Voice from the Back

New York, New York

New York, like most major cities in the world, is really two cities. One of glamour, excitement and gracious living, and the other of toil, anxiety and quiet desperation. The journalist Gaby Wood encapsulates the contrast when she writes in the Observer (22 February) as follows: “Consider a recent New Yorker magazine guide to ‘thrift’ stores for designer clothes: a second-hand Chanel suit, it informed us could be had for only $800. And if you were really lucky and didn’t mind the odd leftover hanky, you might snap up a Hermes bag for $4,200 . . . It was reported this week that Woody Allen has had an offer of $23 million on his house but is looking out for $27 million . . . One fifth of New Yorkers now live below the poverty line – defined as an annual income, for a family of one adult and three children, of less than $18,392. Mark Levitan of the Community Service Society in New York says that if the poor here had their own municipality it would be the fifth largest city in the US.”

A great man speaks

The US president George W. Bush was showing his touchy-feely side recently (well, it is election year after all) by making a speech on International Women’s Week. “Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi Jahmi. She’s a local government official who was imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy,” the president said in a speech at the White House on Friday.” Yahoo News (13 March). As usual George got it wrong. Fathi is a man! And this same president is the man American workers are supposed to follow into war. Kinda scary aint it?


A very good year

Every year the magazine Forbes publishes lists of wealthy men and women and notes their assets. It is by its nature only an approximation. As soon as they have completed the amount, the interest on their capital makes the figure out-dated. Here are a couple of findings from the lists. “The Duke of Westminster, 52, is Britain’s wealthiest individual and the 36th richest person in the world. He owns assets, mostly property in Mayfair, worth $8.7 billion ( £4.7 billion), an improvement of $1.2 billion on the previous year. The second richest Briton, at position 84 and with assets of $5 billion, is Philip Green, 52, the shopping tycoon whose empire includes British Home Stores, Top Shop, Burton and Miss Selfridge. He has more than doubled his fortune in the past 12 months from the $2.3 billion he possessed last year.” Times (27 February). A good year for billionaires then, but how about you and your family?

The price of everything

When Oscar Wilde wrote “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, he must have had in mind the likes of Bjorn Lomberg the Danish statistics professor. Lomberg wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist, a volume that viewed global problems like pollution, global warming and deforestation in an optimistic fashion. Although even this apologist for capitalism had to admit that there were problems. “The world faces serious problems such as pollution, hunger and disease,” he said. “Which problems should be addressed first? There are 800 million people starving, 2.5 billion people lacking sewerage and billions affected by climate change. We all wish that there were money enough to to solve all problems, but our means are limited.” Independent (6 March). So what does the learned professor propose to do about these appalling problems. Why, set up a team of nine of the world’s top economists to look at 10 of world’s most serious problems and list their solutions “according to value for money”. We can hardly wait to hear of their learned conclusions. Neither can the starving 800 million. Those of them that are still alive at the time that is.


A killer system

Socialism is said to be impossible because human beings are genetically aggressive and cannot behave in a cooperative fashion. A recent TV programme The Truth About Killing (8 and 15 March, Channel 4) seems to deny that assertion about aggression. Here is the TV reviewer Ian Bell on these programmes. “We are biologically repelled from killing face to face. In the Second World War, only 15 per cent of men were prepared to fire at their enemy, only 2 per cent of those were trying actively to kill. For the military this was “a problem”; for the rest of us it might have sounded like grounds for hope.” Herald (16 March). Needless to say the military authorities set about de-humanising the future combatants with the result that the British forces reckoned by the time of the Falklands war they had trained their troops to be efficient killers. “Then came the sting in this tale – killing was one thing, living with it quite another; 252 Britons were killed in the war, 200 have committed suicide since the war.” All the evidence seems to point to most people, far from being naturally brutal, find the idea of killing repugnant.

Welcome to London

Following reports of the inability of thousands of workers in the London area to obtain affordable housing, and recent disclosures that you could wait 15 years for local authorities to provide you with rented accommodation, the following is a glaring example of the inequalities of capitalism. Tim Hyatt, head of lettings at Knight Frank, the estate agents is quoted as saying; “We just renewed a tenancy in Kensington at £9,785 per week to an American CEO, and another of £5,353 to an overseas banker.” Financial Times (20 March). Although these are exceptionally high he goes on to reveal that over 200 of their properties in central London are in excess of £1,000 a week. Not many school teachers or nurses are their clients we imagine.

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