Wednesday, June 15, 2005

WE Are the World, Debt Relief, and Neverland

I realized yesterday that I can ask more detailed questions about the state of Michael Jackson’s finances like whether or not he can pay either his attorney Thomas Mesereau or his Neverland electric bill and if that will force Jackson to sell the rights to the Lennon and Mcartney song catalog back to Sony Records than I can about G8’s recent decision to cancel the debt of 18 highly impoverished countries. Compounding the irony, most of the 18 countries are more or less the same places they were singing about in We Are the World, that celebrities meet world hunger and enhance their profile in the process event that Michael Jackson of all people helped to pull together some twenty years ago. I understand he’s now planning a similar musical fundraiser for celebrities who need to pay their criminal defense attorneys. fwiw, it’s a very real, but odd sign of racial progress in this country. If you’re rich and black, you can now afford better attorneys than the Catholic Church or Martha Stewart, and get the same kind of justice that rich white people have always gotten. Let's just say that the price of reasonable doubt in America isn't all that reasonable.

What is this Jubilee/Debt Relief business? Human life most likely originated in southern Africa, but the humans who made it north of the equator now own the world. All of the world’s high poverty countries are south of the equator. All the members of the G8, Russia was the last member, are well north of the equator. One of the big signs that we are moving in the wrong direction is that G8 has 8 members and there are something like 45 high poverty/high debt countries in the world. More significant, all those countries are growing at a faster rate than any members of the G8. When it's G53, we'll know that the world is definitely better off. In the meantime, the US needs to decide whether the emergence of China and India as economic powers is a hope or a threat for the future.

Over the last fifty years, wealthy countries have lent enormous amounts of money to “developing” countries. Instead of developing, countries like Rwanda (after I saw the very good movie Hotel Rwanda, I then went to find Kigali on a map), Congo, Bolivia, Tanzania, etc. simply wound up owing even more enormous amounts of money to the developed world through the magic of compound interest. One result was that a country like Tanzania owed the developed world something like three thousand euros per child per year in interest payments and had like six euros a year/child to spend on school for those children. The result was a kind of Internationalized version of Dickens with whole countries wasting away in Debtor’s Prison instead of families with quirky but plucky personalities. The other way to look at it is that the Industrialized nations were going to foreclose on the Garden of Eden.

What happened to the money? The current view is that little to none of it got spent on education, health care, or serious economic development. Instead, it fell into the hands of corrupt but outwardly anti-communist regimes who took the money and built houses just like Enron’s Ken Lay. Apparently if you molest thousands of people’s pension plans, it’s not worth prosecuting if the president calls you Uncle Ken. (I imagine, there's more to the story than that and it has to do with colonialism, anti-communism, and resource exploitation as well) In any case, those regimes are now gone and millions of children are left to pay back debt on principal they never actually benefitted from. The irony of this is that the biggest dude in G8 happens to be the United States which also happens to be the world’s biggest deficit spender and is currently running up huge trade deficits with countries like China. A lot of that money is currently going to the ongoing liberation of Iraq as foretold by the Project for the New American Century. Is it possible that a couple generations from now, our own exercise in shaping the world to our Superpowerhood will collapse on the kryptonite of our own debt? Instead of living like Ken Lay, our grandchildren might be living like the children of Tanzania without public education, effective health care, and limited prospects to live as well as their parents did.

Making this whole international financial picture even more of a mobius strip, one of the key players is the new head of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz. If you remember, Wolfowitz was one of the guiding lights of the Project for the New American Century and some say New American Century's voice in the defense department for the war in Iraq. As the story goes, Wolfowitz met with Bono (I can’t make this stuff up) and is endorsing G8’s decision to cancel the debt of 18 of the world’s very poorest countries which goes to show that neo-conservatives don’t necessarily take the wrong stance on everything.

I’m currently applauding G8’s decision to cancel the debt for these 18 countries. Frankly, I don’t spend a lot of time waiting by my mailbox for my 25 cents a day from a child in Mali. In fact, I don’t even send warning letters like, if you don’t pay us what you owe plus penalties and interest, we’ll send you Average Joe reruns and leftover CD’s made by the losers on American Idol. It makes much more sense to me for the money to be going in the other direction via Sally Struthers. I also can’t fault G8’s conditions. If we cancel the debt, don’t use it to buy 10 Hummer H2’s for yourself while you blame public employee unions for all that is wrong with your state. You have to actually reform your economy and make sure the money goes to schools, vaccinations, water purification, farming machinery, etc. istead of say to Halliburton. It probably wouldn’t hurt if some of the money went to birth control, but if the US is involved I kind of doubt that it will.

My one fear though is that this latest round of debt relief really isn’t about a humanitarian vision of the world’s financial system.
Given the sudden involvement of Paul Wolfowitz, who may well be a Wolfowitz in sheep's clothing, I’m wondering if it’s also tied into a kind of neo-imperialism, which is after all the proper name for neo-conservatives since they aren't actually conservative in any way. Not only do we want you to spend the money on schools and vaccinations, but we also want you to open your markets and adapt policies favorable to U.S. interests. If you don’t we’ll keep you in poverty for another couple generations. We live in a country that just changed its bankruptcy laws, some say at the behest of credit card companies. International Debt Relief is kind of a world bankruptcy court currently being promoted as an examplar of the Northern industrialized world’s moral solvency in the wake of its too well documented history of moral bankruptcy towards the developing world. It appears to be a step in the right direction, but what’s on the back end of the deal?

To me, international finance remains maddeningly abstract. One of the issues the world keeps dealing with is how long do you hold someone else’s descendants responsible for things that happened generations ago? Put another way, what is the obligation of the living to redress the past? Apologizing for lynching a hundred years after the fact might be nice, but it’s also strangely hollow. Keeping literal accounts of debts and obligations across generations and governments also seems hollow. What I do know is that some 4 billion people share the earth and the responsibility for sustaining it for future generations of a species that has spread from southern Africa to all but one continent. It’s a tragedy that Michael Jackson went from someone known for raising money to save starving children to a bankrupt weirdo accused of molesting them. It’s a much deeper tragedy that almost the same can be said for America the nation. (we like to forget that there are other ways to molest children, sometimes millions of them) Our pretense to international benevolence has always been something of a Neverland. Perhaps that's why the administration wants to turn the United Nations over to as benevolent and diplomatic a guy as Tom Bolton.

If we are to be acquitted by our own grandchildren, it’s time to concentrate on fixing the future instead of fixating on the past.
Let me start with this. All children should have the right to grow up fed, educated, healthy, and with some prospect for the future. (this may include some foresight about how many children we can guarantee that to) The question of who owns what and who owes what should always be secondary to that. Getting there may be A Long and Winding Road, but it beats having to play Yesterday over and over again.


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