Hidden Aid

It is customary to describe human economies as “mechanisms,” but “plumbing” would be more apt. The economy, as economists define it, really is just the realm of money; so those who get to design the pipes and valves can determine in large measure where that money flows.

Establish a Federal Reserve to guide the creation of money through commercial banks, for example, and the rest is pretty much details. Arrange the international plumbing so that struggling nations have to go to an International Monetary Fund for financial relief, and you can bring those nations to heel without a rifle being raised.


Dirty Harry Saves the Bay View

Three decades ago, the Dirty Harry movies gave shape and license to the revenge fantasies that fed the law-and-order politics of the era. Is it possible that dramatic acts of resistance to enclosure could help launch a new politics of the commons today?  That thought comes to mind with news reports from Manila, where Mayor Alfredo S. Lim has ordered the bulldozing of the bars and clubs that had encroached upon the famed Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard in that city.

Lim has a reputation as a straight shooter.  When he was police chief in Manila he put down a Right wing coup attempt against Corazon Aquina, who took office in the peaceful revolution against Ferdinand Marcos, the former dictator.  He actually was known as “Dirty Harry.”  He did have reasons to eliminate the bars that were not solely environmental.  They had been approved by the previous mayor, and were months behind in their concession fees. In the Philippines, such facts are suggestive in a way that is all too familiar there.


Missing Parents and Mega-Malls

A visitor to rice country in the Philippines these days encounters scenes that don’t add up. Amid the bamboo houses and scrawny yapping mutts are sturdy cement dwellings with televisions and other appliances and maybe even a computer and an SUV. The rice fields next to these homes are no bigger than the others. Where does the money come from?

In Filipino cities, meanwhile, American-style mega-malls, with Burger Kings and Pizza Huts, are rising up near sprawling squatter colonies and landscapes of grimy cinder block and corrugated rust. Inside, you almost could be in an air-conditioned First World cocoon, except for the security at the doors, and the bathrooms without toilet seats.


Hidden Vista: New Microsoft Operating System Means Toxic Trash for Third World

There’s an old dump in a municipality on the island of Negros in the Philippines.  It hasn’t been used for years, and it’s been picked pretty clean.  But when I was there a year ago I saw a small boy digging through the debris, in search of some remaining scrap that might fetch a few pesos.  Such is the desperation of poverty in the Third World – a desperation that will be convenient for the people at Microsoft, though I doubt they have given much thought to the connection.

When the company launched its new Vista operating system in January there was the usual gawking over features.  But Vista has a grim back end that Greenpeace and others have pointed out.  By its very existence the new operating system makes the majority of the world’s computers obsolete, and therefore on a faster journey to the dump.  Many of those dumps will be in Third World countries such as the Philippines.  The result will be what one group called a “tsunami” of toxic electronic waste.


The Strange “Economics” of Breast Milk

December 1, 2006
By Jonathan Rowe

You probably heard about the woman who was kicked off a Delta flight recently for breast feeding her daughter.  She was in a window seat, next to her husband.  She was being discreet; nothing was showing. A flight attendant asked her to cover up with a blanket anyway.  The woman declined; and so off the plane they went.

The episode prompted nurse-ins at airports throughout the U.S.  The airline apologized; and I’m willing to believe that the flight attendant thought she was just doing her job. Still, there’s an issue here that goes beyond the lingering residues of prudery – namely, the pervasive bias in favor of commodities, and against anything people can do for themselves for free.  Has anyone ever been thrown off a plane for giving infant formula to a baby, which is inferior to breast milk?  I doubt it.


Can-Do Mayor of La Castellana

These are not good days for democracy in the Philippines. Corruption has metastasized down to the barangay, or village level. So many trained people are leaving — 1 in 10 Filipinos now work abroad — that the political base is starting to hollow out. In the last election, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president, was caught on tape trying to fix the vote count.

There has been political skirmishing in Manila, but among the populace the response has been a shrug. The nation that forced Ferdinand Marcos into exile in the People Power revolution of 1986 has just about given up.


Why Don’t We Share the Toys?

We were in the sitting area of my in-laws’ home in La Castellana, a municipality in sugar cane country on the island of Negros. The television was on, as it always seemed to be; and my son, who is three, was playing with two small trucks we had bought for him in Iloilo. A group of kids appeared at the door to see these strange visitors from the place faraway, and the little boy who, though distantly related to them, did not look much like themselves.

The kids’ eyes fixed right away on the trucks; Filipino kids don’t have many toys, and they prize them in a way most American kids can’t They made gestures to join my son in play, which he did not welcome. He became agitated, and concocted a rule, as he tends to do in such situations. Those toys were only for kids who were three, he said, by which he meant himself. He said this over and over. The kids didn’t understand the words, but they got the drift. They retreated, bruised. And I felt something I rarely feel regarding my son – namely, shame.


Value Subtracted

If there is a test case for the proposition that corporate property regimes lead to the improvement of a commons, then it is food. More specifically, it is the traditional foods of a particular culture. No one owns these. Here in the Philppines, no one owns the idea of pansit which is a kind of noodle dish, or of skewered chicken, or of shucked corn roasted on a street corner. These are part of a food culture; and according to our leading economic lights, they should therefore stagnate into a culinary puddle of lassitude and waste. Who would improve that which they do not own?

Well, it turns out lots of people will. There is pansit and roasted corn and a multitude of soups and stews that I forget the names of on just about every corner — just as, in the U.S., the common ownership of pizza and moo shu pork has not deterred countless restaurant owners from concocting their own versions of these. To the contrary, it is in the culinary commons that invention is most alive. I can treat you to a lot more varieties of moo shu in San Francisco than I can varieties of a Big Mac. That is because there are no varieties of Big Macs. The corporate property regime has frozen it in place, to change only when a hulking legal and marketing bureaucracy permits.


Advanced Man

The privatization of the earth and all it contains ultimately is justified on the grounds of something called “progress.” To enclose a resource, or process, or aspect of life — that is, to impose a corporate ownership regime around these — is to re-render them in a way that will lead to human advance. Oases will bloom in the desert, miracle cures will emerge, invention and the arts will rise to ever-higher peaks of achievement. Just look at commercial television — pardon me, I tipped my hand there.

We commons advocates usually dispute this premise on its own terms. We point out that often the imposition of a corporate property regime upon a commons stifles innovation, as when a patent minefield stymies the cause of research, and the over-reaching of copyright impedes the artisitic creation the copyright laws was supposed to encourage. We also point out how the enclosure of a knowledge or resource commons drives the use of those in the direction of corporate convenience and gain rather than of human good. We get baldness cures instead of malaria vaccines, theme parks instead of wetlands and forests. And yes, commercial television.


Family Planning Bush Style

Perhaps you had the impression that the Bush Administration was opposed to family planning in the Third World because of moral scruples regarding contraception and the like. Give people condoms and next thing you know, they might……well, actually do it. It turns out however that the scruples have been more over the lack of opportunities for corporations in the planning pot.

That’s the message that comes through in a recent employment ad in the Philippines Inquirier, which is one of the national dailies here. The ad was sponsored jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and something called Private Sector Mobilization for Family Planning, or PRISM as some PR firm has anacronymed it The ad is for an information techie and the job description itself is not of much interest. What is of interest is the nature of PRISM and the way this organization defines its goals.