Sunday, September 30, 2007

Capitalism and shock

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Joseph Stiglitz reviews Naomi Klein's new book in The New York Times:
“The Shock Doctrine” is Klein’s ambitious look at the economic history of the last 50 years and the rise of free-market fundamentalism around the world. “Disaster capitalism,” as she calls it, is a violent system that sometimes requires terror to do its job. Like Pol Pot proclaiming that Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was in Year Zero, extreme capitalism loves a blank slate, often finding its opening after crises or “shocks.” For example...[t]he 2004 tsunami enabled the government of Sri Lanka to force the fishermen off beachfront property so it could be sold to hotel developers. The destruction of 9/11 allowed George W. Bush to launch a war aimed at producing a free-market Iraq.

...Klein compares radical capitalist economic policy to shock therapy administered by psychiatrists. She interviews Gail Kastner, a victim of covert C.I.A. experiments in interrogation techniques that were carried out by the scientist Ewen Cameron in the 1950s. His idea was to use electroshock therapy to break down patients. Once “complete depatterning” had been achieved, the patients could be reprogrammed. But after breaking down his “patients,” Cameron was never able to build them back up again.

...for Klein the larger lessons are clear: “Countries are shocked — by wars, terror attacks, coups d’état and natural disasters.” Then “they are shocked again — by corporations and politicians who exploit the fear and disorientation of this first shock to push through economic shock therapy.” People who “dare to resist” are shocked for a third time, “by police, soldiers and prison interrogators.”

...Klein offers an account of Milton Friedman — she calls him “the other doctor shock” — and his battle for the hearts and minds of Latin American economists and economies...

She quotes the Chilean economist Orlando Letelier on the “inner harmony” between the terror of the Pinochet regime and its free-market policies. Letelier said that Milton Friedman shared responsibility for the regime’s crimes, rejecting his argument that he was only offering “technical” advice. Letelier was killed in 1976 by a car bomb planted in Washington by Pinochet’s secret police.

One of the world’s most famous antiglobalization activists and the author of the best seller “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies,” Klein provides a rich description of the political machinations required to force unsavory economic policies on resisting countries, and of the human toll. She paints a disturbing portrait of hubris, not only on the part of Friedman but also of those who adopted his doctrines, sometimes to pursue more corporatist objectives. It is striking to be reminded how many of the people involved in the Iraq war were involved earlier in other shameful episodes in United States foreign policy history. She draws a clear line from the torture in Latin America in the 1970s to that at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Klein is not an academic and cannot be judged as one. There are many places in her book where she oversimplifies. But Friedman and the other shock therapists were also guilty of oversimplification, basing their belief in the perfection of market economies on models that assumed perfect information, perfect competition, perfect risk markets. Indeed, the case against these policies is even stronger than the one Klein makes. They were never based on solid empirical and theoretical foundations, and even as many of these policies were being pushed, academic economists were explaining the limitations of markets — for instance, whenever information is imperfect, which is to say always.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Alive...and glaring

How utterly true:
Schrödinger missed is that observation by a cat is required for a human to be truly alive."
~ dd

Image source:

Below, a relatively less philosophical problem - computing the volume of a cat:
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This cat is approximately 648 cubic inches. If you want to know how to compute a cat's volume, here's the method.

In this freedom's name...

Jon Stewart interviews John Bowe, reporter and author of Nobodies, a book about contemporary slavery and indentured servitude in America. Such exploitation produces goods not just for shady no-name companies, but also for Taco Bell, McDonalds, Carnival Cruise Lines, and other ostensibly above-board corporations -- pretty much anywhere where food is served, says Bowe.

At the end of the interview, Bowe urges viewers to Google this website; I'm saving you the trouble by posting the link:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The burqas of the West

Photo: Ann Taylor's "modern update on the classic Mary Jane", 3" heel, $118.

Students learn to dress for business settings

By Caitlin Cullerot and Ebony Martin
The Daily Collegian, Tuesday, September 25, 2007
..."Modeling for Success," an event put on to teach students what clothing is appropriate in today's work environment...

Victoria Greer, the Human Resources Manager with JP Morgan Chase, recommended that students dress for the job they want next, not for the job they have today. She also recommended that students avoid shirts that show their midriffs and cleavage as well as shorts....

Kendra Rice (freshman-nursing) agreed that the fashion show was informative. "I learned things I didn't know...I didn't know that the heels of your shoes shouldn't be so skinny," she said.

Overall, [Michael] Morgan [co-president of the Black Male Leadership Symposium and the keeper of Exchequer for Kappa Alpha Psi] said he felt the event was successful.

Needless to say, wearing an "eastern"-style burqa, or a perfectly dignified sari, or even just a headscarf, to a job interview in America would pretty much seal your fate. I've even heard black women say they are taken more seriously at interviews if they straighten their hair and color it.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

Not quite risen from the ashes

Went out to the oldest "mill-turned-mall" -- High Street Phoenix, formerly the Phoenix Mills -- for the first time tonight, for beer and dinner. I was expecting something that looked more like a mill (sort of the way Tate Modern still looks like the old power station). But at least in the dark (courtyard poorly lit), it looked to me like a cross between a strip mall and a maze. I feel they should have kept signage and lighting in tune with the maze/mill look, and stayed away from the strip mall look. True to Mumbai, much of it is still/again under construction and/or makeshift-looking. Just boggles my mind how no project is ever completed in Mumbai. And how we have not yet mastered the basics of landscaping and construction, so that even outside the Nine West and other fancy global stores, a simple kerb or corridor will be shabbily paved -- steps are uneven, surfaces are not aligned (there is suddenly a very low step or a "speed bump" at, say, a corner, where none should be, and the corner is preferably dark, to improve the chances of customers breaking their necks or at least pulling a hamstring), a sign pointing to the restaurant you're looking for will lead you to a creepy-looking corner (dark and under construction, of course).

I'm not saying a shopping mall should look like a modern art museum. I'm saying a building or complex must be sensitive and true to its past and present. Phoenix Mills could have been so fantastically Mumbai, but it isn't. Instead, it's Generica-meets-Lajpat Nagar.

The main entrance to the Tate Modern, the turbine hall of the old power station.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The cost of giving

Excerpts from an article by Stephanie Strom, titled The Cost of Giving: Big Gifts, Tax Breaks, and a Debate on Charity, in The New York Times. The article is part of a series called "Age of Riches", about the increasing concentration of wealth.

[Billionaire businessman Eli] Broad (rhymes with road) says his gifts provide a greater public benefit than if the money goes to taxes for the government to spend. “I believe the public benefit is significantly greater than the tax benefit an individual receives,” Mr. Broad said. “I think there’s a multiplier effect. What smart, entrepreneurial philanthropists and their foundations do is get greater value for how they invest their money than if the government were doing it.”

It is an argument made by many of the nation’s richest people. But not all of them. Take the investor William H. Gross, also a billionaire. Mr. Gross vigorously dismisses the notion that the wealthy are helping society more effectively and efficiently than government.

“When millions of people are dying of AIDS and malaria in Africa, it is hard to justify the umpteenth society gala held for the benefit of a performing arts center or an art museum,” he wrote in his investment commentary this month. “A $30 million gift to a concert hall is not philanthropy, it is a Napoleonic coronation.”

Elaborating in an interview, Mr. Gross said he did not think the public benefits from philanthropy were commensurate with the tax breaks that givers receive. “I don’t think we’re getting the bang for the buck for gifts to build football stadiums and concert halls, with all due respect to Carnegie Hall and other institutions,” he said. “I don’t think the public would vote for spending tax dollars on those things.”

The billionaires’ differing views epitomize a growing debate over what philanthropy is achieving at a time when the wealthiest Americans control a rising share of the national income and, because of sharp cuts in personal taxes, give up less to government.


A common perception of philanthropy is that one of its central purposes is to alleviate the suffering of society’s least fortunate and therefore promote greater equality, taking some of the burden off government. In exchange, the United States is one of a handful of countries to allow givers a tax deduction. In essence, the public is letting private individuals decide how to allocate money on their behalf.

What qualifies for that tax deduction has broadened over the 90 years since its creation to include everything from university golf teams to puppet theaters — even an organization established after Hurricane Katrina to help practitioners of sadomasochism obtain gear they had lost in the storm.

Roughly three-quarters of charitable gifts of $50 million and more from 2002 through March 31 went to universities, private foundations, hospitals and art museums, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Of the rest, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation accounted for half on the center’s list. That money went primarily to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries...

In contrast, few gifts of that size are made to organizations like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and America’s Second Harvest, whose main goals are to help the poor in this country. Research shows that less than 10 percent of the money Americans give to charity addresses basic human needs, like sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and caring for the indigent sick, and that the wealthiest typically devote an even smaller portion of their giving to such causes than everyone else.

“Donors give to organizations they are close to,” said H. Art Taylor, president and chief executive of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. “So they give to their college or university, or maybe someone close to them died of a particular disease so they make a big gift to medical research aimed at that disease. How many of the superrich have that kind of a relationship with a soup kitchen? Or a homeless shelter?”

...Like many major philanthropists, Mr. Broad said he considered such gifts an illustration of the Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The argument is that simply taking care of the poor does nothing to eliminate poverty and that they will ultimately benefit more from efforts to, say, find cures for the diseases that afflict them or improve public education.

As for Mr. Gross, despite his uncharacteristically fiery criticism of what he calls “philanthropic ego gratification,” some of the large gifts he and his wife, Sue, have made are not so different from those made by other billionaires. He has given millions to a local hospital, for example, and for stem cell research.

And in 2005 the couple gave roughly $25 million to Duke, Mr. Gross’s alma mater.

But the Duke gift illustrates Mr. Gross’s priorities. The money is almost exclusively for scholarships.

...Warren E. Buffett also voices strong feelings about how donations are used.

When Mr. Buffett pledged $30 billion to the Gates Foundation, he included a little-noted requirement that the foundation spend each increment of the gift he hands over, in addition to its own annual legally mandated spending. If Mr. Buffett transfers $1.3 billion of stock to it, it must spend every nickel within a year.

“I wanted to make sure,” he said, “that to the extent I was providing extra money to them, it didn’t just go to build up the foundation size further but that it was put to use.”

...He does not regard his gift as charitable and expects no tax benefit from it...

The charitable deduction cost the government $40 billion in lost tax revenue last year, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, more than the government spends altogether on managing public lands, protecting the environment and developing new energy sources.

Rob Reich, an assistant professor of political science and ethics in society at Stanford, goes so far as to say that the tax code promotes inequities through the breaks it provides for charitable giving...

Legislators, regulators and others are asking more questions about exactly what charities do with the money they are given.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Distressing denim

Farmer Mariano Barragan stands on the peeling blue-grey crust left behind on his field. The crust comes from the water he uses to irrigate the land, drawn from a canal allegedly contaminated by the production of distressed jeans. The photo below is from a set of pictures that accompanies this story in the Guardian. I am sorry to say that my blue jeans do have a distressed finish, and yes, they are made in Mexico. Sigh.