Archive | October 2013

“Band Aid”

Starving, crying kids!

Starving, crying kids!

I don’t know why but I recently thought of “Band Aid,” Bob Geldof’s feelgood project that aimed to provide food for those afflicted by the 1981-1983 famine in Ethiopia. While attempting to do what one can to help other is a laudable goal, “Band Aid” is pure comedy when viewed through a 2013 lens.

The sleeve itself is worthy of copious ridicule. It is a collage designed by Peter Blake, who is famous for having done the sleeve to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Note the fly covered pastoralist kids at the bottom.

I’m fairly sure that period is where most of the worst images of Africa come from, images that we are unfortunately stuck with.

Whenever I go there, I’m still struck by the disconnect between how the continent is presented by NGO’s and aid groups, and how the place really is. From fundraising ads, you wouldn’t even know that nearly 40% of Africans live in cities and that Africa has 43 cities with more than one million people. While we certainly need to worry about the plight of rural communities and displaced people, a greater challenge will be how to provide sanitation to the hundred of millions of people who live in cities designed for mere fractions of their current populations.

I’m wondering if Geldof and Bono actually visited Africa before embarking on branding Africa. Though it’s pointless to blame a bunch of hair sprayed 80’s musicians for the plight of Africa, I don’t think that they did the continent any PR favors.

It’s interesting to note that not a single African appears in the video, outside of two people of African decent who may or may not be entirely British. In fact, the voices of the supposed recipients of aid play no role whatsoever it the projects implementation as represented by this video. To me, “Band Aid” is a perplexing confluence of the supposed responsibility the West has toward the “uncivilized” world and crass American commercialism. I suspect, however, that emphasis is placed on the latter, and that the plight of “starving children” is merely a vehicle with which to sell and brand goods.

Though the vast majority of the participants of “Band Aid” faded into relative obscurity (Bananarama?), Bono himself and to a lesser extent Sting, continued this model of commercialized philanthropy. Bono created Product (RED), a business model which branded certain upscale products and offered a percentage of the sales to the Global Fund. While the proponents of Product (RED) and similar initiatives claim that they are meaningful simply by creating “awareness” for the issues they target, the near total absence of the recipients of this goodwill prevent one from taking the projects seriously.

I really have no idea what to write about…… but I’ll ramble about worldwide economic inequality for a while

If I don’t do this regularly, my lackluster skills become even more lackluster.

The NYT today (is it even useful for me to talk about the NYT when people can just read it themselves?) featured an op-ed from Economist Joe Stiglitz. Stiglitz, one might remember, wrote an excellent book on the 2008 financial crash. In it, he detailed point by point all the events that led to the worst economic crisis the US had seen since the Depression. “Freefall” is like “Inside Job” for people who read books.

Stiglitz has long been concerned about the growing divide between rich and poor in the US, so much so, that he wrote another great book “The Price of Inequality.,” mostly focusing on domestic issues. Policies which encourage loose markets disproportionately favor the wealthy, creating economic imbalances which marginalize the poor even further. While free market advocates claim that loosening markets liberates the citizenry from government, in fact, by freeing markets, politics shape the market itself, to the advantage of those who hold power. The market, then, becomes as tyrannical as all of those bed time baddies American right wingers keep warning us about. It’s worth noting that in the US, we allowed investment bankers to write banking policy for much of the run up to the crash.

We know that inequality is on the rise in the United States, but Stiglitz argues that America, as a global financial powerhouse, has encouraged a worldwide trend toward financial loosening, exacerbating economic disparities in other countries as well.

…widening income and wealth inequality in America is part of a trend seen across the Western world. A 2011 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that income inequality first started to rise in the late ’70s and early ’80s in America and Britain (and also in Israel). The trend became more widespread starting in the late ’80s. Within the last decade, income inequality grew even in traditionally egalitarian countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. With a few exceptions — France, Japan, Spain — the top 10 percent of earners in most advanced economies raced ahead, while the bottom 10 percent fell further behind.

I took issue with his listing Japan as an exception. Though Japan’s widening divide between rich and poor may not be as dramatic as in the US, Japanese people on the bottom rungs have watched their incomes fall over time. A slow down of the economy and the deflation era has disproportionately impacted low wage earners there.

Excessive financialization — which helps explain Britain’s dubious status as the second-most-unequal country, after the United States, among the world’s most advanced economies — also helps explain the soaring inequality. In many countries, weak corporate governance and eroding social cohesion have led to increasing gaps between the pay of chief executives and that of ordinary workers — not yet approaching the 500-to-1 level for America’s biggest companies (as estimated by the International Labor Organization) but still greater than pre-recession levels. (Japan, which has curbed executive pay, is a notable exception.) American innovations in rent-seeking — enriching oneself not by making the size of the economic pie bigger but by manipulating the system to seize a larger slice — have gone global.

He is entirely correct here. Just about every facet of life has been morphed into a commodifiable good worthy of investment and trade on financial markets. This has long impacted agricultural products and created a trend of increasing prices and violent price swings that do little to raise the lives of the international poor.

African countries, lacking the stabilizing effect of steady manufacturing sectors like those in Asia, depend almost entirely on the resource market. Though they experience significant growth when worldwide prices go up (as has been the case for the past decade), a sudden drop in the price of commodities can quickly wipe out last year’s gains. This is similar to the situation of very poor households in the US. One might have plenty of work this week, but be fired the next. Planning for the future is impossible one isn’t sure whether one will have the cash to eat next week.

I’d like to see a comparison of worldwide trends of inequality. Though it is true that African economies were left in the dust until the early 2000’s, and the continent is in a period of excellent growth at the moment, I’m wondering whether the pace of growth is slower than what it would be without loose international commodity markets and financialization.

Of course, one might also argue the the loosening of markets around 2000 is what caused the current trend in growth.

OK, I wrote something. Thanks.

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town has to be one of the oddest places I’ve ever been. It’s like the Traverse City of Africa, but with four million people. White people here to white people things like jog around the pristine parks, walk their well behaved dogs, and drive around in really expensive cars.

I’m not quite sure what everyone does for a living. Perhaps the cars are rentals and none of these people are from here.

Nearly 50% of Cape Town can call itself mixed. Europeans have been here so long, and apartheid wasn’t a formal policy until nearly three centuries after when Europeans started coming here. That makes plenty of time to mix. This is, of course, in contrast to a lot of the rest of Africa (and even the US until very recently), where the lines are drawn much more clearly.

I’m not sure how apartheid really worked here, but it probably did what it was suppose to do by protecting the interests of those who controlled the economy. Of course, it was reprehensible and it’s good that it’s over.

South Africa has to be one of the most complicated countries on the planets (though countries are all complicated when you start digging).

Cape Town is oddly safe compared to other places. Fences are low, streets are well organized, but there are still bars on the windows. Cape Town is so organized, that even the slums are well put together. The building materials are of a higher quality than other slums in Africa. Every one has satellite TV, and the City of Cape Town provides power infrastructure and water.

It’s not a paradise, but it’s definitely a different place than the Africa I know. More later.

Tea Party Insanity: We All Lose

The United States of America has the worst health care system in the developed world. Though we develop some of the most advanced medical technologies, pharmaceuticals, procedures and research and despite the fact that we can claim some of the finest physicians in the world, our health system is expensive and mostly unavailable to the people most likely to become ill.

As a country, we have the worst health profile in the developed world falling behind all of our peers including Sweden, Germany, Japan, Italy, Turkey and even our totalitarian brothers in the north, Canada. We can even claim the embarrassing distinction of having an infant mortality rate higher than that of impoverished Cuba, despite being the wealthiest country that human history has ever seen.

It’s an absolute embarrassment. The inexplicable inability of a country as wealthy and powerful as the US to guarantee even basic protections of health to its citizens makes me incredibly ashamed to be an American.

Clearly, as Mr. Obama put it, a fraction of a single political party in a single house in a single branch of government doesn’t agree with me. In fact, their crass shutdown of the Federal Government in the name of nothing more than ideological insanity is an affront not only to Americans, but all of humanity. If we are a country that now values politics and control as more important than human health and life, then we have truly lost our way.

The irony is that the Affordable Care Act is only a modest improvement to a truly inhumane and awful health care system. It does not provide us with a Cuban or even a Canadian style system. It does not fully eliminate the possibility of household devastation given a calamitous health event. It does not erase the specter of medical debt that many low and middle class households face every day.

It sadly shies away from implementing rigid price controls as those in mighty Japan; prices controls which keep health care affordable, while still preserving a competitive and profitable health care technologies market.

It does not fully release us from a state of health care bondage that keeps Americans from starting new businesses or changing jobs; unlike powerful and economically vibrant Sweden, where even the most risky of start-ups are possible, due to a basic guarantee of health care.

It only barely offers a guarantee to the poor, who, while ensuring ample profits for the Wal Marts and the McDonalds by working for pennies, face the severest of health problems. The disproportionately poor health profiles of the poor are not free. By not providing sufficient care and wages, the Wal Marts and McDonalds of the world shift those expenses onto taxpayers, so that we effectively subsidize their enterprises. Worse yet, since we refuse to acknowledge it, we manage it inefficiently, raising costs for everyone.

Failure to provide health care to poor people (or anyone else) in an efficient and transparent manner wreaks havoc on our economy, robs governments of dollars that could be better assigned to upgrading our aging infrastructure and degrades the ability of our workforce to be productive. Yet, Republicans oppose it.

I can’t think of any rational reason outside that they might have secretly started smoking weed in their own quarters.

The Affordable Care Act falls far short of my vision of a truly inclusive and effective health care insurance scheme for America. Despite this, it is a milestone improvement to an embarrassingly poor “system.”

The government shutdown to protest the Affordable Care Act has simply left me more emotionally numb than even the attacks in Kenya. Sometimes, I try to convince myself that, under all the insane rhetoric, the American right wing is a rational beast and that they have legitimate concerns and offer reasonable solutions. If this ideological shutdown over providing negligible improvements to a failing system of health care in America is any indication, insanity has truly prevailed.

Kim Ki Chan

kim1Every once in a while, I will just pick a book off a library shelf and check it out without quite knowing what’s inside. The University of Michigan is a great place to do this.

This time, I picked up a book of works by Korean photography Kim Ki Chan. Kim passed away in 2005, but spent the brunt of his adult life documenting Seoul, and its (and Korea’s) transformation into one of the richest areas in the world.

His pictures, rather than focusing on rampant consumerism and youth culture, center on the back alleys of the urban poor. Mostly black and white, his portraits of local Korean families struggling to get by are stunningly beautiful. I’m positive that the pictures appeared vastly different at the times they were taken, but looking at them now and thinking about how Korea has grown, one can’t help but thinking that the subjects are filled with anything but optimism.

Kim’s subjects are overwhelmingly poor. This presents a challenge to a photographer, who can often run onto dangerous ground of portraying the poor as sad and helpless, or romanticizing poverty as cute and adorable. Kim does neither. It’s clear that many of the subjects know Kim already, probably as a friend. He probably saw some of the kids he photographed grow up and have their own over his long career.

My experience in Korea is really quite limited. I went there a couple of times in the late 90’s but my lack of Korean kept me from venturing out to the areas in which Kim operated. I’m sad that I never had the chance to see them, but suspect that some of it still remains.

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