Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Age of Megacrises: Slavery is Not Far Off

Somini Sengupta reports from the United Nations, "Dispute Over Opposition’s Seat at Table Threatens to Push Back Syria Peace Talks," that peace talks on the war in Syria scheduled to begin next week in Geneva will likely be delayed. The reason? The Saudis are demanding the exclusive right to name the opposition, meaning they will determine who will negotiate with the Syrian government. Currently the Saudis are barring participation by the Kurdish People's Protection Units, fighters who have proven time and again to be superior to the Salafi jihadists. But they are Marxist in orientation. So the sheikhs of monarchical al-Saud will not countenance them at "their" table. The Russians have responded that if al-Saud gets a veto over composition of the negotiating teams, so too will Russia. 

Unless the Saudis relent this doesn't seem like it is going to be resolved. And there is very little in the last several years to lead one to believe that the Saudis are going to relent. If they are made to toe the line because of U.S. pressure, they'll find some other way to scuttle the peace talks. Already the promised ceasefire that was trumpeted when these talks were agreed to last month is being walked back.

The war will of course continue. Hence the importance of another story by Somini Sengupta, one that appeared in yesterday's paper, "U.N.-Appointed Panel Calls for a Tax to Pay for Crises." Acknowledging that global megacrises are not going away -- in fact, they are expected to increase -- the United Nations is considering a small transaction tax on high-volume goods and services, like that morning Starbucks:
UNITED NATIONS — What if the next time you buy World Cup tickets or summon an Uber ride, you found yourself paying a few cents extra to pay for winter blankets for Syrian refugees or clean water for those displaced in Darfur, Sudan? 
That idea — a small tax on high-volume goods and services — is among those proposed by an independent panel appointed by the United Nations to figure out how to pay for the staggering humanitarian crises facing the world today. The report, released Sunday, plainly acknowledges the limits of traditional charity on the part of the world’s rich and calls for a sea change in thinking about how to pay for lifesaving aid in what the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, called “the age of the megacrises.”
The nine-member panel’s report comes as new conflicts erupt in places like Yemen, old ones persist in places like Darfur and climate change intensifies floods and droughts in already fragile countries. Aid for the millions of people affected has sharply risen, but it has not kept pace with demands.
The world needs $40 billion each year to meet the needs of those affected by wars and natural disasters and already faces a shortfall of $15 billion for this year. Those needs are expected to grow; as the report stated bluntly, “Never before has generosity been so insufficient.” Already, food aid has been repeatedly slashed for refugees fleeing conflict in places like Somalia and Syria.
The panel — which includes representatives of donor governments, corporations and civil society — takes pains to point out that despite the growing needs, what the world needs to pony up for emergency relief is a fraction of the $78 trillion global economy. It also argues that in the end, while “helping people in distress is morally right,” providing aid is also in the interest of donor countries.
A new UN tax is not going to be popular with the "black helicopter" Tea Party crowd; it will confirm in their minds that there is a vast global conspiracy to enslave them. And there is. But the ring leader is not Ban Ki-moon. All the UN report does is confirm that its member states are committed to warfare and not so committed to addressing climate change; hence, the need for a dedicated revenue stream to deal with all the refugees created by war and flooding.

Participating in a peaceful march on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I chatted with a fellow union member and we agreed that a return of slavery is the end game of the 1%. It might not look the plantation system of the Old South in the United States, though there might be similarities. I think first we'll see some sort of de jure form of indenture or peonage rather than the de facto second-class citizenship or "sub-citizenship" so common in today's low-growth, low-wage dominant neoliberal paradigm.

For an interesting discussion of the contradictions inherent in today's U.S. economy -- slow growth vs. healthy hiring -- read Nelson Schwartz's "U.S. Growth and Employment Data Tell Different Stories." This prediction caught my eye:
To be sure, some experts are not convinced that healthy payroll increases necessarily portend faster growth, arguing that the economy is on very shaky ground. 
“People commonly use employment as a leading indicator,” said David A. Levy, a veteran independent economist in Mount Kisco, N.Y., “but it’s a lagging indicator.” 
Mr. Levy said the optimists were underestimating just how big the impact from weakness overseas will be. 
“The U.S. economy is going to be pulled into a recession for the first time since World War II by overseas events,” he said. “Emerging markets, including China, are this cycle’s housing bubble.”
Previously I have been of the mind that the Chinese had a steady hand on the controls of their economy. Now I'm moving with the herd. I think China is overextended, and they are in a box with global deflation.

The first story to catch my eye this morning was a short one by Liam Stack, "Scholastic Halts Distribution of ‘A Birthday Cake for George Washington’." Apparently Scholastic, a publisher for children (and my first post-college workplace), killed a book because of outrage over the depiction of joyful slaves toiling happily for General Washington. At first, Scholastic stood by the book:
The plot of the book focuses on Hercules, an enslaved cook in the home of George Washington, and his daughter Delia as they bake the president a birthday cake. 
Earlier this month, Andrea Davis Pinkney, the executive editor of Scholastic Trade Publishing, defended the book in a blog post as a complex portrayal of American slavery that approached the topic with “the utmost care.” 
She wrote that Mr. Washington “admired” Hercules and that the cook lived a life of “near-freedom” because of the president’s fondness for him. Hercules and the other kitchen slaves reciprocated those warm feelings, she said, and “took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature.”
That pride in their position in the president’s kitchen is why the book’s illustrator, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, chose to depict the slaves “as happy people,” Ms. Pinkney wrote. 
“They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent,” she said, adding that some historians consider Hercules to have been “the first celebrity chef in America.” 
Critics were unimpressed by those explanations, however, and the backlash against the book led to an avalanche of one-star reviews on Amazon and a Change.org petition calling for its removal from stores.
This I fear is what is coming down the pike: We must learn to love our lives of "near-freedom" and relish and take "great pride" in being in proximity to people of stature. If this is what we are teaching our children, slavery is not far off.

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