Kings and Kingmakers at Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner

October 19, 2008

NYT’s top cultural chronicler Bill Cunningham ran the lead photo above for his “Evening Hours” page this Sunday. From left: Cardinal Edward M. Egan, Alfred E. Smith IV (great grandson of Smith), Nan Smith, and Senator Barack Obama at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner held on October 16th at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

The dinner reportedly raised $4 million for underprivileged children. Which is (undeniably) well and good. It also brought together — in royal white tie — the city’s (arguably, the nation’s) political, cultural, and media elite: both presidential hopefuls, both state senators, the city’s 3rd-term-seeking mayor, a Catholic archbishop, news anchors, and so on and so forth.

Power. With a capital-P. I can’t help but think how much of our futures were shaped that night.

No surprise to anyone that politicians must pal around with the ruling dynasties of wealth and religion in order to get work done. But I am curious about whether and how Obama’s promise of change will weather these dominant regimes with which he is ostensibly at odds.

Certainly, there is no choice. Obama MUST/WILL become the next American president. There is much at stake. One hopes his presidency radically alters photographs such as this.

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eBay Fined 38.6 Million Euros for Allowing Fake Vuitton Sales

July 1, 2008

In The Guardian: A French court has ordered online auction site eBay to pay luxury goods giant LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) a whopping €38.6 million euros in damages for negligence. eBay is charged with allowing independent retailers to use its site to sell fake products.

eBay is to pay €19.28 million to Louis Vuitton Malletier and €17.3 million to Christian Dior Couture for “damage to their brand images and causing moral harm.” Another €3.25 million goes to four LVMH perfume brands for “sales in violation of its authorized network.”

Can someone explain how sales of fake goods cause “moral harm”? Another bout of corporate ridiculousness.

eBay has appealed the ruling, arguing that LVMH is using the specific issue of counterfeits to attack the general trend towards e-commerce and to maintain (declining) control over the brands’ primary sales channels.

Other brands are hovering like vultures: Hermes, Tiffany & Co., and L’Oreal are all suing eBay for similar damages.

Luxury brands that cater to privileged elites (or the wanna-be-privileged elites) don’t mix very well with e-commerce or web platforms, which are largely driven by the mass populace. While the former relies on exclusivity, uniqueness, and tradition, the latter thrives on access, ubiquity, and change. The former would like to keep the latter out — unless of course the commoners are buying directly.

This seems to be what eBay is being punished for: providing an open marketplace for the populace to transact their own goods and services, on their own terms. I’d say it’s the best real-time representation yet of market supply/demand, property valuation, as well as socio-cultural trends.

Policing eBay in favor of corporate property is unfair. Fining eBay for what individuals own and are willing to buy and sell on the site is ludicrous (particularly since we are talking about handbags — not handguns or drugs or porno). How about policing corporate activities to protect individual rights for a change?

Keep our common markets free. Will we ever evolve from the Dark Ages of Extreme Luxury and Corporate Greed?


Chinese Investor Bids $2.1 Million For Lunch With Warren Buffett

June 30, 2008

This year, Forbes named Warren Buffett the richest human being in the world. At 77 years of age, this self-made Nebraskan’s published net worth is US$62 b-b-billion. (Remember, there are 1,000 millions in one billion.)

So, how much would you give to power lunch with Buffett?

Zhao Danyang, a Chinese investment fund manager for Hong Kong’s Pureheart China Growth Investment Fund, won this experience at an eBay auction on Friday. His bid: US$2,110,100. The LA Times called it the “most expensive charity auction ever held on eBay.”

He and seven of his friends will dine with Buffett at the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in New York City on a mutually agreed-upon date.

It seems that Buffett’s value is the only thing going up nowadays. Last year’s power lunch auction brought in US$650,100 — less than a third of this year’s winning bid. The year before, it was US$351,100.

All proceeds will go to the Glide Foundation, which provides social services to the poor and homeless in San Francisco. With an operating budget of US$12 million, the foundation must be thrilled. Nothing like a nice philanthropic cycle of wealth redistribution every now and again.

Follow the money.


India’s Female Feticide: Sexism Before Birth

June 21, 2008

As India grows into one of the world’s largest economies, it continues to exterminate one of its most crucial assets: women. BBC cites a report by a UK charity today:

…increasing numbers of female foetuses were being aborted and baby girls deliberately neglected and left to die.

Under “normal” circumstances, there should be about 950 girls for every 1,000 boys… but in three of the five [research] sites, that number was below 800.

Sadly, better technology may be a factor. Using ultrasound results, families are aborting female fetuses because females are considered economic burdens. This cultural preference for boys is so pervasive that adult women themselves consider the pre-selection “a rational choice”. Others are simply forced by family pressure.

Female feticide is banned in India. And the prejudice against women is certainly neither new nor unique to the country. But many hoped that better education, greater prosperity, and a stronger middle class would gradually shift this cultural bias. Not the case.

In a CBC article from 2004:

The opposite seems to be happening. The rate of girls to boys is lowest in the wealthiest states and neighbourhoods. In the Punjab, one of the richest states in India, there are only 793 young girls for every 1,000 boys.

The BBC article today has bleaker statistics: in one research site in Punjab, there are just 300 girls to every 1,000 boys among higher caste families.

inda childrenWhich goes to show: more money and more education aren’t always the solutions.

Equality — not wealth — is a basic human right that we need locally and globally. As Jacques Ranciere taught: equality is not a goal to be attained. It is our starting point, the very axiomatic point of departure.

Photo: New Delhi family by Trey Ratcliff or stuckincustoms on flickr

Benedict XVI Meets Bush In Realignment of Church and State

June 13, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic church, granted a special audience to U.S. President Bush on Vatican state grounds earlier today. This is their second official meeting in exactly three months. Photos of the seemingly casual encounter unambiguously articulate a new alignment and alliance between the two powerful leaders. Both men walk (or sit) side by side — as amiable colleagues, placing Western religion and Western politics on equal, albeit very precarious, footing.

bushpopeOn the surface, the two men appear diametrically opposed. Joseph Ratzinger consciously adapted his papal name from Benedict XV, known as the “peace pope” during World War I. While George W. Bush simply inherited an ancestral name then fell into (some say stole) a legacy of war.

So why the love fest?

We can only speculate. Both are heads of institutions whose global dominance and relevance are currently on the wane. Future growth and stability are dependent on cultures outside their historic territories. Do they simply need each other to survive into the next century?

The more important question for me is why Benedict XVI has positioned himself (and therefore his god, his church) so squarely on the side of a president who continues to wage a profoundly unjust war.

There are at least three answers — all of which, of course, just lead to more questions:

1. The pope condones war. Has Benedict XVI chosen to walk in the footsteps, NOT of Benedict XV, but of one of Benedict XV’s proteges: Pius XII, who was crowned pope on March 12, 1939, the eve of Adolf Hitler’s march into Prague? (Controversy over Pius’ papacy continues today because of his refusal to condemn the Nazi regime and his silence in face of the Jewish holocaust.)

2. The pope rejects war. Perhaps these meetings are subtle attempts to sway Bush from staying the course of war. The Vatican’s official line, of course, is that Benedict XVI rejects the war and is “skeptical of politics without reference to the Gospel.”

3. The pope rejects war but has to turn a blind eye in order to win his church’s larger battle — converting the entire world over to Christianity. In other words: the elimination of all other religions, including the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Islam.

It’s a new world. All roads no longer lead to Rome. Strangely, they now all lead to the Middle East.

Whichever the answer (and there are admittedly many more), both Benedict and Bush seem to be ideal counterparts. Not two men from different spheres, but two halves of a single neoconservative coin.

During his visit, Bush reportedly told Benedict: “This is fantastic up here… Thank you so much for showing me this.” The view of the gods must be spectacular. Caution: thunderbolts ahead.

Photo from Getty Images, as published in NYT’s lede story this morning.

Belgian-Brasilian Brewer InBev Moves To Buy America’s Budweiser

June 12, 2008

InBev, the world’s top brewer and maker of Stella Artois and Becks beer brands, has submitted an unsolicited bid of $46 billion to buy Anheuser-Busch, America’s leading brewer and maker of “The Great American Lager”: Budweiser.

budWhile reports say that InBev’s offer of $65 per share is extremely competitive (considering that before InBev made its move, A-B’s price per share was at $58), many Americans are opposing the takeover. Matt Blunt, governor of Missouri where A-B is headquartered, is strongly opposed and has reportedly ordered the state’s Department of Economic Development “to explore every option and any opportunity we may have at the state level to help keep A-B where it belongs — in St. Louis, Missouri.”

Two websites are already collecting signatures to oppose the sale: SaveBudweiser.com, which now has 34,000 signatures, and SaveAB.com, now with more than 12,000. They are looking at the InBev takeover as a “foreign invasion” and vow to “fight to protect this American treasure.”

Another American icon, the Chrysler Building, may also end up in foreign hands. On the same day A-B confirmed its receipt of InBev’s bid, msnbc reported that The Abu Dhabi Investment Council, a sovereign wealth fund, is negotiating to buy a 75% stake in the Chrysler for $800 million. (This also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, itself now owned by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch.)

Globalization has come full circle. In the mid-1970s, the term “globalization” achieved prominence when American Express advertised the global reach of its credit card. American capital needed new global markets and the term implied a unidirectional move abroad.

30 years later, the flows of capital are moving in multiple directions as economic power decenters. While the world’s wealthiest individual is still an American (Warren Buffett), Forbes reports the “dawning of a new era”. Two years ago, half of the world’s 20 richest billionaires were from the U.S. In March 2008, only four are.

America is beginning to feel firsthand the tangible and often devastating effects of globalized capitalism and neoliberalism, largely its own creation. These are effects that other nations have been trying to manage for at least the past couple decades since Ronald Reagan rose to power.

We’re going to have to learn to play nice in the global playground. We no longer own it.

And soon, we might have to switch to: Cette Bud est pour vous!


Bush Responds to Housing Crisis with “National Homeownership Month”

June 7, 2008

Home foreclosures are at a record high. And nothing bulldozes the American Dream faster than an eviction notice.

Have no fear: the Bush White House has declared June “National Homeownership Month”! From the official press release (i.e., not a joke):

For many Americans, owning a home represents freedom, independence, and the American dream. During National Homeownership Month, we highlight the benefits of owning a home and encourage our fellow citizens to be responsible homeowners

…I encourage all Americans to take advantage of financial education opportunities to explore homeownership. My Advisory Council on Financial Literacy is finding ways to help educate people from all walks of life about matters pertaining to their finances and their futures. By practicing fiscal responsibility, Americans can contribute to the strength of our neighborhoods and our country.

screamThis is not a matter of education. It’s the economy, stupid.

America’s existential crisis continues.

Get the Bushites and McCainites out of Our House now.

Image: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, 1893, oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard. 91 x 73.5 cm. National Gallery, Oslo.