Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Let’s not get too excited

Well, here we are in the dog days of summer of an election year, and the political world seems to be in the throws of desperate appeals to save the country from utter and total ruin if the wrong people get elected.  I’m getting pretty tired of it all.

That is, those on the left are screaming that the those on the right are out to steal the election, destroy the society, dismantle the government, and round up all the non-white and weak population and put them in concentration camps (well, maybe they are really saying those things, but those on the left know what those on the right really mean).

And, those on the right are screaming that those on the left are out to steal the election, destroy society, cripple the free market, and round up all the business and productive people and put them into government re-education camps (well, maybe they aren’t really saying those things, but those on the right know what those on the left really mean).

But, you know, look at what happened four years ago.  Barak Obama ran on Hope and Change.  He was seen to be, by his voters and by himself, a transformative historical figure.  He was going to change the county and change the world.  What happened?  The world changed, you bet, and he helped.  But it certainly hasn’t changed the way he predicted he would make it change, has it?  The world changes with or without our presidents or congresses. 

It is always so nice to pretend to believe during the big elections that our politicians have the power to rule the world.  But, the country, and the world, are so much more powerful than our politicians.  I think that what happens, mostly, is that those in power end up doing what they can’t avoid doing, which is reacting to reality rather than being able to keep campaign promises that make sense ideologically but don’t really make much sense in the real world.

For example, Candidate Obama was going to dramatically change the foreign policy of the United States – be nicer, more accommodating, lift negotiation and compromise back to the top of the agenda, have the world love us once again.  And I think he did a good job of changing the tone of Washington, but President Obama did what he discovered he had to do - he pretty much has maintained President G.W. Bush’s foreign policies in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, kept Guantanamo in operation, is tightening the sanction screws on the refuse-to-negotiate Iran, demonstrating U.S. power in the China seas, etc.  Much the same as Bush had done, or probably would have done.

Domestically, despite some of the most contentious and libelous battles I have ever seen in Congress, the debt ceiling actually was raised, the Keynesian stimulus package was actually passed, a nationalized health care package actually squeaked through congress and the president, the financial system was saved from collapse, a world wide depression was averted even though we are still in a pretty deep recession still, etc.  The world goes on despite the howls of the ideologues on both sides about how it is all coming to an end any minute now.

The pundits are aflame, the impassioned bases on the left and right are livid with fear and righteousness, the engaged middle is trying to calm the issues just a bit, the disengaged middle are trying their best to ignore the partisan hysterics, and in the end, we will elect a new government. 

And it will be a fine government after all, and the country will not be ruined. 

Let’s just not get too excited by the process, and realize that the process is very carefully designed to get us really, really afraid that it is all going to go to hell if we don’t vote for the right candidates. 

They are just trying to get your money, your time, and your vote. 

We should each pick a side, and be engaged, and care, and vote; let’s just pull away from the demonization of each other a bit, if we can.  We’re all in this together, and the day after the election we’re all going to be here still.  We need to live together, and it is so much better when we are not at each other’s throats.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obesity - a government-industry policy

There is no doubting the obvious fact that the country is in the midst of an obesity crisis.  Why? 

The main reason is that people are eating a diet of what I call drug-foods rather than a diet of actual foods.  A drug food is something that has been invented by the food industry.  They are carefully engineered to produce cravings for more.  Unfortunately, they act like drugs and create addiction.  They are loaded with fat, sugars, and salt.  They are quick and convenient.  They are produced by today’s huge agribusinesses, industrial farms, fast food outlets, and highly processed foods found in most of the supermarket (almost everything in the middle of supermarkets are highly processed drug-foods, whereas you can find real foods on the perimeters – produce and meats especially) 

A couple of good sources of info about this are a wonderful book “The End of Overeating” by Dr David Kessler, and the movie “Food, Inc.”  The good thing is that neither of these is an angry polemic, but they do a good job of explaining why the average weight of Americans has gone up by over 30 pounds in the last few decades.

So, how did this happen to our country? 

First, I want to congratulate the food industry for feeding billions.  The Reverend Malthus in the early 1800s predicted that human population would grow exponentially, but tillable land would only grow linearly, and as a result the human race would face endless cycles of famine and war as ways to keep the population down to the number that could be fed.  But, the agriculture adopted the approaches of industry to grow food production exponentially, and thus has been able to feed an exponentially growing U.S. population.  The same can be said around the industrialized world.  Good for them.  Famine is not a good thing.

Next, it is necessary to recognize that there is a major adjustment that the food industry needs to make now that the quantity problem has been solved in the industrialized world.  Now it is time to focus on quality.  That is, it is time for the agriculture to find ways to produce enough food which is actual food rather than drug-food.

Or, more to the point, it is time for us, the eaters, to turn away from the drug-foods and turn to real food.  Where there is demand, there will be supply.  It’s the nature of free markets.

Which brings me to the point of this long post – the distortions of the free markets by the food industry and government.  Charles Lane of the Washington Post writes and interesting article labeled “The Government wants you to eat cheese”.  He points to one item, cheese, that our country has more than doubled the consumption of because of U.S. Agricultural policy.  The policy is not one designed to nurture the health of Americans, it is a policy designed to help “farmers’, or more to the point, to help the huge industrialized agri-businesses that have replaced farmers.  One portion of our government agricultural policy is to support dairy "farmers" by distorting the market to produce too much milk, which ends up being used to make much more cheese, which increases cheese consumption because of artificially low cost and government assisted promotion of cheese (think pizzas). 

Those on the left of the political spectrum will naturally blame agri-businesses for their capture and control of government policies so as to benefit these giant corporate farming and distribution industries.  And they would be correct.

Those on the right of the political spectrum would naturally blame an ever expanding and ever too powerful government doing the only thing it knows how to do, which is to try to direct and control through centralized government power every aspect of the lives of Americans, which inevitably results in consequences that are unforeseen, damaging to the people, and benefitting only the special interests who have their ear, and contribute to their re-elections.  And they would also be correct.

It is an unholy, and at least partially harmful, alliance of government and the corporate agribusinesses of America.  The “small” example of how these two teamed up to dramatically increase the consumption of a highly saturated fat food, cheese, is but one instance.  I am sure you can find the same story over and over again when looking at the overproduction of corn, grain feed beef, pork, chicken, and fish, etc. 

The American diet is abundant, but it is becoming more and more unhealthy.  It is the cause of the dramatic, unhealthy, costly, and tragic rise in obesity in America, and it is the result of government policy … no, it is the result of agribusinesses business model … actually it is the cause of government-industry joint policy.  And, just as I don’t expect the Mexican drug cartels to stop trying to sell Meth into America, I don’t expect the agribusinesses or the government to stop promoting their own self interests for the benefit of the health of the nation.

But, of course, there is a cure for this disease.  It is to recognize our addiction to food-drugs and to wean ourselves off of them and return to eating food.  The industry and government will follow.

Or, as I am told, a hand written sign said at a local farmers’ market – “Organic food, or as your grandparents used to call it – food”.

Friday, July 13, 2012

High speed rail or schools?

I usually try very hard to avoid paying attention to California politics because I find it too discouraging to know about.  But, Sacramento has managed to penetrate my zone of ignorance with an amazing bit of nonsense.

Apparently, the California legislature has approved roughly $6 billion funding of a high-speed rail project being started in central California, the “bullet train.”  The total price for this train is estimated to be about $69 billion, but that will increase dramatically I am sure before it is all over. 

This is some kind of ideological dream of some on the left.  Why it is important to them has always eluded me since it is obvious to me that it will just be a faster version of Amtrak.  That is to say, it will be a huge expense to build, will go to places few will want to go to, will likely be mismanaged and inefficient when in operation, and will attract not nearly enough riders to allow it to be profitable.  But, it gets funds from the Dems in Sacramento, who are apparently in bed with the unions pushing the project.

At the same time, California is deeply in the red.  Indeed, if the voters don’t vote for a proposed tax increase proposed by Governor Brown there will be an automatic trigger to cut…here’s the fun part… roughly $6 billion dollars from the budget. 

And, of course, the train won’t be cut, something much less (?) important will be cut… education.   Apparently, most of the cuts will come from public education by reducing the school year from 175 days to 160 days.  Maybe the politicians are just admitting that the California public school system is pathetic anyway (teachers’ unions protecting bad teachers and bad schools?), so why bother to prolong the charade?

And, oh yes, apparently the California legislature rejected Governor Gerry Brown’s pension overhaul plan, and substituted some toothless thing that they can pretend to be a reform. 

Good grief, if even a long time Democrat and liberal Gerry Brown can’t convince the unions and his own party to be fiscally responsible, who can? 

I had been ready to bite the bullet and vote for a tax increase because it has been apparent to me that the state of California really is out of money:  they are defunding parks, laying off police, firemen, and teachers, cutting back on libraries, releasing prisoners, dramatically raising college tuitions, cutting funds to cities (resulting in some city bankruptcies), and other things that I don’t even know about (except the roads seem to be in pretty bad shape too). 

But when these politicians decide to spend approximately $6 billion on an ideologically driven waste of money (the bullet train), and then threaten to cut school funding by about that same $6 billion, I despair for the future of the most beautiful state in the country. 

I have been trying very hard over the last few years to see both sides of an argument, and to see people I disagree with as having good intentions.  OK, so unions want jobs and Democrats need union support to get elected.  So, the Dems are hoping that the Reps will allow them to raise taxes rather than cut funding to the schools.  Fine, until you put the $6 billion into the train.  There, you have totally lost me.  A pox on Sacramento is what I say.

I will now go back to hiding my head in the sand regarding California politics.  It's bad for my emotional health to pay too close attention to it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Time for jail for some bankers?

When conservative business commentator, Charles Gasparino, of the New York Post says that Wall Street and London bankers are in danger of being sent to jail, I take that as a serious observation rather than just wishful thinking by more liberal commentators.  

The issue is criminal fraud and collusion to lie about the rates that banks were using for interbank loans during the financial crisis, which kept the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) falsely low.  This allowed the super-banks to make money (greed again, of course).  And it altered the borrowing rates of the entire world.  The tip of the iceberg is Barclays.  More to follow.

It always seemed to me that the unethical things that these behemoths were doing - like deliberately selling toxic assets to unsuspecting investors, placing enormous bets in the derivatives markets that could make themselves fortunes but stick the taxpayers with the losses, etc. - should have been illegal rather than just morally appalling.  Somehow, these financial giants all escaped jail, continue to make private fortunes, managed to make their giant financial institutions even bigger, and increased their power and influence over government by gutting the government's efforts to regulate them and reduce their size and influence.

That run of arrogant domination may be coming to an end.  We may finally have come up with something that they did that was more than just disgusting.  They may have done something that actually is illegal.

And their campaign contributions may not be able to save them from losing their job, and even their freedoms.

More important than the satisfaction of seeing the greedy be punished, however, is the chance that this might finally create the culture change needed in London and on Wall Street.  The country, and the world, may get the financial system back into balance, where the people running these institutions actually are there to be a service to the economy rather than little more than super-casinos designed to create uber-wealth for themselves at the expense of the economy and the tax payer.

One can certainly hope.