Tuesday, November 25, 2008


In 1991 Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson was hit with criminal charges in India resulting from the 1984 Bhopal disaster that killed up to 8,000 Indians, mostly poor, who had the misfortune to live near the Union Carbide plant that released a deadly cloud of methyl isocyanate into the air early one morning. Anderson was arrested and released on bail when he went to India in the wake of the disaster, then hounded for years by India’s attempts to extradite him following his retirement. He remains a hate figure for many, a symbol of reckless, ruthless multi-national corporations savaging the environment and leaving bodies in their wake as they squeeze dollars out of third-world workers.

I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that Anderson bore some responsibility for the disaster; there were legitmate criticisms of UC’s safety record and procedures at the plant, and accountability is part of an executive’s job, one reason the top people pull down big pay packets. But in view of the fact that the actual cause of the accident was gross negligence if not sabotage (that remains in dispute) by low-level Indian workers at the plant, the attempt to throw Anderson into an Indian prison seems a bit extreme. Imputing criminal responsibility on the basis of an employee's misconduct? Man, that’s harsh.

But all right, fair enough: let’s agree that the people at the top of a hierarchy need to be held accountable, to the point of doing jail time if necessary, for everything that goes wrong on their watch. Let’s agree further that this should apply not only to the heads of multi-national corporations but also to heads of government.

Now that’s radical. Actually hold politicians accountable for the disasters they cause? That doesn’t happen much. The worst they can expect, usually, is to lose the next election, assuming they allow elections, and slink off to enjoy a cushy retirement.

But to avoid double standards, we need to think about tossing some of these scoundrels in jail. I have several candidates for time in the stocks, based on their performance in office. Let’s start with an obvious one:

Robert Mugabe I’m not sure anyone has ever wrecked a country as fast or as thoroughly as Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. We’ll skate over his massacre of political and tribal rivals in the 1980’s and his savage campaign against homosexuals to concentrate on his demolition of Zimbabwe’s economy and society, which began in earnest in the late nineties. When white minority rule ended in 1980, Zimbabwe was a reasonably prosperous country that fed not only itself but much of southern Africa. But much of the best land was owned by white farmers whose ancestors had expropriated it from the natives, and it was accepted that some form of land reform was desirable and inevitable. Under British supervision a program was initiated that promoted peaceful transfer of the land with compensation for the white owners (who had, for all their sins, sunk generations of productive labor into it). This didn’t move fast enough for Mugabe, and in 2000 he staged a referendum which was to allow confiscation of white-owned land without compensation. Surprisingly, the referendum was voted down. Mugabe overruled the vote and encouraged his partisans simply to invade the farms.

What ensued was an orgy of violence and theft. White owners were driven out, some tortured and killed, and the land taken over by Mugabe’s cronies. Agricultural production plummeted. No, that’s too mild. It crashed and burned. It seems that Mugabe’s pals were not quite ready to assume responsibility for running a modern agricultural operation. Zimbabwe quickly became dependent on international food aid. Then, in 2004 Mugabe kicked out the aid organizations, claiming that Zimbabwe was capable of feeding itself.

He also demonized foreign companies, arbitrarily seizing majority stakes in many of them. Most of them left. When the ensuing economic crash left Mugabe without enough tax revenues to pay his growing patronage army (the only well-fed sector of society), he started simply printing money, triggering hyperinflation on a scale not seen since Germany’s in the early twenties.

In 2005 Mugabe had his security forces demolish shantytowns where he himself had encouraged rural poor to settle while awaiting housing he promised to build them. The attacks drove thousands of destitute people back into the ravaged countryside.

Today aid agencies are estimating that five million Zimbabweans, nearly half the population, are in imminent danger of starvation. This in a country that was a food exporter as late as the 1990’s. Millions of other Zimbabweans have fled, many to South Africa, where they have been targeted in pogroms by South Africa’s own poor, who have little to share. In a decade Zimbabwe has gone from being a relatively prosperous African success story to a catastrophic humanitarian emergency.

All of this is the direct result of decisions made explicitly by Robert Mugabe, who remains in power, was invited to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization conference (other African leaders threatened to boycott the meeting if Mugabe was barred) and remains a member in good standing of the African Union.

Mugabe held accountable? Don’t hold your breath. He’s the head of a government, and they are held to different standards than heads of private companies. Which is to say, none at all.

I’ll be writing about other candidates for the Presidential Penitentiary, including some closer to home. Stay tuned...

Sam Reaves

Monday, November 10, 2008

The New Guy in Washington

The election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States has people all over the world fanning themselves and reeling with the vapors. Come January, the man at the helm of the world’s greatest power will be a mixed-race outsider with international roots who clawed his way up the ladder, instead of the anointed son of a moneyed family deeply entrenched in the old power structure. That testifies to the dynamism of our political system, which with all its faults still manages to shake things up from time to time.

That’s not to say, of course, that everything is going to be different now or that Saint Barack is going to solve all our problems by a laying-on of hands. He’s got a passel of them to contend with. Not too many presidents have taken office with more crises in progress. And the entrenched interests and the systemic problems remain the same. We’re going to have a black president, but there are no black solutions to our problems, only pragmatic ones which need intelligence to discern and political skill to implement.

So if you voted for Obama, be prepared for the frustrations and the disappointments, and if you voted against him, relax. He’s not going to turn us into Zimbabwe. There’s too much inertia in our system for that. If Obama proves to be a good president, it won’t be because he’s black—it will be because he has the right vision and administrative skills. And if he proves to be a bad president? That’s right—it won’t be because he’s black. It will be because he shares the flaws of our other bad presidents, who it seems to me were fairly pale of hue. Maybe having a president with a melanin-intensive complexion will help people stop fixating on skin color.

If nothing else, Obama’s win is vindication for my side in a couple of arguments I’ve been having for years. First, I never believed it when people said that the United States was too racist ever to elect a black person president. I’ve been hearing this for a long time, from smug foreigners and guilt-wracked Americans, and I never bought it for a minute. All it took was the right candidate. It’s true that Americans won’t elect a candidate who is primarily seen as a black activist—that’s why Jesse Jackson never got out of the box. But Colin Powell would have been a strong candidate, if he hadn’t had the good sense to put his family first. And Obama proves that even a liberal black can get elected, provided he appeals to more than the Bill Ayerses of the world. Obama, like Bill Clinton, got elected because he understands that the country at large is more conservative than the Democratic party. If he’s as smart as he seems, he’ll keep that in mind as he makes policy, too.

The second argument Obama settles is the one about the role of money in elections. Have you heard any progressives whining about the role of big money in elections since Obama broke his promise about public funding and then broke all the fund-raising records? Me neither. Like it or not, in politics money is free speech, and campaign finance “reform” essentially amounts to incumbent protection. I suspect we won’t be hearing much from the left about this issue for a while, now that the left has learned how to raise truckloads of money.

So sit back, keep your fingers crossed, and see how the New Guy does. It’s going to be interesting, at the very least.

Sam Reaves