Monday, July 28, 2014

Corporations are people, my friend!

Way, way, back, when I was in graduate school, I made a wonderful mistake of reading something by Ralph Nader, and even listening to him.  One of his favorites, which continues to dog me enough to even blog about it, questioned the idea of corporations as people.

Much later, another progressive, Robert Reich, articulated it well:
I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.
For all I know, Riech's thinking was influenced by Shakespeare, whose Shylock exclaims in The Merchant of Venice:
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
if you poison us, do we not die?
We people bleed, laugh, die, but corporations do not.  We people have emotions. We are tied to geography.  We identify with cultures, via the languages we speak, the foods we eat, the music we like, the sports we follow, the places we call home, and the countries that we fondly cherish as our lands.  We are people who need people.

A corporation is anything but all those.  It is an imaginary concept to which we have ascribed human qualities.  A corporation does not have any family, no friends, and no cultural identity.

Thus, a "corporation" can be here one day and vanish the next day.   This imaginary entity can easily be packed up and sent across, whereas we real people are, for the most part tied down by geography.  And now, we are increasingly held hostage by the threat of these artificial people moving to a different geography--another state or another country--if we do not give them what they demand, which is typically a regime of low taxes and regulations.  These imaginary people called corporations behave like kidnappers demanding ransom.

You can, therefore, see why I am not pleased with this leader in the Economist:
Economic refugees have traditionally lined up to get into America. Lately, they have been lining up to leave. In the past few months, half a dozen biggish companies have announced plans to merge with foreign partners and in the process move their corporate homes abroad. The motive is simple: corporate taxes are lower in Ireland, Britain and, for that matter, almost everywhere else than they are in America.
In Washington, DC, policymakers have reacted with indignation. Jack Lew, the treasury secretary, has questioned the companies’ patriotism and called on Congress to outlaw such transactions. His fellow Democrats are eager to oblige, and some Republicans are willing to listen.
The proposals are misguided. Tightening the rules on corporate “inversions”, as these moves are called, does nothing to deal with the reason why so many firms want to leave: America has the rich world’s most dysfunctional corporate-tax system.
The piece begins with "economic refugees," by which you picture in your mind images of real people who move because conditions are horrible in their homelands and they are looking for something better.


The magazine even provides the readers with an image of the artificial people with a "human face" so that you may then equate those emotional images with the imaginary people called corporations who are tied down by a ball and chain and want to flee from tyranny.  What bullshit!

The problem has been exacerbated by countries that have bought into this idea that by slashing taxation rates they can then attract the imaginary people and real money to their respective geographies:
Twenty years ago inversions were rare. But as other countries chopped their rates and America’s stayed the same, the incentive to flee grew.
The inversions--the movement of the imaginary paper people--were rare back then is an important fact.
Mr Obama insists that corporate-tax reform must also raise more money to spend on things like public infrastructure, which the Republicans oppose
I suppose only we real humans who bleed, laugh, and die use public infrastructure and, therefore, the imaginary people do not need to be taxed at all!

I second the notion that "I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

We are missing the story on a country called Africa

A plane goes down in Ukraine. We seem to kind of sort of know where that country is.  A plane goes down somewhere in that area bordering Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso and, as the friend alerted me, even the Los Angeles Times then produces map about the country of Africa!
Of course, this is not the first time it has ever happened--if I had been paid a dollar for every time I corrected a student who incorrectly referred to Africa as a country, I would be a very rich man by now.

Whether it is students or reporters or the general public, the continent is nothing more than a big blob to most of us. A messed-up "country" out there somewhere.  Clueless we almost always are!  We do too little for the place we should all call home, right?

Plenty has been said and written about this atrocious marginalization of the vast geography and its people.  Anjan Sundaram adds to that commentary and he understates it when he notes:
Our stories about others tell us more about ourselves.
Yes! :(

A few weeks ago, NPR reviewed Sundaram's book, which was my first ever introduction to his work.  In his op-ed, Sundaram writes about his background, which I recall from that NPR report and this interview with Jon Stewart.
As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.
I am always way impressed with people like Sundaram, who choose to walk away from the safety and comforts of the well-traveled roads--especially in his case after an undergraduate degree from the IIT at Madras, a graduate degree from Yale, and a job offer from Goldman Sachs.  Next to people like Sundaram, I am nothing but a facade, if at all. Always lacking his kind of a drive, determination, and dedication, it is no surprise that I am forever wondering whether I coulda been a contender!

As Sundaram writes about the news organizations and his life as a stringer for the AP:
Reporters move like herds of sheep, flocking to the same places at the same times to tell us, more or less, the same stories. Foreign bureaus are closing. We are moving farther away.
News organizations tell us that immersive reporting is prohibitively expensive. But the money is there; it’s just often misallocated on expensive trips for correspondents. Even as I was struggling to justify costs for a new round of reporting in Congo, I watched teams of correspondents stay in $300-per-night hotels, spending in one night what I would in two months. And they missed the story.
Parachuting in with little context, and with a dozen other countries to cover, they stayed for the vote but left before the results were announced. A battle broke out in Kinshasa after they left, and I found myself hiding in an old margarine factory, relaying news to the world, including reports to this newspaper.
And after he left?
For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves. Stories from there, and from places like the killing fields of the Central African Republic, are still distant, and they are growing smaller.
The vast "country" of Africa is getting more and more distant and smaller even as we talk about how the world is shrinking thanks to all the interconnectedness.  "Our stories about others tell us more about ourselves." Indeed!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Walk like an Egyptian. Or an American. Or an Indian. Walk!

The summer weather has been unpredictably up and down like a teenage girl's moods ;)  Last week, we flirted with triple-digit temperatures but fell short by a degree.  And then came a cold front from Alaska, which brought down to the high to the low sixties and dropped some record-breaking rain.  Well, the twentieth of an inch was a record for the calendar day.

Today, the weather was just perfect, like that teenage girl in an angelic mood.  (I know I will be in trouble with the female readers. hehe!)  My neighbors, who I rarely see going for a walk, were there as a lovely couple out on a midday stroll.  "What a lovely day" she said.  "Awesome" is what I told them.

I love the walk by the five-mile walk by the river.  Ok, it is a little more than four-and-a-half, which I round off to five. Try saying "I went for my four-and-a-half mile walk by the river" and then utter "I went for a five-mile walk by the river" and tell me which one is easier for the tongue and the brain!

That five-mile walk, I have always believed, is the most important factor contributing to my health.  Ok, there is no other physical activity and that makes it the only factor; happy now?  It is not merely the walking.  It is the time away from the gadgets. No reading.  No talking.  Listening to the sounds all around. Watching the goslings.  All add up to a relatively healthy body and mind.

And now I have evidence to back me on this: Doctors are prescribing a walk in the park:
[Dr. Robert Zarr] told me that exhorting patients to “get more exercise” was too vague. Last year, he decided to start trying something different. He stopped asking his patients, “Do you move?” and began asking “Where do you move?” He discovered that many spent very little time outdoors, and he began prescribing time outside for conditions as wide-ranging as ADHD, high blood pressure, asthma, obesity, anxiety, diabetes, and depression.
How about that!  If only more doctors prescribed walking, right?
The scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century put a premium on treatments that could be tested in a lab. “The half-page advertisements for the Glen Springs Sanitarium gave way to the full-page advertisement for the anti-anxiety drug meprobamate,” Selhub and Logan write. Today, the idea of a doctor telling you to spend time in a pleasant climate seems like something out of Masterpiece Theatre, a quaint tonic from a bygone era available only to those of the leisure class.
How terrible!
Intuitively, it probably doesn’t seem surprising that kids who run around in the woods are less fidgety when they do have to pay attention. Or that the smell of a pine forest is so pleasant that it soothes anxiety. But even if the mechanisms aren’t entirely clear, a steadily growing stack of scientific evidence suggests that time in nature is really good for you. Why don’t we embrace this idea of healthy nature more fully? Perhaps popping a pill is less daunting than an overhaul of our daily routines.
Or maybe we don’t think that our environments matter.
One of the best things that the corrupt government in Chennai did was to invest in the dilapidated parks.  As my blog posts from my visits to Chennai show, I am not the only one at those parks--if I don't go there early enough, then it gets crowded, which is wonderfully heart-warming to the intellectual in me but the crowd itself is not what I can handle ;)
So far, Zarr and his team have given out 600 prescriptions for nature. “It’s not a panacea,” he said, “but we’ve touched on something exciting.”
Surely you don't need Zarr's prescription, right?  Then, why are you still reading this?  Get up and get going.  Go for that  four-and-a-half mile walk ;)

Without our traditions ... are we fiddlers on the roof?

I always knew it was only a matter of time.  Time to graduate from wearing shorts at home to wearing dhoti.  I do not recall when exactly that happened, but it did.

I loved wearing a dhoti.  It worked well.  There was something special about it as long as it was clean and white.  When it got dirty, however, there was no way to camouflage that.  Eventually the white became off-white and then an inevitable yellowish-brown.  The attempts to whiten that and make it look new all over included dyeing it with Robin Blue and that always made it worse.

As the charm of the newness of wearing a dhoti wore off, and into the teens, I suppose wearing a lungi was how we teenagers and young men rebelled within this dhoti-world.  A lungi, also called a kylee, was a horror to the traditional elders.  Disgusted they were with what they considered to be trashy.

Which is why it came as quite some shock to me when I came across a photo of my grandfather wearing shorts in his adult life.

Grandfather during his undergraduate years at Varanasi (Benares) in the early-1930s
notice his socks/stockings?
Imagine that!  No dhoti but in a pair of shorts.

I did bring a dhoti with me to the US.  Not because I had planned on wearing that to campus, though that would have been par in graduate school in Southern California.  It was one of the few artifacts, so to speak, that connected me with the old country.

Once, when a couple of fellow Indian grad students asked me to go with them to the Indian store to pick up groceries, and was in no mood for that, I told them I would go only if they were ok with me wearing a dhoti.  It became a dare, and I did.  Turned out it was the best thing I could have done that evening--the store owner was so impressed by me wearing a dhoti that we each got for free a sweet of our choice!

In the town where I grew up, there were a couple of professionals who wore dhotis even to clubs.  A favorite memory is of one gent, with a dhoti and the traditional kudumi rushing around town on his Lambretta.  And, even more surreal the imagery when he was at the bridge table in the smoke-filled cards room at the club--apparently he was sharp at bridge.

Dhoti and kylee and kudumi stand out in a world that has become globalized.  In the old country, wearing a dhoti--yes, the traditional male attire of the land--is even cause for exclusion, thanks to the British legacy:
Politicians in Chennai got their dhotis in a twist over private club dress codes, after D. Hariparanthaman, a local judge, was denied entry to a book launch at the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association because he was wearing a dhoti—a starched, white piece of cloth worn wrapped around the waist.
“The club rules say you must come decently dressed: no lungi, banyan (tank top) and colored chappals (sandals). How can you say a dhoti is not decent dress?” said attorney R. Gandhi, who was with Mr. Hariparanthaman at the time.
The clash between the tradition and the "modern" continues.

The older I get, the more I tire of the modern,  especially when the world begins to look the same.  I suppose the old rebel in me wants to rebel against this "modernity."  Oh, rest easy, I have no plans to wear a dhoti to work, or anywhere for that matter ;)

Thus, when I travel, men and women wearing clothes that reflect their respective cultures and traditions fascinate me.  When in India, I am impressed with the sight of half-sari wearing girls. Or, the women in their traditional outfits in Ecuador. It will be a sad, sad day when the old traditions die out.  Yes, I realize the contradictions in plenty in writing about the dhoti and the half-sari when I ditched the traditions of the old country a long time ago.  But, hey, aren't we all bundles of contradictions?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I have no idea for a title here! It is on India, Israel, and Palestine.

As a young reader of The Hindu, I was tremendously impressed with Moshe Dayan.  Dayan was Israel's foreign minister as I was getting into my teens and he was in the news a lot thanks to the Israel-Egypt peace negotiations.  It was not the prospect of peace that drew my attention to Dayan--it was his eye-patch!  The guy looked like he had had quite some past and that he meant business.  If I had known then the power of the word "awesome" I definitely would have used that ;)  It does not take much to impress a budding teenager!

Israel was in the news quite a bit those days.  Even though nobody I knew had a passport at that time, it intrigued me that the Indian government did not allow its nationals to travel to Israel.  Indian politics, which was dominated by Indira Gandhi's Congress Party, the various flavors of communist parties, and a few regional ones, was overwhelmingly against Israel and pro-Palestine.  That approach had been in place ever since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, who " was an outspoken partisan of the Palestinians."

As a teenager, I felt torn between an admiration for Israel's achievements and enormous sympathies for the Palestinians.  "If only India could be well organized and focused as the Israelis are" was a thought that often crossed my mind.  But, simultaneously, I was drawn to the Palestinian cause, and the PLO, as well and simply could not understand why there was this bitter conflict.  There is a good chance that many thinking people in my demographic group had similar experiences.

As I transitioned out of the teens, and was a tad more informed about the world, the admiration for Israel lessened, and the sympathies for the PLO significantly diminished.  There was nothing but violence from both sides, which did not appeal to my pacifist sensibilities.  Dayan and his eye-patch rapidly faded away.

Over the years, India's politics has also dramatically changed.  The fall of the Soviet Union and the changing global order also coincided with India's near-bankruptcy that triggered economic reforms.  A relatively liberal India began to look at the world differently.
Congress Party Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ended India's Cold War hostility toward Israel by establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992
By then I was  easing into a life in the adopted country where politics was almost overwhelmingly pro-Israel while academe was (and is) predominantly in support of the Palestinians.  In one of the graduate school classes, Professor Lowdon Wingo even brought into the discussions the intifada.  Wingo walked a fine line expressing neither support nor criticisms for either side.  A wonderfully committed academic he was.

Since then, India has rapidly expanded its economic and military relations.
In terms of military cooperation, few countries have backed New Delhi as Israel did by supplying artillery shells during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. Since then, Israel has emerged as India's second biggest arms supplier after Russia. 
It is a different India now.  Especially with the Hindu nationalist BJP in power, and with a government led by Narendra Modi.  The old political calculations of empty rhetoric favoring the Palestinians as a way to appeal to the Muslim vote has been replaced by ache din aane wale hain.  So much has the political atmosphere changed that:
The NDA government came under sharp attack in parliament for refusing to allow a resolution condemning Israel for the strikes on Gaza even as the death toll crossed 500 on Monday. In particular focus is the BJP’s top leaderships’ close ties with Israel, given that Prime Minister Modi had travelled as Gujarat Chief Minister to Israel in 2006, promising to return if he became Prime Minister. As Home Minister, L.K. Advani was the first senior Minister to visit Israel in 2000, and External affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj once chaired the India-Israel parliamentary friendship group and led a delegation there. 
That same essay notes this about India's radically different stance on the Israel-Palestinian issue:
Former diplomat and UN official Chinmaya Gharekhan, who was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy to West Asia and the Middle East Peace Process, told The Hindu, “There is no doubt that India’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict has moderated gradually over a period of time, from its once categorical support for the Palestinian cause.” Mr. Gharekhan says the game-changer in this regard was Israel’s assistance to India during the Kargil war, when it supplied much needed artillery shells at short notice. “It was gratitude for this act and our growing defence relationship with Israel that made the difference in later years. Even at the UN, while we still support statements in favour of Palestine, we no longer co-sponsor such resolutions.”
 In the old country, it is not uncommon for seasoned commentators and intellectuals to look at what the "father of the nation" opined on this geopolitical struggle:
Writing in the Harijan newspaper, which he edited, in November 1938 on the vexed Palestine issue, Mahatma Gandhi declared that "my sympathies are all with the Jews... but my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice." World War II was a year away and the world was yet to become aware of the scale of the persecution that befell the Jews and the enormity of the Holocaust and the Gandhi view merits recall.
In the same article, he continued: "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs."
Much water and blood has flown since 1938 and the Jewish state is a reality, in much the same manner that Pakistan is - even though Gandhi was opposed to the idea. 
Hopefully, within my lifetime, everlasting peace will descend upon the troubled Israel-Palestine area, between India and Pakistan, and all around.  If nothing works, I will wear metaphorical patches over both my eyes and pretend that everything is well and good with the world.