Monday, July 18, 2005

A Jamaican Writer, Vandana Shiva, Mao-Kruschev, and more

First, a thought: the global media made a very big deal last week about the bombings in London, which killed 55 people. And it was appropriate, as it was a terrible thing to have happened in a city many reporters as well as readers know and love.

But it's worth considering that 71 people died on Saturday in a suicide bombing in Iraq, when a man strapped to explosives decided to detonate them. He decided to do it while standing beneath a fuel truck in the midst of heavy traffic, in an urban area: everything burned.

It's understandable that it's a smaller story than London; 8000 Iraqi civilians were killed by Insurgents in the past 10 months, and the western media has long since given up on talking about it. Same for the politicians, who see this as bad publicity: as far as I know, neither George Bush nor Tony Blair have bothered to make a statement about this most recent attack. Still, the victims of this Iraq bombing -- all civilians, as far as I can tell -- deserve a moment of sympathy.

* * * *

That said, here are three links:

1. Book Coolie has a guest essay by Jamaican poet and novelist Geoffrey Philp, on the author's relationship to standard English and patois. It's well worth a read -- an impressive step forward for Coolie's blog.

2. Via CultureCat, a link to an article by eco-feminist Vandana Shiva. Here is a sample:

If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then this does not contribute to GDP, and so does not contribute towards ‘growth’. People are therefore perceived as poor if they eat the food they have grown rather than commercially produced and distributed processed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made form ecologically adapted natural materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics. Yet sustenance living, which the rich West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily imply a low physical quality of life.

I don't know. I see what she's saying, but lately I find this type of anti-development argument really irritating. Poor people are generally well aware of their poverty; it's not just Jeffrey Sachs' invention.

Also, I would rather support efforts to achieve Jeffrey Sachs' "achievable" solutions than worry endlessly about who caused the damage to begin with, as Vandana Shiva does in this piece. Righteous anger about colonialism got people like Robert Mugabe and Kwame Nkrumah into positions of power. It did not help them govern justly or competently once they were there.

(Intriguingly, according to this blogger, in his new book The End Of Poverty Sachs actually argues that sweatshops can be a good thing in developing nations! I've yet to read the book, so maybe I will comment more on this later.)

3. There's a new biography of Mao Tse-Tung that talks about a secret pact between the USSR and China in 1962. China would support Kruschev's plan to deploy missiles in Cuba if the USSR would support Mao's invasion of India.

Both events (the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1962 India-China war) took place within five days of each other. The book is called Mao: The Unknown Story, and the author is Jung Chang.

I hope this tidbit is going in the next Dan Brown novel too...


Rob Breymaier said...

The whole subsistence living argument is very complicated in that it is an ecologically desirable outcome. But, it's often considered similarly to laisez-faire capitalist arguments in its fanaticism. (Yes, I'm using fanaticism more often these days to do my part in de-politicizing the word a bit.)

Since I'm of the opinion that a combination of approaches is usually best, I like the subsistence arguments but wish for more moderate initiatives. It's hard to make your own clothing, grow your own food, and build a house from scratch. And, it takes a lot more time and maintenance after they're done; and

Given the amount of time subsistence life takes to maintain, it hurts ones ability to fulfil personal goals that are not tied to staying alive physically; and

There are a lot of advances in the world that have resulted in expansion of the economic system and "growth" that have made life better.

So while I think it's a good idea to grow a garden and/or try and reduce, reuse, recycle, it's not the ultimate answer to the world's problems. Nor is it the answer for the world's poor people.

Asking the poor of the world to toil in subsistence while others take advantage of the fruits of capitalism is simply unfair.

1:08 PM  
Clancy said...

I do see what you're saying. I'm attracted to the environmental outcomes of subsistence living, but you guys are right; these people are doing it because they have to, not because they get any personal fulfillment from it.

Sweatshops are a good thing, huh? Well, I'd like to hear that one, too. So far the only pro-sweatshop argument I've heard is the "it's better than nothing" line of thinking, and okay, yes, I know the wages these workers earn is better than nothing, but still, the argument doesn't go all that far with me.

4:46 PM  
Amardeep said...


I must admit that I also find "sweatshops are good" to be a bit of a strange statement -- I'm going to pick up the Sachs in the next couple of weeks and hopefully report on it.

from Amit Varma's blog, India Uncut. Amit links to a discussion of child labor on a right-wing/free market blog, which also argues that Amit child labor is a good thing(!), if the only alternative is subsistence farming. Amit has also suggested that I read "Open World" by Phillipe Legrain (Amazon link).

Child labor is a tougher sell even than "sweatshops," but it might something to consider.

The long-term goal has to be to eliminate all of these oppressive kinds of working conditions...

6:40 PM  
amit varma said...

Um, Amardeep, that's a straw man you build out of nowhere, neither Boudreaux nor I say, or could possibly say, that child labour is a good thing. All he is saying is that regulating child labour out of factories in cities often sends it to even worse working conditions. They only way to stop child labour is to eliminate poverty, not to redirect the children.

And sweatshops are only a tough sell for commentators pontificating from the first world. People who work in sweatshops obviously do so because it is better than all the other alternatives they have, and they work there out of their own free will, not out of coercion. That being the case, they provide competition to and lift the standards of the other alternatives their employees have chosen them over. Ditto BPO units and call centers, which it is fashionable to oppose in some circles withour realising that for the people who have chosen to work there, the alternatives are obviously worse.

12:54 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...


Your assertion is not correct. People do not work in sweatshops of their own free will. Especially, as sweatshops become prevalent. People are forced towork in sweatshops to keep up witha new economy that makes goods and services too expensive if they don't work in the sweatshop.

Also, workers are often lied to about working conditions when seeking employment and then find different standards after taking the sweatshop job. Quitting sometimes become very difficult because of the fianancial needs of the worker.

And the idea that "People who work in sweatshops obviously do so because it is better than all the other alternatives they have" is just a sad defense arguing for a race to the bottom.

9:23 AM  
Amardeep said...

Yes, you're right, I was misreading Boudreaux's post and your quote of him.

My apologies -- it was the consequence of posting too quickly.

1:13 PM  
amit varma said...


Come to India. I'll take you to some sweatshops. What you're saying is utterly untrue. People aren't forced to work in sweatshops anywhere, and goods and services actually become cheaper as economies open up and competition increases. It is terribly patronising to assume that poor people are not capable of making their own choices, and that we must limit those choices. Vandana Shiva does exactly this in some of her policy prescriptions, by the way, and romanticises poverty for just this reason.

If what you have written was shown to sweatshop workers here, I suspect they'd be extremely offended that you should assume them to be some kind of retards who are unable to decide what the best choices for them are.

3:25 PM  
Sanjay said...

Just to go back to that Vandana Shiva snippet, it is (like most of her comments on economics) basically wrong. If you grow your own veggies and eat them, yes, it does enter the GNP. (It's called "home-produced consumption", if you want to get all technical about it). Perhaps if Ms. Shiva would take a minute off from pontificating, and actually look at a household survey (no, she doesn't even have to look at the numbers, if they make her head swim, just look at the questionnaire - it's in English) like the ones conducted by the National Sample Survey, she might get a clue.
On the other hand, why stoop to debating facts, when shrill assertions are so much more saleable?

5:22 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

I didn't say or infer they were stupid, ignorant, or retarded. (Indeed, I find the word retarded a slur.) Quite the opposite. I did infer that they were aware that their ONLY real option, not one of many, is to join 'em.

As for goods and services being less expensive, I wonder what those goods and services might be. I'm sure that t-shirts and canned vegetables do go down. But, what about goods and services that were previously free or are subject to local economic realities. I have to go find the research (admittedly something I probably won't do). But, I know that I've read articles on how sweatshops have an inflationary effect on local economies.

But, if you'll remember. I started by saying that I'm not in favor of subsistence life as an answer. I'm in favor of labor and environmental protections being part of the equation. In sweatshops, they are (practically by definition) not part of the equation.

I know it's a very attractive defense tosay that someone form the West just doesn't understand and is insulting. But, that sort of knee-jerk reaction doesn't really get us anywhere. I'm sure for the most part we'd agree on what every person deserves based on basic human dignity.

5:24 PM  
Ram Ramkumar said...

I'm with Rob on this. Amit, your views on rich-poor dynamics is far too simplistic in my view based on what I've read in your blog and elsewhere. As Rob says it is important to look at the factors that make acquisition of even the most basic good and services out of reach for a majority of the peoples of the world and address those if we want to have a realistic chance of eliminating the immense imbalance in the world.

Vandana Shiva isn't that off in what she says either.

2:09 AM  
amit varma said...

Rob and Ram

I'm afraid you guys obviously have no actual contact with the people you claim to care about or the contexts in which they operate. They're just a theoretical construct for you, picked up from books and studies (which you don't even remember!). Again, this is an honest invite: come to India (my email is on my blog) and I'll take you around, and you can see for yourself what gives poor people the best chance to attain dignity and a decent standard of living, and what stands in their way.

3:09 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Again, your attack on me personally gets us nowhere. It reminds me of a time when I saw a presentation about mangos by a grad student and she did this really great presentation about how they were used in the economy of some region or another. The first question some smart ass asked was whether or not she'd ever eaten a mango.

I wonder if what your speaking of is truly a sweatshop by the way.

Here's the Wikipedia entry:

This is roughly what I'm talking about.

10:29 AM  
amit varma said...


I didn't attack you personally, but made a statement of fact, that you obviously have never met a sweatshop worker or been inside one. You didn't dispute the truth of that statement, but attacked it for being politically incorrect. Common debating tactic.

The invitation stands, by the way. Come and visit a sweatshop, talk to workers there, stay a while in that place, and you'll stop arguing out of ignorance and see the folly of your (admittedly fashionable) preconceived notions.

I'm out of here now.

12:23 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

I'll let you know if I'm ever in Mumbai.

1:51 PM  
Ram Ramkumar said...


It's very presumptuous of you to decide on my background and claim where I gained my knowledge from. Incidentally you're completely wrong! It is impossible to have a decent, rewarding discussion with know-it-alls like you. Why can't you simply attribute our differences to the different ways in which we view the world instead of calling to question the qualifications of those who disagree with you? Grow up!

2:44 PM  
Sanjay said...


In the Vandana Shiva snippet, there are five sentences. The first one is simply factually incorrect. That implies that the second one is too. At best, you could argue that the third sentence is not necessarily incorrect. Number four is just plain dumb. (Ask yourself this: are "garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres" more or less expensive than those made from "synthetics"?) Number five: it requires a quite twisted view of what constitutes a good "physical quality of life" to argue that sustenance living does. Again, simple test: the rich always have the option to take up sustenance living (the reverse is much harder). Why don't they?

And, see, no references to qualifications :-)

6:52 PM  

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