Tina K. Russell

January 2, 2009

You might say it’s potable water

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:09 pm

Each year, The New York Times Magazine does a beautiful obituary issue on people who’ve passed on this year that you may or may not have heard of, but all have amazing stories. Here’s one:

Ron Rivera – b. 1948 – Solution in a Pot – NYTimes.com
Early on, Ron Rivera was a left-leaning, power-to-the-people sort of young man, full of vague ideas about social justice and eradicating poverty. Fresh out of college in Puerto Rico, he joined the Peace Corps and spent six years moving between the poorest parts of Ecuador and Panama, engaged in noble but sometimes futile-seeming community-development work. But then, during a stay in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1972, he met an older male potter who took him in as an apprentice. And as if by magic, the vagueness and futility dissipated, replaced by possibility. Why? Because Ron Rivera was now a left-leaning, power-to-the-people potter.

The man goes on to teach high-class craftsmanship and marketing techniques to rural potters in the developing world, and finally to invent a clay water filter that anyone can make, with the potential to save millions of lives. As I do whenever I find someone who upends conventional wisdom and saves untold lives in the process, combining realism and idealism into an unstoppable force for absolute good, I wrote a limerick. Enjoy.

Ron Rivera was anguished one day
“How can I fight disease?” he did say
The answer was watery
So he took up pottery
And where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.

UPDATE: I can’t help myself. Here’s another.

Ron saw the world was off kilter
When so many got water unfiltered
He spun a solution
For disease’s dilution
And thousands say proudly, “Ron built ’er.”

November 9, 2008

Vermont’s Finest

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:01 pm

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders
When the Senate reconvenes of November 17th, I intend to fight for an economic recovery program that is significant enough in size and scope to respond to the major economic crisis this country now faces.

If we can commit more than $1 trillion to rescue bankers and insurance companies from their reckless and irresponsible behavior, we certainly should be investing in millions of good-paying jobs that rebuild our nation and improve its economy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent of Vermont and an avowed socialist) is a hero of mine. Here, he describes an ideal economic rescue package.

I think liberals and conservatives have reason to get behind his ideas; we can best stimulate growth by embarking on a national project to revamp the basics, such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Those are the kinds of projects that create jobs immediately and, in time, pay for themselves many times over. In contrast, handing out money to banks, without placing terms upon its use, is risky in that you don’t know where the money will end up.

NGOs have found this long ago; you donate to developing-world governments, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it will improve the lives of the people or end up in a government official’s patronage fund. If you give people handouts, it doesn’t solve the long-term problems. But if you invest in the people and the institutions they depend on, the people reach their full potential and will always pay back.

October 24, 2008

Economics is applied common sense

Letters – Twists and Turns, Finish Line in Sight – NYTimes.com
Re “The Real Plumbers of Ohio,” by Paul Krugman (column, Oct. 20):

I know a real Joe the Plumber, and yes, his name is Joe. He’s married to my cousin and lives in Massachusetts. He even has a real plumbing license.

A few years ago, he was doing well, but with this growing recession, people have stopped calling him. The thing is, when people don’t have money, calling the plumber drops way down on their list of priorities.

Joe has four kids, and his second child is entering a local college. He thought he could afford her tuition, but with these bad times he’s not so sure anymore. Since his business has shrunk, he needs to cut back, too.

So my question to people who still feel that giving tax breaks to the wealthy will ultimately benefit the economy is this: I get the trickle-down effect, I get what you say by giving corporations power and freedom to really do business. But if we give the middle class a little bit more money, too — not the lines of credit and risky mortgages that have been handed out like Halloween candy and that have made us feel rich even though we’re not, but real money in the form of tax cuts and pay raises — doesn’t that allow us to hire people like my cousin Joe and keep his business going?

Doesn’t the trickle-down effect also have to trickle back up for capitalism to really work?

Susan Porretta
Westport, Conn., Oct. 20, 2008

The poor, the humble, the workers of modest means are what you might call a “growth industry.” In them is the biggest disparity between potential and actual output, which is the disparity that causes and maintains recessions. (Economic downturns are natural, but recessions are when they overstay their welcome, and depressions are when they’ve laid down roots.)

Money, like any commodity, has a diminishing marginal value. That is, the more money you give to someone, the less each dollar is worth. It’s obvious that $20 in the hands of a humble plumber means more than $20 in the hands of a CEO. Nevertheless, there’s a constant drumbeat that more money to the rich will help improve the living conditions of the poor. (I’ve always found that funny; if you’re admitting that money to the poor is the goal, why not bypass the middleman? I’m glad, of course, that Americans have recognized the folly of “trickle-down,” and its true meaning: diverting wealth to the rich will turn a torrent of hard-earned revenue into a trickle.)

Rich people, bless their hearts, hoard their money. They buy yachts and mansions. They invest in start-ups with catchy names and no business plan. That may benefit the manufacturers of yachts and mansions, and you never know, maybe the recently-graduated engineering student who helped design the yacht, or the construction worker who helped build the mansion, might make a little bit of solid cash. Poor people, however, spend that cash right quick. They pay rent on their house or apartment, helping the landowners, janitors, construction workers, material suppliers, and everyone else involved. They buy food, helping farmers, grocers, truckers, everyone.

Instead of buying one big mansion, giving good work to people who need it, they buy lots of more modest housing, giving the same work to far more people at a lower price. (Price of labor is price of labor; you don’t get paid more for working on a more expensive house, unless for some reason the construction company needs more specialized workers. Anything above that, management will pocket.) They’ll buy tons of food at the local farmers market rather than a serving of caviar from a far-off land for the same price. I don’t blame rich people for what they do with their money—if I had lots of money, I’d get started on my dream house right away—but it goes without saying that a little money means more to you if you’re poor. It also means more for the economy.

(There are some idealistic rich people—Bill Gates, George Soros, Mark Shuttleworth—who spend their personal fortunes making the world a better place. They’re wonderful, but we cannot become dependent on them, or expect every rich person to be like them. They’re only human.)

Money spent on the poor, of course, is even better when it’s a tax credit to supplement earned income, a (good, fair, transparent) loan to build their business, or help with going to school to learn new skills. These are investments that not only encourage good behavior, but come back many times over in the form of tax revenue that can then be spent on helping even more people. It’s true to a large extent what conservatives say about the numbing effect of welfare; it encourages dependency and lessens the incentive to work. That isn’t to say people on welfare are happy that way, though; it’s to say we need solutions that help poor people be able to do what they want most and do it better: to work, to take care of their families, and to achieve their dreams.

The central pillar of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 2000 was that people who are already trying hard should get help from the government so that they may achieve their goals. It’s a sentiment I strongly believe in, and it’s a shame Bush abandoned it the very second he was appointed President. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is the quintessential compassionate pragmatist, willing to do whatever it takes, whether the idea comes from the left or the right, to help those who are struggling and those of modest means and big ambitions. After all, these are all conservative as well as liberal values: you work hard, you serve the country, and you don’t let hardship get you down. Investing in the poor is something everyone can get behind, and not just in election season.

September 29, 2008

A bailout I could get behind

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 11:09 pm

Op-Ed Contributor – Buy the Loans – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
HERE’S a key reason Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s bailout proposal stalled: it had an overbroad definition of the troubled assets the government would purchase. Under the Treasury’s definition, the government could spend much or all of the proposed $700 billion to buy complex derivatives held by Wall Street firms, instead of directly purchasing actual mortgage loans.

Fortunately, there is a compromise. The most efficient means of providing support to the credit markets would be for Congress to limit the definition of troubled assets to actual home mortgage loans. Congress should give the Treasury authority to purchase only the real financial assets at risk — the actual loans — not the derivatives whose prices depend on the values of those loans. If the government takes this approach, and buys and renegotiates mortgage loans directly, it will indirectly support the mortgage-based derivatives that have caused widespread losses at banks. But it will do so without favoring banks at the expense of homeowners.

Here’s a bailout plan I’d support: given that the financial problems right now can be traced to bad loans that have been securitized and placed around the financial market as ticking time bombs (that all go off at once), have the government buy those loans, not the absurd investment vehicles (grade-A securities, we assure you!) that got us into this mess.

From the financial reporting I’ve read, my impression was that these bad loans, made to people who couldn’t afford them (by banks not realizing that everyone loses in the inevitable default), were sliced and diced and combined with other financial flotsam into “securities” with fancy names like “collateralized debt obligation.” (They would then be sold as no-risk investment vehicles, which is why the subprime mortgage crisis spreads far beyond subprime mortgages; pieces of the bad loans have been scattered far and wide in the financial landscape.) I presumed that meant the only way for the loans to be renegotiated, on the massive scale required to right this mess, would be for the government to buy up all these vehicles and piece the loans back together one by one.

The author, here, sets me straight: it’s not that the loan itself was sliced up, it’s that banks met bets on these lousy loans and placed those bets into the securities. That is, these financial vehicles, sold as though they were pure free money, had value partly depending on whether or not the subprime loans were paid back. Since these loans are collapsing left and right, these securities are also shriveling up; and since these financial vehicles that nobody understands have partly taken the place of money, it’s like a whole lot of money suddenly exploded all at once. To make matters worse, nobody wants to lend in an environment like this; if I’ve just been burned by many, many bad loans, I’m not going to be in the mood to lend any more. That means that businesses simply in routine trouble are now in free fall, unable to borrow the kind of money that could be a lifeline; and businesses that could be expanding aren’t, unable to take that bold next step by borrowing for an expansion. That means few jobs and fewer stable ones. Meanwhile, retirement plans indexed to the market are slipping along with everything else.

That’s part of what’s frustrating about this issue: it’s Wall Street’s mess and Wall Street’s problem, but it affects all of us. You need a solution that doesn’t reward irresponsible bankers for making bad bets and then passing them on as airtight securities. I like this idea: don’t buy the bets, buy the loans.

Oh, and next time, bankers: don’t make loans to people who can’t pay them back! I mean, what the banks did—lend to people who couldn’t pay back, then advertise the bad loans to fellow banks as sure-fire bets—was even worse, but I want to address the problem, since I don’t think it gets enough play. These banks were often skirting their own rules for whom to lend money to at what rate. There’s a strong ethic associated with lending to poor people, since poor people can pretty much always pay back, given that their very livelihood depends on good credit. Since banks have greater leverage than the down-and-out, it’s ethically imperative that they respect the situations of poor people and give terms that will encourage and allow them to pay back the full amount, with modest interest, at a reasonable and responsible pace. This all seems like Banking 101, but some people still haven’t learned. Banks lose too in a default, of course, so their bad practices are coming back to haunt them early.

Oh, and all loans ought to be in terms that non-economists can understand, but that should be a given. And, when loans are sold, chains of custody need to be made clear so that loans can be renegotiated in the case of unforeseen trouble. This is all reasonable and all good business for all parties involved, but it seems that the nation’s money men require a schoolin’ from a college girl with a first-year economics education.

September 27, 2008

Where in the world is harmin’ Santiago?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 3:52 am

Op-Ed Contributors – Foreign Policy Questions by Foreigners to the Candidates – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
Many developing countries — mine included — have made sacrifices to carry out tough economic reforms and have sought “trade and not aid.” To succeed, we need to compete on a level playing field with more developed economies. Is the United States ready to shoulder some of the burden by advocating the elimination or tempering of protectionism and subsidies? The United Nations by itself, with its faults and many achievements, does not lead. Nation-states do. American commitment and leadership is a must for effective multilateral cooperation. Will you demonstrate a renewed commitment to multilateralism and the rule of international law? Will you negotiate actively to agree on a post-Kyoto treaty on global warming and seek to join the United Nations Human Rights Council? Lastly, what would you do to regain the trust of your allies who would like to see the United States engaging in respectful dialogue and leading the way in the fight not merely against terrorism — which must be done — but also against world hunger, poverty, inequality and disease?

— MICHELLE BACHELET, the president of Chile

I guess that’s my big problem with protectionism, from both sides of the aisle; in America’s case, it’s massive hypocrisy. There’s a liberal fantasy that poor countries can be self-sufficient if they work hard and get back to the land; they’re doing that. We need to let them play by the same rules we do.

Of course, if you read the article, the entry after it has something else very important to say of American global financial hypocrisy.

April 28, 2008

Investing in our children

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 8:32 am

Bernie Sanders is an independent, socialist Senator from Vermont. He happens to be my hero. Anyway, here he writes a letter on the recent story that the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter of its prisoners.

Are Too Many Americans in Prison? – New York Times

To the Editor:

There is an important point to add. The United States has, by far, the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country — almost 20 percent.

Unlike other industrialized countries, quality and affordable child care in our country is largely unavailable for low- and moderate-income families.

Further, many of these low-income kids attend underperforming schools and drop out of high school at very high rates. To nobody’s surprise, a lot of these ignored, jobless and poorly educated youngsters then engage in destructive and criminal activity.

Perhaps if we adequately invested in the low-income children of this country, we could produce citizens who work and pay taxes, rather than criminals who cost us $50,000 a year to incarcerate.

Bernie Sanders
U.S. Senator from Vermont
Washington, April 23, 2008

I couldn’t agree more.

April 25, 2008

The Right Tools for the Job

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 4:35 pm

allAfrica.com: Africa: UN Secretary-General Calls for Free Trade On Global Market (Page 1 of 1)

The Secretary-General of United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon has stressed the need for more free trade in the global economy to boost the economies of poor countries.

He believes this has the tendency of lifting those countries from poverty.

Mr. Ki-moon made this statement at the opening ceremony of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTADXII) summit in Accra, in connection with soaring food prices, climate change and the lag in achieving development goals, which was marring the efforts of poor countries to grow.

He therefore stressed the need for governments to device methods to ensure that there were no food shortages in their economies.

“International grain markets must remain open and functioning normally. Beggar-thy-neighbour food wars cannot, in the long run, help anyone”, he stressed.

So there.

No, seriously, international trade and globalization doesn’t have to be a scourge; done right, it can help lift the poor countries from poverty. Foreign aid won’t, on its own, allow countries to build the kind of local economies needed for long-term growth and sustainability. No amount of Bono-style “awareness” will create a vibrant, resurgent Africa able to stand on its own two feet.

We can be privileged, middle-class liberals and idealize the simple life of the impoverished sustenance farmer, or we can help them get a fair shake in the globalized world by giving them direct access to global markets. We can sneer at the evils of a fluctuating world economy, or we can rightly recognize that the services of the world’s farmers are greatly needed during a food shortage crisis, and that the free flow of food should not be hampered by petty tussles of protectionism. We can browbeat endlessly over multinational corporations attempting to gobble up the world’s labor, or we can help the individual farmer compete fairly on the world market by giving them access to previously closed-off channels of trade.

“Nowhere is the global challenge of economic disenfranchisement more acute than in Africa”, he noted.

To this effect, he noted that the deal with the food crisis in the long-term agricultural production must be increased; emphasizing that there was no reason why Africa could not experience a “green revolution” if assistance and markets were shaped towards that end.

We may even have to recognize the real necessity of another “green revolution” of genetically modified foods. Instead of fighting the concept itself, we may have to gird for battle to prevent corrupt corporations from extorting poor farmers through draconian IP restrictions or biological sleights of hand, and to keep GM crops from being homogenized or contaminating the local ecosystem. We may have to be realists, and know that we need to use the right tools for the job. We may have to choose between our ideology and the lives of poor people the world over.

April 15, 2008

You’re Not Helping

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 5:06 pm

allAfrica.com: South Africa: Zuma Backs Deputy Over ‘Shoot to Kill’ (Page 1 of 1)

DEPUTY Safety and Security Minister Susan Shabangu’s controversial “shoot to kill” comment has received African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma’s backing.

Shabangu told an anticrime rally in Pretoria last week that police should “kill the bastards” and leave concerns about the regulations to her.

This is after Shabangu became the latest of a line of ministers and senior officials to encourage the police to shoot criminals first, starting with safety and security minister Steve Tshwete in the late 1990s , but this view has done nothing to improve the levels of violent and organised crime.

The problem with “kill them all,” though it’s often a tempting position, is that it sets you back. You need the public’s support and sympathy, which you won’t have if you, and the officers you represent, seem like a brute. Also, it draws battle lines in ways that do not benefit you: you declare too many enemies and not only criminals will resent you, but so will the families of criminals, people who dislike criminals and dislike the overly aggressive tactics they use, and most people with a passing interest in politics. Then, people will be less likely to support or sympathize with the police, will be less likely to help them in investigations and less likely to be candid, and be more likely to create an environment were fear and hatred of the police–both unnecessary and counterproductive–can come to a boil.

And, as this guy points out, it frames the issue poorly. It’s an admission of failure, and it legitimizes the rank thuggery of criminals. Rulers rule because they have followers, and it’s difficult to have followers when you look just as bad as the enemy, even if you aren’t. Here in the United States, we committed a massive error of political framing when we declared a “war on terror,” because that made al-Qaida terrorists look like legitimate state players, and rallied every disaffected, nationalistic youngster bitter towards America to al-Qaida’s side. You can never declare police work in any way that makes it seem like a friendly duel at ten paces, because it undermines your position and moral authority, which, in the age of mass media, are requirements for victory. (Just ask Abraham Lincoln, were he alive, who brilliantly used the Emancipation Proclamation to reframe the battle as freedom-loving people fighting a backwards and ignorant enemy, rather than the South’s preferred framing of a second American Revolution.) Public sympathy is like friendly terrain, the wind at your back, the advantage you need in battle, and it’s something you should never surrender. And Ms. Shabangu, besides being brutal and immoral, has done exactly that.

Johan Burger of the ISS [Institute for Security Studies] said Shabangu’s comments not only looked like an admission by the government that it was failing in its fight against crime, but was irresponsible, as courts were unlikely to sympathise with police officers who use excessive force.

“The deputy minister seemed almost exasperated on Wednesday, and while it is important for government to be seen to be taking a strong stance, it is not correct for her to have said she will take the blame, as it is police officers who will be held accountable in court for not abiding by the regulations,” said Burger.

He said the police should rather examine weaknesses within and outside the criminal justice system that are contributing to crime such as “socio-economic factors and policies that are not being properly implemented”.

I know that’s a liberal talking point, but it’s important… to reduce crime, you often do need more police officers to impose order. But, that can only be a temporary fix, and you must root out the problem by figuring out what is fostering and supporting crime in the community. It’s sort of like, when ants raid your kitchen, you set out ant traps and baits to try and fight the incursion. But, you also seal up the food and clean up to keep them from entering in the first place. A solid police policy does not lean entirely on the efforts of hard-working cops, but also tries strategies of relieving them by ensuring that the elements that support crime–poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity, and a certain pervasive cultural poverty that requires a multifaceted approach to fight–are removed. It’s also important to keep criminals from having easy access to guns… just so you know.

March 20, 2008

Small Business, Big Results

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 9:01 am

Small Businesses Offer Alternatives to Gang Life – New York Times

This is good stuff. The reason I urge my liberal friends not to dismiss capitalism out of hand as exploitative is because capitalism and altruism can be melded to create real value, for the many, and not merely the few. Muhammad Yunus said something like this in his autobiography (Banker to the Poor… I still need to read his new book, Creating a World Without Poverty), that for capitalism to succeed, we need to come up with a new model of wealth, one that includes social as well as material wealth.

One problem I have with the article is that the friar who started the business chose not to buy an automatic dough mixer after being given a grant for one, saying that having workers knead bread by hand would allow the business to hire more employees and thus get more people off the street and into jobs. This is a common misconception, that new technologies that increase productivity will put workers out of work by making them obsolete. To the contrary, such advances in productivity serve the purpose of increasing the value of hiring more workers by making each one more productive. Besides, it seems a little cold, like a chain gang, to force every worker to knead the dough by hand. But, it does sound like a great business and I definitely hope the model is copied elsewhere.

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