why greed is now closer to godliness than ever.

Sometimes you wake up and facebook dares you to write a blog post. I won’t reveal the name of the person who posted this quote, since facebook is, you know, that place where privacy is paramount. No really, I don’t share full names with the Internet at large without permission. The pointer, though:

“Why is the Christian right so enamored with the slash and burn capitalist system? –Capitalism: Take all you can. –Jesus: Give all you can. — The connection fails me.”
–fnordlord, commenter on huffpo

Sometimes the asking of a question is meant to be a pointed rebuke, as it is here. And this particular rebuke certainly has a very important point: why do fundamentalist Christians worship “all-for-me, nothing-for-you,” greed-driven, planet trashing consumption-driven capital above just about any other kind of economic system?

It seems contradictory on the surface of it and it probably is just as hypocritical if one pokes at it a little more closely. When I see questions like this, though, they make me want to raise my hand and wave it around and say “Oh! Oh! I was one of them! I know a couple of answers to this question and you all aren’t going to believe what they consist of!”

So, allow me, if you don’t mind: what is it about a deeply exploitative and self-interested economic system that appeals to a religion supposedly founded on principles of generosity and selflessness?
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No enterprise zone

I probably shouldn’t blog when I’m this angry but I am going to write and see if it is printable when I get to the end. Lately in the Mission District in San Francisco–which is to say, the last 18 months or so–police foot patrols have been increased in order to “increase neighborhood safety and awareness of crime.” Usually they harass homeless people out of doorways (thank heavens we’re saving the neighborhood from sleepiness!) and drag intoxicated individuals into the drunk tank (which may keep the intoxicated from stumbling into traffic so there may be some good in that I suppose, although I doubt that detention is the best place to sleep off a bender). Very occasionally they will bust up a drug deal and run all the dealers off into the four directions lickety split while they collar some poor junkie and his or her crack-addicted middle man to throw them into treatment jail, where they are sure to experience withdrawal without medical intervention for however long it amuses the police to see them writhing on the floor. And then the officers put another notch in their Drug War belts so that… why is it so important again? Oh yes: so we all are imprisoned in someone else’s consensual reality. Well, except that alcohol, one of the most dangerous drugs known to man, never gets a bust. Huh. Can’t make sense of that one, but there you are. Not everything in our Great Society here in San Francisco can be explained.

Today they were on a street peddlers sting. That is, they were busting up anyone who dared put a few items out for sale on the sidewalk. See there’s this thing, if anyone isn’t aware of this facet of American Suburban Culture, there’s this thing called the “yard sale” where you gather up all the clothes that don’t fit you anymore and all the music that you’ve ripped onto your harddrive and anything else you no longer have a use for and you sell them to other people so that these things can clutter up their houses until they decide to have a yard sale.

In the city, “yard sales” happen on the sidewalk. Now, if you are lucky enough to live in a flat or a house with actual frontage on the sidewalk, you might be able to get by with a “garage sale,” where most of your stuff is actually three or four inches inside your garage, but if you don’t live in a place like that, your only choice is to sell on the sidewalk.

But apparently this is highly dangerous, offensive to tourists, and likely to become a scourge of street-level free enterprise if it were allowed to go on willy-nilly. So the street beat cops come up to me and give me the steely eye and stout, legs apart stance to show me they are not going to take any guff and ask “Do you have a peddler’s permit?” To which I should have replied “I’ll have my lawyer get back to you on that” but I stupidly just said “Nope!” And they told me I had to pack up all my stuff and scram in order to avoid a $300 ticket.

So I said, “OK.” And they walked away saying they’d be back. “OK.” I said. I packed up and left. I will say up front that had I not been a relatively cleanly-dressed white guy I would have been lucky if they had just walked away at that point, but they did, because I was not offering any protest or looking particularly guilty of anything, but gods know that does not offer one any protection against cops intoxicated on authority.

Imagine! Someone might make a hundred or so dollars selling their stuff on the sidewalk but we cannot let this happen in our fair city. Only those who have gone through the proper channels, secured the capital necessary for permits and leases and tax numbers and I’m sure a thousand other bureaucratic details that ensure that the city gets its fair share of the profits–which, you know? If they said “we need .x% of your profits for the city” I would have handed them the 25ยข. But no. I had to skedaddle before some youngster caught a glimpse of me folding my tshirts neatly on my suitcase and tugged at her mothers sleeve to ask, “Mommy, what is that man doing?”

“He’s selling his possessions to pay the rent dear. Try not to stare.” I know this would have been traumatic for the child and for this I do apologize. But to the degree that it is mostly another tool to harass the homeless or desperately poor, who make up the lion’s share of “street peddlers,” it is a noxious exercise in authoritarian bullshit. People with yards don’t have to give any of their sales back to the city, unless they go so far as to declare the profits on their tax returns, which I am sure everyone does–then maybe some of the cash comes trickling back in the form of state and federal subsidies. One day. People without yards? SOL, I’m afraid.

I need to borrow someone’s yard. Even a stairway would do, as long as it opened onto the street. And I need it tomorrow. Otherwise I’ll be reduced to trying to have my sale in the alleyway to my building, which alleyway is lined with dumpsters and so is not very attractive to window shoppers and of course this weekend the landlord chose to shovel out the basement storage room and do some sort of minor sanding and painting here and there so it is not really feasible to try to sell stuff through the same doorway that the maintenance workers and trash haulers have to use. I do not know if they will be here over the weekend, but our landlord hires extremely cheap and desperate labor who will work at midnight on a Sunday if necessary. It’s happened.

The only thing I can think of is to shave my head, trim my beard, put on my other glasses and go back out there tomorrow and when they ask if they didn’t see me today look like I have no idea what they are talking about. I did get out quickly enough that they did not come back for a second look. I can lie to cops. I cannot really lie to anyone else but I don’t consider cops worthy of the truth. They are not your friends.

Ah, here is that video:

So I am not certain how to assert my right not to speak to a cop when he asks me if I have a peddler’s license and especially if they ask if they didn’t see me in the same place yesterday. Suggestions welcome.

In Bangladesh Villagers are Gambling Their Lives for Microcredit

A link appears this morning–well. it’s morning here–in the LiveJournal community debunkingwhite sparking discussion of microcredit as extended by the Grameen Bank to poverty-ridden individuals, mostly women, in Bangladesh. This is a comment on that post. I am writing, admittedly, without researching microcredit much further, so it is a gut reaction to the bare outline that can be made out, in this one post’s small collection of links, of how Grameen Bank gives comparatively tiny loans (hence the term “microcredit”) to some of the poorest women of Bangladesh, in the name of helping them to help themselves.

The post contains a link to a twelve year old article from the Left Business Observer, which critiques microloans from a slightly different perspective from that in the video link. The striking thing to me in this article is its reiteration of Grameen Bank’s–and Muhammad Yunus’, the orginator of the concept of microcredit–basic assumption that the women to whom these loans are made have the “innate” ability to use the money given to them in a way that would make them successful entrepreneurs. Apparently, this works in some cases. But in some it simply doesn’t.

Honestly, I am not all that interested in the numbers: exactly what percentage of women are succeeding with their microcredit enterprises and are able to pay back their loans and raise themselves out of poverty is not my main concern. Grameen Bank is optimistic, whereas France 24 is less so. The 1996 artical from LBO lists rather unhappy figures that suggest that in some regions loan default rates were up to 80% at the time that it was written.

Whatever the numbers are, what the video makes clear is that microcredit is tearing some families apart and is digging ever deeper holes of poverty for some unspecified number of Bangladesh families and villages. It also makes clear that Grameen Bank is not interested in answering criticisms of its program, or at least it was not willing to talk to the people producing the video.

It is no doubt true that microcredit helps some of the world’s poorest families to earn some money. The question that I would pose comes from a general position of critique of exploitation and profit, and in this case, critique of profit from lending paltry amounts of money and charging interest for its return, creating a need for ever-expanding markets and ever-expanding economic growth in order that capital continue to be created. Which is to say, what, exactly, is the price we are willing to pay–no. What is the price we are willing to extract from others in order to spread the gospel of the (compulsory) free market, where some, with certain talents and abilities and a measure of luck, are able to achieve a measure of success, whereas others, with other talents–unsalable perhaps–and other abilities–unmarketable perhaps–or simply less favorable luck, lose what little they have to begin with and wind up carrying what is for them a crushing burden of debt, but for world capital, a trifle, a drop in an ocean, an amount of money it could afford to give away for free, without any wealthy individuals suffering even the slightest grievance? Save, that is, for the knowledge that someone, somewhere, might be making an “unearned” living.

Why are we asked to “earn” life? What is it that makes us think that certain people deserve wealth–namely, those who have it–while others
“obviously” do not–to the point that they do not deserve food, shelter and healthcare? In a scene from the France 24 video linked to above, an agent from Grameen Bank is faced with an angry crowd in a Bangladesh village. It seems that most, if not all, of the people he has come to see cannot pay back their loans, and his paternalistic admonishment to them is that “good people will be able to pay back their loans.” The villagers demand to know what he means to imply about them.

I would ask the same thing. What is it about the qualities necessary to succeed at free-market capitalism that leads us to call those who are blessed with them “good,” whereas those who are not must be less good–since, after all, good people can pay back their loans because they can make $500 turn into, say, $700 over a period of years? And if one is able to do such a thing, will it reduce one’s own poverty, or will it push one into a never-ending cycle of borrowing and debt?

Now I know the arguments here: that productivity is good, that trade is good, that being able to create goods and services that other people will pay for is good, and that the production and exchange of wealth is good. Of course, one can question these assumptions from all angles, from asking whether activities that don’t produce wealth might not also be good, to asking whether producing and exchanging wealth can be achieved through means that do not require deeply impoverishing a vague, but always necessary, proportion of the world’s population.

My main point is just this: that global capital is itself based upon a large number of assumptions that often go unexamined, and that those assumptions, in almost all cases, draw a line around certain individuals while excluding others, based upon arbitrary beliefs about how we should share–or not–the resources that are freely available from the world around us, or, that is, freely available until one of us stakes a claim and makes the ultimate presumption of “owning” them. At least one woman in Bangladesh has lost her husband to suicide, the only place he apparently felt he could go to escape the shame of being unable to pay back the family’s loan. Were he the sole casualty of microcredit, would this program which avoids redistributing wealth but instead demands that villagers create their own, would it be worth the price?

Buried among the thousands of internet memes constantly circulating among social networking sites, one contains the following question: if you had the choice between your own death and the death of some random person elsewhere on the planet, which would you choose? What if ten people were to die in your place? One thousand? One hundred thousand? At what number are you no longer willing to ask for the death of others instead of yourself? Why that figure? Why not a lower one?

Now, how many of your neighbor’s lives would you require? Is the number different? The video seems to me to make it clear that in Bangladesh, this is similar to the question the Grameen Bank asks of its borrowers: whether they are interested in competing in the game of the free market, in which some of them will surely lose. Everything.

But of course, that’s what they deserve. Right?