Corporate World

Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine

Despite not being a dispassionate reviewer, I wrote this review of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. In case you didn't know, I'm not entirely without positive bias. And even with high expectations, the book really impressed. It seems to be doing quite well without my recommendation, but I would like to add my recommendation to the many that are out there. Hope you like the review.

Free Software

As I mentioned earlier, I interviewed Richard Stallman earlier this month. Just published the interview and set up a forum (linked at the bottom of the interview) where folks can introduce themselves if they'd like to help begin the exploration on possibly converting ZNet to free software.

The whole discussion and Stallman's work was of great interest to me, with implications that go beyond software that I would like to explore if I get the chance. Meanwhile, take a look at the interview!

Walgreens

Quick story I got in the email. African American pharmacists at Walgreens have launched a class action lawsuit against that corporation for racial discrimination. I've blogged elsewhere about Black Americans and health care. It is among the deadliest impacts of racism in the US, though it is not usually understood that way. It is also one of the easiest to fix - universal health care would do nicely. Of course, it is harder to campaign for such a thing when the notion of 'undeserving poor' is so deeply ingrained into the culture, and when 'undeserving poor' is actually code for 'Black', and relies on racism, that makes it still harder. This lawsuit shows some of the connections as well: corporate power, the health care industry, and racism, all coming together.

Costs, Human Tolls

Everytime I refresh my browser window, the death toll from the tsunami grows by a couple of thousand. The New York Times reports that at least a third of the dead are children. Even as we mourn, it is easy to detach ourselves from the reality of a number as large as 44,000. It is hard to imagine, and mourn individually, each life lost in such a short span of time. That this number could have been lower if detection systems had been in place for the impoverished countries affected by the tsunami, is shameful. As I mentioned in yesterday's comments section of Justin's blog on the tsunami, such warning systems have been made available for the U.S. Canada, Japan and even parts of South America. No such early warning systems existed for the countries and regions in the Indian Ocean, which sits atop a particularly volatile area of the sea floor.

It is a cruel irony that just about two months ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. won great merit from the U.S. Department of Commerce for a tsunami detection system is had devised. The detection system, according to the scientists involved in the project, could be developed and implemented for a cost of about $10 million.

So as nations and organizations from around the world rush money to the areas ravaged by Sunday's tsunami - I can't help but think of the $10 million that was needed months ago to prevent possibly thousands of the deaths that occurred on Sunday.

While information about the costs and history behind the implementation of detection systems is proving hard to handily come by, there is plenty of information about the costs and benefits of this grave natural disaster on business and industry...

Outsource the NBA!

While I realize the brave and hard-working people of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) are stretched thin in their struggles against the building of destructive dams along India's rivers, I can't help but wish that some of their strength, organizing skills and experience could be outsourced to Laos, where thousands of people there are about to be swept away in the name of development...

Construction of the $1.3 billion Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos - the biggest in the nation's history - is fast underway. A development consortium of state-owned Electricite de France, the Lao government and two Thai companies are already clearing land on the Nakai Plateau in the Lao jungle. A pilot resettlement village is being developed so that the 6,000 plus people who will be displaced by the dam can learn to live there, crowded together, growing unsustainable crops. As for the over 200,000 people who use the Xe Bang Fai river to eat, drink water and bathe - well, noone talks about what will happen to them once the NT2 is built.

The Lao government has even set up a flashy Web site for foreign investors to browse through. The site, deftly named Powering Progress, is fully equipped with video clips featuring the voice over of a man with a heavy British accent telling viewers that Laos is "a window to the future" for development in Asia. A little over 35% of all the dams being built in Asia right now are in Laos - a country of 6 million that is about the size of the American state of Utah. Image that, given all the world knows about the destructive and unproductive effect large-scale dams have on a developing nation's ecology and population - the beleagured people of this small landlocked nation are being inundated by them. Behold the power of progress.

The International Rivers Network has documented the effects of other dam projects in Laos and the government's inadequate responses to resettling the internally displaced and staving off the epidemics of malaria and malnutrition that sweep through the regions where dams have been built.

A Pillar Of Corporate Life (C.P. Pandya)

One can never accuse Riggs Bank of lacking a global perspective. Indeed, the American financial institution’s expansive scope of malfeasance makes it an international player on the corrupt corporate scene. With dubious deals in Saudi Arabia, Chile and Equatorial Guinea, Riggs’ underhanded schemes span three continents – what an equal opportunity brigand. Where to begin?

A recent Senate inquiry into the bank’s dealings in Chile alleges that Riggs helped U.S. dictatorial darling Augusto Pinochet hide millions of dollars in the Washington, DC-based bank’s coffers between 1994 and 2002. The millions of dollars were apparently transferred from his London account into Riggs’ at the same time Pinochet’s henchmen were claiming the dictator didn’t have enough money to pay for legal fees and fines. Mind you, throughout the years Riggs serviced Pinochet, he was under a world-wide court order to keep his assets frozen and was being (finally) investigated for the countless human rights abuses he inflicted on the Chilean population. Riggs, of course, didn’t have a problem with that - his millions fattened their balance sheet. The Senate panel concluded that Riggs “appeared to take active steps to hide the Pinochet relationship from bank examiners." Now that shows a bank’s commitment to its clients, no?

Now onto Equatorial Guinea, where Riggs helped facilitate, through over 60 different accounts, the exchange of huge monetary gifts between U.S. oil companies such as Exxon and Marathon and the country’s first family. Exploitation of the country’s vast oil, petroleum, timber, manganese, uranium, titanium and iron ore resources couldn’t have been easier. Riggs carried between $400 million and $700 million from the government of Equatorial Guinea on its balance sheet during a time when, according to the Senate panel, there was “evidence suggesting the bank was handling the proceeds of foreign corruption.” Something about up to $700 million being in Riggs’ account from a country, which in 2001 took in $200 million in revenue (as recorded on its budget), just doesn’t add up.

A Fine Balance (C.P. Pandya)

India's new government continues to walk a political and economic tightrope, eagerly welcoming in foreign investors while promising to financially help the very population hurt by the liberalization program. On Thursday, Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram unveiled a new budget that allows foreign direct investors to carry unprecedented stakes in Indian companies, but also pledges a significant amount of money to India's poor.

Among the notable points in the budget:

On the farming side, Chidambaram said the government has established an 80 billion rupee ($1.7 billion) fund to develop the rural infrastructure. Also, the government will provide food subsidies for the year worth 252 billion rupees ($5.5 billion). (Given India's infamously lousy food and subsidy distribution program, skepticism is more than appropriate).

On the other hand, foreign investors can now own up to 74 percent of equity in Indian telecommunications companies, up significantly from the current 49 percent. Also, the cap on foreign equity in insurance companies was raised to 49 percent from 26 percent and foreign investors can now increase their equity stakes in civilian aviation companies to 49 percent from 40 percent.

How long can this balancing act work? The Indian government has preached fiscal conservatism, which has at its heart a hatred for spending on social programs, in order to lure Western investment. The larger the fiscal deficit gets, the more antsy investors will get. India's stated dedication to liberalization will require it to coddle and encourage foreign investors to continue pouring money into India's government coffers. What happens when there is so much American, British and other international money in India that the scales of attention tip towards investors at the expense of farmers?
A senior official in India's finance ministry very tellingly described the issue being played out in India right now: "This will be a 'talk left, act right' government."

AIDS and Trade (C.P. Pandya)

This latest report on "corporate villainy" (as Justin Podur has so flatteringly subheaded my blogging efforts) comes under the auspices of government collusion. And its messenger is none other than the bastion of capitalism itself, The Wall Street Journal. A look at two stories in Tuesday's Journal teases the reader to make some fairly obvious connections. Since the paper isn't available free online (remember, "bastion of capitalism"), allow me to summarize.