Category Archives: economics

I thought we could relax a little…


I thought his threats could not possibility come to be, that checks and balances would play out, that the people charged to do the immoral work would shrink back. But today, the earth itself is under assault again, the nation’s foes are in charge.

I am reminded of the words of Rev. Niemoller in the Nazi era, rephrased here for our own time.

First he came for the Muslims, and I said “Guys, let’s take a wait-and-see approach here.”
Then he came for the Mexican Americans, and I said, “Let’s not be sore losers just because the other guy won.”
Then he came for the press, and I said, “What makes this country great is our peaceful transitions of power.”
Then he came for the women, and I said, “Try to have some compassion for the frustrations of the other side.”
Then he came for the black community, and I said, “I know it sucks, but wait four years.”
Then he came for me, and I said, “How could this have happened? I did everything I could.”

Exelon ok if you like teeing up; for the environment, not so much


I’m a greenie (to candidates, “an environmental voter”).  I wondered who would be in favor of the pending sale of Pepco, the power distribution company that sends bills to homes and businesses in the mid-Atlantic, including my house in Washington, DC, to Exelon, a bigger Chicago-based power producer, and significantly, owner of a bunch of shop-worn nuclear reactors.  Pepco no longer owns power generators, but instead purchases power from suppliers — coal-, wind-, and solar-generated — and resells it.  (How power gets into those little wires on the poles I leave to others to explain.)  This is about the only good thing about Pepco — because it no longer operates those messy power plants, it has come around, gradually, to liking the cute solar panels on the roofs of local customers, and is OK with just charging for the wires.  We have solar panels on our roof, much diminishing our electrical draw, so I refer to the Pepco bills as just their little charge for staying friends.

So I attended two of the local Public Service Commission hearings about the looming sale to see who would find the behemoth remote company with 20th century holdings superior to one that is smaller, local, and has at least a kite in the renewal-energy wind.

Here’s who likes Exelon:  a suspiciously large number of testifiers for the merger essentially admitted to some level of being bought off.  They were contractors of one kind or another, beneficiaries of some charitable contribution, or organizations who thought they put on good conferences.  Here’s where I squirmed in my chair (and perhaps, maybe, let out an audible noise):  golf tournaments.  That’s right.  At least three proponents — and I did not by a long shot hear all of the testimony — really, really think Exelon is an awesome corporate citizen because of the golf tournaments it has sponsored.

That’s like choosing a dentist who doesn’t fix your teeth but who gives out nice calendars. You can pick another dentist, but it’s still hard for most households to go off-grid, so it’s important to worry more about the product you are actually paying for, and stop ignoring the significant damage done to the environment.

As one testifier said, “We need better than Pepco, but Exelon’s not it.” I recommend the full story about aging nuclear plants seeking bailouts, from which this came, in Daily Kos today.

“To improve its overall balance sheet, Exelon is also trying to take over the mid-Atlantic electricity distribution utility Pepco, a proposal that has engendered substantial opposition in Washington, DC, Maryland and Delaware. DC, for example, has a stated policy of becoming the greenest city in the country with the goal of being 50% renewable powered by 2030–a goal Pepco’s pro-renewable policies support. For its part, Exelon owns the dubious distinction of being the only utility ever thrown out of the American Wind Energy Association for its vociferous anti-renewable policies. A new analysis of the proposed deal by the independent Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis recommended that the Washington PSC reject the merger.”

The Washington, DC, Public Service Commission has bean-counters, I hope, who are logging the relatively bogus examples of corporate citizenship against matters of true value.

Helen Hine 1


Helen at our common table, telling about her life, septiembre 2013

This is not a cheery story even when it starts out, so maybe don’t read it. I just saw her about every day so want to note it.  (I moved out of the house described yesterday, as planned.)

Helen Hines was the first person to officially meet us here in Oaxaca.  Her house shares the courtyard with ours, the whole compound owed by her partner Agustino’s daughter, Cathy.  Agostino appeared earlier in these postings, sunning himself outside in a nice hat and a shawl.


Helen at Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, septiembre 2013

She met us when we arrived in early September, gave us keys and a tour of the whole two-room house.

We have gotten small bits out of her, mostly practical information.  She informs where to hide the small plastic-wrapped 5-peso coin for the collector when putting out trash, which restaurants she likes (very similar menus at each of  a consommé, spaghetti, and one kind of meat or another, with a special fondness for fish, conclude with “and for only 40 pesos!”), and where I might find some special thing I have asked about, though maddeningly she can’t recall street names, and “it’s right past that other place” that I have never heard of either.  You know the type.

Helen is apparently quite old, but won’t talk numbers. (She said she once fired a lawyer who disclosed her age to someone.)  Also, every conversation starts with a lot of “What? What?” and a moment or two of firing up the hearing aid before proceeding.

Once in September, I asked her over to the table in the shared patio space, and offered a bit of the wine I had opened.

“Why not?” she said.  And in that quiet one-on-one I heard a bit of her life.  She has been in Mexico, specifically Oaxaca, a long time, more than twenty years, but other versions have put it much longer than that.

She must have been a bit of a seeker — after growing up in New York, there was time in San Francisco, then Guatemala, where she was asked to use her background as a librarian to start a library.  There was a marriage, which ended badly, and Helen has a son in New York City.  “But that was with another guy,” she said, waving her hand loosely at some dismissed relationship.

At some point, she met? fell in love with? hung on to? Agostino, Mexican, once an accomplished archaeologist in Mexico City.  He went to study in the United States, and somehow his career went awry.

So there’s searching, finding, scholarship, romance in the past, now making way for aging, immobility, dementia, deafness and other troubles. Who knows what else.  And you can see from the picture that she was beautiful, with fine features and gestures.

They live in the house behind the gate we share and now owned by Agostino’s daughter in New York.  Helen tries admirably to be the on-site caretaker, but the daily skills don’t come so easily any more.  To use the washing machine, we follow fairly straight-forward instructions, read to us over and over, with the warnings of the bad things that will ensue if we do it wrong.  When the water pump to our house suddenly went out, she yelled increasingly loudly to turn off the pump, ignoring William’s yelling back that it was never on.  And more like that.  Frustration and fear.  Shouting at Agostino and his shouting back.

Her joy remains the Oaxaca Lending Library, a part of her life for all these years.  Through the original and long-time librarian there, Ruth Gonzalez, came her attachment to this house.  Everyone at the OLL has great esteem for Helen, invariably grateful for her volunteer time there and praising her intelligence.  Until recent weeks, she has performed her job there organizing all the periodicals.

Sadly, in the short time we have been here, we cannot help but notice a huge decline.  Daily trips to market, just around the corner, are harder and she needs help with the small package and with clearing the obstructing stairway that’s always been here.

More later.


where the money is

where the money is

Almost no one can change a MX$500, especially early in the day. How can I get bus fare of only $6? The attendant at the Pemex station has a roll of bills as big as an apple.

sex discrimination: check the calendar

On the same day in CE 2013 that the retro-thinking Saudi Arabia was seeing the alarming action of women driving their own cars, this ad appears in a daily Oaxaca paper.  Top of the list of qualifications for a job is “sexo:” masculino.


This enterprise is a fabric store.  I have been in this shop several times, and can tell you that the bulk of the customers are women, who I might guess constitute the bulk of home and commercial seamers. (Though men can and do sew too. I’ve seen it.)


Knock me over

Pope does something profoundly good.

Will there at last be something good to say about the Roman Catholic Church?


Peek-a-boo, I hear you

Peek-a-boo, I hear you
This guy is presumably blind. But how did he know to frame himself up like that? And when I pulled out the camera, why did he stop to tune up?

I’ve given him money in the past.

collateral complications to the federal shutdown

There must be a special category of ill effects of the federal shutdown — couples in which one partner is furloughed and the other can/needs to keep working.  That messes with the daily household dynamic, right?

How’s that working for you?

Sierra Norte in Oaxaca, on foot

ImageOur local friend Orlandini’s parting words to us were to tell us not, absolutely not, to go to the Sierras hiking as we had planned, because the weather conditions are horrible and with the clouds and rain we would not see anything around us.  “You’ll be at six thousand feet and the cloud ceiling will be at 5,300,” or some specific prediction like that.

As William just told, we did it anyway.  Orlandini was accurate about the clouds, but the sun blasted through on both days anyway, so we had our views too.

We started in Cuajimoloyas, which is in fact at 10,433 feet above sea level. William thought it reminded him of Switzerland, with its roofs sloped steeply in contrast to the flat ones of Oaxaca.  It felt a little cold getting off the bus but I couldn’t admit it because I alone was wearing a short-sleeved (but new!) shirt and local people had a few layers.  It was clear there with spectacular view.  And the little store happened to sell impermeables, rain ponchos…

The guide, Israel, arrived precisely on time, and without delay strode up the road out of town.


We hiked for five hours that day, with a little teeny picnic and a bottle of water in our bags (plus camera and a little other gringo stuff).  Each guide started his shift with the tiniest of bags containing:  an impermeable.  That’s it.  None drank water on the whole sweaty romp*, nor carried a first-aid kit with an Ace bandage or litter for evacuation or extra gear for stupid gringo clients (guides did carry walkie-talkies), or even an extra apple.  I’m not a baby hiker, but wouldn’t you feel a little more secure thinking the leader was dependable for that?

As for the “guides’” knowledge – I don’t know.  When we enlisted and prepaid for the two-day trip, there were no cumbersome release forms with fine print to sign.  The guides were ages mid-twenties to 40, did not speak any English (not their fault) and had sketchy knowledge, I think.  For example, one pointed out ferns, “helechos,” but when I saw another type of fern and asked its name, he just said helecho again, and pressed, did not know a detailed name.  Thus, even I could spot about 10 different kinds of ferns, though not name them, and I’m not sure these young guys would get excited about that.

My hope – fantasy? – is that this organization, Expediciones Sierra Norte, is, as advertised, doing what some will call “god’s work” in promoting preservation of nature, responsible land use, and sound local and indigenous economies.  We passed through communally owned land that allowed small privately managed corn and potato fields on the steep slopes (as I understood the explanations), so different from giant monoculture tracts on flat fields in the US.  We did not see tractors, but horses for transport.  The three small Zapotec pueblos we visited did not have a lot going on to the eye; for example, Latuvi has internet access in two locations, one being the ecotourism office, but  only in the afternoons, and no bank or ATM.  The store was out of beer.  The three guides we had all said they loved their communities, saying they were “tranquillo.”  One said he went to Oaxaca about once a month, none had been outside the state of Oaxaca.  So if guiding on these trails can provide a living and permit constancy in the pueblos, good.

The hiking was strenuous, on trails ranging from excellent – and historic, prehispanic even, if I can believe that – to abysmally in need of maintenance, and through the beautiful range of ecosystems with mosses and lichens and low shrubs to 60-foot pine trees.  We followed an arroyo overtaking its banks after the hurricane conditions last week and baked in the open sun.

Taking a lot of pictures of all the plants would be ridiculous; great photographers have done that.  I include two here, just to show a huge mushroom and a cactus, usually thought of as appearing in moist and sere places, and not together, here just three steps apart.


ImageThe fern thing:  This sent me back to Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, a satisfying little travel book that I recommend. He came here to see Oaxaca’s “seven hundred-odd species of ferns” — to the discerning helechophile, a great destination — and I hope to find the names of at least a few that I have seen. (I’ll keep that to myself, since I sense you’re nodding off now.)  But look to that book for just wonderful intelligent and funny writing that will make you feel smart and want to go traveling.

The cloud bank, however, contributed our favorite aspect of this side trip.  Fog is a cloud that has the base on the earth’s surface, and Tuesday night, up in Latuvi, at 7,943 feet, we watched the clouds slide around a mountain toward us, eventually concealing absolutely everything farther than 10 feet away; I am not making that up.  I could see only to the edge of the patio of our little cabana.  So Orlandini was right.

We were the only customers on our particular night.  The little cabins were spotlessly clean with multiple beds, hot showers, flushing toilets and fireplaces.  A guy came in to build and light a fire.  Heaven.  How much do you tip for that?

Morning brought only a slight thinning of the fog; we were to set out in the same white-out on day two.


* William screams angrily as I read this aloud to him:  No one drinks water! They don’t sweat! They don’t pee! It’s 80 degrees and they’re wearing extra layers and a stupid hat!  I’m drinking three bottles of water and Lisa’s juice and 10 minutes away from heat stroke!