Friday, May 18, 2007

Charitable Wolfiness

Paul Wolfowitz is “shocked, shocked” to be driven out of the World Bank unceremoniously, and somehow managed to negotiate a $400,000 severance check and a good recommendation as he leaves. Mr. Wolfowitz, after all, was doing charity work at the World Bank, and those ungrateful poor people didn’t appreciate him.

What brought Wolfie down was what used to be called “nepotism”, or the securing of favors for family members. If you thought the “old boys’ network” went out when women started running corporations and government departments, you know now that connections still bring privileges. While lower-tier employees in both business and government take civil service or promotional exams, those at the top take care of their own. At least in Wolfowitz’s case it was a well-qualified woman who got a better job and a bigger salary, but that doesn’t excuse the incident.

According to Wolfie’s defenders, who to my dismay include Julian Bond, the Wolfman is a man with great concern for the poor and strong philanthropic interest in decreasing world poverty without redistributing wealth or promoting birth control. Over the past 10 years or so, the philanthropy sector has grown increasingly judgmental, bossy, and entitled. The big funders now insist that non-profit service and advocacy groups adopt the corporate fads of mission statements, benchmarks, strategic planning, re-branding, and market research. The trappings blur the distinction between corporate managers and do-gooders, who apparently did little good before they were funded for “capacity-building”. The World Bank is one of many funders with its own agenda, a know-it-all attitude, and no apparent accountability.

Like other big funders, the World Bank has an over-inflated sense of its own importance, but I’m sure Wolfowitz considers the Bank to be small potatoes. After all, the World Bank distributes only $20 billion a year collected from a diverse group of member countries. Multiply that amount by five and you’ll approximate the U.S. taxpayers’ expenditures on Wolfie’s last project, the Iraq war. No wonder Mr. Wolfowitz thinks the Board of the World Bank should praise him for getting a better job for his lover. World Bank employees, after all, are sacrificing great gains to do their charitable work.

There’s an opportunity now to bring in a true anti-poverty manager to the World Bank, and I think Bush should find someone who has led a diverse organization whose mission is to improve the lives of the people it serves. In keeping with the Bush administration’s faith-based guidelines, I nominate Lt. Colonel Daniel Starrett, Executive Director of the Salvation Army World Service Organization. I don’t know the Colonel, but I know the Salvation Army runs good programs, uses funds wisely, and operates from a desire to do good, without much in the way of political considerations. Even the Bush administration could not fault the Salvation Army.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wolfowitz, I’m sure there’s a university or a foundation somewhere that will welcome you to a job with a higher salary and less public attention. You’re going to have to show some humility if you truly want to establish a reputation as an honest person doing good.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Marvels of Potable Water

Remember bubblers in schools and public water fountains in parks? Potable public water supplies used to be an important characteristic of a developed country. You turn on the tap, and you won’t get poisoned by what comes out. Oh, the things we take for granted!

I’ve been thinking about bottled water for the past year or so. I was a confirmed delivered-water subscriber since the 1970’s, when the taste of water in Santa Barbara was somewhat fishy. We had few luxuries in those Isla Vista apartments, but bottled water was more of a necessity than cable tv, until Saturday Night Live started and we didn’t get NBC through the airwaves. In those days, I thought nothing of drinking from a woodland stream on a camping trip, but I considered tap water disgusting.

For a while, the Sparkletts guy brought both 5 gallon bottles and cases of fluoride kid water. When my Sparkletts bill started topping $100 a month, I put a filter on my fridge and cancelled the deliveries.

The half-full bottles on the soccer field and in my minivan began to annoy me. I bought cases of water, hauled them home, stacked them in the garage, put them back in the car, and the kids would take three or four sips before abandoning these bottles.

The other environmental costs of the water refused to be ignored. All those plastic bottles were waiting to be recycled, and it appeared to me that maybe half of them made it to the recycling can at my house. Cases of water come in cardboard boxes, and are wrapped in plastic, generating more trash on top of the bottles themselves. Add that to the cost of transporting water from the bottler or supplier in trucks (often diesel) and you’ve got a significant contributor to global warming in that water bottle. If the water begins its life in a European glacier or an island in Fiji, that bottle has come a long way to be left half-drunk in a Mazda cupholder.

Meanwhile I started getting emails from people who were raising awareness about turning water into a commodity in the developing world. As the potential for clean water gradually reached Central America, Africa, and the Far East, beverage corporations saw new markets for the product that is least costly for them to produce. Should women in the Third World have to choose among food, education, and water? It’s one thing for us affluent people to pay for water, but shouldn’t it be free for everyone, unless they choose to waste their money?

I think it was Gold’s Gym that got me back to tap water. The water from their filtered fountains is deliciously drinkable, especially after 45 minutes on an elliptical training machine. Why not fill up a Nalgene bottle if I’m going to carry water with me anyway? Why pay Coca-cola and PepsiCo for a product you can get anywhere for free?

Most recently, I read the story of an Ethiopian immigrant who runs a neighborhood mini-mart in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Stepha Stephanos, the main character in Dinaw Mengestu’s new novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, frequently mentions that bottled water is almost the only product that sells to the new people moving into the neighborhood. Stepha doesn’t need to comment on the oddness of people buying water at his store; for a refugee from civil war, the purchasing of all this water when it’s free from the tap is only one of many bizarre American habits. The bodega next door to my house (also in a gentrifying neighborhood) carries bottles of water that are beautifully designed, and cost up to $5 a liter. I imagine burning $5 bills as the Pakistani owner laughs and laughs.

In addition to my Nalgene, I received a beautiful pink pitcher for my recent birthday. Filled with ice and water, it looks much nicer on my table than a bottle with a label referring to its origin in France, Italy, Poland, or Sweden. The local ice water is also fresh, and I don’t feel guilty if it ends up watering plants at the end of the evening.

We’ve been sold a myth about tap water, and I can only think that the commodification of air, sunlight, and sleep are not far behind. Take a deep breath, and drink from the tap when you brush your teeth this evening!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Death of a Demon

If God is love, then the Devil is hate, and a major proponent of hatred died this morning.

Jerry Falwell exemplified hatred in almost everything he did in his forty-plus years of infamy.

Until my sister reminded me this morning, I had forgotten that Falwell was a leading international supporter of apartheid in South Africa, encouraging his followers to prop up the deteriorating white supremacist regime through the purchase of krugerrands.

Like most people, I remember Falwell as the creator of the so-called "Moral Majority" that fostered homophobia, anti-abortion hysteria, and misogyny. Using hatred disguised as faith, Falwell and his followers pressed a corporate agenda that was "pro-life" UNTIL birth, after which you were expected to be on your own. Slavery, child labor, dangerous working conditions, starvation, homelessness, war, violence against women...Falwell preached that victims got what they deserved for their sinfulness, or the sins of their parents.

Never was Falwell more hateful than in his response to the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980's, when thousands of gay men in the U.S., and people with dark skin around the world, began to die from a disease that thrives in body fluids. Falwell's near-glee at the epidemic, and his opposition to treatment and prevention of the disease, resembled nothing less than a case of home-grown genocide, made even more distasteful by its justification through "Christian" teachings.

I'm wondering whether Rev. Falwell met his maker today, and if so, did Judgment Day go the way Jerry had always imagined? Love is a higher power than hatred, and I'm enjoying the thought that Falwell might find his eternity to be much hotter than Virginia in the summer.