Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on August 21st, 2006
Paul Krugman today has an interesting take on yesterday's news that the I.R.S will be outsourcing the collection of back taxes to private debt collection agencies today.
"It’s an awful idea. Privatizing tax collection will cost far more
than hiring additional I.R.S. agents, raise less revenue and pose
obvious risks of abuse. But what’s really amazing is the extent to
which this plan is a retreat from modern principles of government. I
used to say that conservatives want to take us back to the 1920’s, but
the Bush administration seemingly wants to go back to the 16th century.
And privatized tax collection is only part of the great march backward."
Creating a profit incentive for debt agencies to go after taxpayers is just another step – in concert with wiretapping, for example – in institutionalizing the corporate-government war on the individual. And in handing over "public good" duties to corporations, to whom the very concept of public good runs counter to the profit motive at the center of their identity. Of course the biggest tax cheats in America are corporations and millionaires with abusive tax shelters and the means to exploit every loophole available to them. Will the collection agencies turn on their fellow corporations?
Krugman notes what CorpWatch has been tracking for years: that we are already outsourcing the dirty bits of war to private security contractors (or "mercenaries"), seriously considering privatizing Social Security, handing contracts out for public infrastructure and utilities, and otherwise privatizing some of the most basic responsibilities of government.
But the potential for abuse is staggering. Imagine the collection agencies that win these contracts - certainly, in keeping with the pattern established in federal contracting in Iraq, Afghanistan and the American Gulf Coast. They will be overwhelmingly those that have been profligate in their financial support of the campaigns that won their new bosses office in Washington. So is it much of a stretch to imagine that those same agencies might single out of aggressive collection those individuals and organizations who criticize and challenge the same administration?
Get Hoffa Into Hair & Makeup, Stat!
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on August 10th, 2006
When employees of the show America's Next Top Model walked out and began picketing the production, we had a real-life labor struggle, right there in Hollywood!
The Writer's Guild of America has been trying to unionize reality TV for two years, arguing that staffers who concoct challenges and situations in which the "real" drama unfolds and then patch hundreds of hours of footage into a compelling episode, are in fact storytellers in a sense, and should thereby be represented by the WGA.
Some of the models on the show have joined the picket lines in sympathy. Unsurprisingly, they are getting a lot more attention than most picketers we ever see. Those Chilean miners just don't look as good with pluging necklines and empire waists.
A Monkey Could Hack That Voting Machine
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on August 1st, 2006
The Open Voting Foundation has discovered that those notorious Diebold electronic voting machines can be made to behave in a completely different manner than the tested and certified models with the flip of a simple switch.
If you have access to these machines and you want to rig an election,
anything is possible with the Diebold TS -- and it could be done
without leaving a trace. All you need is a screwdriver.” This model
does not produce a voter verified paper trail so there is no way to
check if the voter’s choices are accurately reflected in the tabulation.
You will recall that the CEO of Diebold, Wally O'Dell, pledged millions to the Bush campaign ahead of the 2004 election and told the president that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," just as the company was pushing its paperless voting system on the state oh Ohio - a crucial swing state.
The machines have had spectacular failure rates, and Diebold has repeatedly resisted calls for it to supply a paper trail for its systems, so votes can be verified in the case of a dispute. O'Dell has since left the company, but there is reason for cynicism still - Diebold controls half the market for electronic voting machines and in the wake of the 2000 fiasco in Florida (think butterfly ballots), Congress is pushing states to invest in computerizing elections.
Concerns have resulted in more careful testing and certifcation of the machines to prevent errors, but this new discovery makes the entire certification process moot. A simple flick of a switch makes the machines eminently hackable and elections supremely fixable. Be afraid.
(Thanks to BoingBoing.)
Murdoch Censors MySpace?
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on July 17th, 2006
We knew no good could come of Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of MySpace, the popular community web space, and of course we were right.
Last week, following the sad demise of the net neutrality amendment at the hands of Big Telecom and Big Media, the web was alive with the video of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska explaining why equal access to the Internet is bad, because it clogs the system. He explained how it took him a long time to get an email (Stevens called it "an internet") from his staff because it was getting tangled up in all of the stuff on the web.
Apparently feeling the American people did not understand what the Internet is and needed to have it explained to them by an expert such as himself, Stevens described the netwrk as a "system of tubes." His jolly cluelessness has made for tons of fun for bloggers and other web denizens, including a MySpacer who put Stevens' embarrassing video on his page, along with a groovy backbeat.
The page was exceedingly popular. Too popular apparently. MySpace deleted the user's page and all of its contents. MySpace spokespeople have since claimed the enitre incident was the result of a glitch. Uh huh.
Funny, That Wasn't in the Manual
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on July 17th, 2006
The least they could do is improve the healthcare coverage, then:
ST-JEAN-SUR-RICHELIEU, QUE. — Managers at a local
Wal-Mart forced employees to search the store after it received a bomb
threat, Radio-Canada reported Monday.
Some 40 nervous employees searched the store for an hour last
Thursday, said Mailie Fournier, a former employee of the store. They
were accompanied by six police officers.
Several employees, whose jobs don't include security, found the experience traumatic, said Mr. Fournier.
The incident prompted Quebec workplace health and safety board to investigate.
Wal-Mart said it simply wanted to help police conduct the search.
Iraq Wounded Fight for Insurance Coverage
Posted by David Phinney on July 12th, 2006
CBS Evening News and ABC Nightline are both working stories about wounded civilian contractors fighting for insurance coverage from their employers.
It's a very rich story. The Pentagon's privatizing of military support services may or may not save money, but it certainly does privatize the human toll of war.
Civilians are coming home by the thousands with injuries sustained in Iraq. Whenever the Pentagon and the news media report US casualties -- the 500 dead (or more) working under US contractors are ignored.
The story is also a nightmare for many civilians serving in Iraq. A good number of them went to Iraq because they were making good money -- and, as the president told them, "major combat is over."
Thousands are suffering from battle fatigue -- once known as soldier's heart and now even more widely known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Veterans struggled with the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs for years to get the acknowledgement and support for the debilitating condition. PTSD is one reason for the huge homeless problem among Vietnam vets.
Now civilian contractors are fighting the same battle -- not to mention the struggle to get coverage and disability benefits for physical injury.
(The first story to tackle the issue of civilians fighting for their insurance payments, Adding Insult to Injury, appeared under my byline. Just one of many stories framed by me that set the tone for major news organizations to follow. Anytime you guys want to send a check or share some credit, please do.)
My understanding is that both CBS and ABC are relying heavily on two fabulously strong sources for their insurance angles: Jan Crowder and Houston attorney Gary Pitts.
Jana runs several Web sites to help support contractors working in Iraq and their families, most notably Contractors in Iraq. Gary Pitts represents dozens of clients suing companies for their coverage. Jana, me and CorpWatch regularly refer potential clients to him.
While ABC and CBS will undoubtedly focus on KBR truck drivers (some riveting amateur video of insurgent attacks shot by truckers is available -- and in the hands of CBS), there are plenty of other companies in the same pickle, including Titan, which provides translators to the Army in Iraq. The San Diego Union ran an excellent series on the issue.
Ding Dong ...
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on July 6th, 2006
I admit when I heard that Ken Lay had died, I sat bolt upright in bed and then wondered what to think. No more. The bastard flipped America - and especially the thousands of peniless ex-Enron employees, and the entire state of California - a final bird. Not a day in jail. Not another penny to the people he stole from.
Perhaps what shocked me most was the discovery that the convicted felon was at home in Aspen, Colorado when he died, out on a $5 million bond while awaiting sentencing. How, I wondered, could this little man who claimed to be $250,000 in debt, be living so high, just a month post-conviction? Ah, the American legal system. Had Lay been, say, an African American looter in New Orleans, he'd have died in a rat-infested cell.
And, lookee here: poor, poor Kenny-Boy had a Goldman Sachs investment account worth over $6 million when he died. Woe was he, indeed.
Now we learn that the civil suits aimed at collecting some of Lay's ill-gotten assets for the benefit of those bilked by his scheming may be dropped. Lay's wife, who stands to inherit the estate, will likely keep it all. This is the woman who staged the most grotesque PR stunt ever when she opened a second-hand store (called, repulsively, "Jus' Stuff" to sell of trinkets from the Lays' 15 homes, claiming she was destitute.
It is infuriating, particularly if you don't believe in karma, or hell, or any other means of divine retribution available after the grave. It almost makes you believe he died on purpose.
Is Wal-Mart Good for You?
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 27th, 2006
"Progressive" economist Jason Furman and Barbara Ehrenreich are currently engaged in an eye-opening dialogue over at Slate. He presents the old red-herring argument that boils down to "What do you elitist liberals have against saving working people money?"
He makes some points I'll concede that I think critics should internalize: it isn't the low prices we object to, it's the way Wal-Mart treats people. If anything, the efficiencies that allow Wal-Mart to have such low prices do not require that the company abuse its employees, fail to provide a living wage or the most basic benefits, or to source product from factories that abuse people oversees. Wal-Mart's low prices, and its low regard for its own employees has been proven to depress wages in the communities where it operates. If Wal-Mart is so clever, why doesn't it innovate when it comes to how it treats human beings? Why doesn't it spend as much money actually improving communities as it does telling us about how it improves communities?
How We Got Here: Post-Doctoral Division
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 16th, 2006
The New Left Review will either excite or exhaust your brain. But if you want to see the rise of capitalism on a global scale through the eyes of an economist who speaks economese, this is your guy: Robin Blackburn. I'm not saying I understood the whole thing (I wonder if many outside the ivy-clad ivory towers could), but the whole issue of how corporations came to be the driving force in almost everything in the world, and how money became both the ends and the means to all things, is somewhere here between the lines.
The NLR summarizes the piece thusly: "The concept of alternative futures, banished from postmodernity’s
eternal present, flourishes on the financial summits of the global
economy. Robin Blackburn argues against a neo-Luddite dismissal of the
new financial engineering techniques by the Left, while coolly
assessing the economic and social costs of their current configurations."
Uh-huh. I almost said that.
The gist is, once you see everything - people, the environment, cultures - as commodities, it all makes perfect sense. Of course, money doesn't have a soul.
Therefore, this begins to appear to be a genius corporate philosophy:
In the years 2001–03 about three million jobs were lost in the United
States. By the turn of the century Enron’s managers had become famous
for a regime in which each employee knew that one tenth of the staff,
those who failed to reach trading targets, would be sacked each year,
no matter how good or bad the overall performance. Many of the most
powerful corporations today do their best to avoid having a workforce;
instead they out-source and sub-contract.
We've seen see how well that works.
Ultimately, the soveriegnty of financial institutions that make this entire "financialization" thing work, actually causes corporations and the system they have creates, self-destruct (see Enron, WorldCom, Delphi et al):
[F[inancial profits over the last
decade have mainly taken the form of the cancellation of promises made
to employees—exploitation over time—the erosion of small capital
holdings by large and unscrupulous money managers and the swallowing of
shoals of tiny fish by a shark-like financial services industry. Few of
the gains from the reallocation of capital through superior risk
assessment have been channelled to production. Financial profits have
instead prompted a surge in upscale real-estate prices and the turnover
of the luxury goods sector. The mass of employees and consumers have
sunk deeper into debt. Yawning domestic inequalities have been
compounded by escalating international imbalances, with an inflow of
foreign capital covering a deficit on the us
current account. With a sagging dollar, an oil price shock and rising
interest rates, American households—the consumers of first and last
resort—are likely to find the strain of carrying the world on their
shoulders ever more difficult. Financialization promotes such a skewed
distribution of income that it ends by undermining its own
Took the words right out of my mouth.
Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out ... Wait ... In?
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 15th, 2006
Thank you PR Watch for noting, via O'Dwyer's PR Daily, the increasingly obscene revolving-door scenarios in Washington:
Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's lobbying firm, the Ashcroft Group, has been hired by General Dynamics to represent it on "trade and defense issues," reports O'Dwyer's PR Daily. Working on the account are Juleanna Glover Weiss, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former press secretary; Lori Day Sharp, who worked under Ashcroft at the Justice Department; and Willie Gaynor, a former Commerce Department official who was western finance director for the 2004 Bush campaign. The Washington Times reports that General Dynamics "received a $30.7 million U.S. Navy contract last week and was selected -- along with Lockheed Martin in Bethesda -- to submit a bid to design and implement part of the government's Integrated Wireless Network. ... The steady stream of orders from the U.S. Army -- which now total about 25 percent of the company's sales -- provides a solid base that will continue for years. ... The defense contractor's net sales have more than doubled since 2000 to $21.24 billion last year."
Seducing Kids with Smokes, Gambling, and Booze
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 11th, 2006
Back in the day, tobacco companies used quaint tactics to hook kids on their deadly wares: cartoon character spokescamels and candy-flavored tobacco. The former, being rather blatant, was outlawed - the latter is still considered a stealthy way to capture a youth market, especially in the developing world.
R.J. Reynolds, of spokescamel fame, has come up with a new way to tap into kids' yearning to seem grown up: booze-flavored cigarettes with a gambling theme. Part of its new line of "Exotic Blends" are flavors such as "Screwdriver Slots," "Blackjack Gin," and "SnakeEyes Scotch." A trifecta of dangerous legal addictions.
Of course, Reynolds claims it is only aiming for the "young adult" demographic, but I can smell the cigarette smoke and mirrors as well as the next guy. This Italian blog has a great graph that shows that children aged 17 (who are not allowed to buy cigarettes legally in all 50 of the United States) like flavored cigarettes almost as much as young adults 18-20 years old. After 20, the taste for novelty smokes appears to wear off as the addiction sets in.
The malignant shamelessness on display here is nothing new. Let us not forget the days when cigarette companies actually talked up the health benefits of their products. Some things never change, they just put on new thin veils.
Who Slipped Koppel a Mickey?
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 22nd, 2006
OK, I have to start just assuming that ted Koppel, once the lovably goofy nerd who dared ask the really boring but important questions of the day on national television (although at a time almost no one was still awake), is simply goading us on. He cannot possibly believe that his modest proposal in today's New York Times op-ed is actually in any way a good idea. He of all people should recognize that he left out all the really important questions, and they aren't even the boring ones!
Koppel argues that perhaps the answer to our over-extended military force trying to fight multiple wars and assist in multiple humanitarian efforts is to call upon private security contractors to do the heavy lifting.
Koppel caught the wonk virus: he sees the whole issue in terms of political expedience and/or fallout. Never mind the causes of the problems he seeks to address with mercenaries; never mind the morality (indeed, patriotism) of paying others to fight and die for your causes.
The draft is unpopular! The military is overextended! Answer: Blackwater!
Holy bejeezus. Hang on there, pilgrim.
First of all, perhaps if we had not declared war on an unidentifiable and undefeatable enemy ("terrorism"), we might not be quite so over-extended. Perhaps if we had provided enough troops in the first place to secure the peace after the fall of Saddam Hussein, we would not now be so over-extended. Ah, but that is another argument for another day.
Koppel's list of "factors" that make a rent-a-military a good idea includes some real chokers:
"• The unwillingness or inability of the United Nations or other multinational organizations to dispatch adequate forces to deal quickly with hideaous, large-scale atrocities"
Ted, what about the United States' unwillingness and inability to do the very same? We lecture the UN and NATO about not doing enough, and yet we commit not one soldier to the effort. We've got no room to throw shame around on that one. But again, another argument, another day.
"• The expansion of American corporations into more remote, fractious, and potentially hostile settings."
Ahem. Since when has it been the American soldiers job to die for corporations? Since when do we go to war expressly for the purpose of defending corporate interests abroad? We do, of course, but even George W. Bush has the decency to tell us it's for "freedom."
Koppel goes on to argue that perhaps our future is one of thousands of bands of roving, hired mercenaries, each defending the interests of its benefactor - be it a corporation or a nation.
Of course, Koppel must know that this already happens every day. Shell "allowed" the Nigerian military to execute the activists who were making it difficult to keep drilling for and pumping out oil from Ogoni native lands. Freeport McMoRan was just exposed for having made illegal payments to the Indonesian military (which has murdered thousands of civilians) to protect its interests in the region. Multinational companies operating all over the world hire private contractors to "protect their interests," which, according to reliable sources, sometimes amounts to killing whoever gets in the way of maximum profit.
And let us remember, before we embrace private contractors to fight our national battles, that it was a private security contractor - Jack Idema - who set up a private jail in Kabul and tortured hundreds of innocent civilians because he thought they looked like terrorists. Let us not forget that Halliburton, Custer Battles, and other private contractors hired to "support" our military efforts have in fact overcharged or outright defrauded the very government they supposedly serve. Blackwater last year was embarrassed by the revelation of an internal memo which described shooting people as "fun."
Can you imagine, though, the Koppelian future Ted has proposed? A
stateless world where private contractors maintain private armies for
multinational corporations, not countries. Spooky.Thousands of angry little bands of mercenaries crawling the globe, each answering to a different wealthy benefactor, each with a different objective, none subject to the Geneva Convention, bound only to shareholders? There are simply no enforceable standards of accountability in this privatized future. There is certainly no room for morality.
Tell me you're floating a little trial balloon here, Ted, to watch our heads explode. Tell us you're playing devil's advocate. But most of all, please tell us you're not serious.
U.S. Military Clothing Contractor Raided
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 17th, 2006
How cynical is this? In order to take advantage of quotas that require a certain nmumber of federal contracts be awarded to minority-owned and operated businesses, the cuddly sounding "National Center for the Employment of the Disabled" used the word "disabled" to win a contract to manufacture miltary uniforms, and then failed to actually employ disabled people to do the work.
Well, the FBI agents who raided the company's factory last week found out that a whopping 7 percent of the laborers at the plant were moderately to severely disabled. The contract was awarded based on assurances that the labor force would be at least 75 percent disabled.
Some Jokes Are Too True To Be Funny
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 17th, 2006
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson may think he's Steven Colbert, but his blunt brand of "humor" is a little too, er, observational for a laugh.
The secretary was at a forum in Dallas earlier this month and told this hilarious story of an advertising contractor who had just been selected to receive a contract from HUD:
"He had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years. He made a heck of a
proposal and was on the (General Services Administration) list, so we
selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he
said something ... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.'
"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President
Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the
president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the
contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the
president, don't tell the secretary.'
"He didn't get the contract. Why should I
reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to
try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the
contract. That's the way I believe."
Jackson later said the conversation had never happened, that it was a joke, and that political leanings do not figure into the contract award system. Qualifications and competitiveness of bids are the only criteria, he insists.
He needs to work on his delivery.
Damn the Hurricane - Full Lobbying Ahead!
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 10th, 2006
More emails to and from former FEMA heavy Michael "Brownie" brown have emerged from the week of Hurricane Katrina's landfall, illustrating just how much non-Katrina business was going down as Brown fluffed his hair and the devil bore down on New Orleans. We checked out The Center for Public Integrity's analysis ...
Among the missives was one -- hours after the hurricane made landfall -- from former Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchinson, brother of GOP Congressional power-broker Asa Hutchinson. It said:
"I am certain you are overwhelmed by the situation regarding Hurricane
Katrina. I apologize for bothering you at this critical time and for
going directly to you about this," wrote former Sen. Tim Hutchinson
(R-Ark.) "I would very much appreciate being able to bring the
President of Blu-Med Response Systems, Gerritt Boyle, in to meet with
you as soon as your schedule permits."
While Blu-Med indeed supplies emergency health facilities and might have been of use in the immediate crisis, that was not what this urgent meeting was about. It was, instead, scheduled to be a face-to-face whine about the fact one of Blu-Med's competitors had won a non-Katrina contract Blu-Med itself had wanted, and they were using their friendly ties with Hutchinson to push the issue.
Yes-Men Taunt Halliburton
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 10th, 2006
Have we mentioned how much we love the Yes Men, since even before the Dow Hoax that suckered the BBC in 2004?
They have now come out with a faux press-release and website claiming that Halliburton has solved global warming. Good for a laugh, and an inevitable cease-and-desist, so we repost here the press release before it is wiped from the ether.
An advanced new technology will keep corporate managers safe even
when climate change makes life as we know it impossible.
SurvivaBalls save managers from abrupt climate change
"The SurvivaBall is designed to protect the corporate manager no
matter what Mother Nature throws his or her way," said Fred Wolf, a
Halliburton representative who spoke today at the Catastrophic Loss
conference held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Amelia Island, Florida.
"This technology is the only rational response to abrupt climate
change," he said to an attentive and appreciative audience.
Most scientists believe global warming is certain to cause an
accelerating onslaught of hurricanes, floods, droughts, tornadoes,
etc. and that a world-destroying disaster is increasingly possible.
For example, Arctic melt has slowed the Gulf Stream by 30% in just
the last decade; if the Gulf Stream stops, Europe will suddenly
become just as cold as Alaska. Global heat and flooding events are
also increasingly possible.
In order to head off such catastrophic scenarios, scientists agree we
must reduce our carbon emissions by 70% within the next few years.
Doing that would seriously undermine corporate profits, however, and so
a more forward-thinking solution is needed.
At today's conference, Wolf and a colleague demonstrated three
SurvivaBall mockups, and described how the units will sustainably
protect managers from natural or cultural disturbances of any
intensity or duration. The devices - looking like huge inflatable
orbs - will include sophisticated communications systems, nutrient
gathering capacities, onboard medical facilities, and a daunting
defense infrastructure to ensure that the corporate mission will not
go unfulfilled even when most human life is rendered impossible by
catastrophes or the consequent epidemics and armed conflicts.
"It's essentially a gated community for one," said Wolf.
Dr. Northrop Goody, the head of Halliburton's Emergency Products
Development Unit, showed diagrams and videos describing the
SurvivaBall's many features. "Much as amoebas link up into slime
molds when threatened, SurvivaBalls also fulfill a community
function. After all, people need people," noted Goody as he showed an
artist's rendition of numerous SurvivaBalls linking up to form a
managerial aggregate with functional differentiation, metaphorically
dancing through the streets of Houston, Texas.
The conference attendees peppered the duo with questions. One asked
how the device would fare against terrorism, another whether the
array of embedded technologies might make the unit too cumbersome; a
third brought up the issue of the unit's cost feasibility. Wolf and
Goody assured the audience that these problems and others were being
"The SurvivaBall builds on Halliburton's reputation as a disaster and
conflict industry innovator," said Wolf. "Just as the Black Plague
led to the Renaissance and the Great Deluge gave Noah a monopoly of
the animals, so tomorrow's catastrophes could well lead to good - and
industry must be ready to seize that good."
Goody also noted that Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society
was set to employ the SurvivaBall as part of its Corporate Sustenance
(R) program. Another of Cousteau's CSR programs involves accepting a
generous sponsorship from the Dow Chemical Corporation, whose general
shareholder meeting is May 11.
Michael Pollan and your Industrialized Lunch
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 8th, 2006
I could try cool, professional detachment, but it would be dishonest: I'm elated to see Michael Pollan now blogging over at The New York Times. As an idealist, a foodie, an amateur cook, and a guilty liberal, my passions and my ethics often collide over a corn-fed steak, an osso bucco or a prawn ceviche. But there are so many choices ... there is very little to defend a corn-fed, industry-raised and slaughtered beef meal, other than the fact it tastes really good. (And vegetarians, trust me, I've heard your arguements and I have felt the requisite guilt - I am simply weak-willed when it come to culinary self-indulgence. Although the movie "Babe" did end my consumption of most pork products, and I haven't bought veal in two decades.)
I have taken small steps - having locally-grown organic produce delivered weekly at ridiculously inflated prices; I hit farmer's markets when possible; I shop at Trader Joe's; I buy free-range, cage-free, antibiotic-free whatever; I buy organic at my local supermarket; I buy artisanal foods when I can afford them (which, in honesty, is pretty much never, but that's what credit is for). But is this really changing anything?
Pollan helps answer the questions tortured gourmands like me wrestle with daily. And not all of his answers make me feel any better. For example, your suspicions are correct if you think "free-range" is essentially meaningless in practice. The truth is, industrial agriculture is busily co-opting the organic and ethical foods market because suckas like me will pay more just to assuage our guilt. I'd rather believe the chicken on my plate lived a long happy life romping in the grass and sun. I'll pay to have the lie told me.
Anyway, Pollan's new book is out, which I'll buy of course (from Powell's!), but more happily, I will have his blog to tempt and torture me. Don't miss it if you are a food sensualist and a thinker about ethics.
Jordan: The New Saipan
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 8th, 2006
I received an urgent update from Charlie Kernaghan over that the National Labor Committee about the situation in Jordan, where a free-trade arrangement has created a labor force of indentured servants, and spawned a human-trafficking industry. He writes:
Tens of thousands of foreign guest workers, stripped of their passports, trapped in involuntary servitude, sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, Kohl's, Thalia Sodi for Kmart, Victoria's Secret, L.L.Bean and others.
In the Western factory, which was producing for Wal-Mart, four young women, including a 16-year old girl, were raped by plant managers. Despite being forced to work 109 hours a week, including 20-hour shifts, the workers received no wages for six months. Workers who fell asleep from exhaustion were struck with a ruler to wake them up.
At the Al Shahaed factory, also producing for Wal-Mart, there were 24, 38 and even 72-hour shifts. The workers were paid an average wage of two cents an hour. Workers were slapped, kicked, punched and hit with sticks and belts.
In a factory called Al Safa, which was sewing garments for Gloria Vanderbilt, a young woman hung herself after being raped by a manager.
The issue isn't news to us, since we've been on top of the issue for years. In 2003 we reported that the free-trade agreement inked with the U.S. had some very political overtones:
Late last year (2002), Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney paid a visit to the Al-Tajamout compound. The State Department official is also the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. "Jordan is a strategic tool for both the US and Israel," Marar says, noting the importance of the visit.
And yet, Jordanians own almost none of the factories. Most are owned and operated by entrepreneurs from China, Taiwan, Korea, India, Pakistan or the Philippines who import workers from over-seas.
Of the some 40 thousand workers employed in these Qualified Industrial Zones, fewer than half are Jordanian. Ninety percent are women under the age of 22, and almost all of them pay the minimum wage, about $3.50 a day.
Factory owner Syed Adil Ali says his factory only contracts Sri Lankan girls.
"They are very peace minded girls," he says. "I found some kind of problem with the boys. They made some kind of union, some kind of disturbance in the factory. So we prefer the girls."
And while we roll our eyes that The New York Times only managed to sniff out the story three years later, we give them props for a pretty good story on it last week.
When Death Really Pays
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 2nd, 2006
You have to marvel at how news coverage of business so skews one's view of the world. It seems to strip writers of all human perspective. For example, this headline from the Cincinnatti Business Courier today:
"Mild flu season boded ill for Alderwoods' 1Q profits"
Alderwoods is one of the nation's largest funeral home chains. The view from the bottom line is quite upside-down: Not enough people died, dammit!
Pentagon Attacks Labor Trafficking by US Contractors
Posted by David Phinney on April 24th, 2006
It has been long in coming. The Pentagon is now demanding that contractors fight labor trafficking and lousy working conditions in Iraq endured by tens of thousands of low-paid south Asians working under US-funded contracts in Iraq.
In an April 19 memorandum to all Pentagon contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Joint Contracting Command demands that the widespread practice of taking away workers passports come to end. Contractors engaging in the practice, states the memo, must immediately "cease and deist."
"All passports will be returned to employees by 1 May 06. This requirement will be flowed down to each of your subcontractors performing work in this theater."
Contractors and subcontractors routinely hold workers passports -- in direct violation of US labor trafficking laws -- to prevent them from changing employers or leave wartorn Iraq.
As many as 35,000 low-paid workers are employed under Halliburton's sweeping, multibillion logistics contract serving the US military. Many of these workers are brought to Iraq by subcontractors from neighboring Arab countries -- countries that have been frequently cited by the US State Department for the exploitation of foreign workers.
A new April 4 contracting directive (I know the PDF is upside down!) also officially confirms the dirty little secret that reporters, military people and contractors have been complaining about ever since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: Employers routinely have been exploiting many of the tens of thousands of south Asian workers working under US contracts.
The directive notes that inspections of Defense contractors in Iraq has revealed deceptive hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees that indebt workers for months if not years, substandard living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food, and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures.
These conditions, endured by south Asian workers sometimes making only dollars a day, are all chronicled in my October story, Blood, Sweat & Tears: Asia's Poor Build U.S. Bases in Iraq.
One contractor that has been accused of coercing employees to work in Iraq against their will is now the prime contractor tasked with building new $592-million US embassy project in Baghdad.
The April military directive announces that contractors will be required to take part in new education and awareness programs, policy enforcement and inspections by Joint Contracting Command's Inspector General in the coming months for compliance.