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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: April 26, 2008

“Bankers are paid so much that they often end up owning big chunks of their firm — as a reward for gambling with the shareholders’ money. Says one critic: “Wall Street is arranging management buyouts by stealth.”
— Fortune

“Though the behavior of banks can seem incomprehensible, the behavior of bankers never is. We all know what City Boys are like. Masters of the Ruddy Universe; shouty, show-off suits; arrogant drunks who live their lives — their work — like spoilt teenagers with too much pocket money.”
— Miranda Sawyer in the Observer Magazine

THE WATER WARS have gone global with citizen groups in half a dozen countries mobilizing to fight against giant water companies who, backed by the World Bank, seek to turn what should be free into a commercial commodity — “a common heritage of people and nature, a fundamental human right,” as Maude Barlow puts it in the Nation.

In many parts of Latin America, only the rich can buy water; in Mexico, less than 10% of the surface water is fit for drinking and 37 million Mexicans either have no access to water or village taps run only for a few hours each week. But the solution offered is privatization, backed by right-wing former president Vicente Fox and current president Felipe Calderon and where already in effect it has brought “exorbitant water rates, broken promises, and cut-offs to those who cannot pay,” writes Ms. Barlow.

After Bolivia gave the water contract to the U.S. company Bechtel, prices tripled and peasants earning less than $60 a month found themselves facing $20-a-month bills. Riots forced the government to cancel the contract and then that of another gouging conglomerate, Suez, which was charging $450 for hook-ups (“equivalent to the food budget of a poor family for two years”).

In both of these countries and others where the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have been pushing for privatization, citizens’ groups have formed to fight back — “a highly organized international water justice movement…shaping the future of the world’s water.” (The World Health Organization says 80% of all illnesses worldwide and 5,000 children a day are killed by unsafe water).

IF AN ITEM in a store isn’t scanned there’s no record of it, and that’s what happens all too often when cashiers give away merchandise to friends or family without ringing it up. Sweethearting is what the industry calls the practice and Stores magazine estimates that it costs $20 billion a year in lost sales. Such sweethearting behaviors as stacking items atop each other to conceal the bar code are being increasingly detected by new video technology called StopLift which presents retailers with a daily update of suspicious incidents.

Sponsored by a Ford Foundation grant, Bryon Hurt‘s critical movie, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, will tour black colleges and universities this year and next. The film, six years in production, condemns the negative portrayals of women, stereotypical images of black masculinity, and homophobic references that pervade hip-hop music videos. “People are starting to tire of these very narrow and limiting representations not only of Black men and Latino men but also of black women,” says Hurt, 37.

Column Flashback

Dec 16, 2000

SHOULD CHINA HOST the next Olympics in 2008 despite its suspicious record on human rights? Jay Nordlinger posed this question in National Review, answering in the negative.  The 1938 Olympics did a lot to legitimize Nazism, he argues, and those who love the Olympics “should choke on the idea of watching tyrants and butcherers preside smilingly over the Games just as Hitler did. The other contenders for the 2008 games are Paris, Toronto, Istanbul and Osaka. Any of them would do. Beijing would be a disgrace.”

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THE FEDS ARE GETTING worried by the growing use of the virtually untraceable “stored-value” cards which they suspect are being used by drug dealers and terrorists. Forbes suggests that it would have been a much safer way for former New York governor Eliot Spitzer to have paid for his prostitution revels. Stored-value cards, explains the mag, can be bought without identification and used to access cash via ATMs worldwide without bank account or face-to-face identity verification. “It’s an almost untraceable instrument,” says Gregory Calpakis, a money-laundering investigator.

THE WILCOCK WEB: A writer in Delhi’s Outlook magazine claims that as part of an internal power struggle in China, the “Tibetan monks” that initiated the violence were actually disguised Chinese soldiers…. Abu Dhabi paid $525 million for use of the Louvre name on a museum that will share a cultural complex with the Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island…. After only two sightings of the Loch Ness monster were reported last year, local observer Steve Feltham suggested there used to be more monsters, &lddquo;but I believe we’re now down to the last half-dozen”…. Financial columnist Avi Tiomkin, a hedge fund adviser, forecasting that within three years several countries will drop the Euro and return to their old currency, writes: “The euro zone has never existed except as a construct in the minds of bureaucrats and politicians”…. Supermarket (Gristedes)magnate and oil refinery owner John Catsimatidis, 59, a lifelong Democrat, says he is willing to turn Republican and spend $100 million to become New York’s next mayor. Greek-born son of a lighthouse keeper, he has no political experience apart from being a Clinton fundraiser….Even if it’s only from self interest/greed, Fox TV is doing the right thing by refusing to pay the puritanical FCC’s fines for alleged on-air indecencies….“Most problems do not get solved. They get superceded by other concerns,” elucidates economist Thomas Sowell…. Although too polite to say so, last week’s study of Supreme Court confirmations (published in the U of Minnesota Laws School’s Constitutional Commentary) clearly suggests that Justices Antonio Scalia and Clarence Thomas lied about their intentions when they sought affirmation…. After yet another temper tantrum, this time aboard a plane, Naomi Campbell has been banned from British Airways for life… Why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets?…. April 23 is so-called Tax Freedom Day, the day by which you have theoretically earned enough from working to pay all local, state and federal taxes….“The lack of money is the root of all evil.” — Mark Twain (1835-1910)