Monday, June 28, 2010

China Changing

Strikes, labor shortages, high suicide rates among migrant factory workers are remolding China’s image of itself. Even the president is talking about respecting and improving the lot of the country’s 200 million (17% of China’s population) migrant workers. But it’s not that easy since China’s manufacturers are dependent on cheap migrant labor. Migrant workers are propelled into leaving their countryside homes by bleak living conditions there. There’re many more people in rural China than the land can support.

However, when they leave their homes they are also leaving behind all benefits of citizenship; their kids can’t even go to public schools where they work. They only have rights where their household is registered and it takes a substantial bribe to obtain residence elsewhere. So they drop the kids off at relatives and trudge off to the East Coast. Often they wind up in large dormitories, or ten to a small room, and sometimes under harsh conditions. They generally earn low pay and receive no benefits; simply put, they are second class citizens in their own country and are mercilessly exploited.

For the leadership and the middle class, this works out fine since low pay makes China’s goods cheaper and more competitive in the world market, and the more comfortable class of urban residents gets cheaper consumer goods and construction, thus cheaper dwellings. It’s also good for foreign companies who subcontract their manufacturing to Chinese ones; cheap, cheap, cheap for Western consumers.

Moreover, urbanites don’t have to share their city with rural riffraff. Well, at least not much; migrants are largely isolated from the city at large. Also the government is deathly afraid that loosening up residence requirements will result in large migrations to the big cities, so on all counts (except the humanitarian one, of course) the present system serves their purposes well.

However, the natives are getting restless and believe they have the right to a larger share of China’s new wealth. So workers (but so far only at foreign owned companies) are striking for higher pay and seeing their demands met almost immediately. The fact that strikes are tolerated at all by the Chinese leadership is a breakthrough which is certain to snowball into a much more forceful labor movement.

Migrant workers have social and demographic factors in their favor since China’s big eastern cities are facing labor shortages. The country’s one child policy is beginning to have an impact on available labor in prime working ages for factory work – 18 to 25. There are also more jobs opening up in interior cities closer to home where living costs are much lower so are much preferred by migrants.

This all portends the beginning of the end of China as a cheap place to manufacture. Labor costs are not that great a factor in the production of autos so Toyota and Honda will glad pay extra for labor peace. Cost is also no big deal for Foxconn, a Taiwanese company which manufactures iphones and such, but labor unrest will inevitably spread to other sectors of the economy and overall costs will rise. Minimum wage in eastern China - $130 per month - is already more than twice that in Cambodia, for instance, but China has far superior infrastructure and less corruption so it will still be competitive.

Meanwhile, China is under extreme pressure to free up its currency to more closely reflect its true value. Some say it’s undervalued by 20%. The country of late has been spending $1 billion per day to keep its currency cheap. Since its currency is pegged to the dollar and the dollar has gone down relative to the Euro and Yen, China’s Yuan has also gone down, thus making its goods cheaper on the world market. This not only impacts America’s ability to compete, but also other developing countries. China’s immense trade surplus, a reflection of its cheap currency, is a point of friction and anger among many other countries. A huge trade deficit like America’s essentially means the export of millions of jobs, but also cheap consumer goods for those who are still working. Cambodia is not much affected since it’s currency is also pegged to the dollar, but every other country trying to compete, which has a free currency is being hurt.

China has been making noises about conforming to the international community’s wishes and they will loosen up a bit but the reality will be far less than the rhetoric. In fact, the Chinese leadership has been stoking up nationalist fervor for so long, they can’t be seen bowing to outside pressure or else bring angry criticism upon themselves.

For China, letting its currency appreciate in value would make imported goods cheaper and lessen tension with the rest of the world. Providing full citizen rights to its migrant laborers and allowing wages to rise would also have many beneficial economic aspects. Putting income into the lowest rungs of society always boosts the economy. Letting people migrate with their families would tremendously ease social pressure and make for a healthier society.

Unfortunately, China’s leadership seems addicted to amassing trillions of dollars through huge trade surpluses. They’re having fun buying up natural resources around the world. They could be using some of that immense stash of cash to improve the lot of their peasantry but the country’s peons are just too easy to manipulate and exploit. They’ll make noises about countryside improvements but there too the reality will fall far short of the rhetoric. The only time they will make changes to benefit the poor is when they are cornered and have no choice, which more likely than not, will be coming soon.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Poor BP

The latest inanity coming from the BP oil spill fiasco was US Representative Joe Barton R-Tex apologizing to BP because of how unfairly the company has been treated by the US government. He called the $20 billion compensation fund demanded by Obama a shakedown, and said even if they were wrong, it wasn’t right for the government to demand the money. The Repug leadership quickly moved to disown his comments.

In the Exxon Valdez case, it took 20 years of legal wrangling to wrest a mere $500 million out of Exxon. A jury originally awarded damages of $5 billion but that judgment was easily overturned by a higher court. After all, five billion is practically 10% of one year’s profit. They did pay some compensation right from the beginning but nowhere, no how did it cover actual loses. There is no corporate weighing of right and wrong regarding legal culpability or claims against it, only a simple bottom line calculation. If the corpse thinks it can avoid a billion dollar judgment by spending $990 million on legal costs, that’s the track it works on.

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, has cautioned Obama against bad-mouthing BP too seriously out of concern for the corpse’s stockholders and pension funds who hold its shares. Others are comparing it to Britain bashing even though BP is no longer officially British Petroleum, only BP.

I’m not totally without sympathy for pensioners who lose out as a result of BP’s reckless behavior and its casual, even malevolent, attitude toward safety regulations, but that’s the name of the game: investing is speculating, which is just barely, if at all, above gambling.

A lot of people have gotten the idea, from the corporate philosophy that’s been ingrained into the Western mindset that investing is fool-proof and as good as money in the bank. Conservatives have rightly understood that bringing lots of people into investing through pension funds and such, essentially tying them into the capitalist structure, would change their political attitude. What they didn’t count on was stocks going down; they’re only supposed to go up, you know.

It’s too bad so many large developed economies have lowered their interest rates to near zero in frantic attempts to stimulate growth, because that has left many people thinking they had no choice but to invest rather than just put it in the bank.

So why not invest in BP? It’s one of the world’s largest and most stable corporations, it’s always profitable and always pays good dividends. Well, if you were an astute investor, one not totally blinded by the hype, you’d look at BP’s safety record before you put your money into it. If you did, you’d find that BP not only has a sorry record of spills and explosions, but they’ve been cited by the US government for safety violations far more than any other oil company. In the last 3 years BP has received more than 700 citations for flagrant safety violations; all the other big oil companies combined received just 9. Moreover, many of those 700 also had the terms, ‘willful’ and ‘egregious’ attached to them.

The US supreme court has ruled that corporations are persons before the law with all the rights of individuals. Nowhere have they specifically ruled that corporate persons are allowed to get away with murder, but that’s the way it works. Flagrant, willful, egregious safety violations must be the corporate equivalent of drunk driving, yet a human person convicted of drunk driving causing death would be taken off the roads and imprisoned pretty damn quickly.

Not a corporate person, they just get paltry fines levied against them that are cheaper to pay than following safety rules and since the bottom line rules for them, they’ll break the rules as long as they can get away with it. It seems to me that the government in this case is almost as guilty as BP. Corporations are like young children: You can not expect a corporation to act responsibly without strong rules and serious consequences for not following the rules any more than you can expect a two-year-old to know right from wrong; they have to be taught, guided, restrained and disciplined.

Getting back to BP’s gusher, it’s still at least 2 months before one of the relief wells meets its target and the flow can be stopped. However, there’s no guarantee that will happen; both might miss the target. BP could have tried digging three or four relief wells at the same time for better odds but they cost $100 million each and the sea above the well might get quite crowded with that many drill ships working at the same time. So they’re crossing their fingers.

Meanwhile the worst case scenario is so terrifying it disheartens even a doomsdayer like myself. It postulates that BP may never be able to stop the gusher, but rather it’ll continue to flow until the reservoir is emptied of its billion plus barrels of crude. This comes partly from shoddy work to the point where the well was weak and vulnerable to begin with and is now losing its integrity. Leaks are appearing before the blowout preventer and in general the well is eroding quickly - because there are always abrasives in the crude - from the oil gushing out at very high speed and pressure. This scenario may be way off the mark but considering how little anybody really knows about these things, as good as a lot of other possibilities.

In order to stop the flow the relief well has to hit the gushing well far underground, very close to the reservoir, and it has to happen before the well totally degrades; that is, while the well is still intact, otherwise there’ll be no way to ever stop it and this spill will become a nightmare of biblical proportions – literally decades of oil spewing out and contaminating everything.

(If you want to delve into this fiasco on a more technical level I highly recommend For really technical stuff is an excellent resource. I can understand the technical stuff, but only to a limit.)

It’s a race against time. If BP loses, it will certainly cease to exist and may well go down in the annals of corporate infamy as the worst of all time. You can bet that BP is already investigating splitting off its American operation so it can limit its liabilities and go bankrupt without taking the whole company down, which is why Obama’s extraction of $20 billion from BP was a very wise move.

If you are one of the shareholders of BP, pensioner or otherwise, who is due to lose your shirt, I’m sorry but that’s the way the game is played: You gambled, you lost. Which is nothing compared to what the Gulf has lost.

This ongoing eco-tragedy however has not stopped the US government from issuing deep

water drilling permits in spite of Obama mandating otherwise. It also has not stopped Republicans from demanding that Obama not enforce a moratorium on new drilling permits. What the heck, it can’t happen twice in the same area, can it? Those mendacious idiots can’t even wait until the full story is told and serious adjustments are made to drilling rules and procedures that might make another blowout less likely. Drill, baby, drill.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It Ain’t Over Yet

All three stories I’ve been following recently – BP, Thailand, Israel – are assuredly unfinished, with serious repercussions yet to follow.

In BP’s case, its fouling of the Gulf has barely begun. It’s recent failing gambit to stop the flow of oil, the top kill, which involved pumping large amounts of trash into the well hoping to clog it up, was one more indicator of its impotency. To some it was a publicity stunt. Since plugging an undersea well hasn’t been done much in the past and never at the depth of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, they are just flailing away, trying anything they can think of, hoping it’ll be a magical cure.

It really wasn’t necessary for BP to think ahead and try to plan for possible blowouts or malfunctions since, paraphrasing Barack Obama, the technology is really advanced and so the chances of encountering problems is very remote.

But, as the famous Murphy once exclaimed, if something can go wrong, it will. So now the current Hail Mary is to make a clean cut in the riser, the pipe that leads up from the broken Blowout Preventer, and try to cap it so most of the gushing oil can be siphoned off. It would be impossible to make a tight fit in such a circumstance, so even if they are successful there will continue to be a substantial amount of oil leaking into the Gulf. They are now siphoning off about 30% of the oil and will try to increase that proportion; this is considered a success.

Regardless of the relative success of the latest gambit, it will continue to leak at least until August when one of the two relief wells now being dug is able to intersect with the leaking well so it can then be plugged off. Actually, the August target is a product of BP’s wishful thinking, independent experts think September is far more likely as a best case.

It is actually quite a challenge to drill from a mile above the sea floor and then through two and a half miles of earth and accurately intersect with the well casing. In fact, it’s entirely possible that neither of the two relief wells now being dug will hit the leaking well closely enough to plug it. In that case it would take another 4 months before the next attempts reach the well.

If they’re lucky, they’ll be able to plug the leak in September. That assumes the whole operation isn’t waylaid or seriously delayed by hurricanes, since the official storm season has officially arrived and is predicted to be an active one.

Meanwhile, the 1989 Ixtoc well blowout in Mexican waters took a full ten months to plug and that was only in 150 feet of water where divers could access the wellhead. More recently a blowout in the Timor sea took five tries before a relief well properly intersected the leaking well.

A lot of people, as reported, are angry at BP for failing to stop the leak. That is stupid and nonsensical. Rest assured BP is doing all in its power to try to stop the leak; its profits, not to mention its very existence is at risk.

People are also complaining that Obama is not doing enough to stanch the flow of oil. Here too they are way off base, there’s not much he or the government can do that BP isn’t already doing. As the government has said, it has neither the equipment nor expertise to do the work.

That said, Obama is partly culpable since the public should be directing the effort and controlling the narrative. BP has consistently tried to low-ball the estimate of how much oil is flowing and held back the first release of videos of the leak until pressure from congress and independent researchers was too great for it to refuse. BP made the ridiculous excuse that they were too busy trying to stem the flow to be distracted by showing the pictures… like you can’t scratch your balls and watch TV at the same time.

The US Environmental Protection Agency told BP to use a less toxic oil dispersant, BP arrogantly ignored the EPA directive. The government wasn’t told the top kill had failed until 18 hours after the fact. Cleanup workers are regularly sickened by the spill’s fumes but BP insists they are not to use respirators, probably because it wouldn’t look good. BP is not just trying to plug the leak they are also trying to cover their ass. With the government in control and information flowing more freely, independent experts might have been able to assist the effort.

Best case scenario is that the cap works to divert most of the oil so that the gusher continues at mere disaster level instead of catastrophic level, hurricanes conveniently wait to unleash their fury until after BP lucks out with one of its first two relief wells and the leaker is plugged in August. Equally likely is that the cap doesn’t work very well, fierce storms seriously hamper the relief well effort and it takes another six months to a year to stop the flow. By then the Gulfstream current could take the oil all the way to Europe.

It ain’t over in Thailand either.

Unelected Prime Minister Abhisit probably feels really good about himself for stopping the red-shirt protest. So good, in fact, that he’s forgone seeking reconciliation and accommodation with protestors who represent the majority of Thais and instead is seeking to charge its leaders with terrorism.

All he bought with the death of 88 protesters was a little time. The Red-shirts will be back. They feel the government was stolen from them and are rightly concerned that, even with an election, it will happen again. Since the government, backed by the yellows, believes that the riff-raff that makes up the opposition is not capable of governing – not smart enough essentially - they may well try to institute some form of limited democracy. Otherwise, as mentioned previously, the reds will undoubtedly win the next election.

Back when I first went to Thailand in 1992, it’s tourist slogan, Land of Smiles, was surprisingly true. Just entering immigration the guy behind the desk was as warm, smiley and pleasant as could be. Today, you’d need to look hard to find a smile in the same circumstance, it’s all completely matter-of-fact. Tourism has tripled over the last 18 years and become boring; the immigration officers working the lines probably have limited incomes and are pissed, consciously or otherwise, at the great income disparity in their country, the worst in the region.

Even back in 1992 I was surprised at poverty levels in a place with glittering high-rises and so many cars it had possibly the worst traffic jams imaginable: In many parts of Bangkok, traffic would back up in peak hour to the point where nothing would move for nearly an hour. Meanwhile, large numbers of people were living in hovels more typical of a dirt poor country like Cambodia than up-and-coming Thailand.

At this point the common people of Thailand are tired of seeing the fruits of prosperity residing totally amongst the elite, and livid with rage at how the first Thai government ever to consider their needs was deposed by people who seek to limit democracy so they can maintain their power and status.

So it ain’t over yet, the Red-shirts will be back.

Once again Israel has resorted to brute military force to counter its opponents. Since its continuing illegal and immoral blockade of Gaza (in which items as simple as pencils, notebooks and coriander are forbidden, not to mention the cement and other building materials desperately needed to rebuild the 50,000 homes and other important structures damaged or destroying in its attack on Gaza) is not justifiable either in international law or common human decency, the only response it can make is intimidation and murder.

Israel says it was attacked, but since they confiscated all cameras and cell phones, not to mention laptops, money and all personal effects, the other side of the story can not be shown. According to eyewitness accounts, Israeli commandos started firing even before the reached the Mavi Marmara’s deck, but, of course, there is no way to visually verify that.

While everyone else in the world is calling for an independent investigation of the incident, the Obama administration, in one of the most craven acts of political cowardice every recorded, wants Israel to investigate itself. We all know the outcome of that one.

The Rachel Corrie, the last ship to try to break the blockade just yesterday, couldn’t join the flotilla because of mechanical problems. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Rachel Corrie was a young American activist who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home. She was in full view wearing bright clothes. The dozer operator chose to kill her. If you think he was ever punished for that murder, you’re living on another planet.

According to Israel the purpose of the blockade is to make life for Gazans so difficult they will turn against Hamas and choose a government more to Israel’s liking; that is, docile and subservient. It ain’t gonna happen. If it takes ten years or fifty years or a century, the Palestinians will not stop fighting for their land and freedom.

Israel likes to say it left Gaza but that’s a lie considering it still controls nearly everything that goes in or out. Israel’s plan for a two state solution to the Middle East would have the West Bank divided into three Bantustans each completely surrounded by Israeli territory thus enabling Israel the same stranglehold on the West Bank it now has on Gaza. A totally untenable non-starter.

Israel’s ongoing theft and colonization of Palestinian land in the West Bank (By the way, it’s not called the West Bank in Israel; there it’s Judea and Samaria, thus an essential part of Greater Israel) makes the two state solution impossible. What it really seeks to do is repress, harass and humiliate Palestinians to the point where they will go somewhere else; exactly where is not specified, though many Israeli Jews want to deport them all to Jordan.

As for the Free Gaza Movement, its leaders say they’ll be back next time with even more boats. They say they have many more people who want to participate in trying to break the blockade. I wish I could go myself, but all I can give is my sympathy.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Google has its good points, especially its search function, and I use it frequently, but it also includes the specter of an evil apparition, hovering over our every move, detailing our actions, creating an archive for future abuse. It also, as a purely digital entity, can be a real hassle to deal with.

My first encounter with Google was through I chose it over a fee site for two reasons in spite of the fact that the other was quite superior to Google’s blogspot in some ways – it included many more choices of layout, for instance. First, it’s free: The way my finances are I didn’t want to commit myself to paying an annual fee though it wasn’t that large, only $50 per year. Secondly, blogspot is very well known and easily recognizable by most internet users. In fact, I don’t even remember the name of the fee site, which only proves my point.

My first difficulty with Google happened when I tried to sign up for a Google account and got my two email accounts mixed up. I entered the wrong username so of course it didn’t work. It said I didn’t need a Google account to use blogspot so I signed up that way. However, every time I signed in a message came up asking me to verify my email address for a Google account so I thought I should try to do it. Unfortunately, every time I clicked on the link I was sent around in circles. I tried every which way but couldn’t get it to work.

Well, I thought, I’ll contact them and tell them what the problem is. Only problem with that is there is no way to contact them. I tried for a good 20 minutes to find a place to send an email; it was impossible. There were, undoubtedly, real people to contact at the fee blogging service. Google is so wealthy, it’s hard to understand why they couldn’t spend a little money to hire human beings for something other than programming, because sometimes programs get confused and need human intelligence to straighten things out.

My next problem had to do with a link that used to be at the top of the blog page which said, Flag this site. I wouldn’t have known what that meant except that people kept flagging my site. It had to do with reporting abuse; meanwhile there was nothing included to notify you of what the supposed abuse was or anyway to defend yourself since contacting Google is impossible. Lately, Flag this site has been replaced with, Report abuse so maybe now there’s an actual person who looks at the site before it gets blacklisted.

There are also a couple of small glitches when I enter the text for a blog. I cut and paste from a Word file but every time I go to preview the text before publishing it says, Your html is unacceptable (It’s a Word file, dummy) and I have to check the box which says ignore html.

When I write I always include a space between paragraphs because it’s much easier to read that way. When I check out the text in the preview it comes with spaces between paragraphs, but when it’s published the spaces disappear and all the paragraphs are stuck together. I have to take and add a space manually between each paragraph for it to come out right.

Now you’d think after all the crap Google put me through, when I needed a third email address for a pseudonym I would’ve chosen something other than gmail. Once again, I’m sorry I chose Google. I always avoid anything to do with Microsoft so MSN was out and Yahoo is too busy with ads and assorted gibberish. There are lots of free independent email sites but once again I thought gmail is so well known it’d be better than an obscure one. It’s also very well designed.

I realized after I sent the first email using the pseudonym that it went out under my real name. What the F..? After that I figured out how to not have my real name there. Then the first time I logged into blogspot the false name showed up and I had to correct that. Exactly what I didn’t want.

Now it’s easy to imagine how Google could mix up the two if I logged in from the same computer each time since all computers now have unique identity numbers (frightening concept). However, I do all my online stuff at internet shops so I use a different computer almost every time and besides I log in in two different cities. And, of course, there’s no way to contact them to ask why and how they are doing that. Besides, what business of theirs is it to search out and confuse and automatically use my two names without asking me first?

Actually a similar thing happens in relationship to Amazon. I’m putting my books on Kindle, Amazon’s digital reader. When I go to the Kindle page, sometimes even before I sign in, my name is there! They think they’re so smart, they can know my name before I even tell them, but it’s an uncanny digital ability just waiting for an evil intent.

Is there any possibility of privacy left on the internet? Probably not in the age of Facebook. It

took me a long time to get into the Facebook thing. I’ve had my own website for about 14

years now so I shouldn’t be very shy about being out there in public, but Facebook is different.

I don’t use it to post daily gossip the way some people do, posting only occasionally, but it’s

quite spectacular to be able to keep track of disparate groups of friends around the world. I’ve got family plus groups of friends from Portland, commune days, Kunming, Thailand and Cambodia and it’s great to see their faces and get an inkling of what they’re doing.

I occasionally flash back to people I’ve met while traveling from before the internet who I’ve lost contact with and wish they would somehow happen on to me somewhere on the internet by accident. Now with email, not to mention Facebook, it’s very easy to keep in touch all over the world. On the other hand it would also be quite easy for anyone who wanted to do me or my contacts harm to hack into my Facebook account in order to keep track of all of my circles of friends and family. I fear the lack of privacy, but also can’t see separating myself from the benefits of staying in contact.

Now Facebook wants to set it up for users to travel the internet with their Facebook identity… one frightening specter after another.

We are always going to be doing things which someone will think is wrong or inappropriate... toking up is probably the best example, but as little as advocating for change can get the authorities on your back. In America, anti-war groups are on terrorist watch lists and environmentalists are sometimes targeted as enemies of society. At every demonstration plainclothes police take videos of protesters for later targeting.

In Cambodia, the craziest things are possible but wherever we are we’re stuck. If you do much with the internet, pseudonym or not, you’ve essentially bared your soul and are challenging the powers that be to find a supposed character flaw which they can target and exploit. It may seem benign now, but times can change very quickly. And we’ll have nowhere to hide.