Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai, Valley Stream, and the Economic Meltdown

There is no shortage of news to write about today. The horrendous terror attacks in Mumbai have finally ended with the death of the final terrorist in the Taj Mahal hotel; the toll of hundreds of deaths and hundreds more wounded is staggering, but when the NY Times (November 29, 2008) notes that: “Perhaps the most troubling question to emerge Saturday for the Indian authorities was how, if official estimates are accurate, just 10 gunmen could have caused so much carnage and repelled Indian police officers, paramilitary forces and soldiers for more than three days in three different buildings,” it is hard to argue. I suppose the best response is “Obviously, they had help.” We await the answers which will probably come slowly and painfully and involve a lot of collaboration not only within residents of the city and employees of many of the institutions attacked, but likely the security forces themselves. We have become accustomed to life-imitates-“art” – or at least the movies and TV – with the Obama election’s eerie similarities to “West Wing”; with Mumbai we are reminded of “Vantage Point”.

Back in the USA, in a scene most Americans would think of as more likely to happen in India, a crowd of shoppers who waited all night outside a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island, NY, stormed the entrance this “Black Friday”, trampling to death a young worker named Jdimytai Damour who was behind the door. The Times quotes Detective Lt. Michael Fleming, who is in charge of the investigation for the Nassau police: “I’ve heard other people call this an accident, but it is not,” he said. “Certainly it was a foreseeable act.” As a side note, the Times also mentions that “Wal-Mart has successfully resisted unionization of its employees. New York State’s largest grocery union, Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, called the death of Mr. Damour ‘avoidable’ and demanded investigations.” Frankly, I do not see how unionization could have prevented such an event, but perhaps the officers of the UFCW believe that collective bargaining could have had the employees demand more security. If this attention increases the probability that Wal-Mart workers will enjoy the protection of unionization, however, it would be a very good thing.

If the Mumbai crisis has its roots in religious and ethnic conflict, and that in Valley Stream may indicate a new level of anti-social behavior in the US, they also both can be discussed in terms of the current economic meltdown. It may be more obvious in the case of Long Island (consumers rushing in to get bargains turning into a total mob), but the Mumbai-related events can certainly exacerbate this crisis if it escalates the India-Pakistan conflict.

The economic crisis was in fact, as most people (save perhaps the naïf Alan “I never thought people would be so greedy!” Greenspan) believe, caused entirely by the unfettered greed of a relatively (compared to the people they have impact) small number of financial manipulators abetted and encouraged by the policies of the Bush administration. That we have such a crisis in the absence of world-wide famine, the full economic impact of global warming, or regional nuclear war is particularly terrifying given the possibility of any or all of those occurring in the near future. Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) presented a terrifying analysis of what the impact of a regional war with a relatively small number of atomic weapons used, would be. He identifies India-Pakistan as probably the most likely venue for such a conflict. The abstract of his talk ( notes that:
“The recent study by Robock* et al on the climatic consequences of regional nuclear war shows that even a “limited” nuclear conflict involving as few as 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, would have global implications with significant cooling of the earth's surface and decreased precipitation in many parts of the world. A conflict of this magnitude could arise between emerging nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan. Past episodes of abrupt global cooling, due to volcanic activity, caused major crop failures and famine; the predicted climate effects of a regional nuclear war would be expected to cause similar shortfalls in agricultural production. In addition large quantities of food might need to be destroyed and significant areas of crop land might need to be taken out of production because of radioactive contamination. Even a modest, sudden decline in agricultural production could trigger significant increases in the prices for basic foods and hoarding on a global scale, both of which would make food inaccessible to poor people in much of the world. While it is not possible to estimate the precise extent of the global famine that would follow a regional nuclear war, it seems reasonable to postulate a total global death toll in the range of one billion from starvation alone. Famine on this scale would also lead to major epidemics of infectious diseases, and would create immense potential for war and civil conflict.”

We have a long way to go before we hit bottom!

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