a defendant on trial for his life to receive the death sentence, despite the fact that his attorney had been fast asleep through much of the trial.  

PATTERNS

Amy Bach’s  book is more than just a series of such horror stories, however.  By doing  painstaking legal anthropology in multiple locations, she's been able to go beyond the limits of the typical one-off journalistic expose about the courts. (See, for example,  A, B, and C.) 

Bach's focus is on identifying recurrent patterns of misbehavior. These patterns were unfortunately  not “exceptional” at all,  but routine and widespread.

Prison Most important, her research underscores the fact that  ordinary injustice is not just due to isolated “bad apples.”  There is a system at work here.  Indeed, injustice thrives on a culture of tolerance for illegal practices  cultivated in whole communities of lawyers, judges, and police over many years.  This culture, and the “fast food”  plea bargaining  that  it facilitates,  are at the root of all her cases. 

Unfortunately Ms. Bach offers no real solutions to the problems that she has described so well. She ends up leaning rather heavily on a fond hope that “new metrics”  will be developed to measure how well individual courts actually deliver “justice” -- sort of the legal equivalent of "No Child Left Behind."  

There may be something to this. But in my experience,  metrics, whether in education or judicial policy,  are the last refuge of the policy wonk.  They will  undoubtedly be a  long time coming. This is  partly because of budget constraints. But  it is also because if the metrics are really worth a damn, they will  provoke stiff resistance from the  very same bureaucratic interests that Ms. Bach had to overcome  in her own research. 

Pending the dawn of this brave new world of  metrics,  I suspect that we will just have to depend on a handful of dedicated lawyers,  investigative journalists, and creative legal scholars like Ms. Bach to keep an eye on the courts,  root out what’s really going on,  and insist that all of the rights we have on paper and take for granted are  still around when we really need them.

ROOT CAUSES

So where does “ordinary injustice” come from, and what can we do about it?  Fundamentally, as noted, the kind of ordinary injustice described by Ms. Bach basically exists because of the “fast food” plea bargaining system. But as she also recognizes,  it would be a waste of time to outlaw this directly. This is  because the plea bargaining treadmill basically derives from the unsuccessful attempt to reconcile several deeply-inconsistent public demands. 

First,   9/11, the war on terror and GWB notwithstanding, most Americans still fundamentally believe in freedom.  Most of us still want to preserve the Bill of Rights --  at least on paper. 

Second,  we all want to save money – especially in these times.  Implementing the full-blown version of theCrowdedPrisons adversarial trials in  every case would be very costly. While taxpayers value human rights, they’re not all frothing to pay a whole lot for them. This is partly just because at any given point in time   their value is a little abstract --  like health insurance before you become ill.

Of course the truth is that the  “fast food” system is anything but cheap. The entire  system –  courts, prisons and police – now costs US taxpayers over $250 billion a year.  That figure has been growing like Topsy – it  is now at least three times the 1990 level.

Over  80 percent  of these costs are born by the hard-pressed state and local governments.  Most of the funds are digested by police and prisons;  courts only account for about one fifth.  Even so, it is far from clear that ordinary  taxpayers  – most of whom never expect to see the inside of a criminal court or jailhouse  themselves --  would be willing to pay anything more to help defend the poor  or curb ordinary injustice. 

Third, what US taxpayers do care about, at least until now,  is “fighting crime,” especially drug-related and lower-level  street crime. Ever since the 1970s, these have been the fastest growing contributors to system-wide criminal justice costs.

For many  taxpayers, under the influence of thirty  years of campaign propaganda from  the “war on drugs” industry and “tough-on-street crime” politicians, this has usually been reduced to  “lock ‘em up  and throw away the key, as fast as possible.” 

The result is that today, in the US, the number of inmates in our local jails and state and federal prisons is at an all-time high: over 2.3 million, 6.8 times the number in 1974.

This means the US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. It is  754 per 100,000, higher than Russia (610), Cuba (531), Iran (223), and China (119),  let alone developed countries like the UK (152), Canada (116), France (96), Germany (88), and Japan (63).


  Indeed, southern states like Louisiana (1138), Georgia (1021), Texas (976),  Mississippi (955), Oklahoma (919), Alabama (890),  Florida (835), and South Carolina (830) have distinguished themselves with even higher rates -- by far the highest rates of incarceration in the world.
  This policy appears to be driven in part by the political benefits of so-called "prison gerrymandering," which permits prisoners to be counted as residents of the places where prisons are located, rather than where they come from, for purposes of allocating legislative seats. 


This alone helps to explain the fact that annual cost of all US prisons now exceeds $80 billion a year. Indeed, the annual cost of warehousing prisoners in California and New York prisons is at least $50,000 per year per prisoner – much more than the cost of providing them with full time jobs outside!  In addition, in the US, there are over 9 million former prisoners who are now outside prison. More than  5.1 million others remain under supervision, on parole or probation.

090823-prison-hmed-11a.hmedium All told,  the US now has more than 11.3 million past and present inmates. This is  the world’s largest domestic criminal population, an incredible 23.5 percent of all current prisoners in the world.  No doubt the sheer scale of our “criminal industry experience curve”   gives us at least one  clear national competitive advantage -- in crime.  

Indeed, because of our  propensity to throw people in jail regardless of what becomes of them there,  we now account for over a third of the entire world’s living past and present prisoners.  Not surprisingly, this also affords us by far the most costly judicial and corrections systems that the world has ever seen.

For all these costly incarcerations, despite the vast sums and short-cuts associated with processing all of these millions through the pipeline as rapidly as possible, there is not one speck of evidence that this system has contributed one Greek drachma to falling crime or safer streets. 

Indeed, the best evidence is just the opposite. Over two-thirds of US offenders who are released from Justice2 prison are likely to be re-arrested within three years.  Reactionary voices may argue that this just shows we should hold more of them longer, a sure recipe for system bankruptcy. What it really shows is the complete lack of  any real “correction” or retraining in most US prisons. The system that the entire criminal justice machine works so hard to get people into as fast as possible has become the world’s largest training ground for serial offenders.

In short,   if we really want to understand the roots of "ordinary injustice,"  as well as  the intense pressure that each and every player in the US criminal justice system feels to cut corners and slash costs each and every day,  we need to look no further than this self-perpetuating  failed prison state-within-a-state.

After all, this particular failed state already has a total population of current inmates and former inmates under supervision that is greater than Somalia’s!

 

***

April 1, 2010 at 04:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 26, 2009

"WHAT MIDDLE CLASS"?

Global Wealth Inequality (2007-08 Average)
James S. Henry and Brent Blackwelder
(Click chart)

Globaldistoffshore200809 Res Ipsa Loquitur.

October 26, 2009 at 01:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 24, 2005

GREEN-'HOUSING' GAZANS
James S. Henry and Andrew Hellman

Laun_2The US government, the Palestinians, and indeed most Israelis are delighted that the Sharon Government has finally stood up to some settler extremists, and is still on track to pull out of the Gaza Strip by mid-August.  

However, we should all pay closer attention to the precise way that the Israelis are leaving.  There appear to be several missed opportunities to leave a much healthier economic base for Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians when the Israelis leave-- a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for eventual peace. 

In particular, Israel is  now on a path to dismantle or destroy over 1500 homes and 1000 acres of greenhouses, which already provide thousands of jobs for Palestinians, and might provide thousands more....

GHETTO-FICATION?

C99dbd547fc6faAt current course and speed, Israel may be missing a huge opportunity to help Gaza become something more than – in the words of Muhammad Dahlan, the Palestinian disengagement coordinator – "a giant prison camp," with 35 percent unemployment, 77 percent poverty, a youthful population whose median age is 16,  no seaport, a unusable airport, and few visible means of support other than foreign aid, rock-throwing, and amateur rocket-building.

Hamas_gaza_celebrate_29j5_khNo wonder that Hamas has been able to recruit a huge base of supporters there. It won seven out of ten local council seats in Gaza's municipal elections last December, and would likely have soundly defeated Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party in the Palestinian parliamentary elections that were originally scheduled for July 17th, but were postponed by Abbas indefinitely in June.

URBAN DE-RENEWAL

One missed opportunity is housing. At a recent press conference, Secretary of State Rice stated that 1,600 Israeli settler’s houses will be destroyed. The official rationale is that such single-family homes are not economically viable for the Palestinians in Gaza.

Houses_b4In reality, however, that rationale was just for public consumption, insisted upon by the Sharon Government for PR purposes.  With more than 1 million Gazans to consider, surely there are of course quite a few elderly couples,  young couples, and smaller families who might have used the houses. They also have other  potential uses -- business and government offices, clinics, even guest houses for visiting tourists, if the area ever stabilized.

90b1d6f6c1ff2dThe truth is that the houses will be destroyed for much less defensible reasons. First, it is widely viewed as one of the easiest ways to insure that the 8,500 Israeli settlers actually leave once and for all.

Only 284 families had signed up for compensation under the Evacuation Compensation Law, and officials are expecting more violence between Israelis and Palestinians as the August 15th disengagement approaches.

ArmedsettlersFrom Israeli's standpoint, the destruction also prevents the politically dangerous image of victorious Palestinians waving Hamas flags on the roofs of former settler's homes, celebrating another Lebanon-like eviction.

GREENHOUSE WEALTH

Greenhouses could be an even more important missed opportunity. Currently, there are about 1000 acres of Israeli-owned state-of-the-art greenhouses in Gaza. They are worth up to $80 million and employ about 3,500 Palestinians.  The fruits and vegetables that they produce account for 15% of Israel’s agricultural exports, mainly to Europe. According to agricultural experts, they might potentially provide  as many as 7,000 regular jobs, supporting, in turn, up to 30,000, and perhaps stimulating the growth of related industries. 

10153_k13s_1In short, figuring out a way to keep the greenhouses going could provide stable jobs and incomes for tens of thousands of Gazans, continued good business for Israel,  and also offer an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to show a little badly-needed cooperative spirit.

However, while the fate of these greenhouses is still being negotiated, and the idea of preserving them has some  advocates,  the outlook for them at this late date is grim.

According to two Israeli sources in a position to know, the most likely scenario is for the greenhouses to be dismantled and relocated elsewhere, or just demolished and replaced with new greenhouses at new settlements in Nitzanim, just 12 miles from Gaza.20050225gushkatif_2

These sources mentioned several key obstacles to a Gaza greenhouse idea.

First, with no seaport and Israel unwilling to permit Gaza to have air rights, and no highway to the West Bank, the perishable goods produced in these greenhouses could not reach the international market unless other transport arrangements are made. 

Second, Israel's settler certainly have no good will toward the Gazans, and Israel's agro-businesses don't  want to, in effect, put the Palestinians into business to compete with them.  A deal would have to be worked out for joint marketing and profit sharing, as well as compensation for the value of the greenhouses. Presumably the World Bank or USAID might be willing to finance such a solution, as they've indicated. Indeed, James Wolfensohn, former World Bank President and  Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, has evidently been trying to work out such a solution. The Dutch Government has also offered to buy them for the Palestinians.

P6b_1Third, some have expressed concerns that the Palestinians may not be able to protect the greenhouses from looting by their own people -- though Palestinian sources deny that this is a real concern.

_1502427_mandelaanddeklerk150apMore generally,  there is no question that Israelis and Palestinians have little love lost for each other.  Right now the Israeli Government is focused on leaving as quickly and safely  as possible, and the Palestinians are focused on just having them go. Left to their own devices,  there will be no "win-win" solution.


 

June 24, 2005 at 06:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Maximizing Gross National Happiness
Rethinking the Economics of Growth and Inequality
James S. Henry

200pxjbentham600px
Each year, by the terms of Jeremy Bentham's 1832 will, his mummified corpse is wheeled out to sit with faculty and students at the University of London.  Apart from this peculiar celebration, however, few people today remember the 18th-century economist and social critic whose life's work consisted of trying to make the British legal system serve "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

Indeed, most modern economists, under the influence of the Chicago School's homespun version of behaviorism and positivism, have long since abandoned the direct study of "human happiness."

In the economic development arena, this has led many economists to focus on technical policies that are supposed to increase overall efficiency, output, and measured growth, without regard to their distributional consequences.

Happiness3_1In this "neoliberal" view, one person's subjective pleasure is another's pain, and utility functions are unobservable, so interpersonal comparisons of utility are impossible. Distributional questions are therefore purely matters of "personal preference," to which "positivist economics" has nothing to add.

Perhaps not surprisingly, several studies of ethical behavior  among graduate students have even found that those who study economics are more prone to "free-riding" and less ethical than others.

One suspects that this narrow-minded, intrinsically conservative approach causes poor old Jeremy Benthem -- who dedicated his life to identifying social polices that would increase human happiness -- to turn somersaults  in his Auto-Icon.

Fortunately, modern psychologists, anthropologists, and public opinion pollsters have recently stepped in where most neoliberal economists have feared to tread. 


NEO-BENTHAMITE PSYCHOLOGY AND ECONOMICS

Using a combination of survey research techniques, "objective" indicators of economic and social status, and biometrics,  these social scientists have begun to study the determinants of subjective happiness levels directly -- both within and among countries. 

Among their most important findings:

  • Beyond a certain level of per capita measured income -- about $15,000 per year -- reported happiness levels don't improve very much across countries. There is also a great deal of variation in reported subjective happiness levels poorer countries at similar income levels. In other words, making "measured growth" the sine qua non of economic policy makes little sense.
  • 5cHigh-income groups report somewhat higher "very happy" levels within countries at any given point in time. But among First World countries,  increases in average real per capita income have not led to increased happiness levels over time.
  • Indeed, since the late 1940s, increased real income levels among First World countries have been accompanied by rising levels of alcoholism and drug addiction, depression, and crime  -- an indication of a growing gap between trends in income and happiness.
  • Changes in real income may lead to short-time increases in subjective happiness at the individual level.  But people become "habituated" to new levels of material income quickly -- in less than a year. Since they also tend to underestimate such "habituation" effects, they probably also spend too much time on the job, and too little time with their families.
  • Measured income has much less impact on subjective happiness than many other determinants of happiness --  especially employment, job security, family status,  and health. The country of Bhutan has reportedly already recognized this fact by declaring that its national goal is to maximize "Gross National Happiness" rather than GDP per capita.
  • Happiness54Relative incomes and "rivalry" are other important determinants of subjective happiness. This depends on one's reference group. For example, reported happiness levels among residents of East Germany plummeted after 1990, when they went from having the highest incomes among Soviet-type economies to the lowest incomes in Germany.
  • While genetic factors may help to explain differences among individuals in subjective happiness within any country, differences among neighboring countries -- say, within Europe -- are far too substantial and persistent to account for on the basis of such factors.

POLICY IMPLICATIONS

From the standpoint of Bentham's original goal of designing social institutions to maximize human happiness, the implications are many.

They include new justifications for: 

(1) Progressive income and wealth taxation;

(2) Polices that help to provide job security, social security, and health insurance;

(3) Using non-material incentives to reward people for doing a good job;

(4) Encouraging people to spend more time with their families; and

(5) Paying more attention to "non-material" development goals like democracy, family values, work force participation, and human rights
-- in striking contrast to the materialist path that now seems to unite both China and the World Bank/IMF on the goal of blindly maximizing measured GDP per capita.

In other words, all this adds up to a pretty interesting justification for -- in effect -- Europe's "high tax/social insurance/long vacation" welfare state version of capitalism. 

From a competitive standpoint, however, the US, China, and other ruthless global competitors are unlikely to adopt such a model any time soon. Indeed, they have been moving in precisely the opposite direction. So the real question is whether any of these Neo-Benthamite policy implications stand a snowball's chance in hell. They may, but only if those of us who are located in the neoliberal vanguard countries are able to push social policies in a more progressive -- and happier! -- direction.

(For a concise summary of the literature, see the following three lectures by LSE's Professor Richard Layard:) 

***

© James S. Henry, SubmergingMarkets™, 2005

 

June 1, 2005 at 06:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Harvard's President Summers and the Resurgence of "Scientific Sexism"
Part I. This Is a Recruiting Strategy?

Pg_photo_summersAs if we did not already have enough reactionary "noise pollution" in this society, Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard University's President, has managed to put his foot in it again.     

Summers has been compelled to apologize for the remarks on the subject of gender inequaIity that he made in front of an academic conference in Boston on January 14.

FootFrom Harvard's standpoint, these remarks were not only ill-considered and ill-informed. They were also downright self-defeating. 

After all, the University has recently committed $25 million of special funds to help recruit underrepresented groups, including female and minority faculty.

Furthermore,  the attendees at the Boston conference included a select group of some of the most talented female academics in the country -- including several that Harvard wanted to recruit!

So this was hardly an object lesson in labor market strategy.

”Hey, I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we get 50 of the country’s brightest women in the country together in the same room and  patronize the hell out of them! That'll work!”

As noted below, this recent incident is just the latest in a long line of unfortunate missteps by President/Herr Professor Summers, a highly-intelligent but congenitally-insensitive former economist.   

It also turns out that the President of Harvard was woefully simplistic about the latest academic literature on gender inequality, and rather patronizing and counter-productive in his attempt to "provoke" further research by speculating from the hip about it -- without consulting the best minds in the field,  many of whom were seated in the audience!

Harvard_08cWhatever we may believe about gender differences and sexual discrimination in academic institutions, therefore,  this  episode clearly raises serious questions about whether President Summers  has the judgment and emotional maturity to occupy one of the most prominent academic offices in the land.

This remains true, whether or not his persistent judgmental errors are explained by his genetic endowment, his childhood experiences, his child-rearing choices, or his astrological sign.         


 

To be continued in Part II: "The Market for Provocation"

January 23, 2005 at 12:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

SO-CALLED "NATURAL" DISASTERS
III. The Aftershocks to Our Religious Beliefs
James S. Henry

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Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!

Affrighted gathering of human kind!

Eternal lingering of useless pain!

-- Voltaire, Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, 1755

(T)housands of pilgrims to a Marian shrine (on India's coast) were washed away as they attended mass….(A) divinity student.. said she watched one man shout: ‘There is nothing! There is nothing! Where is God? What is God?’

-- Chicago Tribune, 12/31/04

_40669211_cuddalore_ap_1

The powerful Sumatra quake and tsunami not only moved whole islands, caused the Earth to wobble, and took more than 220,000 lives.

They also shook our world views to the core, and placed a tremendous PR burden on the more than 100 competing members of the global “non-profit” religion industry.

This is partly because of the sheer scale of the disaster. But it is also because this was surely one of the most ecumenical "natural" catastrophes in history.

While at least half the victims are Muslim, there are also substantial numbers from most of the world's other major religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Jains, and Sikhs, as well as many non-believers.

This has posed an interesting explanatory challenge to all these different religious perspectives at once, and has allowed us to compare their responses. When we do so, as discussed below, we find that many of them have been unhelpful, anti-humanitarian, and even downright loony.

Indeed, the aftershocks that the tsunami has caused to religious mythology, especially to the curious views held by true believers, fundamentalists and extremists of all persuasions, may be among its few benefits.

Meanwhile, of course, the crisis has also permitted those of us who are perhaps a little less certain about Divine Will to join together in what has become an unprecedented, salutary transnational effort to help some of the world's least well off.

We truly hope that the Gods are watching -- They may learn something.

A Wave of Skepticism?

On the one hand, many of the world's faithful are now questioning their religious beliefs – a logical reaction that parallels the wave of skepticism that swept across Europe after the devastating Lisbon tsunami of 1755.

According to these new skeptics,   recent events in South Asia have demonstrated that our modern gods may not be quite as powerful, helpful, or attentive as we had hoped.

As a former head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum put it, we may be dealing with a real "nebbish" here.

Angry_god_sm

Certainly the notion of “praying for the victims,” as one Protestant minister blithely suggested that we do at a memorial service that I attended this week, seems a little odd in this situation.

After all, if Poseidon were willing or able to help the innocent victims of this disaster, presumably He would have done so several weeks ago.

The fact is that we may just have to rely upon each other. That leaves precious little extra time and energy to pay homage to diffident bystanders, no matter how immortal.  

Sending Us a Message?

On the other hand, some true believers are stubbornly digging in.

Under the gun to explain how the mass suffering produced by the tsunami is consistent with the existence of Supernatural Powers that deserve our respect, they have reverted to variations on the age-old theme of "blaming the victim."

As these fundamentalists would have it, Poseidon (or Allah or God or Shiva or karma or...) is just “angry” with some or all of us, and is trying to send a message.

According to this anti-empathetic view, the millions of people who have suffered from this tsunami -- and presumably all other disaster victims from the Genesis Flood on down -- richly deserved what they got, or were sacrificed to teach the rest of us "lessons."

The precise messages sent and the lessons to be learned are a bit murky, but there is no shortage of proposed alternatives:

Ghs_monument

For example, Godhatessweden.org, a website owned by the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, has suggested that the suffering of “filthy, faggot Swedes” in the tsunami disaster was punishment from God for Sweden's tolerance toward homosexuality.

This particular church has also sponsored another website that features a rather tasteless proposed design for a monument to tsunami victims. Alfawzan

Meanwhile, Sheik Fawzan Al-Fawzan, who is Imam of Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh, a professor at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud Islamic University, and a member of Saudi Arabia's Senior Council of Clerics, its highest religious body, sugggested in a recent interview on Saudi television that the tsunami was "sent by God" to punish South Asian countries for immoral sexual activity, and for letting gay people into their countries

The illustrious Sheik has also argued that "slavery is part of Islam," and that those who deny this are "infidels" who deserve to be beheaded.

One leading American fundamentalist commentator, Bill Koenig, has suggested that a disproportionate number of Christians miraculously survived the tsunami, compared with their Muslim or Hindu brethren. (Presumably Bill does know that there were more Muslims and Hindus than Christians in the region to begin with...)

Todd Strandberg, the founder of Raptureready.org, suggested that the tsunami was a clear sign of the beginning of the "end times" when Jesus returns to Earth to punish our sins. (Presumably 1755 was just a false start...)

Similarly, a Salvation Army officer in Sri Lanka commented that it was indeed very odd that "All of our officers (clergy) survived.... God spared their lives."(...Although he admitted that some of them also had SA flotation devices....)

Another proto-Christian website argues that disasters like the recent tsunami and the Flood in Genesis don't make God a "mass murderer" because "there is no such thing as an innocent human." (....and unless you are absolutely innocent, or can swim really well, you deserve to drown......)

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Korean "scientists" have demonstrated conclusively that Noah's ark was strong enough to have withstood a tsunami and floods even larger than the Sumatran one -- like those produced by the Genesis Flood. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who recently described himself as "the Messiah" at an event held in his honor at the US Congress, is evidently planning to enter the shipping industry.

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Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, the President of its High Rabbinical Court, also saw fit to blame the tsunami victims, asserting that God was punishing people who failed to fulfill the seven "Noahide commandments," those that G_d supposedly gave to Adam and Noah. (He also promised to tell folks around the planet what the "Noahide commandments" are.)

Pandit Harikrishna Shastri, a Hindu priest at New Delhi's Birla temple, claims that the tsunami was caused by a "huge amount of pent-up man-made evil on earth" and by the positions of the planets. (He did not resolve the perplexing question of whether we should deal first with the stockpile of evil or the planets' positions.)

To Buddhist Ananda Guruge, a former Sri Lankan ambassador who teaches at California's Buddhist-affiliated University of the West, "Buddhism makes people responsible for their own fate," and the region's "bad collective karma" explains the disaster. (He did not clarify whether regions that have never experienced destructive tsunamis necessarily have terrific collective karma.)

To Ruth Barrett, a Wiccan high priestess who heads a Wisconsin temple dedicated to the goddess Diana, the disaster was simply a chiropractic problem. It was caused by "Mother Nature stretching — she had a kink in her back and stretched."

Interestingly, the religious extremists who advocatethese hard-shelled positions take a different view when the victims of a disaster are closer to home -- in New York, Oklahoma City, or Jerusalem. But not all -- recall the Reverend Jerry Falwell's conclusion that that 9/11 was also part of God's vengeance for gay rights and abortion. Laun

The secular humanists in the audience also have to ask: Were the sixty thousand children who have died in this tsunami disaster so far, and the 400,000+ other children who have lost their parents really old enough to understand, much less deserve, such punishment? Precisely what lessons are we supposed to draw from their capricious fates, other than that we have to prepare more carefully for such disasters,   and make sure that Jehovah enrolls in an anger management course?

These extreme fundamentalist interpretations also remind us of J.L. Mackie's conundrum“If God is Good, he’s not God. But if God is God, He's not Good." In other words, if it just so happens that an arbitrary, vindictive, brutal Satan now rules the world, does that necessarily mean that we are obligated to worship Him?

As the 19th century poet John Todhunter put it:

On his cross still hangs the Saviour
Bears our sins in dreadful sum
Eighteen centuries and three quarters
Yet his kingdom is not come.

"It is finished!" Was it finished
When thy path of pain was trod?
Thou didst bear the sins of mortals,
Who shall bear the sins of God?

No Cell Phones in Hell?

From the standpoint of “sending us a message,” surely Poseidon must also understand that many of us have cell phones and email. Personally, I have preset my spam filter to let all messages from Absolute Deities pass right on through. 

Indeed, it turns out that there were thousands of cell phones and Internet addresses even in Banda Aceh, Indonesia and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as well as India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

For that matter -- a point that should be of particular interest to the dozens of seismologists and tsunami experts around the globe who received almost instantaneous warnings of the December 26 undersea earthquake's severity, but now say they  "just didn't know who to call" -- there are also online telephone directories for all these places – including Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka,numbers of Phuket, Thailand, and TamilNadu, on the southeast coast of India.

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Starting from scratch, it recently took two SubmergingMarkets journalists just 15 minutes to locate hundreds of long-distance numbers and Internet addresses for dozens of hospitals, schools, hotels, lawyers, doctors, local businesses, and government offices on the frontlines of the tsunami – not to mention US Embassies, consulates, and military bases.

Evidently all these phone numbers and Internet connections just happened to be busyprecisely when the earthquake struck. That must have prevented all the international experts from getting through.

Perhaps Poseidon was trying to send us a message after all!   

èèè

© James S. Henry, Submerging Markets™, January 05

January 12, 2005 at 03:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Letters from the New World #7:
“Post Office Manners”
Denis Beckett (JBG)

DenisbeckettFive or six customers were waiting in the Post Office line. Everybody was in the second half of life’s span. Everybody had had the vote since before ’94. Nobody was joyous.

I had tried to be slightly joyous. I offered a greeting when I arrived, but people mmmphed in that embarrassed bourgeois manner, scandalized at unlicensed breaching of queue silence. So I like everyone was a stalagmite, separate to the other stalagmites, waiting in our separate spaces while the counters proceeded with lo-o-o-ong transactions.

Then a girl came in, a black girl in a school uniform. She looked around in the manner of someone in an unfamiliar place.

“Excuse me”, she said to the tannie  (Afrikaans for 'Aunty') at the back of the queue, “Where do I go to send a parcel?”

If she’d whispered it  the tannie might have whispered back. As it was, she said it out loud, unconcerned about putting the tannie on the spot in front of the other members of the queue.

So the tannie had an attack of Middle Class Frost, and couldn’t say anything. She gestured the girl in behind her. “Thank you”, said the girl, without irony.

And we stood. The big batch customers up front were taking time. After a while, the girl said, to no one in particular, “Excuse me, has something gone wrong or do we just keep on waiting?

Everyone laughed a bit, including the clerks behind the counter. Several people mumbled something reassuring. One of the clients at the front turned and apologized for the hold-up. Ostensibly he was apologizing to the girl, but in fact he was apologizing to us all.

We felt better that he did apologize. We had been working up a resentment. Had it not been for the girl, he would never have made the apology. He would have walked out of there with all our glares daggering into his back. But now the glares were defused.

We resumed waiting, but it was different. The stalagmites were thawing. The tannie at the front of the queue called to the girl: “Don’t you have to be back at school by quarter past?” The girl said “Yes, but if I don’t send it now my granny won’t get it in time.” The tannie at the front said: “You’d better come up here, then. I’m sure these nice people won’t mind.” And she beamed a beam at the rest of us in the queue, and people nodded and murmured assent and beamed reciprocal beams.

The girl moved up the queue, politely thanking each person as she passed them. As she got to the front, the apology guy finished and went off with waves and goodbyes. The girl took his place and started explaining her needs in Sotho, calling the clerk “ntate” (Mr.) in every sentence. Apparently it was fairly lousy Sotho, because the clerk switched to English – he was explaining express services – and she was clearly relieved.

Meantime, the tannie at the front explained that she had recently retired from the school. The guy behind her said yes, he thought he recognized her; she had taught his child. Conversation spread. It’s not that everyone was vocal, but that the stalagmites had melted into a brand of community. The feel had been isolation; it became connection.

When the girl finished she did a curtsy to the ntate at the counter, a curtsy to the queue, thanked everyone, and hurried off. The rest of us stood differently now, relating better to each other, better even to the clerks.

Funny, I felt, how in 1994 and for a while beyond, we in the pale gang thought that the big change was an act of generosity; that we were leaning down, holding out the hand of friendship to pull them up.

These days, I find it humbling and thrilling to see ever more evidence of the two way street, the ways that white lives are enhanced by living in Africa.

èèè

© Denis Beckett, Submerging Markets™, January 05

          dbeckett@global.co.za

January 6, 2005 at 04:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 01, 2005

SO-CALLED “NATURAL” DISASTERS
Part I. Overview
James S. Henry

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_40672941_afp_meulaboh203_1 For the second year in a row, December comes to a close with a dramatic reminder of the precariousness of daily life in the developing world -- and the continuing failure of the international community to provide adequate early warning systems, pre-crisis funding,  and rapid, effective global relief for the victims of so-called “natural disasters”  -- most of which are actually quite predictable, at least in the aggregate.

_40669633_sumatra_andaman_map203 This year, on December 26, 2004, it was the 9.0Rs earthquake off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia’s second largest island, the fifth largest earthquake recorded since 1900.

_39676201_iran_bam2_203 One year ago to the day, on December 26, 2003, the disaster in question was the 6.6Rs earthquake that devastated the city of Bam in southeast Iran, at a cost of  26,500 lives, 25,000 injured and 80,000 homeless.

The death toll from this year's Sumatra quake is likely to exceed 150,000, with thousands of people still missing, several hundred thousand who have been seriously injured,  and more than five million -- most of whom were impoverished to begin with -- suffering from thirst, hunger, homelessness, lost employment,  and the threat of mass epidemics.

_40669211_cuddalore_ap Furthermore, as we were also reminded in Bam, among the worst consequences of such catastrophic events are the longer-term traumas associated with disease, losing friends,  family, fellow citizens, livelihoods, communities, and whole ways of life. 

As usual -- and as was true in the case of 9/11, for example --   much of the initial media coverage of this Sumatra tsunami has focused on body counts, other dire visible consequences, and the massive relief effort that has followed.

That is to be expected. But before our attention span drifts too far off in the direction of some other new Third World calamity, it may be helpful to step back and examine some of the systematic factors that contribute to the high costs of such mishaps over and over again, and the extraordinary costs of this "natural" tsunami disaster in particular. 

Our overall theme is that there is really no such thing as a “natural disaster” per se. This is not to say that man-made forces were responsible for Saturday’s tsunami.  But, as discussed below, the degree to which any such event results in a social and economic “disaster” is often to a great extent under our control. 

In the case of this particular tsunami,  its high costs:

  1. Were entirely foreseeable, at least in a “sometime soon” sense, based on both long-term and recent experience with tsunamis in the Indonesian arena;

  1. Were actually foreseen by several geological experts, some of whom have been advocating (unsuccessfully) an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system for years;

  1. Could have been substantially mitigated if US, Japanese, and other scientists around the globe who monitor elaborate earthquake- and tsunami-warning systems, and had ample warning of this event, had simply shown a reasonable degree of human concern, imagination,  and non-bureaucratic initiative;

  1. Might have been avoided entirely with a relatively modest investment in tsunami “early warning systems” for Indonesia and the Indian Ocean.

Furthermore, the global response to this horrific disaster has been long on the size of aid pledges, dignitary press conferences, and “oh – the horror” press coverage. 

_40676013_ap_aid300 It has been conspicuously short on actual aid getting through to the front lines. Today, almost a week after the disaster, aid efforts are well-funded, but they remain sluggish, disorganized, and ineffective, with at least as many additional lives in jeopardy right now for want of aid as perished in the original waves.

This is partly explained by the sheer difficulty of getting aid through to remote regions like northern Sumatra.  But, as explained below, it is also due to political factors, and the fact that the world community still runs its humanitarian relief efforts like a “pick-up” softball game. 

Fortunately, this particular crisis seems to have captured the attention of the world's donor community. At this point, with more than $2 billion in aid pledged by governments, multilateral institutions, and _40678585_ap_coffins300more than 50 private relief organizations,  the real problem is not money, but organization.

But we may want to demand that the UN, the US Government, the EU, and all these relief organizations get their acts together, and establish a permanent, well-run, well-funded global relief organization that can move more quickly the next time around. Along the way, they should also pay far more attention to preventive systems that can help save the future victims of such disasters, before all the relief becomes necessary.

                            © James S. Henry, Submerging Markets™, January 05

January 1, 2005 at 05:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, December 24, 2004

THE HORROR OF CHRISTMAS II
The Social Pathologies of Our Grandest "Holiday"
James S. Henry**

"Christmas has us all by the throats..." -- Noel Coward

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Xmas_1 When I was a kid in Minnesota, my family had a huge Scandinavian feast every Christmas Eve, complete with more than two dozen relatives, three feet of snow, a mountainous evergreen that was trimmed to the top with popcorn balls, candy canes, tinsel, and hundreds of precious once-a-year decorations, a six-course dinner with lutefisk, ham, turkey and eight or ten pies, long-winded after-dinner stories about baseball, the space race, and World War II, and, of course, lots of brightly-wrapped presents.

It has taken more than three decades of rigorous training in economics and law and life on the East Coast for me to shake off the nostalgia of those warm, festive occasions.  But I am now willing to say out loud what I expect many Americans are muttering all across the country at this time of year: Christmas is a real net loser as a socio-economic institution.

Although for decades the observance of Christmas has been justified on the grounds that it is “merry,” rigorous quantitative analysis proves that precisely the opposite is the case. Despite numerous claims by its proponents that this holiday promotes a desirable “spirit,” and makes people “jolly,” the hard data clearly demonstrate that the yuletide period is marked by environmental degradation, a sharp increase in unfortunate encounters with hazardous products, massive congestion,  tedious, time-consuming travel,  and the abuse and inefficient use of vast numbers of animals, birds, trees, and many other valuable resources.

Moreover, the number of people who are rendered truly “joyous” by Christmas is almost certainly exceeded by the number who are made to feel rather blue. Nor does Christmas truly fulfill its purported distributional objective: the transfer of gifts to those who really need them.

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Finally, it turns out that this so-called “holiday” may make a significant contribution to America’s dwindling savings rate, unsustainable trade deficit,  declining competitiveness, and the motivation for a great many property crimes.

In short, although Christmas may be an important source of religious inspiration for some, and a genuine source of wintertime fun for others -- mainly children, who would probably be having fun anyway -- it fails the test of social cost effectiveness.  It is high time for those of us who are serious adults to take a good long holiday from this overblown annual ritual.

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THE INDICTMENT

Christmas consumes vast resources in the dubious, really quite uncharitable pursuit of “forced giving.”

To begin with, let us recall the countless hours that we have wasted on Christmas – all that precious time spent searching for “just the right gifts” for people we barely know; writing and mailing cards or emails to “friends” that one ignores the entire rest of the year; hanging ornate decorations on so-called “evergreen” trees that will become un-decorated, un-green fire hazards in less than a month;  attending all those semi-compulsory, over-produced parties that are saturated with cholesterol-rich food, drink, and false cheer; and the tedious task of returning all those mismatched presents after the New Year, just as their retail values plummet.

Assuming conservatively that each American adult spends an average of two days a year on such activities, this represents a wasted investment of 1.2 million person-years per season. At a  per capita “shadow wage” of $38,000,  that works out to a “deadweight Christmas loss” of $45 billion per year -- even apart from any extra spending associated with these dubious activities.   

Just as important is the amount that Americans spend on gratuitous gifts each year - at least $50 to $60 billion per season, by my careful estimates. All this extra consumer spending is sometimes considered beneficial because it stimulates the economy.  But a closer look reveals that this massive yuletide spike actually creates many harmful side-effects.

Gratuitous Gifts

Misfit gifts are one key example. According to New York department stores, at least 15-20 percent of all retail purchases at Christmas are returned after the holidays. Allowing for the inability of young children to return undesired gifts, and the fact that many other misfit gifts are retained involuntarily because recipients feel obliged to disguise their true feelings, perhaps as much as a third of all Christmas season purchases may be unwelcome.

This means that Christmas is really a throwback to a barter economy, where people have to try and match each other’s wants to their own offerings. The whole institution of money was invented precisely to solve this inefficiency – the so-called “double coincidence of wants” problem. In the case of Christmas, one simple solution might be to require people to give each other cash. But that would expose the absurdity of the whole institution.

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All this “forced giving” artificially pumps up consumption and reduces savings, since it is unlikely that all the silly, expensive presents given at Christmas would be given at other times of the year. One particularly noxious aspect of surplus consumption is “conspicuous giving” -- luxury gifts like Tiffany eggs, gold toothpicks, crystal paperweights, $30,000 sable stoles, and $15,000 watches. Such gifts are designed precisely for those who are least in need (e.g., “for the person who has everything”).  And most of these high-priced gifts are given at Christmas. According to a sample of New York department stores, the fourth quarter of the year provides more than half of the year’s diamond,  watch, and fur sale, and an even higher share of their annual profits.

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No doubt all this gratuitous spending delights these retailers, and many other “dealers” in the Christmas racket. To the neo-Marxists in the crowd, this suggests that the holiday is explained by economic determinism -- what we have here is not just a coherent, self-sustaining religious ideology, but a powerful set of underlying economic interests, with a huge stake in perpetuating this season’s fatuous gift-giving mythology.

Lower Savings, Higher Debt 

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Meanwhile, for the nation as a whole, the fact is that Christmas just reduces our already-flagging personal savings rate -- now just a paltry 1 to 2  percent of personal income.  It also adds to the burden of consumer debt. Almost a quarter of Christmas season sales are financed by credit cards or charge accounts, and  January has become the peak month for credit card delinquencies. It turns out, in other words, that Christmas is quite literally a festival that we can no longer afford.   

Toy Fetishism

For parents, another exasperating aspect of Christmas binge spending is toy fetishism. The holiday season accounts for more than  60 percent of the US’ annual $31 billion expenditure on toys and video games. Much of this new toy capital depreciates rapidly, if it works at all. The surfeit of hyper-stimulating toys is no doubt a major contributor to the ADD scourge among young Americans, and to our pitifully low youth savings rates. It is also educationally unproductive. According to the National Toy Industry Association, the US now spends nearly three times as much each year on mindless video games ($10 billion), action figures ($1.2 billion) like the Hulk, Harry Potter, and Anne Coulter, and dolls ($2.8 billion),  as on all retail book sales for children ($1.5 billion). Toys in the “learning and exploration” category account for a mere half billion dollars. 

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Over time, all this free-wheeling spending on unproductive child toys also encourages heavy spending on unproductive “adult toy capital,” like Porsches, J-120 sail boats, and synthetic Vice Presidential candidate action figures with Southern accents and really thick hair.   

Since a large share of the leading Christmas toys in the US market are now made by Chinese companies,  the toy binge is also making the US dangerously dependent on foreign toy imports. This opens the door to insidious, all-too-poorly-understood cultural influences that may take decades to reverse.   

Many Christmas toys are also hazardous -- snowboards, skates, sleds, hockey sticks, Roller Blades,  bicycles, baseball bats, boxing gloves, even iPods when put in the wrong hands. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that last year there were 17 deaths and 203,000 emergency room admissions in the US due to hazardous toys. There were also more than 11 million toy recalls. If we allocate these deaths, injuries, and recalls in proportion to seasonal sales, Christmas is clearly the dominant problem. (The comparable figures for deaths caused by books and book recalls were zero and zero, respectively.)

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Finally, one only has to visit any Toys ‘R’ Us or Walmart at this time of year to see the holiday’s negative impact on parent-child relations. The store floors are replete with distraught mothers and fathers dragging their tiny, toy-addled munchkins kicking and screaming away from the latest high-priced, must-have offerings. All this unproductive consumption would be much better spent on mathematical drill books, computer learning,  alarm clocks, pencil sharpeners and green eyeshades.

Christmas creates massive congestion at the worst possible time of year.

At least in large urban areas, Christmas is by far the most unpleasant time of year to shop, travel, dine out, or visit a bathroom in a mall. Just when stores are the most crowded, shopping becomes mandatory; just when everyone else in the nation is making their de rigueur, mid-winter, cross-country trek to “be with” friends and family, we also are drafted into this forced march. 

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December 21 and 22 are the year’s peak dates for air travel, according to the Air Transport Association of America, with more 2.1 million Americans per day jamming the nations airports, (twice the annual daily average.) Nearly forty million people will travel during the period from  December 17 to January 3, just when the weather is the worst,  airlines, buses, and trains are charging the highest prices, and security threats from the growing ranks of our non-Christian enemies around the globe are peaking.

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According to the US Postal Service, the volume of mail traffic triples at Christmas time, to more than 288 million letters and 8.6 million parcels per day during the week before Christmas. This batters a delivery system that is barely profitable to begin with, and has already been weakened in the previous two months by tens of millions of extra direct-mail catalogs and advertisements.

Telephone calls can reach more than 200 million per day during  the month from Thanksgiving to New Years’ Eve, and there is also a seasonal surge in Internet traffic. At many businesses, stores and offices, costly second- and third shifts have to be added to handle the excess demand. All this “peak loading” means that airlines, Internet services, mail delivery, stores, banks, warehouses, telephone systems, roads, and parking lots must carry more excess capacity than if these activities were distributed more evenly throughout the year. This is peak load capacity that we consumers ultimately have to pay for – it  is a waste of our nation’s precious capital.

Christmas destroys the environment, plus untold numbers of innocent animals,  birds, and other wildlife.

These have perhaps not been mainstream concerns for hardnosed economists like myself.  But if  one takes account of all the Christmas trees, letters, packages, increased newspaper advertising, wrapping paper, catalogs and cards, as well as the millions of animals slaughtered for feast and fur at the holidays,  it becomes clear even to an economist that this holiday is nothing less than a catastrophe for the entire ecosystem.

According to the US Forest Service, 23.4 million natural Christmas trees are now consumed in the US alone. This number has recently been growing fast, driven by resurgence in hard-shell Christianity and the trend toward more than one tree per household – related, in turn, by our rapidly expanding average home sizes. Americans also now use 18 million artificial Christmas trees each year, half of which are purchased brand new. 

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All this produces nothing less than an environmental calamity. Since natural Christmas trees have to be grown from scratch each year, millions of forest acres are now subject to an artificially-short rotation period.  Recent evidence from countries like Denmark, now the world’s second largest producer of Christmas trees, suggests that the resulting “industrialization” of non-organic Christmas tree production creates massive problems with groundwater pollution. And the piles of needles these natural trees produce shorten the lives of untold numbers of vacuum cleaners and household pets.

Given the growing role of foreign tree producers like China and Denmark in the global Christmas tree trade – the emerging “tree cartel” – the resulting “Christmas tree gap,” on top of the “foreign toy gap,” also adds to our burgeoning trade deficit.   

Sanctimonious Slaughter

As for the impact on our feathered and furry friends, Christmas has become nothing less than a giant abattoir. This year, according to the Animal Protection Institute, 5.3 million foxes, 36 million minks, 100,000 polecats, 70,000 chinchillas, 330,000 nutrias,  352,000 seals, 4 million Persian lambs, and hundreds of thousands of sable, plus millions of leather-producing cows,  will be butchered around the world just to satisfy the seemingly-insatiable human lust for real fur coats, stoles, hats, and leather coats and shoes. While many of these animals meet their fates for the sake of other occasions than Christmas, a disproportionate share are feeling Herod’s sword.

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Furthermore, to stock our holiday tables Americans will also slaughter more than 20.6 million turkeys, 9.4 million pigs, 2-3 million head of cattle, 2.2 million ducks, and 718 million chickens.

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To anyone who has ever visited a turkey, pig, or chicken farm, Christmas and Thanksgiving take on a whole new meaning. Every single day during the run-up to these festivals, thousands of bewildered, de-beaked, growth-hormone-saturated, inorganic birds are hung upside down on assembly-line racks and given electric shocks. Then their throats are slit and they are dropped into pots of boiling water.

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After they are cooked and on the table,  a few poor dead animals do have an opportunity to take revenge on their human persecutors.  According to one health expert, day-old turkey contains more than 2100 separate strains of bacteria. Even washing a turkey before cooking it just helps to spread all these bugs around the kitchen.   

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Christmas introduces seasonal fluctuations into the demand for money, and may also lead to a seasonal slump in labor productivity.

Christmas is the peak season for carrying big bills around in the wallet, and cash is also a very popular Christmas gift. The volume of currency in circulation peaks each year in December, then declines by 4 to 5 percent. As noted below, this probably helps to stimulate robberies at this time of year. It also forces the US Federal Reserve and the banking system to work hard to supply all this currency, and to cushion the resulting cycles in money demand.

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As for work force productivity, many American companies completely shut down for the two-week period from Christmas to New Year’s. Even those that remain open often find that on-the-job performance suffers because of seasonal high jinks and absenteeism. Armies of illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America also sneak back across the border to their homelands just to visit their families at Christmas time – a costly subterranean migration that may be touching, but deprives us of cheap labor.

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Meanwhile, our Asian competitors – except for the Philippines and South Korea, which have large Christian populations --  are insulated from these Christmas-induced distortions. They continue beavering away while we party. 

Far from being “the season to be jolly,” Christmas is really the season of sadness and despair.

The season’s compulsory merriment, hyper-commercialism, heavy drinking, and undue media emphasis on the idealized, two-child, two-parent, orthodox Christian family makes those who don’t happen to share such lifestyles or religious sentiments feel left out, lonely, and even somewhat un-American.

Even in so-called normal families, media hype about the season’s merriments raises expectations beyond reasonable levels, and sets up many of us for disappointment. According to a leading East Coast psychiatrist, many women exhaust themselves trying to meet both the demands of full-time jobs and more traditional expectations about what holidays are supposed to be like -  in many cases, established by their (non-working) mothers.

There is also a great deal of emotional stress associated with overspending and involuntary displays of affection. While it is apparently a popular myth that US suicide rates are higher during the holiday season, police, psychiatrists, and hospitals do report that there is a dramatic rise in alcoholic “slips,” drug overdoses, domestic quarrels, hotline calls, and emergency medical calls at this time of year. “Any redolent setting can be very sad for people who don’t have a dancing partner,” says the psychiatrist. “Christmas is one of those times.”

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Christmas is one of the most hazardous times of the year for humans and our pets. 

The combination of trees, lights, blazing hearths, yuletide passion, and other indoor festivities results in more household fires at this time of year than any other. The fire department in Washington, D.C., reports that fire calls in December are 40 percent above its monthly average; New York City had 2,600 residential fires last December, as compared with a 2,300-per-month average.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, December is the peak month for drunk driving and “DWI” arrests, which totaled 1.5 million last year. It is also the peak month for accidents-because of drunkenness, congestion, and bad weather - with more than 585,000 last year, compared with a monthly average of only 527,000. 

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In the three days around Christmas last year, 513 people died on the nations highways. The only consolation is that last year’s Thanksgiving was even worse, with 560 deaths.  Of course bad weather is a compounding factor. For those of us in colder climes, life would be much easier if we could at least agree to observe Christmas in the summer, when the lutefisk is ripe.

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December is also the peak month of the year for robberies, and  a pretty good month for auto theft and burglary, too.  Police suspect that much of this property crime is because many criminals are also motivated by the need to fill their families’ stockings. December also has a disproportionate number of murders -- almost 1500 last year – and aggravated assaults, many of which are committed by friends and families against each other in the course of holiday revels.  “Christmas is a crazy season,” says one former police chief. “It’s a potpourri of emotional extremes -- either extremely quiet, or all hell breaks loose. There are more assaults, bar-room brawls, and family altercations.”

Robbery

Holiday Binging

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Excessive eating and drinking are used to compensate for all these Christmas tribulations. According to the Distilled Spirits Counsel and the Department of Agriculture, in the six short weeks from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, last year we consumed more than $20 billion of alcohol - including 109 million gallons of hard liquor - plus more than 2 billion pounds of turkey, and a huge quantity of ham, cookies, pies, eggnog, stuffing, plum pudding, and other trimmings.

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All this indulgence does little for the nation’s waistline: the Christmas season is the single most important contributor to obesity. The average American consumes at least 3,500-5000 calories at Christmas Day dinner alone, a three-days supply of calories.   

Naturally, January is the peak month for diet plans, many of which end up in failure and despair. This helps to account for the recent trend toward obesity in America – at last count, 65 percent of all American adults and 16 percent of all children were overweight.

Other Hazards to Adults

There are also many products associated with Christmas that are especially hazardous. For example, among those that are potentially very harmful to pets and small children are angel hair (spun glass), artificial snow (poisonous),  plants like holly, ivy, mistletoe and poinsettia, the Christmas Rose, the Christmas Cactus, dieffenbachia, Lily, the Star of Bethlehem, Yew, Jerusalem Cherry, Hibiscus, and Jequirity Bean;  tree decorations like tinsel, metal hooks, ornaments, and glass balls,  candles, ribbons, aluminum foil, pine cones, and other packaging, electronic lights, turkey bones, and chocolate. 

Furthermore, a high fraction of candles still have lead wires in their wicks, and many aromatherapy candles produce carcinogenic soot.

There is also a sharp increase in the number of household accidents at Christmas time, from scalded fingers and sliced thumbs to scissor stabs, bike spills, and ladder accidents. All this produces a sharp increase in Christmas-related hospital admissions each year. Among the vintage Christmas accidents reported recently:

1.    Turkeys exploding in microwave ovens;

2.    Children and pets swallowing Christmas tree bulbs whole;

3.    Painful glass cuts resulting from attempts to Xerox one’s lower extremities at the annual office party;

4.    Children who ran into the street and were hit by cars while their parents were distracted by Christmas shopping;

5.    The fellow who drowned after he tried to walk on the “ice” – actually, open water -- after a few holiday party drinks. 

6.    The fellow who tied a rope to the family car and around his waist, then climbed up on the roof and started down the chimney with presents. Unfortunately, he neglected to tell his wife, who got in the car and drove off. 

7.    The unfortunate would-be Chinese immigrant whose body was recently discovered in a shipping container filled with artificial Christmas trees.      

8.    The fellow whose sweater caught on fire when he fell into a tree with lit candles.

9.    The 5800 other Americans who suffered injuries last year while decorating their Christmas trees – all of which were serious enough to require visits to the emergency room;

   

From a distributional standpoint, Christmas aggravates social and economic inequality. 

This is because almost all gift-giving at Christmas time takes place within the family, or at least within the same social class, and doesn’t reach the folks who really need our help.

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In fact, Salvation Army drum-beating aside, Christmas almost certainly reduces our capacity for charity, by draining us of wealth that might otherwise be given to the truly needy, and by exhausting our charitable impulses in costly bouts of spending, getting, and giving to “we happy few.”  Having just spent thousands on gifts and dinners for Muffy, Ben, Mom, and the kids,  we are not eager to make sizeable contributions to perfect strangers, no matter how deserving.   

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Presumably this is not the outcome that the Person for whom this holiday was named would prefer. 

SUMMARY – STICK A FORK IN IT

Overall, the message is clear: Christmas is hazardous to our health and safety, imposes a huge efficiency tax on the economy,  and does little to further social justice.

Furthermore,  these harms may well be growing.  An analysis of long-term changes in the seasonality of the US economy suggests that the Christmas buying season has been getting longer, more costly, and more intense.

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Of course, Christmas commercialism really is a rather modern innovation. The ancient Christians did not even observe the holiday until the fifth century. Medieval Christians observed it much more modestly, and the Puritans quite sensibly refused to celebrate it at all. Only in the last fifty years, with the perfection of mass-market advertising, department store merchandising, and the commercialization and expansion of pop-Christianity, has Christmas become such a command performance.

In short, from a purely economic and social standpoint, Christmas is an experiment that has been tried and found wanting. In a sense, it has become the  flipside of the positive contribution that the “Protestant Ethic” once made to capitalism:  Christianity’s second highest holiday now almost certainly makes most of us worse off.

What is to be done? We have a modest proposal:  a 3- to 5-year moratorium on the whole affair, to let us pay our bills and recover some of the fellow feeling that we’ve lost. After this interval, we can evaluate the “lessons learned” and the economic impacts again, and devise a new celebration strategy.

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This may sound like tough medicine, especially to youngsters. It will also probably offend the many interest groups that have acquired a large commercial stake in this ritual, from bulb manufacturers  and tree floggers to ambulance drivers, bar tenders, Park Avenue door men, professional Santas, tinsel makers, and booze peddlers.   

But the truth is that the rest of us can no longer afford it. If we celebrate this holiday at all this year, we should do so mainly because it is over for one more year.

èèè

**This is an update and revision of an article by the author that first appeared as a cover story for The New Republic on December 31, 1990. Research assistance by Andrew Hellman. © Submerging Markets™, 2004.

December 24, 2004 at 04:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, December 10, 2004

Global Growth, Poverty, and Inequality
Part I. A Little Christmas Cheer?
James S. Henry and Andrew Hellman

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Americhurch_2 The Christmas season is a very special time of year, when Americans, in particular,  engage in a veritable month-long orgy of holiday revels and festivities, including eggnog sipping, Santa sitting, package wrapping, neighborhood caroling, tree decorating, menorah lighting, turkey stuffing, and generally speaking, spending, getting, and giving as much as possible, at least with respect to their immediate friends and family.

We certainly don’t wish to question the legitimacy of all these festivities. After all, as this November’s Presidential election has reminded us, ours is surely one of the most powerful, vehement, unapologetic Judeo-Christian empires in world history.  Like all other such empires, it has every right to celebrate its triumph while it lasts.   

13933269_2 According to the latest opinion surveys, this is indeed an incredibly religious nation, at least if we take Americans at their word.  More than 85% of Americans adults consider themselves “Christians,” another 1.5% consider themselves “Jews," 84% pray every week, 81% believe in life after death, 60% believe the Bible is “totally accurate in all its teachings,59% support teaching creationism in public schools,  and fully 32% -- 70 million people, including 66% of all evangelicals --  would even support a Constitutional Amendment to make Christianity the official US national religion. 

In light of all this apparent religious fervor, it is disturbing to read several recent analyses by OXFAM and the UN of certain persistent, grim social realities around the world – and our paltry efforts to redress them. Is the intensity of our religious rhetoric and this season's celebrations just a way of escaping these unpleasant realities?  

CHRISTMAS CHEER?

·          According to the UN’s International Labor Organization (December 2004), among those still waiting for economic justice are nearly three-quarters of the world’s population – 4.7 billion people --  who somehow manage to survive on less than $2.50 per day. These include 1.4 billion working poor, half of the 2.8 billion people on the planet who are employed. 

·          According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (December 2004),  the world’s poor now include at least 852 million people who go to bed hungry each night – an increase of 20 million since 1997. The continuing problem of mass famine has many side-effects – including an estimated 20 million low-birth-rate babies that are born in developing countries each year, and another 5 million children who simply die of malnutrition each year. In some countries, like Bangladesh, half of all children under the age of six are malnourished.

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·          Overall, for the 5.1 billion residents of low- and middle-income countries, average life expectancy remains about 20-30 percent shorter than the 78 year average that those who live in First World countries now enjoy. By 2015, this will produce a shortfall of some 50 million poor children and several hundred million poor adults.  But at least this will help us realize the perhaps otherwise-unachievable “Millennium Development Goals” for poverty reduction.

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·          According to UNICEF (December 2004), more than 1 billion children – half of all children in the world -- are now growing up hungry, in unhealthy places that are suffering from severe poverty, war, and diseases like HIV/AIDs.

·          According to Oxfam (December 2004),  First World countries have basically reneged on their 1970 promise to commit .7 percent of national income to aid to poor countries.  Last year such aid amounted to just .24 percent of national income among OECD nations,  half the 1960s average.  And the US commitment level was just  .14 percent, the lowest of any First World country, and less than a tenth of the Iraq War’s cost to date.

·          This month’s 10th UN Conference on Climate Change (COP-10) in Johannesburg reviewed a growing body of evidence that suggests that climate change is accelerating, and that the world’s poor will be among its worst victims.  Among the effects that are already becoming evident are widespread droughts, rising sea levels, increasingly severe tropical storms,  coastal flooding and wetlands damage, tropical diseases, the destruction of coral reefs and arctic ecosystems, and, God forbid, a reversal of the ocean’s “thermohaline” currents. 

Overall, as the conference concluded,  for world’s poorest countries – and many island economies – the threat of such effects is much more threatening than “global terrorism.” 

So far, however, the US – which with less than one-twentieth of the world’s population, still produces over a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases --  seems determined to do nothing but stand by and watch while energy-intensive “economic growth” continues.  This year’s oil price increases have slowed the sales of gas-guzzling SUVs somewhat,  yet more than 2.75 million Navigators, Hummers, Land Rovers, Suburbans, and Expeditions have already been sold. The  US stock of passenger cars and light trucks, which accounts for more than 60 percent of all US oil consumption, is fast approaching 220 million -- almost 1 per person of driving age.

Meanwhile, leading neoconservative economists and their fellow-travelers in the Anglo-American media continue to tout conventional measures of “growth” and “poverty.” Indeed, according to the most corybantic analysts,  a free-market-induced “end to poverty as we have defined it”  has either already arrived, or will only require the poor to hold their breath just a little bit longer – until, say, 2015. 

As we will see in Part II of this series, this claim turns out to be -- like so many other elements of modern neoconservative dogma – a preposterous falsehood.  But it does help to shelter our favorite dogmas – religious and otherwise --  from a day of reckoning with the truth.

èèè

(Next: Part II: Is this Really Not the Best of All Possible Worlds?)
© James S. Henry and Andrew Hellman, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

December 10, 2004 at 03:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, December 03, 2004

”WHERE’S WARREN?”
Bhopal’s 20th Anniversary

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the deadly Bhopalunioncarbidefactor December 3, 1984, chemical gas leak at an Indian pesticide plant in the very  center of Bhopal, a city of 90,000 – just a little larger than Danbury, Connecticut -- in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India.  At the time the plant was owned by Union Carbide India, Ltd. (UCIL), an Indian company whose majority (50.9%) shareholder was Danbury-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) which was acquired by Dow Chemical in 2001.

This anniversary provides us with an opportunity to reflect on “lessons learned” from this disaster – including the need to make sure that the globalization of trade and investment is also accompanied by the globalization of justice for the victims of transnational corporate misbehavior.

Download WhereIsWarren12032004.pdf

THE COSTS

As a recent report by Amnesty International details, this industrial accident, perhaps the worst in history, killed more than 7,000 to 10,000 people in the first few days,  including many children. Bhopal01_3

There were also serious long-term injuries to up to 570,000 others who were exposed to the fumes.

At least 15,248 of these survivors have already died because of their injuries – in addition to the 7,000 to 10,000 initial victims.

Up to 570,000 others continue to suffer from a wide range of serious health problems, including birth defects, cancer, swollen joints, lung disease, eye ailments,  neurological damage, and many other painful, long-term illnesses.

Thousands of animals also died, and many people lost their homes, jobs, income, and access to clean water.

WHO WAS TO BLAME?    

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nion Carbide’s ultimate “parent authority” for this accident is very clear. In the middle of the night, a cloud of lethal gas caused by the leak of at least 27 tons of “methyl isocyanate” (MIC), a high-toxic odorless poison,  and another 13 tons of “reaction products” began wafting through the city center. The gas spread without warning throughout the town. The leaks continued for more than two hours before any alarms were sounded.

All six of the plant’s alarm systems failed.  It was later shown that the company management had systematically tried to cut corners  on safety and warning equipment – by, for example, failing to equip the plant with adequate safety equipment and trained personnel to handle bulk MIC storage; failing to apply the same safety standards that it used in the US; and failing to insure that there was a comprehensive plan to warn residents of leaks. 

In fact,  company staff and many others were aware of the risks created by this situation. In June 1984, six months before the accident, an Indian journalist had written an article about them: “Bhopal – On the Brink of Disaster.” But nothing was done – partly, according to Amnesty, just to cut costs.    Bhopal_unioncarbide_victim_2

The result was that shortly after midnight on December 3, 1984, Bhopal’s families woke up screaming in the dark, unable to breathe, their eyes and lungs on fire from the poison, choking on their own vomit. By daybreak there were already hundreds of bodies on the ground, with scores of funeral pyres burning brightly.

In addition, long before the 1984 accident, there had been a series of leaks at the site that management was well aware of, and which caused serious pollution – contamination that continues to this day.

All told, as the Amnesty report makes clear, this amounts not only to an health and environmental disaster, but a serious infringement of the human rights of thousands of Indian citizens. 

CONTINUING IMPUNITY

All this was bad enough.  But the other key part of Bhopal’s injustice has to do with the fact that key actors like Dow Chemical/Union Carbide, the Indian Government, and the individual US and Indian senior executives and other officials who were responsible for the accident have managed to avoid  liability for the full costs of the “accident,” as well as personal accountability. 

This impunity was underscored this week when the BBC fell victim to a hoax perpetrated by someone who pretended to be a Dow Chemical executive. He concocted a false statement that the company was reversing its denial of all responsibility for Bhopal, and was establishing a E12 billion fund for 120,000 victims.   

In fact,

·          Union Carbide (UCC) and Dow Chemical,   UCC's new owner since it purchased the company for $10.3 billion in 2001,  have consistently denied any liability for the disaster.  They have argued, for example, that UCC was a “domestic” US company, with no “operations” in India. Supposedly it was also not responsible for UCIL’ actions, because UCIL was just an “independent” Indian company.

·          In fact, while UCC disposed of its interests in UCIL in 1994, until then, UCC maintained at least 51 percent ownership in UCIL. Furthermore, according to the Amnesty report, UCC played an active role in UCIL’s management and board activities, and was responsible for the detailed design, senior staffing, and on-going operating procedures and safety at the Bhopal plant.

·          Furthermore, as UCC’s CEO at the time, Warren Anderson, bragged before the US Congress in 1984, Union Carbide had 100,000 employees around the world. At the same time, another senior UCC executive, Jackson Browning, said that UCC’s “international operations represented 30 percent of sales,” and that “India was one of three dozen countries where the company has affiliates and business  interests.” 

·          After the spill, according to the Amnesty report, UCC officials (1) tried to minimize MIC’s toxicity, (2) withheld vital information about its toxicity and the reaction products, which they treated as trade secrets; and (3) refused to pay interim relief to the victims.

·          The Indian Government and the State Government of Madhya Pradesh also bear grave responsibility for the disaster itself, and then for striking an irresponsible private settlement with the perpetrators. As the Amnesty report makes clear, environmental regulations were very poorly enforced against UCIL. Then,  having sued for $3 billion in damages in 1988, the Indian Government settled for just $470 million in 1989,  without adequate participation from victims. The Indian Government has also discontinued medical research on the impact of the gas leak, and failed to publish its interim findings.

In October 2003, it was disclosed that  by then, some 15,298 death claims and 554,895 claims for other injuries and disabilities had been awarded by the Madhya Pradesh Gas Relief and Rehabilitation Department – five times the number assumed in the settlement calculations by the Indian Supreme Court.

·          UCC’s insurance paid that paltry amount in full. But then the Indian Government was very slow to pay out the money to victims. As of July 2004, $334.6 million had been paid out, while $327.5 million was still sitting in Indian government custody.  At that point, 20 years after the disaster, the Indian Supreme Court finally ordered that the remaining money be paid out to some 570,000 registered victims – an average of $575 apiece. Even these payments won’t all get to the victims;  a significant portion is reportedly consumed by India’s notorious bribe-ridden state bureaucracy.    20030815007013301_1 

·          Local authorities in Bhopal filed criminal charges against both UCC its former CEO Warren M. Anderson in 1991-2. Anderson was charged with “culpable homicide (manslaughter),” facing a prison term of at least 10 years. He failed to appear, and is still considered an “absconder” by the Bhopal District Court and the Supreme Court of India.

However, despite the existence of a US-India extradition treaty,  the Indian Government has failed to pursue a request for Anderson’s extradition vigorously.

Indiawantsanderson28jun03_1 Diamondlid_3 The 82-year old Anderson, who is still subject to an Indian arrest warrant, has a very nice home with an unlisted number in Bridgehampton, New York, and another in Vero Beach, Florida.

Meanwhile, while the Indian Government has been willing to hold local Indian companies that operate hazardous businesses strictly liable for damages caused by them, it has been reluctant to apply this rule to transnational companies -- perhaps because it is more worried about attracting foreign investment than insuring that foreign investors manage their activities responsibily.

SUMMARY – GLOBALIZING JUSTICE

Overall, twenty years after the original incident, Bhopal remains a striking example of transnational corporate misconduct, an incredible case of the negligent mishandling of a true “chemical  weapon of mass destruction.”

This behavior may not have been as culpable, perhaps, as the willful use of toxic weapons against innocent civilians by former dictators like Saddam and Syria's Assad. But it was no less deadly. 

As we saw above, Bhopal was also an example of the incredible loopholes that still apply to leading companies in globalized industries.

Especially in corruption-ridden developing countries like India, they have often been able to take advantages of lax law enforcement, weak safety regulations, clever holding company structures that limit liability, and the sheer expense of bringing them to justice.

Evidently the globalization of investment and trade is not sufficient. Economic globalization needs to be augmented by the globalization of justice. Among other things, that means that it is high time for transnational corporations to be subject to an enforceable code of conduct, back up by an International Court for Corporate Responsibility.   

èèè

                        © James S. Henry,  SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

December 3, 2004 at 09:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, June 21, 2004

"Letters from the New World (South Africa)."
Denis Beckett
#6:"Soweto Revisited"

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About Denis Beckett

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Note: In the following essay, Denis Beckett, one of South Africa's best-known journalists, and a Submerging Markets Contributing Editor, plays tour guide to a Canadian visitor to Jo'burg, who has tired of its of fancy Toronto-like business district, and asks to see something of Soweto, the famous black township on the city's edge. The Editor has fond memories of singing and drinking with Denis in a Soweto shabeen in the late 1980s. As this report indicates, Soweto is even more vibrant today - apres the garrison state. Denis' latest book is the highly-acclaimed Redeeming Features. (London: Penguin Books, 2004.

RETURN TO SOWETO

By his sixth day in South Africa, Tony had been shown around Sandton (the high-end business district in Jo’burg) five times. “A fine precinct,” he said. “Not dissimilar to some we have in Toronto.”

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It seemed possible that the glimmer of a hint might lurk inside this information. I cancelled plans to show off certain classy office towers, and pointed to other quarters.

Whereupon began an excellent day. The high point was Soweto, for him because of the dining-out prospects once back in the 30 degrees below; for me because of the great march forward since I was last there. For instance I recall Moroka Park as a shambolic wasteland. Now it’s green and kempt with decorative railings and families sitting in Saturday sun.

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Everyone, evidently, has a doctorate in “Making Foreign Visitors Go Dewy-Eyed.” A bunch of kids fiercely debated the geography of Canada (they all got “north”; debate was whether north of America, Britain or Russia). Adults were hospitable from the start and added an extra notch when the Canadian connection came up. When a kid grabbed Tony’s pen I thought ‘uh oh’, but he was just eager to write our names on his hand.
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Sandton

Miraculously I did not get lost, a pity in a way because getting un-lost in Soweto is throat-lumping; people take such trouble over you. But we did traverse a wider cross-section than intended, which meant lots of exposure to changes like shops looking chic and houses looking bourgeois.

I’ve always felt a gap between the perception of Soweto from the white north – all danger, squalor, tension – and the sight of Soweto close up, which includes life, buzz, flowerbeds. Never more than this time, which made it doubly odd that the most jarring note came at the most sacred ground, the old Mandela home.
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Mandela's House

For his decades behind bars, his house looked pleasant and modest. Now it’s behind its own bars, a massive ugly fence so tight that it seems to be choking the house. Next to it an electricity sub-station would look pretty. The new guardhouse outside is scruffy and boarded, and they hunted down the dirtiest, raggedy-assed flag in existence for their big proud flagpole.

In contrast, the Hector Pieterson Museum (they spell him with an ‘i’ now)put up a good showing. Actual exhibits are stunningly few – a dustbin lid, a desk, some placards and two firmly welded guns – but the arsenal of photography, still and video, is a stomach-punching reminder.
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Hector Pieterson, 1976

And it’s not a caricature; amazing. One expects depictions of pre-1994 life to be, for a while yet, snarling iron-teethed whiteys kicking gentle black choir-boys to pulp; but here, not really. The brutality shows up, all right, and so does the disdain which was arguably more odious and certainly more widespread. So does the extraordinariness of shoving Afrikaans down black throats; the old State writing its death certificate. But dissent is displayed as well, and plain ordinariness.

The net impact on me – and I would think anyone white, wherever they stood in the old days – is a surge of relief. How tiny are our troubles now, compared to the gross contortion involved in keeping our foot on the other guy’s neck.

Hillbrow is populated by West Africans proud of their video kiosks and cellphone kiosks; entirely warm and chatty though less than entirely clear about the origins of their merchandise. In Yeoville, only, were we made to feel like markets – many people definitely wanted to sell us something, but were strangely coy about telling us what. Looked sort of like seedlings in packets. Newtown was spic and span and treed and under-occupied, an asset waiting to be exploited. Downtown is spoiled by litter – gutters are static rivers of waste, and papers and wrappers swirl like after a nuclear blast – but is on the up nonetheless, especially the west side, smarter and more occupied than a while ago.

Thanks, visitor to our shores, for awakening this Jo’burger to his turning world.


***

© Denis Beckett, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

June 21, 2004 at 05:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

"Letters from the New World" (Ukraine):
#1.""Schwartzennation" - Microwave Democracy"

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About Matthew Maly

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(Editor's Note: The following is the first in a series of essays by Matthew Maly, a leading Russian-born American free-lance journalist and business consultant who is based in Kiev, Ukraine. He is the latest addition to Submerging Markets' growing list of Contributing Editors. In this essay, Matthew provides an interesting non-US perspective on the limits of America's technocratic approach to exerting influence on other countries around the world. Matthew's latest book is the highly-acclaimed How to Make Russia a Normal Country. (St Petersburg: Bulanin, 2002). An English language version, Russia As It Is: Transformation of a Lose-Lose Society, is available in the US from Booklocker.Com.)


"SCHWARTZZENATION" - MICROWAVE DEMOCRACY

From where I sit, here in Kiev, it seems that the United States of America has become a nation of super-people. At the cost of a very few lives it has defeated an army of hundreds of thousands in Iraq, and occupied a country of 25 million. Like the Spanish conquistadors facing the Incas, America appears to be an era ahead of the rest of the world. And just like the Incas facing the conquistadors, the world is ambiguous towards America, fascinated yet fearful, trying democracy and Wrigley's Spearmint Gum for the first time.

If an American soldier dies in Iraq, every inhabitant of our planet learns about his death almost instantly: a giant falls with a thud. When a crowd of Iraqis carried the helmet of a dead American soldier it seemed like it took fifty of them to carry it. Yet like every giant from a fairy tale, the American giant has a vulnerability that may prove its undoing.
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Historical eras are often distinguished from one another by technology, both industrial (how things are made) and social (how people interact). A key secret of America's economic and political advantages lies in its use of pioneering social technology, especially the concept of “win/win.”

There are countries where for every ten people who enable there are eight, ten, or twenty of those who destroy or impede. Per capita productivity in Russia is one tenth that of the US. Does this mean that a Russian can’t lift a five-pound sack of potatoes? No, it means that if a Russian wants to open a hot dog stand, a bandit and a tax collector immediately visit him. In America, one of your neighbors works to feed you and another to educate you. In Iraq, one neighbor spies on you and another teaches you hatred instead of arithmetic.

It is “win/win” social cooperation, supported by social values and a legal system that Americans often take for granted that opens the way for the introduction of new technology, not the reverse: industrial technology can be used only if your neighbors realize that your personal success will in turn help them advance their goals. America has long since accepted the basic premises of “win/win,” and this is what helps to make the American soldier grow a hundred feet tall.

But technology is a human attribute, not the essence of what a human being is all about. Technology, both social and scientific, has helped to make America successful, but America is in danger of neglecting human character, proposing solutions that are purely technical, and thus may well be inadequate.

This danger is nothing new. Paganism was a fascination with the technologies of nature: to be strong, people wore wolf's teeth or feather head-dresses. The Industrial Age worshiped the Machine Tool, a new God that produced everything, and people wanted to be like the Machine Tool's products: unanimous, marching in step, and wearing steel helmets. The Information Age proclaims: you are what you appear to be; ultimately it is all “bits and bytes.” If the celluloid Terminator can save the world, it follows that a human Arnold Schwarzenegger can save California. But is it really just a matter of technique and force?
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If we compare a McDonald's to a French restaurant, we are likely to conclude that the McDonald's is cheaper, cleaner, faster, and friendlier. It is a triumph of technology, research, and training. The French restaurant has only two things going for it: you will not remember a McDonald's meal for the rest of your life, and you cannot propose at McDonald's. McDonald's stands for a satisfying technologically-assured result, but the French restaurant stands for life, whatever it is. McDonald's has a very useful role to play, but when it proposes itself as a substitute for a sit-down meal, there is a problem.

Too often, America says to the world, "Accept our technology because it is really works." And indeed it does usually “work”, but the world does not want to accept it - it prefers to keep its old ways of life. People want to be, not just to appear. America wants the world to wear a mask of "nice" and “new,” but the world wants to keep its tastes and traditions, its blemishes, its uncertainties, and even its vices. It is not that the world wants to remain "bad": the world simply resists the notion that every problem has a technological solution. The world may not be ready for such “solutions,” or it may believe that there are problems that await spiritual rather than technological solutions. The technocratic side of America seems to be saying, "If your marriage is unhappy it could only mean that your marriage contract was not elaborate enough," but the world sees this as technocratic madness, the worship of a new false pagan god, even in the midst of America’s purported “spiritual revival.”

Of course democracy can be a reasonable goal, be it for Canadians or for Afghans or Iraqis. But when democracy is presented as a ready-made technological solution – three minutes in the microwave, with a pickle and a smile - then people will refuse to swallow this prepackaged sandwich. The world wants to slaughter the lamb, skin it, and eat it with their hands.

The world resists American idea that politics (and art) are no longer about people, but about the application of various technologies – a democratic system of government being one of them. The Terminator saves the world not because he has the largest heart, but because, at the right moment, his guns make the greatest holes. The world sees this exclusion of people, with their hot beating hearts and their imperfect histories, as a serious threat.

India invented quiet contemplation and has congested, noisy streets; Britain invented good manners and reads the stolen letters of royalty; Russia stood for the soul elevated by beautiful literature, and so Russian prostitutes are the best-read in the world. The world abandons its values, and American culture pours in and rules. But the world understands that the American version of good is not good, and the stronger America becomes, the more it tries to impose its will, the more it will be resisted.

America should be extending its "win/win" spirit, which has been so successful at home, to its (belated) efforts to spread democracy abroad. It should not be turning itself into a fearsome giant that pretends that technology has made love, identity, and history obsolete. Just like in every fairy tale, at the end a single human child will defeat it.

***
© Matthew Maly, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

June 2, 2004 at 07:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

"Letters from the New World (South Africa)."
Denis Beckett
#5:"Che Guevara vs. Paul Theroux on Africa"

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About Denis Beckett
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(Note: The following is the fifth in a series of essays by Denis Beckett, one of South Africa's best-known journalists, and a Submerging Markets Contributing Editor. Here, Denis offers his reactions to Paul Theroux's latest "travelogue" on Africa, and compares that with a little-known new release of Che Guevara's African diaries, recounting his experiences forty years ago in Guinea Bissau and the Congo. Denis' latest book is the highly-acclaimed Redeeming Features. (London: Penguin Books, 2004.))

CHE VS. THEROUX ON AFRICA

A t an airport bookshop I recently saw a strange paperback called The African Dream, purporting to be Che Guevara’s Congo diary. It had an odd cover and an odd imprint and I took it as a skit. Imagine, pretending that history’s most public revolutionary could have had a secret life in Africa, written up but then hidden away for forty years. Who were they kidding?
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My flight to Kampala was called. I took up Paul Theroux’s new odyssey on Africa and got in the queue to pay for it. At the counter, in mid purchase, annoying the people behind, a whim overtook me. What was this nonsense about Che and Africa? I ran to grab it.

Two hours later my eyelids were heavy with Theroux. It was an okay book, but over-familiar. Once again, I felt, the sleepwalk about Africa. Treatment of it was so orthodox; one-dimensional: plucky poor continent trails behind the march of nations.

Were we horses in blinkers, seeing only centre-field? Africa is about extremes, both extremes. The warm acceptance of a Kampala bus against the social iceberg of a London train is not a trailing-behind, it’s a far-ahead. But when public policy turns farms that provided crops and livelihoods into wastelands, that is not trailing behind either. It’s sabotage, destruction by edict.

In Theroux, true to My Trip To Africa fashion, the glory was half recognised and the shambles half acknowledged. A new view was surely being born somewhere, to break logjams and shed blinkers, but so far the new view was behind a bush, sensed but not seen.

Putting Theroux in the seat pocket I encountered my other purchase, and took it up for a five-minute unravelling before falling asleep.

When we landed I was 200% awake and could not stop reading, even in the passport queue with heatsweat dripping on Che’s words.

Che’s African Dream is for real, and was suppressed. That’s because Che does not say of Africa what a good communist is meant to say, i.e., forward the oppressed. He says, in 244 pages: this place is hopeless beyond belief.

In due course the book will surely become an exhibit in re: understanding Africa. When it does, I foresee two consequences. One, an end to the radical-chic view of Che, replaced by deep respect. Two, a gear-change in thinking on Africa. Today’s issues, like colour coding and alien disposal, will be in Comedy Showcase. All hands will be on deck to get Joe Africa actually moving forward rather than being perpetually assured that he should be moving forward.

But due course is not tomorrow. This exhibit is too sore to behold, as yet. Finishing Che in the Speke Hotel that night, I thought that there’d be plays and movies based on his tale, in years ahead, well ahead, when Africa had become more interested in removing the causes of its inferiority complex than in denying the effects.

***

© Denis Beckett, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

June 1, 2004 at 06:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 31, 2004

"Letters from the New World (South Africa)."
Denis Beckett
#4:""Kill Bill" Comes to Joburg"

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(Note: The following is the fourth in a series of essays by Denis Beckett, one of South Africa's best-known journalists, and a Submerging Markets Contributing Editor. Here, Denis takes aim at one of the US' more unsavory exports, its hyper-violent films, as exemplified by "Kill Bill V. 1." This is not exclusively a US problem-- KB's highly-overrated blood-spattered director, Quentin Tarantino, was one of five judges for the Palm d'Or at Cannes this year. Denis' latest book is the highly-acclaimed Redeeming Features. (London: Penguin Books, 2004.))

KILL BILL COMES TO JOBURG

You’ve seen Kill Bill on the bus shelters – the blonde star in a grand prix tracksuit with a samurai sword. It’s all over the press, in phrases like “TARANTINO’S TRIUMPH -- PAGES 2, 3, 6 – 7, 10 & 12.” The word “brilliant” appears repeatedly, with superlatives, as in absolutely brilliant, amazingly brilliant, astoundingly brilliant.

The impression I got was of a violent movie, brilliantly handled so as to make the violence a light-hearted, merry kind of violence. Additional brilliance apparently lay in the “referencing” by which the film borrows techniques from prior films so filmgoers can have detective fun whispering “Look, Mabel! That’s from Slicing Off Noses, 1989.”

This was intriguing. If we in the print world “borrow”, we are called plagiarists and sent to the back doors of restaurants. The notion of cute violence left me a bit at sea. And I felt a pique on behalf of local films, to whom local ink is the difference between life and bankruptcy and who beg for attention. Was this Kill Bill that much better? I bought a movie ticket.

I lasted half an hour. I might have managed more if they provided sick-bags like on an airplane, but I’m not sure: I also had a pressing urge to shower, with lots of soap.

There were brilliant bits, I suppose. The gentle way a female voice sings the violent opening song is creepily brilliant. And the blood-splattering seemed sort of brilliantly done, the first dozen or so times. It splattered vividly, anyhow.

But I couldn’t see a basic, special brilliance, or what is brilliant in a mother being blood-splatteringly killed in front of her 4-year-old, or another mother being killed (with splatter) on the bed under which her daughter is hiding. Or in the daughter getting a turn to splat after “luckily”, I quote, discovering that her mother’s murderer is a pederast.

One scene imprinted itself: a male nurse hiring out the body of a comatose female patient, Vaseline thrown in leeringly. It’s effective, I grant, wedging like a gallstone in my memory lobe, but “brilliant”? I see sordid. I see sickening. I can’t see brilliant.

The world takes all kinds. Some people need brutality; it speeds their adrenalin. Fine, they’re welcome; rather have it on the screen than in the street (where if they saw a fraction of Kill Bill they’d be in trauma counselling for ten years.)

But these aren’t the only people. I might be a drip, a sissy and chicken, but I’m not unique. If I feel dirty watching this, so do other people, some of whom have been led to see this film as compulsory viewing, advancing mankind’s frontiers. Some are revolted but embarrassed to be revolted, and scared to admit they’re revolted. I think it’s they who laugh at the foulest scenes. Their heads say that what they’re watching is disgusting, but society says that what they’re watching is brilliant. They feel they must be inferior people, gutless or dull. So they don disguises, outdoing each other’s enthusiasm.

Why does society give them so one-way a message? Could some critics be caught in the same syndrome: “if I don’t enthuse over this film I’ll be derided as an inferior person, gutless or dull”? Even the few who denounce, denounce with escape hatches: it’s racist, because the white chick chops non-white heads off; or it’s boring, because its plot plods. Is there a taboo against saying what many viewers surely want to say, that the film is demeaning and psychopathic, and to wish to puke in your shoe is a healthy response?

I think something pathetic is on the go. Once, reviews had to uphold motherhood and apple pie. You couldn’t break out. When breaking out first became permissible, it was called freedom. Now the breaking out has become its own new prison. You don’t dare be seen to not push limits. People will think you’re off the pace.

It’s okay that weird tastes are in the world. There always have been. But that the taste for beauty, for honesty, for integrity, for humanity, for the things we inwardly want… that that taste is now a furtive thing and hidden, is wrong.

***

© Denis Beckett, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

May 31, 2004 at 07:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 09, 2004

04509.US Brutilitarianism Comes to Iraq
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Part II: The Roots of Brutality

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"No country has better motives for all the damage that it does."
--Graham Greene, 1956
“There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were "good guys" who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior.”
--Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. ...We have learned the art of equivocation and pretense. Experience has made us suspicious of others And kept us from being truthful and open. Are we still of any use?”
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and anti-fascist, 1937
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
-- Thomas Jefferson


In the midst of all the hoopla and finger-pointing over Secretary Rumsfeld’s apology for the Iraqi prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, we seem to have avoided getting to the bottom of the fundamental question begged by all those ugly photos: why did it happen?

In other words, how could young American soldiers, raised in a nominally democratic, civilized “Judeo-Christian” society, and members of the world's most advanced military, which has no business being in Iraq if not to “liberate” it from precisely this kind of oppression, come to act in this way?

From this angle, whether or not Rumsfeld or a few military commanders resign is beside the point – a juicy chance for Senator Kerry and his supporters to make political hay, perhaps, but largely irrelevant to our understanding of these disturbing events and the prevention of their recurrence.

This is especially true if, as we will argue here, they may have been part and parcel of the very nature of this ethnically-divisive dirty little urban guerilla war.

ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS

At this point, the official US investigation, as well as press accounts, of the recent abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are incomplete. Already, however, there are several conflicting explanations.

“Exceptional Evil-Doers.” As noted in Part I of this series, the prevailing view of US officials is the “bad apple” theory -- in President Bush's words, "the wrongdoing of a few." This explanation -- which has deep roots in American culture, dating as least as far back as the Salem Witch trials, and is also at the heart of our conventional view of "terrorists" -- attributes the problem to brutal, distinctly “un-American” misbehavior by handful of “bad” people. In this view, this tiny group is clearly distinct from the vast majority of decent, Geneva Convention-abiding US military personnel. This explanation has been adopted by a wide variety of political and military leaders, from President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and General Myers to Senators MeCain, Kerry, and Clinton. It also appears to be the predominant view in the mainstream press, perhaps because it lends itself to the kind of lengthy profiles of soldiers that, for example, the New York Times and the Washington Post have both front-paged several times this week. It is also necessarily more comforting to supporters of the Iraq War -- including all the leaders and newspapers just mentioned -- who view this scandal as an embarrassing, unhelpful distraction from the immediate task at hand, which is to get on with "stabilizing" the security situation in Iraq (e.g., crushing the resistance).

This kind of explanation is a standard one for individual criminal conduct in general. Typically it locates the roots of abusive behavior in the supposed predispositions of particular abusers to commit them. The contributing dispositive factors may vary -- pathological or "authoritarian" personalities, genetic defects, retributions for perceived injustices, inadequate schooling, too much TV, weak role models, or Salem witchery, for all we know. Whatever these underlying, the indicated prescription focuses on identifying and and handling these “bad seeds,” and in this case, any individual commanders who may have also “failed” to supervise them.

(to be continued....)

May 9, 2004 at 02:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, April 26, 2004

426."Letters from the New World" (South Africa)
Denis Beckett
#3: "Hair Cut."

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(Note: The following is the third in a series of "Letters from the New World" from Denis Beckett, one of South Africa's best-known journalists, and our newest Contributing Editor. His latest book is the highly-acclaimed Redeeming Features. (London: Penguin Books, 2004.))

HAIR CUT

Scared? No, not scared, not really. You can’t be scared of a barber. Can you? True, this (South African) Shavathon was invented by sadists. True, going in wasn’t easy, past streams of bald guys coming out, clutching their heads in shell-shocked daze.

But that’s not “scared”, surely, so much as rational. A lifetime of long hair gives a ou identity, right? It instills a persona, a self-image, which has never been short hair, let alone no hair. Now you’re about to make the brushcut guys look like hippies. For sure you aren’t overjoyed.

But not “scared”, please. “Lunatic”, maybe. When they start to cut, red-alert clangs. This is the only mirrorless barber seat you ever met. Your head gets cold, in a way you never knew. Clumps of you slide down your shoulders, clumps not of plain untidy excess, but of what has been part of you since you were in nappies....

Your friends who did the easy option, the one-day green dye, are hosing themselves, pointing at you and high-fiving and slapping their sides like at Barry Hilton on the cuzzin routine.

There comes an instant that you can not believe this thing that you are doing. You feel central processing unit contacting your leg muscles with the instruction to bolt. But before the message downloads, the volunteer barber is shaking out the towel. They’re speedy here, whipping off the entire woolsack in 10% of the time that a real barber with mirrors takes to do a trim.

Rub the head, feel strange, be relieved by the touch of a film of stubble. It’s short, but it’s hair. Then the sadists guide you to the blades.

The blades. So far has been only Army-short. Kojak is yet to come. The blades are gonna abolish every wisp, everything but eyebrows.

You can choose to duck this, but a mad instinct says go the whole hog. Partly, there’s testosterone and rank order. The Kojaks are main manne, army-cuts come second and green-dyes are but honorary members of the human race. The other part is duty. Companies pay money to the Cancer Association for every bald head. Plus the world record, 55 000 heads in a day, is up for challenge, and it’s held by… Australia.

And hey, anyway, it’s just this once.

So the shaver lady sprays the lather. This time, it does take time. A head is a bigger thing than you think. A head-shave covers the acreage of six or ten face-shaves, and is a bumpier ride.

The end is shock. A hand ascends to explore, and recoils in instant horror. This is no longer foreign hair on a familiar pate. This is horror-story, feeling not like a head at all, any head, let alone the personal private head you’ve known since youth. It’s a lumpy sticky thing, foreign to the touch, as if a mother dinosaur plonked a reject misshapen egg on top of your neck.





You can choose to duck this, but a mad instinct says go the whole hog. Partly, there’s testosterone and rank order....The other part is duty. Companies pay money to the Cancer Association for every bald head. Plus the world record, 55 000 heads in a day, is up for challenge, and it’s held by… Australia.



A ou gets a skrik, but not as much as when the lady says: “there you are then. It nearly always grows back, even at your age. Just scrub the skin or it can grow inward.”

Nearly always? Can grow inward? This night was poor in sleep; strong in images of traumatised dead hair refusing to re-start, of trapped stalactite strands clutching downward and strangling the brain.
Furthermore, resting a newly bald head on a pillow is like rolling a brick on a croquet lawn. Hair is a lubricant; one of its less known virtues. Shining and slithery as the naked noggin appears, it glues to the
pillow. Each toss and each turn is a sticky, jerky, jolt.

But nightmares end. The second day the dogs stopped barking. By the third I could enter my bathroom without startling at the ugly bald stranger. By the fourth I ceased to instinctively reach for the hairbrush after the morning shower. Now my family are saying “quite nice, really”, and I’m relishing seeing the world from a short-hair vantage-point.

Sixty thousand bristly heads are walking around town feeling interconnected and a tiny bit smug. We were arm-twisted into it, yes, but whatever the motives, our haircuts brought packets into cancer support and brought us a flash of solidarity with a deeply real cause.

We give each other friendly recognising nods to say “we shared that scared moment, which we won’t admit to.” And the Aussies have come second at something.


***

© Denis Beckett, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004. All rights reserved. No reproduction without express consent of the author.

April 26, 2004 at 10:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 24, 2004

424."Letters from the New World" (South Africa)
Denis Beckett
#2: "Walk Tall."

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(Note from the Editor: The following is the second in a series of "Letters from the New World" from Denis Beckett, one of South Africa's best-known journalists, and our newest Contributing Editor. His latest book is the highly-acclaimed Redeeming Features. (London: Penguin Books, 2004.))

WALK TALL

In 1973 no-one was as non-apartheid as we all now like to think we were. Hiring the Smuts farm at Irene for a black staff picnic was a mission. Blacks? Little old United Party people in Moth badges wrung hands for weeks. They talked about “the natives”, and “raising expectations”.

But people were moving forward, groping, in that way they do. Permission was finally granted, subject to a stack of promises and guarantees nine yards high.

And everything went fine. Until lunchtime in the meat queue, when Walk Tall got aggrieved. In his view he’d been given an undersize portion, by a little old UP lady.

As the name suggests, Walk Tall was a toughie, a towering strong guy with attitude. He was also afloat in ingested substances. He drew a knife as long as a thigh, and informed the lady that he would cut off her ears to make up his protein.

At this point, you can imagine, picnic day came a little unstuck. Monday morning Walk Tall was contrite as well as hung over. I was sorry to sack him; normally he was a dynamo, and full of personality. But he had to go.

Fast forward 15 years. I’m in Anderson street, back end of town. On foot. It’s winter, it’s dusk, the air is thick with smoke. I’m alone, very alone. I’m vulnerable.

Suddenly there’s a gang around me. Instantly, I know this is farewell to my possessions. Perhaps it’s farewell to blood and breath too. Then I see that one of them is Walk Tall. My heart clangs on the tar. Day of vengeance! I telepath goodbyes to my loved ones.

Walk Tall stares, holding his pals back. Then he roars out my name. To my astonishment he’s not roaring in fury, but in tones you’d use for a long-lost brother. He grabs me – I get a close-up of a wicked blade, sideways on – and smothers me with a huge hug.

I’m introduced to the pals. Knives vanish and all four walk me to the Carlton Hotel. “You can’t walk alone!” says Walk Tall. “There are bad people here!”

On route he says he hasn’t had a job since I fired him. Once in the Carlton’s light I risk the question: doesn’t he perhaps bear ever so slight a bit of, uh, anger?

Walk Tall cracks up like I’ve made a great joke. “What! Angry! At you! No, you had to fire me! And you shook my hand!” The gang returns to the night, waving.





Having latched on to the high ground,Walk Tall has made it his life. You can practically see the halo. But this old world is full of rabbit punches. A year ago he got a job. A month ago he was told to take certain steps in re a collectable debt. In his old incarnation these steps were well in the day’s work. But this is the new moral Walk Tall. He says “I don’t do assault”, and he quits. And who gets the rap? Yeah, right. Me. “You’re the one who told me to stop doing crime, and I listened to you so now I have nothing to eat.”



Fast forward again, 12 years to 2000. Walk Tall re-appears. He has adventure stories that make Sinbad look stay-at-home. He also has a shining moral high point of his career, viz, having not killed me. His reasons have become complex enough to baffle Freud, wild flights into love and hate and black pride and conquering demons. But the outcome is clear. He has come to see Not Killing Beckett as a Nobel-deserving achievement, or at minimum worthy of eternal thanks.

I mention the mundane fact that six billion other people have also, to date, not killed me, but he is unfazed. He says 5 999 999 999 never had to do anything to not kill me; he alone stayed the knife. It is a bit different, I grant, but no way am I in lifelong debt because he aborted a crime he should never have started. He shakes his head, saddened that such callous ingratitude exists.

That subject remains an impasse, though we’ve tried several times to work it out. Once was on radio where he spoke grippingly about crime and white victims, the mugger’s eye view. People couldn’t stop listening. One guy missed a plane.

Having latched on to the high ground, Walk Tall has made it his life. You can practically see the halo. But this old world is full of rabbit punches. A year ago he got a job. A month ago he was told to take certain steps in re a collectable debt. In his old incarnation these steps were well in the day’s work. But this is the new moral Walk Tall. He says “I don’t do assault”, and he quits.

And who gets the rap? Yeah, right. Me. “You’re the one who told me to stop doing crime, and I listened to you so now I have nothing to eat.”

He hopes I’ll cough up in return for my unpunctured ribcage. I’ve told him to forget that, but another factor grows: all those parables about mercy and lost sheep and returned prodigals. Isn’t that how we’re supposed to live, giving a chance to a guy who reforms? Why do all the reformed sheep I see seem to be staring at slammed doors? Somewhere there’s an employer-type person who believes in reformed characters or in happy endings or in both, and who might communicate with (the name on the ID), at (Joburg address.)

***

© Denis Beckett, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004. All rights reserved. No reproduction without express consent of the author.

April 24, 2004 at 09:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 22, 2004

422."Letters from the New World" (South Africa)
Denis Beckett
#1: "Return."

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(Note from the Editor: The following is the first in a series of "Letters from the New World" from Denis Beckett, one of South Africa's best-known journalists. At a time when a great many countries are struggling just to make ends meet and keep hopes for democratic development alive, South Africa has just held its third democratic election in a row. True, it has more than its share of serious challenges, from crime and corruption to inequality, HIV/AIDs, unemployment, and lingering racism. But as Denis' extraordinary eye for individual stories makes clear, it is also a place where a huge number of people of all races are excited to get up in the morning, meet and greet each other, and pitch in together to build a new and better country. That's a spirit that many of us in the so-called "developed world" may well look to with some degree of jealousy. Denis' latest book is the highly-acclaimed Redeeming Features. (London: Penguin Books, 2004.))

RETURN

When she left for Australia, Joy cited all the regular reasons, crime and decline and Africa’s uncertainties. She got a nice job in Sydney, and lots of peace and security, and nobody stole the paper from public toilets, never mind the seats.

But Joy’s six siblings in Jo’burg made much reason for many visits. From time to time she’d get a sense that in South Africa she felt the sun on her face in a warmer way.

She kept it quiet, of course. Men in white coats would come. Aus was for The Chosen..

One day Joy and her laaitie, Luke, were at the jungle-gym at the Zoo Lake. This is a very individual jungle gym. It didn’t come out of a box, with plastic fittings. It came out of a forest, big solid logs. It’s the gorilla of jungle gyms, a cousin of the army’s combat training courses, high on opportunity for kids to break arms and bash heads.

Luke was nervous. This was a fearsome thing, after the park at home in Sydney. That park was lawsuit proof, waxed and pasteurised and shrinkwrapped, certified safety precautions at every hinge.
But as he got into it Joy noticed a strange thing: he was having more fun. In fact, she was having more fun too.

She was enjoying this pre-waxed Africa-type park, and enjoying Luke enjoying it. Also, people greeted Luke, and greeted her, and talked to her, sommer, as in “a stranger’s a friend you do not know”. In the waxed world, thought Joy, that was stuff you heard in church. To walk up in a spirit of “hullo, friend I do not know” … you’d get a harassment charge.

On a train in Cape Town an old man befriended Luke, like a grandad, sharing sweets and games, as if Joy wasn’t there. And the conductor ad libbed. Each time he called the route he gave her a wink and a last line like “and enjoy the ride.” It struck Joy that if his Aussie counterpart broke the rules like that, there’d be disciplinary hearings.

A touring black school group and their teacher include Luke as an honorary member. Joy asks the teacher why. She’s implying: “he pays you no fees and no bonus, why should you bother?” She’s also implying, deeper down: “and what is more he’s not even your, um, race”. The teacher replies: “children are our future”. Full stop.

Joy returns to Aus. After a year there, she tallies how many strangers interacted with Luke. Answer = two. In South Africa, she reckons, it’d be hundreds, mainly of course blacks, the pastmasters, but some of the pale lot as well. That was a thing about SA’s new freedoms; the whites were picking up the good habits of Africa, by osmosis.

Joy mumbles about a return to SA. Everybody says What! You crazy? Not only the Aussies say that, so do Seffricans. She feels very alone. Is she crazy? Someone points her to www.homecomingrevolution.co.za, and she’s astounded. Lots of South Africans are going home. That fortifies her, but people say: “To indulge yourself you’re inflicting crime and decline and dead-end-for-whites on your innocent son.” She says: “No, that’s exactly wrong, it’s for my son, so he can grow up enriched by the human connectivity of Africa.” The chorus: What! You crazy?

Joy knows she’s right, in her bones, but damn, she’s scared. The chorus says: “at least put him in private school”. She can’t afford it. Everyone insists a SA government school will doom Luke to placards on street corners. She nearly chickens out. Then her Jo’burg teacher friend Dale phones to say “you’re hearing junk, you want to be here, block your ears and get here.” She did.

Last week Luke’s government school asked Joy if she could do transport, for an outing. She burst into tears. They were surprised. She explained. She’d love to help with transport. She wasn’t allowed, before. Only designated buses and certified drivers carry Aus school outings. No cowboy stuff like Mom’s Taxi.
“I realised”, says Joy, “that I like the cowboy stuff. I like a world with loose ends. I like a world that isn’t all comfort zone. And I like being required to give. It’s not ideal that so many are in need, but for me it’s better to have to give than to never give. You think bigger.”

You do, hey. You think frinstance that we may never be the world’s richest country or continent, or the calmest, or even the kings of the pitch. But heck, we can be the nicest.

***

© Denis Beckett, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004. All rights reserved. No reproduction without express consent of the author.

April 22, 2004 at 09:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 01, 2004

"The Worst April Fool's Joke Ever:"
Brazil's 1964 Coup
The Foundations of Regressive Development

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April 1, 2004 is not only April Fools Day in the US and Europe. It is also the fortieth anniversary of the worst April Fools’ joke ever,” as many Brazilians called it, the 1964 US-backed military coup in Brazil that overthrew the constitutional, democratically-mandated government of its populist President, João Goulart.

This coup led directly to 21 years of disastrous rule by Brazil’s military. During that period, the military cracked down sharply on all political opposition, independent trade unions, and critical media. It also piled up one of the world’s largest foreign debts, tried to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, and pursued a national development strategy that favored the construction of huge, poorly-planned but highly lucrative hydro dams, Amazonian highways, and nuclear plants over investment in education and other basic human needs.

As described in more detail in the following excerpt from The Blood Bankers, all this proved to be very profitable for the officials, generals, and foreign and domestic bankers that catered to the regime’s needs.

But it also created a legacy of distorted development, poverty, concentrated land and media ownership, deforestation, environmental pollution, high-level corruption, and inequality, as well as a culture of violence and disregard for human rights.

Fortunately, Brazil, a country with 182 million people that accounts for more than two-thirds of South America's entire economy, returned to civilian rule in 1985. But it still struggles with most of these problems to this day.

As the following account makes clear, the US Government was deeply involved in encouraging the coup at the highest levels -- n.b. recently-declassified White House tapes and documents. Once in power, Brazil’s military also played a crucial role in the empowerment of right-wing regimes in several other Latin American countries, including Bolivia and Uruguay. Indeed, top US policymakers viewed Brazil’s military as a very useful agent, which could be used to impart a hard right spin to political development all over the Southern Hemisphere.

The standard apology for all this is that it was the price that had to be paid to contain the global Communist menace. When examined carefully in the bright light of day, this excuse turns out to be a canard. The fact is that Brazil never faced a serious revolutionary threat from the Left; that Goulart and his supporters were at worst populist, nationalistic land-reformers and union supporters; that the generals and their friends in Brazil's elite systematically exaggerated the leftist threat in order to justify their appetite for power, which gave many of them offshore bank accounts; that Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and, later on, Nixon, were completely spooked by the Castro fiasco into overreacting to such populists all over the Third World; that the Brazilian coup completely undermined the rule of law, labor unions, human rights, and political freedoms for many years; and that it also led to decades of short-sighted economic policies that damaged millions of lives.

In short, if we really want to understand the roots of Latin America's comparative poverty, inequality, violent culture, and distorted development, as well as why many Latin Americans do not necessarily share the gringos' high esteem for their own role in history, the story of Brazil's 1964 military coup is a good place to start.

FOUNDATIONS

One long-time Brazilian banker recalled that at that time (the early 1960s) JPMorgan's position in Latin America was “essentially nowhere.” Years earlier, of course, it had been one of the first U.S. banks to do international banking. In the l880s, J.P. Morgan Sr. acquired Morgan et Cie in France and a third of London’s Morgan Grenfell, and in l908 the bank added Guaranty Trust Company, which had French, Belgian, and UK branches. From l890 to l930 Morgan floated more Latin American bonds than any other bank. But from the Depression until the l950s it had largely neglected Latin America. By l964, its entire Mexican exposure was only $15 million, and its Brazilian exposure just $50 million, and Morgan’s Latin American group was run by people who were ”not very aggressive....bright but not out-going.....(the head) would show up in Rio and wait at his hotel for clients to call on him.” Of the group’s five bankers, only Fred Vinton, the son of a long-time Citibank rep in Buenos Aires, had ever lived in Latin America. Citibank, Chase, and Bank of Boston all had local branches in Rio and São Paulo, but not Morgan.
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Kubitschek

Of course, at the time, Brazil was viewed as quite a risky place to do banking. Juscelino Kubitschek, the country's President from l955 to l961, had embarked on an ambitious ”Fifty Years in Five” program, promoting industrialization and huge projects like Brasilia, the new federal capital in the remote state of Goiás, that was aptly described as “the revenge of a Communist architect against bourgeois society.” Kubitschek’s program produced five years of 7 percent growth, unprecedented corruption, and the Third World's largest debt, $2.54 billion by l960. That may not sound like much now, but it consumed forty percent of Brazil’s export earnings. In l961, Janio da Silva Quadros, Kubitschek's successor condemned this debt in terms that later generations would fully understand:

All this money, spent with so much publicity, we must now raise bitterly, patiently, dollar by dollar and cruzeiro by cruzeiro. We have spent, drawing on our future to a greater extent than the imagination dares to contemplate.
Kubitschek’s excesses provoked a conservative reaction. In 1960, Quadros, a former Governor of São Paulo, ran for President on an anti-corruption platform with a broom as his symbol. He was elected, and took office in January 1961. His Finance Minister, a wealthy banker, quickly signed a tough IMF agreement that agreed to devalue the currency, slash subsidies, and repay the debt. quadros.jpg
Janio Quadros

But Janio Quadros soon proved to be one of Brazil’s weirdest leaders. He also tried to ban horse racing, boxing matches, and bikinis on the beach, and when the U.S. pressured him to embargo Castro, he defiantly journeyed to Havana and awarded Che Guevara the Ordem do Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil's equivalent of the Legion d'Honeur. At one point early in his term he had been visited by Adolfe Berle, Jr., President Kennedy’s special assistant on Latin America. Kennedy was quietly seeking Quadros’ support for the upcoming Bay of Pigs invasion. According to John M. Cabot, the US Ambassador to Brazil at the time, Berle effectively offered “Brazil” a $300 million bribe in return for cooperation. But Quadros became “visibly irritated” after Berle ignored his third rejection, and sent Berle off to the airport unaccompanied. A few months later, in August 1961, Quadros resigned, complaining of being surrounded by ”terrible forces,” and blamed his downfall on a cabal that included “reactionaries” Berle, Cabot, and US Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon.
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Goulart and Kennedy

This allowed the succession of João Goulart, Janio’s Vice President, a wealthy populist cattle farmer from Rio Grande do Sul. Goulart visited the US in April 1962, addressed a joint session of Congress, and received a ticker tape parade in New York City. But he immediately proceeded to alienate every key interest group at once, launching an aggressive land reform, boosting taxes on foreign investors, nationalizing utilities and oil refineries, and even encouraging enlisted men in the Army to organize a union. Inflation soared to the unheard-of level of 100 percent, exhausting four Finance Ministers in two years. All this was a splendid recipe for counterrevolution -- Brazil’s usually fractitious military leaders banded together and organized a coup, was supported by business, most of the “middle class,” and the U.S., which spent tens of millions of dollars on a covert ant-Goulart media campaign. In l963, Goulart's second Finance Minister visited Washington and asserted that the left-leaning regime’s social reforms had been inspired by President Kennedy’s so-called "Alliance for Progress" But he received a cold shoulder -- the US aid window closed down until April 1964, after the coup. As early as l962 U.S. intelligence had warned of coup preparations, and was more than sympathetic. As David Rockefeller, who was at that point the President of his family’s bank, Chase Manhattan, told a closed-door conference at West Point in the fall of l964, ”It was decided very early that Goulart was unacceptable....and would have to go.”

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Amb. Gordon

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Ball and Johnson

A newly-declassified audio tape, recorded by the White House taping system on March 31, 1964, just as the coup was just beginning to unfold, shows President Lyndon Johnson personally involved in reviewing US support for the coup, and monitoring the latest developments. In a phone conversation with Undersecretary of State George Ball, who was coordinating US activities, Johnson expressed support for aggressive action: "I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do, just as we were in Panama if that is at all feasible. I’d put everybody who had any imagination or ingenuity in (Ambassador) Gordon’s outfit or (CIA Director) McCone’s or yours or (Secretary of Defense) McNamara’s. We just can’t take this one, and I’d get right on top of it and stick my neck out a little.” US Undersecretary of State George Ball: That’s our own feeling about it, and we’ve gotten it well organized.”

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The April 1, 1964, coup that followed -- ”the worst April Fool's joke ever” -- was led by General Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco, commander of the Fourth Army in Recife. During World War II, he had served with Brazil’s Expeditionary Force, which fought with the Allies in Italy. His “trench buddy” there was Colonel Vernon A. Walters, the U.S. “military attaché” from September 20, l962 to l967, who would later be promoted to Lt. General for his accomplishments in Brazil, and then move on to serve as senior CIA officer, the CIA’s Deputy Director from March 1972 to 1976, and Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador in the 1980s. Colonel Walters spoke fluent Portuguese and also very close to General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, head of Brazil’s Black Eagles military school during the 1964 coup, then military attaché to Washington (64-65), head of Brazil’s CIA, the “Serviço Nacional de Informaçoes (SNI)” from 1967 to 1969, and then Brazil’s President, courtesy of the junta.
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General Walters

During the coup, Castello kept both General Walters and U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon “very well-informed of pre-coup deliberations,” a US Navy “fast” Carrier Task Group was standing by offshore, and six US Air Force C-135 transport plants with 110 tons of arms and ammunition were standing by, in case there was any resistance. Fortunately, the coup was almost bloodless, although there would be many disappearances, deaths, and cases of political torture during the 21 years that followed.

Castello Branco was supposed to step down after a short period of housecleaning, but Brazil’s military proved to be a better master than a maid -- it stayed in power from l964 to l985. At first, Castello turned the economy over to Octavio Bulhões, an academic-cum-Finance Minister, and Roberto Campos, a U.S.-educated ex-Jesuit and former head of Brazil’s powerful National Development Bank (BNDES), who became Planning Minister. Their reign from April l964 to March l967 was the first in a series of rather disappointing Latin American experiments with monetarism, the notion that controlling the money supply was the sine qua non of economic policy. To fight inflation, they reigned in credit, slashed spending (which they viewed as driving money growth, because the government was financing by selling bonds to the banking system) , and opened the door to imports. They also eased restrictions on foreign investment, eliminated taxes on foreign profits, and outlawed strikes. Dozens of labor leaders were jailed, and wages were frozen, although inflation was still raging at forty percent a year. But the regime was careful to protect investors against inflation by indexing bonds and bank deposits. A new capital markets law also created Brazil’s first investment banks and provided “the most sophisticated company law in Latin America.” In l965, in an attempt to control the money supply, Campos also created Brazil’s first Central Bank and a National Monetary Authority.

All these conservative measures went down rather well with bankers and the U.S. government. Regardless of who staged the coup, it soon became quite clear who would pay for it. From l964 to l970, Brazil got more than $2 billion of U.S. aid, which made it the third largest aid recipient in the world. About $900 million of this arrived in the first six months after the coup -- in l964, after the coup, the U.S. Treasury paid seventy percent of the interest due on Brazil's debt. In July 1964, Brazil also signed another IMF agreement, and in the next three years it got $214 million of IMF loans, which had been zero from l959 to l964. Brazil also suddenly became the World Bank’s largest customer, after getting no loans at all from 1950 to l965, as well as the largest borrower the IDB and from our old friends, the US EX-IM Bank. From l964 to 1970, direct investment by American companies increased fifty percent. In January l967, the IMF held its 22nd convention in Rio, presided over by General Artur Costa e Silva, a former War Minister and Castello Branco's successor.
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General Golbery

Unfortunately for the majority of Brazilians living in poverty, most of this aid went to pay for budget deficits, planning exercises, and capital-intensive projects -- original Alliance for Progress objectives like “eliminating illiteracy from Latin America by l970” and “income redistribution” got short shrift. The real value of the minimum wage dropped by one-fourth from l964 to l967, and malnutrition and infant mortality rose dramatically. Domestic industry was hit by foreign competition and a recession at once, even as multinationals were getting cheap finance and lower taxes. Many foreign investors also got ”sweetheart” deals -- Campos was especially generous to Amforp, an American-owned utility, and in l965 the American billionaire Donald Ludwig was allowed to buy an Amazon forest tract twenty percent larger than Connecticut for $3 million. General Artur Golbery Couto e Silva, the military’s “gray eminence,” later became President of Dow Chemical do Brasil and a representative of Dow’s Banco Cidade. A top professor at the Escola Superior de Guerra, Brazil’s version of the National War College, and the author of the seminal Geopolitica do Brasil, in the early 1960s Golbery had used CIA funding to launch the Institute for Research and Social Studies (Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Sociais--IPES), the SNI’s precursor. Over the next two decades, the SNI would employ more than 50,000 people to spy on and otherwise deal with “subversives” at home and abroad. Golbery later served as head of the Casa Civil, a key aid to President Ernesto Geisel. Not surprisingly, along the way, Dow Chemical got special permission for a new plant in Bahia.

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Roberto Campos

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Ernesto Geisel

Soon, even nationalist critics started attacking Roberto Campos' program as a ”pastoral plan” designed by Americans to eliminate domestic industry -- he became widely known as ”Bob Fields,” “a full-time entreguista.” In l964, a popular Rio bumper sticker said, “Enough of intermediaries! -- (U.S. Ambassador) Lincoln Gordon for President!” In l966, the U.S. Ambassador complained that American advisors were implicated in ”almost every unpopular decision concerning taxes, salaries and prices.”

In October 1965, in the last free elections until l982, the military’s candidates for state governorships in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais were defeated. Workers, students, and church organizers turned radical, and several civilian leaders who had supported the coup, including Magalhães Pinto and Carlos Lacerda, also pressed for new elections. There was a sharp increase in capital flight -- in 1966 Brazilians sent more money abroad than all the new foreign investment and foreign aid brought in. The nationalists in the military also began to treat the “internationalist” segments of the upper classes harshly -- they unleashed a spy operation to catch wealthy Brazilians who had foreign accounts. In November 1966 the police, assisted by Brazil’s intelligence service, the SNI, under the command of General Fiuza de Castro, raided the offices of Bernie Cornfeld's Swiss-based I.O.S. flight capital operation in seven cities, arrested 13 salesmen, and seized files on 10,000 clients.
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Costa e Silva

All this set the stage for a hard-line backlash, led by members of the military who believed that the castellistas were selling out to foreigners and were not tough enough on subversivos. In late l966, Castello Branco gave way to the IMF’s favorite, General Costa e Silva. Political parties were consolidated into a ”majority” party, ARENA, and an official ”opposition” party, the PMB -- as they soon came to be known in the underground, the parties of ”yes” and ”yes sir.” Many opposition politicians, union leaders, and students were stripped of their civil rights. In December 1968, when a federal deputy asked Brazilian women to stop having sex with military officers until political repression ceased, the Army demanded that Congress lift the fellow’s immunity so he could be prosecuted for “insulting the Armed Forces.” When the Congress refused, Costa e Silva closed it, disbanded state assemblies and city councils, suspended habeas corpus, and imposed press censorship. Dictatorial niceties like arrests without warrant and torture now became common, while elections were reduced to ratifications of the military’s “bionic” candidates.

As for Roberto Campos, in March l967 he moved over to the private sector, giving way to a more dirigiste economic team. He never again exercised much power, although he served as Ambassador to England in the mid-1970s. His l982 diary reads like a “Who’s Who” of prominent Brazilians and Americans. Tony Gebauer was one of the friends listed there. But unlike some of his successors, apparently Roberto Campos didn’t do his private banking at Morgan -- the diary lists accounts at Geneva’s Pictet et Cie and Trade Development Bank, whose founder, Edmond Safra, also founded Republic Bank of New York and Safra Bank, and was an old Campos acquaintance.

So by 1967, Brazil was thus well on its way to becoming a marshal law state. With the support and guidance of the US government, a left-leaning, if democratically-elected, government had been vanquished, and a right-wing dictatorship put in its place. Especially after 1968, until the mid 1970s, the level of repression increased, and the number of political opponents who were murdered or “disappeared” reached into the low thousands. This was modest, compared with what went on in Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay, , but Brazil made up for the body count by sharing its early experiences with these countries. (See below.)

DICTATORSHIP OF THE IMAGINATION

While Brazil’s military deserved much of the credit for this new system, the US national security apparatus also played a key role. One of its crucial long-term influences was a variation on the “Mighty Wurlitzer” concept that it had pioneered with great success in France, Italy, Germany, and Japan in the 1940s and 1950s, and continues to use right up to the present in places like post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Philippines.

This was to develop a nation-wide media network that could be used to shape public opinion. In 1964, an energetic, personable young Time-Life executive named Joe Wallach went to work with Roberto Marinho, a Brazilian businessman who at that point was running a newspaper and a local TV station in Rio. Wallach, didn’t speak any Portuguese at the time, but he had a background in TV production and accounting in California. Suddenly he became O Globo’s Executive Director. “Time-Life” also invested $4 million -$6 million in a joint venture with Globo, a great deal of money for that time, which helped Globo buy up concessions and steal a march on its competitors. “Time-Life” and its friends also encouraged multinationals to direct advertising to Globo, which soon came to run a kind of advertising cartel. Meanwhile, Globo also was careful to take a pro-government line in its reporting – cynics came to refer to it as “The Ministry of Information.”

All this, plus the special licenses for satellite broadcasting, radio, and local stations that it received again and again from the government, made Globo prosper. Over the next twenty-five years, under Wallach’s leadership, TV Globo became the world’s fourth largest TV network. The deal was rather simple – Globo provided favorable coverage to its political allies, and they helped it get the TV, satellite broadcasting, radio, and cable concessions that it needed to keep growing. In special cases, the politicians and their families also shared in the ownership of these “goodies,” as we’ll see below.

Over the next three decades, Globo became one of the most politically-influential media empires in the developing world – by 1990 it owned 78 stations in Brazil, with more than 50 million viewers in Brazil alone, ad revenue of $600 million a year, 8,000 employees, more than 30 subsidiaries in Italy, Portugal, Cuba, Japan, and other countries, and it was producing and exporting TV programming to 112 countries. Furthermore, even after Brazil returned to democracy in 1985, Globo continued to exert strong influence over political selection of many key political leaders, including several Presidents. All along, it was a consistent opponent of candidates that it perceived as threats to the system, often using blatant propaganda to influence elections, as in the hard-fought 1989 Presidential race between Lula and Fernando Collor.

Only in 2001-2002, long after Wallach had retired and Roberto Marinho had passed the empire on to his evidently less-able sons, would Globo’s disappointments in Internet and cable investments and crushing foreign debts finally bring it down to earth – not unlike the similar fate that befell its original partners at “Time-Life,” now part of the hapless AOL Time Warner conglomerate. The Marinho family’s estimated wealth on the Forbes’ annual billionaire survey peaked at $6.4 billion in 2000, with the Internet’s peak. By 2002 they were down to their last $1 billion, barely eligible for a mention on the Forbes list.

Even then, however, Globo still would try to use its political influence as currency. In the 2002 Presidential race, in a move that must have made its original partners turn circles in their graves, Globo for the first time threw its support to Lula, the left-wing candidate, who ended up finally winning on this fourth try for office. Evidently, having backed the “system” that, as we’ll soon see, ultimately made Brazil the world’s largest debtor, Globo was hoping for some government relief from its own crushing foreign debts.

BANKING ON THE STATE

In any case, in addition to military action and media support, the top-down development strategy adopted by Brazil’s military and its foreign allies in the 1960s also had a crucial economic component. At first glance – and indeed, at second – this strategy was a little hard to reconcile with free-market principles and democratic rule. But it cleared the way for bankers like Tony to earn huge fortunes. As Auden says, “When there was peace, he was for peace. When there was war, he went.” These bankers joined forces with a corrupt coalition of officials, industrialists, and agro-exporters to support a new debt-intensive strategy that was designed and implemented by a powerful new Minister also named Antonio, who became one of JPMorgan's Tony Gebauer’s closest friends of all.

Antonio Delfim Neto was an extremely fat academic-cum-bureaucrat from a middle-class Italian family in São Paulo. In the l950s, he wrote a brilliant Ph.D. dissertation on the coffee industry and taught macroeconomics at the University of São Paulo (U.S.P.). In the l960s he was a consultant to Ralph Rosenberg, whose Ultra Group was the largest private investor in Petrobras, as well as Antonio Carlos de Almeida Braga, the owner of Bradesco, Brazil's largest bank, and Pedro Conde, another bank owner. From 1963 to l967, Delfim, in his late thirties, advised São Paulo governors Carvalho Pinto and Lauro Natel, who was on leave from Bradesco. Then, from l967 to 1985, Delfim came to wield more influence over the economy than anyone before or since.

He was as quick-witted as Campos, but most of his success was due to a lack of ideology. As Delfim said in l969, “I am not going to sacrifice development only to pass into history as someone who defeated inflation at any cost.” He was the grand master of bureaucratic infighting, inserting his “Delfim boys,” mostly U.S.P.-trained economists, into key positions all over the government, where they operated a kind of Florentine patronage system, keeping a running tally of favors owed to important people. “I was in the office of (an important banker) when Delfim called. He needed $5 million right away,” one banker recalled. “The only argument was how to get it to him. We knew he'd make it up to us.” In a country where most ministers rotated quickly, this network of favors and influence earned Delfim unusual longetivity. He was Finance Minister in l969-74, Ambassador to France in l974-78, Minister of Agriculture in l979, Planning Minister in l979-85, and even after civilian rule returned in l985, an important behind-the-scenes leader in Congress, where he also enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Among those responsible for Brazil's massive debt burden in the 1980s, only Tony Gebauer enjoyed similar continuity.

In August 1969, General Costa e Silva died of a stroke, after learning that his wife had helped deliver Brasilia’s telephone exchange contract to Ericsson, a Swedish company that bribed its way all over Latin America. Vernon Walter’s friend, the even-more hawkish General Emilio Medici (1969-74), then took over, and some of Delfim’s critics seized the opportunity to accuse Delfim of corruption. But he was so popular with all his other “clients” that Delfim was soon reappointed. He promised Medici, echoing the grandiose Kubitschek in the 1950s, “Give me a year and I will give you a decade.”

Medici.jpg General Medici

Meanwhile, from a national security standpoint, Medici was exactly what Brazil’s US allies were looking for – he visited Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and General Walters in December 1971. In the meeting just two weeks later with Secretary of State William Rogers, recorded in a transcript only just released by the National Archives in 2002, Nixon described Medici in glowing terms:

  • Rogers: “Yeah, I think this Médici thing is a good idea. I had a very good time with him at lunch and he…”
  • Nixon: “He’s quite a fellow, isn’t he?”
  • Rogers: “He is. God, I’m glad he’s on our side.”
  • Nixon: “Strong and, uh, you know…(laughs)…you know, I wish he were running the whole continent.”
  • Rogers: “I do, too. We got to help Bolivia. He’s concerned about that. We got to be sure to…”
  • Nixon: “Incidentally, the Uruguayan thing, apparently he helped a bit there…”

The “Uruguayan thing” was clarified in another transcript, recently released, of a Nixon conversation with Britain’s Prime Minister Edward Heath that same month. According to Nixon, “The Brazilians helped rig the Uruguayan election…Our position is supported by Brazil, which is after all the key to the future. ”(emphasis added.) He was referring to the November 28, 1971, elections, in which Uruguay’s Frente Amplio, a coalition of left-leaning political parties not unlike Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile, had been defeated by the right-wing Colorado Party. The result was indeed unexpected, and evidently Medici had had a key role in it.

In March, 1972, the Colorado’s new right-wing President Bordaberry, gave Uruguay’s security forces a green light to go not only after the Tupamaros, Uruguay’s urban guerillas, but also against its labor unions, student associations, and political opponents. In June 1973 the military made Bordaberry a puppet, and in 1976 took complete power, following in Brazil’s footsteps. The result was a bloodbath that anticipated the thousands of political murders that later occurred in Chile, after Allende’s demise in September 1973, and in Argentina after its military seized power in 1976. By then, Uruguay, a country with just 3 million people that had once been known as “the Switzerland of Latin America,” had become its torture chamber, with more political prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. Like Brazil, once gone, civilian government did not return to Uruguay until 1985.

According to other newly-released documents, General Medici had also assisted with the right-wing in Bolivia in August 1971. More generally, it has recently become clear that Brazil’s military, with US support and coordination from the US, played a key role in training and guiding the repression that went on in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia in the late 1960s and 1970s. As one scholar noted, “Brazil had a head-start on terror.” Even prominent journalists, like Waldimoro Herzog, who was murdered by the Brazilian regime in 1975, were not safe.
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Indeed, one of the victims may even have been former President João “Jango” Goulart himself, who died in 1976 of a curious “heart attack” at the age of 58, at his ranch in Parana. Goulart’s family had long suspected that he’d been murdered by the military. In 2000, Brazil’s Congress finally got around to starting an official investigation of the death. Of course Brazilian Presidents have a history of unfortunate endings – Juscelino Kubitschek, Quadros’ predecessor, also died in 1976, in a car accident, and Tancredo Neves, the first civilian President after military rule ended in 1985, died after three months in office.

In any case, whether or not the “domino theory” really ever applied to Communist revolutions, clearly it worked quite well with respect to these Latin American right-wing regimes. And their US patrons discovered that with only a little nudge, one big domino – “the key to the future” – could wield extraordinary influence.

***


© James S. Henry, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

1 The above is an excerpt from James S. Henry, The Blood Bankers. Tales from the Global Underground Economy. (New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, December 2003, 417 pp.)

April 1, 2004 at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The Drug Wars. Part One: The CIA Finally Gets One Right! September 2000 Intelligence Report: "PLAN COLOMBIA May Not Work!"


ByJeremy Bigwood and James S. Henry


Printable PDF File

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As noted in Submerging Markets™' recent piece on Intelligence Failures, these are tough times indeed for the CIA and the other 13-14 members of the US intelligence community. Lest the CIA perceive that it gets no respect, however, we have recently surfaced one case where it may have done a much better job -- at least with respect to the Colombian cocaine trade, an arena where some cynics have occasionally accused the Agency of having first-hand experience. Even in this case, however, the Agency's foresight appears to have been largely wasted on its political bosses. Instead, the US Government has embarked on a really quite radical policy of increased intervention that is having profound consequences throughout Latin America.

The case in point is a September 2000 CIA Intelligence Report on "Plan Colombia," the multi-billion dollar drug eradication, counter-narcotics, and counterinsurgency program that was established since then by the Colombian Government, with the help of more than $3.13 billion of US military and economic aid – including $743 million this year alone, and up to $688 million for 2004, more than half of all US total aid to Latin America. Indeed, Colombia now ranks third in world among all US foreign aid recipients, behind only Israel and Egypt.
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Clinton and Pastrana

This report, recently obtained by Submerging Markets™' Contributing Editor Jeremy Bigwood under a US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, was prepared by the CIA’s DCI Crime and Narcotics Center for top members of the US government, including President Clinton’s National Security Council, the Secretary of Defense, and the US Drug Czar’s office. These officials and their successors under President Bush have always expressed great confidence in Plan Colombia’s ability to reduce coca production and curb cocaine trafficking, and also to help defeat narco-terrorism and bring peace, economic development, and social justice to Colombia, where an increasing proportion of the population -- up to 60 percent -- dwells in poverty.
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This CIA document, "Plan Colombia’s Potential Impact on the Andean Cocaine Trade: An Examination
of Two Scenarios,"
raises serious doubts about all these expectations. It suggests that, even apart from its other harmful side-effects, Plan Colombia may actually just spread coca production and cocaine trafficking, as well as political instability and even guerilla activity, to other parts of Colombia, and to other Andean countries like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela.

That conclusion supports those critics who have long maintained that the supply of coca is very elastic, so that it defies any simple “supply-side” cures like eradication or interdiction. As the conservative magazine The Economist noted recently, there may well be a "balloon effect," with increased eradication in one area just expanding production elsewhere – especially in more remote, mountainous, and cloudier regions where crop spraying is harder, or in nearby countries where the police and military are weaker or even more corrupt.

Moreover, as this CIA study notes, wholesale coca eradication may just destroy large amounts of ordinary food crops like cassava, which are much less robust than coca. That, in turn, would alienate thousands of local farmers, creating new recruits for radical movements like the FARC, and helping to spread their influence to new regions of Colombia and other countries.

All told, the study indicates, it is hard to make Plan Colombia out to be anything less than a high-risk gamble with the future of the entire Andean region.

THE CIA’S PROGNOSIS

After decades of traditional law enforcement efforts, in the mid-1990s, partly because of US pressure, Colombia began experimenting with eradicating coca by spraying chemicals like Monsanto's "Round-Up" from small, US-provided OV-10 and Turbo Thrush" crop-duster" airplanes, protected by heavily-armed helicopters. The aerial spraying program has been the subject of law suits in both the US and Colombia because of its destruction of food crops, and its potential harm to the environment.roundup_jugs.gif

The CIA report examined two alternative scenarios for the effects of this eradication program. In the first scenario, it assumed that 50 percent of southern Colombia’s coca acreage would be eradicated by the year 2005. According to the report, this degree of eradication:

"(W)ould simply encourage substantial new cultivation elsewhere in Colombia. Farmers probably would be able to compensate for their losses by growing elsewhere in Colombia; therefore, only a limited number of growers in border areas would cross international boundaries to plant new fields."

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The second scenario looked at the effects of a 80 percent reduction in coca acreage in southern Colombia:

"…(T)he 80-percent scenario would almost certainly lead to increased cultivation in neighboring countries as traffickers in Colombia faced the prospect of declines in potential cocaine production…..While Colombian traffickers likely will try to make up for declines in domestic production by increasing their importation of cocaine base from neighboring countries, especially Peru, they may choose instead to increase cocaine production outside of Colombia. Successful eradication and interdiction programs combined with Bogota’s aggressive extradition policy would create an increasingly hostile environment for the drug trade and induce many traffickers to take their business into neighboring countries. This would result in a further decentralization of the Andean cocaine trade, with multiple centers of cocaine production and an increasingly complex web of trafficking networks. [REDACTED WORD]

….Significant spillover of coca cultivation and drug trafficking from Colombia into neighboring countries is likely if Plan Colombia achieves levels of eradication approaching our 80-percent scenario…..Peru, and to some extent Bolivia, would face increased market pressures that probably would fuel a resurgence in coca cultivation. Already, Peru’s cocaine trade - dealt a significant blow by a potent combination of interdiction, eradication, and alternative development successes in the late 1990s - is showing signs of recovery; and Colombian traffickers are making increased use of Ecuadorian, Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Panamanian territory to reach the US and European cocaine markets. Although less likely, rising coca prices resulting from Colombian supply shortages could put at risk Bolivia’s significant accomplishment in dramatically reducing its illegal coca supply.”

IN RETROSPECT

This September 2000 CIA analysis appears to have been astonishingly accurate. Strictly speaking, of course, it was not really a “forecast” at all – it merely laid out two plausible “what if” scenarios, and didn’t choose between them. However, the potential negatives associated with the spillover effects in both cases should have been enough to put any policy maker on notice that they were playing with fire. Unfortunately, both the Clinton and Bush administrations ignored apparently overlooked, or ran roughshod over, this possiblity.

Indeed, as argued in more detail in our upcoming analysis of overall drug war history, over the long run, the long-run effects of US “supply-side” policies toward drug enforcement and coca eradication have been nothing short of disastrous, especially for the "producer" countries. There have already been several profoundly negative effects:

  • First, the dismantling of the Colombian cocaine cartel in the 1990s opened up coca farming and the entire cocaine industry to thousands of new independent coca growers, dozens of new cocaine producers and many new distributors. Ironically, this “success,” combined with a long-term exogenous reduction in the demand for cocaine that little to do with increased drug enforcement, combined to produce to a dramatic long-term fall in cocaine “street” prices in the US and Europe since the 1980s. This may be good news for cocaine users. But it is just the opposite of the effect we’d like to see, if the aim were really to discourage drug use.
  • colombia_05.jpg

  • Second, US policies helped to actually stimulate coca farming, diverting it from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia, which traditionally had focused on cocaine laboratories and left the production of leaves or “base” to its neighbors. In the late 1990s, this surge in coca farming, in turn, provided an enormous new source of income – by way of the taxes they levied on the farms, as well as direct trafficking -- for Colombia’s armed guerillas, led by the FARC on the left and the AUC on the right.
  • As the CIA predicted, Plan Colombia, backed by US funding and direct military assistance, is indeed encouraging coca farming to spread to other areas inside Colombia, as well as to neighboring countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil, as well as back to Bolivia and Peru.
  • Even more important, the resulting militarization of the cocaine trade meant that what had formerly been mainly a law enforcement problem has now became a serious political and national security problem, involving not only for Colombia but all its neighbors. This is having a destabilizing political effects on the whole region. Among the key side-effects:
    • A growing civil war throughout Colombia over coca eradication, and ahumanitarian crisis that has already produced more than 2.6 million refugees.

    • A new populist government in Bolivia that derives a great deal of its momentum from the anti-eradication movement, and mounting pressures on Ecuador’s new populist government, led by Lucio Gutierrez;
    • The revival of left-wing guerillas and the reported appearance of the FARC in Peru; the internationalization of FARC activities in other Andean countries;
    • Growing tensions between Venezuela’s populist leader Chavez, the US, and Colombia, with several clashes recently reported between Venezuela's National Guard and Colombian forces.

    Given all this instability, it now appears likely that Plan Colombia’s “success” will depend on whether it is quickly folowed up by a Plan Ecuador, a Plan Peru, and a Plan Venezuela, and a Plan Bolivia. This is a recipe for endless civil wars, not for peace and the kind of economic development that is the only real solution to the "coca farming problem."

    Would that the senior national security advisors and drug czar bosses who are designed these cleve policy initiatives had paid a little more attention to their long-run effects, as well as to the lowly CIA analysts who seem to understand them. Where is "worst case" analysis when we really need it?

    ***

    ©SubmergingMarkets.Com, 2004. All rights reserved. Not for reproduction or other use with express consent.




    February 10, 2004 at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Sunday, February 01, 2004

    Third (and First) World Ferry Accidents – “Tragic Misfortunes” or Predictable Consequences?

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    News Flash! - Another Tragic Ferry Accident in the Congo! - Hundreds Missing!
    Ferry Accident on Zambezi Claims 18 Lives!
    Flash! - Ferry Mishap in Bangladesh, 300 Feared Dead!
    BeforeSenegal.jpg
    Evidently January 31st is not the best day of the year to take a ferry ride. This marks the 50th anniversary of one of the worst ferry disasters in the UK’s history – the 1953 sinking of the Princess Victoria, a British Rail car ferry that was caught out in unusually stormy seas in the Irish Sea, with the loss of 130 lives. And just today (1/31/2004), in northwest Congo, an overloaded ferry caught fire and sank on the Congo with the loss of at least 200 lives.
    AfterSenegal.jpg
    Such ferry mishaps have long been a staple item of disaster news all over the globe. With few exceptions, most conventional media coverage presents them -- and of course all the damage done by mudslides, forest fires, and earthquakes as well -- as "tragic accidents," the almost-unavoidable byproducts of happenstantial factors like overcrowding, bad weather, crew mistakes, fires, and collisions that are (ala Les Liason Dangereux)"beyond our control."

    However, a closer look reveals that more systemic factors are also at work, not only in the Third World, but also in the First.


    STATEN ISLAND “MISHAP”?

    The Staten Island Ferry, the US’ second most popular, is normally safe and reliable. It carries an average of 70,000 people back and forth each day to Manhattan. So New Yorkers were suitably shocked last October when the 3335-ton ferry plowed into the docks on Staten Island at 17 knots, killing 11 people and injuring at least 42.

    As a result, financially-strapped New York City has already been sued for more than $3 billion in damages, and has had to ask a court to invoke a maritime statute that may limit its liability to the value of the vessel -- a paltry $14.4 million.

    But this limitation could depend on where the blame is ultimately placed. Initially the City tried to place it entirely on individual crew members – for example, a possible medication-induced blackout by the pilot, the alleged absence of the ferry’s captain from the wheelhouse, and the possibility that other crew members may have been playing cards rather than keeping watch.

    However, since Federal prosecutors and the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) National Transportation Safety Board have entered the investigation, it seems that other more systemic contributing factors are emerging. These include the Port Captain’s alleged failure to distribute and enforce safety rules, the absence of state-of-the-art navigational equipment and warning systems that are routinely used, for example, on Seattle’s ferries, and inadequate training programs for crew members. There also appears to be a general pattern of nepotism and corruption in the management of the entire Staten Island ferry system.

    While it is premature to reach final conclusions about the relative influence of these various factors, it is already clear that the "pure accident" theory of this event -- the worst accident in Staten Island Ferry history -- is inadequate.

    THIRD WORLD FERRY “ACCIDENTS”?

    The residents of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, and China, are intimately familiar with all these pathologies. They must have marveled at the attention that was showered on the comparatively small Staten Island accident by the global media. After all, these countries routinely suffer ferry accidents that take hundreds and even thousands of lives.
    senegalferryaccident.jpg
    We’ve already noted the latest Congo River mishap. A cursory review of other accident reports shows that in 2003 alone, another Congo ferry “accident” claimed 163 lives, one in Bangladesh claimed “hundreds,” and there were others in Tanzania, Somalia, Zambia, and Burundi that took an average of fifty lives each. In 2002, yet another Bangladesh ferry “accident” claimed 300 lives, one in Indonesia took 60, and in Senegal, a ferry loaded with 1800 people, twice its capacity, flipped over, with no survivors. There have been literally hundreds of other such sinkings. The all-time record appears to have been a Philippines sinking in 1987 that claimed 4,341 lives – the greatest number of ocean fatalities in nautical history.

    Of course any one of these incidents, taken in isolation, may be understood as a “tragic mishap.” But from a slight distance, what is most striking is how repetitive they are – not only in terms of the specific countries involved, but also the very same locations in the rivers and oceans, the very same ferry owners, the same regulatory authorities, and in some cases even the same (salvaged) vessels.

    (Indeed, in the case of the Staten Island Ferry, the most recent 2003 incident had similar, though much less costly, precursors in 1998, 1992, 1978, and perhaps others.)

    All this suggests that, as is now coming to light in Staten Island, what we have here are not just random accidents and errors, but recurrent market and regulatory failures.

    In particular, the fact is that, especially (but not exclusively) in the developing world, ferry owners – whether public or private -- almost never face any substantial civil liabilities or criminal sanctions for such mishaps after the fact, and the safety and training regulations that they implement before the fact are often wanting. Furthermore, as in the case of New York City’s efforts to limit liability, lawsuits in these countries may not afford any adequate relief where ferries are state-owned. And pursuing them is also often beyond the means of the victims' families.

    Given this after-the-fact impunity, there is little incentive for ferry owners or managers to enforce restrictions against overcrowding, or to invest in adequate crew screening, training, and drug testing, as well as up-to-date navigational and safety equipment. New Yorkers, be warned….

    The implication is that unless such conditions change, those of us who relish a regular diet of “tragic ferry accidents,” especially from the Third World, are unlikely to be disappointed. “Oh, the horror…..”

    ***

    © James S. Henry, 2004. SubmergingMarkets.Com


    February 1, 2004 at 02:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Friday, November 07, 2003

    South Asia - The Mystery of the "Missing Women," High Population Growth Rates, and The Limits of Choice

    Indianwomen.jpg In the 1990s, India and its non-Communist neighbors on the Asian subcontinent -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal -- followed the advice of UN experts and "pro-maternal choice" advocates, and bet heavily on a laissez faire approach to population control. This approach, which emphasizes education, family planning, maternal control, and the voluntary use of contraceptive devices, was supposed to be more humanitarian than the coercive approach that had been adopted by China, and briefly by India itself, in the 1970s. That approach had relied heavily on forced sterilzations, IUDs, and abortions, and heavy-handed ceilings on the number of children per family.

    A decade later, as recent research on this region's demographics makes clear, both these approaches turn out to have serious limitations. For different reasons, they have both facilitated very high levels of infanticide against infant girls. And the laissez-faire approach has also utterly failed to restrain South Asia's population growth rate, which remains among the highest in the developing world. To transcend these problems will require the state to intervene, but in a much more intelligent way, by providing positive incentives to parents to "do the right thing."

    Private Choice, Collective Insanity. To begin with, the voluntary approach to population control has not succeeded in reducing the overall populaton growth rate fast enough. As this The New York Times report indicates, population growth in India, and for that matter, in the whole South Asia region, continues at a very strong pace -- 1.7 percent a year. While this is below the 2 percent average recorded by South Asia in the early 1980s, it is 40 percent higher than the average for the rest of the developing world, and more than 2.3 times the population growth rate in China.

    There are many factors responsible for these persistent growth rates, but among the most important are the relatively limited voluntary prevalence of contraceptives -- just 28 % of women in Pakistan and 49 percent in South Asia as a whole, compared with 82% in China, where the use of contraception was heavily subsidized and, indeed, mandated.

    All told, South Asia now contains more than 1.35 billion people, a fifth of the world's population, compared with China's 1.28 billion. India alone is well on its way to displacing China as the world's largest country by the year 2020, absent a nuclear war or some unforeseen famine or epidemic. All these people are living on a land area just two-fifths the the size of the US or China, so this means intense pressures on living conditions, labor markets, and the environment.

    Sexual Infanticide In both South Asia and China, another pathological byproduct of current family planning approaches, on top of cultural traditions, has been to reinforce one of the most abhorrent ancient forms of sexual discrimination. This is the age-old practice of eliminating what the Chinese called "the maggots in the rice" -- terminating pregnancies or new-borns, once it is determined that a child is a girl.

    In the aggregate, the magnitude of this sexual infanticide activity is astonishing. To arrive at a very rough estimate, we've examined the World Bank's latest (2002) figures for the average "population sex ratio" -- the percentage of a country's total population that is female. For the developing world as a whole, excluding China, India, and the rest of South Asia, the average is 50.4 percent. But for China and South Asia it is 48.5 percent. The World Bank reports that India and China both have have almost identical rates, at 48.4 percent, but both rates appear to be dropping. A Chinese census in 2002 reported, for example, that the sex ratio for live births is now just 46.7%. As shown in Table 1 below (scroll to the end) , this implies that for these countries to record the same average sex ratio as other developing countries, South Asia and China would need to have almost 100 million more females in their populations than they currently do. So where are they?

    The odds of conceiving a female child are 50-50 in the population at large, and certainly do not vary by country. Furthermore, life expectancy for women in all these countries actually exceeds that for men by at least 2-3 years -- so long as the women are allowed to be born in the first place, and are not snuffed out in their cribs.

    So the only plausible explanation for these sex ratio differentials in South Asia and China is that something is killling off unborn and just-born girls at an extraordinary rate. Since there do not appear to be diseases or other health factors that discriminate against female children in this way, the only conceivable explanation appears to be willlful infanticide by the parents themselves, under the influence of cultural institutions like the dowry, unprincipled medical counselors and abortionists, and the state.

    This is hardly an entirely new observation; other observers, like the World Health Organization, have also (rather quietly) observed that, for example, in China's case there appears to be at least 50 million women who are "missing" from the population statistics, compared with the sex ratios that one observes in other countries. But there is new evidence (see below) that the magnitude of this pathological activity may be on the increase.

    The "sexual infanticide" explanation is supported by recent UN field studies that show that it is indeed a widespread practice. For example, an October 2003 study by the UN Population Fund reported a growing problem of sex-selective abortion and infanticide in India. The study found that the sex ratio for the country as a whole had declnied from 48.59% in 1991 to 48.11% in 2001, and that in some states, like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, the ratio had fallen “drastically" to 44 percent -- less than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. Interestingly, the study also found declining sex ratos even in the country's most affluent districts of Delhi, where prospective parents use all the latest medical technology, including pre-conception gender selection practices, amniocentesis and late-term abortions, to support their curious, culture-bound preferences for male babies.

    There have also been numerous press reports that corroborate similar findings with respect to China. In China's case, the impact of traditional preferences for male children was undoubtedly further aggravated by the notorious "1 child per family" that was introduced by the CP in 1979. In addition to increased infanticide and sexual discrimination, this system also produced a huge underground market in "unregistered" children, and has been widely criticized for its punitive nature.

    So there are real dilemmas here, both for advocates of "choice" and "regulation" alike. Fans of "free choice" have to explain how we can square unfettered individual choice in these matters with the important goals of reduced violence and discrimination against women, as well as with the goal of securing aggregate rates of population growth that are sustainable in the long run. Fans of "regulation" have to explain how they can provide positive incentives for couples to make better choices, without using such the heavy hand. Ultimately, of course, everyone would like to leave the state out of these delicate, private matters. The problem is, that doesn't always seem to work.

    ***

    Table 1: Asia's "Missing Women," 2002







    Category Population%Women Female Population
    High Income Countries964,738,60050.71% 489,218,944
    China1,280,975,00048.42%620,248,095
    India 1,048,279,00048.41% 507,471,864
    Other South Asia304,708,41048.94% 149,118,930
    China/ South Asia Total2,633,962,410 48.48%1,276,838,889
    All Other Developing Countries2,602,674,99050.35%1,310,446,857
    World6,201,376,00049.61% 3,076,502,634
    "Missing Women:" China/ South Asia***-1.87%99,418,297

    ***Assuming that the China/ South Asia sex rato would otherwise equal the average in other developing countries

    © Submerging Markets (2003)

    (c) James S. Henry, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent of the author.



    November 7, 2003 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack