Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Good Morning, Everyone. It is a nice, cool, sunny day so far. It is also supposed to be dry. No rain until the remnants of Alex makes their way up here early next week. I have some gardening to do. I need to change the location of some of my containers, repot Mom's bamboo, and transplant a sage plant. I may even have some asparagus beans to harvest and definitely have 3 tomatoes to pick. We are looking at drying methods for the herbs that are trying to take over the containers. Thankfully, the peppers are large enough to fend for themselves. My eggplants are blooming so I should have something to pick there. They provided a bit of anxiety when I walked out Monday and found several leaves badly eaten by beetles. I identified the pests as Colorado Potato Beetles--picked half of them off and drowned them, then sprayed the other half. The situation seems to be under control now but the little monsters surprised me. Unlike most insects, these nasties LIKE marigolds.

I found this item on FoodFirst this morning. Every now and then I see a story about consumers and farmers running afoul of the law regulating the sale of raw milk. Curious, I did a quick and dirty search to see what my state law dictated and found Realmilk which is very interesting and informative. We found one local farmer and that Indiana law allows 'herd shares.' You buy a share in the cow and so aren't technically buying the milk. An Amish farm in Shipshewana encourages you to visit your cow 'any day but Sunday.'

Monday, June 28, 2010

Good Morning, All. I wasn't sure I would post anything today since we spent the last few days on a 'death bed' vigil for one of our cats--the remaining 19 year old whose littermate brother died about a month ago. He succumbed yesterday gently and peacefully for which we are very grateful. We will miss him--as we have missed his brother.

The news this morning announced the death of a human we will sorely miss also--Senator Robert Byrd. I was not surprised at his passing either because he had grown increasingly fragile for some time. I think we, as a nation, will miss him more than we realize.

I was amused (and not in a humorous way) that the G-20 meetings broke up with most of the governments agreeing to cut their deficits in half within the next two-and-a-half years. Obama had urged them to keep the government spigots open longer to combat the recession. I just did some quick and dirty searches on a couple of topics related to this. I wondered just how the U.S. ranked in the public debt department against other countries--especially those now going the austerity route. I found this site which shows some interesting figures, especially if they are accurate. I wouldn't place any large bets on these figures since I don't know where they got them but they don't contradict what I have been reading elsewhere. The U.S. to GDP ratio is about 40% which is half that of Britain and much less that Spain, Greece, Ireland, and Iceland all of which have caused extreme jitters on the world markets. I can see why the rest of the G-20 is seriously concerned and pushing 'savage' austerity as one economic reporter described it last week.

The next question is--where do you cut. No matter what you cut it will cause economic pain. I can make one suggestion that Republicans, particularly, would not like at all: military. Take a look at this Wikipedia entry that lists nations by their 2008 military expenditures. The U.S tops the list whether you consider dollar amounts or percentage of GDP. Perhaps we should cut our military budgets to the levels of Great Britain (2.5% GDP) or better yet Germany (1.3%)? You might argue that it is a dangerous world out there and we need the military. But I would argue that we haven't gained a security commensurate with our expenditures. The problem is that so much of our economy is supported in one way or another by military spending. Remember how they solved the problem of base closings over a decade ago? They appointed an 'independent' bi-partisan (when the term really meant something) committee to do the dirty work the elected officials had no backbone for. Everyone wanted bases closed--just not the one in their neighborhood. Worse, every major company in the country depends heavily on defense contracts for its profits. How many of them could make it on their civilian products alone?

The Conservatives want sharp cuts in 'entitlements' as they so-nicely label Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social spending programs. Think about the ripple effect through out the economy if those cuts are deep? Let's say you cut Medicare drastically, permanently freeze social security payments, and tell everyone under 50 they will not get either. Lower and middle income recipients would immediately curtail their spending. Many already have because though the official data shows no inflation the prices for what seniors have to buy have in fact gone up. They would simply tighten the purse-strings even more. Especially if they are faced with cuts in Medicare. They might delay treatments, or cut needed medicines. They might wait till their medical needs get critical and then head for the nearest emergency room. Those under 50, faced with the loss of Social Security but, probably, not the canceling of the taxes that support Social Security would have to somehow have to scrape up money they can put aside for retirement. Their spending on other things would have to be curtailed. And many would simply not have enough time to make up for the loss of one-quarter (or more) of their planned income stream.

I have read several blogs over the last few months that scream at the readers that everyone is at fault for the predicament we are in whether it s the BP oil spill or the deficits or our dependence on the public teat for our needs. But our current situation took as much as a century to create. Undoing it over night will take nothing short of a revolution--and a violent and bloody one at that.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Good Sunday Morning, Everyone. We did enjoy the farmers' market. All we bought was a couple of tomatoes. The first of ours are a few days away from being ripe. I will stop by again on Tuesday when I make my usual trip to the local library which is only a few blocks away. I got some very nice lettuce the last time and that vender is only there on Tuesday.

I am glad you enjoyed The Reformed Broker, Kay. And I hope you will be able to get the site, Lois. Most of the economic bloggers I read are on the pessimistic side. I find their observations tally most closely with my own experience and observations in my position so far from the Olympian heights of Wall Street and Washington. The 'mainstream' economic pundits keep talking about a recovery I have yet to see.

I have finally finished Michael Lewis' The Big Short and I would recommend it highly. It is well written though there are some very confusing sections in it. The Wall Street meltdown was a confusing episode that economic historians will be writing about for the next century or more. A few things stand out for me. First, I was amazed how much of our so-called economy has drifted into abstract, ephemeral 'products.' They weren't selling a house, or a car, or shoes. Nothing tangible. They were selling the debt on the house, or car, or shoes. And they weren't just selling this debt--they were selling it many times over, sliced up six ways to Sunday and repackaged again and again.. A couple of the bloggers I read regularly made the observation that, to create real wealth, you have to produce something, transport something, or sell something. The operative word there is 'something' meaning something tangible. Most of what has been traded in the stratospheric regions of our economy is smoke and mirrored reflections. It was an inverted pyramid balanced on a very unstable tip just waiting for a big wind to topple it. Second, I was also amazed at how utterly ignorant so many of the 'bright' boys and girls were of the exact nature of the products they were peddling. They did not know what components made up their abstract product and they didn't care so long as one of the ratings agencies rated them as safe. They made a lot of money being incredibly lazy. Third, and this ties into the behavior of BP and other oil companies, they simply could not imagine a situation in which their 'safe' investment vehicle would fail. (BP couldn't imagine a scenario where their various redundant levels of protection all failed, with or without human error.) Even when the flaws in their constructed packages was pointed out to them by analysts who had thoroughly investigated the investments and connected the dots and imagined the cases in which a failure would be likely--they refused to believe the worst could happen. I will bore you with only one more aspect of this story that amazed me--how slender the margin was between abysmal failure and spectacular success (success defined as making a s**t load of 'money.') At one point, that was a mere three percentage points. If 7 percent of the components of the packages (CDOs or CDSs) failed the bank would make money. But it 10 percent failed they would (and did) lose billions. I prefer the odds in Vegas.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Good Morning, Everyone. It is a market day for us. Now that at least one of our farmer's markets is in full swing we have switched our marketing to the days they are open--Saturday and Tuesday. We will also go up to our favorite all year market since they have the eggs (cage free) that we like. We haven't seen the market that we preferred from last year but, if I remember rightly, it opened late last year. We'll see.

I found this amusing little post on The Reformed Broker this morning. It helps make some sense of the various groups of economic theorists and their philosophical background/assumptions. I see at least three groups I can agree with in part--but only in part.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Good Morning, All. It looks like a second cool and sunny day. And dry, which will be nice. I will check the gardens later to see if they need water. Tomatoes dry out so quickly. During the hottest days I have to water twice (sometimes more) times each day.

MSNBC has this interesting article this morning by Mark Gimein. We have all heard argument recently that, because exploiting new sources of fossil fuels requires going into more hazardous areas and the risk of environmental catastrophe has increased, we should go the nuclear route. After all, France gets some 40% or so of their electricity from highly safe and reliable reactors the latest only a little over 5 years old. Although Gimein originally thought that might be a valid argument, by the end of the article, he questions the premises behind it. The basic problem is that we cannot really calculate the true costs of a failure. The 'worst case' scenarios (low probability, high cost events) are so outside the realm of experience that they are almost incalculable.
"Deepwater Horizon brings those low probability, high-cost events close. The near meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant did a lot to sour Americans on nuclear power, but Three Mile Island was a disaster that didn’t happen. The safety systems and protocols worked. The plant shut down.

On the Deepwater Horizon well, the safety systems didn’t work. The same high-pressure conditions that made the well fail made the blind shear ram that was supposed to cut the pipe fail as well. This is the problem of the last-resort failsafe plan: It has to work in the least likely and most overwhelming conditions. In other words, it has to anticipate the conditions most likely to lead to disaster."

I would go a bit further, however. BP did not anticipate conditions most likely to lead to disaster--they disregarded them. They deviated from accepted and standard procedures, they chose low cost options not high safety options repeatedly, and they ignored problems, especially with the blow-out preventer, that created a high probability of failure. Anybody here think BP should be in charge of a nuclear power plant, of constructing a nuclear power plant? Trouble is, in our 'pro-business' and 'anti-regulation' political climate, I don't trust anyone else either.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Good Morning, Everyone. We had another wild evening and night weatherwise. According to the news, the storms caused widespread damage in parts of northern Illinois and just east of us in the next county where county officials declared an emergency because of roads either flooded or blocked by debris. Our little corner survived waterlogged but intact. My plant towers and stacks have, so far, been remarkably stable. Our fence does break up the wind so it doesn't hit with full force. This is another year where we are shaking our heads and remarking that we can't remember when there have been so many severe storms. People in the Chicago area were just getting their power back when these storms hit (from the severe storms last Friday) and now 100k+ were without again. We watched some of our own DVDs last night because the reception kept cutting out. We had no power outages ourselves but the extent of the outages and the frequency over this season have us thinking about possibilities.

This was the lead story on HuffingtonPost this morning and a similar story appeared on the morning newscast. I am not surprised and anyone who is a) hasn't been following some of the real estate news over the last month and b) haven't thought through the consequences of those stories. A rising number of homeowners are 'strategically' walking away from their underwater mortgages. While I have some sympathy for some of the homeowners in this situation, I also have some sympathy for the mortgage lenders who have to deal with them. One story I read a couple of weeks back focused on a couple who had the choice of paying their considerable mortgage payment or losing their business. If they did not pay the mortgage they had a cash flow that would save the business but they risked losing both home and business by continuing to pay the mortgage. And they were getting no help from the bank holding the mortgage. However, I don't think that even sympathetic homeowners should be able to walk away from one mortgage and then get another, especially a government guaranteed one, with ease (or at all). I also think that the bankruptcy laws should be adjusted so that banks cannot hit homeowners up for more than the value of the property securing the mortgage.

The Wall Street Journal has this article that provides some food for thought on the topic of deep-water oil drilling and the long term inadequacy of both government regulation and oil companies' responses to potential oil spills. The Minerals Management Service has known since 2000 that their models for how a major oil spill would move in the gulf and how it would disperse through evaporation and the action of wind and waves was inaccurate. They informed the oil companies of this and claimed they would promulgate new models and requirements but never followed through. MMS did update their models in 2004 but the experience of the Deepwater Horizon spill shows that the new models were also woefully inaccurate and inadequate. Oil companies are required to use the MMS models in formulating their disaster response plans. "BP has come under heavy fire from Congress and environmental groups for its lack of readiness to handle a worst-case spill. But that criticism has overlooked a key fact: BP was required by federal regulators to base its preparations on Interior Department models that were last updated in 2004." So one might ask, given that the oil companies knew that the models were inadequate, why didn't they use the models as a basis for their responses and then go beyond the models to strengthen their plans? Well, the answer might be in an interesting comment made on the Casey Daily Dispatch recently (sorry, I didn't keep the link). The legal liability cap, which has infrequently been mentioned in any story about the spill, is suppose to be about $75M unless 'gross negligence' is proven. Casey's author noted that that is an invitation for oil companies to cut corners to save money and time because the potential fine was so much lower than the projected profits. If the executives knew they would be held liable for the total costs of any spill, even if it were an 'accident,' they would have strong incentives to make sure that 'accidents' didn't happen. They don't have any such incentives at present.

I don't have much to say about the change in the command structure in the Afghanistan war (aka, the McCrystal resignation). I cannot believe how incredibly stupid the General was in 1) giving that interview, 2) allowing his aids to make the remarks they made without reprimand (and I cannot believe that that was the ONLY time such remarks were made), and 3) thinking the President would let him get away with insubordination. Maybe he, like certain financial CEOs, thought he was too big to fail or fall. My problems with our military operations goes far deeper than simply one General. There is a line in the movie "Elizabeth" in which Elizabeth I says "I do not like wars. They have uncertain outcomes." We have gone into our various military adventures over the last 60 years thinking that the outcome is certain. Unfortunately, that has hardly the case. Korea--stalemate; the ceasefire set the boundaries to what they had been before the conflict flared up. Vietnam--declared victory and got out; but the North won and rules to this day. Somalia, Lebanon--hardly victories and they cost both reputation, lives, and treasure for no gain. We now have Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which are shining successes. Since the outcomes of wars are uncertain we should be very careful where and when we fight. We should be willing to use whatever force is required to win and, if we aren't, we shouldn't. There hasn't been a war since WWII where the stakes were so overwhelming we were willing to use any and all weapons (including saturation bombing and nuclear bombs) to win. And, as a consequence, we haven't won. The other problem is that the military is not the proper tool for the jobs they have been assigned in these conflicts. "Winning the hearts and minds" is not the proper job of the military. That requires other tools.

Evidently, I have found some interesting items on the topic I had not intended to talk about. Rain at Rainy Day Thoughts has started another blog for political topics, Rainy Day Things. She had some suspicions that McCrystal's actions were anything but accidental (I love how that word keeps popping up lately) nor spontaneous. Rather, they served some deeper, hidden motive. Rain isn't the only one with a suspicious mind nor am I the only one whose mind runs parallel to hers on the suspicion meter. Jim Sleeper at TPMCafe has similar thoughts today. And both express thoughts similar to mine. Sleeper says that McCrystal used the interview as a way out of his assignment and as an expression of dissatisfaction over a strategy that does not fully fund the anti-insurgency policy as a part of a 'total war.' To my mind, the term 'total war' is redundant. And the term 'limited war' is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, the oxymoron has ruled our war making for the last two-thirds of a century.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Good Morning, Everyone. We have gray skies and thunderstorm warnings out for today. I will be doing minimal work in the gardens. Actually, the whole container gardening set up requires minimal work. I don't have many weeds and they are easily pulled. I still have those damned mushrooms but that is under control. Unlike last year when I could barely keep ahead of the cabbage worms, I haven't seen one so far this year. When I looked out from the patio door I saw the first gypsy pepper. It seemed to have sprung up over night.

Thanks for the compliment on the blog make over, Kay. It was time to change it up a bit. Enjoy your trip.

I have been hearing intermittently about the financial regulation legislation packages making their slow passages through the Congress and Senate. Mostly, the stories come up on the financial news stations like CNBC. When the stories come up the thrust of the questions are how badly the legislation will cripple the industry under discussion. I have had the feeling for some time that nothing much will change in any significant way. These two stories from HuffingtonPost strengthen my cynical view of this whole process. The first story I saw this morning proclaimed the victory of the nation's auto dealers over proposals to include them under the authority of the proposed consumer protection bureau. If anyone can read this story and tell me where the authority to regulate this industry and protect consumers lies, please comment and explain it.

"Under a compromise offered by Senate Democrats Tuesday, auto dealers would still be covered by federal truth-in-lending rules that would have to conform to regulations adopted by the consumer agency.

The Federal Reserve, which oversees truth-in-lending regulations, could adopt different rules but would have to explain its decision. At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission would be given authority to write new rules for auto dealers under accelerated procedures.

But the bottom line would be that auto dealers would be exempt from direct supervision by the consumer financial protection bureau. The exclusion would not apply to auto dealers that provide their own financing, such as Carmax, or to giant auto lender GMAC."

By my reading, dealers are still subject to truth-in-lending rules but at least three different agencies have some degree of authority and can issue conflicting rules.

Then I found this piece. According to the author, Senator Tim Johnson (an alleged Democrat from South Dakota) has proposed an amendment that "undercuts a move to compel brokers -- middlemen between buyers and sellers of securities -- to act in the best interests of their clients, in accordance with what is known as their fiduciary duty."

One of the major problems that emerged from the hearings into the financial meltdown concerned the practice of Goldman Sachs agents constructing CDO packages to meet the demands of one of their clients and then selling them to others without telling the buyers all of the details. Little details like the fact that the packages were designed to fail and that the original client (and Goldman itself) were shorting the packages. The question that arose is who exactly are the clients to whom Goldman owed a fiduciary duty? And, unfortunately, the legislation does not really address that crucial issue. If you want a mind-boggling description of how this mess worked, read Michael Lewis' "The Big Short." Goldman was in a contradictory position of being the originator of the securities and the marketer of those same securities. They could not fulfill their fiduciary duty to both sets of clients at the same time.

Then there was the ruling by the Federal Judge in Louisiana that decided that the moratorium on deepwater drilling was unjustifiable and over broad. This story indicates that the judge may have had his own financial motives for his ruling--substantial investments in Haliburton and Transocean. I find some of his questions troubling. ""If some drilling equipment parts are flawed, is it rational to say all are? Are all airplanes a danger because one was? All oil tankers like Exxon Valdez? All trains? All mines? That sort of thinking seems heavy-handed, and rather overbearing,” Feldman wrote." The Exxon Valdez incident resulted in regulations which banned the single hulled tanker of its type and pushed the industry to switch to double hulls. Airlines have been subjected to sweeping inspections that shut down large parts of the industry for a time because one plane failed. If the piece of drilling equipment is a crucial as they say the blow-out protector is flawed then they may have a systemic problem. As I understand the reports to date, at least TWO of those pieces of drilling equipment proved faulty. So, if 100 cars have a problem with their accelerators we shouldn't recall all of the cars of that type because we can't tell if they are ALL faulty?? Or did Judge Martin Feldman simply not have any investments in the auto industry? Or Toyota simply did not shop in the right judicial market? ( I should be fair here. The judge may have sold his shares in oil related stocks. No one knows because the financial disclosures were for 2008 and that is the last year for which such disclosure is available. If he does still own the stock he should have recused himself because of a conflict of interest. If he does not, he should indicate that publicly.)

Michael Klar has a post at Tomdispatch this morning that should give anyone pause who thinks like Martin Feldman does--that simply because one airplane or car, or one piece of drilling equipment fails that we have no reason to worry about the others. Klar provides several scenarios which are slight extensions of events that have already taken place. Three did not result in any environmental disaster but the fourth is an ongoing catastrophe. I linked to one of the several stories about Nigeria and the situation on the Niger Delta a few days ago. For the last 30 or so years, the inhabitants have suffered the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every day. It doesn't take an over active imagination to conceive of an equivalent disaster in the Gulf where we have an Exxon Valdez every four days.

I have noticed an amusing and irritating side debate surrounding the BP spill--where exactly on the all time worst disasters should the spill be ranked. I am amused because of the insatiable desire we seem to have to rank things, to be first. Everything has to be put on a list in order of importance according to whatever criterion we choose. But I am also irritated because of the implications involved in being ONLY number two or three on the list. Do we scale back our efforts and expenditures because it is ONLY ranked two or three or whatever? Do we just let things go on hoping it will someday be ranked higher? There seems to be an effort to denigrate the disaster and that is a mistake.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Good Monday morning and happy first day of summer. One of the weather people this morning took a dismal view of the summer solstice--he dreads the coming of winter. Me--I ams looking forward to tomatoes soon. At least three of the plants I started have little tomatoes on them. I say 'at least' because the tomatoes like to play 'hide and seek.' I found these when I pruned the plants a bit yesterday. I also found the first blossoms on the asparagus beans and noted buds on the violas and ichiban eggplants.


It is now Tuesday and, as you can see, I didn't have much to say yesterday. It is wet today and we may have some more summer like storms later on. That means that I won't get anything done outside. However, we have one of our annual chores on tap: cleaning out the freezer and taking an inventory of what is there. It shouldn't take very long because we always time it so that we have a low inventory.

Part of the reason I haven't had anything to say is that nothing much has changed. Our political process is stalled, the BP situation doesn't really change, and the economy is either in delicate recovery or still stalled depending on your point of view. This unchanging morass allows my untidy little mind to drift into some interesting pathways.

For the last week or so, my thoughts keep drifting back to a line in a movie I rather like. About halfway through "Category 6: Day of Destruction" a sociopathic little would-be thug 'accidentally' shoots his former girlfriend. While he protests he didn't mean it, the girl's mother tells him "Threatening people with a loaded gun is no accident." That sums up much of the BP "accident." It was an accident ONLY in the sense that no one actually intended the spill to happen. Just like the boy in the movie, he never INTENDED to shoot--simply to get his way by threatening to shoot. And he never intended to shoot the girl he was trying to win back. But, he chose to carry the gun, he chose to threaten people with the gun, and anyone who wasn't a self-centered ass could have foreseen the possible outcome. If the news stories are accurate (and the investigation into the causes of the incident are still on going) various BP employees made a series of decisions that shaved costs and time but all of which carried risks. At the time they balanced those risks against the potential profits and decided in favor of the profits. Like the young idiot in the movie, they did not really consider the possibility of disaster. But, you say, they had a 'disaster plan?' And what a cookie cutter joke that was. Every other oil company had an almost verbatim copy of the same plan with the same out dated or inapplicable information and the same emphasis on managing the news spin. They never INTENDED to cause a spill; but, every decision they made to cut corners and costs ensured that when it happened it would be a doozy.

I found this article on the Oil Drum this morning that had a comedy sketch with Jon Stewart and a nice analysis which points to another reason why we are not likely to be as hard on BP as perhaps we should. The author points out that the U.S. domestic production peaked around 1970 at which time our oil consumption was about twice our production. Since that time production has declined to half of the 1970 level while our consumption has almost doubled. That is one big hole to dig ourselves out of.

I saw this article on my new alert this morning and both of us here gave a hurrah when I read it aloud. I do hope that the New York House confirms the New York Senate's vote. Basically, the law, if it goes all the way through and is signed, would assign ALL of New York's Electoral College votes to which ever candidate wins the NATIONAL popular vote. So far, according to the article, five states have approved similar laws. They note that George Bush would never have become president if enough states had had this law on the books. I can think of another benefit--we wouldn't have the national news media calling the election before the West Coast polls close.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Good Morning, everyone. What a wild evening and night we had yesterday. Two pulses of storms with heavy rain, small hail, and winds ranging from 70 to 100 mph. During the first one I had to go out and rescue the Mother's Day tomato. The wind blew it over. Luckily it was not damaged. Didn't even lose any of the tomatoes already forming. It did have a tomato cage around it and, though I am happy the grower provided the cage, it is really too small to provide enough support for a plant as big as this one. I can't take the cage off without damaging the plant. I found one of my long dowel rods and stuck it in to help support it and it is now stable again. I had to move a trellis that wasn't in use to support my Big Bertha Peppers.
They were flattened but not broken. Hopefully, they will straighten up. Oddly, they were the most protected of the plants.

Everything else in my jungle is doing quite well. The pictures were taken yesterday before the storm but the view now isn't much different. You can see why I had some uneasy moments with the wind. All my tomatoes, except Mother's Day, are in the five gallon buckets or large Tidy Cat buckets. For of them are stacked on the edges of adjacent 30 gallon tubs. I hoped they would be stable since the weight is largely in the buckets themselves. Thankfully they were.

Then, of course (me being me) I complicated things by hanging the small containers on the trellises supported by the cross beams. Luckily, all of these have also been stable, even with the winds yesterday. I put dwarf marigolds and portulaca in most of those with a couple each of lettuce and spinach. Most are doing very well in these containers. I cut all of them from plastic juice containers.

I am amazed at the contrast between the plants this year and those last year.

I planted Fairy Tales eggplant last year that simply did not thrive. This year they are taking over and competing vigorously with my peppers. Twice as large as any plants I had last year.

If nothing worse happens than last nights wind and storms I am looking forward to a very nice harvest.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Good Morning, everyone. Supposed to be hot today. It didn't get bad enough yesterday for us to turn on the air. Hopefully today will be the same. We had a pulse of thunder showers move through but not much rain.

HuffingtonPost had a very apt headline on its lead story this morning: "The Man Who Wasn't There." That was the major refrain all through Tony Hayward's testimony before Congress yesterday. The post has a link to a video (which I didn't view because I saw the real time version) which shows the whole thing in 4 minutes. I don't know which was more disgusting: Haywards memory lapses, lack of presence, and general lack of control of a company he supposedly headed, or, that ReThuglican idiot's apology for the 'shakedown.' A couple of thoughts occurred to me during the whole dismal time Hayward was obfuscating. First, just how long has this man been on the management end of the business and out of the operations end? He seems to be woefully out of touch and out of date on the technology. Second, our Federal government for at least the last 40 years has actually been far too pro-business and it doesn't matter whether Republicans or Democrats have been in control. Neither one has been very enthusiastic about regulating any industry especially the biggest ones.

Evidently, even some UK commentators were unimpressed with Hayward's performance. One even questioned the wisdom of putting someone like him in such an important position. He came across, in my mind, as a captain of a sinking ship trying desperately NOT to go down with his command. I had another thought just now: exactly how long does it take to investigate an accident like this? They have had 60 days. Or is the investigation merely a convenient, but unsatisfying, excuse to not say anything at all while they hope the firestorm dies? I have my suspicions but I have a nasty, cynical mind on matters of business ethics.

One of the commentators on the news this morning talked about the British response and a very pertinent question raised by said commentators: what about the other oil companies? Mom's response was that they were not the ones who caused the spill so the focus on BP at this time is justified. I would add another point: BP had more than 700 'serious, willful and egregious' safety violations over the last couple of years compared to less than 100 for ALL of the others. However, there is a point that gives me some concern. During the testimony by the other oil CEOs, one of the Senators noted that their disaster response plans were carbon copies of BPs--down to the plans to safeguard endangered species that are not present in the Gulf and the same deceased expert to be contacted in case of emergency.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Good morning, everyone. Another nice and warm day on schedule for today. These are temperatures we would like year around. We haven't yet put on the air though that may change over the weekend when we expect 90s with high humidity. We'll see.

I found this story from the New York Times by way of MSNBC. I have been reading about the situation over in the Niger Delta for a couple of years now and it has only gotten grimmer with time. Exxon and Shell are the major players there but it makes you wonder how accurate their testimony before Congress was when they tried to paint themselves as entirely different beasts from BP. Especially when they all presented virtually identical emergency management plans which included the same dead scientist's contact info and provided for protecting the same endangered species that don't live in the gulf.

This Mother Jones story came to me by way of Russ's Filtered News. The author makes some very carefully balanced points that we should keep in mind. It raised a question or two that has rattled around in my brain for some time now. Who do you trust in this modern world of ours? Years ago the question surfaced (in my consciousness--older people may have similar memories that go back further) in the controversies over the health effects of DDT and cigarettes. For every study showing the harm in these, and later, products the industries produced other studies showing the opposite. For years we have been bombarded with the studies showing the harm, or lack of harm, in red meat, high cholesterol, coffee, eggs, sugar, sugar substitutes with experts on both sides of the issue. Which expert do you believe and to what extent? And you can't really trust statistics either. To say that deepwater drilling hasn't had a blowout in 30 years is nice. It may even be an enviable safety record that bodes well for the future. Deepwater Horizon shows, however, that the past may not be as sure fire an indicator of the future and that when the 'unlikely' disaster does happen it can be totally catastrophic.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Good morning, again, everyone. Sunny today with temps in the mid to high 80s. Nice weather to get out in the gardens. I have to adjust some of the small containers that I have hanging on my trellises because either the tomatoes have overtopped them or because I set them too close to begin with. That shouldn't take too long. I have had a mushroom problem this year. I am not quite sure what to do about it. I checked several sites on line and found a number of suggestions. It is about time to feed all of the plants except the tomatoes (I put fertilizer spikes in those last week). They say that mushrooms don't like fertilizers much so that may do the trick. If not I will try a couple of the other suggestions. No, I won't be eating them. I know absolutely nothing about identifying mushrooms.

This little article has a number of excellent points on the Social Security debate. I have seen most of it before but one little section reinforces a suspicion I have had for a long time as I followed this debate. "The program has lots of money coming in. Employment tax collections in fiscal 2009 were $654 billion and accounted for 31 percent of all federal revenue." Does anyone really believe that, if our Congress Critters manage to eliminate Social Security, individuals and businesses will get a tax reduction of 6.25%? Do you really believe that they will reduce revenues by 31%?

I found this item by way of Elaine's Place. As has been noted before: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. According to the standard measures almost anything adds to GDP while very little actually subtracts from it. In this case the argument holds that the Gulf oil spill may actually add a little bit to the GDP. I think that such items ought to be a double deduction from GDP. Not only are the jobs lost, the tourism dollars lost, the fishing proceeds lost deducted but also the jobs 'created' to clean up the mess and the dollars spent. Those resources might have been productively spent on something that actually grew the economy rather than on repairing damage done to a productive economy. I think this authors analysis is right on target.

I really was not ready to end this post but Google has been giving me a hard time this morning. I hope they get their s**t together damned soon.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Good morning, everyone.

I found this L.A. Times article as I scanned through the internet this morning. Recently, several news anchors and commentators have asked just what the U.S. Government can really do, besides clean up the mess, concerning the BP catastrophe. If this article is accurate, the answer may be: 'not much.' These deepwater drilling rigs are classified as ships and, as such, are 'flagged' in various foreign countries whose safety and environmental laws apply (if they have any at all) and whose governments are responsible for enforcing those laws.
"The Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico was built in South Korea. It was operated by a Swiss company under contract to a British oil firm. Primary responsibility for safety and other inspections rested not with the U.S. government but with the Republic of the Marshall Islands — a tiny, impoverished nation in the Pacific Ocean."

I see two things that really, really need to change but both require alterations in international, maritime law NOT U.S. law. First, the rigs can be classified as ships when they are moving from one location to another but once they reach the drill site that classification should change. I am not sure to what but once they are anchored to the ocean floor they should come under the laws of the nation in whose waters they are located. Second, whenever the U.S. leases out these sites, the contract should specifically allow for all U.S. law to apply no matter where these 'ships' are flagged.

HuffingtonPost also has an interesting little article on the increasingly 'bifurcated' labor market. The split, according to the authors, is between high-skilled jobs that require "problem solving, intuition, and persuasion" and low-skilled jobs involving "situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interactions ". It seems that 'middle-skilled' jobs are an endangered species. Having spent a good many years in the academic study of history, I recall similar discussions of the labor conditions the beginning of the last century when most of the 'unskilled' jobs were mechanized out of existence and from the 1960s through the 1980s when many low-skilled jobs were computerized out of existence. I see a few problems these nice, antiseptic, academic studies paper over. These transitions in the labor market destroy many more jobs than the market creates in the same time. Then the people displaced from the jobs have to re-train for new jobs but they have fewer resources to enable them to retrain and, often, the wages they are training for don't provide a 'living' for the worker. Note that the low-skilled jobs the authors are describing require a high-school diploma AND some college. Higher skilled jobs require considerably more. That is an expensive proposition. Right now our system encourages workers to go into debt. I haven't seen any statistics which look at the higher pay the college educated MIGHT get and deduct for the debt they have to repay. I don't see that you gain much if, with a college education, you are gaining $100k OVER YOUR WORKING LIFE if you have to pay back $100k, principle and interest, in loans.

Here is another story which drives home what I said above. It is one that strikes a very painful nerve with me since I have had ten years of low wage jobs, temporary jobs, and unemployment stretches during which time my student loans have been in deferment or forbearance accumulating interest along the way.

We haven't heard much about the health of the nation's banks. This story from MSNBC, though, indicates that it might be still somewhat precarious. I don't think I need to comment; but, I did go to the web site linked to check on the health of my own bank. It is doing nicely from what I can see. There is a lot to be said for the small local banks.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Good morning, all. We have gusting winds today with possible short storms but the temps are supposed to get into the 90s. I watered all of the containers so they should be fine though I will check them later this afternoon. We have the doors and a couple of windows open. I hope that will keep things cool enough inside. If the humidity doesn't go off the charts it should.

I passed a couple of stories this morning (I won't link to them since my thought are more generic) that again raised the question in my mind of how much can we trust the so-called statistics we are fed these days. One headline noted that retail sales fell in May to the lowest level in 8 months. The other said that consumer confidence has risen so far this month. One comment in the first article amused me somewhat: economists are afraid that households will START cutting back their expenditures because they fear for their jobs or because they are concerned that the recession will be harder and more prolonged than they expected. START??? Everyone I now are squeezing their pennies so hard Lincoln is howling.

Then, of course, there are the stories that the size of the Deepwater Horizon leak is twice or more the volume we had been told. From the beginning the Federal Government has accepted BP's assurances and numbers while other observers have raised serious doubts about the veracity of the numbers and the trustworthiness of the assurances. But another story that came to my attention last weekend, I think, leads me to another question about the numbers of any economic story. A woman, and I don't remember her name or who she represented, expressed the opinion that we should all lighten up on BP because they provide a lot of economic benefit to the Gulf coast states and the nation generally in the forms of jobs, refining, crude oil harvested, etc. So we should--what?--give BP a pass on the damage done to fisheries (which will persist for decades), for the damage done to the marshes and wetlands (which, again, will persist for decades), for the fishing jobs lost, for the tourism income lost, and for the health problems of the workers? I am not so sure the 'benefits' here outweigh the losses.

One of the Google alerts I set up was for 'food recalls' and yesterday I saw the first notice of a recall from Proctor and Gamble for its Iams brand cat and kitten food. The food is deficient in thiamine which cats require. As I read the symptoms of thiamine deficiency I wondered how long they had been churning out the defective product. According to the link on Elaine's Place--
about nine months. Iams has always been a bit pricey for my budget so we don't have any of it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Good morning, everyone. Rainy and cool today. I wonder if we will even make it to 70. In spite of all the rain we had over the last week a few of my tomatoes needed extra water. That surprised me a bit. Everything else is doing fine with the rain and the little jungle is growing fast. Almost all of the peppers and tomatoes have blossoms and the marigold is blooming very well.

I found this article on one of my Google alerts this morning. We generally don't buy Tropicana brand juice. The Dole line has always had the combinations we prefer. I understand that the loss of part of the orange crop due to the freezes earlier this year would pressure companies like Tropicana to raise the price of their products. However, I find the notion of reducing the amount of product in a package without changing the package itself AND raising the price more than a little dishonest. I also have to wonder about the whole rationale when the price of the comparable Dole products we normally buy has gone down and packaging remained the same.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Good Sunday morning to everyone. It is windy, cool and sunny today after a gray day yesterday (with a few, very few hints of sun) and a wild, stormy night. The Mother's Day tomato was blown over but not damaged. Everything else came through quite nicely. Our tornado warning sirens went off but I haven't heard of any actual tornados in this area. I did hear about possible twisters south and west of here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Good Friday morning, Everyone. I haven't had much to say and, to be honest, my mind has been in neutral for the last few days. I am far more interested in my gardens than in politics and other such topics. The plants for the most part are doing very nicely. All of my tomatoes--the gift and those I started inside from seed--are blooming. All of the peppers I bought are also blooming well. I have some kind of insect (I hope) eating a couple of my broccoli and one of my peppers. I haven't found the beastie or it would have contributed its body to my compost bin. I am not one for using pesticides generally so I looked for one that would do a broad range of pests with the least toxic ingredients. I finally found some portulaca that looked good. The last time I went shopping I was very unhappy with the condition of the plants and so didn't buy. I also found some Ichiban eggplant. Since I decided to take the last two Tidy Cat tubs for planters and decided not to wait for next year to fill them, the new eggplant had homes immediately. Since my space is very limited I have two rules for what I put into them. The plants are something we really like or they are not available at the local markets. I have seen Ichiban eggplant for sale only a couple of times last summer. When I run out of the Fairy eggplant seeds (next year or the year after) I will find something else. My biggest problem is finding some interesting larger plants. We already have more than enough tomatoes and peppers. I didn't want any of the cucumber family because I had an absolutely miserable time with the powdery mildew last year and we haven't seen very many bees last year or this. Since that family of plants require bees for pollination that last is a bit of a problem.

Well, Joran van der Sloot has been arrested for the murder of a woman in Peru. Don't remember him? He was suspected of murdering an American student who was on Spring Break in the Caribbean a couple of years ago. I noticed that all of the news reports recall Natalie Holloway but not, so far, have given the Peruvian woman her name. Interesting, and more than a bit--self-centered?

I had another moment of mental whiplash this morning. I saw the headline on one HuffingtonPost story that proclaimed dismal jobs numbers--only 41,000 new jobs created in May. Then on the Google News listing the number was listed at 431000 jobs. WTF??? Well, it was easily resolved by a second look. The 41k jobs were private sector jobs created. The rest of the 431k were largely temporary census jobs. Yeah--dismal!!!