Saturday, May 24, 2003

It's Not Only Water
I've blogged a couple of times about the shenanigans multinational water companies got up to when buying up public utilities in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Now it seems that water may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Two articles published in the paper version of Financial Times May 21st uncover the collusion between AES, a US-based energy group, and Enron to rig the auction of the Brazilian electricity company, Eletropaulo Metropolitana. The privatization of the largest electricity distribution company in Latin America was expected to bring several hundred million dollars above the minimum price of $1.78 billion.

Instead, as FT reports, hours before the action, AES and Enron hammered out a deal in which Enron agreed not to bid for the return, AES guaranteed Enron lucrative contracts to supply gas to a power plant AES and Enron would build together to generate electricity for Eletropaulo.

The deal fell apart when Houston Industries, a member of the consortium AES represented, refused to sign off on the deal. We thought it was bad business says their former corporate counsel. It didn't pass the smell test. Brazilian attorneys agree: under Brazilian law, this kind of deal is considered bid-rigging. Still, AES bought and still controls Eletropaulo.

The deal was a disaster for the Brazilian government. The jewel in the crown of energy assets for sale that year, Eletropaulo with 5m customers was expected to fetch several hundred million dollars above the minumum. Brazilian attorneys consulted by FT say that the statute of limitations in such cases is five years, which puts the 1998 deal beyond the government's reach.

This is what I mean when I say that Latin Americans in general are leery of capitalism and globalization. In their experience, it often means foreign corporations ripping off the locals; international organizations that seem fixated in imposing "free market" reforms on countries crushed under debt, but never seem to bother taking steps to penalize companies that take advantage of them; and the bulk of the population getting poorer and poorer in the midst of incredible wealth.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Adding to the Blogroll
Darn it, it's getting looong, but I couldn't pass these up!

My old comments buddy, Mac Diva, has a blog: Mac-a-ro-nies. Sharp and erudite as always.

Tristero. Good lefty politics.

Brad DeLong. Good economics, watered down somewhat so that even statistically-challenged folks like me can understand it.

Notes from the Lounge. An actual live thinking libertarian. Wonderful!

The Downside of Biotechnology (Part Two)
Pesticides and herbicides were introduced in the 1930s to make farming more cost-effective by elimininating common crop pests. However, over the years many of these pests developed a strong resistance to the chemicals. The classic case is Monsanto's Roundup, a chemical so strong that it kills or damages anything it touches.

In order to prevent damage to crops, Monsanto developed several strains commonly known as "Roundup Ready"; that is, they will survive a full application of Roundup that would kill any plant. Farmers could plant fields full of "Roundup Ready" corn or soybeans, use the pesticide to kill the weeds, and be assured of a successful harvest. Unfortunately, in the last few years several of the most common crop infesting weeds have ALSO been reported as showing resistance to Roundup (see this table). Basically that means that the "Roundup Ready" crops are already nearly obsolete. A new generation of pesticides will need to be developed, followed by new strains of pesticide-resistant crops, followed a neverending cycle. A similar cycle has resulted from the attempts to control insect pests. To break the cycle, companies like Monsanto have begun to develop plants that carry their own killing agents: corn, potatoes and other crops that carry genes from bacteria such as Bt.

While this has all the signs of being an improvement of the current conditions, the problem is that there are no long-term studies on the effects of these gene technologies. The longest running test was carried out in the UK over a four year period, and, even though the results are not yet out, the wrangling over the results is already fierce. But it took more than twenty years before the damage caused by pesticides was recognized, and even longer until the government issued a full ban on DDT.

We are still dealing with the fallout from that particular experiment.

In addition, regulation of genetically modified crops is several magnitudes more difficult than regulation of pesticides. Just last year, two incidents set off alarms. Genetically modified corn was found growing in soybeans. This corn was developed by a company, ProdiGene, that especializes in using plants to develop vaccines and industrial enzymes; this story in Time Magazine Online, says that the corn was engineered to treat pig diarrhea. Notice that the only reason this was caught was because the plant showed up in a field with a different crop. If it had grown in a cornfield no one would have noticed the difference, and the vaccine would have entered the food supply in everything from corn on the cob to corn syrup to corn oil. Human biology is close enough to swine biology to be able to pass several diseases between the species; what is to say what human reaction to a pig vaccine could be?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA both declare that bioengineered crops pose no threat to human health. Didn't they use to say the same thing about pesticides?

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Violence and Culture
A few days ago, through a ghastly combination of chance and morning prefrontal lobe haze (a disease I am particularly prone to) I ended up watching Good Morning America while getting ready to go to work. One of the segments dealt with violent video games and the ease with which teenagers and children can get a hold of them. Diane Sawyer, at her outraged best, showed clips from what she said was the current best selling videos, including one called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

This is what I saw:

I saw a man follow a scantily dressed woman into a area that looked like a park. After beating her to the ground, he stood between her spread-out legs and kicked her in the crotch repeatedly while blood pooled under her body. Later on, the man beat another woman to death with a baseball bat. In another game, a man fired off something that sounded like an AK-47 at half-nude women tied to pillars.

While Ms. Sawyer and her guest prosed on about the horror of such things falling into the hands of children, I wondered what the hell was wrong with a culture that considers beating women to death a form of entertainment.

I am not one of those people who believe that whatever people do in a video game they will automatically replicate in real life, so I am not concerned that there will be a sudden massive outburst of violence against women coming from video game players. However, at least one study has linked violent video games to a general increase in the aggresiveness of a person in the real world:

The effect of violent video games appears to be cognitive in nature. In the short term, playing a violent video game appears to affect aggression by priming aggressive thoughts. Longer-term effects are likely to be longer lasting as well, as the player learns and practices new aggression-related scripts that become more and more accessible for use when real-life conflict situations arise. If repeated exposure to violent video games does indeed lead to the creation and heightened accessibility of a variety of aggressive knowledge structures, thus effectively altering the person's basic personality structure, the consequent changes in everyday social interactions may also lead to consistent increases in aggressive affect.

It certainly seems that the connexion exists in young boys. According to this digest in the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Childhood Education, several studies done in the mid 1990s showed that there is a link between several forms of aggressive behavior such as physical aggressiveness in play and attributing hostile intentions to others and violent video games.

If these findings are true, even for a small subset of the population, our culture is likely to get more prone to aggressive problem resolution, and more accepting of violence as the first rather than the last resort. Not a comforting thought in a world armed to the teeth, where compromise might be the only way to avoid obliteration. But even less comforting if you are a woman living in a culture that views you as a target.

One of the ways video game manufacturers creators are trying to divert criticism is by introducing female characters that kick ass with the best of them. This New York Times article quotes Jennifer Baumgardner's suggestion that casting women as gladiators challenges images of women as passive targets of violence.

My own observation is that while it is fun to play Lara Croft, how many real-life women do you know who can take on armed men twice their size? What these games suggest to me is the proliferation of the idea that it's ok to physically challenge a woman, since she can take care of herself. She has become a legitimate target for an aggressive first response.

Is there a solution? I don't think that anything other than a shift in our cultural foundations will do. I once heard an European movie director say that in the United States showing a woman's bare breasts was likely to get you an x-rating, but showing the same woman being stabbed to death in the most gruesome fashion would only get an r-rating.

There's something fundamentally wrong in a culture that considers a woman's body an obscenity while viewing its violent destruction as good fun. Until we change that particular equation, I don't hold out much hope for us.