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Returning to a familiar neighborhood after an absence of nearly two months it seemed that many kids were skinnier, though there were various possible explanations.

The rains were slowing, so it was hotter, there had been a run of diarrhea and bleeding fever, and the holidays were recently over so — like everywhere — people had blown (some of) their money, but, in this case, not on flat-screen TVs the size of ping-pong tables, but rather on consecutive days of rice with meat, and on bus and ferry-fare to reunite family.

I was staring at two white, embroidered hanging cloths that do service as a corridor door when, to my disappointment, the dead person I was thinking of did not miraculously bustle through, but instead there emerged an aunt, with harassed eyes, and the news that we needed lots more food.

The al-Kuran reciters would be coming from the mosque — who knew how many, on a given day? — as well as the orphans (two motorcycle taxis-full — which is a lot; they’re fairly tiny). There would also be their two guardian clerics, assorted relatives, alley neighbors, and the budget was busted: the purchased ingredients would not suffice to feed the guests for the death anniversary.

Why not? “Rice is up! Cooking oil is up! Peppers, chicken, everything!” (The chicken price-hike might have been minor good news two years ago, given the stinking coops behind the hanging cloths, but the bird flu had put an end to that protein-source, and sometime “micro-enterprise”).

It was true, and almost everywhere. Food prices are on the rise. Which means for those on the edge of the nutritional cliff, some bodies are on the fall.

Some economists are stunned by the rapidity of the rise — and flexible markets can indeed stun you — and commodities futures prices suggest that the peak may not be seen until North American springtime, if then.

Reasons for such market moves are always complex, but studies cite bio-fuels as a big one, and then there’s oil-price hikes — a gift for Exxon and co., who actually didn’t want the Iraq invasion — a serious matter in a world food economy now dependent on fertilizers that use oil.

But though the reasons are complex, some consequences can be simple: hungry people can get hungrier, since they lack the wealth cushion one needs to ride-out market fluctuations.

“Win some, lose some,” Americans like to say.

When their holdings drop, American Wall Street guys say they’re getting “killed.”

But they’re not. After saying that, they can go out to lunch.

What they lose today they may make up tomorrow.

And, the key point: they will still be alive — and undamaged — to celebrate it.

For poor people, the world’s majority, market life has some different principles.

Fluctuations that rich people later forget can be life-altering catastrophes for poor people.

For rich people, what counts is whether, in the end, your market wins outweigh your losses.

But for people on the edge of survival, one bad loss and the counting game is over.

If a market-induced loss pushes you off the cliff, with a consequence that is irreversible — like death, subsequent market moves that would have been in your favor become irrelevant to you.

And there are a number of irreversibles, or consequences nearly so.

There’s baby brain stunting from a few bad hunger days or weeks, body-growth stunting from bad months, pulling a kid from school so he never comes back and lives forever unable to read, or unable to read any of the billions of pages written beyond his given literacy level.

In South Korea and India there has developed a recent sad tradition of indebted farmers killing themselves, after a bad turn — for them, (they need higher prices) — in the global markets.

Its Indonesian counterpart is Baygon or the chair-and-noose. The Baygon insecticide cocktail tends to be for the girls, the chair-and-noose for the boys — a not uncommon reaction among poor pre-teens who, pulled from school, hurting, choose suicide.

Or what about choices born of desperation brought on by bad fluctuation? A mother becomes a one-night prostitute. A father goes overseas to work. We all know what can happen to family life then. Mental blows can heal more slowly than body ones.

(One US near-equivalent to all this is being evicted and becoming homeless, a threat that is, quite significantly, proportionally smaller in the kampungs [proportionally, adjusting for differing poverty levels] than it is in the United States, since with extended families still intact, even the poorest person in, say, Indonesia, often has somewhere to go. Capitalist development knows some bitter jokes. You, an American, may be richer than your poor-world counterpart, but if both your putative extended family and your cash/credit are gone, you may end up worse-off than him — on the street, stinking and shivering, and, to boot, in a country with an ideology that says that this is a good thing for you: an incentive to go find work.)

In capitalist theory, markets are directionally neutral. Up or down is neither good nor bad. Which is true for people who live on cushions. But false for those on cliffs.

Just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s also no such thing as a free market.

There are always rules — lots of them — otherwise markets couldn’t function.

The question is merely: what rules? For what ends? Lives turn on the answers.

Recently the Indonesian communications workers hung plaintive but profound banners outside workplaces: “Don’t Write the Regulations For the Capitalists Only.”

They were referring to a privatization fight but they could have been discussing the core issue that confronts any economy — including this global capitalist one: will a society commit or not to writing the regulations such that everyone gets fed and goes to market (or wherever) tall and with a clear head?

If they won’t, then decent people have to force changes, call them what you will, that solve this solvable problem using whatever appropriate tools.

Coincidentally, after that incident with the harassed aunt and the hanging white cloths, I made the short physical but long social journey to a place in town with an internet connection, and read the news that, first, “Thousands of tofu and tempeh producers and vendors in Greater Jakarta began a three-day strike Monday to protest the rocketing price of soybeans,” and, second, that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is setting up a fund to try to counterbalance this market-induced hunger.

(Parenthetically, the fund will cost 17 billion US dollars, and the total of FAO aid for “imported foodstuffs for Low Income Food Deficit Countries,” is $107 million, in both cases mere pocket change for each Forbes 400 member, and for thousands of others).(See: The Jakarta Post, Tuesday, January 15, 2008, “Tofu, tempeh disappear from dishes;” “Fund launched for poor countries struggling with high food prices,” OUAGADOUGOU, 14 January 2008 (IRIN)).

The fund will undoubtedly spare — for the moment — many painful deaths. But as free-market economists love to tell you in other contexts, such schemes are wildly inefficient. They cannot possibly know, find, and deliver to each newly enhungered stomach in the world.

OK, so, then, what will? The current global “free market” system obviously does not.

It is so perversely unbalanced that nearly a billion starve a year.

If it could have solved this problem, it would have.

So we can conclude that it can’t.

Even on the flip-side of a food-price hike, which in theory should benefit farmers, the current system actually often hurts the poor ones, while bloating Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.

So take down those books — that fill several shelves — that constitute the global trade, property and rulemaking rules, and start rewriting — fast — before the next stack of savable baby dies.

Don’t want to do that? OK, we’ll have to find people who do.

On the decision and commitment level, this is simple stuff. The implementation gets complicated, but not so complicated as to be undoable, if enough people want it and decide that they will also become strivers for it.

The first step toward political choice is recognizing that a choice is needed.

On hunger, the choices for poor people are rough.

For rich people, they should be easy.

ALLAN NAIRN can be reached through his blog.

 

 

 

 

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ALLAN NAIRN writes the blog News and Comment at www.newsc.blogspot.com.

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