SXSW Dispatch: Garbage Dreams

Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer guest-blogging for Mother Jones from Austin's South by Southwest FestivalRead her first dispatch here.

Part Two: One Man's Garbage Is Another Man's Prayer

The best way to introduce the documentary Garbage Dreams is to introduce one of its three protagonists, a young Egyptian named Adham, who addressed an adoring crowd last night during the film's post-premiere Q&A.

"I had to quit working when I was eight," he said through a translator. "I had to drop out of school at age 8 to help my family. I was ashamed of my job as a zaballeen. But after I attended The Recycling School, I also learned computers, health, and hygiene, I became very proud of my profession, and I realized that my job is as important as a job or doctor: If the zaballeen do not collect the garbage every day...cities will stink."

Adham is one of Cairo's 60,000 zaballeen,  garbage collectors who eke out a living gathering, sorting, and recycling 80 percent of the cities' waste. Until recently, their profession afforded them a modicum of economic security, if no real chance at social mobility, but as the city has turned to subcontracting out collections to foreign companies, the entire community has suffered. Director Mai Iskander spent several years following the struggles of three remarkably charismatic boys—now young men—fighting to protect their trade, all under the careful guardianship of a teacher at The Recycling School, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the young zaballeen, academically as well as professionally.

With no preaching, no lazy text placards, and a deep faith in the boys' ability to tell their own compelling story without comment, Iksander offers up a gripping account of what it means to fight for the right to work with honor, as well as introducing you to three young men you'll not soon forget. The future of their profession may be in danger—as well as their vision of all garbage as, in their own words, "a gift from God"—but this movie could help save it. 

Look out for a particularly striking sequence set on a visit to a Wales recycling factory—with Ahmad serving as both enthusiastic tourist ("Cars here stop to let you cross the street!") and skeptical pro ("No precision," he sniffs, watching shards of broken glass make their way down a conveyer belt to a landfill).

See indieWIRE for an interview with the filmmaker. 

In my next dispatch: cultural shifts in the workplace, take 42. "I guess you'll find me when you want to get wasted."—parting words of Cinematical's managing editor Scott Weinbergto two of his bloggers.

Palin: I'm No Hypocrite

Sarah Palin's office moved fast last week to protect her (self-proclaimed) standing as a scourge of earmarks. On Friday, Mother Jones published a story reporting that the omnibus spending bill just passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama contained earmarks requested by the Alaska governor, who last year campaigned for the vice presidency as a foe of wasteful government spending, including earmarks. The article also noted that Alaska will receive roughly $140 million in earmarks, which will make it the biggest recipient of earmark spending among all fifty states in per capita terms.

Hours after the article appeared, Palin's office issued a press release headlined, "Governor Palin Continues Earmark Reform." The main point: since she took office in 2006, Palin has each year requested fewer earmarks and has recently only put in requests for a handful of projects. In other words, it's okay to make some earmark requests, just not a lot.

In addition to quickly putting out that press release, Palin's office went after Jake Tapper, ABC News' White House correspondent, who had blogged about the Mother Jones story.

Palin's communications director, Bill McAllister, contacted Tapper and contended, "The governor never said that earmarks should be abolished or that the State of Alaska wouldn't seek or accept any. Didn't happen. What she said…was that earmark reform was necessary and the state would need to rely less on federal money."

But neither Mother Jones nor Tapper had asserted that Palin had sought the abolition of earmarks. Both stories referred to her speech at the Republican National Convention, when she boasted that she had "championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. I told the Congress 'thanks, but no thanks,' for that Bridge to Nowhere." (That last claim was repeatedly debunked.) Tapper also noted that Palin, speaking to ABC News' Charlie Gibson, had said, "The abuse of earmarks, it's un-American, it's undemocratic, and it's not going to be accepted in a McCain-Palin administration. Earmark abuse will stop." Also in that interview, Palin added that John McCain was a crusader against earmark abuse, and "that's what I joined him in fighting." (McCain wants to end the practice of earmarking, not reform it.)

McAllister told Tapper that Palin made 51 earmark requests in FY 2008, totaling $256 million; 31 requests in FY 2009, totaling $197 million; and will request just eight earmarks in FY 2010, totaling $69 million. But when Mother Jones had asked McAllister to detail how many earmarks Palin had requested in the current spending bill, he declined to respond. And McAllister did not tell Tapper that Palin will turn down earmarks requested and won by Murkowski and Young.

Palin remains trapped between her campaign rhetoric and her governing reality. She denounced earmarks as a candidate; she continues to request and accept them as a governor.

Cuomo Subpoenas AIG Bonus Information

As I anticipated, AIG was not in fact able to gather all the information Andrew Cuomo wanted before the New York attorney general's 4pm deadline. Cuomo wrote a letter to AIG this morning demanding information about the millions of dollars of bonus money it's handing out to employees of its financial services division—the same division that got it into the mess it's currently in. As the deadline passed this afternoon, Cuomo called performance bonuses for AIG executives "oxymoronic" and said he was issuing subpoenas immediately.

OnceIf Cuomo gets the names, you can expect the executives who received bonuses to be very publicly shamed. Maybe then some of them will give the money back.

Don't Trust Any Feminists Under 30

When I was in the Air Force and 26 or 27, I worked with a civilian named Jim. Nice guy. He was about 45, wife and two kids. He'd recently been forced off active duty due to a weird heart glitch unlikely to flare up, and he was miserable about being forced out of uniform. I, on the other hand, was a total gym rat and fashion plate with an unlimited military future. I worked out so, I had to have my uniform sleeves tailored for my sculpted, Michelle-kiss-my-heinie arms. I monitored everything that went into my body and everything that went into anybody's body around me. I subscribed to magazines like Muscle and Fitness and would have competed in bodybuilding competitions had I not been too busy going to school at night to get ahead. Jim, with his Homer Simpson gut and comb over, got winded just using the copier. One day, he came in wincing and limping. He'd actually hurt himself stretching before one of his infrequent attempts to exercise. I laughed and laughed. Thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and only realized in retrospect that he was not sharing the joke. A callow, overconfident youth, it never occurred to me then that my reaction was cruel. And stupid. What, did I think I'd still be bench-pressing my body weight at 80?

In my late 30s, when my own mystery aches and pains began, and now nearly 50 when I never see the inside of a gym that doesn't have -boree after it, styling in my Walmart stretch pants and feeling my gut pillowing into my lap when I'm naked, I have one burning desire—to tell Jim I'm sorry I was such a bitch. Well, two: I'd also thank him for not slapping me. He respectfully tried that day to convince me that eventually age would catch up with me, too, and I wouldn't always be a young hottie, free to work out all evening, apply careful makeup everyday, and fuss over my complicated hairdo. What nonsense! I believe I actually went 'talk to the hand' on that nice man. He might as well have predicted I'd end up becoming a Buddhist monk or a lion-tamer. Never, ever would I "let myself go." "Never would I age," I must have thought. Never would I lose my zeal, or the time, to take care of myself first. 

Well, much as I'd like to, I can't apologize to Jim and commiserate with him over the follies of youth. That "unlikely weird heart glitch" glitched; and a former coworker called a few years after that to tell me JIm had keeled over dead at his desk.

All of that to say this to the young feminists so offended by this elder's critique: One day, you'll have your own Jim story to tell. One day, when you've lived through more of this bitch called life, but without all that youth and vigor, you'll hear yourself saying something like, "These young women today just don't get it. Not like we did." When you've made hideous mistakes you know were because you talked the feminist talk but didn't walk the feminist walk. When that day comes, if I haven't keeled over at my desk, please have the grace to call me up so we can laugh together at youth's callow overconfidence and refusal to listen with respect, if not agreement.

As my father used to say: Even a fool can give you something you can use. But you have to hear him out. I'm not a fool, so why not ask me what I meant, then sift through those insights for the nuggets you buy into? Or, just go on believing you're impervious to either error or critique.

But wait! I started it, right? I was disrespectful first, no? Grow up, girlies. When all those random grannies on the street criticize the way I've dressed my kids or what I'm letting them eat, I just say "thank you" or "have a nice day" or pretend not to have heard. When my mother gets in my business, I say "yes ma'am," then do exactly as I please. Unless she was right, then I take her advice. But however annoying my mom, however much of a busybody the old lady across the street is, I do not growl back. I do not tell them to mind their own business or point out how their generation might have won WWII but what about Jim Crow?

When I was in the military, I sought out the more senior females, took them to lunch, and listened. Same with the female partners at my firm when I was considering the law. Ditto my elders in publishing and journalism. Ninety percent of it was useless to me (or so I thought), but oh that 10 percent.

But, then, I went in assuming I didn't know everything about being a woman in a sexist world or navigating the currents of a profession as volatile as mine. And I went in with some old-fashioned home training.

I'm not talking about reverence, I'm talking about a thirst for the kind of knowledge that will help in the battles all your responses claim to be fighting so diligently for. Here's my final example: I take seriously the chidings of people who've been dead for as much as 150 years.

European Banks

Paul Krugman thinks Europe is in worse shape than the United States:

On the fiscal side, the comparison with the United States is striking. Many economists, myself included, have argued that the Obama administration’s stimulus plan is too small, given the depth of the crisis. But America’s actions dwarf anything the Europeans are doing.

The difference in monetary policy is equally striking. The European Central Bank has been far less proactive than the Federal Reserve; it has been slow to cut interest rates (it actually raised rates last July), and it has shied away from any strong measures to unfreeze credit markets.

....Why is Europe falling short? Poor leadership is part of the story. European banking officials, who completely missed the depth of the crisis, still seem weirdly complacent. And to hear anything in America comparable to the know-nothing diatribes of Germany’s finance minister you have to listen to, well, Republicans.

There's a third side to this too: fixing the banking system.  I'm not quite sure what's going on here, though.  Back in September and October we heard a lot about how European banks were even more highly leveraged than American banks: leverage of 40:1 or even 60:1 wasn't uncommon among some of Europe's largest banks.  This suggested that their banks were headed for even worse trouble than ours and might very well need even bigger bailouts.

But since then, nothing.  Britain's banks are falling like flies, and Eastern Europe is in big trouble, but I've been reading very little about the big Western European banks that compares with the drumbeat of calls for nationalizing Citigroup or Bank of America.  (Though here's a recent example of just that.)  Is this because European banks, despite their astronomical leverage, are in better shape than American banks?  Or is it because European regulators have their heads in the sand and don't want to deal seriously with their bad banks any more than ours do?

I'm not sure, and I'm going to dig around a bit and see if I can get up to speed on this.  But any way you look at it, this needs to be on the agenda too.

Cuomo's AIG Deadline: The Clock Is Ticking

Andrew Cuomo, New York's attorney general, is a demanding man. First he demanded bonus information from Merrill Lynch, which paid out billions to its employees before announcing it lost over $15 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008. When Merrill wasn't forthcoming, he asked for it again and demanded the same information from Bank of America, which bought Merrill Lynch in late 2008. Now he's demanding bonus information from AIG, and he wants it by 4pm today. If Cuomo doesn't get what he wants by then, he'll be issuing subpoenas for it. Given Cuomo's recent history, it's unlikely he's bluffing. In his letter (PDF) to AIG CEO Edward Liddy, Cuomo writes:

We were disturbed to learn over the weekend of AIG's plans to pay millions of dollars to members of the Financial Products subsidiary through its Financial Products Retention Plan. Financial Products was, of course, the division of AIG that led to its meltdown and the huge infusion of taxpayer funds to save the firm. Previously, AIG had agreed at our request to make no payments out of its $600 million Financial Products deferred compensation pool.
We have requested the list of individuals who are to receive payments under this retention plan, as well as their positions at the firm, and it is surprising that you have yet to provide this information.

Cuomo has yet to get the list of individuals he originally requested. If you've been following the attorney general's modus operandi, you'll know what happens next. He didn't get what he originally wanted, so now he's asking for more:

In addition, we also now request a description of each individual's job description and performance at AIG Financial Products. Please also provide whatever contracts you now claim obligate you to make these payments. Moreover, you should immediately provide us with a list of who negotiated these contracts and who developed this retention plan so we can begin to investigate the circumstances surrounding these questionable bonus arrangements. Finally, we demand an immediate status report as to whether the payments under the retention plan have been made.

Judging from AIG's past history and general incompetence, it seems unlikely that the business will want to or be able to put together the information Cuomo wants in the next few hours. It's probably safe to assume that subpoenas will be forthcoming.

Financial "Experts" Need to Seek Professional Help

AARP stands unrivaled as a public voice for old folks. Yet so much of what they have to say about the current economic crisis, which has hit us geezers especially hard, is just godawful drivel. On my own blog last week, I commented on AARP magazine’s relentlessly upbeat take on being old and out of work. A recent bulletin piece was full of the same kinds of useless pick-me-ups. What really took the cake for me this time, though, was the financial planning advice offered to recession-battered geezers:

Avoid early withdrawals. “Taking hits on your retirement accounts, especially when the stock market is falling, generally isn’t a good idea,” says Matt D’Arcy, of Greybridge Financial in Cleveland. Seek professional help. “There are a lot of strategies that might help people avoid touching retirement investments,” he says. “The point is to sit down with someone who can help you map a plan.” If possible, delay Social Security. Benefits are reduced before full retirement age.

OK, let's just take these statements one-by-one. First, "Avoid early withdrawals." Nice advice if you can afford it. Or maybe not even then: These financial “experts” have been warning us for more than a year not to take our money out of the market. I just checked to see where the Dow Jones Average was a year ago–hovering around 12,000. I don’t need to tell you where it is now. Here’s a chart that tells the story all too clearly:

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Now, don’t you wish you’d made a couple of “early withdrawals” some time in the last year? Instead, we’ve been told again and again that we have to “hold tight” and “wait it out.” Not very useful for people who are already retired and depending on their savings–and could die before this thing hits bottom.

Senior Senators Face Serious 2010 Challenges

Former Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican who represented Connecticut's very blue (it went for Obama by 19 points) second congressional district from 2000 to 2006, announced on Sunday that he will challenge Sen. Chris Dodd in 2010. Despite the (R) next to his name, Simmons stands a chance: a recent poll showed him ahead of the once-popular incumbent.

Zombie Banks

Over at our main site, I've got a piece up that I think of as "Nationalization 101."  (The official title is "Real Capitalists Nationalize," a phrase I stole from Steve Randy Waldman.) It's a quick overview of how banks work, why toxic assets have frozen the credit market, and what the options are for dealing with it.  Option #4 is the Swedish solution: selective, temporary nationalization of the weakest banks:

President Obama clearly has considered the Swedish experience: "They took over the banks," he said on Nightline last month, "nationalized them, got rid of the bad assets, resold the banks, and a couple years later, they were going again. So you'd think looking at it, Sweden looks like a good model." Yet, he went on, the United States has a "different set of cultures" than Sweden, and Americans would find nationalization a hard pill to swallow.

Unsaid but implicit in Obama's statement, though, is that Americans could likely be persuaded to accept nationalization if they understand that all the alternatives are worse. In fact, this may have been exactly the point of the bank rescue plan Obama's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, announced shortly after that interview. A key element of the plan involves a mandatory "stress test" for the country's biggest banks, which sounds remarkably similar to Hempton's third-party auditor and Sweden's Bank Support Authority. It could turn out to have been a smart PR move as much as anything: Get everyone talking about the stress tests, worrying about the stress tests, gossiping about the stress tests — and by the time the results become public, it's hard to imagine any recourse other than nationalization for the banks that don't pass.

The stress test is also a way to address both of the two big problems with nationalization. Not only can it fairly decide which banks are solvent and which ones aren't, but it also addresses the dreaded "contagion" problem: Since investors are wiped out when a bank is nationalized, the mere fear of nationalization can scare private investors away from every bank, even the good ones. But if stress tests are done on every bank and the bad ones are all nationalized at once, the good banks are freed from fears that they might be next on the government chopping block.

You'll notice that in this piece I'm still holding out hope that Geithner's stress tests are basically designed to give him an excuse for selective nationalization.  I'm still hoping that's true, I think, but it's hard to say what's really going on.  Last night, for example, Ben Bernanke was asked on 60 Minutes if all the big banks the Fed regulates are solvent, and he answered flatly, "I believe they are, yes."  But then he followed up by mentioning the stress tests and suggesting that if a big bank is insolvent, they'd  "try to wind it down in a safe way." What's that supposed to mean?

Add to that the fact that Citigroup and Bank of America, the two banks most often mentioned as basket cases, have recently sworn on stacks of Bibles that their capital position is rock solid.  No more bailouts for them!  And considering that their toxic asset pool was guaranteed by the government a few months ago, which limits their downside losses, they might even be right.  Or, they might be lying through their teeth.  Who knows?

In any case, the full Swedish solution will be a tough sell.  Not only would it involve temporary nationalization of one or two big banks, but it would also feature a systemwide guarantee of all bank obligations.  But that's basically what we did for AIG, and bailing out all of AIG's counterparties hasn't exactly gone down well in the heartland.  Doing the same thing for the rest of the financial system, nationalized or not, would certainly help restore confidence in the banking system, but getting Congress to agree won't be easy.

The Pirates of Somalia: A Photo Essay

The Boston Globe has assembled a spectacular photo essay of the chaos afloat off the shores of Somalia, where pirates have stepped up attacks on commercial shipping in the last year. Enjoy it for yourself here.