Friday, November 26, 2010

The Bottom of Their Shoe

It looks like there is a serious movement afoot to impeach Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Unfortunately, it seems that the impeachment may be for the wrong reasons. Reza Aslan reports on the story at The Daily Beast. One of the interesting aspects of his account is the utter economic shambles this oil rich country finds itself in:
The latest row between the president and the parliament comes at a time in which Iran's economy, already reeling from the steady success of President Obama’s targeted sanctions policy, is bracing for what many predict will be catastrophic consequences of Ahmadinejad's plan to end government subsidies for fuel, food, energy, and basic goods like milk, cooking oil, and flour. For decades, Iran’s presidents—from Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Mohammad Khatami—have tried to amend the subsidies system, valued at about $100 billion a year.

But they were repeatedly deterred by the threat of massive protests. After all, in a country that has been isolated from the outside world for three decades, government subsidies are the sole means of survival for millions of poor and middle-class Iranians. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, a typical Iranian household making about $3,600 a year receives an average of $4,000 a year in subsidies.

Although the subsidies program has yet to be fully terminated, the cost of basic goods and services in Iran already has skyrocketed. According to the Los Angeles Times, the price of a kilo of ground beef has jumped from $6, when Ahmadinejad began his first term as president, to $14.50 today. Meanwhile, as I reported last month, the cost of electricity has soared by as much as 1,000 percent for some Iranian households.

The irony is that Ahmadinejad is unquestionably doing the sensible thing in pushing ahead with the removal of government subsidies. Subsidies account for approximately 30 percent of Iran’s entire annual budget. That is simply untenable for an economy that just last month saw the value of its currency drop by a staggering 13 percent against the dollar. Iran’s oil industry, its most lucrative source of revenue, is in shambles after the recent departure of four oil companies— Shell, Total, ENI, and Statoil.

The carpet industry, once valued at $500 million, has disintegrated thanks to increased sanctions. The government claims that 22 percent of Iranians are unemployed (experts say the number is closer to 40 percent), three-quarters of them under the age of 30. Some 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Inflation is officially at 10 percent, though many economists believe it to be more like 24 percent. With the price of oil remaining stable and Iran’s international isolation increasing, the government simply cannot afford to keep paying out nearly a third of its entire budget in subsidies.
It's comforting, in a twisted sort of way, to know that Iran's economy is in worse shape than our own, at least for now.

In any event, here's another irony. We recently posted on a story which made the claim that American foreign policy under President Obama is pretty much the worst it has ever been, but according to Aslan much of Iran's economic difficulty is due to Obama's targeted sanctions on industries like carpet manufacturing. Perhaps our foreign policy isn't quite the muddled mess that it seems. It's tragic that ordinary Iranians are suffering, but it would certainly be a good thing, on balance, if our President were successful in getting Iranians to give the bottom of their shoe to Ahmadinejad and give up their nuclear ambitions before war breaks out in the region.

First Thankful Thanksgiving

Robin of Berkeley is back with a meditation on her first thankful Thanksgiving. Robin is a psychotherapist and former leftist atheist who had an ideological epiphany several years ago and has written a number of columns on what it has been like for her to move from the left to the right.

In this column she reveals some details of another epiphany which has made this Thanksgiving especially meaningful for her. She opens with this lede:
Thanksgiving was never a favorite holiday of mine. Now that I think about it, I never cared for any of them: 4th of July, Christmas, or Columbus Day (which, by the way, Berkeley long ago renamed "Indigenous People's Day").

If I'm being completely honest here, my main activities during the holidays were ranting and raving. For instance: Why should we celebrate Thanksgiving when the holiday marks the slaughter of Native Americans? Why do these cashiers keep cheerfully extolling me to "have a Merry Christmas!"? And if I hear one more [censored] Christmas song, I will lose my frigging mind.

Of course, I was just one of the progressive pack, parroting the party line. Being a Leftist means honing in on every possible injustice. Never-ending gripes and grievances are the glue that keeps progressives cemented together.

But then, three years ago, the bottom fell out of my life. Slowly but surely, it dawned on me that everything I had held as sacrosanct was a lie. I woke up -- and now I behold the world with fresh eyes. Consequently, I am celebrating my First Thankful Thanksgiving.
Read the rest at the link. It's pretty interesting.

Black Friday

Now that the day given to thanking God is over many will today be observing yet another, unofficial, festival known as Black Friday. It, too, is a religious observance albeit an exuberant, rather pagan celebration of the religion of consumerism during which the faithful feel impelled by the spirit of the day to spend oodles of cash on toys, trinkets, and other non-essentials for people who neither need nor want what's been purchased for them.

The extravagance, the prodigality, of it all is, for me at least, tawdry and dispiriting. Jim Wallis writes on his blog that:
The pressure we feel [to buy] doesn’t just come from the ads we get in our inboxes or see on television. All of us have family and friends who are going to be doing a lot of shopping. If a friend goes out and spends money on us, we feel guilty if we don’t reciprocate at roughly the same level. What’s worse is if someone gets us a gift and we don’t get them anything at all. The problem is not giving gifts. Giving gifts becomes a problem when the exchange of stuff replaces building relationships.
It also becomes a problem because we become preoccupied with material excess and often lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. The day is simply the climax of an orgy of splurge shopping at malls which create their idea of an appropriately seasonal atmosphere by piping in music like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. Everywhere we turn we're encouraged to shop till we drop. We're like a person being urged to sample not just one piece of chocolate in the box, but to plunge ahead and consume the whole thing. As we work through the selections the sweets cloy and after a while they just make us sick.

My crotchety outlook on Black Friday notwithstanding, I have mixed feelings about the rite. The jobs of millions of people depend upon us wasting money today on things nobody really wants or needs. If people were to turn Black Friday into a buy-nothing-day it'd cause an enormous amount of hardship for those businesses and their employees who rely on our profligacy for their livelihoods.

Even so, I'm a non-combatant conscientious objector to the spectacle. Maybe there's a better way. Perhaps some of us could put a little perspective and meaning back into the Christmas season by sending a note to family members, friends, and co-workers, who are often stressed over trying to find a gift for someone who already has more than enough of life's goods, asking that no presents (or at least not as many presents) be bought for us this year, and that in lieu of the gift a donation be sent to a charity of our choosing. Perhaps the address of the charity could be appended to the note.

This would not only help avoid the embarrassment of being showered with items for which one has no need and can't use, but it would also be a gift to our loved ones inasmuch as it would take the pressure off them to come up with something meaningful to give us.

At our Christmas gatherings they might hand us a card saying that a gift has been donated in our name to the charity we requested. For some of us that would be the most wonderful gift we could receive, and it would be a step toward recovering, at least in our own circles, the original spirit and meaning of Christmas day.