Thursday, June 30, 2011
I met this auto executive on a train in Tamil Nadu, where he sought me out to ask my opinion1 about raising the prices of commodities in India. It was a highly controversial topic and I gathered he’d taken some flak for it with colleagues and other members of his own class, the “they” in his story. The big arguments against a rise were that it would make food more expensive for the poor and spur inflation for everyone. How are the farmers going to survive if we don’t raise the prices for their food, he asked. Why couldn’t we give the poor a fair food subsidy while those in the middle and upper classes pay a fair price for food? Surely the best minds of India could get together and devise a method of distributing a subsidy or food aid with transparency so it doesn’t feed corrupt officials.
“Some poor would probably take subsidized food and sell it to wealthier people at a profit that would still give the buyer a discount.”2
“No. The poor have no choice but to eat it themselves. If they sold their food, they’d have to use the money to try to buy food for themselves at market price.”
I didn’t know what to make of this guy. He was working in the mainstream for a major western auto manufacturer, took his caste seriously enough to wear the Brahmin sacred thread3, and he came from a background of some privilege. He thought arranged marriage was a good idea because parents usually have more wisdom about these things, but that nobody should be forced into a marriage.
He’s a conservative, I thought.
He was for subsidizing the poor in the short-term, and the unemployable in the longterm, and he was for universal health care and universal public education.
He’s a liberal, I thought.
He was a free-market fan, but not a fanatic (see subsidies). He sometimes voted BJP, a rightist, Hindu party, and he sometimes voted Congress, a center-to-left party.
He’s a realist, I thought.
What the poor need most from the government is good public education and public health care.
What the poor need most from the private sector are opportunities to work for fair wages.
What the poor need most from the rest of us is our expertise.
Each one, teach one, right? But people who have skills that are in demand are busy with their own lives and families. How do you get them involved?
Infrastructure, he said, a matchmaking service. I believe most people want to help but they don’t know how.
(My first thought was of an organization in Mumbai called ATMA which matchmakes skills with NGOs working for children.)
Finally, I had to throw all my labels out, which is a pleasure because it’s always a kind of masochistic fun to have one’s stereotypes confounded.4 I decided he was a thinker and a great guy.
He also gave me the best advice for child beggars. A lot of these kids are employed by beggars’ mafia, and what you give to them ends up in some bastard’s pocket. On the other hand, if they don’t bring back enough money, they risk a beating. Do you give them money or not? He said, Don’t just give them money, hire them to give you a tour or tell you a story. Everyone gets a feeling of satisfaction when they earn money, even when they hate the job. When I got to Calcutta, I did that with these two, and got to see Newmarket in ways few people do.
I lost his card. Now and then, I google to see if an auto executive in South India has started an NGO to pair skills with unemployed people. If so, it doesn’t have a web presence yet. If someone reading this has the skills to make this dream a reality across India, I'm sure he wouldn't mind.
I thought my area of expertise would be teaching English, but actually, it’s teaching housekeepers to cook popular western dishes so they can demand more money from my friends and other employers. Cooks who can cook western food are in demand, and not just among the feringhi. (Western cuisine, especially Italian, is booming among the middle class.) Housekeeping/cooking is usually a poor, and poorly-paid profession here5. (Read this.) In return, I get Indian cooking lessons. It turns out, when you’re teaching you’re also being taught. Cool, eh?
1 This happens all the time to foreign solo travelers, because we are more approachable alone and because most people are curious about how outsiders see them. Yeah, it's heaven for me.
2 I had to drop economics because I was cocktailing at night and kept falling asleep in class.
3 Not every wearer of a sacred thread is a Brahmin, but he was.
4 This feeds Robin Hudson, who is neither purely Liberal nor purely Conservative.
5 My friends are good to their household staff, but they have careers (journalism, army, diplomatic corps) which take them to new postings every few years and their employees then have to find new positions. My host's housekeeper celebrated her 15th wedding anniversary today and he gave her a present and the day off. She works 10-4 five days a week with weekends off. Many work 7 days a week and are on call 24 hours. That's just wrong.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
It’s 2 a.m. and because of a perfect storm of bad luck and a bad gamble I find myself broke and stranded in the outer reaches of Paris after missing the Eurolines bus to Rotterdam, where a guest room and meals awaited. The driver had absentmindedly put the wrong bus card in his front window, and I waited for bus 7 long after “bus 8” pulled away. The station closed, the metros stopped running, my phone was dead (and out of credit in any event), and the only night bus that came along passed me without stopping because it was overloaded. I took refuge in a bus shelter, trying to hide myself in its shadows until the next bus at 7 a.m.
Long story short: Two Algerian tourists and an Indian immigrant saved me from a certain rape that night. The Algerians had to get to their hotel before it closed and being fairly skint themselves were going to walk several miles to do so. The Indian guy offered to help me. He was kind and we trusted him, so off I went with him.
He got me some clean cardboard1 and took me to an underground tunnel outside Gallieni metro station where a half dozen other men were sleeping. This could have been such a bad scene, and I would never suggest anyone go off with stranger to an underground tunnel (or do half the things I’ve done for that matter). But this Punjabi fellow had a light inside him and I knew instinctively he was kind. He wasn’t sleepy yet, nor was I—too agitated, so we talked quietly for a while. All these guys were immigrants and they worked. Even the guys who weren’t supporting wives and babies in a village somewhere were unable to pay Paris rents, by now exorbitant. Housing they could afford and share was in short supply. Shelters were crowded and dangerous. So they had banded together. A nearby Marriott2 let them shower and wash up, and an appliance store gave them fresh cardboard every night. Those who worked in restaurants ate their meals there and were allowed to take leftovers with them for their friends. They looked after each other, and they looked after me, with the help of a hotel and some shop owners. In the morning, when they were getting up and cranky commuters were arriving, they took a lot of abuse. To me, they were heroes, trying to make a go of it in a world full of scorn and predators (many of whom were fellow homeless).
I gave them nothing. I thought, when I’m flush again I’ll go back to Paris and find them. But I haven’t been back and haven’t been flush and by now I’m sure they’ve all moved upward and onward.
This is the point where I realize being poor was a gift to me, but it’s not much of a gift to most people who endure it, and that experience is one I hope I don’t have again.
I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the government vs. private charity models of assistance. Government and charities have roles to play, but so do cooperatives, where people come together (but are not forced together) to help each other, and to help others outside the group. This too is fraught with pitfalls, but I’ve seen it work too many times to discount it because of the problems. I keep bugging some people I know, who formed a great co-op, to write a how-to book about the experience, not just the nuts and bolts of surviving, but things like balancing ego with selflessness, how to work out your crap and deal with conflict, and how to make sure individual effort and talent gets its due, which is one of the big problems with Communism IMO. Personally, I like having Communists around, they are sometimes right and they throw great parties, but I wouldn’t want to live under Communism.
To Be Continued: A Brahmin on a Train
1 I lay on the cardboard just until my Indian friend fell asleep, then I sat on my suitcase and slept that way the rest of the night. I felt much less vulnerable.
2 I think--it may have been a Sheraton
Most of the time when I was homeless for long periods, it was Boho poverty1, sometimes even Bobo poverty2. When I had my own places, I was lucky, with cheap or reasonable rents, even at the Chelsea Hotel, thanks to rent stabilization. When I was technically homeless, I usually had a roof over my head: an art squat, a housesitting gig, a friends’ couch, a hotel I could stay in for free while it was painted, or a writer’s festival that would feed and house me for a week. I’ve been on-the-street homeless only four times, the longest stretch for only 3 1/2 days.
It used to be easier to be poor in Europe. The continent was less expensive and at the same time more generous, not just with financial or food support but in ways that cost very little or nothing. Train stations once stayed open all night, and were usually safe, and always interesting, places to take shelter. Cheap and even free meals were easy to come by. It was a tradition in some neighborhoods for cafes to serve a free meal one night a week, the same dish for everyone, and all you had to pay for was your cheap wine or bottle of water. Anyone who walked in was welcome. After dinner, people from the neighborhood would sing or play music. Kindness was easy to find and kindness was contagious.
The Euro and the Bush boom changed everything. Most people were wealthier, or acted so, prices went up, and generosity of spirit declined dramatically. It seemed the richer people were, the less they wanted to share with others--and no matter how rich someone was, he never felt rich enough. It was as if a Competitive virus had been unleashed and had killed the widespread cooperative atmosphere I’d seen before.
The fear of being poor grew, not to mention fear of the poor themselves. It was almost a fear of kindness—which has, since the Bust, morphed into a scary neo-Fascism in Europe (that’s Fascism with fine tailors and a slithery PR firm on permanent retainer).
But kindness is tenacious.
To Be Continued: Gallieni Station
1 Boho poverty: poor artists. You have a choice between paints and food, which do you choose?
2 Bobo poverty: For two weeks I housesat and took care of plants for a wealthy Italian woman in a two floor apartment on rue st. Honore in Paris. There was work involved—she had over fifty exotic plants, each requiring very specific care, but she also had satellite television and an open pantry packed with food. Not exactly George Orwell.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Now, take a look at this magazine cover from 1953:
The New York Times story on One Magazine here.
The Donut Riot that started it all.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
I've had the chance to experience emergency and long-term health care in four countries, the United States, Canada, France, and India, which I now realize is an unusual opportunity. France and Canada both have decent universal health care. In the United States and India you find the best, which is private and expensive, and the worst, public health care, obviously. There is a profound difference not only in how you're treated medically, but how you are treated as a human being.
It is still much better to be poor and uninsured in the United States than it is in India. The two systems have this in common: people who are poor and uninsured are treated with institutionalized contempt, and this is as detrimental to one's health as the shortage of medicines, hospital beds and doctors. Indian health care is improving. That doesn't appear to be the case in the United States.
In France and Canada, I've never felt this contempt, but I have seen it in Alberta, where the government has tried like hell to privatize health care. I was treated very well there. But my mother was put on a long waiting list for chemotherapy when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, a pregnant friend with complications was left untreated and almost died, an elderly uncle was forgotten and left waiting in a corridor for hours, and another friend was told the hospital wouldn't admit her brother for a bone marrow transplant unless a family member could be there all day every day to change his bandages.
Alberta is one of the richest places on the planet because it sits on motherfucking sea of oil, from which the people of Alberta get a laughable royalty per barrel, which I'm told is assessed not at the barrel head but at the pump so the Alberta consumer might actually pay her own royalty. (There is no discount for gasoline.) What most Albertans get is the chance to work their asses off for decent wages and pay exorbitant prices for food and housing. As near as I can figure, this is because God or whoever put oil under Alberta mostly for the benefit of the conservative party and the oil companies.
To be fair, when Premier Ed Stelmach tried to get a better royalty deal in 2009 the oil companies went ballistic and many owners of associated businesses, like land sales companies, punished him by moving their operations to other provinces, just to put the fear of God in all of us.
In this respect and in health care, Saudi Arabia does far better by its citizens than democratic Alberta. Norwegians get a decent deal.
Oil is a necessary evil, and nobody says the oil companies shouldn't make a fair profit. But come on. We are being to extorted by filthy rich companies to give them more more more--or else!
Back to health care:
It's great that most American companies provide insurance plans for their employees. They should do more: workers get a tiny fraction of the real worth of their labor and can't afford insurance on their own. When that is the only reasonable insurance option for most people, however, it gives corporations, by their nature amoral at best, too much control over individuals. Government-run healthcare isn't always good--it depends on the government, and the government depends on us. But it's markedly better. Without laws and regulations, we haven't been able to trust corporations with child labor, workers' safety, job security or the environment. Why should we give them control of our bodies and those of our loved ones?
UPDATE: A friend sends this link. In the last ten years there has been a steep decline in the number of companies providing health insurance for their employees in the United States.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Tess McGill to Katherine Parker, Working Girl