Friday, February 27, 2009

Hummer, no returns!

Every good American played the game slug bug as a kid, where if you spotted an old VW bug you would shout "slug bug!" and hit your brothers or sisters in the arm. "Ouch!" they would complain and vengefully hit you back even if there wasn't a slug bug around.

On the other side of the size spectrum are Hummers. They're big, ugly and easy to spot. Since around December, I swear I have seen more H2s and H3s around than before. So I started hitting people out of anger.

With the US economy finally reaching where Detroit has been for the past quarter century, you would expect gas-guzzling hummers to fade away like consumers' income. It's true, new H3 sales were down by nearly 50% from 2007 to 2008. But used Hummer vehicles sales from 2007 to 2008 have increased by 71% according to General Motors. All GM luxury vehicles - Saab, Cadillac, Hummer, etc. - have seen strong year-to-year increases in the certified, pre-used market.

Hummers also get tax breaks for their weight. Vehicles over 6,000 lbs are tax-deductible items for small business owners. Besides a $25,000 write-off for to a basic equipment deduction, and another $25,000 write-off for for a bonus depreciation loophole, all SUVs qualify for bonus depreciation, an added write-off of 30 percent of the purchase price above $25,000. illustrates:

"For example, a business owner purchasing a Hummer H1, with a sticker price of $106,185, would be able to deduct $60,722 in the first year under the revised rules: a $25,000 equipment deduction, $24,356 in bonus depreciation, and $11,366 in regular depreciation."

Combine that with the unusually low, election year gas prices this Winter, and it makes sense that rich, capitalist swine who support dictators, don't believe in global warming, love militarization and human rights abuses and ozone depletion, who support CIA coups, and oil spills, and preemptive war, and the Apocalypse, and human extinction, are out driving their big beasts more often.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to address climate change with Business ethics

This is a follow up from the previous post on the way business marketing authors approached the Viread retro-viral drug and its use in Africa during clinical testing trials. In the chapter on business ethics in this textbook, International Marketing, the authors subtly discuss environmental ethics and its effect on business.

Activists are the bane of a marketer's professional life. They are constantly working to destroy the image of a business and expose its innermost flaws. This is something the business class needs to reply to with skill because it could tarnish the image and the profit of the business. Exxon Mobil, for example, funded climate change skeptic groups - the Heartland Institute, Advancement of Sound Science Center, etc. - in order to refute the claims of environmental activists who were making it difficult for the oil industry to ignore climate change.

"Business ethics" comes to the rescue. It provide business professionals with better rhetorical skill and strategies to further exploitation. The study of "business ethics" is an excuse to teach the student of marketing how to get around ethical norms, how to promote an image of ethical leadership, and how to make business as usual viable for the business.

Here is a section of the book that discusses global warming.

"The Ethical Nature of Promoting Large SUVs

Cars emit carbon dioxide, which is thought to contribute to global warming. Such emissions can be reduced when fewer people purchase large SUVs, which are generally fuel-inefficient vehicles. CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) rules are set at only 20.7 miles per gallon for SUVs as compared to 27.5 mph for full-size cars. Hence, SUVs have come under attack as making the United States more dependent on imported oil, as well as for their poor safety record. The industry, by manufacturing and promoting more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, could help reduce dependence on energy imports. Should car companies, therefore, promote fuel-efficient cars and encourage to buy them at the expense of pricier, more profitable, large, fuel-guzzling SUVs? In Canada, the answer has been a resounding "yes." Canadian automobile companies signed an agreement with the Canadian government, agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent over five years, which would involve using fuel-saving technologies and alternative fuels such as ethanol, clean deisel, and biodiesel."

The book says that when there are multiple stakeholders, corporations need guidance as to how to deal with and prioritize values.

"A puzzle for corporations is that there are many worthy causes and constituencies. A firms' consumers and its shareholders might ask what it is doing about global warming, terrorism, governmental corruption, and poverty, among other issues. An automobile company might well argue that its products have little to do with terrorism, governmental corruption, and poverty. The company may go on to state that it is working on reducing emissions and is devoting funds to research to develop an engine that is clean-burning, thus helping to reduce global warming. In rebuttal, activists might point out that the company imports thousands of containers full of parts every year and that its manufacturing processes in other countries, coupled with these shipments, contribute to pollution and global warming."

In the Questions and Research section, the book asks students to consider a few points from the chapter and discuss them in groups. The question relevant to this portion of the textbook is not, "What is the role of business in addressing climate change?" or, "What are some ways the automobile industry can address climate change?" or something along those lines. The question is,

"How does the presence of multiple stakeholders affect conduct? Focus on the issue of reducing environmental pollution globally to discuss how the green lobby affects global business practices."

Business ethics - just an excuse to act up

It is becoming more and more common for philosophy professors to teach business ethics. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, has four philosophy professors in its business ethics school within the philosophy department. Robert Solomon at UT Austin, better known for his work in existentialism, in his later years started teaching business ethics too.

The problem with business ethics is that is forces the same criteria it uses for business management down the throats of ethics professors. Because of this, ethical standards are viewed as a means to an end; they are determined by their 'performance' in the marketplace, and are scrutinized under cost benefit analysis.

Business professionals learn to think of ethics as something which serves their business, rather than the other way around. When ignoring ethical norms would prove disastrous for the business, your business should speak up about the company's reputation for high ethical standards, or how the company goes beyond compliance with the law, or how any unethical actions do not reflect the company's code of conduct, etc.

Philosophy can lend itself easily to this problem because philosophy is not instructive, and other academic pursuits are. More often, what business professionals glean from philosophy is how to argue their way out of nasty moral dilemmas. A philosophy professor typically will not want to pontificate "the answer" to a difficult moral dilemma, unless they want to defend or entertain a particular perspective. Philosophy does not teach teach truths and values, but to puts them into a perspective, and argues for the superiority of that perspective.

On the other hand, the business ethic perspective frames ethics in terms of business - "How valuable are ethics to my business?" This is not philosophy, it is business. The superiority of the business perspective is totally taken for granted. What happens, then, is that philosophy becomes the handmaiden to business professionals - the age-old sophist tendency.

To illustrate this point I want to mention the work of HIV/AIDS activists and the effect it had on business practices. The group Act Up - originally started by the friends of Michel Foucault to raise awareness and dispel myths about AIDS - made its way into an International Marketing textbook authored by Terpstra, Sarathy, and Russow, in a chapter titled "Ethics and Global Marketing".

A little bit of background. Africans account for 25.4 million of the 39.4 million people around the world who have HIV/AIDS. Naturally, the place to bring HIV/AIDS prevention drugs would be Africa. In 2005 the US drug manufacturer Gilead needed to determine whether its drug, tenofovir (marketed as Viread), could prevent HIV/AIDS in a similar way to a vaccine. The drug was thought to prevent an exposed person from contracting HIV/AIDS. Once Viread passed the clinical trial test, it would then be sold globally at a premium prices. African prostitutes would be the proverbial guinea pigs in the clinical trial process.

The cost of AIDS "cocktail" drugs, which stop the progress of AIDS and allows patients to achieve some level of stability, averages over $10,000 a year. This is well beyond the reach of most Africans. Viread, while cheaper than some, costs around $17 a day and must be taken daily, which is roughly $6,400 a year. Still beyond the reach of many AIDS-affected Africans. Remember, a billion people in the world live on a dollar a day, many of them live in Africa.

The group Act Up-Paris, after perusing Gilead's clinical trial's research reports, decided that this needed to be protested, stopped, and added that the African trial participants "got too little information and care for their participation" - a legal claim that would stop the trial. The Wall Street Journal reported that "Act Up claims that by holding trials in Africa, '[Gilead knows] they will find...women willing to let them carry out a trial at minimal cost.'"

A probable side-effect of the drug is kidney dysfunction. It was not known whether the drug would cause kidney problems, or worsen existing kidney trouble. Gilead decided it would go ahead and test female prostitutes from Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Cameroon, and Cambodia. The unfortunate five women who contracted HIV/AIDS in Cameroon during the study were promised long-term access to therapy.

On the flipside, WSJ commentator, Roger Bate, said,

"Act Up is being flat-out hypocritical in its attempts to keep the trials from being conducted in low-cost environments. Activists are always complaining about the high price of drugs, and the best way to keep prices down is for trials--the most expensive part of any drug development--to be as cheap as possible."

Now, as a student of marketing, let's look to our textbook to learn more about this ethical problem.

International Marketing textbook says that "ethical conflicts can arise when the only access to health care for low-income patients is through participation in such clinical trials." This was certainly the case for Viread. But other than this, the text doesn't come close to a stance on whether this practice set ethical standards high or low, or whether Gilead went "beyond compliance with the law." It does not even provide a list of key international legal frameworks to judge Gilead's practices by.

Instead it ends the section on ethical international research with a quote from a pro-Africa-testing AIDS group called Treatment Action, which decried Act Up-Paris's actions as "ethical imperialism", and backs up the study by mentioning that the clinical trials were supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
Certainly, if other activists are complaining about the work of activists in Paris, it must not be legitimate. And certainly if philanthrocapitalists support the AIDS research then it must have been carried out in an ethical way, or at least had the right intentions.

In the next section, the authors advise that an ethical move would be to employ market segmentation for poorer people, or what author K. Prahalad calls "inclusive capitalism", so that "companies can do well financially and and develop new sources of value." This means lowering the price of products in emerging markets, in order to find an entry path into that market. Proctor & Gamble (their example) sells bottles of shampoo in India for a penny a piece, which allows them to outsell competitors and maintain dominance. By including Africans in its clinical trial, by analogy, they are saying it was an act of inclusive capitalism.

On one hand, I can appreciate the moral complexity of the problem Act Up-Paris and Gilead Sciences have dealt with. Eventually the clinical trial was canceled due to pressure from Act Up-Paris. But is providing 400 prostitutes with a little bit of retro-viral drugs, just to take them away and sell them to rich people in the First World, a fair practice? Who is John Rawls? Who is Ronald Dworkin? Who is Derek Parfit? The only question I have boggling in my mind is, "Is this 'inclusive capitalism'??" Do the authors really think Gilead would have provided 25 million people with affordable Viread? But isn't that what they should have done? And what about the four people who got AIDS from the clinical study itself? Where was Immanuel Kant when all of this went down?

On the other hand, what is the value of a textbook that proclaims to know something about business ethics, when it cannot provide a solid philosophical basis for judging the right course of action? Instead, the text is more like a set of clues to form better strategies for further exploitation. It teaches the marketing student how to get around ethical norms, how to promote an image of ethical leadership, and to think in terms of what is better for the business, without ever explicitly mentioning that this is what the text is here for.

If we say that the textbook neither agrees nor disagrees with those activists who criticize certain business practices, we're right about that. It only tells the reader how the business operation was affected by the activist criticism, and then asks the reader to form an opinion. The point I am making is subtle. The textbook wants you to see its literature reviews as objective information, but by limiting the scope to the business perspective, they imply that the only implied ethical criterion is the business's reputation and profit.

Here are a few questions at the end of the chapter related to this problem.

Questions and Research

  1. How can concerns over ethical behavior affect global business practices? Provide examples.
  2. Why should a firm be concerned about ethics in international marketing activities?
  3. How can a firm connect moral principles to the development of ethical standards that would govern its international activities?
  4. How do ethical issues affect the clinical testing of new pharmaceutical drugs in emerging markets?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Upgraded BlackWaters: Information Sharing and Analysis Centers

BlackWater - or Xe as it's now called - was only the beginning of modern private mercenary market. Today there are corporate intelligence community networks springing up in large numbers, providing "intelligence" to the intelligence community while trading its shares on the market.

I stumbled across these organizations as I was breezing through this document, which a homeland security group - the Highway Watch and Information Sharing and Analysis Center - drafted in preparation for the RNC 2008. The document was recently leaked from TwinCities Indymedia. Homeland Security had ranked the anti-war and anti-capitalist groups who would attend the convention in terms of 'power centrality' and mapped places where members of the RNC Welcoming Committee had been scoping out for protest.

The HWW-ISAC also included a social networking analysis of the groups involved, which measured the groups' "betweenness", or how embedded they were with other organizer groups. The document links directly to two anarchist websites, including one from a North Austin, TX bookstore. (It would later be revealed that DHS infiltrated an Austin anarchist group, provided them with molotov-making material, and is now charging them with terrorism using the Minnesota Patriot Act.)

What do ISACs do? Where did they come from? The HWW-ISAC document revealed that these "Information Sharing and Analysis Centers" are operating under the radar to spy on people, not just in select areas. There is a much broader organizational framework involved. I was able to find a number of ISACs in operation. This includes:

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these ISACs is that they are publicly-traded corporations. Some say they are "not for profit", others do not explain anything. But each combines law enforcement-type searches, seizures and investigative work with private enterprise. Read the "About us" on each of their pages to get a sense for how each sector ISAC operates.

ISACs are "private entities", says the Surface Transit ISAC website. They gather reports from academia, vendors, government, local, federal, state, and international law enforcement agencies. The Seattle-based Supply Chain ISAC, for example, says it is a "federally-sanctioned", "information-sharing community" whose goal is to receive "actionable intelligence" to protect the supply chain infrastructure. Among their tools include "the world's most comprehensive covert cargo monitoring".

As if being driven by profit weren't enough, through mergers these federally-sanctioned spy networks are teaming up with private security corporations. In 2006, the Supply Chain ISAC joined forces with another private corporation, LoJack, which is "globally-respected" and has "unrivaled, proven solutions and direct integration with law enforcement" according to their own website.

The Telecom ISAC has members that have "secret" or "top secret" security clearances. It has operated 24x7 since September 2001, and its lines of communication monitoring include email, alternate email, secure message forums, phones, cell phones, faxes, pagers, and in-person briefings.

Under executive orders and presidential directives, the government has authorized these ISACs to work with its DHS people. From EO 13231, October 2001, the document states via REN-ISAC,

"The President shall designate a Chair and Vice Chair to enhance the partnership of the public and private sectors in protecting information systems for critical infrastructures and provide reports on this issue to the President, as appropriate; and propose and foster improved cooperation among the ISACS, the NIPC, and other federal government entities."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Arthur Miller, IWW

Recently I had the opportunity to meet an important labor organizer with the IWW, Arthur J. Miller. A friend of mine who organizes with IWW is working on a Pacific Northwest labor history zine, in which Miller is a prominent figure for the Tacoma region.

As we drank cup after cup of coffee, Miller explained that he didn't want to be treated like a famous object in any academic historical analysis. Nonetheless, he acknowledged a deficit in labor history, especially the industrial history of South Puget Sound, and a lack of inspirational literature written by workers.

Miller stressed the importance of workers writing their own publications, because workers tend to have their own language - their own "shop talk" as he called it - with which to exchange ideas with one another. Each industry is a bit different. And with today's explosion of new service industries, it's likely that a young worker today would have experience only working with service jobs like waiting tables, or doing customer service. It's very important to organize these industries, and the workers who have experience organizing need to write about it.

My friend and I explained that, as young people ourselves, we only had experience with the service industries. We've waited tables, worked in bookstores, we taught students, we were consultants, and in every job we have been in the store-fronts rather than in the back. We've always provided a service instead of the raw material.

To get an idea for Arthur Miller's own writing, check out his pamphlets "Making Anarchist Revolution Possible" and "Principles of Solidarity". In light of anti-union government tactics in the US, such as the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows the President to suppress strikes with police power, and the various decisions of the NLRB, Miller suggests that labor, as a class, should openly defy anti-labor laws in order to break them open. As he explained to us over coffee, solidarity between industries during a strike is key to preventing scabs, thus key to winning a strike. If a business is on strike, but the delivery service workers keep delivering goods for scabs to work with, it defeats the purpose of the strike. The principle there would be for the delivery service workers to stop delivering to the strikers, being openly defiant toward the scab policy of the other business.

Miller has written longer pamphlets too, and tried publishing a book on labor organizing. But the publishing industry wasn't interested in what he had to say. Even publishers who put out leftist literature, he said, only seemed interested in what academic writers had to say. Miller is not impressed with academic leftist writing. He protested that their work is often disengaged from real worker organizing, and tends to get wrapped up in Marxian analysis. Other workers generally don't understand class struggle from the pages of Das Kapital, but through direct experience being under the thumbs of the ruling class.

The academics stay far away from real organizing, and analyze the workers as if they were ants in an anthill. He described it as a class division, but with some degree of solidarity between. The academic leftist's job is to be an academic leftist, which means nothing more than academia, and nothing less than academia. You cannot count on them to really be interested in worker ideas, worker culture, let alone labor organizing.

I can post my friend's labor history zine onto this blog when it's finished.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Linguistic condottieri

Companies that supply services to military contractors make up the third largest contributors of forces in Iraq, proof that mercenary work is highly profitable. A company like DynCorp will supply national armies with civilian police forces, drug eradication services, and linguists, for whatever cause and for the most pay. Its Global Linguists Solutions division works in Iraq with the US Army, but the company also works for the UAE, Australia, Nigeria, and anybody else it can please.

There are new rewards for ESL mercenaries working for US after recent modifications to US immigration rules. The Pentagon recently announced it will be recruiting from the ranks of immigrants with temporary visas, and "accelerating" mercenary routes to US citizenship. The immigrant recruits are valuable to the military if they speak any of 35 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Igbo (a Nigerian language), Kurdish, Napalese, Pashto, Russian, and Tamil. Immigrant mercenaries can apply to become citizens on the first day of active service, will have all their naturalization fees waived, and they can take an oath of citizenship in as little as six months. But if they do not serve in the military, says the NY Times, citizenship is uncertain and "at best agonizingly long, often lasting more than a decade."

"The Army will gain in its strength in human capital," General Freakley said, "and the immigrants will gain their citizenship and get on a ramp to the American dream." ... If the immigrants do not complete their service honorably, they could lose their citizenship.

The message is, 'fight for us and then you might become citizens.' This is the new bargain. Rather than the CIA paying groups of armed rebels in remote places to fight against enemies of the West, the military instead will hire them from its own backyard, as its own soldiers, on its own payroll.

In Renaissance Italy, wars were fought by mercenary soldiers recruited by the condottieri, partly as a business venture, partly as a political speculation. City-states and principalities had to rely on these recruits because the political culture of the time did not allow for efficient coercion. There were no conscript armies. Essentially, the immigrant recruitment mechanism is efficiently coercive, and a politically acceptable form of conscription today.

It is the perfect political and military solution to US problems with 1) immigration, 2) imperial overstretch, and 3) human capital. New waves of immigrants to the US can be molded into pawns for the empire, easily, and asked to prove their allegiance by going above and beyond. The government does not have to rely on middle class whites to go to war for its own sake. Instead it draws from the poorest, and most vulnerable sections of its population: the most efficient type of coercion imaginable.

But mercenary recruits who fight in wars against successful anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist armies usually get wasted by aftermath courts. This is the take-home message. Recall the Luanda trial of 13 British and American mercenaries towards the end of the successful Angolan war of independence from 1961 to 1974, which ended in death sentences. Americans put ads in papers like Soldier of Fortune - a magazine for mercenaries - declaring their willingness to fight for hire "anywhere in the world" against independence movements and rebels.

The US State Department denied that it had condoned the hiring of any mercenaries. Two US lawyers who attended the trial accused the Ford Administration of violating the Neutrality Act by allowing mercenaries to fight overseas. The prosecutor in that trial, Mr. Montiero, scorned the U.S. as "the home of the CIA and the mother of mercenaries" and Henry Kissinger as "the traveling salesman of the international crime syndicate."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hold on to the Feeling, Streetlight People

The myth of Obama's "change" is essentially providing protective cover for entrenched forces of racism, sexism and class domination. Barack Obama is a political figure who wants to unclench your fist, whose presidency will highlight the indeterminacy of change and the paradoxical tendency to legitimate oppression by creating a false sense of formal neutrality and equality.

Mark Tushnet wrote that, "It is not just that rights-talk does not do much good. In the contemporary United States, it is positively harmful." He and the other critical legal theorists argued that just having new laws that instated equal rights for people creates fertile "protective cover" for a deeply embedded social hierarchy to thrive underneath.

The obvious example is the 14th Amendment to the Constitution - a paradox which the civil rights movement had to confront many years later. The law is either not enough, or it could never be enough under the existing political conditions. Just so, a president - any president - is either not enough, or could never be enough under the existing political conditions.

Barack Obama is constantly saying that he needs your help to change America, that he cannot do it alone, that change comes from below. He is wrong about this. If he wanted to push America in an undemocratic direction he could get away with it, easily, because he does not operate in a democracy. What he really means is that he cannot democratically change society at all, and that he needs your help entirely. Without a decisive attack on public consciousness through popular action and mutual aid, then liberal legalism - the false hope of protective cover rhetoric - reinforces the myth that social progress still comes from the top.

Don't believe the hype. Liberal legalism creates a sense of 'the self' that is illusory and ultimately destructive, by empowering corrupt institutions as the agents of change rather than participant cooperatives. But how, we should ask, can change come from below in a system that only invests in a hierachy? In the words of Journey, "Don't stop believin'. Hold on to the feeling, streetlight people!"

Does Tacoma have music history?

It's 9pm and that means its time for band practice at my house. I live just above the basement where two bands, Head Bangs and Rituals, play every other night. So I hear all the songs. The other night we were talking about how Tacoma's music scene is not well known, and its history is too often jumbled with Seattle's history instead. After all, Nirvana wasn't from Seattle either - they were from Aberdeen, WA. This prompted me to see what bands, if any, had come out of Tacoma. I found three bands from the 50s and 60s that still are chart-toppers, so I wanted to share. Tacoma's music scene is built on a strong backbone.

The Ventures

In 1959 a band known as The Ventures burst on the scene with what was called "surf rock". Their music was purely instrumental, but topped the charts. Their songs were used in Quentin Tarantino films, and the group is the most popular American rock group in Japan to date, having outsold the Beatles 2 to 1. This band is, in fact, the best-selling instrumental band of all time - having sold over 100 million records. And they're from, of all places, Tacoma. Here is a taste.

The Wailers

From the same era as The Ventures, The Wailers (not the reggae group), is known to many people as "the first garage band", and the group that gave rise to the Seattle grunge scene. The song "Louie Louie" comes from this group originally. One of their hits is, "Tall Cool One". Here is a short documentary about The Wailers.

The Sonics

Another group from Tacoma - The Sonics - are considered the first punk band. I could not believe this, so I found the Seattle PI newspaper agrees, saying The Sonics "foreshadowed the punk era", which is a bit different. Still, this is big news. Here is a taste of their music.

According to these sources, then, Tacoma is home to the first garage band, the first punk band, and the most popular American instrumental band in Japan. There haven't been too many female artists from Tacoma, but I found one diamond in the rough who goes by the name Junkyard Jane. If you like the sounds of Head Bang, they will be playing in Olympia and in some Tacoma house shows next month, check out their myspace.

More sounds from Tacoma's past.

Vonnegut- Don't Tell Sophie

Monday, February 16, 2009

Olympic Bobsledding Advertisements - a case study

Perhaps you are not watching the 2009 Utah Olympics. But I did for a very, very brief moment and here is what I noticed.

Your vantage point is not exactly the one most suitable for watching sports, so much as watching ads. To view your favorite Olympic team get the gold, you must experience this event as they maneuver around - not the slope of a mountain - but around numerous advertising apexes. The goal is exposure. Okay, so this is really obvious, I know.

There is another thing, too. Capital and the state are two thing you confront when watching the Olympics. The reporters and announcers are constantly comparing nationalities, getting the audience to identify with an imaginary community - not a bad thing in itself - but one that exists within the confines of imaginary legal borders, with a false unification.

For the Olympic Games, advertising creates the frame, creates the experience, creates a spectacle. The ads actually block our view in most scenes. But they are necessary, integral to the experience, and we don't even need to respond to them. They didn't really ask a question in the first place, and so they get no response. What is their use - who can say? This is something Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard noticed about mass communication in a simulation economy.

Frame by frame, the fantasmagoria is lining up to greet you. A camera patiently waits at the next station, carefully placing another ad into the centerpiece of its broadcast - this time for KONICA MINOLTA. The bobsled finally comes into view and passes by swiftly enough, in a neck-breaking blur. But the whole time the logo KONICA MINOLTA is staring you directly in the face.

Things last no longer than the time it takes for them to happen. From the very beginning to the very end of this one-and-a-half-minute experience, you might have been exposed to thirty or more advertisements. Many of which you probably did not notice. Through your viewfinder you see a little red spot appear at the bottom of the screen, announcing "OMEGA".

It's the perfect mixture of exhilaration and deception.

But to tell you the truth, I don't see how bobsledding can be deceptive. The ads do not deceive. The slope of a mountain does not deceive. Nothing here is deceptive. Everything is pure fact. At bottom there is this truth: nothing deceives, there are no lies, there is only simulation.

Simulation is the separation of value from fact. This is the way I understand it.

Political economy has a strategy of using exchange values and use values as "alibis" for one another when it is convenient. But the new political economy can do no such thing. When the only thing being exchanged are simulated experiences, value is arbitrary in a political economy of signs.

I can spy with my little eye, an INTERSPORT ad... whatever that is!

If we stay with this line of thinking, we become suspicious of reality. But here there is no suspicion, the facts are there before us, "ADIDAS", "KONICA MINOLTA".

The critique of simulation is not a complementary critique of political economy - it is the new critique of political economy, because simulation has already replaced reality.

ADIDAS, by the way, stands for "all day I dream about simulation".

Advertising is just a system of objects, just a technology. Or is it?

By reinventing capital in each successive phase of capitalism, (1) counterfeit, (2) production and (3) simulation, the ads confirm the latest initiative capital has enjoyed since the dawning of the simulation economy. It is a way of life!

The lonley slope of a mountain, an event that was made for television, and one advertisement. There are no accidents here, no catastrophes, no terrorism, no traffic-jams, no panic, and no Soviets. It is just surplus time. But it is still a 100 percent advertising event. This is a desert in real-time, a scenery full of value, and the clock is ticking.

At least we know it was a good day for KONICA MINOLTA.

And America!

The bobsled team see their whole lives flashing before them in one big whooosh! For you it is a moment of truth. To quote Jean Baudrillard from Symbolic Exchange and Death:

"Reality itself founders in hyperrealism, the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another, reproductive medium, such as photography. From medium to medium, the real is volatized, becoming an allegory of death. But it is also, in a sense, reinforced through its own destruction. It becomes reality for its own sake, the fetishism of a lost object..."

Who will have the final word? Let's talk to the bobsledding team and find out.

With the ubiquity of ads here, it's amazing these sports channel announcers have the audacity to say they will return once again to the Olympics after a short "commercial break".

But the American bobsledding team's colors are red - the world about to dawn! - and black - the night that ends at last! - and he's got his fist up in the air, so who can really complain...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why Israel targets the kids

The direct and witnessed experiences of children in Palestine:

There is a famous photo of a young boy strapped to the hood of an Israeli jeep, to protect the soldiers from Palestinian stones, and hundreds of photos documenting Israeli soldiers' deliberate targeting of children in street attacks. A popular punishment for Palestinian kids who throw rocks at the occupying army is to smash their fingers to pieces. To break the hand of a stone-thrower, the soldiers reasoned, would stop them from throwing stones for at least a month. But few people really have a sense for the scale of state-condoned violence against Palestinian children.

The reason why Israel targets children is because the Palestinian children are active participants in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza's struggle against Israeli military occupation. During the first and second Intifada young kids threw stones, erected roadblocks, burned tires, marched in demos, became lookouts, wrote political slogans on walls, and confronted settlers and soldiers during raids on refugee camps and neighborhoods. Between December 1987 and December 1993, Palestinians under sixteen were 40 percent of an estimated 130,000 Palestinians seriously injured by Israeli soldiers. Essentially one of out every twenty Palestinian children. In order to crush the Intifada, it seemed, all Israel had to do was crush the spirit of the youth.

The IDF violates human rights and the 'rights of the child' as sketched out in the UN declaration, Rights of the Child. But in the few cases where the IDF was tried for their 'unauthorized' assaults, soldiers are punished lightly, and the charges are swept under the table in kangaroo courts. The IDF imposes curfews and other collective punishments on local Palestinan populations, but looks the other way when settlers set out on vigilante rampages against affected Palestinian communities. Thirty seven children were killed during the first five months of the First Intifada from the excessive use of tear gas in confined places. PTSD among children is common. This brutality is summarized in a pithy UNRWA brief, and added to a mound of UN briefs documenting the devastation of an entire people.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Afghanistan Surge

The so-called "anti-war" President is going to escalate the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Pakistan by 23,000 in the coming months. The total number of soldiers from Western military powers in Afghanistan will then be around 100,000. Plans to increase the number of soldiers in stages are in the air, this being the second phase in a plan that already increased the number by 4,000 since Obama took office. 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after the first 16 months according to the "pull out" time-table.

Have you noticed that Obama has never criticized the invasion of Iraq because it was illegal, immoral, unjust, or imperialist, or for any of the reasons you might expect from an anti-war President? Look at the criticism he does raise, and one perspective stands out. Obama's reasons for opposing Bush's policy in Iraq come from a decidedly chauvinist viewpoint of what's best for America - that is, the U.S. empire. He gives us the cost-benefit analysis, saying on television that the costs of excess U.S. presence in Iraq have outweighed the benefits for America.

America knows Iraq won't fit in her pocketbook. This is why the U.S. is moving further East: the central front in the War on Terror are small mountaintop villages nestled among rocky, sparse passages. The Kandahar province and the Southern provinces in Afghanistan, and on federally-administered tribal lands in Pakistan is where the Pentagon, Barack Obama and the New York Times, says the new global war on terror is located.

As Obama said in the Presidential debates, the reason why America should stay out of Iraq is not because it's wrong, not because it destroys peoples' lives, not because Iraq was only about oil. It's because America cannot control the people there.

"I warned that the invasion of a country posing no imminent threat would fan the flames of extremism, and distract us from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban."

And in his own writing, he says the mistake the U.S. made was to stretch out its power and spend its money unwisely.

"More than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched."

"The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we’ve spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted."

"Nearly every threat we face—from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to Iran—has grown."

"Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been."

So Obama is talking realpolitik, and Obama right about one thing: his position on the war on terror has been consistent; his position has always proceeded from the interests of U.S. imperialism.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

They Re-scrambled Africa

It is not only in the Middle East where the empire of oil is seeking to regain lost territory, look at Africa:

George Bush said Africa's greatest resource is "not its oil, it's not its diamonds, it is the talent and creativity".

But the reason why the U.S. military setup the new African military command station in 2007, called AFRICOM, was to control oil in the region, which means defending oil extraction. This project is praised by policy insiders. It was "long overdue" given that Africa supplies the U.S. with "nearly 20 percent of its petroleum needs" according to a writer for World Defense Review. Today, ExxonMobil operates in Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria, and is set to begin work in Libya. Its African holdings account for nearly 17% of the company’s global oil reserves. Africa is the final frontier as far as the world's energy and natural supplies are concerned.

Review of African Political Economy:

"In the next 15 to 20 years, most of the new oil entering the world market is going to be coming from African fields."

As radical indigenist groups like MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, have an armed populist resistance movement ready to strike against all foreign oil companies in their land, especially Shell and Chevron, AFRICOM has been arming and training the militaries of Angola, Algeria, Botwana, Chad, Cote d'Iviore, Republic of Congo, Equitorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Uganda.

What Africa has is a classic overseas expansion of American military and economic power, whereby the business interests control the military interests, whereby global military competitiveness is an extension of global business competitiveness. The connection between military and economic power are even more entangled: alliances within the core of the developed OECD economies, permitted by organizations like the G8, the World Bank, NATO and various military cooperation structures, make domination of the global "periphery" inevitable. Political scientists Leo Panitch and Samuel Gindin hold variations of this view.

Being the U.S. military means your duty is to ensure a subdued and supportive African continent. It means expressing the interests of the global economy in terms of Africa's economic and humanitarian needs. Just to be fair, the U.S. will provide professional military assistance against rebellious African separatist and indigenist elements. It will "enable" democracy, and facilitate oil exports. The American military is there to rebuild, assist, and ultimately help the people of Africa improve their standard of living. Can they keep a straight face?

Being Exxon or Shell or Chevron or BP means never having to apologize for the kind of work you do. It means divvying up African into boundaries along pipelines and labor divisions, bypassing people and made-up national borders. It means asking friendly military powers to protect your professional practices. Big Oil wants to take an active role in the exploitation of global resources against the determination of the people who have historic entitlement, but the people there have no means of justifying their argument under the imperialist rubric.

Hence, it's safe to say the new scramble for Africa is an oil and military scramble. But the story of the scrambles are as old as the European fascination with Africa: resources - whether human or natural - will always take priority over anything else so long as white people with flags and guns have anything to do with it.

Rebellious Pixels:

Post-Hussein Oil

Despite the recession and stock declines last September, Exxon Mobil has earned the highest profits in world history in 2008 - a record $45.2 billion. In assets, Exxon is worth around $375 billion which is more than General Electric, Bank of America and Google combined. It's the world's largest corporation.

The size and asset value of a corporation alone does not tell you very much about conduct, only performance and market structure. The real ambitions of the oil industry as a whole, however, are not very secret. With its political and business clout, Exxon has been urging the Oil Ministry of Iraq to issue it the first contracts for oil field service in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. New York Times, June 2008:

"[The International Energy Agency] estimated that repair work on existing fields could bring Iraq’s output up to roughly four million barrels per day within several years. After new fields are tapped, Iraq is expected to reach a plateau of about six million barrels per day, Mr. Fyfe said, which could suppress current world oil prices."

These no-bid contracts were supposed to be awarded to Exxon, BP, Shell, Chevron and Total, as well as some smaller ones like Hunt Oil Company from Dallas. A total of 46 leading companies from China, India and Russia, had memorandums with the Oil Ministry, but were not awarded contracts. Continued:

“These are not actually service contracts,” Ms. Benali said. “They were designed to circumvent the legislative stalemate” and bring Western companies with experience managing large projects into Iraq before the passage of the oil law.

By legally increasing the oil production in Iraq, these contracts circumvented OPEC rulings on member-state oil output. In fact, the increase in oil output from Iraq in the contracts is by the same amount OPEC decided to decrease output: 2.9 million barrels a day.

By severing Iraq from OPEC, the oil industry can now increase output and earn more profits, while pleasing U.S. politicians with a lower price for oil.

The no-bid contracts were eventually canceled by the Iraq Oil Ministry since June. Instead they will be competitive bids, which Exxon and the others are surely to win, being the most eligible and capable of bidding on them. They will soon bid on long-term service contracts for 90 percent of the oil fields in Iraq. The United Press International says Shell has already won a contract to control most of the Shiite oil in Southern Iraq for 25 years.

All of these corporations have a history of manipulating politically unstable markets in order to gain control. For example, after a dispute with the Venezuelan government, during which Exxon persuaded a British court to briefly freeze $12 billion in government assets to fight what it considered an expropriation, the Venezuela's oil minister accused the company of "judicial terrorism."

The contracts are structured as "service" contracts, which means the companies will repair fields, drill, export oil and train Iraqis to work in the fields. This means, essentially, hiring Iraqi labor instead of bringing in workers from further East. These are "reconstruction" contracts. The companies will be paid for their work, rather than offered a license to the oil deposits. As such, they do not require the passage of an oil law setting out terms for competitive bidding. Since the summer this legislation has been stalled by disputes among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties over revenue.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Oil Sand Trade between Canada and the U.S.

As oil prices climb, tar stand oil extraction in Canada is increasing. Tar sand oil, or bitumen, has a higher price premium than drilled oil - because its harder to produce and is higher quality - and is the dirtiest solution to U.S. "energy independence".

Even though "methods of separating oil from sand leave behind huge waste ponds of thick, caustic sludge", this is already a major oil production method. Since the 1980s, patents touting new extraction methods as "environmentally friendly" - by using chemical solvents and naphtha as opposed to boiling water under the tar- cannot live up to the expectations. All methods have a negative net-energy use. U.S. and Chinese demand for the tar oils, and the business's rapid expansion in Alberta, is the main reason why Canada has "no chance" according to Canadian environmental ministers at meeting its Kyoto commitments.

OPEC: a divided power

OPEC has always been divided over price. Its members differ strongly on the urgency with which to increase its prices because two different kinds of nationalized oil-producers operate in the cartel. One group of members - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE for example - have small populations, high GNP per capita, and ruling elites who benefit from slow modernization. For them, the best way to use their large oil reserves is to extend oil revenue for a long period of time into the future. This means a higher price today, and oil production that is slower than demand.

On the other hand, OPEC members like Indonesia, Nigeria, and Algeria have large populations, smaller GNP per capita, and smaller oil reserves. Their best strategy would be to decrease the price of oil in order to maximize oil revenue in relation to other OPEC member states. This would last a shorter period of time, and since the stronger members reject this idea, it would be "cheating" against the OPEC cartel. The U.S. has supported member-states who cheated on the cartel before, evidence by the First Gulf War when Saddam Hussein sought to punish Kuwait for lowering prices on OPEC. Then the U.S. stood by its defecting ally.

However, the U.S. does not necessarily want low prices coming from OPEC nation-states anymore. Because the largest oil reserves are located in mainly three Middle Eastern countries - Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia - it is reasonable to assume that the U.S. wants to see lower oil prices coming from places it has good political relations with, such as Canada.

Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, says oil companies want to see Canada as "the next Saudi Arabia".

What OPEC wants is not what the U.S. wants

High oil prices negatively affect the 'consumer surplus' in the United States: being so dependent on petroleum imports, the higher the price of petrol, the less product the U.S. economy as a whole is able to produce and consume. A decrease in world oil supply, easily enough, raises the price of oil and sends all prices in the U.S. economy higher.

Walter Adams and James Brock, two economists who take a structure-conduct-performance approach to industrial organization, believe the U.S. policymaker's preferred outcome is that the U.S. receives a lower price of oil, but consumes less of it - at least from OPEC producers.

However, OPEC wants a position that - according to Adams and Brock - the market would not allow. OPEC wants a higher price for oil and even more consumption of it. Over time, producers of oil substitutes would earn more revenue from consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere because consumer demand is not as inelastic as OPEC wishes.

The reason why the U.S.'s preferred quantity of oil demanded is so low according to Adams and Brock, is because of the need for national security. Dependence on Middle Eastern oil, a politically unstable and unfriendly region, is too challenging to continue. Diversification of energy resources will provide the best substitute for Middle Eastern oil, they say.


Though Adams and Brock like the idea of diversifying into new forms of energy consumption: solar, wind, "green energy", it is more likely the the U.S. will diversify by expanding its resource base into Canada through trade and security agreements.

Canada and the U.S. have the largest and most comprehensive trade relationship in the world. Both are G8 members, founding OECD members, NATO members, joint members in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), members of the new Security and Prosperity Partnership, and have dozens of agreements like the Business for Economic Security, Tourism and Trade (BESTT) and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). The tendency, then, for the U.S. to view Canada's oil-rich resources as close to a domestic resource as possible, is inviting. Importing dirtier oil from a friendlier source is a more viable option than dependence on Middle Eastern oil, in the eyes of the U.S.

That means Canadian bitumen will be the future of oil consumption and production in North America, regardless of the environmental impacts.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Barack Obama ends clenched fist period

This post fuses critical legal theory with my analysis of Barack Obama's presidency.

Critical legal theorists argued that the "myth of rights" from classical rights theory is essentially providing protective cover for entrenched forces of racism, sexism and class domination. These critics highlight the indeterminacy of rights and their paradoxical tendency to legitimate oppression by creating a false sense of formal neutrality and equality. This is why the election of Barack Obama, the protective cover, should concern you.

For example, the phrase "all men are born equal" was embedded into the the founding documents of the United States. But today, as it was before the 1860s, this promising phrase holds little in terms of actual practice. Barack Obama is black, but so are over 1 million out of 2 million in the American prison system. The prison system is expanding to hold 5 million by 2010. The promise of equality pacified populations hurt by discrimination, and helped the oppressing population turn a blind eye to the harm done. "All men are born equal" gave the promise of change without following through. African Americans fought wars under regimes that mistreated them horribly. Though the promise of freedom and equality was present, it still is not practiced.

The critical legal theorists do not attack the 'constitutive' effects of having rights in a liberal democracy per se. What they do is examine the actual effects of the law on consciousness and action. Whereas classical rights theorists - Locke, J.S. Mill, Hart, etc. - provide the cornerstone for liberal legal theory, they cannot abolish social forces that inhibit equality. Liberal legalism much of the time creates a sense of 'the self' that is illusory and ultimately destructive, because ordinary citizens can find themselves locked out of the formal capacity of the law to safeguard their rights.

The Supreme Court's anti-discrimination law "normalizes the existing patterns of inequality and hierarchy," argued critical legal theorist A.D. Freeman. Mark Tushnet wrote that "It is not just that rights-talk does not do much good. In the contemporary United States, it is positively harmful." Feminist and critical race scholars also address the more explicit effects of rights, rather than the constitutive (promised) effects of rights on individuals.

On the other hand, the effect of the civil rights movement's confrontations with American society on the identity of African Americans was positive. To the extent that rights were associated with a "powerful combination of direct action, mass protest, and individual acts of resistance, along with appeals to public opinion and the courts", they were successful. Without a decisive attack on public consciousness through action, the classical rights theories actually reinforced myths and stereotypes about social differences.

With the election of Barack Obama, there is a connection between critical legal studies and the 'constitutive' effect of embracing the first African American as President of the U.S. The implication that Barack Obama is part of - or somehow is a leader in - the civil rights movement, could not be more damaging. A figure within the political system cannot take the place of or be a leader in any popular movement. That is co-option. The election of Barack Obama will most likely bring an end to confrontational approaches to social difference before it ameliorates real social differences. And if confrontational approaches have historically won decisive political victories in areas where liberal legalism has failed, the election of Barack Obama would soften the confrontations, and hence have little or no effect on society.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

An inclusive recession?

The people hit hardest by the global capitalist downturn of the late 2000s are the disabled. When a recession happens, they are the first people to be laid off, they are among the first in social spending to be cut, and they are the most likely to be overlooked.

The global unemployment rate, 5.7% in 2007, could rise to 6.5% in 2009, estimates the ILO. Therefore,

"The number of working poor – people who are unable to earn enough to lift themselves and their families above the US$2 per person, per day, poverty line, may rise up to 1.4 billion, or 45 per cent of all the world’s employed."

The International Labor Organization recommends Keynesian relief policies, which are in vogue everywhere. In the United States, however, some states have decreased the number of welfare recipients by the end of 2008.

Whereas every state has increased the number of food-stamp recipients:

The reason the NY Times article gives is that cash assistance is viewed as "dependency", whereas food assistance is viewed as "nutritional support".

A big reason why people with disabilities do not obtain the rights that they have claim to in many developing countries is because the disability has not transformed the self-perception of the disabled or the workplace. Having a disability is viewed as a burden and possibly something that will prevent them from employment, stopping the disabled before they take an active stance and asserting their rights. Many of these obstacles are viewed as personal shortcomings rather than the products of discrimination.

A series of interviews from Americans with disabilities, chronicled in Rights of Inclusion, has a common theme throughout: workers and the unemployed with disabilities feel that the stigmatizing effects of receiving assistance are too problematic for them. They feel that having a disability decreases their reliability, is a burden on business, and this makes them reluctant to think about themselves as disabled people. Unwilling to modify their identities as people with disabilities, they do not receive the aid they could have under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

One disabled person remarked that his charm and persuasive skills, as opposed to explicitly invoking the law, was the key to make others appreciate the benefits of having a person with a disability as an employee or an associate. The authors, David Engel and Frank Munger, believe that "rights become active" when a formal claim is lodged with a government official, and when the person's self-perception is transformed.

"Rights are the vehicle for achieving equality, but to invoke rights one must first identify oneself as unequal - in a sense that one's abilities fall short of an imagined 'norm'."

Martha Minow, at Harvard Law, says that "disability" has no inherent meaning because what is considered a disability in one setting is not a disability in another. It is meaningful only as a comparison. An exclusion based on a disability is a signal that someone has not been provided for as others are. The blame is on the institutions that create the disadvantage. So when rights are thought about in terms of social relations, their effect on identity are - in theory - no longer stigmatizing.

The latest BLS jobs report found that unemployment is 7.6 percent in the U.S. and 13.2 percent for those with disabilities.