Yesterday I also went to quite a good play with my dad - a production of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" at a tiny theater in the Valley. In an age where the Andrew Lloyd Webberism of the stage struggles desperately to bring the "magic of the movies" to every musical on Broadway, it's refreshing to be reminded of a different kind of magic, wherein a few actors in a small room turn eighty square feet of floorspace into a window to another life with nothing but their words and the looks on their faces. Only when the illusion is transparent can one fully enjoy the suspension of disbelief. The point of stories is not and has never been that they are realistic. Their truth has nothing whatsoever to do with factuality. The point of a story is that through falsehood and secondhand subjectivity it shows us something about some little corner of human experience that we did not see before. Too often showmanship is confused with storytelling, and then at the end of the day all you've really got is a giant crashing chandelier.
One of my readers asked me how to fix Zimbabwe. It turns out the answer won't fit in the LJ comment box. So here's what I've got:
As you can imagine, this is a question with a rather complicated answer. The first step is to get rid of Mugabe, who not only has a psychotically skewed notion of economics but is also willing to suffer the destruction of his country and the death of his people to maintain his hold on power (note his comment in late June that "The MDC will never be allowed to rule this country -- never ever. Only God who appointed me will remove me, not the MDC, not the British."). His track record of facilitating the starvation of his politcal opponents and seizing shipments of food aid for political purposes does not exactly inspire confidence that support from NGOs or foreign governments would be successful.
Fortunately, there are signs (despite his rhetoric) that his hold on power may be waning. He and Tsvangirai are currently in negotiations, and despite a media blackout there are some rumors that Mugabe may accept a mostly ceremonial role and turn executive power over to Tsvangirai. Of course there have been rumors like that since the elections in March, and it hasn't happened yet.
Once Mugabe is out of power, steps must be taken to rebuild confidence in the Zimbabwean currency, which may or may not include revaluing it depending on how much the new ZW dollar has declined by then. Freezing prices, as Mugabe has tried repeatedly, is essentially ineffective because it just forces economic activity into the black market. Basically what gives currency value is the fact that it can be exchanged at a relatively stable rate for something else of known value. For much of American history, we had a Gold Standard, for example, in which the value of a dollar was fixed as being worth a specific quantity of gold. Many other countries essentially use the American dollar as a standard, by fixing the exchange rate of their currency with the USD at 1:1. However, this only works if it's true - if you really can get US dollars in exchange for your local money. Confidence in this system is maintained by the government keeping a hefty reserve of foreign currency (in this case dollars), which can if necessary be exchanged for local currency to back up this claim and control the money supply. Over the long run, this can cause some problems as your local currency gains and loses value based on US prices rather than local economic conditions, but compared with hyperinflation it's a cakewalk. At the moment, Zimbabwe has basically no foreign currency reserves with which to back up the value of its currency. So foreign nations will have to lend Zimbabwe's central bank significant funds in dollars or euros to build confidence in ZWDs (as Clinton did in 1994 for Mexico). Of course it would be ridiculous to do this with Mugabe in power as he would just spend the money.
Of course controlling inflation requires more than just currency reserves. It also requires a fiscal policy that maintains sufficient but not excessive levels of circulating currency and does not just print money to pay debt, and it requires that there be a somewhat functional economy. Inflation occurs when prices go up, and prices go up when goods are scarce and demand is high. Obviously just about everything is scarce in Zimbabwe right now, and someone is going to have to start spending money to get things moving again (economic stimulus) - possibly through microlending programs so people can get businesses back on their feet, invest in seed and fertilizer for agriculture, etc. Other countries should lower tariffs on Zimbabwean mineral exports, etc. to further encourage growth (though not all exports are good - more in this in a moment).
Of course the imminent food crisis has to be taken into consideration. Famine is only partially a tragedy of shortage. It fuctions in two related but distinct ways: 1)There is no food to buy, and 2)There is no money to buy what food is available. Item one is a problem of distribution: food must be brought in, which occurs through aid (food being given), importation (food being bought), and allocation (food being moved) - in times of poverty and famine, often there is food in one part of the country while another part starves, due either to poor physical and economic infrastructure (no distributors, bad roads, high fuel costs, few trucks, high transaction costs) or to pricing - if no one in the starving area has money, people with food will make more by selling it elsewhere (hence why some countries export food during famines). The government should buy grain from agriculturally successful areas and sell it at controlled prices in areas lacking food.
This of course brings us to point 2 - no money to buy food. A number of African countries have successfully averted famine with employment programs - hire the poor so they can afford food (again, this only works if there is food to buy). Pave roads. Build schools. Basically engage in public works programs like the US did during the Depression.
These, however, are relatively short term fixes for addressing an immediate crisis, and it's important to keep this year's shortages from snowballing into next year's famine through disruption of agricultural efforts. In order to improve the food supply overall, investments must be made in teaching successful farming techniques, providing varieties of seed well suited to the local environment, and subsidizing fertilizer. The UN-sponsored Millennium Village Project (headed by Jeffrey Sachs) has had remarkable success in trial areas around Africa (Malawi, Kenya, etc.) by implementing this type of combined approach even in the most desperately poor and unpromising areas.
In addition to agricultural improvement, health is of vital importance. People dying of AIDS or malaria can't farm. This is why multi-faceted programs also focus on simple health measures: availability of clean water, insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria (especially for children), AIDS testing and education, etc.
The problem isn't that we don't know how to fix these things. The problem is that we don't invest enough money in doing so, and that no investment is enough without the responsible participation and support of the local government. You cannot effectively promote develpment in a kleptocracy. You cannot sustain economic growth in the midst of a civil war. Endemic corruption and violence have a chokehold on much of Africa, and NGOs can't fix that. Most of the solution must come from within the political culture of the country itself - though a community of nations which credibly promotes actual democracy and censures corruption and oppression would also help.
But seldom is there a perfect storm of catastrophe like what has occurred in Zimbabwe over the past eight months. I'm sure much of this is familiar, but bear with me for a quick review:
By January of this year, almost all of Zimbabwe had gotten 150% of its expected rainfall, meaning that floods and erosion seriously disrupted farming efforts and damaged existing crops – food which would be especially necessary as grain production in 2007 fell by almost half of its 2006 level. At the same time, President Mugabe (facing mounting debt and the pressing need to keep money flowing to government workers, the army, and the revolutionary veterans who formed a crucial block of his political support in the lead up to an election in which he faced a resolute challenger in Morgan Tsvangirai) was printing money by the truckfull. Between late November 2007 and late January 2008, the country’s circulating money supply increased from ZW$58 trillion to ZW$800 trillion. Already facing runaway inflation, Mugabe had previously tried to stop the process by declaring price increases illegal and arresting retailers and factory owners who raised prices. As skyrocketing costs of labor and basic materials made it impossible to manufacture goods for the price that could legally be charged for them, the economy ground to a halt. Stores emptied.
In February, the official rate of inflation passed 100,000%
By March, the government was printing currency at a rate of ZW$170 trillion per week. On the 19th, a presidential and parliamentary election was held. No winner was announced in the presidential election.
In April, Mugabe ordered or permitted militias to begin systematically beating, displacing, and killing opposition supporters. Opposition headquarters were raided, and their workers and the refugees they sheltered were arrested. The government stopped calculating inflation because there were no longer enough goods available to reliably gauge prices.
In May a runoff election was announced. Violence continued. Opposition supporters were driven from their homes or stripped of ID cards to keep them from voting. Amid the chaos, agriculture was silently failing. By the middle of the month, only 12% of targeted farming area was ready for planting, and less than a quarter of the necessary fertilizer was available. Meanwhile, the shortage of viable capital stymied investment, while the rise in global commodity and oil prices raised the cost of seed, transportation, and just about everything else.
In June, Mugabe banned NGOs from the country, effectively cutting off food aid in the midst of a mounting humanitarian crisis. The military and police seized food supplies already on the ground and distributed them to Mugabe supporters. The government announced a prisoner amnesty and released criminal inmates to free up cell space for political prisoners. While the official inflation rate was 2,200,000%, independent estimates put it closer to 10,000,000%. Tsvangirai, the opposition candidate, dropped out of the presidential race because of the escalating violence against his voters.
In July, the government began issuing ZW$100 billion notes. The day they were released, one would buy approximately three eggs. If you wanted to write a check, you’d have to make it out for double the actual amount to compensate for inflation between when it was written and when it would be cashed. The price of beer went up between rounds. You could take a bus trip to visit relatives and not be able to come home a week later because the cost of the return ticket doubled while you took time off from work, last week’s wages now useless in your pocket. There could be trillions in your bank account but you’d have to spend an hour in line at the bank to get any of it, and the maximum withdrawal allowed by law wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread. Financial planning didn’t mean worrying about retirement, it meant trying to get to the shop before you couldn’t afford your daily meal. Calculators wouldn’t hold enough zeros to assist in any substantial transaction.
On August 1, the central bank revalued the currency at a rate of ZW$10 billion to ZW$1 (new), issuing small denomination banknotes to replace the old ones. Continuing lack of faith in currency stability means that inflation continues apace as no one wants to gamble that the money they receive today will be worth as much tomorrow. Unable to wait for official reports, merchants simply tack on estimated surcharges, particularly for any transactions with checks or bank transfers that involve a delay of payment. As cash for the new currency is still in short supply (small deliveries to banks from the Reserve mean low withdrawal limits and even longer lines), this creates a vicious cycle in which use of bank transfers drive up prices, which increases the amount of currency necessary for transactions, which worsens the scarcity of hard cash, which causes more people to use checks and bank transfers, and so on. The Zimbabwean government blames continuing inflation on predatory, undisciplined retailers who drive up prices (as well as Western sanctions). In the last week, President Mugabe has warned that new emergency freezes on wages and prices may be imminent, and has banned the export of basic commodities – one of the few remaining avenues for bringing viable (foreign) money into the economy. There are chronic shortages of food, water, electricity, and medicine. Violent crime is on the rise, fed not only by socio-economic crisis but also the wave of criminals freed in June, and armed robberies are at a record high in Harare. Over 80% of the workforce is unemployed. Agricultural productivity continues to falter.
The Intl. Red Cross expects that by early 2009, 45% of Zimbabweans will not have access to food. That’s over five million people starving (just for a quick comparison, about the same number died in Stalin’s 1932-1933 forced famine in the Ukraine, though in that more populous area this eliminated less than 25% of the population). The IFRC has made an emergency appeal for donations to help them. Contributions can be made here.
Or we could wait for President Mugabe to save the day.
Anyone want to go on a backpacking trip for Thanksgiving?
In other news, I was forced to acquire a new bookcase for my room in order to store my books someplace other than bags on the floor. Now I have almost two whole empty shelves left over to fill up (I wonder how long that'll take). Then I immediately had to rearrange the furniture and art to make wall space for the picture I bought on Saturday - speaking of, if there are any geeks in LA reading this who aren't already aware of it, the Dave McKean show is still open until Aug. 16 and well worth a visit.
Other than that, I've been watching a lot of silly movies and feeling abnormally tired. I came disturbingly close to falling asleep on my feet in Costco yesterday evening. Possibly going to bed early would be a rational response to this, but I view that as capitulation and prefer my current strategy of drinking a lot of coffee and being generally useless. My aspirations for the rest of the week include getting some writing done and hitting things. Wish me luck.
I went to the Virgin Islands with eithne_erin, cute_anarchy, and her Matt. We slept, woke up, went to the beach, snorkeled, hung out with some sea turtles, had lunch, swam in the pool, drank rum punch in the hot tub, made dinner, read some books, and then did it all over again until sadly we were forced to return to the real world where 4 p.m. is in fact not mai tai and bikini hour. The trip had something of a valedictory feel for me, as it was most likely the last one I'll make there before the sale of the house closes at the end of the year. And although my visits have not always been frequent - sometimes not even voluntary - I found it difficult to say goodbye. When I was thirteen, St. John was my private Neverland. I would lie out on the dock at night, stars spilling out of the sky above me while luminescent jellyfish patrolled the clear black water of Coral Bay below. The lights winking on the farther shore could have been campfires or fairy dust, and the sheltering mountains were paper silhouettes of darkness blocking out the moon. Tropical tradewinds trailed fingers through my hair, and I could have stepped into a rowboat and sailed to India or Narnia or the North Pole. Tree frogs and conch shells and sand between my toes, and the gentle swush of waves against the beach counted down to anything, to mermaids, to sirens, to pirate ships.
Fifteen years later, I spent my last night in my mother's house digging through boxes of old photographs, sifting through cupboards and closets for the few things worth taking home. Next year, some other girl will lie awake and listen to the tree frogs and the turning tide, and I will find some other ship to my dark continents, some other ladder that reaches up to the sky. If I go back someday, the slate floor will not remember the slap of my eager feet, and I will not know where to look for any mark I left upon those walls, those trees, that horizon, but all of them have left ice cream-sticky fingerprints on the inside of my skin, a haphazard treasure map pointing the way to Neverland. I was a girl there once, lying out on a dock at night, whispering stories to the hieroglyphics of the stars. They stared back and held their peace.
Five last days in the Caribbean and jetlag seemed to set in before we even got on the plane. We took the ferry from Cruz Bay to St. Thomas, and as the town disappeared in the glare of the sun reflecting off the glass-faced sea, its shape was already unfamiliar, the iron posts of half-built condo developments thrusting up into the skyline where once there had been wild goats and thorn trees. Life is change, but somehow it still takes us by surprise each time.
Then there was June. It was an uneventful month. I bought plane tickets to Moscow and began planning a trip to Russia and Uzbekistan, which among other things involved getting extra pages added to my passport. I moved in with c_a for a week while her Matt was in Peru, and there was giggling, and pie, and Disney movies, and a bit of rum punch just for old times' sake. We painted an accent wall in her kitchen and I realized that I don't dislike living with all people. Also I read a lot of terrible sci fi under the pretext of "research."
Now it's July, except that I seldom notice it, as my office is so severely air conditioned that the question I have to ask myself each morning is "Am I bringing a warm enough sweater?" A week ago I celebrated the marriage of my very oldest friend, Rebecca Rainof, up in the Sonoma wine country, which predictably involved a lot of wine (Sangria. Hot tub. Need I say more?) and not much sleep. It was an opportunity to reflect that in our fast-paced, far-flung modern world, there aren't a lot of people one knows continuously for twenty-one years - most likely because there aren't that many people one likes continuously for twenty-one years. But when you do have a person like that - a person who dressed up with you in your mother's old dresses, a person who remembers your long lost pets (my guinea pigs' exuberant procreation, her hamster's propensity for chewing electrical wires), who memorized Shakespeare with you and commiserated about prom dates with you and ditched pep rallies with you - then she will be with you always, like the wood rings of long ago summers locked in the trunk of a tree. But it is especially nice to visit face to face, and get to know her husband, and be glad that they have one another. Also it was fun to meet her newer friends and (briefly) sit at the smart kids' table again.
Another week has passed and July is tipping down toward August, when everything will be much like this except slightly warmer, and with fewer hot tubs. I shall try to report back before another two months have gone by, but in the mean time I offer my updated photos on flickr, which while not including any actual hot tub footage do encompass Christmas in Austria, Nevada in February, and Father's Day on Santa Cruz Island. Enjoy!
I'll let you know what I find out.
I was seven years old when I made friends with Rebecca Rainof, and by extension her younger sister Mila. The two of them were sisters in the way of characters in the nicer books: companions and compatriots in the struggle with the adult world, their smiling faces similar but completely distinct, sharing everything from bedrooms to friendships to the petty spats that began with tears and ended with no one quite remembering what had been so important in the first place. As a little sister myself, I had a natural sympathy for Mila, a self-contained, stubborn, good-humored girl who was occasionally over-shadowed but seldom out-done by her more extroverted sister. It went without saying that the two of them came as a pair, on after-school get togethers and birthday parties and excursions through the neighborhood on scooters or rollerblades. Mila was two grades behind us, and Rebecca and I would wait rather impatiently for her to join us in middle school and then high school – it never made sense that such a patently bright and competent girl was stuck in a lower grade while the underachieving boys pretending to beat each other up in the back of our classrooms moved along with us each year. She joined Rebecca at Stanford, and then struck out on her own as a medical student at Yale. And then, weekend before last, scant weeks from graduation, Mila was killed by a car as she dashed across a busy street. In recent years, I caught only the occasional glimpse of her as she matured from an impressively level-headed teenager to a happy, successful young woman, but whenever I saw her she’d be smiling, rushing from one thing to the next, but never too busy to stop for just a moment and catch up with her sister’s old friend. Now she has hurried ahead of us all, and we can do nothing but wonder at the sudden, senseless loss of her light. She was naturally beloved to everyone who spent time with her, her unstinting warmth and unflinching strength of character making her presence a rare pleasure, and we are all worse off for the lack of her. She remains indelible and irreplaceable in the hearts of her sister and parents, her friends and teachers. I’m no one much in all this – just a girl who hung around on the outskirts of her childhood – but tonight I light a candle for Mila Noelle Rainof, who came as close as anyone can to walking through this world without casting a shadow. We wish she could have stayed a little longer.
One of the great pleasures of our extended primary season is getting to watch various surrogates and supporters of Senators Clinton and Obama twist logic like a balloon animal in an attempt to further their leaders’ ends. This week’s entry into the doublethink hall of fame comes in the form of a letter to Nancy Pelosi from 21 very rich Clinton donors, taking the Speaker to task for having suggested that superdelegates shouldn’t overturn the will of the voters. The really brilliant part is this:
“As Democrats, we have been heartened by the overwhelming response that our fellow Democrats have shown for our party’s candidates during this primary season. Each caucus and each primary has seen a record turnout of voters. But this dynamic primary season is not at an end. Several states and millions of Democratic voters have not yet had a chance to cast their votes.
“We respect those voters and believe that they, like the voters in the states that have already participated, have a right to be heard. None of us should make declarative statements that diminish the importance of their voices and their votes. We are writing to say we believe your remarks on ABC News This Week on March 16th did just that.”
Because it diminishes the importance of the voices of voters in states yet to vote to argue that superdelegates shouldn’t completely negate the importance of the voices of all the voters in all the states. Seriously. This was said in a letter demanding that Rep. Pelosi publicly state that superdelegates should feel totally free to elect a nominee who won neither the majority of votes nor the majority of pledged delegates. The mind boggles. There have been a huge number of accusations about disenfranchisement recently, but when you actually look at the arguments, what these people mainly seem to feel disenfranchised by is losing. In my opinion, they might want to take that gripe to their candidate, who’s been doing a pretty spectacular job of “disenfranchising” herself despite having gone into this contest with just about every advantage you could shake a dangling chad at.
And this supposedly-populist missive also states that these civic-minded individuals “hope you will be responsive to some of your major enthusiastic supporters,” alluding not so subtly to the fact that the signatories have collectively made over $23 million of contributions since 1999. Because your political opinion should matter a million times more if you pay a million dollars for it. God bless America.
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