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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Monday, January 26, 2015

Prancing in Davos

Tonight, I switched from al Jazeera International to BBC World Service.  It took about twenty minutes before I quit with disgust and switched back.

Here's what I saw.  Somewhere at the World Economic Forum in Davos, there was a stage lined with eight armchairs ready for a live BBC program.  Seated on the stage were Christine Lagarde, the current IMF director, a pretty African woman, likely representing the developing world, and several very important looking white men.
I started watching the BBC Davos report when Ms. Lagarde made her points:  IMF is now anything but business as usual.  Three IMF economists did a lot of analytic work and arrived at the following conclusions: (1) Extreme income inequality is bad for economic growth, (2) income redistribution is good for growth, and (3) jobs for the masses keep people engaged and are good for sustainable growth.

She told us that these points were met with great disbelief and scorn by her IMF colleagues, who told her: "This is not main stream. This is not what IMF does."  Well, now, Ms. Lagarde assured us, her thinking is main stream at IMF. OK, so far so good.

Of course, Ms. Lagarde needs to check her definitions:  Any growth that lasts for a while, leads to an exponential increase of economy and its resource needs, and this cannot be sustainable in the long run.  A well known property of exponential growth is that each next doubling creates more needs than the sum of all needs before the doubling.  For example, 1+2=3 is less than 2x2= 4, 1+2+3=6 is less than 2x4=8.

How is it possible to continue this growth ad infinitum on a finite planet with finite resources and constant primary productivity?

Wealthy Chinese have been buying tens of billions of dollars worth of real estate in California and New York each year.  House prices even in small towns, like Arcadia north of Los Angeles, went up 40% for no reason whatsoever, other than the absentee investors parking their money in large empty homes. Imagine that the same Chinese double their spending this year, and then again next year.  We will run out of real estate to sell to them.

The rich Chinese are escaping the other blessings of a runaway economic growth in China:  pollution everywhere, no clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, cancer, very expensive housing, and lots of cash focused in the hands of several thousands of business people.  These business people smuggled out $1 trillion from China in the last decade to buy a cleaner environment in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, and so on.

It makes sense.  We spend trillions of dollars asking China to produce the junk we buy,  China destroys its life-preserving environmental services, and the business owners recycle our dollars back to us buying whatever is beautiful and clean in our country.  We all envy China for their high economic growth rate.  But should we?

Still Ms. Lagarde was the bright spot in what I saw from Davos, despite her inability to answer simple questions starting from the pesky "Why?".  After her there was a prancer, who said nothing, but tried to be funny.  Then the African woman tentatively said something about lack of job creation, but no one paid attention, she was quickly interrupted and silenced, and the microphone went to a silver fox.  He did some homework and from his notes rattled out that in 1928, the global poverty rate was 84 or so percent, while in 2011 it went down to 14 percent. Everyone sighed with relief and I switched back to al Jazeera.

So let's think for a second about the statistics the silver fox read from his notes.  I bet this guy never talks to drivers of the limousines his staff hires to take him to his Leer jet.  But suppose that he took a cab from Manhattan to JFK.  Chances are high that his cab driver would be from Ghana, or Ethiopia, or Eritrea. If he decided to talk to, say, a driver from Ghana in his late 30s or 40s, this is what he might learn:

As a child, the driver lived in a small village surrounded by banana and other fruit tree groves. Twenty years ago, the villagers would have plots with vegetables and grain crops, and barter products at a local farmer's market.  Today, when this driver goes home, there is nothing left of the trees and crops.  Instead, there is a store that sells expensive Coca Cola and junk food.

Most people in Ghana are now completely dependent on a large-scale distribution system to buy expensive, often foreign food.  In one generation, the driver's village went from a healthy barter economy and good food (i.e., poverty) to buying unhealthy food from unknown sources with cash (i.e., not poverty).

Mr. Progress has knocked on the driver village's door and stimulated the global economy.  The driver had to emigrate to America to earn money so that his family could buy American food in Ghana. There you have it.

In 1928, the global population was 2 billion people and in 2011, it was roughly 7 billion people. In 1928, most of the global population lived by barter outside of cash economy, and would be considered poor today.  In 2011, more people lived in the big city slums around the world than the entire global population in 1928.  These people may not be considered poor by the learned economists, but just look around, especially when you travel outside of Davos or watch al Jazeera, or go to almost any place in Africa, or in South or Central America, or to Haiti. What water do these people drink? What food do they eat?
These people are definitely not poor. They have shoes and buy food with cash they scrape every day.  And they live happily in the global economy, whose stewards I saw  prancing in Davos.
As one of the young American economists on the al Jazeera's "Stream" program noted: " I think that the main stream economists have a very weak understanding of sustainability."  No kidding!  If these clowns are our global leaders, God have mercy upon humankind.  I imagine these people as the two-dimensional creatures crawling on a piece of paper and concocting theories as to why the third dimension does not exist.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Bird of Dawn

Finally I am in Saudi Arabia.  So many new impressions and new thoughts. I customarily watch here Al Jazeera International and the French News 24 Channel, and I never watch American TV.  I am simply tired of American navel gazing and the low quality of U.S.-based programming available here.

Today, on Al Jazeera I saw a program about a group of Iranian and French women and men, who wanted to have a public concert in Iran.  After a long struggle, the authorities relented and the group sang.  And what a concert it was! This was the introduction by an Iranian female singer:

We are the free men, who are not scared
We are secrets that never die
We are voices of who resist
We are free and our world is free.

At the end, another Iranian woman sang in the most beautiful voice:

Of the just and the unjust
They only spoke and did nothing
Oh, God! Oh, God!
See the chasm between their words and their actions.

In-between they sang the "Bird of Dawn," a metaphor for human cruelty. You probably will not find time to watch this moving and important documentary about the best in human spirit. You simply have too many emails to write and Facebook pages to visit. I understand. (Please try to watch the last 8 minutes, although you will not know what these people went through and you will not see their quiet determination.)

The young (and not-so-young) people in the documentary reminded me so much of my wife and me during our Solidarity times. They are who we were back in Poland 35 years ago, and they act how we acted. I am so glad to see that human resilience is universal and timeless.

The Syrian children are freezing to death in Aleppo and refugee camps in Lebanon.

Some 2000 people were killed in a rampage by Boko Haram in a Nigerian town of Baga. Thousands fled abandoning everything.

Three suspected terrorists were killed when they opened fire on police in Belgium.

There were hair-raising news that the fraction of NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding to people below the age of 35 has been decreasing since Reagan's presidency when the new world order began. The good NIH researchers seem to forget that the sole purpose of the new world order is maximization of corporate profit now, and if it means relying on the 66-plus year old researchers in the U.S. or outsourcing research to India, so be it.

Too many people in the U.S. cannot properly change a bulb or read.

The price of oil dropped by 50% because the deteriorating world economy simply cannot function on expensive hydrocarbons.  The logic of modern capitalism forced U.S. companies to continue the conversion of cheap capital provided by the ever-growing financial sector into the expensive oil and gas.  So much so, that the global surplus of oil supply created by the U.S., and the refusal by OPEC to cut production, caused the oil price to crash.  Saudi Arabia simply refused to subsidize the expensive U.S. oil with their own cheap oil. U.S. will start exporting oil and gas, because it cannot give up its newly found power.  How dumb this oil and gas export idea is? Very.

After hearing a pro-export stump speech from Bill Richardson (an ex-Energy Secretary), I suddenly saw my own face, my house in Austin, Texas, and the oaks surrounding it.  It was a fragment of a 3-1/2 hour taped  interview I  gave to al Jazeera in August 2014, for a program that was aired in October.  I was positively stunned.

Over the last three years, the entire growth of global supply of oil was equal numerically to the increase of shale oil production in the U.S.  Think about it. The rest of the world could not increase oil production even at $110 per barrel.

In the Bakken shale, 40 oilfield workers have been killed and hundreds wounded in sloppy field operations, and from lack of elementary training and protective gear.  Since 2005, the Workers' Compensation Insurance has returned 170 million dollars of unused payments to the employers. In North Dakota, an oilfield hand whose left arm was blown off below the elbow in a rig explosion was denied a 70,000 dollar high-tech prosthesis that would allow him to tie his shoes and so on.  The denial was justified as follows: In the dirty, dusty conditions in which this guy might work, a simple hook would do a better job. Of course, he will never be employed again.

The Dow Jones index is still above 17000 points.

The only substantial growth in U.S. economy in the last five years has been delivered by the oil and gas sector bubbling away on borrowed money.

Schlumberger just laid off 9000 workers, and other service and production companies are laying off thousands more.

Most universities in the U.S. have doubled or tripled their enrollments in petroleum engineering programs.

Twenty two teachers in the Mexican State of Guerrero were killed by the drug gangs and 110 schools are closed.

 I went snorkeling in the aquamarine warm water of the Red Sea.
Snorkeling is good where I live.
In Haiti, the dysfunctional government installed by the U.S. and other powers is falling apart. In the meantime, billions of dollars in international aid were stolen and wasted by the U.N., NGOs, and international governments. Nothing is finished and promises have not been kept. The root cause is the same as everywhere. The damaged and depleted environment can no longer support people who depend on it, regardless of the number of dollars thrown at these people.

I live in a beautiful bubble.

My backyard at sunset.
Oh, Bird of Dawn
You prey on the captured bird
You throw stones on the wounded one
You kill the weary lovers with a cruel arrow
Until their hearts are drowning in their blood.

I going shopping now.  I try to walk everywhere in KAUST, covering 4.59 miles per day on average over the last 10 days, my iPhone GPS tells me.  Yesterday, I was seen walking with a grocery bag.  I got an email asking what was wrong with my car?  So today I will drive my 150 HP car to deliver five plastic bags with groceries.  Then I will make up for my sins by walking barefoot a few kilometers along a sandy beach next to where I live.  It feels great!

P.S. 1/1/2018.  Just yesterday, this blog received 1165 views from France alone.  It seems that the question of freedom in Iran requires new answers yet again.  Just as they sang three years ago: "We are the free men, who are not scared."