Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC) released its final report on 25 May 2006. According to ICTJ, "The Commission—a grassroots, democratic initiative and the first of its kind in the United States—found that the Greensboro Police Department had been negligent, had recklessly disregarded public safety, and had contributed to official attempts to deceive the public about the tragic events of November 3, 1979". To read the full report visit the GTRC Website.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The meaning of money

There is something about money I do not get. I understand bartering. Two people exchange things that have roughly equal value. But modern money as a concept makes little sense. Milton Friedman, in Money Mischief, writes that money, as we know it, has no intrinsic value and what gives it value is that it is used for exchange. He goes on to say that the value is what we attribute to it, and all money is ‘credit’ money, a contractual IOU for an incomplete exchange. As Aristotle said, the value of money is “derived not from nature, but from law”.

So money is made by the meaning we give it yet, at the same time, it apparently makes the world go around. If you do not have it, your life can be miserable. Nevertheless, money or, to be precise, currency, which is the physical embodiment of the idea of money, cannot buy happiness – only a new iPod or a fridge. But the more money one is talking about the less concrete the notion gets. Bill Gates, for example, is apparently worth $27-billion, but he does not have $27-billion dollars in the same way a person has 1 000 cattle.

He is a rich man with jets and houses but, mainly, he has more IOUs than the rest of us. His bank does not have a vault with $27- billion crisp $100 bills in it, ready for Bill to dive into whenever the urge takes him.

Governments have enormous amounts of unseen money. At a government level, finance is based on promises and IOUs. It is about shuffling budgets of virtual money and meeting obligations. These obligations boil down to where they want to commit make- believe dosh. These choices can have tragic and visible consequences.

Money means different things to different people. I recall working with a community group in South Africa and discussing a grant to support people around the truth commission. One community member commented: “We have been thinking that we don’t want to use the money for that – rather, we want to share the grant out between us.” The group would have preferred an instant R500 each rather than a long-term, less tangible benefit. Money as a thing, or at least the objects R500 could buy when you are poor, was more important. The man had a point, but the donor would have seen it differently. Donor and grantee had conflicting desired outcomes. But what determines these outcomes? Who controls these fantasy purse strings? A recent report in the UK claimed that lack of resources in the security services led to the London bombings last year. But at the same time the country spends £3-billion a year on the occupation of Iraq. The US government finds $100-billion a year for its Iraq folly. When the amounts of money get this astronomical, the meaning of the money becomes even more ephemeral. The only way to make sense of it is to break figures down into numbers we think we can compute. My calculations go like this: the UK and US governments are spending roughly $110-billion a year in Iraq. This is five times the gross domestic product (GDP) of Mozambique and is the equivalent of about 20% of the annual GDP of South Africa.

But even more staggering is that the money invested in making this war is more than the Iraqi GDP, estimated at $97-billion in 2005. Does this incredible statistic make sense to anyone? I once met a businessperson who told me he owed his bank half a million pounds, or R5-million. I remember thinking he was the only person I knew who was rich enough to be half a million pounds in debt. Does that make sense to anyone? Answers on a postcard, please.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 May 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, May 12, 2006

And now for the good news...

I am not one to complain (well, not too much), but writing this column can be depressing. This is because it demands a constant vigilance of the news, and newspapers are gloomy. The adage that bad news sells is true. So I was delighted to stumble across the website South Africa: The Good News. The site is dedicated to highlighting good-news stories and is littered with helpful headings, such as ‘Good-news crime stories’. This section, which cheered me up by its mere paradoxical title, highlights areas in which crime has decreased. Overall, the site features stories written from a positive perspective. For example, one article, in the spirit of seeing the glass half-full, points out that South Africa is considered the third-least corrupt country in Africa. Now, is that not a better way of talking about corruption than saying that South Africa is 46th in the world on a corruption-perception index, or asking why we are not the least-corrupt country in Africa? The site also got me thinking about statistics and how they have become little tools of terror rather than ways of quelling fears. We have all become accustomed to hearing statistics being used to highlight things to worry about, even though most of the time we have no idea what statistics really mean. The media, food manufacturers and scientists bombard us with them all the time, usually to scare us into buying something.

For example, according to the National Safety Council, you have a 1 in 22-million chance of dying from the melting of your nightwear, but only a 1 in 95-million chance of dying of a snake bite in the US. So, realistically, the chances of being fried alive in your pyjamas are slim and the chances of being bitten by a deadly snake even more remote. Even so, I suspect that someone in the world is rushing out to buy flame-retardant pyjamas and knee-high snake-proof boots just to be sure.

Sadly, pessimism is everywhere. Psychologist Martin Seligman has criticised academia by noting that, in the last three decades, journals published 46 000 psychological papers on depression and only 400 on joy. Optimism has little hope of flourishing in a world where disasters are the lifeblood of the media. This is exemplified by the BBC’s recent decision to describe headline news items each day as their ‘top stories’. The ‘top stories’ caption appears in red letters at the bottom of the screen, lest there be any doubt that bombings, starvation, civil unrest and political repression are anything less than ‘top’. Peter Ustinov said that the point of living and of being an optimist is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come. This discouraging view of optimism dominates the planet, even though, according to some experts, optimism is good for you. Vatche Bertekian, a stress-management specialist, notes that optimism increases your immune system’s ability to fight off diseases.

If you need help, you can even hire, through feedyouroptimism.com, speakers referred to as ‘professional optimists’ to cheer you up and show you the optimistic way to health and happiness.

Then again, optimists, according to some psychologists, are more prone to risk-taking behaviour, as they always expect things to work out for the better. In other words, you might be so carefree and unfazed by the consequences of your actions that you end up driving too fast, wrapping your car around a tree, thereby bringing your happy little world to a premature end.

It seems you just can’t win. Pessimism is too depressing, and optimism’s apparent health benefits are offset by its tendency to make us a little too laid back about danger. So remember the words of British comedian Bill Bailey next time someone asks you if you are an optimist – just answer: “I hope so!”

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 12 May 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.