Friday, March 28, 2008

Rich and poor, men and women: dark contrasts in India

Jaguar logo image source:

Two sets of strikingly contrasting stories in the last couple of days. What all four stories have in common, though, is that they are all dark:

On Wednesday, March 26, 2008:
(a) An Indian company bought the very British Jaguar and Land Rover. Many may celebrate this as the empire striking back (this is not striking back!), or India's triumphal economic growth. I just think those attitudes reflect little besides the fact that corporate and middle-class India have bought into a received notion of success that has been only very questionably successful for a couple of decades now (try a Google News search for "Ford layoffs" or "GM layoffs"). And do I need to remind anyone that crude oil is has been at $100-111 a barrel. Gas retails for over $3/gallon now, and I seem to recall it at around $1.25 in the year 2000.

(b) While Indians are so gung-ho that their roaring economy is allowing "them" (yeah, I am personally rich, now that "we" own Jaguar!) to buy big foreign companies like Corus, Arcelor, blablablablabla, the finance minister is angry that rich countries, greedy for energy, are threatening poor ones where people starve, like.... um... India by diverting food crops to biofuels.

And on Thursday, March 27, 2008:

These are the two items that are on BBC's front page right now, one below the other, under "South Asia":

(a) Indian villagers 'killed witch'

(b) Indian men in US 'slave' protest

The former news item is about a woman being hunted and killed. The latter is about a protest in DC by about 100 men who came all the way from New Orleans, following news that Indian men were working in slave-like conditions in a Mississippi shipyard.

Hopefully a day will come when men won't fight against the abuse of just men, and women, just women. Currently, that's how it seems to happen nearly all the time. I think there's no disputing that women are by far more often victims of violence, murder, rape, and sexual assault as compared to men. For heaven's sake, we don't even allow millions of women to be born. Yet Indian men love to hate the laws that protecting Indian women from domestic violence, on the grounds that the laws are abused by women to harass their husbands. The view that rape or assault victims "got what they were asking for" remains horrifyingly central. Even self-styled "radical" Indian men who volunteer with well-known "progressive" movements in the US are arguing vigorously and insistently that women's clothing provokes rape, and discussing how women can dress culturally appropriately in various settings, rather than clearly saying or supporting the statement that "women deserve safety and respect". The very few women who joined the discussion briefly have withdrawn altogether, and the men don't even seem to have noticed their absence. I can't post the link, or name the people or organization here, because the message board where this is playing out is members-only, and naming anyone would possibly get me into trouble, and probably cause inordinate harm to the organization concerned (which does, sometimes, do good work). Still, message me if you're really curious or want to share a guess (although I do reserve the right to remain silent!)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Yay capitalism :\

Capitalism is as much an ideology as communism, and no more or less of an economic system. Isn't it amazing that we have not only avoided questioning it, but seem to find it more and more impossible to do (even in India! If anyone should be able to see the dark side of capitalism, it should be the erstwhile jewel in the imperial crown. Even Adam Smith questioned the functioning of the British East India Company!) Probably we haven't doubted it seriously just because it hasn't completely collapsed thus far (yeah, why not wait till it does, and then figure out what was wrong with it). But it really isn't working, and has never worked. Its "success" would not exist without the things most of its votaries consider illegitimate (and therefore, illogically, not even associated with its success, as if they were exceptions to rules that otherwise work smoothly), but which are nevertheless crucial industrial and also post-industrial capitalism: slavery and colonization/imperialism (good head start there, with the free labor and raw materials), unemployment (keeps wages in check), neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, outsourcing (pits rich countries' poor against poor countries' poor, and relies heavily on informal labor and environmental recklessness, at least in manufacturing), wartime profiteering and enslavement (IBM, Dow Chemical, Benz, Halliburton, Blackwater), environmental devastation (dear Dow Chemical again), all that good stuff.

IN SPITE of it all, it hasn't done well. (How stupid do you have to be to cheat on an exam...and flunk!) Far too many "respected" companies have done themselves -- and investors -- in with their financial roulette (Enron, Tyco, Adelphia). And now the "most trusted" names in capitalism are being bailed out by governments (Northern Rock, Bear Stearns). I think this is a good question: why is the Fed putting retirees' incomes at risk by cutting interest rates and spurring inflation, in order to bail out irresponsible investment bankers?

Oh, here's an amusing clip of Jim Cramer (CNBC dude in the video clip above) "reflecting" on his comment about how "silly" it was to take your money out of Bear Stearns. Not so funny for investors who were desperately trying to get out of the stock and couldn't, of course.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A ridiculous democracy

I've yet to meet an American who understands the election system sufficiently clearly to explain its very basics -- how the electoral college is formed, how delegates are chosen, why there's no standardized procedure for various parties and states, why there are only two viable parties (I'm not going to digress here into viability, and how the Democrats could be so asinine as to nominate John Kerry), and so on. And that's saying something, because I've lived in the US for almost nine years, the entire time amongst politically and historically well-informed Americans (won't digress into my views on academic liberals here, either - saving them for another time). So I'm not talking about Americans who can't find the US on a world map.

So the illusion that passes for democracy in the US is largely an agglomeration of commercials, soundbites, pixels, poll numbers scrolling through our days like the codes on Neo's computer screen, and meaningless "what-if" analyses that seem to exist primarily to fill up the 24 hours on the 24-hour channels:

US politics is not a reality that's reflected in those images and sounds, but played out through them: it's 100% illusion. If M. Diderot were here, perhaps he'd say Americans, like children, prefer to be entertained rather than to be informed: take Bush's brazen "mission accomplished" spectacle and of course the Swiftboating of Kerry. How could these even happen?!!?? We in other parts of the world are fed fairly detailed coverage of the ongoing Barack-Hillary spectacle. It's of no consequence to us, yet it's been front-page news on some days. True, they're only the primaries, and we shouldn't care. But they're entertainment! (It's kind of like the bootleg copies of the Starr report being sold by urchins at Mumbai traffic lights, years ago.) However, why Americans tolerate the travesty of their democracy, though, is a whole other question.

And while I'm not surprised Hillary and Barack would play the race and gender cards, I am surprised at how crassly: after her tri-state victory last week, Hillary emailed her supporters to say, "Together, we are making history and showing every little girl in America that she can be anything she wants to be." As one observer notes,

if Barack Obama emailed his supporters to say, "Together, we are making history and showing every little black in America that they can be anything they want to be," then the response would be an almighty “WTF?”. Which leaves me feeling pretty confident in my diagnosis of Billary as the all-time passive aggressive power-hungry hypocritical pantsuit...ever.

I disagree with the vehemence of that final assessment on the grounds that there are quite a few contenders for "all-time passive-aggressive power-hungry hypocritical ... ever" (women leaders who have stooped lower than Hillary for far less power do, unfortunately, exist, even where nobody is of much consequence in the larger scheme of things--like liberal arts colleges, ha, ha). But it's true that politics remains crudely and shockingly stuck in the identity groove even in a country that's so educated, that has moved past a terrible civil war, where women do have a relatively more visible place in public life, and where most women can earn some sort of living wage. As a woman from one of the most misogynistic cultures in the world, I am astounded at how retrograde Hillary's politics are. And I'm astounded that women's studies scholars are organizing talks and discussions to guide students on "how feminists should vote" in these primaries. That's a question only for those who choose their future president based on skin color and genitalia. What's there to discuss? You just vote for the person who has the best track record and program. Oh wait, that means voters have to actually do their homework and engage with the candidates. Never mind.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The mean Indian middle class

Photo source: Bloomberg News, by way of Business Week

I'm sick of hearing outrage from people in Mumbai who earn at least 5-10 lakh rupees (US$12,500-25,000 @ Rs40=US$1) a year, which is considered a decent income here depending on your housing situation. At any rate, it's the upper end of the Indian income spectrum, and the highest income tax bracket. These people are outraged that the 2008 Budget proposes to waive Rs60,000 crore (US$15 billion) worth of loans to poor farmers. Now, there are problems with the Budget proposal in terms of implementation -- how to reach the farmers who need the loan waiver the most. But resentment on account of it being a populist move in an election year, and on account of it being too huge a sum to give away, is yet another reflection (as if we need one) of the mean-spiritedness of the Indian middle class.

Here's an excerpt from the editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly, March 1, 2008, pp. 5-6:

If there is a group that the union finance minister has always been to keen to please, it is the increasingly vocal urban middle and upper-income classes. They were showered with benefits in the so-called “dream budget” of 1997-98 and this has been repeated in 2008-09. It is incredible that Budget 2008 has made such a major change in the effective tax rates that the individual annual tax savings will range from Rs 4,100 to as much as Rs 50,000 a year for the 32 million income tax assessees. This will certainly further boost consumption demand (and growth), but there was little justification for such a restructuring of income tax slabs. On a conservative estimate, this must surely mean an annual giveaway of Rs 30,000 crore of revenue (at an average of Rs 10,000 for the 32 million assessees) that is far larger than the one-time Rs 60,000 crore farm loan waiver. Only the finance ministry knows how the budget can yet project a 22 per cent growth in income tax collections in 2008-09.

The aggressive urban middle/upper-income classes have been an important force in the Indian growth story and are increasingly strident in their demands and protests. They should be celebrating Budget 2008. No wonder the headline in one major newspaper the morning after screamed: “A second car, or a holiday abroad...What’ll you take?”.