We the 99

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a theme song.

Also, JaySmooth:

Timor: Where Has All the Aid Gone?

Foreign Policy in Focus has a really good article up about what’s happened to all the foreign aid that’s gone into East Timor in the last decade. You are hereby ordered to read the whole thing.

Timor-Leste is one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world, where more than 90% of the government’s annual budget comes from petroleum revenues. It imports everything from computer hardware to bottled water. Its infrastructure is very poor, making it hard for local farmers to transport crops to markets. Local farmers must also compete with an influx of imported goods from Australia, Singapore, and other countries. Many Timorese are still struggling with poor healthcare, lack of educational opportunities, little clean water, and other insufficient social services. Social inequality is widening, especially between the capital Dili and other districts.

iPods, China, WoW, Suicide, and Explosions

There’s a good chance you own a Foxconn product. They make stuff for Apple, HP, Dell, Nintendo, Microsoft, Intel Cisco, and other hi-tech giants. If you’ve never heard of them, don’t feel bad.

But listen up.

In 2010 there was a rash of suicides at Foxconn plants in China. Workers were jumping off factory and dormitory roofs. An article in Wired from 2010 describes leisurely hour-long lunches and concludes that “those unskilled laborers who get jobs at Foxconn are the luckiest”. But a 2006 study by the Daily Mail paints a very different picture of work conditions at Foxconn.

‘We have to work too hard and I am always tired. It’s like being in the army. They make us stand still for hours. If we move we are punished by being made to stand still for longer. […] We have to work overtime if we are told to and can only go back to the dormitories when our boss gives us permission,’ says Zang Lan. ‘If they ask for overtime we must do it. After working 15 hours until 11.30pm, we feel so tired.’

The Hong Kong advocacy group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been following the situation at Foxconn factories for a while. When the suicides got big press attention, Apple said it would demand changes and make sure that Foxconn changed, as they promised to do. But according to SACOM, Apple and Foxconn have failed to keep their promises.

Apparently the only thing Foxconn did was put up nets, so that workers physically could not jump off the buildings.

And then there was the explosion at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu last week. When I first saw the headlines about this incident, I was amazed by how worried everyone was that iPad production might be slowed. “What will it mean for Apple stock?” one news report asked. “Will there be enough iPads for Christmas?” asked another.

It wasn’t until I dug to the bottom of the second article that I learned that three workers had died. How twisted is that? The news doesn’t even want to talk about the dead workers until after we soothe the fears of stock traders and consumption trend-watchers.

Then I found the Make IT Fair campaign, of which SACOM is a member organization, and it said that the explosion was the result of gross negligence on the part of Foxconn.

In March and April, SACOM conducted investigations at Foxconn’s plants in Chengdu. The work safety in both northern and southern campuses is alarming.

During my research, I learned about a 2008 law in China that made some tiny little changes to make workers’ lives better in that country. Guess who lobbied against it? Wal-Mart and other corporations, including Google, UPS, Microsoft, Nike, AT&T, and Intel, through the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

China’s proposed legislation will not eliminate its labor problems. The law will not provide Chinese workers with the right to independent trade unions with leaders of their own choosing and the right to strike. But foreign corporations are attacking the legislation not because it provides workers too little protection but because it provides them too much.

But wait, there’s more! Today I came across this fun article, about prisoners in China. It features an interview with Liu Dali, who served over two years in a Chinese work camp for “‘illegally petitioning’ federal authorities about corruption in his local government”. So after spending a full day digging trenches and carving chopsticks, how did the guards help him relax?

They made him farm gold.

The scheme, a practice referred to among gamers as “gold farming,” required some 300 prisoners at the Jixi labor camp to gather currency (usually by repeating monotonous tasks) in multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, which the guards then hawked online for cash.

I’ve always viewed the concept of gold-farming as repugnant, but I read a defense of it somewhere recently. (“I have a busy work life. I want the best sword but I don’t have time to quest for it. It’s better than lots of other jobs in China!”) Just remember this, if you decide to buy that +3 Plate Mail on WoW: It may be lacquered with the blood of a Chinese political prisoner.


Annie Leonard is my favorite internet person right now. Her Story of Stuff series is excellent and entertaining. Apropos of the above, here’s The Story of Electronics.

Today I’m listening to: Brother Ali!

Why I (Can’t) Hate Ron Paul

I want to hate Ron Paul. I wish I could just write him off for being crazy and single-minded. But I can’t! He stands for a number of really good positions. Even Dennis Kucinich said he would choose Ron Paul as a running mate, especially since they share very similar views on international policy.

Dr. Paul is a superb example of the annoying complexity of human existence. Lorraine Hansberry spoke to this in her play Les Blancs. A white man accuses a black man of hating all white people, and the black man responds: “No, I don’t hate all white people. But I desperately wish I did. It would make everything so much easier.”

It’s tempting for us on the left to write off someone like Ron Paul (and the libertarians who adore him). But this is a mistake. I disagree with him on several key issues, and therefore I can’t support him as a candidate. But I’m glad he’s running.

Rather than run through everything there is to say here, I’ll simply encourage people to read this Wikipedia article. I’m not going to vouch for everything on there (it’s neither a Good nor a Featured Article), but it’s got over 250 citations so you can check things for yourself if you’re doubtful.

The Good

He’s a real believer in non-intervention. He was the only Republican candidate in 2008 who had voted against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. He opposed Congressional support for Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009. He calls for an end to the embargo of Cuba.

He’s opposed to the WTO and NAFTA because they benefit wealthy elites and not citizens. He voted against the PATRIOT Act, and the REAL ID Act. Although he personally believes life begins at conception, he believes abortion should be a matter for states to decide. (He’s big on states’ rights.)

He voted to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. In 2007 he spoke out against the death penalty at the federal level, since (in his words) “it has been issued unjustly. If you’re rich, you get away with it; if you’re poor and you’re from the inner city you’re more likely to be prosecuted and convicted”. He opposed No Child Left Behind. He supports an end to the so-called War on Drugs.

The Bad

He wants us to withdraw from the United Nations. He opposes most departments of the federal government, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Interstate Commerce Commission. He wants to let young workers opt out of Social Security.

He said the Civil Rights Act was bad because “not only violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty; it also failed to achieve its stated goals of promoting racial harmony and a color-blind society”. He is opposed to network neutrality legislation. He believes the federal government should play no role at all in education, which means no compensation for vast disparities between schools in wealthy and poor states.

He believes in real free-market trade policies, which — while more authentically libertarian than NAFTA and the like — could erode even further the safeguards of smaller, weaker nations against economies of scale and commodity price manipulation. He believes in free-market solutions in the areas of education (voucher systems), the environment (“The environment is better protected under private property rights”), and health care.

Capitalist Libertarianism vs. Socialist Anarchism

Dr. Paul’s devotion to free-market fundamentalism is at least a refreshing and principled change from the quasi-free-market ideologies of neoconservatives who support corporate subsidies and bailouts and loan guarantees and etc. But I cannot support a system of mere force and unenlightened self-interest as promoted by most libertarians (and Tea Party activists) in the United States. This comes to the heart of my disagreement with the US libertarian worldview.

It’s not enough to have personal freedom; we have responsibilities to each other as citizens and as human beings. Any system of economic or political organization which ignores these responsibilities or assumes that individuals will take them on is fundamentally flawed, and I will not support it.

I believe in small government, but it has a role to play. (Public libraries rule!) I don’t like the idea of us giving up our sovereignty to multinational organizations, but the United Nations is a vital (if deeply imperfect) instrument for peace in the world. I dislike the brutality, racism, and class privilege that police departments tend to serve, but I would probably not want to live in a city without a police force. And so on.

So while I can’t endorse Ron Paul, I’m happy to see him bringing important issues to the national stage. And while I’m delighted to have a critique of the WTO and World Bank presented to the American people, I wish we could have a more progressive vision put forth instead, rather than a simplistic refrain of “let the market do its thing”.


I know we usually have an inline video here, but I can’t pass up this list of 40 Things That Will Make You Feel Old. From Buzzfeed, via HighDef.

Today I’m listening to: Soma FM!

Reflections on the Past Week

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a week. What a crazy time this is!

Thanks to my New College buddy Matt Thompson, who invited me to write about the protests, Scott Walker, and related matters over at Savage Minds, an anthropology blog. I feel like I’m always studying humans, but I’m not sure how my ramblings fit their mission statement. Still, it’s quite an honor to write for such a thing.

This is certainly the longest and most comprehensive piece I’ve written about all this stuff. Here’s the first paragraph:

I wanted to join Scott Walker for his Fireside Chat on Tuesday evening. (Transcript here.) I was ready for some exciting debate, especially since the riots and chaos I had been promised by FoxNews were either exaggerations or (though I find it hard to believe, coming from such a reputable news organization) total lies. Alas, I was not allowed anywhere near Mr. Walker’s fireplace.

The past couple of weeks have been exhausting.

Read more…