The Imperialist Economics of Blueberries

Blueberries from PeruThere was a cooler right at the front of the fruit and vegetable section of the local Walmart store packed with clear plastic containers of blueberries. Plump, dark, fresh-looking berries. And value-priced at $2.87 a container. I love blueberries on my morning cereal; these looked inviting, and so inexpensive! Who can resist such a bargain? I put a container in my shopping cart. Only when I got home did I read the label: product of Peru.

Peru lies more than 6,000 km away from me by air; more than eight hours’ flying time from Toronto, plus a two-hour drive north to here.  Not to mention the time to pick, package, sort, distribute, and shelve them. Yet here was a container of what appeared to be recently-picked blueberries selling for less than a cup of coffee, and less — perhaps less than half — than I usually pay at the local farmers’ market for a similar or even smaller amount. How can that be?

How is it possible to pick these fruit, wash, sort, package, refrigerate, ship to a warehouse, sort, distribute, ship to a store, then stock in that store for as little as $2.87? Along that route are hundreds of people, all of whom need to be paid, from pickers to loaders to pilots, drivers, and store personnel. There’s a whole chain of dependencies in getting them from Peru to my local grocery store while still edible, and a staggering cost in fuel.*

Peru, is, of course, just one South American country sending blueberries worldwide, but this year has become the largest exporter of blueberries: 165,000 metric tonnes in 2020, up from 120,000 in 2019. Half of which goes to the USA. Blueberries — native to North America, not Peru— are also grown in Mexico and South Africa. And how convenient for us here that they do so: we can enjoy these fresh fruit well outside our own limited growing season, as we do with so many other vegetables and fruit. And we can enjoy hundreds of others that can’t possibly grow here: limes, grapefruit, avocados, bananas, lychee, kiwi fruit; our grocery stores are well-stocked with all sorts of imports for our eating pleasures. And often so inexpensive.

Yet again: at what cost? Not to us, of course: our grocery and box stores are locked in a penny-pinching competition to offer us the lowest prices, to lure us in with bargains like these, understanding that while we’re here we’ll also buy more. Yet to enjoy our $2.87 package of ripe blueberries, we must accept that we benefit from the cheap labour and even poverty in the home countries where these are picked; wages we could not possibly live on here. And along with those low wages come predictable lower standards of health, quality, and safety: foods contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, or some noxious or even lethal bacteria are, sadly, rather too common (as of Oct. 9, 2020, the Canadian government site listed 4,012 food recalls; however not all of which are for imported produce).

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Socialism, Communism, and Liberalism

Trumpster fireWatching American political dramas like their presidential elections is both entertaining and frightening. Yet it is also strangely educational. it has taught me a basic tenet: Americans as a people know little to nothing about politics. Not just about international politics, but their own.

It is a commonly held belief outside American borders that Americans are remarkably unaware of the history, politics, leaders, or even existence of other nations, but are often equally ignorant of their own. There are far too many YouTube videos interviewing Americans about both the USA and the world for me to list them, but look at the site yourself to see what I mean.

Sure, many of the US politicians themselves seem to know how their government works (or should work), and may even be masters of their craft, yet from political pronouncements clearly many are also woefully ignorant of political realities. Which explains in part why the general populace is often confused about even things within their own governance system, like the racially-motivated electoral college, how the three branches of government work (or are supposed to work), how executive orders are made, or what the Constitution says (and not merely one or two amendments cherry-picked to support an ideological stance; even their president is remarkably ignorant of this document).

When, for example, Trump implements a tariff on imported goods, his supporters cry in delight that he’s “being tough” on some other nation (as if toughness and nationalism were worthier attributes than alliances and cooperation), without even the slightest understanding that they — his supporters and all other American consumers — will pay the price. Not the other nation, not some foreign government, not some third party like the WTO or UN. The USA is the most consumerist nation on the planet: it’s the consumers who will pay for tariffs because the cost of their goods simply goes up to cover the tariff. But Americans seem not to understand what a tariff actually is: a tax on the things they buy.*

It’s especially evident at election time when the Repugnicans throw around insults and accusations that their opponents are liberals, socialists, communists, and far-left radicals… ooh! Scary! As if America even had a left wing! It only has shades of right; its most moderate politician would still be considered a conservative in many Western nations. But the right will label that person radical, socialist, and even liberal because it’s a dog whistle for rightwing voters. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

This is mere fearmongering akin to calling people witches or warning gullible voters that immigrants will take their jobs: it works best and most efficiently when the audience is ignorant of the facts or is already fixed in their ideology (as in a Trump rally). But like in the Dark Ages, the masses are always susceptible to simplistic rhetoric.

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Will communism as a dominant political ideology ever make a comeback

I took the title from a discussion on Quora about whether Communism is dead or will re-emerge, and if so under what conditions. I don’t believe that the author of the post (Susanna Viljanen, from Aalto University in Finland) who opens that discussion wanted to see Communism arise again, but rather is asking if it can, and under what circumstances. She clearly states at the beginning of her argument,

By now, Communism is dead and buried. Its failure was so spectacular, its achievements so appalling and its legacy so hateful and bitter that nobody in their sane minds – especially in the Eastern Europe, where it was brought by conqueror’s bayonets, want it back. The first round of Communism was the greatest tragedy world ever has seen.

I think we can all agree with that sentiment. Viljanen opens her post with a quote she says is from Karl Marx:

History has a tendency to repeat itself: first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce.

She then adds her own twist: “a third time as a melodrama.”* I won’t debate whether this is true, but Viljanen continues:

Communism and Nazism are basically each other’s mirror images. They appeal to same kind of people and they promise same kind of world – and deliver similar results. So as long as there will be Communists, there will be Nazis as well… But neither ideology can gain enough support as long as the society is a) stable and b) provides its members decent living.

By that logic I assume the reverse: as long as there are Nazis there will be Communists as well, a sort of balancing act between two extreme forms of totalitarianism. But I think that presumes a right-left axis, and I have to argue that for all the labels applied to it, Communism was not a leftwing ideology, but only masqueraded as one, just as the Talibangelists in the USA masquerade as Christians.

Viljanen continues:

…To win, both Nazism and Communism need an unstabilized society – one in chaos, civil war, bankruptcy, natural catastrophe or horribly divided.

She is suggesting, I believe, that the current situation in the USA is becoming (or has become) fertile ground for revolution (a belief shared by some researchers into income inequality; the USA is the fourth highest nation in the GINI inequality scale), but I would disagree: in a deeply consumer-oriented society like the USA, revolutions are rare. You can distract too many people from their political goals with a sale on iPhones (or, for the right, AR-15s) too easily. People in the USA will storm the breach to buy a discounted TV set in a Black Friday sale, but organize nationwide for political purposes? Unlikely (as long as that TV is working). A revolution requires a cadre of informed, dedicated ideologues at its core, and I don’t see them anywhere.

On the other hand, I think the USA is the womb of a rapidly-developing rightwing coup; more like the Nazi solidification of power post-1933 than their Beerhall Putsch. I think the alt-right which always portrays itself as the victim, as the target, as the underdog, is more likely to rise up, but in support of — not against — the totalitarian state because it supports the racist/xenophobic/misogynist ideologies of the alt-right.** But a Communist revolution? Never.

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Shakespeare’s Mirror

Grant that, and then is death a benefit.
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Act 3 Sc 1.

I was thinking about this play and how well it related to the events of this era, a time when Trump’s domestic terrorists are killing their fellow citizens. A time when an armed teenager walks blithely past the police waving his assault rifle after murdering unarmed protestors. A time when the neo-Nazis in the Repugnican camp kill their fellow citizens for a twisted vision of freedom and liberty.

Casca’s description  of walking through Rome the night before Caesar’s murder is full of omens and portents. He asks Cicero what might be asked of politicians today, “Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth/ Shakes like a thing unfirm?” And in the antifa and Black Lives Matter protests, people today see similar omens and portents, see their fears and hopes in the flames.*

King TrumpI was thinking about how in this play Shakespeare showed us a nation polarized into two deeply-divided camps, surrounded by the swirling violence of mobs, as demagogues railed at the citizenry inciting them to madness. There’s a dictator who wants to be king, and those who fight to restore the republic. There are corrupt and honest people on both sides, opportunists and true believers. The only thing missing from the comparison between Shakespeare’s ancient Rome and today’s USA is the overt racism that motivates Trump’s followers.

Earlier in the play, Brutus mulls over the nature of tyranny and power, saying,

Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.
Julius Caesar (Act 2, Sc.1)

Again, how well this could be applied to the narcissistic Trump and his callous disregard for the consequences of his actions, or for the victims of his blundering and misadventures (e.g. the 183,000 dead from his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic). One could easily find more lines that relate equally well in this and the Bard’s other works. Like the line from Coriolanus, Act 2, Sc. 2,

“…there had been many great men that have flattered the people, who ne’er loved them…”

Or how about Queen Margaret, in Henry VI Part 3 (Act 3, Sc. 3) saying,

For how can tyrants safely govern home,
Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?

Now think about Trump and his kowtowing subservience to Vladimir Putin and America’s enemy, Russia, and all Trump has done to further Russian interests… or how about Pericles warning in Pericles, Act 1 Sc. 2, that,

‘Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.

And then consider Trump’s passionate, even homoerotic, affection for North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un…

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Where is Wat Tyler Now That We Need Him?

Wat Tyler
I was disappointed that the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began with such vigor and hope in 2011, soon petered out  into a sputtering, unfocused political miasma barely a year later. I was even more deeply disappointed that the antifa (anti-fascist) protests, which also seemed to have such promise earlier this year,  lost its momentum and focus by mid-summer, 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement, which looked like it, too, had real strength and direction earlier this year, seems to have withered by the late summer of 2020. 

These are merely the latest popular uprisings and protests against the machinery of the government, against the elite CEOs, billionaires, and lobbyists, and against the social ills that they have enabled to flourish. All of these upheavals are backed by meaningful ideals, and at times naïve optimism, but none seem to have the vertebrae to stand for a long time. There seems no street-level political movement that can last in the face of the growing totalitarianism, racism, misogyny, predatory capitalism, and income inequality in the USA, here, and elsewhere.

Where is Wat Tyler, now that we need him?

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I Just Don’t Understand Americans

I’ve long been somewhat of a politics/history junkie, and as such I read a lot about both topics, from ancient times to modern; I read about events, wars, issues, personalities, elections, debates, governance, and the philosophy of politics. I read books, newspapers, websites, magazines, social media, and more books. I don’t have cable TV, however, but I do get to several reliable media sites online every day, including BBC, CBC, Al Jazeera, Atlantic, Reuters, Spiegel, Agence France Presse, Forbes, Macleans, New York Times, The Star,  Globe & Mail, Slate, and others.* 

So even though I am not an American, I like to think that, for a foreigner, I am reasonably well acquainted with American history, geography, and politics. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat aware, when it’s splashed all over every paper, website, social media, and radio news even in Canada. I try to be well-informed about the events and issues that affect our biggest trading partner and (sometimes uncomfortably close) neighbour because they always affect us here.

But for all my reading and attention, some days I just don’t get Americans. Don’t get me wrong: I have known and loved many Americans over the years; I count quite a few Americans among my friends or at least friendly acquaintances. I’ve worked for them, I’ve travelled with them, had sex with them, I’ve partied with them, played music with them, and danced with them. I’ve sipped tequila with them in a tiny bar tucked away in the hills of central Mexico, and I’ve played wargames and paintball with them. But when it comes to politics, I just don’t get them.

Why would ANYONE have voted for Donald Trump? It was like standing on a train track seeing the light coming towards you at full speed, hearing the whistle warning, and yet staying on the track because you believed it would pass you by and hit someone else.

Come on, folks: it splattered body parts all over the nation. He’s spent almost four years proving he’s a racist, intolerant, lying, narcissist, fake-Christian, barely literate, uneducated, vindictive, nasty clown doing his best to destroy the United States economically, environmentally, socially, and politically. He is shredding your nation’s democracy as we speak, undermining your Constitution, destroying your ability to vote,  and making Vladimir Putin a very happy man. He mishandled the pandemic at the cost millions of jobs, a worse economic collapse than the Great Depression, and more than 170,000 deaths (and rising). He mishandled international trade at the cost millions of jobs and hikes to consumer prices. He alienated every ally in Europe and North America. He has screwed education, tried to sell Puerto Rico, wanted to use atomic bombs on hurricanes, thinks windmills cause cancer, put incompetent sycophants into the Supreme Court, golfed this term more often than most people golf in their entire lives, and played footsie with America’s sworn enemies.

The whole fucking world is laughing at Trump and his blundering, his ineptitude, his unpresidential shenanigans. And they’re looking aghast at the overt fascism being rolled in. Unidentified, armed federal agents kidnapping people off the streets. Children separated from parents and put in cages for years, suffering abuse and sexual assault. Billionaires making billions more because of his tax cuts to the already-rich while workers lose jobs, rights, and benefits. Is this how you want American and its leaders to be perceived?

So who in their right mind would vote for him again? Especially now there’s a reasonable alternative in another candidate (and an excellent choice for VP) who can help the country heal and regain its stature in the world. Not the perfect candidate, sure, but in comparison the two Democrats simply outweigh the incumbents in ethics, morality, humility, public spirit, and intelligence.

Apparently, being in your right mind is not a requirement to vote for Trump or his enablers (Moscow Mitch McConnell, Lindsay “Vlad’s Boy” Graham, and the other crypto-fascists). Voting for any of them would be like asking to be disembowelled right after the executioner had lopped off your arms.  I just don’t get it. Who does that to themselves?

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Musings on leadership

Dilbert
What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

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The arts of politics and baking

In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Prisig wrote about how dealing with the small things of daily life  – like fixing his wayward motorcycle – could teach us about the world at large. A sort of microcosm-becomes-macrocosm perspective, with the vagarities of motorcycle repair to colour the learning. What we learn in one we can apply to the other. *

Baking bread, too, offers a meta-window into other arts and crafts, in particular (for me), politics. Bakers and thinkers have oft cited bread as a metaphor for life (listen to master baker Peter Reinhart’s comments on that topic here or watch his TED talk here).

As an opener, I love making bread. I find it relaxing, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. And sometimes incredibly frustrating and disappointing. Like life. It’s both a creative process and an experimental one. When I bake, I transcend the politics, the worries, the noise of daily life and concentrate on the act itself, a focus I only rarely apply to my daily activities.**

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from making bread I feel apply to politics. They’re not necessarily in the order of importance.

Lesson one: start simple.

You can make bread with four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Everything after that is chrome. You can make some pretty spectacular breads by adding more, but if you can’t master the four, you can’t make anything. And you can make stellar breads with nothing more – if you understand how they work together.

In politics, you have to master the basics of procedure and process, of legislation, of policies, and of budgets. These are the superstructure on which you will build everything else. If you don’t have a firm grounding in these, you cannot build anything.

Lesson two: start small.

I have a terrific textbook (Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes) about baking with recipes for commercial bakeries and restaurants. These produce from half-a-dozen to dozens of loaves. But I’ve learned to make one loaf at a time, scaling back every recipe – even many of those online that are intended for one or two loaves. If I do it properly, I’ll have a small, single, good loaf to enjoy. But if I make a mistake or try something that doesn’t work out well, I’ll probably end up tossing most of it out. I don’t want to waste bread.

Many municipal projects are grandiose dreams. But often smaller, less ambitious or even phased projects over a longer term are better and more efficient. Things change, public needs change, tastes and demographics change – what might seem a great project today in a few years might seem outdated and inefficient. Better to be conservative now than end up with an expensive white elephant in a few years. And politicians should never waste taxpayers’ money.

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Channelling John Stuart Mill

In the opening few pages of his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill warned about the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion.” Anyone familiar with the mob mentality than can erupt on social media, its potential for divisiveness and the platform’s inherent weakness to be manipulated by outside forces (such as Russia) would consider Mill’s words as topical today. 

Mill was writing in this essay about, “…the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” and how to contain the “tyranny of the majority.”*

He was passionate about individuality and the freedom of the individual, warning against state control (thought or otherwise)  by any means for any reason other than one, and would have, I suspect, been aghast at today’s social media as a tool for manipulating public opinion (in a way the late Neil Postman would have appreciated**):

…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

The current rise of right-wing conformity to nationalist, religious and racist ideologies masquerading as populism poses a similar threat to individual freedoms. Populist movements threaten western democracies by attacking the fundamental principles of an open, free, inclusive and democratic society and replacing them with conformity to restrictive, exclusive nationalist and racist views.

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