Friday, November 26, 2010

Helping Haiti
Suppose you wake up in the middle of the night and see your neighbor's house on fire. You rush outside and with a bucket or garden hose to help extinguish the fire. Once the fire is out, you return home and crawl into your warm bed, leaving your neighbors cold and miserable in front of their ruined house. You helped in an acute crisis but cared little for your neighbors.
This story is suggested by the continuing crisis in Haiti
When an earthquake struck Haiti last January, Americans and the world reacted with an outpouring of money and aid. Many NGOs sent teams to Haiti to help. They saved lives by supplying food, water, shelter and medical care to the victims.
But with the exception of such NGO's as Partners in Health or Médecins sans frontières, most of the private aid organizations have provided specific services without understanding the plight of Haiti. Foreign NGO's have supplied most of what government services there were in Haiti since the early 1990's. In 1994, the US imposed a harsh neo-liberal regime on Haiti. The government had to be cut to the bone and that slack was taken up by 3,000 NGO's. Borders had to be opened to foreign imports. Haiti had to import rice and other agricultural commodities from US agribusiness. Highly subsidized US agribusinesses were pouring commodities into Haiti; Haitian rice farmers could not compete with that. They were forced off the land into the cities.
Instead of raising their voices loudly about the US maltreatment of Haiti, the majority of NGO's seized the opportunity offered them by the forced imposition of neo-liberalism that pared the Haitian government to the bone. The NGO's were content to cooperate with the US domination of Haiti.
Today's poverty in Haiti, unemployment of 70%, rampant hunger and malnutrition are the direct results of US and other foreign interventions in Haiti, steady support for dictatorships and military take-overs whenever that favored US business interests. While helping, on one hand, the NGO's on the other hand enabled the US government's designs.
Haiti's profound poverty has made it so difficult to recover from the January earthquake and to combat the current cholera epidemic. That poverty is the direct result of two centuries of US intervention. It takes a daily toll in Haitian lives.
It is downright heartless to help Haiti in moments of acute crisis without informing oneself about Haiti, its sorry history of oppression and exploitation by more powerful countries. For Americans to return from helping in Haiti without protesting loudly the US abuse of the Haitian people is like helping to put out the neighbor's house fire and then leaving him cold and miserable in front of the charred ruins while you return to your warm bed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The cost of war

Since 2001 the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us $1,100,000,000,000 -- that is 1 trillion plus 1 billion. Just imagine what we could have done with that money.

What is worse, we borrowed more than half of that sum. Sooner or later those loans need to be repaid and in the meantime we pay interest on them. This year we paid slightly more than $200 billion interest on our debt. According to some experts this interest payment is due to rise to $700 billion a year in a few years.

In the recent elections, concern about those huge debts had a good deal to do with the final outcome. Many people worry that our children and their children will have to pay much higher taxes to pay off the national debt.

These are serious worries. Unfortunately the cost of these wars is far greater. Abroad, America has acquired the reputation of a bully. We are seen as a country that will go to war just to get our way. Once we were seen as a country willing to fight for justice and freedom. We have lost that reputation in the Mideast wars

At home the trillion or more dollars we spent are the least important part of those costs.

Some experts say that 40% of the soldiers that survive the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, or traumatic brain injury. These are costs that cannot be repaid, that cannot be extinguished.

These problems create other ones. Between 12% and 50% of returning veterans are involved in domestic violence. 18 veterans commit suicide every day. Every day, 950 try to kill themselves but fail.

The pervasive depression and unhappiness among returning veterans directly affects their families -- their families of origin as well as the families they started themselves. It has a terrible effect on their children. Some experts believe that at least a third of the children in military families have psychosocial problems.

Add to that increase rates of child abuse or neglect by the parent left home alone when the other partner goes off to war. Not only are the returning veterans affected by depression and anxiety but the family they left behind often suffers the same emotions.

Some experts estimate that the immediate families of American soldiers comprise 20 million persons. They spent years fearing for the safety and the life of their loved soldiers. Then the veterans return depressed and in pain and unable to rebuild the family life they left behind.

Nor do these struggles end when those veterans and their families die. The children growing up with fathers or mothers suffering from depression, plagued by irrational rages, considering or trying to commit suicide, perhaps addicted to hard drugs or to alcohol, will carry traces of their childhood pains throughout their life. What is more they will pass a streak of sadness or anxiety on to their children.

Long after we have repaid our debts, Americans will still suffer from depression and anxiety. This pain first brought into those families from the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq will pass down in families for several generations to come.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Free Market and the News.

“It is not from the benevolence of the Butcher, the Brewer or the Baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” Thus wrote Adam Smith in 1776 in his Wealth of Nations. We will be better served if those who serve us, at the same time satisfy their self interest.

Everyone accepts that but only the free market fanatics would entrust their well-being entirely to the self interest of the Butcher, Baker and Brewer. For good reasons we have public health inspectors who made sure that the food we buy is produced and sold under healthy conditions. For the same reason we have Bureaus of Weights and Measures that make sure that if we pay for a pound of meat, we receive a full pound rather than a mere 15 ounces.

The so-called "free market" serves us well but only with a certain amount of supervision. Of course, even then if supervised it does not always work. Recent salmonella infections resulted from chickens being raised under unhealthful conditions. Purchasers of commercial chickens are not well served by producers guided primarily by their self-interest. The free market, even when supervised, sometimes fails to provide us an edible dinner.

Similar problems show up with respect to the news.

In an elaborately researched blog on the Boggs Blog Judith Hollar writes:

“When it comes to covering activist gatherings, corporate media have established clear standards: Numbers don’t count nearly as much as politics do.

Last fall, when tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists and their allies marched on Washington in a grassroots rally for equality, media gave it far less coverage than the similarly sized, largely corporate-funded Tea Party protest in Washington just a month earlier (Extra!, 12/09).

So it came as little surprise that the Tea Party Convention this February would get more coverage than the June U.S. Social Forum, five days of strategizing, organizing and activism inspired by the World Social Forum launched in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. What was a little shocking, though, was just how stark the difference was.

The Social Forum, in Detroit, drew an estimated 15,000–20,000 progressive activists from around the country, while the Tea Party Convention in Nashville hosted a meager 600 attendees. Two activist gatherings striving for political and social change, one at least 25 times larger than the other—but the smaller one got all the media coverage.”

It is clear what happened here. Our news media are owned by capitalists, by people who have become rich in whatever free market we have. Their interest is to maintain this free market and they no more hesitate to slant the news towards free market advocates than the chicken growers hesitate to take risks with the health of their chickens.

Some readers will immediately respond with "the government is unlikely to be more objective than Fox News or Rupert Murdoch's other publications." In a democracy like ours, where the government is elected and staffed by politicians, that may very well be true.

But the alternative to a totally unregulated free market in information is not government supervised management of information. National Public Radio is a non-profit organization partly privately financed and also subsidized by the government. Important for our purposes is its non-profit status. It is not tempted to skew the news towards the interest of large corporations and the top layer of the capitalist pyramid because it is not seeking to make a profit. (On the other hand, it must take care not to alienate all private businesses because they do contribute towards its support.) It needs the support of private and public parties and that is an incentive for trying to earn widespread trust for giving a reasonably impartial view of the news.

Of course, NPR did not cover the recent social forum meeting in Detroit either and some people regard it as a sell-out to the capitalists. Others think that NPR is a hotbed of leftist ideology. But a lot of people get a lot of information from NPR. A nonprofit news organization appears superior to news systematically slanted towards free-market ideology.  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

(Courtesy South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Does Torture in Iraq shock you? It shouldn't.

Shock and anger are the most common responses to the latest Wiki-Leak release. It documents that the US military has stood by and allowed Iraqi soldiers and policemen to torture Iraqi detainees. According to the Wiki-Leak documents some US military have committed atrocities. The many US mercenaries, not part of the military, are suspected of many acts of brutality. But apparently the bulk of torture was committed by Iraqis while US military stood by and let it happen. Americans who tried to stop the torture were prevented from taking strong action by a US military order not to investigate Iraqi tortures.

Those of us who have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the very beginning should think twice about being shocked and outraged. We should know by now that war is always brutal, and that it inflicts pain on its victims randomly. Wars do not injure or kill justly. There are no rules in war except to kill wherever possible. We should not for one moment forget the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo-- all of them representative of countless brutalities that are the essence of war.

That is why we oppose these wars, because they inflict needless and random pain and suffering on so many and because they brutalize many participants.

In the background of our shock at these disclosures are racist assumptions about how we -- the Americans and the British -- conduct ourselves in more morally acceptable ways in war than other nations. We were appalled at the cruelties in the Balkan wars in the early 90s. Implicit was the belief that we would never conduct ourselves as the Serbs did in Bosnia. Today the American and British military look on while our Iraqi allies commit atrocities. Our tolerance of their action says that, after all, they are Iraqis. Their hands are not as clean as ours.

But are we really any different from them? Who started these wars? Who has insisted that the bloodshed, torture and brutality continue?