Archive | December 2011

Moral Ambiguity // Financial Stability

I must admit: I am fascinated by prostitutes. For all the characters that frequent films, from 3 Needles to Almodovar’s Todo sobre mi madre and Volver, there is still something mystifying about learning of a seemingly “normal” person who can cope with the moral ambiguity, physical and legal danger, social stigma, and health risks that are inherently part and parcel of the profession.

The character study of Barbara Terry, 52, while a bit simplistic, is no exception. One comment of hers I thought was particularly interesting:

“This place [the prostitute’s street, and the institution] has made me strong. It keeps you young.”

While it’s easy to label prostitution as a corrupt institution, especially when it’s tied to politicians and tax dollars, I’m waiting for the day that it’s legalized, or at the very least recognized as a profession by the US government. Just like legalizing marijuana would lead to more tax revenue, legalizing prostitution would allow for greater access to health check-ups, as well as greater tax revenue from income taxes (as was part of the reasoning for allowing prostitutes to operate in Brazil). As for those that attack the profession on moral grounds, I would argue that those who purchase sex will still find ways to do so regardless of the legal status. Besides, since when were land grabs investors and oil company executives even regulated?

Home for the Holidays

Last week on my way home from Manhattan, a homeless Vietnam veteran sang “My Girl” for me on the subway after I gave him a dollar. Today as I rode home, a group of African American teenagers were break-dancing to a remix of a Soviet solidarity anthem as the Russian women on the train tried to hide their giggling. Although I would have loved to see a decrease in the number of people soliciting on the subway (and the number of homeless people), it was a nice welcome back.

It’s also good to see a bunch of new construction projects underway, from progressive growth of the Freedom Towers to revitalization of the Hudson Yards and [finally] more progress on subway expansion throughout Manhattan.

Yet, as much as my adopted hometown of NYC is flourishing, the larger picture of the US looks bleak. Whereas my friends and I have joked since we were kids that we’d want to live in exotic foreign countries after college, it’s now almost a reality. Our collective outlook on the political situation is dismal at best; what’s the point of a democracy if there’s nobody worth electing for office? Obama lost his identity after NDAA FY 2012, his mutant insurance system (instated via the Affordable Care Act), and now SOPA. Ron Paul, while the least air-headed person on the Republican side, is still highly ignorant on issues related to climate change and abortion (such as his Sanctity of Life bill). Regardless of who will win the 2012 presidential election, we as citizens are headed for a downhill battle if the status quo continues. Except now, unlike in our more naive teenage years, we understand that we have no place to run to, for every country has its problems and entropy must take its course.

Casting off your own flesh

A different take on the downsides of relying solely on casinos for reservation revenue:

In California, Indian Tribes With Casino Money Cast Off Members

While I doubt that asking Congress to intervene on the behalf of “ejected” members would be supported by these tribe governments, I can’t think of another way to convince tribes that this is detrimental to their existence. Trimming your population may make your own dividends larger, but if in two generations there are only 20 members remaining, that’s not a healthy sign. (Hence, “strength in numbers.”)

Other autonomous places, like Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, are paying locals to have more children, and many other parts of Russia and elsewhere with dwindling population growth are welcoming outsiders. (Simply having more children is not sustainable on any level, but this is besides the point.) Genetic bottlenecks and feuds are often inevitable when the basis for membership in a society is one’s bloodline, which we cannot change once we’re born. For a group of societies that have survived for so long, I’m surprised that they choose to act so short-sightedly now.

The new FAO Director General (and why things will falter)

In going through recent articles on food security, I was extremely surprised to see such a pompous stance taken by José Graziano da Silva, who will step up as the new FAO director general on January 1, 2011.

1. In the several questions addressed to him explicitly mentioning Africa, he sidestepped the question and instead gave examples from South America. Your background may be specific to Latin America, but if you are to be the global director for such an organization, you ought to know the global state of things.

2. He plans to “start consultations with…poor food importers.” Importing food is not the way to go for any country that already has foreign debts, high poverty rates (thus people can’t afford imported food without high subsidies), and no other industries to fall back on when local economies are driven by smallholder food production.

3. He sees nothing wrong with biofuels other than corn (supposedly because everything else doesn’t distort food prices.) There are other measures of good decision-making besides economic efficiency…

4. The kick: he sees corporate agribusiness as benevolent and complementary to smallholder farmers, and civil society groups as a detriment to progress. Even smallerholders in Brazil are screwed over by Cargill and other global traders. Sure, they may have a market to sell their soy now, but if they’re getting below-market prices because the agribusiness has no competitors, then is that really the best outcome?

The few views from his interview that I would agree with (that were, albeit, rather obvious):

  • More emphasis on diversified food crops
  • Greater cooperation between FAO and other relevant organizations (i.e. IFAD, though one could ask “How?”)
  • Less emphasis on chemical rather than organic fertilizers
  • Development of local markets (which I doubt is within the jurisdiction of the FAO anyway, but he’s a politician after all)

Our Land But Not Yours

I spent the week of my Thanksgiving break traveling between some of the American West’s most beautiful places. Among them: Death Valley National Park, Zion National Park, Lake Mead, and both rims of the Grand Canyon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Besides the huge meal portions, generally hospitable people, and amazing night skies, these places had one other thing in common. The Native Americans (apparently called American Indians in CA) all lived near the outskirts of these park lands, and most lived on the most marginal, unfarmable, and frankly aesthetically unappealing parcels of land you could imagine.

I am no expert on Native American rights and land ownership/reservation entitlement. I’m sure Native Americans don’t want my pity, and I’ll bet they’re capable of seeing beauty even in what was handed down to them by the federal government. But there’s something to be said for vast groups of people whose main sources of livelihood are selling souvenirs and operating casinos and who have far less access to education, healthcare, healthy food, and opportunities within reservations.

Case in point: when we were driving through Arizona, we came upon a town with a deli. We got excited because we hadn’t had breakfast or lunch, and this was the first place with food [that wasn’t a MacDonald’s] for many miles. The “deli” only served hot dogs, donuts, and stale shrink-wrapped turnover triangles, and was joined to a room where the Native Americans living in the town and nearby could display crafts. [To think that this is all that’s available to people here every day of the year is frightening…] The town itself had three buildings in total. It was quite literally the smallest town I have ever seen in the US. (If you ever drive through parts of the West, you’ll see that town plates list elevation instead of population… so I’ll never know exactly how many people lived there.)

All in all, the reservations sound and look like third-world enclaves in a “first-world” country… and unlike urban slums, there are few ways out within close proximity. Is there a better way, a feasible alternative to the current system? I don’t think that agriculture (especially in marginal lands) is the answer, but ecotourism lodges would be a start. Isn’t it time that the National Parks system benefited those who lived on [and didn’t destroy] the lands that are now part of this system?