When Frank Gehry gets around to designing America’s answer to the Sistine Chapel, I trust this postmodern Temple of Mammon on Las Vegas Boulevard will have a ceiling fresco depicting Warren Buffett’s consignment of $31 billion to Bill and Melinda Gates. As the older billionaire sits on his pillow of cloud, his outthrust hand with its bag of securities is grasped by Gates–the Adam of Software Commerce–while seraphs and cherubs muse delightedly over the IRS regulations governing the sheltering of Buffett’s swag in tax-exempt nonprofit foundations.
Let us not waste too much time here advising Mr. and Mrs. Gates how to spend Buffett’s money. At the moment it seems that the Gates couple’s core focus is the war on AIDS and malaria, both ravaging Africa. How to improve the Dark Continent’s overall well-being? America’s senators and representatives can be bought for bargain-basement sums. A modest disbursement by the Gates Foundation–let us say $50,000 for each senator and $20,000 for each rep–would most certainly buy enough votes to end the current government subsidy, $4.5 billion for 2004, to cotton growers. The entire crop that year, the last for which figures are available, was worth $5.9 billion and the subsidy enables US growers to export three-quarters of their harvest and control about 40 percent of world trade, thus destroying the farm economies of countries like Mozambique, Benin and Mali. The WTO found the United States in violation this spring, but the ten largest cotton growers here–virtuous Jeffersonian toilers such as Kelley Enterprises and JG Boswell–have the necessary political clout to keep the subsidies coming.
With overthrow of the cotton subsidy as a pilot program, Gates could launch a wider onslaught on the subsidies doled out to large wheat, rice and corn growers. Economists are slightly more costly than politicians, but generous Gates “scholarships” to prominent neoliberal economists would be contingent on these economists’ swift revision of their foolish theories, currently ravaging rural India.
In Vidharbha, a cotton-growing area of the state of Maharashtra, journalist P. Sainath has reported in The Hindu that 540 suicides of ruined cotton farmers occurred between June 2005 and May 2006. As many as 325 farmers have killed themselves since January. May saw nearly eighty farmers taking their own lives, ten of them doing so on a single day. Some weeks, Sainath reports, there have been suicides every eight hours, usually by the ingestion of pesticide.
The reason for this catastrophe is the neoliberal onslaught on India’s peasantry, which has been advancing without remit for more than the past decade, promoted by the World Bank and executed by India’s federal and state governments. The traditional NGO approach–ecstatic boasts in grant applications and annual reports, zero benefits for the farmers–has been futile. It should be the job of the Gates Foundation to turn the tide inside the ivory towers generating the economic nonsense that has wrought such a dreadful toll.