Sunday, September 5, 2010

50 yrs of PC & AI in 2011, Bad Day at E. Mkt., Films, Fidel in Uniform, Dogs in Iran, Iktar, Son’s B’day, Reich on Economy, Chavez' Popularity, Palmer

Amnesty International and Peace Corps both will be celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2011, putting me a something of a time bind, as I’m involved in promoting both. I’ve been with Amnesty for 30 of those 50 years, but with the Peace Corps for only 11 years, first as a volunteer in 2000, then as an advocate. I know I’m juggling too many balls, but am reluctant to drop any of them.

Returned to my bookselling post at Eastern Market after a 3-week break, taken while the folks who have kindly supplied me with a table and umbrella were away. However, things did not go smoothly. First, they forgot the umbrella, which meant I was subjected to the blazing DC sun, 90+ temps, not only quite uncomfortable, but book covers started curling up. Furthermore, I only sold a single book in three hours. Someone who stopped by told me a story about an older woman volunteer in Zimbabwe 20 years ago (when Zimbabwe had PC volunteers) who was murdered by someone stealing her radio. I shuddered, remembering the would-be radio thief who came through my ceiling when I was sleeping in La Esperanza, Honduras, as my book readers know.

A middle-aged couple carrying small American flags stopped by, saying they were teabaggers from Colorado, in town for the Glenn Beck rally. Needless-to-say, though we chatted, they did not buy a book. Beck, as you know, had a sizable, largely white-folks rally at the Lincoln Memorial, while Al Sharpton presided over a smaller counter-rally of mostly black folks marking the anniversary of MLKing’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which I actually heard in person lo those many years ago.

The final blow to my bookselling efforts occurred during a conversation with another returned PC volunteer, also in her 60s, just back from Ethiopia, a country she had fallen in love with, much as I have with Honduras. She said she couldn’t buy my book because all her spare cash must go to Ethiopia. I understand completely. My donations to entities outside of Honduras are few and far between because I feel I must concentrate whatever resources I can, including book proceeds, to my projects there. While we were talking and comparing notes, her dog had a bout of diarrhea right in front of my table. Not only did that discourage any other customers, but it definitely led me to start packing things up for the day. The only saving grace was that a librarian working at the Library of Congress who has read my book passed by, saying she felt it really is an excellent book that a major publisher should pick up. A very nice sentiment, but there have been no major publishers knocking insistently on my door. I fear that the contents and style alone would not impress them. The only thing that might would be big sales on Amazon, provided they felt that an even bigger market was still out there. In these economic hard times, the bottom line has become ever more important. No more coddling of a promising new author by providing editing and advice—a book has to be ready to go with minimal staff investment.

Next time I tried selling at Eastern Market, the wind was so fierce that it almost blew me and my books away. I sat there, holding my books and pamphlets down; it was not possible to open up my umbrella. People were rushing by, holding onto their hats. I sold only 2 books before I gave up. One buyer was a carpenter from Choluteca, of all places, someone who has lived in the DC area 20 years. I promised to look up his mother next time I go there. A reader who had gotten my book previously came by and told me how much she’d liked it, “I couldn’t put it down—I read it straight through.” I’d never thought of it as page-turner, but it was nice that she did.

On August 30, we held a successful showing of a slightly updated version of the Cuba documentary, “Women in White,” at George Washington University. The timing was difficult because we had little advance notices and that was the first day of classes. However, we were taking advantage of the presence of Norwegian director Gry Winther, who was escorting her daughter to the university for her junior year. Nonetheless, we had a very good turnout and lively discussion afterward, moderated by Professor Antonio Gayoso of the Elliot School of International Affairs, himself of Cuban origin. I spoke about a couple of Urgent Actions on Cuba issued by Amnesty International, my meetings with a couple interviewed in the film, and answered questions. Winther told of how she had to enter Cuba as a tourist, with her cameraman carrying just a small tourist camera. She stayed only 5 days. The professor said he had it on good authority that over one million Cubans have visa petitions pending at the US Interests Section in Havana (out of a population of 11 million). Obviously, most will be rejected, but all have to be processed.

Later, someone sent me a video from the Human Rights Foundation, (212) 246.8486, of an interview with the Ladies in White declaring that they will continue protesting every Sunday until all of the Black Spring prisoners have been released. In the video, Laura Pollan, their spokeswoman, says the following (in translation): The government states that there's a lot of freedom in Cuba, that it's a paradise. I'd invite those people who believe that Cuba is free to come and live here; to come and live here like a regular citizen, without bringing dollars; to come to work, and make what a regular worker makes; to come and live in a humble house, buy their food with a ration book, and express themselves here as much as they do in their own countries against their governments and other individuals, so that they see what the outcome is in Cuba.

On the next day, Aug. 31, we held a showing at Freedom House of Winther’s second film her series on women activists, this time on women in Iran. She was in Teheran last year before and after the elections as a Norwegian news reporter and sandwiched her documentary filming in between that (as with Cuba, staying only 5 days), with election events providing a dramatic setting for her documentary, “Lion Women.” Both the Cuba and Iran documentaries have been seen in Europe, but no US distribution to date.

That same evening, at the local Amnesty office, we held a Muslim Iktar dinner, breaking the fast after sundown, first with a sweet date for each, then with food. We had a big crowd and a speaker who had just come back from an extended mission to Gaza. He showed us video footage and talked about the people's many deprivations, both of basic necessities and freedoms, as well as the deathly flotilla incident. Gaza, with about 1.5 million inhabitants, is restricted to a very small, narrow strip of land. But he did not let Hamas off either, saying their security forces also often brutalize people and that there is a lot of domestic violence against women within families. All in all, a very difficult and contentious existence.

I’ve received a clipping from the NYTimes, “A Failure to Communicate,” 8/29/10, from an alert reader. Apparently, an accent makes a speaker seem less trustworthy to listeners (and not speaking English at all must be even worse).

Again, Fidel Castro has appeared in public and given a foreign policy speech, but this time in full military dress. What does that mean? The guy has nine lives and is an unpredictable as a cat!

Here is what my anonymous Cuban-American commentator has to say: From today's front page news in the Miami Herald, [Castro in military uniform, giving a 35-minute speech] guess while Fidel remains alive it is foolhardy to bet on any development that threatens to make peace and better relations between Cuba and the US. That guy has the anti-Midas touch! Everything he touches he converts into dung! And he exercises this gift very skillfully!

I guess his double allusion to a coming prisoner swap [between US-jailed convicted spies “the Cuban Five” and American Alan Gross held in Cuba since December 2009] had the purpose of signaling the danger to his right-wing partners on the other side of the Florida Straits so that they could come out against it and embarrass the Obama administration just before the elections when they could least afford it. In this way he sabotaged the ongoing negotiations and undercut his brother's results in office without having to assume direct responsibility for it. He uses his enemies very skillfully to do his dirty work for him.

Actually the desire to avoid better relations between both countries is of common interest to him and his right-wing opponents and results in a de facto indirect alliance between both groups to keep US-Cuba relations in their present state. Fidel Castro knows that as long as the conflict persists he can count on Cuban nationalism to bolster his group's hold on power and the Miami right-wing is very aware that it can continue to count on US government financing while present conditions continue.

Given present developments, we can probably expect that Fidel and his under-the-table allies in Florida will find some new and innovative way to screw up whatever arrangements are planned once more, much to the chagrin of the prisoners to be exchanged, the innocent Cuban population, and Raul Castro who will once again find himself undercut and sabotaged by his own brother who always winds up controlling him directly or indirectly!

In another news item, the Mexican birthrate is falling and soon may even fall below the US rate. That will greatly reduce illegal immigration and probably leave the US without sufficient laborers at the lower end of the income scale. “Birth tourism,” which right-wingers rail against, is apparently uncommon. Out of 340,000 babies born to illegal immigrants in the United States in 2008, 85% of the parents had been in the country for more than a year, and more than half for at least five years. Furthermore, children cannot apply for residence for their parents until they reach age 21and then only through a lengthy process. I cannot imagine a Latino couple engaged in intimate relations telling each other, “Let’s try to make a baby so that in 25 years, maybe he or she can get us legal residence.”

The government of Iran, according to an NPR story, is now taking aim at dogs, imposing fines on people who take their dogs outside. Apparently, this push is based on the notion that the Koran considers dogs unclean. Yet, apparently many Iranians still have dogs. I recall once having a Muslim housemate, back when my kids were young, who avoided touching our dog, which made living with us rather awkward for him.

Probably teachers are well aware of this technique, but a recent school interpretation was when I first saw it demonstrated. The hearing-impaired child’s hearing aids are outfitted with special receivers while the teacher wears a microphone that goes only to that child’s ears, very ingenious, allowing the child to participate in class with normal-hearing students.

Last week, my MRI patient just could not tolerate being inside the tube (which is large and open at each end), so the test had to be halted. Despite having been given a tranquilizer beforehand, this person shook too much to allow clear images to be made. It was only the second time that a session had to be cancelled in my experience as an interpreter for MRI patients.

On Sept. 3, an NPR staff member, who had lost both his sons in an auto accident last year (didn't catch his name), commented on his profound loss, then reported on portions of the annual conference of The Compassionate Friends held in Crystal City in July and said how much TCF and the conference had helped him and his wife feel less alone and desolate. Part of the TCF "credo," recited at every local meeting, was repeated on the air. His commentary came just in time for me, as my late son’s birthday was the next day, Sept. 4. I got through that day pretty well. I’m always glad when it’s over. It’s strange how anniversaries have such significance, even though, of course, they are, in cosmic terms, just like any other day.
(The following article made sense to me.)
September 2, 2010
How to End the Great Recession
Berkeley, Calif.

THIS promises to be the worst Labor Day in the memory of most Americans. Organized labor is down to about 7 percent of the private work force. Members of non-organized labor — most of the rest of us — are unemployed, underemployed or underwater. The Labor Department reported on Friday that just 67,000 new private-sector jobs were created in August, while at least 125,000 are needed to keep up with the growth of the potential work force.

The national economy isn’t escaping the gravitational pull of the Great Recession. None of the standard booster rockets are working: near-zero short-term interest rates from the Fed, almost record-low borrowing costs in the bond market, a giant stimulus package and tax credits for small businesses that hire the long-term unemployed have all failed to do enough.

That’s because the real problem has to do with the structure of the economy, not the business cycle. No booster rocket can work unless consumers are able, at some point, to keep the economy moving on their own. But consumers no longer have the purchasing power to buy the goods and services they produce as workers; for some time now, their means haven’t kept up with what the growing economy could and should have been able to provide them.

This crisis began decades ago when a new wave of technology — things like satellite communications, container ships, computers and eventually the Internet — made it cheaper for American employers to use low-wage labor abroad or labor-replacing software here at home than to continue paying the typical worker a middle-class wage. Even though the American economy kept growing, hourly wages flattened. The median male worker earns less today, adjusted for inflation, than he did 30 years ago.

But for years American families kept spending as if their incomes were keeping pace with overall economic growth. And their spending fueled continued growth. How did families manage this trick? First, women streamed into the paid work force. By the late 1990s, more than 60 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home (in 1966, only 24 percent did).

Second, everyone put in more hours. What families didn’t receive in wage increases they made up for in work increases. By the mid-2000s, the typical male worker was putting in roughly 100 hours more each year than two decades before, and the typical female worker about 200 hours more.

When American families couldn’t squeeze any more income out of these two coping mechanisms, they embarked on a third: going ever deeper into debt. This seemed painless — as long as home prices were soaring. From 2002 to 2007, American households extracted $2.3 trillion from their homes.

Eventually, of course, the debt bubble burst — and with it, the last coping mechanism. Now we’re left to deal with the underlying problem that we’ve avoided for decades. Even if nearly everyone was employed, the vast middle class still wouldn’t have enough money to buy what the economy is capable of producing.

Where have all the economic gains gone? Mostly to the top. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income. It’s no coincidence that the last time income was this concentrated was in 1928. I do not mean to suggest that such astonishing consolidations of income at the top directly cause sharp economic declines. The connection is more subtle. The rich spend a much smaller proportion of their incomes than the rest of us. So when they get a disproportionate share of total income, the economy is robbed of the demand it needs to keep growing and creating jobs.

What’s more, the rich don’t necessarily invest their earnings and savings in the American economy; they send them anywhere around the globe where they’ll summon the highest returns — sometimes that’s here, but often it’s the Cayman Islands, China or elsewhere. The rich also put their money into assets most likely to attract other big investors (commodities, stocks, dot-coms or real estate), which can become wildly inflated as a result.

Meanwhile, as the economy grows, the vast majority in the middle naturally want to
live better. Their consequent spending fuels continued growth and creates enough jobs for almost everyone, at least for a time. But because this situation can’t be sustained, at some point — 1929 and 2008 offer ready examples — the bill comes due. This time around, policymakers had knowledge their counterparts didn’t have in 1929; they knew they could avoid immediate financial calamity by flooding the economy with money. But, paradoxically, averting another Great Depression-like calamity removed political pressure for more fundamental reform. We’re left instead with a long and seemingly endless Great Jobs Recession.

THE Great Depression and its aftermath demonstrate that there is only one way back to full recovery: through more widely shared prosperity. In the 1930s, the American economy was completely restructured. New Deal measures — Social Security, a 40-hour work week with time-and-a-half overtime, unemployment insurance, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, the minimum wage — leveled the playing field.
In the decades after World War II, legislation like the G.I. Bill, a vast expansion of public higher education and civil rights and voting rights laws further reduced economic inequality. Much of this was paid for with a 70 percent to 90 percent marginal income tax on the highest incomes. And as America’s middle class shared more of the economy’s gains, it was able to buy more of the goods and services the economy could provide. The result: rapid growth and more jobs. By contrast, little has been done since 2008 to widen the circle of prosperity. Health-care reform is an important step forward but it’s not nearly enough.

What else could be done to raise wages and thereby spur the economy? We might consider, for example, extending the earned income tax credit all the way up through the middle class, and paying for it with a tax on carbon. Or exempting the first $20,000 of income from payroll taxes and paying for it with a payroll tax on incomes over $250,000.

In the longer term, Americans must be better prepared to succeed in the global, high-tech economy. Early childhood education should be more widely available, paid for by a small 0.5 percent fee on all financial transactions. Public universities should be free; in return, graduates would then be required to pay back 10 percent of their first 10 years of full-time income. Another step: workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for positions that pay less could qualify for “earnings insurance” that would pay half the salary difference for two years; such a program would probably prove less expensive than extended unemployment benefits. These measures would not enlarge the budget deficit because they would be paid for. In fact, such moves would help reduce the long-term deficits by getting more Americans back to work and the economy growing again. Policies that generate more widely shared prosperity lead to stronger and more sustainable economic growth — and that’s good for everyone. The rich are better off with a smaller percentage of a fast-growing economy than a larger share of an economy that’s barely moving. That’s the Labor Day lesson we learned decades ago; until we remember it again, we’ll be stuck in the Great Recession.
Robert B. Reich, a secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the forthcoming “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.”


Chavez's popularity down in Venezuela, polls finds
Associated Press
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez's allies launched their campaigns Wednesday for crucial congressional elections that come just as recession, crime and inflation have pushed the socialist leader's popularity to a seven-year low.
A survey by the Venezuelan polling firm Consultores 21 indicates just 36 percent of Venezuelans approve of Chavez's performance, the lowest figure since 2003, when Chavez survived an opposition-led strike that devastated the economy, pollster Saul Cabrera said. The results suggest Chavez allies could face a difficult struggle to keep control of the National Assembly in the Sept. 26 election.

The survey of 1,500 people nationwide in late June and early July had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, said Cabrera, who is vice president of the polling firm. He said the poll was financed by a group of private businesses, which he declined to identify. Chavez's popularity has suffered a decline of 12 percentage points over the past year and a half, Cabrera told The Associated Press.
Critics accuse Chavez's government of severe incompetence and corruption, and many people are unhappy that Venezuela's oil-driven economy remains in a recession while all other South American countries are seeing growth. Venezuela's inflation rate, at more than 30 percent, is the highest in Latin America. Cabrera said other problems such as unchecked violence also are contributing to disenchantment with the government.

The new poll indicates Chavez is still popular among the poorest segment of Venezuelans, garnering about 60 percent support in that group, but he no longer has a majority in the other four income categories, Cabrera said. The pollster said that in spite of Chavez's low popularity level, the president remains a "formidable political competitor" against an opposition that - while it has made some gains - still has not shown sufficient strength to fully capitalize on the situation.
Chavez, who is up for re-election in 2012, has warned his supporters that opposition control of the National Assembly would undo some of the government's efforts toward socialism. The National Assembly has been predominantly pro-Chavez since the opposition boycotted legislative elections in 2005.

Opposition parties took to the streets along with Chavez supporters Wednesday as the election campaign officially began. Several opposition candidates campaigning near the National Assembly building in downtown Caracas were scattered by National Guard troops who fired tear gas at them for purportedly causing a public disturbance. There were no injures or arrests reported.

Larry Palmer, ambassador to Honduras during part of my Peace Corps service there, is still on the outs with Hugo Chavez, because he suggested that Chavez was supporting the Colombian guerrillas and predicted that “Cuba’s influence within the Venezuelan military will grow.” Chavez has asked the US to withdraw Palmer, but the State Dept. may prefer to just leave the position vacant. (See photo of me with Palmer on p. 92 of my book.)

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