The Have Nothings

Ten Bullets in the
Chamber of Inequality

Thousands of bloggers worldwide are posting stories about inequality today. Oxfam International has partnered with the annual Blog Action Day to boost a global discussion on glaring social contrasts affecting 7-billion plus of your fellow beings. Wherever you are on Earth, you know exactly what that’s all about.
We’ve chosen a popular format, the Top Ten List, and the world’s most powerful country for context. Far from comprehensive, however, no number of bullet points can explain why the haves have accumulated so much more than the have nots. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far.
BUDGET CUTS – Americans have yet another reason to be startled lately: the Ebola virus which, even if not quite the epidemic the media has been painting it, it’s still enough to worry. National Institute of Health’s Dr. Francis Collins offered a sound theory for why we’re having such a hard time controlling its spread, and treating the infected. Development of an Ebola vaccine has been hampered by years of budget cuts for scientific research. If it’s happening with the health scare du jour, picture what’s going on with more basic research, on illnesses affecting many more people. Funding for war, on the other hand, has continued to grow. That’s inequality.
FEDERAL JOBS – When politicians want to sound competent, they talk about balancing the budget. But it’s never implied what that really means: firing teachers, cops, firefighters, postal workers, i.e., those who serve the majority in this country, their families and children. With less of them having a decent paycheck to live on and provide to their own, more of us have to do their jobs ourselves, in a vicious cycle that only affects the middle to low classes. Since the rich can afford to hire private help, that’s inequality.
CONGRESS SALARIES – Last time the government was shut down, most of its activities were kept to a minimum, if not in a temporary freeze. Except salaries taxpayers pay their representatives – an average of $174,000 a year, never mind housing, living expenses, and the best health care available. Since the median American household income is $50,000, that is, my friends, inequality.
WEALTH RATIO – Speaking of it, a widely accepted way to measure it is the wealth to household income ratio. Now, according to a Credit Suisse report, it’s the highest it’s been since, wouldn’t you know it?, the Great Depression was about to crush America. Even the bank thinks that can’t be good. In ‘other’ news, the richest 1 percent now owns 48 percent of all the world’s wealth. We know, we were only focusing on the U.S. but just couldn’t help it. Mainly because, you guessed it, it’s inequality too.
WALL STREET EARNINGS – Which brings us ‘home,’ to the gilded realm of financial institutions, the same ones that brought the world to the brink of collapse with their 2008 excesses. As it turns out, they’re all doing quite well, thanks for not asking. In fact, the earnings season that’s just started may be one for the books, but it’s OK if you see, say, JPMorgan Chase, the biggest one, posting a $5.6 billion net income, and feel a little queasy. They literally broke the bank, got a taxpayer bailout, no CEO went to jail, and now are posting quarterly earnings in the billions; those folks sure know how to party in Lower Manhattan, and that, you working stiffs, is inequality.
CORPORATE TAXES – As one of the 243 million U.S. taxpayers, you know that the probability of being audited is not negligible: the currently understaffed IRS has called back only about two million Americans to explain their taxes, in 2011, one of its lowest numbers in years. But if you were one of what the Supreme Court considers people too, a big corporation, chances are, you wouldn’t be called at all. That’s because many of them don’t pay taxes. Even those that do, like Boeing, DuPont, Wells Fargo, Verizon, GE, and Dow Chemicals, of their combined profit realized between 2008 and 2010, each American got back the grand total of a penny in taxes.
WOMEN’S EQUAL PAY & RACIAL GAP – One can argue that structural and systemic flaws can often be a bigger factor in denying every citizen his or her due in society than race and class. But the fact that a woman still earns 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, doing the same work, and unemployment, imprisonment, and illiteracy, are higher for African-Americans is simply too overwhelming to ignore. While the wealth gap between white and black families nearly tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009, according to the not-too-trusted Wikipedia, if you’re black AND a woman, things are even bleaker. A recent report cites bigger barriers to accessing care and healthy lifestyles, higher infant mortality, and fewer insured among both black and Hispanic women compared to whites. That’s a double yummy of race and class conspiring against the new majority of Americans. And that’s inequality. Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Joy & World Woes By the Cup Full, Colltalers

The monthlong 2014 World Cup, which closed in Rio yesterday with Germany’s victory over Argentina, had its fair share of ecstasy, agony, fulfillment and heartbreak. As it goes, it also reflected, with frightening accuracy at times, the troubled and deeply divided world we all live in.
For even before it started on June 12, it’d already collected a number of ominous signs revealing more than its organizers, Fifa and the Brazilian confederation, would like us to see, about brutal realities hidden just behind the exuberance of the game of football in modern times.
Good and bad, the cup will leave lasting impressions, as any event of such magnitude, memories to recollect, lessons we’d better not forget, and an index of sorts for some of the most nefarious and persistent ills of our age.
Displays of racism, homophobia, neo-nazism, evidence of social exclusion in game attendance, ticket fraud, corruption of national confederations, violence in and out of the field, it was all out for anyone to see.
As the host, Brazil led the charge, and last summer, as the warm-up competition Confederations Cup was in progress, Brazilians staged the first massive rallies since the end of the military dictatorship, in the 1980s, in protest against Fifa and the government’s preparations for the cup.
By then, it’d become clear that in the five years since Brazil had been chosen to host both tournaments, huge investments supposed to fund them and flood the economy had already been diverted. On the ground, the only palpable sign of their influx was in the construction or rebuilding of mammoth stadiums, some of them in cities without a team in the Brazilian soccer league, and, it was found later, mainly funded by taxpayer money.
So where was their money? asked thousands of citizens. It’d certainly not gone to Brazil’s decaying infrastructure, hospital facilities, or in the building of much needed schools. Such an explosive realization, which served as the trigger for the rallies that ebbed and flowed up to the World Cup this year, got then a temporarily relief, relatively speaking, as Brazil won the Confederations. Now that it lost the big prize, it’s all up for grabs again.
When a group of German black-faced fans showed up for the game against Ghana, or another one ran into the field with a Nazi SS tattooed on his body, their intentions were clear. And so were chants of ‘monkey, monkey,’ and a homophobic call from Mexican supporters during other games.
Brazil’s social inequality was also exposed during the cup. Critics pointed to high price tickets as one way to keep the poor out of the stadiums, and for the predominance of white Brazilians attending the games, in higher percentages than the social and racial mix of the nation’s demographics.
Such social divide was at display in the ‘silent army‘ of garbage pickers, hired by the organizers to collect and sort the average five ton of garbage generated by every game. As hundreds of thousands of Brazilians already make a living out of ‘mining’ landfills, in a country with few recycling programs, their presence was considered a positive one, even if it doesn’t cover up for the inherent indignity of the have-nots’ lot in life.
Another black eye that may be credited to cup organizers is the alleged elimination of stray dogs from the streets of some host cities in Brazil. Just as it happened in Sochi, Russia, the Humane Society has received reports of the animals being ’rounded up and removed,’ no one knows to where.
But the biggest scandal that broke during the games has been the allegations that a company partner of Fifa, Match Hospitality, was running a giant ticket scalping scheme, worth a few million dollars. Brazilian authorities arrested its CEO, Raymond Whelan, who promptly escaped custody and is now the target of a police manhunt. Despite denials, Fifa is expected to answer to an official investigation into the ring.
Fifa is also involved in two other somewhat revealing matters: the suspension of the Nigerian team from international appearances, until the government reinstates the entire soccer governing staff that it fired for poor performance in Brazil. And a copyright dispute with giant Hispanic broadcast system Univision.
In both instances, lack of sensitivity and the zeal protecting its interests were typical. In the case of Nigeria, despite the expected venal government truculence, it’s hard to find winners in the decision, since the players are the ones ultimately punished by it. As for Univision, well, that’s big enough of a corporation that certainly doesn’t need us to take its side, regardless of who has the most rights over the labor exercised by, again, the players.
It all sounds minor, compared to what Fifa has been accused by community groups, from supporting the displacing of thousands to install its ‘Fan Fests,’ Continue reading

Cold Cups I

Fads & Ads Compete for
Another World Cup Score

Once the ball starts rolling in São Paulo tomorrow, not everything will be about football. It hasn’t for over a year now, if you’ve been following the street protests in Brazil, as it hasn’t ever been about the game only as long as, well, Fifa remains in charge.
Thus, as much attention will be paid to players’ skills as to their ability to sell wares with their bodies, attire, and hairstyles. Cynics may even say that what’s at stake is not who’ll win the World Cup, but which sportswear company will sell the most: Nike or Adidas.
Increasingly, what soccer stars wear and endorse has indeed driven revenues of sport and designer goods, along with their personal tastes for tattoos and haircut styles. We can’t really end this sentence without mentioning David Beckham, the retired British player.
But while Becks has the physique of a natural born model, and his commercial appeal is only enhanced for his pop-star turned into stylist wife, many others have distinguished themselves for personal choices so ugly esthetically speaking, that they become iconic just the same.
Case in point: Brazil’s Ronaldo Nazário’s hairstyle at the final of the 2002 World Cup in Japan. He scored all the goals and his team won the trophy, but that ‘triangular island’ of hair on top of his otherwise shaved head captured more than its share of advertising’s prime real estate.
No wonder it leads the New York Times Hairdo Hall of Fame now. But enough of your hair, what about shoes, Imelda Marcos? My, haven’t you heard, dahling? red is the new black. Or orange. Or any color but black. We should’ve heeded a certain pontiff’s personal taste; just saying.
A FORMER POPE’S FASHION FANCY
As it turned out, we greatly underestimated ex-Pope Benedict and his exquisite choice of foot attire. He was only foreseeing the future, you see – the one presided over by current soccer-crazy Pope Francisco – when flaunting the most famous pair of red shoes this side of Dorothy.
Now in Brazil, word is that every soccer star worth his fashion endorsements will display a pair of colorful shoes, sometimes one for each foot, matching jersey or hair die optional. And the crowds have gone wild over them. Black shoes? Only if you’re a referee.
Purists may decry this lack of substance that threatens to take away the sport’s very own vitality in the name of fads, which by definition and unlike soccer legacies, are not built to last. But there’s no denying: athletes have been selling wares since way before Beckham sported a Mohawk. Does anyone remember Colombian Carlos Walderana’s do, at the U.S. World Cup in 1994? The Hairdo Hall of Fame surely does.
For footballers themselves (and here we stop a long-running fancy of misnaming an American ballgame and give back the name football, at least during the month-long tournament, to soccer as it’s already known by billions around the world), it’s more than an extra income. Many have turned their Continue reading

Freaky Links

When Mooncakes & Underwear
Gauge Your Hopes About the Future

The heart wants what it wants, and the brain makes up for what we can’t see. Since the first cave man dropped his rock and read his pretty girl’s rosy future on a bunch of leaves and sticks, we’ve been desperate to learn what’s coming at least a few moments earlier.
Thousands of years of failed divination and silly games of chance, and we still believe that, out of the merciless natural chaos, we’ll be graced with order, to make sense of it all. Never mind romance, though. Today, our money’s on the cult of economic predictions.
Thus the supposed relationship between the recession and unclaimed corpses, a rise in murders and leaded gasoline, the comfortingly unreliable link of serial killers and the shared economy, and that old, and slightly dirty, classic, the Underwear Index.
Certainly, the fervor about the future is never lost in tabloid horoscopes, the street corner palm reader, the interplanetary dance, or the long-distance psychic. There’s really no logical explanation for the rush to see trends in new babies’ names, or the anxiety about the Groundhog that supposedly calls out the remaining winter days left, climate change notwithstanding.
But nowhere the fever is more profitable (or ruin-driving), and the numbers are revered with such respect than the stock market, which if it hasn’t replaced high-rolling gambling, is still an activity rewarded by how professional is your con of selling investors into your brand of golden pills.
We should know better, of course. But no matter how much we know, we keep coming back for more, watching mesmerized the same static pictures, while believing that the lines are moving, or the face with three eyes, as if it has only two, because after all, it just can’t possibly be.
In fact, it’s frighteningly easy to fool the headquarters of our making sense of the world, the brain, and how naive it tries to compensate for Continue reading

Helping Themselves

Brazilian Preachers Amass Their
Wealth & Followers by the Millions

They hold court to thousands every week, performing original songs in elaborated sets, just like any pop star. They routinely land on Forbes’s wealthiest lists, while their core audience is part of Brazil’s lowest income bracket. They were never known for civil liberties, though.
But despite protests, an evangelical preacher became the head of a rights commission at Brazil’s lower house. Since the 1970s, so-called messianic cults have thrived in the country. But no one expected these new multimillionaires to get so much political power so fast.
The issue has a particular tenor to it, since the rise of charismatic religions coincided with a decline of Catholicism in Brazil, and even a modest increase in the number of those who do not identify with any denomination. Specially now that a Brazilian bishop is considered a pope contender.
He’s a long shot, of course, even if Brazil has the biggest number of Catholics in the world. The problem is, Dom Odilio Scherer may be in tune with the Vatican, but is out of step with the majority, the only segment of the church capable of competing with the rise of the evangelicals.
Rome apparently turns its nose at Padre Marcelo Rossi, for example, a former personal trainer who became one of the wealthiest and most popular Catholic priests in Brazil, and who regularly sings and performs dance routines in front of 25,000 worshipers at his megachurch in São Paulo.
Like him, there are few others who also belt out songs, while ‘donning cowboy hats and crooning country tunes at Mass,’ and even publish Continue reading