Thursday, March 24, 2016

Looking-glass economics

A few days ago the New York Times told the sad story of the closing of a Carrier air conditioner manufacturing plant in Indianapolis and the transfer of those 1,400 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico. The workers' fury over losing their jobs faithfully echoed the debate lines of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders whose wildly divergent politics appear to converge over worries that the bipartisan fascination with international free-trade agreements is fueling the migration of manufacturing jobs overseas and shafting American workers.

In this movement of labor, Mexico would seem to be at the winning end with its
competitive advantage being cheap labor, as is the case with most Third World countries.

Make that really cheap labor—in addition to loose environmental and safety rules and the absence of labor unions to erode profits. The manufacturing jobs eliminated in Indianapolis pay around $22 dollars an hour while the jobs relocated to Mexico will pay $19 dollars a day.
Cool profits and taco wages

Even allowing for considerably lower living costs—tortillas and beans are indeed cheaper than USDA hamburger—$19 dollars an hour or $95 dollars a week is still a very low wage, barely enough to sustain a family of four in Mexico or promise the workers' children a chance at a middle-class future. Most American expats in San Miguel pay their household help more than that, though foreign employers would reply that, hey, McWages are better than no wages at all.

In the Times article, the chief financial officer of Carrier said the decision to move the Indianapolis plant was "really tough" and not based on pressure from Wall Street, trade policy or "corporate greed." United Technologies, Carrier's parent company, faces pressure from investors to increase profit margins, the article said, and shipping jobs overseas is one ready way to do that.
All around us here in Mexico, industrial parks hosting foreign manufacturing firms in anonymous hangar-like, corrugated steel buildings are unexpectedly landing on the landscape like flying saucers. The economic spinoffs are equally visible, particularly in the nearby city of Querétaro: Shopping centers offering goodies from Crate & Barrel and Brooks Brothers, and a full menu of high-end new car dealers from Porsches to Range Rovers.

Though I have no specific economic databank on which to base my opinions—hey, it works for Trump—the visuals suggest a polarization of incomes in Mexico not unlike that already well established in the U.S. Carrier's tighter squeeze for profits benefits its American stockholders and other one-percenters but it doesn't help the company's soon-to-be former employees in Indianapolis.
In Mexico one could hope for the development of a class of upwardly mobile manufacturing workers, even as a result of foreign-owned plants. According to this paradigm, Mexican workers could gradually acquire skills and move up. Querétaro has established technical schools presumably to make that happen.

Except that what nurtured the creation and expansion of the middle class in the U.S. were high-paying jobs—those $25-dollar-and-up assembly line American jobs, with a full platter of benefits, that American manufactures are now trying to shed—in addition to strong labor unions and sympathetic government labor laws.

With its skimpy wages, bare-bones benefits, weak or non-existent unions and a government with a "we'll do whatever you want" attitude toward foreign investors, Mexican workers at the bottom may have long to wait for enough pesos to trickle down so they can switch from tacos to hamburger.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Tale of a rare medical coincidence

About three weeks ago, our close friend Fred damaged the meniscus, an obscure but apparently essential cartilage-type thingie on his knee. A week after, our even closer friend Felisa suffered a similar accident on her left knee. Both of them had to undergo surgical interventions to relieve the pain and prevent permanent damage.

What are the chances of such medical coincidence?

Fred hurt his knee while playing tennis, when he pivoted on one foot in a heroic attempt to return a volley from the other player. He may have been channeling Martina Navratilova for all we know. We do know, however, that Felisa didn't injure herself playing tennis.

You see, Fred is about six feet tall and a biped (one leg immobilized now by a groin-to-ankle cast), while our dog Felisa is a quadruped (only three feet functioning at the moment) that stands barely eighteen inches off the floor. Despite her current disability, Felisa continues to furiously wag her tail in a circular motion, propeller-like, as if to help her move forward. No reports received, or solicited, about Fred's tail.

Fred was flown to a hospital in San Antonio, where he underwent surgery to patch up the damage. Felisa rode on the back seat of our car to Ciudad Mascota ("Pet City"), located in the city of Celaya about ninety minutes away, where a vet specializes in orthopedic interventions on "small species."

After some rest, Fred flew back to San Miguel and so did Felisa, though she again traveled by car and this time marked the occasion by peeing all over her cushion. Fred didn't have any airborne accidents, though his husband Ron did report that the flight attendants tossed him the complimentary bags of peanuts from farther away than usual, just in case.

Felisa with her Elizabethan collar and the scar
from her surgery on her knee. 
For both Fred and Felisa, rest is key to recovery. In Felisa's case the doctor prescribed an "Elizabethan collar," a plastic device to partially immobilize her head and prevent her from licking the injured knee. Ron borrowed an Elizabethan collar from a local theater company but Fred wouldn't wear it even around the house. Besides, both concluded, at his age Fred couldn't bend down far enough to lick his knee anyway.

People-style Elizabethan collar.
The vet also recommended that we accompany Felisa outside to pee, to keep her from running around too much and possibly causing further injury.

Ron, the ever-faithful companion—one who takes the part of his marriage vows about "in sickness and in health" very seriously—at first did the same with Fred until the plants in their backyard started turning brown. Even their beautiful mesquite tree seem to be distressed. So Ron quickly put an end to that routine and told Fred to get his forty-pound cast, and the rest of him, back to the indoor facilities no matter how clumsy it might be.

Felisa has remained silently stoic during her recovery, though she really hasn't got much choice because she can't talk. According to Ron, Fred has been far more eloquent in his complaints, groans, moans and requests, the latter generally along the line of "gimme this" and "gimme that." At certain points, Ron even seemed a bit vexed, friends noticed.

But both patients are coming along fine. Fred is using a walker to help him navigate in his cast, and Felisa is hopping along three-legged, a bit like a rabbit, with a plastic cone on her head and oblivious to how ridiculous she looks.

In a few months Fred and Felisa should be completely healed, and this peculiar medical coincidence will be happily behind us. Get well, both of you.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

'tis the Season to Eat Crow

Not even a month after posting some snarky remarks about expats in San Miguel who complain about our “winters,” in addition to snickering about our friends marooned in subarctic hells like Chicago, New York or Boston, punishment has come down on my head from Lakshmi, Isis or whoever is the Goddess of Karmic Retribution.  

Following two days this week of near gale-force winds that threatened to knock down our cypresses and some younger trees, Thursday morning we woke up to subzero temperatures and a quarter inch of snow on the ground that for several hours turned the surrounding mountains into an alpine postcard. Adding to the eerily unseasonal ambiance when we got in our pickup the iPod slid into Andrea Bocelli singing “Adeste Fidelis.”

Honey, get the skis. Quick, before it all melts in two hours. 
Where are we and what time of the year is it?
Sensing we might get an overnight freeze, Felix had brought in the fifteen trays of seedlings that just last week seemed to be thriving under one of our makeshift cold frames. The formerly perky plantlets now sit dejectedly in the garage leaning in this and that direction, wondering what happened.

Two of our dogs, the biggest and the smallest, briefly frolicked in the light snow cover but then fled to the warmth of the heater in the living room.  Neither one of them is Iditarot material, I'm afraid. 

The sight of snow was a big event among the locals who stood around awestruck, many taking photos with their smartphones, including my dentist who showed up forty-minutes late for our appointment. That's not unusual; he seems to have his watch set to A.M.T., or Approximate Mexican Time. But yesterday he got even further behind in his schedule to show me a brief video of the snow he took on the way to work. 
Beside the snow and the cold, we also received a full inch of rain. In a desert-like climate like ours one never complains about rain but this downpour was unusual because our rainy season is not due for at least another three months. 

If this rash of strange weather occurred in the U.S., the media would be erupting with theories. Is the result of El Niño? La Niña? La Abuela? A meandering Polar Vortex that didn't know where to stop? 

Here life is simpler. The headline Thursday in one of the local papers was just "Brrrr" followed by snippets from here and there of people complaining about the cold. Let's just take a picture and move on.

Indeed, for the sake of my peace of mind, I'm gradually converting to laissez-faire Republican meteorology so I can be oblivious, to climate change worries no matter how weird the weather gets. It's a more tranquil way to live at least until the Atlantic Ocean backs up into Miami and Marco Rubio's cars float away to the Azores. But that's fifty years from now. By then he'll be dead and so will I and perhaps the 2016 presidential primaries will over too. 

Immediately though, I'm just embarrassed about my previous gloating about "winter" in San Miguel and Up North particularly since yesterday, while we were searching for our winter jackets here, New York's WQXR-FM merrily forecast afternoon temperatures in the low-seventies. 

Someone once defined bad karma as "ha-ha screw you!" and I think that's what happened here. It serves me right for being so insensitive to other people's winter complaints—real or imagined.