Saturday, January 12, 2008

An illigitimate issue

In the last couple of months, the media has been interested in various cases of abandoned infants, who mostly were born out of wedlock. Being the type of conservative society it is in Jordan, the mothers of these children face dire consequences. The babies are placed in garbage bins or left at doors of mosques.

According to a report in Al Ghad, 36 such children were dealt with through the ministry of social development last year, as opposed to 28 from the year before. In a country where there is a child born every three minutes, the birth of 0.02% of children under these conditions is hardly remarkable, and would hardly warrant mention were it not for the salacious interest in premarital sex.

The government, interested in diverting attention from more substantial problems (like feeding and educating the other 99.98% of children born in the country) has created a committee to study the “phenomenon” of children of “unknown lineage”. The committee includes representatives of the ministries of social development, health, justice, Islamic affairs, and interior, as well the family protection establishment. According to the undersecretary of the ministry of social development, the committee will study the “issue”, and recommend legislative changes “commiserate with the size of the problem and efforts to control it”.

It gets better.

The same Al Ghad report cites unidentified “experts” who blame the “phenomenon” on the lack of deterrent legislation against premarital sex, rising prices, poverty, unemployment, globalization, technological advancement, population growth and integration of heterogeneous groups into society.

The implication is that there were never horny young people in Jordan until sex was thrust upon us by the internet, satellite TV and nasty outsiders with no morals. I must assure everybody that Jordanians always loved SEX. They like to talk about SEX. They like to joke about SEX. They like to fantasize about sex, and yes, they like to practice sex. They always have and they always will, and no amount of preaching will ever change that.

Of course, in the old days, the horny adolescents were married off when they were in their teens (not to suggest that there was no premarital sex even then). Modern social and economic constraints now prevent early marriages.

This is not to say that getting sex nowadays is not easier than before (apparently it is). But this not a reflection of increased desire, but of reduced repression. Repression has its own downsides, like pedophilia, sexual harassment, incest, rape and a dangerous pursuit of heavenly virgins . Not to mention blindness and hairy palms.

Of course, many commentators are shedding tears over degrading morals and lost innocence. Give me a break.

Anyway, the whole “issue” is that of illegitimate children. Will our august committee come up with practical advice, like sexual education or protection and support of the mothers, or will its report be another sermon? Whatever they do, the government now has a social issue on which there are no concrete answers. We will be able to chew on this for years to come, as standards of living decline, and education and health services deteriorate.

But why should we worry about those issues? People are having SEX!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Killing the goose

I believe that one of the most important pillars of social stability in Jordan is the prospect of upward mobility. People are willing to forfeit their desire for economic justice if they feel that their children will be afforded an opportunity for a better life. This is why people are willing to deprive themselves, are willing to sell their assets and are even willing to go hungry for the sake of sending their kids to university. Simply said, Jordanians view a university education as being an indispensable key to economic and social advancement. This attitude has led to some of the highest levels of university graduates in the world.

And this has been a boon for the Jordanian state. Hundreds of thousands (600 thousand in the Gulf alone) of well educated Jordanian expatriates send home over two billion dinars a year, making up 18% of the GNP. The government doesn’t need to find them jobs, and they support their families so that they are not a burden on the state. So far, this has been successful formula that partially concealed the government’s failure to create enough jobs for everybody, kept the economy afloat and helped sustain the social peace.

So, why would anybody tinker with such a success story?

I wrote a couple of years ago about the financial problems at state universities. Following that, the government of Adnan Badran promised to gradually pay off the debts of these universities. While financial conditions were still weak, it looked like there might be a sustainable future for the higher education system in the country. Some people were still skeptical about future designs on the structure of higher education, specifically, questions were raised about the desire to raise university tuition fees and the ultimate desire to privatize the universities. A campaign calling itself dhabahtoona (essentially meaning you are killing us) was started in order to protest and raise awareness. The campaign is vocal but has yet to gain much traction.

A couple of days ago, the minister of higher education announced that government “support” of the universities will be reduced by 5 million dinars this year, and said that universities should become self funding. Dhabahtoona held a press conference to highlight this development, and once again pointed out that the government is ripping off the universities by not giving them their full due of the university fees tax. The bottom line is that the government is treating the universities as bad investments, while in fact they are major assets that help sustain the country economically and socially. Starving these institutions will not be favorable to students, families, the society or the state. It will be more like killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Of course, this latest announcement comes in the context of all kinds of other challenges to the living standards of Jordanians. It looks like the government is not content with lowering current standards of living, but wants to rob us of hope for the future as well.

And what is life without hope?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Don't worry. Be happy.

The government is trying hard to assure everybody that impending disaster is not around the corner, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The PM is saying that the effect of lifting subsidies on the economy will not be significant. Of course, the biggest worry is not how this will affect the economy, but how it will affect people.

It is hoped that the removing taxes on food will be an appropriate placebo. The head of the food merchants association, Khalil Al Haj Tawfiq, is vacillating, saying that stocks that have already been taxed need to be depleted before consumers feel the change. According to Haj Tawfiq, this should take a couple of months, which is long enough for people to have forgotten. Not to worry. Haj Tawfiq promises that if the merchandise was already exempt, then consumers will feel the effect of the 0% reduction right away.

Of course, when taxes are raised, merchants swiftly raise prices, even on stocks that were not taxed.

The prime minister is asking the private sector (nicely) to lower prices and raise salaries for their workers. Obviously, this is meaningless. Jamil Nimri suggests that the government goes back to fixing prices. I believe that a better solution is to activate anti-monopoly laws. Free markets can work only if mechanisms are used to enforce such laws, and jail a couple of fat cats found to be fixing prices. Right. Like that will happen.

The government also wants us to take solace that they promised not to raise the lowest category of electricity use, which are residential users who consume less than 160 kilowatt hours per month. The problem with this is that many people have gone to heating with electricity instead to diesel, LPG or kerosene. This means that few people will be able to meet the low consumption requirements needed to take advantage of the government’s generosity. After 160 kilowatt hours, all bets are off, and nobody knows how high the tariffs will go.

Even the ministry of agriculture is trying to make people feel good. Today, they are assuring people that the lack of rain will not affect crops. I never knew that.

Anyway, don’t worry. Be Happppy!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Public-private partnership

In a dramatic move, the government has decided to lift taxes and customs duties on 13 basic commodities. The hope is that removal of the 4% sales tax on these foodstuffs will lead to relief and jubilation. This depends on the food importers and merchants lowering their prices for a corresponding amount. The government says that they will intervene if they don’t.

I used to by a kilo of rice (Sunwhite or Tiger) for about 25 piasters. The other day, my wife brought home a 2 kilo package for 1.65 dinars, or about 82 piasters per kilo. According to the latest mercantile exchange information, US produced rice ranges in cost from 22 to 28 dollars per hunderweight (100 pounds). So, each pound costs between 22 and 28 cents. Shipping for the US to Aqaba is about 6 cents per ton. So, the cost of rice reaching Aqaba should range from 43 to 51 piasters (assuming they are sending us the high grade stuff. Ha Ha.). Add to that other costs like insurance, retail costs and so forth, and one would expect the price to the consumer should range from 50 to 60 piasters.

So, who is making the extra 22 to 31 piasters on the kilo of rice? The 4% sales tax accounts for about 2 piasters. I am sure that there will be no problem in subtracting that. However, it seems clear that there is massive gouging by the importers, who apparently have agreed not to undercut each others prices. The head of the importers’ association is happy with the lowering of tariffs, and promises to cut prices accordingly.

Will the government actually do something to alleviate the effects of price fixing on the consumer? They have the legal tools to do this. I wouldn’t count on it, however. Food importers have become a political force to be reckoned with. A record number of them ran for parliament last time, and one of them actually won (Tareq Khouri; Amman third). One again, the game of mutual accommodation between government and "the private sector" will come at the expense of the average Jo. What else is new? Besides, we are so used to theatrics that we would not know any real positive action if we saw it.