Monday, December 09, 2013

How long should we continue to pretend that college pays?

[Whatever] the causes, the political consequences of a continuing decline in the real average wages of young college-educated workers will be momentous.
If you are nodding in agreement with that statement, then we have very little to disagree about.

I have now made it a routine of sorts to remark in the introductory class, in the appropriate contexts, that the rest of their lives will be exciting, but challenging when it comes to jobs and economic futures.

It is not merely their jobs and incomes that worries me.  That too.  What worries me more is this--we are not designed to sit around and do nothing, even if somebody takes care of our basic needs.  It is not for nothing that we have that old saying that an idle mind being a devil's workshop.  It does not mean that one becomes destructive--not doing anything constructive can be a challenge for most of us.

The animals in us might look for rewards via food and sex for what we do.  But then we are more than mere biological creatures.  We think. Some more than the others.  The rewards for thinking are way more than food and sex.  Some of those rewards are intangibles--like love and family.  However, these intangibles don't just happen, and meaningful work that pays is the route to many of those intangibles too.

Which means, well, we have a problem when the youth have no jobs waiting for them.  Jobs that pay well.  A big problem.  Not a new one, of course--even I have been blogging about this (like here,) and writing op-eds on this, for a few years now.

Even when people talk about these issues, they tend to overplay the income inequality issue.  Yes, it is awful how the top one percent, and the top 0.1 percent are getting richer by the second.  But, that takes the focus away from the larger issues behind these conditions:
college-educated workers in the United States are now subject to a combination of global market forces and public policies that are reducing their economic prospects.
We will have to re-work that old Bill Clinton campaign slogan to "It's the global economy, stupid!"

I am reminded of this succinct statement of the problem:
The paradox is this. A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.
The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing.
I suppose I am having an additional layer of problem with this because of the conflict within me that I blog like this while working in the higher education business which promises students that if they work hard and get that diploma, well, the American Dream is all theirs.  A bizarre version of an Orwellian Doublethink!

I am sure the folks at the university have noted that for a long time I have not participated in any student recruitment events--it will be one more blot on my permanent personnel record!  Strangely enough, nobody has directly asked me for my reasons--at least if they did, I can present my arguments that we are massively overselling higher education and find out how they justify the hype that then imposes a tremendous cost on students.

Maybe this is nothing but the end of the term blues. Or because I am under house-arrest thanks to the snow and ice.  Maybe it will be a wonderful new year.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

When heaven freezes over!

We know about the expression "when hell freezes over."  But, heaven?

Yes, it can happen.

It did.

The snowfall began even before the sun came up on Friday.  Initially, the snow was fun. Everything looked pretty.

But, thanks to meteorologists--the real one, and not the fakes on TV--we knew what the weekend would be like.

Damn, the forecasts were correct!

By evening, the flakes fell no more.  After the sun went down, I stepped out to view the neighborhood.

"You are braver than me" yelled a voice.  It was my neighbor, with a camera in her hand.  I suppose I was the ambulatory version of "fools rush in."  The neighborhood looked gorgeous with the streetlight illuminating the sparkles on the ground, and the holiday lights on homes adding color to the white background.

But, it was cold.  Colder than all the pretty women who have turned their backs on me! ;)

Saturday mid-morning.

The sun was bright. The sky was clear.

I decided that I had to find out how my friends, the Willamette River and the bike path, looked after the seven-plus inches that fell from the sky.

The landscape was surreal.

An older gent was scanning the scenery.  "I suppose no bikes today" he joked.  We men love to joke in any context.  I wonder if even at funerals our minds are only thinking of funny lines.  We are strange creatures, indeed.  But, was Christopher Hitchens on to something when he opined that the average women simply aren't funny?

Saturday overnight, the temperature went down.  All the way down to 10 below zero. On the Fahrenheit scale, which means it is negative 23 in Celsisus.  Yes, -23 C, Ramesh!

When talking with my parents, my father complained that it was cold for him because the daytime high wasn't even at 27. In Celsius!  I described to him the weather conditions here.

"I hope you are warm" he said.

I live in a land of luxury, where we take for granted the warmth during the cold weather.  Climate-controlled homes.  Hot water at the twist of the faucet.  Refrigerator and freezer stocked with food, and kitchen shelves with more food.  My biggest, and only, problem was that I had only three days of coffee supply in the canister.  What a lucky and decadent life!

Having lived this long, I know that I have nothing to complain about.  And that revelation is no snow-job!

Can the common man be corrupted?

His biggest fear was that his party will squander the "historic opportunity. If we made some mistakes, then I think we will not be able to forgive ourselves, and history will not be able to forgive us. And that thought is constantly chasing me."
Said Arvind Kejriwal of the new political party, Aam Aadmi (Common Man) in this profile of him in the New Yorker in the September 2nd issue (sub. reqd.).

Kejriwal can rest easy, it appears:
[The] Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stole the show in its debut by scooping up 28 seats. ... AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal proved to be a giant killer by defeating three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit in the New Delhi constituency by a margin of more than 25,000 votes.
As the New Yorker noted:
Since 2010, Kejriwal's essential message has not faltered; to overcome endemic political corruption, momentous change is required. ... [Few] officials are ever indicted of corruption. As Kejriwal put it, "You can just get away with murder in this country.
Of course, this is merely one small change.  How much of a consequence it will have is, well, the cliched "remains to be seen."  It is one thing to campaign against corruption and corrupt politicians, but another to get to some of the systemic problems that then create opportunities for rent-seeking, as economists refer to it.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, of the Center for Policy Research, said that he gets "no readings, from Kejriwal, on his thoughts on markets and economics, which are central to corruption." ... Kejriwal insists that he is attacking a problem that transcends macroeconomic policy. ... "Liberalization, globalization--these things will never work until you improve the governance of the country."
India's corruption and bureaucracy are notorious.  Of course, here in the US, too, we have corrupt officials.  But, at least our every day existence is free of hassles.  Renewing a driver license or registering the purchase of a used car does not require bribing the DMV clerk.  In India, even such mundane transactions almost always require bribes.  Recently, when my sister chose not to offer bribes in order to get the official papers related to the death of her husband, they made sure to string her along for a few days and for quite a few meetings!

Let us see if the election results will have any impact on the corruption index, which refuses to budge:
Despite a vocal anti-corruption movement and even a new party aimed at fighting graft, the level of corruption in India has not fallen in the last year, according to the latest survey by corruption watchdog Transparency International.
The Berlin-based organization released its latest Corruption Perception Index report Tuesday. The index grades countries on how corrupt their political parties, police, justice systems and other organizations are perceived to be.
Transparency International’s rankings start with the countries that are least corrupt. India’s ranking of 94 out of 177 was unchanged from a year ago.
Maybe India should try bribing the researchers at Transparency International in order to get a favorable ranking? ;)


Interestingly, that cartoon is not about India!

Corruption is perhaps even a part of the culture?  I was reminded of a story that I read as a kid. It was one of those witty stories involving Birbal.  I tracked down a version of it on the web, should you--the curious reader--feel intrigued.  It is a wonderful bottom-line: "A corrupt man will find ways to take bribe whatever the job he is in."

Try corrupting me with an offer of a few million dollars, will you please?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Being an activist without hurling bombs. Without yelling. It is easy!

Even before I got to college, I had a mental image of college as a hotbed of political activism.  I had a good reason to imagine that way--a cousin of my father's had even gone "underground" during his college years as a Naxalite.  It was all part of the family discussions when growing up. Thus, politics being a keen interest of mine meant that I was all pumped up for it.

It was a shock to then discover for myself that there was a lot of political activity on college campuses, but they had no intellectual basis to speak of.  It was simply dirty, rotten, politics where it seemed like students were fashioning themselves after the dirty, rotten, scoundrels we had as politicians.

So, no activism for me.  Well, except for one tiny bit about which I will write some day.

Coming to the US was wonderful for this aspect as well.  Practically every single day it seemed like there was some student group or the other championing some issue and seeking volunteers or passing around petitions at the USC campus.  As an "alien" I could not sign on to petitions that sought political intervention.  But, I joined in--always the curious fellow I was!

One of the movies that was screened on campus was Cry Freedom.  I went to watch it with my apartment-mate, who was also from India.  While I was aware of the apartheid regime in South Africa, I had not known anything about the black activist, Steve Biko.  Some of my graduate school mates seemed to know more about him, and they were critical of how the movie was about the white journalist than about the black activist.  Finally, I had a place where I could engage in the intellectual aspects of the causes that students were active about.  This was heaven!

Students did not want USC to have any investment portfolio ties to South Africa.  Divestment was the chant.  And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Bush wanted to kick Saddam back to Iraq, I distinctly remember joining the students, and faculty too, protesting against the war preparations.  I was still worried that perhaps as an alien I ought to keep a low profile and not get into anything that can get me deported. (Much later in life, after I became a citizen, in responding to an op-ed of mine, a reader suggested that I self-deport!)

These days, I often wonder why students do not seem to be intrinsically motivated enough to protest.  There are, after all, plenty of things to protest about.  I worry that the youth are becoming either too obedient to authority, or are way engrossed in the different ways technology now provides instant gratification.  Student activism is, for all purposes, now dead in the US.

I, of course, continue to be an activist.  Rarely explicitly, however, which is why the supposedly "activist" faculty, who even led the charge to excommunicate me, falsely conclude that I am one of those establishment guys.  Little do they know me as one ardently subversive activist!  As Azhar Nafisi noted,
SOME ASSUME that the only way academics can engage the politics of the day is by coming out of their ivory tower and protesting in front of the White House. But in conveying knowledge, the academy has a far more important and subversive way of dealing with political issues. Knowledge provides us with a way to perceive the world. Imaginative  knowledge provides us with a way to see ourselves in the world, to relate to the world, and thereby, to act in the world. The way we perceive ourselves is reflected in the way we interact, the way we take our positions, and the way we interpret politics.
Curiosity, the desire to know what one does not know, is essential to genuine knowledge. Especially in terms of literature, it is a sensual longing to know through experiencing others—not only the others in the world, but also the others within oneself. That is why, in almost every talk I give, I repeat what Vladimir Nabokov used to tell his students: curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. If we manage to teach our students to be curious—not to take up our political positions, but just to be curious—we will have managed to do a great deal.
The other day, I told a student that it felt like I had made a couple of students think.  "That's what you want, right?" he replied with a smile.

Indeed!  And I want more of them.

On sex and violence

A while ago, I was, yet again, the eldest in a group of five adults.  I am getting old.  I mean, OLD!

It was down to a serious question for the evening--which movie to watch.  As with the times, it was a decision not about going to the movies but to bring the movies home.  And, as with the times, not to bring the movie home by first going to video rental place but to stream the movie via Netflix.

When I can easily recall the old days in such mundane situations, well, I am OLD!

In her list was the movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  "My friend watched it and said she really liked it" the young woman said.

"Oh, it is an enjoyable movie, and at times hilarious too" I replied.  I told them how I ended up watching it a second time with my daughter and son-in-law.  Plus, I like Seth Rogen and, of course, Elizabeth Banks who is so wonderfully gorgeous with an awesome easy style.

I could sense the hesitation because of the "porno" in the title.  And with me as the old man in an otherwise youthful gathering of four that evening.  Talk about being the fifth wheel!

I wanted to engage them in a discussion of nudity and sex.  And compare those with violence.  This young crowd routinely watches violence in movies, and plays violent video games. People are tortured. Heads are blown off.  Blood oozes out.  I wanted us to talk about how and why they were ok with all that violence, and even enjoyed them, but they were hemming and hawing about Zack and Miri because of the word porno in it.

But, I didn't get into those discussions.  I am OLD and an academic, which means it is best to shut up in the company of youth!

I was never a fan of violence to begin with.  And with every passing year, I am even less interested in watching violence on the screen than ever before.  Getting OLD means such transformations too?

A couple of days ago, I was watching this C-Span interview with Dr. Hassan Tetteh, which made me think more about violence.  In the comfort of our homes, we are so disconnected from violence and war.  Thankfully, yes.  But, in my mind, the violence in movies always end up reminding me of the real violence. When Tetteh described the kinds of trauma situations, I felt my stomach in knots--and this was without viewing any visuals of the violence.  

I suspect that I would literally throw up were I to witness something like a car-bomb blast with people losing limbs.  Tetteh replies with a yes to Brian Lamb's question on whether even medical professionals really do sometimes throw up when the trauma victims come in--despite all the training they go through in which they would have seen plenty of blood and gore.

Zack and Miri has nudity, yes. Breasts jiggle and the penis dangles.  And, yes, the simulation of sex.  They all fit into the storytelling, which is about the emotions that Zack and Miri feel for each other.  It is a love story, perhaps told in a tad arty manner.

Yet, the make-believe sex scenes, where there is no real sex act, threatens our morals immensely more than the make-believe violence and death, where no real blood is drawn and nobody really gets killed?

In the news feed, I read about a movie having to go through edits in order to avoid the NC-17 rating and go with a market-friendly "R" rating.  Evan Rachel Wood, the lead female actor in that movie, had this to say in protest:
After seeing the new cut of Charlie Countryman, I would like to share my disappointment with the MPAA, who thought it was necessary to censor a woman's sexuality once again. The scene where the two main characters make "love" was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people "uncomfortable," but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered.
I am no flower-power pacifist who chants that old slogan of "make love, not war."  But, ...

Thursday, December 05, 2013

I am a rich man. A super rich man. Is that my problem?

"It has been a long time since I came to your counter" I told her with a smile.  "With you being all possessive, I didn't want you to get upset with me" I added.

She laughed and tapped on my hand.  "Yes, I get jealous sometimes" she chuckled.

The previous customer, a woman who had more than a decade on me, was collecting her bags.  She paused and said "I know I cannot go by any other counter if I come here with my grandkids."

"So, how are things?" I asked her while she scanned the groceries.

"They have me down to four days a week" she replied.

Now that I am older and wiser, I know enough not to assume that anything that people say is good or bad, and that it is better to ask for clarification.  I suppose I have been reading one too many old parables!

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"Oh, very bad thing."  She paused.  "I can't live on 300 dollars a week."

I had no idea how to respond to that.  Fortunately for me, she continued.  And, as always, she used humor as a cover.

"I guess I will have to stand at street corners and ask for money" and she laughed.

That was a couple of hours ago.  I am trying to make my peace with her situation.

With her situation alone, and then about the many, many others who are in her state.

In the US, what I earn will place me in the upper middle class income.  If I compare myself to the world, I know I am one of the top one percent of the world.  When she tells me about living on 300 dollars a week, I am easily sent on the guilt trip that I have been traveling right from my young age.

I have no idea how others make their own peace on these kinds of issues.  For me, it has been one heck of a struggle.

Yes, there are all those intellectual battles that I can engage in.  Even the Pope and the President have recently weighed in on these income issues, and I have been so tempted to blog about those.  But, there is a wide gulf between the intellect and the emotion.

As I noted in that essay from almost a decade ago, "perhaps academic life means a continuous attempt to redraw the line that separates what I teach from how I live."

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Were my grandmothers racists?

A friend emailed me this video clip, in which Aziz Ansari--the Indian-American comedian/actor--observes that racism is very much on the decline here in the US and that the old racists are, well, dead or are dying from old age.  As with any public policy or comedy line, Ansari then works on the old grandmother angle and even asks the audience to make noise if their racist grandmothers died recently.

I agree with him.  Race is not that much an issue anymore, nowhere near what it was even during the time of the Rodney King and OJ Simpson dramas two decades ago.  But, it is there.

Anyway, Ansari's comment got me thinking.  Were my grandmothers racists?

There was no doubt that the grandmothers were steeped in the traditions.  They observed a great number of orthodox practices.  The interesting aspect is that the orthodoxy discriminated against all kinds of humans, depending on the contexts.  In the mornings, we kids were not allowed to touch grandmothers if we had not had our showers by then.  Menstruating females were condemned to a corner of the ancestral home, and even the sight of those females meant that grandmother had to cleanse herself all over again!  And, yes, the treatment of the lower castes. ... the list is endless.  It seemed like equal-opportunity discrimination ;)

But, would I think of my grandmothers as having been racist?

When they were presented with a world that was different from the traditional one that was the only world they had ever known, well, their practices changed, and changed dramatically.

I can relate many examples in this context.  For instance, one grandma lived with us for the last seven years of her life.  Her life was no longer back in the village.  In the new setting, too, she could have continued on with many of the old practices.  Yet, she ditched some, and moderated quite a lot.

As I think back about those years, I can see how she appreciated and supported the very different ways in which we kids were behaving in an environment where traditions died.  At school, we mingled with students of all castes and religions.  It did not bother her at all.  In fact, we even used to joke about this!  She was always happy to meet and chat with my sister's classmates when they came over.  (I was not a social being even then!)

Grandmother had an enlarged heart condition that required hospitalization at one point.  The attending physician, an MD those days when it was rare, was from a low tier of the atrocious caste system.  He treated her well, and she was happy about him as the physician.  (While I struggle to recall his name, I do remember that a year or so after the hospital interactions, the physician was elected as our representative to the Parliament and we felt great that for once we actually knew our MP!)

So, were my grandmothers racists?  They gave up the bad old traditions when presented with better ways to think about the world.  They modified their behavior not out of compulsion.  Not out of fear that otherwise life will be miserable for them.

Racism is merely one of the many prejudices around.  We walk around with baggage of prejudices that we might have picked up from our childhood days, from religious leaders, from peers, ... whatever.  If people point out that what we carry in the bag is not healthy and even after that if we do not get rid of that baggage, then we are bigots.

My grandmothers offloaded plenty of baggage, and in a hurry.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Ok, you can hear me now. But, watch out!

A few months ago, I was loitering around in a different university campus, killing time before it was time for my guest lecture at a class.  A girl, well, young woman, rushed into the building while texting.  And she rushed into the elevator.

Nothing wrong, you say, eh.

She promptly jumped out of the elevator, and then looked around as if to get a bearing of where she was.  And then she entered the room that was adjacent to the elevator.

She was so keen on her texting while walking that she hurriedly entered the elevator thinking that was the classroom!

And once a guy nearly bumped into me because he was so fixated on the texting.  Last week, when driving near the campus parking lot where I park, I waited at the intersection for the longest time because I was not sure whether the woman with one foot off the sidewalk was indeed going to cross the road.  I figured it was safer to wait than to test my brakes as she jumped in front of a moving car.

Of course, I am not the only one who has been observing such smartphone behavior.  The Scientific American reports:
In 2004 an estimated 559 people had, in one scenario, whacked themselves hard enough on a telephone pole to need emergency room treatment. By 2010 the number of walkers who had to finish that last text in the ER had likely topped 1,500, according to the study, which appeared in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention.
During the same time period, the total numbers of pedestrians who wound up in emergency rooms actually decreased. Cell phone–related pedestrian injuries are thus doing yeoman's work in keeping our ER docs in business.
The smartphone zombies!

So, what can we expect here?
Experts expect the injury toll related to phones to keep rising. “If current trends continue, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cell phones doubles again between 2010 and 2015,” said Ohio State University's Jack Nasar, a co-author of the study, in a press release. And he thinks that the official numbers are probably underestimates of the true injury rate because not everyone who gets hurt goes to the hospital and not everyone who goes admits the real reason that they walked into a fire hydrant.
So, the whole idea of walking on two feet was to eventually end up bumping against the fire hydrant because the other two "legs" were needed for texting.  Ah, evolution!

Monday, December 02, 2013

When even the Wall Street Journal is against the 1% ...

In one of my many favorites of George Carlin's routines, he makes fun, in his trademark manner, the arrogance that we humans have when interacting with nature.  Carlin mocks how we build homes next to volcanoes and wonder why there is lava in the living room.

But, even George Carlin couldn't force people to think and act sensibly.  What chance do I have then, right?

Of course, my Quixotic pursuits mean that I have yelled and written about that kind of madness too.

Back on March 3, 1997--yes, almost 17 years ago--the Bakersfield Californian published my op-ed in which I questioned the sanity behind "locating a home or a business in a flood plain in the first place."  To me, this is simply asking for trouble.  And when homes get flooded, we immediately demand that government bail out the homeowners.
Instead of asking such "real" questions, we insist on playing Russian Roulette with the chaotic forces of nature.  The result is that it has become quite common for every natural happening to be labeled a disaster. 
If we were rational, then we would not build homes in flood plains and by the coastlines.  We would keep a safe distance between those natural boundaries and our built environment.  But, irrational we are.  And worse than being irrational, we are irrationally arrogant!

Here is the irony: in poor countries--think Bangladesh, for instance--it is the poor folk who live in those dangerous lowlands.  Because they cannot afford any better.  Here in a mighty rich society, it is the other way around--the richer one is, the closer they want to have their buildings near the pounding waves and the flowing waters.

So, ask yourself this: when we bail out these rich folks, does it not mean that poor in inner cities or rural hinterlands are being shortchanged?

But, who ever listens to me!

Which is why I nearly fell off the chair when I read a Wall Street Journal editorial that came out swinging with this opening sentence:
Federal flood insurance is a classic example of powerful government aiding the powerful, encouraging the affluent to build mansions near the shore
Say what?
Congress finally had the gumption to reform the program in 2012, but now the beachfront homeowner and housing lobbies are trying to reverse this progress.
Imagine that!  Thanks to a bipartisan reform signed into law by President Obama, "the federal insurer is slowly raising its rates to actuarially sound levels" and that is being opposed by lobbies, when the beneficiaries are the rich.  How insane is that?
When Republicans hear such good sense from the Obama Administration, they ought to embrace it. They should not endorse another taxpayer subsidy for those who want to live next to the ocean while sticking others with the costs of their lifestyle.
My failure to influence any action is easily understandable.  You, dear reader, are as powerless as I am.

You think the mighty Wall Street Journal and its allies will be able to fight those lobbies that are active on behalf of the one-percent?

I doubt it.  "We the people" will always get screwed over and over.

Maybe my problem is that I don't dream enough to be in the one percent ;)

Sunday, December 01, 2013

What if you knew how your t-shirt is made? By Sumangali Girls?

Another take on "there comes a point when you don't want to know."

I often tell students that one of the wonderful aspects of the market is that it will deliver as long as we are ready to pay up.  I remind them that in a liberal democracy, we not only get to exercise preferences in the political arena but also via the market transactions that we engage in.  It is the aggregation of such preferences that then feed into shaping not only how we humans live but also how we interact with the natural environment.

Most of us tend to think that we can be active only via the political process--by voting for a party or a candidate, or by organizing community action, or any of the possible political approaches.  But, we can equally, and perhaps more forcefully, cast our preferences via the market too.  Well, a variation of that old expression "put your money where your mouth is" can do wonders via the market, as opposed to the relatively no cost approach of signing on to petitions, for instance, to Free Tibet!

While I don't quite agree with the entire philosophy presented by Anna Lappe, the idea that I get across to students is no different from the succinct way she has put it:


When we spend money to buy the atrociously inexpensive widget that is made in China, well, we are also voting for the labor and environmental conditions there.  On the other hand, if we truly valued the labor and environmental conditions, then we could bypass those widgets, or offer to pay more for products that were manufactured while treating the labor and the natural environment a lot more responsibly to our liking.  Like how I pay more for the coffee that I buy--the premium goes towards better labor conditions and a more environmentally responsible coffee-growing.

The market will deliver if we exercised such preferences to create the kind of world that we want.  It is just that more often than not we don't put our money where our mouth is.  Talk is bloody cheap, right?

And, what if we dug deeper into how those widgets are made in some corner of the world?

Dana Liebelson writes in Mother Jones about trying to see where t-shirts are made.  Of course, the publication being Mother Jones is an immediate give-away on what to expect in the piece.  Yet, it is a must read.

Leibelson goes to my old country, India.  To my old part of the world there, Tamil Nadu.  And she goes to Coimbatore, which was another old stomping ground of mine.

The details that she writes about are troubling, indeed.  Will make most of us squirm in our seats and wish that we didn't know anything about all those.  Life is easier when we don't know.  Denial is a marvelous mechanism to have a blissful life.  But, attempting to understand the world means getting to know the atrocities all around that, ironically, seem to make our daily lives that much more comfortable.

So, how much at ease is Liebelson when she returns to the comforts of life in the US after finding out how the t-shirt is made?
A few months after I return from India, I go out to drinks with some friends, one of whom is wearing a rad pair of black tights with stripes up the sides. When I ask her where they came from, she proudly tells me that they cost just $20 at H&M. I don't push for details, because who am I to judge? I'm wearing a made-in-India Urban Outfitters shirt I bought before my trip. I looked at the label when I returned home, for the very first time. This is a thing I do now, even though it won't tell me what I want to know: Somewhere down the supply chain, did Aruna or Selvi make parts of my shirt?
Who am I to judge is a variation of "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone," right?

Liebelson concludes that essay recalling her meeting with, and interviewing, Lakshmi.  I wish Liebelson had pointed out the tragic irony of the name: Lakshmi is the name of the Hindu goddess of wealth, and here was a real life Lakshmi struggling for her very existence.
At 25, she was a year older than me, all of 4-foot-10, and wearing a beautiful orange dress covered with flowers that she had embroidered herself. Beginning at age 16, she worked at a spinning mill for five years, in conditions she called "torture." Supervisors offered her vacations in return for sex, and when she declined, she says they denied her lunch breaks. She was dyeing yarn with chemicals that burned her hands and gave her boils. Supervisors would only give girls gloves occasionally, deducting the cost from their pay. Her hands would go numb for days. After five years, she left with about $620—half of one month's rent on my studio apartment—and crippling ulcers. She has since spent her wages on doctors' bills, and there is nothing left for a dowry.
Caption at the New Yorker:
Lakshmi, 25, developed burns and boils on her hands from dyeing chemicals. "No man is going to marry me now," she says.
Lakshmi is trapped in circumstances that are beyond are her control.
I interviewed her in her room, which was filled with embroidered blankets. It was night, and the stars were as numerous as they are in the big sky of Montana, where I grew up. Through the open windows we could hear a chorus of insects. We took a photograph together, sitting on her cot, and she put her arm around me and grinned. A calico cat jumped from the dirt floor onto the bed. For that second, we were just two young women—unmarried, drinking tea, tired from a long day. But after we stood up, I knew that I would soon get on a plane to Washington, DC, where stores selling cheap leopard-print pumps and skinny jeans line the streets and no one expects me to give my entire salary to my parents for a dowry. And Lakshmi would still be here in this room, knowing—as she told me right after the photo was taken—that "no man is going to marry me now."
Perhaps another case of "there comes a point when you don't want to know."

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