Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Source: Scott Carney, Wired Science

A few days before the Indian celebration of Holi, an emaciated man with graying skin, drooping eyes, and rows of purple needle marks on both arms stumbled up to a group of farmers in the sweltering Indian border town of Gorakhpur. The city is the first stop for many thousands of refugees streaming in from Nepal, a country even more perpetually impoverished than India. Over the years endless refugee hardship stories had dulled the farmers’ instincts for sympathy, and junkies were even lower on their list for charity handouts. at first the farmers ignored the man’s request for bus fare. But he persisted. He wasn’t a refugee, he said. He was escaping from a makeshift prison where his captor siphoned off his blood for profit. The farmers shook off their stupor and called the police.

For the last three years the man had been held captive in a brick-and-tin shed just a few minutes’ walk from where the farmers were drinking tea. The marks on his arms weren’t the tell-tale signs of heroin addiction; they came from where his captor, a ruthless modern-day vampire and also a local dairy farmer and respected landowner named Papu Yadhav, punctured his skin with a hollow syringe. He had kept the man captive so he could drain his blood and sell it to blood banks. The man had managed to slip out when Yadhav had forgotten to lock the door behind him.

The emaciated man brought the officers to his prison of the last three years: a hastily constructed shack sandwiched between Papu Yadhav’s concrete home and a cowshed. A brass padlock hung from the iron door’s solid latch. The officers could hear the muffled sounds of humanity through the quarter inch of metal.

They sprung the lock and revealed a medical ward fit for a horror movie. IV drips hung from makeshift poles and patients moaned as if they were recovering from a delirium. Five emaciated men lying on small woven cots could barely lift their heads to acknowledge the visitors. The sticky air inside was far from sterile. The sun beating down on the tin roof above their heads magnified the heat like a tandoor oven. One man stared at the ceiling with glassy eyes as his blood snaked through a tube and slowly drained into a plastic blood bag on the floor. He was too weak to protest.

A crumpled nylon bag next to him held five more pints. Inside were another nineteen empty bags ready for filling. Each had official-looking certification stickers from local blood banks as well as bar codes and a seal from the central regulatory authority.

The room was not unique. Over the next several hours the cops raided five different squats on the dairy farmer’s land. Each scene was as bad as the last, with patients constantly on the verge of death. All told they freed seventeen people. Most were wasting away and had been confined next to hospital-issued blood-draining equipment. In their statements the prisoners said that a lab technician bled them at least two times per week. Some said that they had been captive for two and a half years. The Blood Factory, as it was quickly known in the press, was supplying a sizable percentage of the city’s blood supply and may have been the only thing keeping Gorakhpur’s hospitals fully stocked.

That evening police rushed the men to the local Civil Hospital to recover. The doctors there said that they had never seen anything like it. Hemoglobin supplies oxygen to various parts of the body, and low levels of it can lead to brain damage, organ failure, and death. A healthy adult has between 14 and 18 grams of hemoglobin for every 100 milliliters of blood. The men averaged only 4 grams. Leeched of their vital fluids to the brink of death, all of them were gray and wrinkled from dehydration. “You could pinch their skin and it would just stay there like molded clay,” said B. K. Suman, the on-call doctor who first received the patients from police custody.

Their hemoglobin levels were so low that the doctors were worried about bringing them up too quickly. One told me that they had become physically addicted to blood loss. To survive, the doctors had to give them iron supplements along with a regimen of bloodletting or they could die from too much oxygen in their circulatory systems.

After a few weeks in captivity, the prisoners were too weak from blood loss to even contemplate escape. A few survivors recalled to the police that the original group was much larger, but when Yadhav sensed that a donor was becoming terminally sick, he just put them on a bus out of town so that their deaths would be someone else’s responsibility.

Papu Yadhav kept meticulous ledgers documenting the volume of blood that he sold to local blood banks, hospitals, and individual doctors as well as the hefty sums that came back. The notes made it particularly easy for the police to understand the entire operation. Vishwajeet Srivastav, deputy superintendent of police in Gorakhpur in charge of the case, says that the records showed that Yadhav started as a small commercial venture that only propped up his dairy business. In the beginning, at least, he offered a straight deal to the drug-addled and destitute potential donors that he picked up at Gorakhpur’s bus and train stations.

The $3 he gave for a pint of blood would buy food for several days. It was illegal, but it was also easy money. Yadhav could easily turn over common blood types for $20 quick profit, while rarer groups could fetch up to $150 a pint. It didn’t take long for the situation to deteriorate. As his operation grew, he got tired of trolling the city’s transit points. So Yadhav offered the donors a place to stay. With the men under his roof, it was only a matter of time before he took control of their fates though a mixture of coercion, false promises, and padlocked doors.

The blood business got so big that he needed help. He took on a former lab technician named Jayant Sarkar, who had experience running an underground blood farm in Kolkata before he was chased out of the city in the late 1990s. Together Yadhav and Sarkar grew into one of the main blood suppliers in the region. The business concept was similar to that of Yadhav’s milk farm. The two were so interrelated that he kept the cowsheds and human sheds next to each other to economize on space.

Two months after the initial raid the police rounded up nine men: lab technicians who oversaw collection, secretaries at local blood banks who wanted to line their pockets with extra profits, middlemen who ferried blood around the city, and nurses who tended the herd. Smelling trouble, Sarkar was able to escape the city, but Papu Yadhav was captured near his home and served a total of nine months in jail. After a month at Civil Hospital his former captives migrated back to their homes all across India and Nepal.

It is tempting to view the horrors of Gorakhpur’s blood farm as an isolated incident: the sort of aberration that only happens on the margins of the civilized world and unrelated to the blood supply anywhere else. But the existence of the blood farm suggests a deeper problem with the circulation of human materials in the market. The blood farm could never have existed without eager buyers who were either incurious about the supply or just didn’t care about the source. And once medical personnel were willing to pay money for blood without asking questions, it was almost inevitable that someone would exploit the situation to maximize profit. In fact, the world volunteer blood system is so fragile that a slight hit to the supply could immediately spark the sort of commercial blood piracy that blossomed here.

I arrived in Gorakhpur on the eve of Papu Yadhav’s release hoping to better understand how a city of two million people became so easily dependent on a blood farm. While the excesses in this city stretch the bounds of the ordinary, the situation was by no means unique to India. Perched precariously on the border of India and Nepal, Gorakhpur is a mashup of the chaos and pollution of an industrial boomtown and the endemic poverty of rural India. a single rail line and poorly maintained road connect Gorakhpur to the state capital of Lucknow. still, the city is the central hub for a dense string of villages in what is one of the most densely populated rural areas of the world. Gorakhpur is the only settlement for almost one hundred miles with any sort of urban infrastructure. As such it’s an important outpost for the government’s presence in the region. The city is in the difficult position of providing basic services for a giant swath of the country, and yet simultaneously being a low development priority. It is a city built on a foundation of shortages.

Worst hit are Gorakhpur’s overburdened medical facilities, which are a lifeline to tens of millions of rural farmers and migrant workers. offering subsidized—and in some cases free—care, the hospitals are magnets for the underprivileged. Even the gigantic Baba Ram Das hospital campus with almost a dozen buildings and a fleet of ambulances has lines of rural patients streaming out the front door. The other major hospitals are even more crowded. The glut of patients poses several major challenges, especially in the blood supply. Even procedures as routine as birth drive up the demand—a pregnant woman in need of a cesarean section will need at least two pints of blood on hand in case of complications. The millions of migrants who come to the city’s hospitals are already sick and in no shape to open up their veins. There are simply too few good candidates for blood donation.

It’s a perfect storm for the worst forms of medical malpractice and ethics. There are no opportunities for the comparatively small local population to replenish the stocks of blood through voluntary donations, so hospitals have little choice but to rely on the underground machinations of local blood dealers. A blue-and-white neon sign hanging a five-minute walk from Papu Yadhav’s former blood farm announces Fatima Hospital, one of Gorakhpur’s five blood banks. There, a patchwork of concrete rubble and construction debris lies just inside the hospital’s iron-and-brick gateway, as the hospital is in shambles while undergoing a major renovation. But the blood bank was too important to put off or leave nonfunctional during the renovation. so the Jesuit church that is financing the construction saw to it that the blood bank was finished first. But for now, that means avoiding stray cats, picking my way across piles of rebar and sand, and climbing unfinished stairways to get to the hematology department.

But once I’m inside it’s like being in a different world. The place is packed with state-of-the-art equipment, including a sub-zero refrigerator that can store blood almost indefinitely and shiny new centrifuges that can separate blood into its component parts. The unit is the brainchild of Father Jeejo Antony, who runs the hospital for the local diocese. However, all the high-tech gear in the world won’t help his main problem. He tells me that they barely collect enough blood to meet his own hospital’s needs, let alone the city’s. The problem, he says, is that most people in India won’t give blood voluntarily. He says that many local people here are superstitious and believe that losing bodily fluids will make them weak for the rest of their lives. This is partly why the city began depending on professional donors.

“Papu Yadhav is only a scapegoat. There are many more people behind the blood sales than low-level people like him,” he says when I bring up the case, adding, “There are agents in every nursing home and every hospital. When a doctor requests blood, it gets arranged somehow.”

After showing me around the lab, he leads me to his expansive office downstairs and offers me a cup of spiced chai. When we’re comfortable he tells me that he moved to Gorakhpur from his home state of Kerala to make a difference in people’s lives, but he’s unsure that anything he does with a voluntary blood bank is going to lessen the pressure. In fact, he says other people have come up to replace the Yadhav gang. One week after the police arrested Yadhav, requests for blood at the blood bank spiked 60 percent. But now, a year later, “the demand has fallen off.” There are no new blood banks in the city, and no sudden influx of donors, but blood is coming from somewhere.

Legal blood donation works slightly differently in India than it does elsewhere in the world. since few Indians are willing to donate through pure altruism, patients are expected to provide their own donors to give blood to a blood bank to replace the pints that they will use during surgery. once the patient has received credit for a blood donation through a friend, they can draw a matching unit for their own surgery. In theory this means friends and family must step forward to come to the patient’s aid. But the reality of the system is different. Instead of asking their relations to give blood, most people rely on an informal network of professional donors who hang out in front of hospitals willing to give blood in return for a small fee.

Father Antony says that there is little he can do to stop the blood selling. Hospitals are caught in a double bind between saving the lives of patients on the operating table and potentially exploiting donors. From the clinical perspective, when a patient is dying on the operating table, buying blood seems like the lesser of two evils. He tells me that his hospital is too small to attract semiprofessional donors, but all of the major hospitals in the city have them. a good place to start, he says, would be the same hospital that treated papu Yadhav’s prisoners after their rescue by police.

—–

Dr. O. P. Parikh, director of Gorakhpur’s Civil Hospital, has donated thirteen pints of blood in his life and would like to donate four more before he retires at the end of next year. Yet he says that he is the exception to the rule. The rest of the city is not as giving as he is. Responsible for the overall operation of the hospital, he says that blood supply is a constant problem. “People here are afraid of donating. They don’t want to exchange blood; they just want to buy it.” And at 1,000 rupees, or about $25 for a pint, it isn’t hard to find donors.

Fifty feet outside of Parikh’s door is a string of makeshift tea shops and cigarette sellers who double as blood brokers. After a discreet inquiry with a man with paan stains across his lower teeth, I’m told to meet a man named Chunu, who is the resident professional donor. “Just be sure that you trade it in at the bank. He’s got HIV; the blood isn’t always screened,” the man warns before sending me on my way. Five minutes later I’m in an alley behind the hospital face-to-face with a small, bearded man holding a shawl over his head and ears. I tell him I need a pint of B negative blood as quickly as possible.

“B negative is rare and difficult to find these days,” he says. “You can get it but we need to send for it from Faizabad or Lucknow,” two district capitals about one hundred miles from here. He says he could arrange it for 3,000 rupees, a high figure. I tell Chunu that I will think about it and leave him outside the hospital gate to speak with other customers.

Civil Hospital’s blood bank is a picture of helplessness. The steel refrigerator containing blood packets is close to empty, with only three packets ready for transfusion. The blood bank’s director, K. M. Singh, says, “Yesterday someone came in and asked for blood, but we had to turn them away. I tell them that blood is not for sale; you have to give it to get it. But they went away and came an hour later with a donor. How am I to know if they paid that person?”

Gorakhpur’s five blood banks can only fulfill about half the required demand. Responsible for providing their own blood for operations, patients sometimes don’t even know that they are breaking the law when buying blood.

The maternity ward at Baba Raghav Das Hospital, the city’s largest government medical institution, is a dismal place to bring life into the world. A coat of translucent green paint on the giant bay windows, put there presumably to reduce the glare, bathes the concrete wards in a sickly light. In the cramped ward about fifty women, still wearing the clothes they brought from home, recover from cesarean sections on thin cots. Some have beds, while others are forced to recline on the concrete floor.

There are dozens of newborns in the room, yet oddly none of them seems to be crying. It is as if the place’s cavelike qualities swallow up all the sound. A woman coddling a baby girl adjusts her robe before removing her own catheter and draining a red soupy mixture into a wastebasket below her bed. Despite the conditions, BRD offers these people a rare chance to see a doctor. The wards are just one of the prices they pay for access to medical assistance.

One migrant, Gurya Devi, has traveled more than one hundred miles from a farming village in the neighboring state of Bihar because she feared there might have been complications during labor. A doctor who never told her his name spent a total of five minutes meeting with her. He said that she would need a cesarean section. As a precaution, he said they would need a pint of blood on hand, and could get a donor for 1,400 rupees (about $30). “It was easy,” she says. “We didn’t even have to think about it; the doctor arranged it all.”

The blood could have come from anywhere.

Images: Scott Carney

Scott Carney is an investigative journalist and contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers. His new book of which the above post is an excerpt is called The Red Market.

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Isabel Allende tells tales of passion.

She’s not only a brilliant writer but also an activist, a feminist and a wonderful story teller. It’s a talk that, when you listen to it with your heart, makes you laugh, cry and, at least for a moment, very passionate. Allende easily outshines most of the other TED talks I have listened to so far!

Click here to go to the TED website to listen to the talk.

Prisons are no deterrent

Posted: February 4, 2011 in society
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AFRa Front Page News republished a sound National Times opinion piece by Cynthis Banham on the futility of simply increasing the lock-up rates of people caught in the criminal justice system. Criminalisation rather than rehabilitation is the catch cry of law-and-order politicians and stakeholders in the prison industry, despite growing evidence that higher imprisonment rates do not lead to lower crime rates. Haven’t we learned anything from the many successful rehabilitation strategies in the 1970s?

A long, hard look inside our jails would benefit all of us

One of the most telling commentaries on all that is wrong with prisons was made recently by American law professor David Cole. ”We commit offenders to such places precisely so we will not have to pay attention to them,” he wrote in an article for the New York Review of Books.

In Australia since the 1980s, state – and sometimes federal – politicians have campaigned relentlessly on simplistic ”tough on crime” platforms. They would have you believe that locking up criminals is the answer to all society’s ills.

It is precisely this ”out of sight, out of mind” approach that Cole is talking about in regard to the US prison system, but politicians have distorted expectations and understandings of what imprisoning people can achieve. 

While there is no argument that society needs prisons to protect it from violent criminals, there is a growing realisation here, and in the US and Britain, that for other offenders it isn’t really working.

In all three countries prison populations are expanding and public expenditure on corrections is rising. Crime rates, however, are not falling. In fact, many people increasingly believe this over-reliance on incarceration is having the opposite effect.

In the US, it is business leaders who have been speaking out on the need for a new approach.

Locking up huge numbers of offenders is damaging the economy, a group of executives from five states argued in a Pew report last year. It is draining the public purse of money that should be spent on education and training that would help keep people out of jail, and is denying state economies valuable human capital.

A British government green paper on prison reform in December recommended a reduction in prison populations, noting: ”Despite a 50 per cent increase in the budget for prisons and managing offenders in the last 10 years, almost half of all adult offenders released from custody reoffend within a year. It is also not acceptable that 75 per cent of offenders sentenced to youth custody reoffend within a year.”

Australian taxpayers spent $2.9 billion on corrections last year, the Productivity Commission says – a 4.5 per cent increase on the previous year. The national incarceration rate rose from 165 per 100,000 adults to 169 per 100,00 adults in that time. In the Northern Territory, where 30 per cent of the population is indigenous, and the incarceration rate is the highest in the country by a mile, the government is building a new $300 million prison.

There is no starker illustration of the failure of corrections policy than indigenous incarceration rates, which are 19 times higher than for the rest of the population.

Australia faced questions from 19 countries last week at a United Nations human rights hearing in Geneva about inequities in the situation and treatment of Aborigines, including incarceration rates. But confronting this reality is not so much about shaming Australians into feeling a collective guilt about the issue, as it is a call for an honest admission that there is a massive problem.

The first time I saw the inside of a jail was 15 years ago. I was a young insurance lawyer, working on a case brought by a prison guard who had fallen on a step. I had to take an expert witness to the jail to assess the suspect stair, and I was very curious to get my first glimpse of life behind bars.

This was a totally foreign world, one that as a child I’d had nothing to do with, and apart from these professional insights, I never wanted to as an adult, either.

It’s a very different situation for indigenous children, one in five of whom has a parent or carer in jail. It’s a staggering figure: 20 per cent of Aboriginal children are growing up today with the person they look to as a role model, or authority figure in life, in jail.

Ponder this for a moment and it begins to make sense that a quarter of all young indigenous men are being processed through the criminal justice system every year. The effect, says Emeritus Professor David Brown of the University of NSW, is that incarceration has become ”normalised”. Prison is more of an expectation than a deterrent; for some it is even a rite of passage.

Discussing these issues in a paper published last year, The Limited Benefit of Prison in Controlling Crime, Brown wrote about the concept of a ”tipping point” – the idea that once incarceration reaches a certain level in a particular community, crime levels actually begin to rise. That tipping point has been reached in some particularly vulnerable Aboriginal communities, Brown says.

It is time we started rethinking our approach to criminal justice and sentencing. One idea that has yet to be embraced by governments here is ”justice reinvestment”: taking money that would be spent on incarcerating people and spending it on programs to address social issues in vulnerable communities where most offenders come from, and inevitably return to.

It’s the sort of thinking that might just get us to pay attention to who’s in our jails and whether it’s the best place for them.

The Age published an interesting article this morning by Vern Hughes on how our big not-for-profit organisation have succumbed over the years to corporatisation, and in the process have lost an important function they once add: to build social capital (which of course is not just an Australian phenomenon).

Non-profits lose sight of volunteer heritage

The Australian of the Year, Simon McKeon, has urged Australians to volunteer in community organisations and become involved in the non-profit sector. Both are easier said than done.

Australia’s voluntary, charitable and community organisations have changed over the past three decades, almost beyond recognition. Such transformation of the non-profit sector has attracted little public debate.

Many organisations that began life as voluntary associations have become corporatised instruments of government service delivery and no longer need, or even want, volunteers. Those that still have a place for volunteers are often trapped in a web of regulations and risk-management protocols that reduce volunteering to narrow, mechanistic and unsatisfying tasks.

Most found it easier to seek and obtain public contracts for their operations and to tailor their mission to the delivery of these contracts, than to rely on private fund-raising or commercial income generation.

In the process, their programs and operations came to reflect the silo structure of government, and their internal cultures mirrored the government’s risk-averse culture. They became accountable, not to their clients or founders, but to their funding departments.

A generation of non-profit managers rose to ride this service-delivery train, replacing their organisations’ once colourful and idiosyncratic cultures with a bland managerialism.

The result is a third sector in deep confusion, torn between its voluntary heritage and its managerialism. Most organisations with a history of more than three decades are unrecognisable from the groups that formed in church halls and around kitchen tables in a previous era.

Disability service organisations are a case in point. Most of the disability agencies now headed by chief executive officers, complete with a raft of risk-management, regulatory-compliance and brand-protection policies, were formed by parents of people with disabilities. These parents knew they needed to create, from scratch, the supports and services required by their sons and daughters.

They usually began around a kitchen table. Everyone was a volunteer. Consultants were unheard of. The only resources on tap were goodwill and a willingness to work together for no reward apart from securing something in the future for their loved ones.

Today many such parents find themselves referred to, in the annual reports of the bodies they created, as ”stakeholders” in the welfare of their sons and daughters. They appear alongside key stakeholders such local governments, suppliers and corporate partners. Many shake their heads in disbelief at the entity they unknowingly created. ”We gave birth to a monster,” some say.

Managerialism – in public, private and community sectors – is the prevailing ideology of our time. It has trumped entrepreneurship in the private sector, and perverted notions of service in the public sector. But in the non-profit sector it has swept all before it.

The news, then, that McKeon, a Macquarie Bank manager who has been immersed in these processes, plans to use his appointment as Australian of the Year to raise the profile of the non-profit sector, heralds an opportunity for Australians to look closely at the sector. Critical scrutiny of what has happened in the past 30 years is needed, not a fund-raising sales pitch on behalf of the large charities.

The managerial focus on ”outcomes” has been a two-edged sword for non-profits. It has been embraced with a passion by their chief executives and boards determined to prove their value for money for funders and donors.

But it has simultaneously subverted the generation of social capital – the capacity of people to associate voluntarily along horizontal rather than vertical axes for mutual benefit and service to others, independent of managerial prerogatives and directives, and government programs.

Voluntary association is an art, and if not practised, is lost. The instinct for, and the practice of, voluntary association is being choked all around us by managerialism. It is to be hoped that McKeon’s tenure as Australian of the Year will lead to a thoughtful, critical and wide-ranging public debate about the importance of nurturing the non-profit sector and the capacity of each of us for voluntary association.

Vern Hughes is the director of the Centre for Civil Society.

Deepening crisis traps America’s have-nots

The US is drifting from a financial crisis to a deeper and more insidious social crisis. Self-congratulation by the US authorities that they have this time avoided a repeat of the 1930s is premature.

A tale of two shoppers – Louis Vuitton has helped boost the luxury goods stock index by almost 50pc since October, yet Walmart has languished.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph, London

THERE is a telling detail in the US retail chain store data for December. Stephen Lewis from Monument Securities points out that luxury outlets saw an 8.1 per cent rise from a year ago, but discount stores catering to America’s poorer half rose just 1.2 per cent.

Tiffany & Co, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue are booming. Sales of Cadillac cars have jumped 35 per cent, and Porsche’s US sales are up 29 per cent.

Cartier and Louis Vuitton have helped boost the luxury goods stock index by almost 50 per cent since October. Yet Best Buy, Target and Walmart have languished.

Such is the blighted fruit of Federal Reserve policy. The Fed no longer even denies that the purpose of its latest blast of bond purchases, or QE2, is to drive up Wall Street, perhaps because it has so signally failed to achieve its other purpose of driving down borrowing costs.

Yet surely Ben Bernanke’s trickle-down strategy risks corroding America’s ethic of solidarity long before it does much to help America’s poor.

The retail data can be quirky but it fits in with everything else we know. The number of people on food stamps has reached 43.2 million, an all time-high of 14 per cent of the population. Recipients receive debit cards – not stamps – at present worth about $US140 a month under Barack Obama’s stimulus package.

The US Conference of Mayors said visits to soup kitchens are up 24 per cent. There are 643,000 people needing shelter each night.

Jobs data released on Friday was again shocking. The only reason that headline unemployment fell from 9.7 per cent to 9.4 per cent was that so many people dropped out of the system altogether.

The actual number of jobs contracted by 260,000 to 153,690,000. The “labour participation rate” for working-age men over 20 dropped to 73.6 per cent, the lowest since the data series began in 1948. My guess is that this figure exceeds the average for the Great Depression (minus the cruellest year, 1932).

“Corporate America is in a V-shaped recovery,” said Robert Reich, a former labour secretary. “That’s great news for investors whose savings are mainly in stocks and bonds, and for executives and Wall Street traders. But most American workers are trapped in an L-shaped recovery.”

The long-term unemployed (more than six months) have reached 42 per cent of the total, twice the peak of the early 1990s. Nothing like this has been seen since World War II.

The Gini Coefficient used to measure income inequality has risen from the mid-30s to 46.8 over the past 25 years, touching the same extremes reached in the Roaring Twenties just before the slump. It has also been ratcheting up in Britain and Europe.

Raghuram Rajan, the International Monetary Fund’s former chief economist, argues that the subprime debt build-up was an attempt – “whether carefully planned or the path of least resistance” – to disguise stagnating incomes and to buy off the poor.

“The inevitable bill could be postponed into the future. Cynical as it might seem, easy credit has been used throughout history as a palliative by governments that are unable to address the deeper anxieties of the middle class directly,” he said.

Bank failures in the Depression were in part caused by expansion of credit to struggling farmers in response to the US Populist movement.

Extreme inequalities are toxic for societies, but there is also a body of scholarship suggesting that they cause depressions as well by upsetting the economic balance. They create a bias towards asset bubbles and over-investment, while holding down consumption, until the system becomes top-heavy and tips over, as happened in the 1930s.

The switch from brawn to brain in the internet age has obviously pushed up the Gini count, but so has globalisation. Multinationals are exploiting “labour arbitrage” by moving plant to low-wage countries, playing off workers in China and the West against each other. The profit share of corporations is at record highs across in America and Europe.

More subtly, Asia’s mercantilist powers have flooded the world with excess capacity, holding down their currencies to lock in trade surpluses. The effect is to create a black hole in the global system.

Yes, we can still hope that this is a passing phase until rising wages in Asia restore balance to East and West, but what if it proves to be permanent, a structural incompatibility of the Confucian model with our own Ricardian trade doctrine?

There is no easy solution to creeping depression in America and swathes of the Old World. A Keynesian ”New Deal” of borrowing on the bond markets to build roads, bridges, solar farms or nuclear power stations to soak up the army of unemployed is not a credible option in our new age of sovereign debt jitters. The fiscal card is played out.

So we limp on, with very large numbers of people in the West trapped on the wrong side of globalisation, and nobody doing much about it. Would Franklin Roosevelt have tolerated such a lamentable state of affairs, or would he have ripped up and reshaped the global system until it answered the needs of his citizens?

Ending the futile war on drugs

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Sydney Morning Herald

December 27, 2010

Prohibition has failed and we must redirect our efforts to the harm caused by drugs, and to reducing consumption.

The war on drugs is a lost war, and 2011 is the time to move away from a punitive approach in order to pursue a new set of policies based on public health, human rights, and commonsense. These were the core findings of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy that I convened, together with former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.

We became involved with this issue for a compelling reason: the violence and corruption associated with drug trafficking represents a major threat to democracy in our region. This sense of urgency led us to evaluate current policies and look for viable alternatives. The evidence is overwhelming. The prohibitionist approach, based on repression of production and criminalisation of consumption, has clearly failed.

After 30 years of massive effort, all prohibition has achieved is to shift areas of cultivation and drug cartels from one country to another (the so-called balloon effect). Latin America remains the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana. Thousands of young people continue to lose their lives in gang wars. Drug lords rule by fear over entire communities.

We ended our report with a call for a paradigm shift. The illicit drug trade will continue as long as there is demand for drugs. Instead of sticking to failed policies that do not reduce the profitability of the drug trade – and thus its power – we must redirect our efforts to the harm caused by drugs to people and societies, and to reducing consumption.

Some kind of drug consumption has existed throughout history in the most diverse cultures. Today, drug use occurs throughout society. All kinds of people use drugs for all kinds of reasons: to relieve pain or experience pleasure, to escape reality or enhance their perception of it.

But the approach recommended in the commission’s statement does not imply complacency. Drugs are harmful to health. They undermine users’ decision-making capacity. Needle-sharing spreads HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Addiction can lead to financial ruin and domestic abuse, especially of children.

Cutting consumption as much as possible must, therefore, be the main goal. But this requires treating drug users not as criminals to be incarcerated, but as patients to be cared for. Several countries are pursuing policies that emphasise prevention and treatment rather than repression – and refocusing their repressive measures on fighting the real enemy: organised crime.

The crack in the global consensus around the prohibitionist approach is widening. A growing number of countries in Europe and Latin America are moving away from a purely repressive model.

Portugal and Switzerland are compelling examples of the positive impact of policies centred on prevention, treatment, and harm reduction. Both countries have decriminalised drug possession for personal use. Instead of leading to an explosion of drug consumption, as many feared, the number of people seeking treatment increased and overall drug use fell.

When the policy approach shifts from criminal repression to public health, drug users are more open to seeking treatment. Decriminalisation of consumption also reduces dealers’ power to influence and control consumers’ behaviour.

In our report, we recommend evaluating from a public-health standpoint – and on the basis of the most advanced medical science – the merits of decriminalising possession of cannabis for personal use.

Marijuana is by far the most widely used drug. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the harm it causes is at worst similar to the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco. Moreover, most of the damage associated with marijuana use – from the indiscriminate incarceration of consumers to the violence and corruption associated with the drug trade – is the result of current prohibitionist policies.

Decriminalisation of cannabis would thus be an important step forward in approaching drug use as a health problem and not as a matter for the criminal justice system.

To be credible and effective, decriminalisation must be combined with robust prevention campaigns. The steep and sustained drop in tobacco consumption in recent decades shows that public information and prevention campaigns can work when based on messages that are consistent with the experience of those whom they target. Tobacco was deglamorised, taxed, and regulated; it has not been banned.

No country has devised a comprehensive solution to the drug problem. But a solution need not require a stark choice between prohibition and legalisation. The worst prohibition is the prohibition to think. Now, at last, the taboo that prevented debate has been broken. Alternative approaches are being tested and must be carefully reviewed.

At the end of the day, the capacity of people to evaluate risks and make informed choices will be as important to regulating the use of drugs as more humane and efficient laws and policies. Yes, drugs erode people’s freedom. But it is time to recognise that repressive policies towards drug users, rooted as they are in prejudice, fear, and ideology, may be no less a threat to liberty.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil (1995-2002), is co-chairman of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and convener of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

A very thoughtful article by Robert Jensen on his personal process of political radicalisation. Rather than two pathways that readily come to mind, the one of hands-on activism and that of intellectual endeavour, he talks about a profound sense of grief for the pain in the world without whom joy cannot exist.

baltermants.grief

Getting radicalized, slow and painful

By Robert Jensen
Robert Jensen’s ZSpace Page /ZSpace

[Rob Shetterly, the artist who created the Americans Who Tell the Truth website (http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/), asked some of the people he painted to respond to this query: “Everywhere I go, kids and adults want to know how you got started. What was the defining moment that triggered your dedication to fighting for justice or peace, or the environment?” Below are my thoughts.]

My transition to political radicalism — going to the root of problems, recognizing that dramatic and fundamental change in the way society is organized is necessary if there is to be a decent human future — involved a lot of pain, in two different ways.

The first concerned the process of coming to know about the pain of the world. I had never been a na? person who thought the world was a happy place, but like many people who have privilege (in my case, being white, male, a U.S. citizen, and economically secure, though never wealthy) I was able to remain ignorant of the depth of the routine suffering in the world. I was able to ignore how white supremacy, patriarchy, U.S. imperialism, and a predatory capitalist economic system routinely destroy the bodies and spirits of millions of people around the world. When I made a conscious choice to stop ignoring those realities — in my case, when I returned to a university for graduate education with the time to read and study — the process of coming to know about that pain was wrenching. But I found myself wanting to know more.

Why would someone with privilege press to know more about the pain of the world when that knowledge creates tension and emotional turmoil? In my case, coming to understand that the world’s pain is the product of profoundly unjust social systems helped me understand a different kind of personal pain I had been struggling with. Most of my life I had felt like a bit of a freak, like someone out of step with the culture around him. There’s nothing dramatically wrong with me physically or psychologically, but I always struggled to fit in. I had always had a lingering sense that I didn’t want what others around me seemed to want. Because of my privilege, the world offered me a lot, and I am grateful for much of what I have — work I have usually enjoyed, an adequate income, relative safety. But I could never figure out how to be normal — how to kick back with the guys; how to get excited about sports, television, or the latest hit music; how to care about what kind of car I drove. In many ways I had it made, on the surface, but that sense of being out of step always dragged me down.

The best way to deal with our individual struggles is to put them in a larger context. That means both understanding the forces that shape our world as well as placing our problems in perspective. Becoming radicalized politically allowed me to see that I was suffering because I didn’t want to fit into a world shaped by unjust systems; the problem wasn’t my values and desires but the pathology of those systems. That didn’t solve all my personal problems, but it sure helped. Radical politics also helped me understand more clearly how others were suffering much more than I; it shook me out of my self-absorption. Both realizations led me to want to continue the search for more knowledge and understanding about how this all worked, and to commit as much time and energy as I had to movements for social justice.

The paradox is that since I have immersed myself in the pain of the world, I have been able to find new joy. I still understand that the world is not a happy place, and to be truly alive we must face what my friend Jim Koplin calls the “sense of profound grief” that comes with looking honestly at the world. As the writer Wendell Berry has put it, we live on “the human estate of grief and joy” [The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106]. Grief is inevitable, and it is only through an honest embrace of the grief that real joy is possible. The conventional world tries to sell us many pleasures, but it offers us little joy. That’s because the conventional world is also trying to sell us many ways to numb our pain, which keeps us from that grief. So long as we are out of touch with the grief, we are unable to feel the joy. We are left only with the desperate search for pleasure and a panicked scramble to avoid pain.

This process has, for me, been slow and gradual — there have been no epiphanies. I don’t believe in epiphanies, and I don’t trust people who claim to have epiphanies. I don’t think the deep understanding of the world that we strive for can come in a single moment. It comes from the long and painful struggle, with the world and with ourselves. Insight doesn’t magically descend upon us. We have to work for it, and that always takes time.

As the singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson (who also happens to be my partner) has put it, “Those are lost who/try to cross through/the sorrow fields too easily” [“He Waits for Me,” from the CD “Beautiful World,” Red House Records, 2008]. To expand on her metaphor, we cross those fields not in search of a utopia somewhere ahead. Our life is that journey across those fields, facing the grief and celebrating the joy along the way.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html

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