Archive for September, 2007


The Greed Paradox

To my mind one must draw a distinction between greed and the necessity of familial protection and self-advancement.

Firstly it goes without saying that we will protect our families and ourselves at the expense of others were this situation ever to arise. It is an example most often quoted freely by people in the affluent West who have never found themselves genuinely faced with this sort of choice as a justification for the looking after number one mentality. The reality is that in impoverished backgrounds it is people’s ability to bond together that often gets them through this sort of adversity, it at least serves to give them solidarity and therein occasionally hope. Many have said before that nothing unites like a crisis.

Secondly we will always seek knowledge, a healthy human is a curious human, we look for new challenges and to learn new things. If left bereft of learning we stagnate both physically and mentally. Humans need stimulation. Self-advancement, or self-fulfillment is a part of this, we follow what our instincts tell us will be interesting or give us some form of enjoyment, of course such pursuits are highly individual in terms of the combinations that make up everything that interests one person but we often look to enjoy with like-minded individuals. Most often the only pleasures that truly need to be enjoyed alone are entwined with the very fact of being alone, that is to say these are the pleasures of having a little time to ourselves, a little space, a chance to relax before rejoining the throng of a social hubbub.

There is a clear distinction between a path that follows these natural and biological urges and one that does so at the expense of others. The latter is a learnt characteristic, in this respect there is no selfish gene, we wish to further ourselves but cannot realistically do it all alone all the time, nor I believe do we inately do so. We are constantly looking to form groups, unions, collectives for all manner of things from work to play, from religion to recreation from when we are young right up to we die. We instinctively know that this is the most effective method of furthering ourselves and our languages are littered with sayings to support this.

‘One man is not an island’. ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. ‘Divide and rule’.

Despite this there remains a prevalent school of thought that claims greed and individualism are natural instincts. I would refute this, and I would draw upon nature to do so. The individualist approach is splintered, each loses their voice amongst the noise of others, a few may be loud enough to be heard but the majority cannot be. It is therefore largely useless to all but the select few and this is an inefficient way to do things. Nature is not known by and large for its inefficiency because evolution has weeded it out, the efficient forms of survival persist whilst the less so die out. So where does the notion of greed come from?

Young children tend to display the nurturing instinct for smaller, younger or more vulnerable peers, it is only when they feel under threat personally that they don’t generally act this way, and later once more learnt characteristics come to the fore. There is without doubt a latency within us, a potential to be selfish, to hoard at the expense of others. This tendency has led to many people and many empires overstretching themselves and exposing inefficiency which has ultimately led to their collapse. But a latency is not an inevitability. We are not pre-determined beings and therefore both good and bad potential go very often unrealised.

The PR machine for the wealthy and powerful is like them, wealthy and powerful, so we cannot expect it to be anything but good at its job. The divide and rule tactic has taken a far more systematic approach during globalisation than any could have foreseen as we are witnessing the wholescale duping of the majority across the world, and what is more it is done so efficiently that people are continuing to vote for what they believe is good for them when actually it is good only for those controlling the voting system. Remember the quote “If voting really changed anything they would have made it illegal.” If you don’t believe this is true look at where you get the information from and whether it is in their interests to be impartial.

The whole individualist mentality works on the premise of instilling in you a belief that you have some intrinsic value that is worth more than someone else, to set you apart from people who might otherwise be considered equals. Thus you are to feel that you deserve these opportunities, should you get them, then, in this frame of mind you will believe that you have earnt them and not see them as a wholly arbitrary set of circumstances related to birth, geographical position and genealogical history. All around us differences are highlighted, exposed, phrases like “clash of civilisations’ and how people ‘stick with their own.’ We are taught to look at our differences in race, in creed, in colour, in beliefs and morals, our geographical locations etc. I have already sought to identify how this can split opposition to a system as in the American presidential race.

The people who have prospered under this system against what would normally have been the accepted expectations due to their cicumstances are often the most zealous of proponents of an individualist mentality, you would expect them to be, a turkey no more votes for Christmas than someone who has benfitted from the system undermines their own legitimacy by admitting that it was all down to luck. At this point these people will interject and say that it is about taking your opportunities when they are offered but this is a subsidiary point, if you have been endowed with the skills to identify an opportunity you are already ahead of much of the world who do not have access to education and training and the only opportunity they seek is having enough food and water to survive the day.

Many do not seek to bring about a change in this system because they have been suckered into the lottery mentality. The it could be YOU way of thinking. Having seen such riches and having been brought up within a system that teaches us to value the material things as paramount we feel that because we are worth something that the opportunity will come to us eventually and therefore any change in the system will deny us what is rightfully ours. The odds of this actually happening are akin to that of the lottery itself. However sowing the seeds of hope in those who have not has kept those that have immune from what would otherwise be seen as quite natural dissatisfaction with the distribution of wealth and resources. It is the principle of dropping just enough crumbs from the big table to keep people interested without it ever being enough to make any real difference.

Song Of The Day ~ The Shins – Turn On Me

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9/11 1973

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“The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact. The very word ‘war’, therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist. … War is Peace.”

“Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

“War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. … We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. … How does one man assert his power over another … By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is inflicting pain and humiliation. … A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. … If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–for ever.”

“But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it? And yet —–!”

-George Orwell (predicted it 23 years too early)

Song Of The Day ~ Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

Brownian Motion

In a U-Turn from his opposition persona in 1987 where he called on the Evil Fascist Witch then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to accept the invitation from Labour leader Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown had said that it was right and proper for the British people to see the two protagonists debate each other. However when responding to David Cameron’s recent request for such a debate his response was that it wasn’t necessary as there were plenty of opportunities to question him at the weekly Prme Minister’s Question Time in Parliament. It is true that in 1987 Parliament was not televised and therefore PMQT was not accessible to the public as it is now, however Cameron also pointed out that in an election campaign there is no PMQT and therefore there is not the same opportunity to call to account.

Now, leaving aside my reservations of whether or not the current Parliamentary opposition are either able or willing to properly demand of the government due justification of their actions, the point of accountability and, almost equally critically, its perception is a vital one. It seems at best ostrich tactics and ambivalence toward the electorate and at worst complete disregard and contempt for them and their perception of politics and politicians. In an age where we are seeing barely 35% turnout for General Elections and at times as low as 20% for local and European elections it is baffling as to why politicians would not be bending over backwards to accommodate anything that might reawaken the public’s interest.

However what is mentioned less often in current news reports and not at all by the supposedly incandessant Tories is that Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Menzies Campbell has been calling on both leaders to join him in a debate for some time now and Cameron has not been campaigning for this tri-partite platform nor told Campbell that he will debate with him alone even if Brown is not to be drawn. Cameron instead is choosing to portray himself as the instigator of the idea and therefore the snubbed party who can take the moral high ground on camera it is the same cynical political points scoring as Brown appears to have been engaging in 20 years ago.

In a rather sublime piece of irony, which I feel cannot have been lost on the Newsnight interviewer Jeremy Paxman, the Conservative spokesman put forward for Newsnight was Michael Howard, the man who infamously ducked Paxman’s question 12 consecutive times on an interview in May 1997.

The Tory spin machine has had problems of late and been bogged down in details which they have hitherto sought to avoid at all costs, polls have been showing that in fact Brown looks to have a majority although how they can claim this when two thirds of the country won’t even vote I am not quite sure.

In the respect of the election Brown will be mindful of former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s mistake in not calling the election early in 1978 choosing to wait until the end of the governmental term in 1979 which meant he was held politically culpable for the Winter of Discontent and lost the election to the Evil Fascist Witch then Conservative leader of the opposition Margaret Thatcher. Hence the frenzied political correspondents speculating on the possibility of a snap election later this year. Frankly I believe Brown will not leave it to as much chance as an election in the current climate would be, Blair is too fresh in the memory and there are too many troops still being killed in Iraq, not that Cameron would have done any different but he does benefit from not being the one who actually sent the troops in and sadly the British populous are not known for their in-depth political comprehension.

However it’s not all doom and gloom, in the process of researching this I found this which was the funniest thing I’d seen all week! Who the feck is that geezer? Can there be a Mexican or Central American politician called Gordon Brown based on some bizarre twist of emigration fate such as the reason some Uruguayans have German names!

Song Of The Day ~ Last American Buffalo – Fon

Katrina And The Colour Of Money

In 2005 I wrote on the devastation and US response to Hurricane Katrina, (Hurricane Katrina, Further Musings, Katrina & The Waves, and Rwanda & Katrina)

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Like almost every other person on the planet with a conscience and an ounce of humanity I was appalled at the reaction of the US federal government and principally its head of state who remained on holiday whilst the humanitarian disaster continued. It wasn’t until Sept 12 2005 that Bush first went to New Orleans and by then the damage was done. It would have been inconceivable for this to have happened in the Republican heartlands or the East Coast of the US or realistically anywhere where the population wasn’t approximately 65% black, where the average wage is significantly lower than the national average.

When Bush finally went to New Orleans he stated “We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes” which is more than a tad ironic when you’re the person who has arrived somewhat after one of the most major national human catastrophes in recent memory. The situation not only made a mockery of the US’s already suspicious claims to be a genuine civilised society but exposed to what lengths the PR machine was prepared to go to for image. According to a lawyer interviewed in Spike Lee’s documentary film “When The Levees Broke” when he was passing his office on the 12th he saw the lights all on and presumed that with power back he would be able to return to work the following day however when he went in next day he found that the lights were off again, the power had been temporarily restored for the deluge of the media entourage during the Bush visit, in a cynical attempt to make it appear that the city was coming back to life.

The city was not coming back to life.

People had been shifted all around states with no semblance of logic as to where and how, families separated, children were removed from their parents and sometimes each other. These people were constantly being referred to as “Refugees” – and this made them feel even more disjointed whilst still ‘allegedly’ in their own country.

In the news over the following weeks the evacuees were already being blamed for crime. In Houston, for example, former New Orleans residents were said to be responsible for 15 murders however they also made up 18 murder victims. Of course this is seen to come as a complete surprise to the usually so law-abiding Texans, so well known for their hospitality. As an example of this Barbara Bush, whilst ‘touring’ the evacuees herded into the Houston Astrodome stadium, gave her perception of the situation – “They all want to stay in Texas, they’re so impressed by the hospitality here, many of these people were underprivileged anyway so this is working out well for them” The evacuees on the other hand were somewhat more circumspect, one remarked “If they wanted us in New Orleans they wouldn’t have tried to drown us and kill us, so I’m not going back so they can finish the job” Obviously Barbara Bush didn’t talk to any of the insignificant minority who thought this or it might have shattered her illusion of magnanimity.

House searches undertaken in New Orleans were generally inadequate many houses were locked and when family members returned to them they found they were still locked and no effort had been made to gain entry, some houses had been just left, in many cases bodies were still being found by citizens, often relatives of the owners, days, weeks even in a few cases anything up to 6 months after the event, despite markings on the house implicitly stating Task Force teams had found no bodies inside.

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Funding was not given to Louisiana medical examiners to use the DNA database held by the state police until Dec 2005 which prevented many bodies from being identified and caused much pain and distress to those who had missing or deceased family members.

The people who had been moved out were in many instances forced to be living off charity, they had only been given one way tickets in the first place, some people were still in hotels months later until FEMA pulled the plug and stated that they would no longer be footing bills for their hotel rooms on Feb 7th. It is astonishing that people remained incarcerated in hotel rooms 5 months later. This is not atypical of the rebuilding process which in 2006 was hardly proceeding apace.

In August 2006 only approximately 1/6 of public school children previously resident in the surrounding areas had returned so not enough funding was available to improve resources to tempt back more. As a consequence 2 years on it is estimated that only 40% of children have returned. This is part of the very vicious circle that is facing New Orleans at present. Parents will not bring their children back until the education infrastructure is there to accommodate their children, this infrastructure cannot be provided by local means if the children are not there that enable them to receive per capita state/national funding. Overall New Orleans remains at only 68% of its pre-Katrina population compared for example to Biloxi, Mississippi which is estimated to have between 90-95%. This is unsurprising when one looks at the claims that Mississippi has been treated somewhat differently to Lousiana and in particular, New Orleans. In Mid January 2006 40,000 trailers were requested from FEMA for both Mississippi and Louisiana – Mississippi received 33,000 whilst Louisiana received 3,000 over the same period. It is roughly estimated that over 60,000 people are still in “temporary” FEMA trailers with FEMA figures declaring 17,149 units throughout Mississippi. Added to this FEMA are now having to investigate over 1500 complaints of formaldehyde gas emissions from trailers. E-mails uncovered during a congressional investigation into the trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. On June 15, 2006, one FEMA lawyer advised the agency “do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . Once you get the results and should they indicate a problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them”. A day later, FEMA’s Office of General Council advised an agency employee not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.

A study recently conducted by The Institute for Southern Studies claims that of the $116 billion in funds allocated for the recovery, less than 30% has gone towards long-term rebuilding and of that 30% only a fraction has actually been spent. The same report suggests that FEMA has spent over $7 billion of the disaster recovery fund on administrative costs. Unlike in the cases of 9/11 in New York and Florida’s rebuilding post Hurricane Andrew where local government obligations to match a defined percentage of federal government money were waived Louisiana was initially required to stump up 25% in advance though this was later lowered to 10%.

The federal government remain unsympathetic White House recovery czar Don Powell says $96 billion of the $114 billion committed to the region has already been distributed or made available to local governments. Powell implied that local leaders, particularly in Louisiana where recovery has been slower, were to blame if the money had not made it to citizens. In a recent survey carried out by CNN 52% of Americans felt that the federal government had not done enough to rebuild the areas devastated by Katrina.

In addition companies carrying out the rebuilding costs are entitled to charge the taxpayer for overruns and guaranteeing profits which can hardly be especially conducive to work being carried out on time. Not only that but only 12.5% of these rebuilding contracts were awarded to local firms.

In terms of housing the outlook is particularly bleak since most insurance policies won’t pay for flood damage. In July 2006 legal cases lodged as to whether damage was ‘hurricane damage’ or ‘flood damage’ because the insurers were claiming that most of the damage done to housing was caused by flooding and were somehow expecting to disassociate this flooding with the hurricane. Of course one could claim that the flooding was due to negligence on the part of the US Corps Of Engineers but the Corps of Engineers are fortunately for them immune to being sued and cannot be held liable for damages from the floods.

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The Lower 9th Ward was one of the worst affected areas, it was also a ward populated by the poor, predominantly black, with low-cost, low value housing. It has in many parts been left deserted and wrecked. However it is not forgotten, the Lower 9th constitutes especially marketable real estate were flood defences to be in place. The area has large sections of waterfront land on the gulf coast and it is no surprise to hear that developers are wooing politicians with schemes to “regenerate” the land. Suffice to say they are not planning to do so for the good of the former residents. Land-grabbers are keen to speculate on the future regentrification of the Lower 9th because on account of the failed insurance claims etc. people are being told their property is worth nothing and good only for bulldozing en masse.

Of course one should not be especially surprised that the rebuilding process was slow and aimless, since this somewhat replicates the way New Orleans and Louisiana had previously been treated by the federal government.

New Orleans was the archetypal marginalised city, population 67-70% black, a 60% drop out rate in schools. Despite having oil reserves (25% off US natural gas and domestic oil produced off coast of Louisiana) it does not benefit from the same terms enjoyed by Texas or New Mexico as statutes state that if the resource is more than 3 miles off the coast the revenue goes directly to the federal government and not the State government.

The levees built by the Corps Of Engineers have been almost unanimously criticised even by some within the Corps itself. A US Army report, some 6000 pages long published in June 2006 admitted that there had been “catastrophic failure”.

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The levees were only 10 feet deep rather than the 17 feet deep that they should have been. They are supposed to be in deep earthen reinforcing but this was not done and therefore the anchoring mechanism was insufficient which led directly to the water cascading underneath having breached the levees rather than merely over the top. Category 3 levees according to specifications are to be 4 ft wide for every 1 ft height, if there is not sufficient state-owned land to allow this it is supposed to be purchased to ensure it. This was not done and effectively New Orleans was “protected” by some walls. Although much is documented of the breaches in the main 3 places, the Orleans Ave canal, the London Ave canal and the 17th street canal the levees were actually breached in 53 different places on August 29. 2005 resulting in 80% of New Orleans being submerged. It appears purely because of the reluctance to pay the full cost of building proper defences 1,577 people lost their lives in Louisiana with over 700 in New Orleans alone.

In 2005 Corps of Engineers claimed they would have the levees back to their pre-Katrina conditions by June 1 2006 (the start of hurricane season) despite pre-Katrina conditions being clearly insufficient to stop any hurricane of the magnitude of Katrina or Rita both of which affected the region in 2005. In March 2006 the Corps of Engineers was forced to admit that parts of East New Orleans (the low-lying area) was still vulnerable if another hurricane hit the city on same course as Katrina had done. In 2006 at that point the prediction was that the hurricane season was likely to be a bad one. People are still living in cramped FEMA trailers and many of these are close to 17th Street Canal, an area where the defences are still described by many as insufficient and one of the areas highlighted as such by the Corps of Engineers in March 2006.

There are examples of isolated bright spots, of things being done, people stepping in and fashioning solutions. Brad Pitt who owns a house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, has been touring the city of late and expressing his frustration at the lack of progress. Pitt brought publicity to the eco house project being built by Global Green in Holy Cross ward, part of the Lower Ninth and described it as “a man-made solution” to Katrina which was in his words a “man-made problem.” However whilst this effort for sustainable housing and its provision for those on low-incomes it is a futile effort if work is not done properly to stop the waters coming again.

The actual human cost of Hurricane Katrina is incalculable, the deaths in 2005 are but one part of it. According to Louisiana State Medical Examiner there were a great many instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in those present when Katrina made landfall, hardly surprising when you consider what so many have been through and what they have seen. This raises the question what is being done to cater for the emotional needs of these people in a country without adequate healthcare provision for the poor? Add to this the fact that 10 of New Orleans 23 hospitals remain closed. Those on long-term medication for mental health and the like are probably those from the worst-hit areas, the poorest areas in a city with above average poverty already.

As if there wasn’t enough bad news, there is the case of the environmental impact of the New Orleans wetlands erosion – the wetlands area is being dredged for oil, gas and navigation purposes. As a direct consequence this has lessened the Louisiana coast’s natural defences because the wetlands are a vital part of that natural system which serves to dissipate adverse weather systems. Oh and don’t forget sea levels are up and this is a well-known area for hurricanes.

As a contrast in 2006 a Louisiana delegation went to look at flood protection in the Netherlands, a country with a vested interest in sea defences being largely below sea level. They found that the standard was to be built to withstand anything up to a 1 in 10,000 year event. The delegation reported that it was a massively higher specced system than was even contemplated for the Louisiana gulf coast.

I was going to add to this the details about Hurricane Rita but I’ve got information overload and I’m tired now!

Song Of The Day ~ Bob Dylan – The Levee’s Gonna Break