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Voice From the Back

Suicides rise as yen falls
As the Japanese economy enters recession with record unemployment since the war, the Japanese National Police Agency reports that suicides related to economic failure leaped by 18 percent last year."Among the 3,556 who took their lives were three business partners who committed suicide together in a Tokyo hotel because of debt" Guardian, 13 June.

Controlling lives
Workfare, and welfare reform in general, offer a way to "break the culture of poverty and dependence" as Bill Clinton said during the 1992 presidential campaign. The idea is not merely to give those on welfare the dignity of earning their way.The hope is that once work is required, those not on welfare will avoid making the decisions - like having children out of wedlock - that might put them on welfare. New York Times, 5 May.

The alchemists
A fortnight ago, consultants acting for Monsanto, the biotechnology company whose recent merger will make it one of the largest corporations on earth, wrote to some of Africa's most prominent academics and politicians, inviting them to sign a stirring public statement called "Let the Harvest Begin" . . . Monsanto's suggestion that the continent's freedom from famine depends upon its technologies would be hilarious if it were not so sinister. For Monsanto's operations can now be numbered among the hungry continent's greatest threats. The leading edge of Monsanto's new work is not the production of food, but the production of feed; crops, in other words, grown not for humans but for animals. Last month the company announced a joint venture with the gigantic multinational grain merchant Cargill, to produce and market the seeds of genetically engineered fodder plants, particularly maize . . . Feed production is a growing component of Third World agriculture, supplying the ever-increasing consumption of meat, eggs and dairy produce in the First World. It is also one of the engines of African Famine, as land previously devoted to meeting local people's necessities has been expropriated to supply the rich worlds luxuries ... But this is the least of the ways in which Monsanto threatens Africa. Three months ago, American Delta and Pine Land Company patented a remarkable technology. Its "Terminator" gene ensures that the plants which contain it produce only sterile seeds: farmers planting these crops, in other words, will be forced to buy new stock every year. The new technology's "primary targets" are, according to the original patent holders, "Second and Third World" countries. Four weeks ago, Monsanto bought the company... Monsanto, in other words, threatens to become the hunger merchant of the third millennium. Guardian, 4 June.

We all agree-don't we
SAN DIEGO—A high-school sophomore who objects to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is fighting for the right to sit quietly during the daily exercise in patriotism. "Until a few months ago, I stood and faced the flag with my hands over my heart and mechanically said the Pledge of Allegiance" MaryKait Durkee said Friday. "But I thought about what the pledge actually meant and I disagreed with its message," She said she doesn't believe in God, thinks the US government is corrupt and that American society is too violent, so she shouldn't have to show respect for a country that has so many problems. For the ensuing three weeks, Durkee sat silently in her seat during the pledge. On Aprir 25, she was notified she had to serve four hours of detention and stand during the salute. Seattle Times, 3 I May.

With a whimper
With only 562 days to go until the millennium, fearful Americans are heading for the hills armed with the four Gs of survival - God, guns, gold and groceries . . Gary North, a Christian economist [!] and Y2K preacher, predicts martial law will be declared by 15 january 2000. "I think there will be a collapse of Western civilisation if the power grid goes down." Observer, l4 june.

What took you so long?
Early this summer, I enjoyed a weekend at the Long Island home of a college friend - a highly intelligent and levelheaded Englishman whose career has taken him (by way of the upper echelons of the British Civil Service and a financial firm in the City of London) to a big Wall Street investment bank. There he has spent the last few years organizing stock issues and helping his firm milk the strongest market in living memory. Between dips in his pool, we discussed the economy and speculated about how long the current financial boom would last.To my surprise, he brought up Karl Marx. "The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more I am convinced that Marx was right" he said. I assumed he was joking. "There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the economist who resurrects Marx and puts it all together in a coherent model" he continued quite seriously. "I am absolutely convinced that Marx's approach is the best way to look at capitalism." New Yorker, October 1997.