Archive for February, 2011

America’s new war on poverty

February 23, 2011

From half-way around the world, it seems obvious what’s going on in America. The rich keep getting richer, in part because they’re getting their way in politics, where money talks louder than ever. With their political handmaidens, they’re declared war on the poor.

Especially in these hard times, gains for the rich come at the expense of the middle class and poor. In fiscal matters, today’s politics mean bailing out the banks and tax cuts for the rich – so the US economy can reprise the jobless growth of the George W Bush years – and then insisting that gaping budget deficits need to be addressed by cutting government services that benefit the non-rich. It’s class warfare of the worst kind, and, following the Karl Rove playbook of accusing your rivals of precisely what you do, class warfare is precisely the term the plutocrats use to decry any attempt to reverse their advantages.

Strangely, there are few voices in America presenting this case intelligently and intelligibly. Fortunately, one of them is Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist.

Have a look at Krugman on the Wisconsin budget standoff and what it really means. As he so often does, Krugman speaks the plain truth here as few liberals manage these days:

The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

Amen.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Deriding the Tiger Mom with Tracy Quan

February 13, 2011

Kung hei fat choi (or Gong xi fa cai) for the year for the rabbit. But we’re not done with last year’s tiger just yet.

When I first encountered self-styled Tiger Mom Amy Chua in a television interview, I felt queasy. Not because I necessarily disagree with the general thrust of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – my upbringing included a strong element of tiger parenting, and I hope to instill a thirst for achievement in my three year old.

Chua gave me the creeps because I felt she was blatantly exploiting her Chinese face, playing to American, or more general Western, stereotypes about Chinese people that didn’t seem to fit her actual situation. I believed Chua was doing it consciously and cynically, but I couldn’t figure out whether I’d be more or less uneasy if she wasn’t. Even as a card-carrying permanent resident of Hong Kong, which makes me sort of Chinese, it was disquieting simply to consider such issues.

Thankfully, I can leave thinking about Tiger Mom and stereotypes to the sharp mind of Tracy Quan.

I first became a Quan fan after reading her novel Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl. (Here’s my review of it, Political whores go biblical.) The book was a sequel to Quan’s 2003 best-seller Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl. Particularly on matters of gender and sex, Quan frequently treads where only the brave dare go, and it’s always worth knowing what she has to say.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Less government adds freedom only for rich

February 4, 2011

For the 17th consecutive year, Hong Kong and Singapore finished one-two in the joint Wall Street Journal-Heritage Foundation global Index of Economic Freedom. Those weird results aren’t only reason for skepticism about these two US rightwing icons’ analysis.

Hong Kong’s designation as the world’s freest economy is questionable, especially to residents who deal with its cartels and other quirks. But casting Singapore as the world’s second freest economy is patently ridiculous. Heritage and the Journal would never abide by many of the Lion City’s economic policies – such as 35 percent of salaries going to a state investment fund run by the prime minister’s wife – or the government holding controlling stakes in nearly every sector of the local economy.

Writing about this apparent contradiction for Asia Times, I uncovered reasoning behind the strange results that says less about Singapore’s aberrant ranking than it does about US politics. The Heritage Foundation website explains succinctly: “In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, with that freedom both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state.”

In other words, less government means more freedom. That’s the essential myth behind the rightwing’s appeal to the working class. It’s a compellingly simple idea that seems intuitive and undeniable, yet it’s completely misguided.

Rightwingers are fond of quoting the Declaration of Independence regarding inalienable rights. But they leave out what comes next: “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…” It’s government that provides police, education, roads and other services that foster economic and other freedoms, and government that outlaws slavery. Without government, as seen in recent chaos in Cairo with police off the streets and the army present but inactive, no one has freedom.

In the economic arena, Hong Kong and Singapore don’t have competition laws, what Americans call anti-trust laws. Existing companies can legally conspire to prevent competitors from emerging, whether for business or other reasons. In one famous case, Hong Kong’s two major supermarket chains banded together against adMart, a startup founded by Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, not just a potential competitor but an avowed enemy of Beijing. The incumbents reportedly told Coca-Cola and other brands their products would be unwelcome on their shelves if they supplied adMart.

You might think of that collusion as a blow to economic freedom, but the Journal and Heritage don’t. The established players were simply exercising the fundamental right of the rich to get richer. In their view, fair play – and government is only referee that can ensure fair play – is for losers. The economic freedom index reflects that perspective throughout. For example, the labor freedom category rates the difficulty of hiring and firing workers, legally mandated notice period and mandatory severance pay (counting less pay as more freedom), but doesn’t tabulate the right to organize or bargain collectively. That’s like rating freedom of expression by ease of censorship.

For Heritage and the Journal, what matters is the golden rule: whoever has the gold rules. There are several terms to describe that social order, but freedom isn’t one of them.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.


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