Friday, March 09, 2007

Making Red Cents

In a response to "Not One Red Cent", I wrote, in part: "... if I'm in the market for an item [iPod nano] that's in the RED line-up, and the only differences between the RED version and the non-RED version are the color and the earmarking of some funds by the corporation to the charity, then why not choose the RED one?"

Dave Marsh responds:

The only argument against it that I can see is that you'd be encouraging Bono and those who think like him. I've never made arguments against the Red products. No need to. (A nano is not sufficient for my needs, so that's taken care of.)

A secondary argument would be: What is that $10?

Let's assume, which is not a correct assumption, almost an impossible one, that all $10 goes to some sort of African program designed to treat, prevent or (least likely) research new treatments for AIDS. There's no GFund overhead, the expenses of the Red board are covered some other way, the ads come out of the Apple not the Red/GF budgets.

You've made your purchase, a couple hundred dollars I think. Where is that $10 in the Apple scheme? Is it over and above profit? Does Apple make $10 less on a Red I-Pod Nano, than on any other model?

Not exactly. Even if they do make $10 less direct profit, they write that $10 off as a business and/or charitable expense; so $5 (or probably more) of it comes out of every U.S. (etc) taxpayer's pocket, one of the reasons that Bono et al dig the project so much, they're playing with other people's money in more ways than one. The consumer, of course, gets no such deduction. (Well, I would, because it's a business tool for me. Honest. But I recognize this as an exceptional case and so should you, or else I'll put on my dark glasses and recite AIDS statistics to make you feel guilty until you stop.)

But even if I'm wrong about that, which I'm not, that $10 symbolizes how much excess profit Apple finds in I-Pod Nanos, of all colors. Where does that profit come from? To know that in detail we'd have to know the wages of Apple workers, the wages of the people who make the parts, the wages of people who mine or otherwise develop and extract the raw materials from which the parts are made. They are making a non-tax-deductible donation too. I guess. Some of them are almost certainly African, given what raw materials are used in computers; some have AIDS, no doubt about that.

It doesn't sound to me like the Apple shareholders and corporate officers are making a contribution. I don't think the share value or the profit picture is adversely affected. Maybe it's conscience money.

On the other side of it, the $10 makes a statement. One of those statements is "I care." A worthy statement and when logically worked out as a conscious choice, laudable because heartfelt. I reserve my applause however because of the other statements made by buying Red, I-Pod or otherwise (since every corporation in the Red scheme has the same situation).

One of those is "Red is a worthy, functional program that leverages our purchasing dollars in a useful way." Perhaps.

Another is "Red has the right idea." Here I disagree very strongly with the premise--I think it's a very bad idea for reasons already cited ad nauseaum -- because it seems to me that there are very many better ways to provide AIDS relief. I think that the claim that Red is a means to create an Africa in which the overall standard of living is raised for everyone, which Bono consistently implies (and all other Red rhetoric sort of glides on by with a finger to its lips to encourage the hush), is too silly to be taken seriously by anybody with a speck of knowledge of how either international investment or international philanthropy works.

But you are voting "Yes" on that implicit question, too.

Which is more important, getting a lot of money to people with AIDS in Africa via vehicles like the Global Fund or opening people's eyes to what really causes there to be an epidemic of untreated AIDS anywhere in the world but particularly Africa? We can disagree about this. It can be a productive disagreement. But only if we have the dialogue.

Red says several things about this.
A) You don't need to have the dialogue, this is all being decided at a higher level. (One of the reasons what I wrote angers responders so much may be that I insist throughout that there is no higher level than the polis at large).
B) Demanding the dialogue expresses a callous indifference to the everyday plight of PWA in Africa. (Bono says this explicitly to the Times columnist.)
C) Such dialogue will not be effective; it's a fool's play, even damaging because the ONLY way we can achieve any relief for PWA in Africa is through this process. (Which is really a piece of circular logic leading us back to A)).
D) People will always be poor and diseases that are treated in rich places will not be treated in poor ones unless by the largesse of the rich. (This assumption underpins the logic of A leading to C.)
E) If we ask too many questions of our betters, the program will fail and then NOTHING will be done, because only our betters--those already rich and powerful--can do things. (This is the threat, the iron fist in Bono's velveteen glove.)

I think those are some very good reasons not to buy Red. But admittedly, if all you're looking to do is shift some of your excess cash to somebody who is "doing something about" whatever social problem has your attention at the moment, it'll get the job done. If you think that contributing excess cash (yours, mine, Bono's, Phil Knight's, Steve Job's, Bill Gates') is the right way to alleviate social ills, I'm dead wrong.

And yet, we have been doing things this way for 50 or 150 years and how much have things improved as a result? I do not think that the philanthropy of Jay Gould and the Rockefellers and Andrew Carnegie or even Alfred Nobel lead to the development of antibiotics.

OTOH, I've helped raise about $6 million to try to solve a medical problem within an institution created and still largely controlled by Rockefeller and DuPont/GM financial interests. I didn't and don't see anywhere else to go on that one. And I looked for the alternatives.

In Africa, and on broader social questions in general, I think there are other approaches. I think $10 to the World Social Forum organizations would bring more benefit. To Africans. Poor ones. (Not incidentally to the real bogey man hiding behind Red rhetoric: The poor everywhere else.)

But that's me. This is how I think. It's OK to react to it any way you need to, including despising it for its double standard, if that's what you think the previous two paragraphs reflect.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Not One Red Cent

Dave Marsh writes:

I read with growing dismay each successive paragraph of David Carr’s fawning New York Times business section piece on Bono, the Red Campaign and Vanity Fair yesterday morning. Later, I read the more interesting piece from Advertising Age that shows that all the sturm and drang from Red has generated $18 million for African relief—I wonder if that’ll even be enough to replace the condoms Bono’s “effective” friend the Shrub refuses to allow U.S. government-supported agencies to deliver. You can be dead certain that it is hardly a match for the combined profits that the corporations for which Red fronts expect to pull out of all those products.

What maddens me most is that articles like this are built upon a cascading series of false premises, so I thought I’d catalogue the ones in the Times column.

· Bono is a "rare" rock star. Almost every rock star has some kind of charitable endeavor.

· Only the opinions of celebrities (the Pope, Bill Gates) are of any consequence in getting the job done.

· Wealth and charity are somehow a "contradiction." Unless there is wealth, there can be no charity in the sense that Bono and Carr use the term (which is quite a bit different than, say, St. Paul's definition).

· Bono is not part of the "Sally Struthers" thing. But of course, his entire project depends on sustaining the image of Africans as unable to fight for themselves, which is one reason one encounters no Africans—certainly no poor ones--writing for these Bono guest edits. It also depends quite a good bit on their continuing to be humiliated by their poverty (presuming they are, other than in the minds Bono loves most).

· "The crucial role that commerce will play" as a new thing. That has been the barking sales pitch of imperialism and its missionaries from the first day that Europeans landed in Africa. (If Bono didn’t think that history began when Jeffrey Sachs conned his first Russian, he’d know this.) Bono doesn’t really contend that corporations have a “crucial role,” anyway. He premises this statement on his insistent, addled idea that they are the only vehicle by which the problems of African poverty and disease can be solved, despite the fact that everywhere on Earth that these corporations exist, there is a great deal of poverty and disease.

· The bizarre assertion that, in this case (but there is always something equivalent to this), China wants to invest in Africa as somehow a boon to the poor. It is either the opposite (the Chinese invest in Africa because they can exploit African workers even more than Chinese ones) or irrelevant (since the profits will go to China, not whatever part of Africa the Chinese are invested in.) By the way, Bono knows that there are a couple dozen nations that comprise Africa and that Chinese and other corporations invest in one or more of those, not the continent as a whole, right? I read the whole Independent issue and never heard a peep about this reality.

· "Africa is sexy." How many hundred years of racism does that tightly packed cliché contain?

· "People need to know it." If, after all these years of grandstanding, even the kind of person who reads Vanity Fair doesn't know it, what does that say about the Red approach?

· Changing the subject as soon as the topic of extreme wealth comes up—changing it to AIDS, the only time (it would appear) that AIDS comes up in the interview. Talking from both sides of his mouth as usual: If 5000 people a day are dying, as they are, for what, exactly, do Bush and Blair and Bono’s other powerful cronies earn their high marks?

· Refusing to discuss his ownership of Forbes, ostensibly because it's off the topic. It couldn't be more on topic given that Capitalist Tool Bono is about to edit a slick magazine, claims he lives in the world of media, claims that such commerce-friendly publications have a "crucial" role to play.

· Bono sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. The Red campaign is based on an entirely cynical view of what motivates humans

· Bono would have been a journalist. In fact, he did freelance a few pieces, universally undistinguished ones; his more obvious career choices would have been either a priest or a pimp

· "Striking fear in the hearts of writers." As if this piece weren't an example of how he carefully selects easily intimidated stenographers to do his bidding. (Would a real journalist have stopped at "I don't want to talk about" Forbes or let him get away with changing the subject to AIDS when the topic of his own arrogance comes up? Or that if he did quote Bono in those cases that he shouldn’t have written a little detail about the contradictions Bono is avoiding, as I have managed to do in about a sentence each here?)

How long before people will call a con a con? How many more people have to die in Africa before we acknowledge that this process is a fraud and a failure and that the evidentiary trail is not short but quite long (it's been 22 years since LiveAid)?

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