The World At Large


How do you provide housing for an onslaught of urban refugees? According to figures cited by a recent article in The Economist, India’s cities require 25 million homes to accommodate massive growth. A number of firms have begun to construct massive low-cost townships in the suburbs to replace the slums of cinematic infamy.

Real estate savings aside prices are kept stable by cheap construction. Bricks have given way to concrete blocks manufactured from recycled waste material. The structures are restricted to a couple of stories to prevent the need for massive projects or elevators. Lodgings are small, some designed as single rooms with a sink and toilet. Plans for these low-income planned communities offer an assortment of designs to appeal both to individuals and families.

The great white flight of suburban migration which drained America’s cities in the 70’s and 80’s seems to have contracted. Looking at San Francisco and New York you can see long-term residents priced out by a monied invasion reversing the trend of inner-city decay and expelling lower income citizens to cheaper places outside the metropolises. I’ve been waiting and watching for a Parisian effect, wealth surrounded by run-down banlieues.

The thought of constructing high density communities of lower income residents causes pause. Have council estates in the UK really proven to be a good solution for affordable housing? Have the American projects provided people with the opportunity to join the fabled middle class? I’ve never been to England and I haven’t spent much time in projects but by all appearances concentrating poverty into spaces away from the jobs, amenities and opportunities promised by civic centers sounds like a disaster in the making.

A theory of ghettoes is that ownership inspires a pride and stewardship that prevents decay and crime from erupting. Public housing is a cesspool because no one owns their home and there’s no incentive for them to care for anything. While I’ve known many renters of many backgrounds who don’t mind a mess, but I’ve never met anyone who revels in crumbling walls, turf wars, broken elevators and no heat.

According to the Economist these recent building projects are the result of two nationalized banks funding finance companies to administer mortgages. Hordes of people can soon descend on their prefabricated dream homes only a short car-ride, moderate transit trip or impossibly distant bike ride from their jobs, the city shops and everything urbanites can expect simply by walking out their front doors. And if the economy has another reality adjustment and people begin to lose work, default on loans, have to make decisions between feeding the baby and repairing the cheap concrete wall behind the sink, well then what? Fenced off townships surrounding Mumbai? A slightly nicer slum pushed a little further outside the city?

Top image courtesy of Tata Housing and is from their Shubh Griha project. Bottom image is by Flickr user AK Foto who will probably get pissed about my not asking first. Defeating Global Poverty hipped me to it.

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Propaganda has long been a staple for states in time of duress or war. Trying to convince people that they need to sacrifice their daily comforts or even their lives takes a lot of cunning manipulation that cannot be exposed as cunning manipulation. It should hardly be surprising that as communication has changed so has the nature of propaganda.

Israel probably has one of the worst international reputations due to the unresolved situation of Palestine. To cope with the growth of anti-Israeli sentiment permeating the annals of the internet the Foreign Ministry has begun to collect teams of students and demobilized soldiers to troll the chat forums, blogs, twitter accounts and comment threads of articles in search of criticism and to respond with positive Israeli sentiments.

According to an article published in Calcalist and translated into English on Occupation Magazine, recruits will be directed to hot topics and fed interesting arguing points. However it is pointed out that members of the “internet fighting team” will write in their own voices but will be employed by the ministry and will be towing the company line. They will not identify themselves as employed mouthpieces for any agency. (more…)

I Got The Hook-Up

Rumors are swirling throughout the capital that President Obama will attempt to post-pone Senate’s August recess until legislation on national health care is hammered out. Medical associations are lobbying against any attempts to nationalize coverage and former PR flak cum Center for Media and Democracy pundit Wendell Potter is following the medical industry’s attempts to subvert change. Weak-willed representatives are hoping to establish a non-profit insurance company that will operate alongside private companies while millions of Americans continue to live their lives without any financial protection should they suddenly be stricken by disease or an errant bus.

A couple of years back my parents’ neighbor gave me a copy of Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a collection of short essays designed to occupy one’s quieter moments. Recently I read an entry on Thomas Douglas, the former Premier of Saskatchewan credited with creating Canada’s medicare system. Although there are many critics of what they’ve got going on up north, particularly in terms of waiting for procedures and tests, the country does manage to spend less while providing some form of basic coverage for every citizen of their country. How did it begin? (more…)

Pictures of the Iranian uprising remind me of images which escaped Tiananmen. I’m not sure if this is because I lack reference points or because the twentieth anniversary has recently passed, but my thoughts have been on the past as I watch the present unfold. Certainly there are some parallels: both involve people demanding more democratic freedoms; both involve brutal and violent suppression; both have the government scrambling to prevent pictorial evidence from reaching the outside world.

Earlier in the week Nicholas D. Kristoff wrote a quick blurb about Bing, a new search engine and all-around lifestyle centerpiece courtesy of Microsoft. Searches conducted on Bing in simplified Chinese yielded censored results for politically sensitive topics. If this was the case only in China that would make sense– it’s the cost of doing business– but searches in Chinese from any country would only reveal carefully restricted information. Critics immediately attacked Bing’s search results and Microsoft claimed this was nothing more than a bug.

Regardless of whether Microsoft had intended the apparent censorship or not is immaterial– they’re dancing with the devil. Is it really worse for a company to agree to regulate search results in a language instead of just one country? As western companies clamber to capitalize on the Chinese middle class we’re going to see more questionable ethics and poor rationalizations, such as Google’s decision to set up shop. They claim it’s better to offer what services are allowed than no service at all, but they’ll accept every penny of ad revenue entitled to them. Censorship be damned. Falun Gong be damned. Tibet be damned. Environment be damned. Sweatshops be damned. (more…)

The final measure of the six proposition budget bail-out is Proposition 1F which would forbid pay raises for officials when there is a projected deficit. Although the legislators who have spawned this nightmare ballot are purportedly the highest paid in the nation refusing to give them raises isn’t going to save any money, it just doesn’t spend any more. We’re not talking about keeping billions of dollars in the General Fund, either, just enough to make the gesture.

What is that gesture? The legislators want to show they understand we’re all suffering and we all must sacrifice. I won’t be getting a raise at work this year and neither will anyone else. Sacramento wants to show that they’re not going to get raises when times are hard too. I’d like to vote no just to spit in their face but really, why not just put it in the books?

What should happen is pay cuts, at least to bring California’s government salaries into line with the rest of the nation. Maybe dock pay, as many have suggested, when there’s a budget impasse. Others have proposed halting campaign contributions during budget stale-mates. These are good ideas, and much more effective than refusing to give the rich and well connected a raise during deficit years. Sacramento understands this and notice how these are not included in the proposition. I’ll suck it up and vote for the tossed bone but if anyone tries to rub my belly I’m taking the hand with me.

Image from the Sacramento Bee by Brian Baer.

Children and the mentally disturbed are very similar in that they are both difficult to navigate around on a crowded sidewalk. Perhaps this is why Propositions 1D and 1E have been written, two initiatives which would divert funding from two previous amendments and direct that money into the General Fund.

Back in 1998 Proposition 10 placed a half-buck tax on packs of cigarettes to fund the First 5 program, an umbrella fund for localized children’s health and education programs. Critics argue that the nebulous funding for these programs has no accountability but there are many programs which help lower-class families by providing daycare and health clinics for children which were started with First 5 monies. If you see cracks in the system work on sealing the cracks, not destroying everything.

Possibly more reprehensible is Proposition 1E which would suspend funding approved in 2004 which taxes millionaires an additional 1% for mental health programs. The temptation is that this would be a two-year suspension and that funding would return as originally intended; proponents of this initiative also point out that many of the programs receiving Proposition 63 funds are still in development while established programs are facing cuts. However, there are drop-in centers and other programs which are already working with the funding and opponents are wise to suggest without these safeguards in place the police would begin spending more time dealing with the mentally ill who have been left out in the cold.

I understand that these are desperate times but passing two measures which strip funding from special programs established to protect the most vulnerable is the same as kicking them out of the way to hop in a lifeboat. We’re supposed to carry the people who can’t walk, not toss them aside for a little under $500 million.

Photo from a Time article on mental illness, taken by JoeFox / Alamy

Feeling lucky? State legislators were when they included $5 billion in this year’s budget that’s not in pocket. That sum was supposed to be delivered from the passage of Proposition 1C, a bizarre piece of legislation attempting to beef up the State’s lottery and sell the possible profits to the futures market.

Since 1984 California has had its lottery available to all dreamers and alcoholics. Payments to winners were capped at 50% of the revenue and schools received what was left over after operating costs. Lawmakers have examined other states’ much more successful lotteries and decided that offering bigger prizes would attract more players and boost income. Interesting concept– I’ve never voted on a proposition that had a clause about funding a gambling addiction hotline, but okay.

But wait, there’s so much more. The lawmakers decided to sell future profits from the lottery tickets for a quick fix of cash to cover this year’s budget shortfall. Ah, the greenest pasture in the land, the futures market, could now gamble on California’s gambling. How can lawmakers sell such a pie? Cutting education funding out of the equation.

It’s not as bleak as all that, the education funding lost by selling the lottery to investors would be replaced by a lump sum payment from the General Fund (which is empty) and then readjusted afterwards by evaluating attendance and cost-of-living standards. Right now money that schools receive from the lottery are based on the amount of money spent on the lottery. In the future this money will be from the General Fund with a bottom baseline guarantee. Which means that in the future California may find itself in similar financial straights as right now and still owe a guarantee once floated by ticket sales.

I’m not ethically opposed to state sponsored gambling– hell, maybe the Indian casinos could help bail us out. However, I am opposed to the idea of selling futures to investors, especially when the budget analysts concede the payback would span 20-30 years and would most likely result in having to pay out from the General Fund. The same fund that also guarantees additional education funding which was once covered by lottery sales. The profits of which were sold long ago for a couple billion dollars to shore up a bad budget by lawmakers who had created a ballot measure that received advertising from a gambling machine company.

Image from the California Lottery website, unattributed.

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