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Voice From the Back

Same old story
The announcement that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings, the makers of Camel cigarettes, is to cut 2,600 jobs – close to half its workforce – has come as a great shock to the town of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. Between 1,600 and 1,700 of the jobs are in the town. Bad news for the shareholders? Well, no, not really. “The company shocked Wall Street yesterday morning as it unveiled the plan to cut 40 percent of its workforce, although traders welcomed the prospect of cost-cutting and marked the shares 12 per cent higher to $38.24 by midday” (Times 18 September).

The rich get richer
One of the myths expounded by apologists for capitalism is that there are no longer classes in society and that poverty is gradually disappearing. According to the BBC News Online (25 September) the exact opposite seems to be occurring in the USA. “The gap between rich and poor in America is the widest in 70 years, according to a new study published by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The research, based on newly released figures from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, shows that the top one percent of Americans – who earn an average of $862,000 each after tax (or $1.3 m before tax) – receive more money than the 110m Americans in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution, whose income averages $21,350 each year. The income going to the richest one percent has gone up threefold in real terms in the past twenty years, while the income of the poorest 40 percent went up by a more modest 11 percent.”

Spare parts for sale
Everything inside capitalism takes the form of a commodity, so it should come as no surprise to learn that there is a brisk trade in desperately poor people selling their kidneys. The going price paid to young people in eastern Europe for one kidney is $2,500 to $3,000 and patients receiving the kidneys have paid between $100,000 and $200,000 for a transplant. "John Dark, a transplant surgeon at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, said it was difficult to draw a moral difference between the physical harm inflicted on someone paid for a kidney or paid to work in a Third World sweat shop . . . An impoverished man trying to support his family by selling his kidney is no different to putting in shifts down a diamond mine. Society has moved on from where paying for harm was unthinkable. We do it every day when we buy a pair of trainers" (Independent, 30 September).

Compassionate Tories
The Conservative Party at present are going through a crisis as they try to cobble together a series of reforms that might prove popular at the next election. They are making noises about being a caring, compassionate party, so it is interesting to see what one of the delegates to last month's Tory conference had to say. "Mr Metcalfe, who has ambitions of becoming a Tory MP at the next election, received a rousing ovation when he insisted the way to combat crime was to make it not worth the price. He told the conference: "make prison a genuine punishment. Bring back solitary confinement, take away their TVs and snooker tables and let them earn privileges." And there was more, "Bring back birching for young tearaways that terrorise council estates and vandalise graveyards, castrate paedophiles and bring back hanging" (Herald, 8 October). Phew, some caring - some compassion.

War aims
Mr Bush was very clear what the US war aims were in Iraq – topple the wicked dictator – build a prosperous democracy – and 100 percent foreign ownership of many of the state's resources. Wait a minute, you don't remember the third aim? Neither do we, but it seems that third aim is going to be realised long before the second one. “Controversial plans to privatise all of Iraq's non-oil assets have been attacked by Nobel-prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz . . . The laws approved by the Coalition Provisional chief Paul Bremer, allow 100 percent foreign ownership of all state assets apart from natural resources. Trade tariffs and taxes have also been slashed, and the Central Bank of Iraq has been made operationally independent. `This is an extreme version of Republican ideology,` said Stiglitz. 'Of course it is nothing we would do at home (US), because we're actually quite protectionist`” (Observer, 12 October).