Monday, July 8, 2013

I've Got Nothing to Hide

I’m not concerned about PRISM, the massive illegal, unconstitutional secret spying program carried out by the NSA, because I have nothing to hide. I know the national security establishment sees environmentalists as threats and often places agents provocateurs amongst their midst, but I don’t care, I never attend environmental protests or demonstrations or sign petitions or do Facebook likes for those kinds of groups. Besides I trust that the government and corporations working together will always do their best to protect the environment.
Ditto with anti-war protesting. Since America’s $700b annual war budget is almost exclusively oriented towards the War on Terror (there are no state enemies of the US) it stands to reason that anti-warriors are also anti-America and unpatriotic. So why bother offering a target to the anti-terrorism police.
I don’t picket in solidarity with union strikers since there are always plainclothes cops taking pictures of everybody who attends. I don’t sign petitions proposing marijuana be legalized because even in states whose people have voted in favor of legal pot, the feds are out trying to bust people. Obama, America’s first president who has openly admitted to smoking pot and who stated clearly that he’s not going after potheads because he has ‘bigger fish to fry’, doesn’t seem to be able or willing to control the DEA. Hmmm, maybe I do have something to hide, but I’m a white, normal-looking geezer and cops never go after people like myself and maybe the whole War on Drugs paradigm will change before I get busted. I’ll just have to watch what I say and who I talk to and always be cryptic in my messages. Anyway that’s a small thing.
Of course, mistakes do happen, as in the case of Mahar Arar, a telecoms engineer who was returning home to Canada from a vacation in Tunis. He was detained en route in New York on false intelligence that he was connected to terrorism, held in isolation in NY for two weeks without access to a lawyer and then rendered to Syria where he was beaten and tortured for ten months until Syria realized he really didn’t have anything to hide. Our US government insists he was deported, not rendered but wouldn’t ship him forward to Canada whose passport he was traveling on and where he’d lived for the previous 15 years, but to Syria where he hadn’t set foot since he’d left 15 years earlier (He has a dual Canadian/Syrian citizenship only because Syria doesn’t allow people to renounce citizenship). After all, Canada wasn’t going to try to torture a confession out of him, so what good would that have been?
Mistakes do happen but that’s a small price to pay to keep America safe and not a good enough reason to honor basic human rights first declared in the 13th century Magna Carta and further enunciated in the US Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. Habeas Corpus, the requirement that government actually charge a person they wish to detain, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment; right to counsel, unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause, due process: all, paraphrasing the Bush administration: quaint relics of the past in an age where the specter of terrorism haunts every government action.
Maher Arar was told he didn’t have a right to a lawyer because he wasn’t an American citizen. That’s because other people don’t deserve the same rights as American citizens; that is, when we can even honor rights for Americans. You see, the War on Terrorism is so important that nobody can be afforded rights that might hold back our heroic efforts. That’s why our president must have the right to use drones to kill anybody, anywhere - US citizens included – who we suspect may be bad guys. We don’t have to be sure because that might let bad guys escape to do their nefarious deeds. Needless to say, Obama loses a lot of sleep over who goes on his kill list every time he makes that choice and he feels especially bad when large numbers of innocents are obliterated, as when whole wedding parties are bombed to smithereens, but they should know by now that gathering in large groups is suspicious activity and our government can’t take a chance in that situation. He also agonizes over incidents when first responders rushing to a bomb site with the idea of helping the injured are bombed in turn. But who, after all, is going to be there to help the bad guys except other bad guys?  Due process? Once again a quaint relic of a simpler past when our country is in such immediate danger.
The cost of the War on Terror may be great, but think of the 4000 or so Americans who’ve died at the hands of those bad guys over the last 20 years. Besides, if we don’t get every last one, something really bad might happen. So what if it costs $80 billion? – or some big amount anyway, it’s hard to know exactly with all the necessary secrecy which surrounds our efforts.
I know some people will question the wisdom of spending so much on anti-terror when only $565 million is spent on preventing industrial accidents which each year in the U.S. take the lives of 55,000 people and make sick or injure an additional 4 million or so, but that’s the breaks, you can’t really have a dynamic, healthy economy when there are too many regulations and there is too much surveillance. Moreover, workers don’t have to take those dangerous jobs, they can just work elsewhere. Anyway terror is a lot more frightening and galvanizing so it’s just natural it would garner hundreds of times the funding.
I know a lot of you will vehemently oppose what I’ve had to say and you’ve every right to express your opinions, but just between you and me, I’d hesitate to express those views anywhere on the internet or on telephone or anywhere in a public building or in proximity to a spy cam or whatever… you never know, you just never know.
Meanwhile, I have nothing to hide, or not much, and besides I trust the government will always be fair and reasonable and only use the information it’s gathering for good ends. Even if they make a mistake now and then and target and harass and torture or even kill a poor hapless innocent, I won’t hold it against them because it’s all for an important patriotic cause.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Race to the Bottom, Bangladesh and Cambodia

Race to the bottom refers to governments competing for jobs by offering corporate subsidies and in the case of poor countries, repressed workers who work cheap and don’t cause problems. It’s not a phenomenon that applies only to poor countries as US states and municipalities also lavish corporations with public money to lure their facilities. The competition that Boeing set up when it wished to move its corporate headquarters provides one of the most egregious examples. They didn’t look around for the best location, they searched out suitable locations and chose the one that offered the biggest subsidy. Did they really need to do that? Was the corporation going through hard times and requiring a handout? Was it really right for the people of Chicago where Boeing landed – many of whom are in difficult straits, not to mention the city itself which has mountainous social and financial problems - to spoon feed one of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations? And yet that’s where we’ve descended as a society – starve the poor to feed the rich. I’m not referring just to America here, but a large part of the world has adopted that corporate philosophy.
In Cambodia, race to the bottom involves granting tax holidays of 5 or 7 years to new factories. Recently a minister mused that Cambodia should end those generous tax benefits since the country really needs to increase revenue. He want on to speculate that many businesses close up and move when the tax holiday ends, with some merely changing their names and starting over with new tax breaks. The news article then pointed out that all the neighboring countries do the same, so it might be difficult to implement such a change. Public subsidies for private businesses is just as evil in a developed country like the US as in Cambodia, but at least workers in the US pay income taxes to make up part of the shortfall in revenue. In Cambo workers are too poor to pay taxes so all the additional costs caused by providing infrastructure to the new factories or education for worker’s children, etc. is born by the people as a whole. Bangladesh also provides tax holidays of 5 years to new businesses. Countries get jobs for their people, a good thing for sure, but not the money to provide social services to improve their lives.
Bangladesh has been in the news a lot lately. In its desperation to provide jobs for its people, one of the world’s poorest, they’ve gone through great lengths to repress worker’s rights and income, thinking that was the way to make international corporations happy, since that gives them the ability to provide extra cheap garments for people in rich countries. The country is also hopelessly corrupt, which means common sense safety rules are routinely and easily ignored, like having factory doors locked so when a fire erupts, workers have no exit. They do that to prevent workers skipping out surreptitiously and to prevent theft. Late last year more than 100 workers died for that very reason. They can do that because small bribes there can solve all problems.
More recently, more than eleven hundred workers died in a building collapse in which multiple illegal and/or unethical and/or corruption factors were involved. In the first place the factory was built on a former wetland, which doesn’t automatically preclude developing an 8 story building there but does require extra care and higher costs in construction, which obviously didn’t happen in that case. Secondly, the building permit was issued by the local jurisdiction, though only the central government is authorized to do so for that type of building. The area is not zoned for industry so the building should’ve never been allowed in the first place. The permit was for a 5 story building to which an extra 3 stories were added illegally. None of those reasons would have necessarily caused the building to collapse if it had been designed properly for its purpose.
Corruption takes on many guises. In South Asia – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal – corruption is social and ethical as well as financial. For instance, during the great flood in Pakistan in 2011, people who lost everything were denied basic food aid if they couldn’t show ID. Their whole lives had been washed away but they didn’t qualify for basic sustenance because of bureaucratic callousness and intransigence. In India, it takes 29 permits to open a supermarket, each one in a different office requiring a separate bribe unless the permit seeker is willing to wait interminable lengths of time for the permits.
The following is an experience I had at the Kathmandu Post Office on my first trip there in 1992; I doubt if it’s changed all that much. I was sending some paintings to the states in a mailing tube. I went into the office and stood in one of three lines with my package. When I got to the front – it took a while, there were about 10 people ahead of me – I was told I was in the wrong line, so I went over to the correct one. When I got to the window the clerk weighed the package, put a little scribble on it and told me to go to another line. A little odd, but okay, next line, another long wait, the clerk looks at the scribble and sells me stamps and tells me to put them on the tube and to go to a third line to mail it. What? All that rigmarole to mail one package? Well, at the time the largest denomination stamp had minimal value so I had to practically fill up the tube with stamps. That required that I separate long strips of stamps from a whole sheet and a half of them. In the process, I ripped off a very small portion of the corner of two of them, partly because they were printed on low quality paper. I thought nothing of it, but when I got to the head of the third line where the stamps were to get postmarked, the package was rejected for the two little corners that had gotten ripped off. Well, I freaked, said some decidedly unkind words to the clerk and stormed out, only to be forced to return some days later if I actually was going to get the thing mailed.
In all three cases you have bureaucracy run amok, seemingly almost gleefully devising rules designed to harass the citizen, and by the way stymieing growth, progress and advancement. That is in contrast to Cambodia where the permit process, with a little facilitating money thrown in, is very speedy and hassle free. Bureaucracy here also has its flexibility. For example, recently the process for obtaining a license plate for motorbikes was changed in a way that required long waits in an uncomfortable setting and was very confused since the government hadn’t properly made the process clear. Previously one paid an agent who charged a little extra but did all the paperwork and the plate was obtained very quickly. After a week of complaints the process was simplified and streamlined.
My personal experience with Bangladesh is very limited but telling nonetheless. The first time was in 1992 when I chose to fly Biman Air, the Bangladesh national carrier, from Bangkok to Calcutta, to save money. That involved a long layover in Dhaka. During the wait, I was able to observe the main waiting room being expanded right outside the big picture window. They - mostly women - were bringing concrete for the floor by carrying one bucket at a time on their heads up a flight of stairs... at an international airport.
I used Biman a second time in 2000, also to save money. On that trip I spent overnight till mid-morning in Dhaka at a special hotel run by the airline near the airport. The special hotel was supposed to be for emergency use only when flight connections didn’t happen, but obviously wasn’t an emergency in our case. This time it was a flight from BKK to Kathmandu, but since they had little traffic on the Dhaka-Kathmandu leg they used us travelers to add to the nearly empty plane. They served us a very simple dinner and breakfast the next morning and I got to walk around the neighborhood for about two hours before the mid-morning flight. The meal served to the hotel staff consisted of rice colored with spices and a small amount of eggs, no vegetables or meat... not much to it.
Though the immediate area around the hotel was middle class, just a short distance away the poverty was impressive even compared to India. One picture that stands out in my mind was seeing people breaking up new bricks with small sledgehammers, which I assumed was to take the place of construction rock. Almost the entire country consists of the vast delta formed at the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Except for some foothills in the north and far southeast of the country, there’s just no place to quarry rock. Being a delta makes it a very fertile land, but it’s also one of the most crowded places on Earth. It has a population of about 160 million in an area the size of Wisconsin in the US – about 55,000 square miles or 135,000 square kilometers. It’s about 2/3 the size of Cambodia which has less than one tenth the people.
The industrial makeup of Bangladesh is very similar to Cambodia’s. In both cases garments make up 80% of export earnings. Bangladesh’s garment industry is ten times the size of Cambodia’s, which matches the population differential. Per capita income is very similar - $2000 for Bangladesh, $2400 for Cambodia - based on Purchasing Power Parity which is a better indicator of wealth than merely converting to US dollars.
Treatment of workers, however, has been very different. Minimum wage in Bangladesh’s garment industry was recently raised from $25 per month to $38, whereas Cambodia’s wage was recently raised from $61 to $75 – almost twice as much though Cambodia’s income is only 20% larger. Where the countries diverge is in worker’s rights. Cambo, being dependent on the international community for the last 20 years was forced to allow unions and today the entire industry is unionized with several unions vying for worker support. Some buyers, like The Gap, for instance, purposely have located here so they can say the workers that make their clothes have the right to join unions and are treated fairly. Cambodia’s garment workers are not at all shy about work stoppages and asserting their rights. Manufacturers and the government don’t like it, but they live with it.
In contrast, Bangladesh has prohibited all union organizing. Change towards improving worker rights is being talked about with the recent disasters affecting so many workers. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that unionized workers would’ve refused to enter the building that later collapsed. It was evacuated the day before because of serious cracks in the concrete, but workers were told they had to return to work. With no rights whatever and in fear of their jobs, they felt they had no choice.
At the time of the collapse, I was thinking that it couldn’t happen here, or at least wasn’t very likely, but then in quick succession two events in Cambodia caused death and injury. In the first an illegally constructed mezzanine floor collapsed killing two and injuring another 20 or so and then only four days later a dining area on a raised platform fell down and injured about two dozen. Both were cases of shoddy construction and careless thinking. Still a sharp contrast to the large numbers killed in Bangladesh. There, because of extreme population density, they have no choice but to build multistory. There’s no way they could take very large greenfields, as in Cambodia, to build one story factories.
Multistory factories in themselves are no problem but require good design and conscientious engineering. They’re an efficient use of land and in some ways, in my mind, preferred to sprawling Cambodia style factories build on open land in the middle of nowhere. Many Cambo workers are forced to travel as much as two hours each way to get to work, a tremendous burden added to an already long workday. The industry of late has been having difficulty recruiting workers; getting to the worksite is one of the drawbacks of current development.
Even if only one story, it’d be far preferable to locate compact factories in or close to population centers. There’s a factory located close to the heart of Kampot which, until recently, employed about 300 workers (I’m not sure why it closed down). The vast majority of its workers were within 15 minutes of the factory by walking, bicycling or motorbike.
Cambodia and many other places in the world are being designed as if fossil fuels will always be cheap and easily available, a dubious proposition at best. They’re obviously oblivious to shortages that are inevitable and not in the distant future.
In America, good planning principles encourage industrial zones near the heart of the city since that’s where the workers are. Industrial jobs need to be balanced with retail, commercial and office jobs since there are a lot of people who are not suited to the latter. Having people travel long distances to work is never a good idea for the individuals involved or the increase in traffic that results. A few years ago a multistory garment factory employing hundreds of workers which was located on Street 51 in the center of Phnom Penh was replaced with an English school. Few would suggest that a garment factory is a better use of very valuable land in that location than an English school but it made it possible for large numbers of workers to easily get to work. Instead factories are being built 20, 30, 40 kilometers from the city in former rice paddies. This will at some point constitute a big problem.