Monday, August 30, 2010

Good Monday morning to everyone. Nothing momentous to report. The gardens are producing but everything is in maintenance mode. The weather is hot again until a bit later in the week. It was hot enough yesterday for us to close up and put the air on. And my dehydrator stopped working. Thankfully it was not a malfunction. It has some kind of a fail-safe switch which shuts it off if it becomes too hot and without the air conditioning on it got hot. I have it working now to finish off the peppers and tomatoes I put in yesterday morning. We are breathing a sigh of relief because we just bought it about a month ago.

I found this Newsweek article by way of HuffingtonPost this morning. I like the HuffingtonPost title best: "How Wall Street Rolled Obama." Michael Hirsch has a very good take on what happened. But I think he doesn't take the conclusions far enough. The problem with everything the Obama administration has done to bolster the economy comes out of the premises that are the foundation of his actions. One of the basic assumptions is that the big banks are American companies whose executives have an interest in saving the American economy. These are international companies whose financial interests are global and they don't really care about the American economy as long as they make money. So far they have made money overseas and from sitting on the cash the U.S. government has so generously given them. Another basic assumption is that the more general American economy depends on the economy of Wall Street and not the other way around. For decades those Wall Street banks have made obscene profits by creating phantom value--taking loans based in the main street economy (mortgages, car loans, etc.), bundling them into CDOs and other such abstract instruments and selling those bundles off in sections, and then bundling the bundles and repeating the process. And to make matters worse, they did it with 'borrowed' money. These banks got the illusion of prosperity because they 'made' fat fees on every stage of this process and to keep the whole thing going they had to generate more and more of these funny money instruments. Unfortunately, Obama's main advisors in this (Treasury Secretary Geitner and Larry Sommers) are both products of the Wall Street economy and see protecting that economy as a primary objective. Until the assumptions change nothing else will change.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Good Morning, All. It is starting cool today. Although the temps are supposed to rise we hope that the low humidity will allow us to keep off the air conditioning for a couple of days more. Not much going on so I will go on to other things.

I just finished a couple of interesting books. First up--The End of Food by Thomas Pawlick. It was first published about 6 years ago and I heard or read much of the information in dribbs and drabbs over the years. However, the first couple of chapters were totally new to me and a bit surprising. After a charming introductory chapter recounting his frustrating experiences with 'red tennis balls' (a.k.a. tomatoes) Pawlick decided to do some research. I knew that over the years breeders had selected tomatoes for certain traits--uniformity of size and color, thick walls that resist bruising so they can be mechanically harvested and easily shipped, synchronous ripening. I also knew from experience that few varieties commercial growers produce as tasteless as tennis balls. What I didn't know was that in the process of developing those few varieties much of the nutritional value of the tomatoes has been lost. According to USDA test results, since 1963, the levels of all nutrients except 2 have declined dramatically, some as much as 60%. The two that have actually increased--lipids and salt. Pawlick also discussed the situation with potatoes which mirrors the results from the tomato tests. He did not mention the calorie value for the vegetables but I rather doubt that those have declined. From there it isn't a great leap to conclude that we have to eat more veggies to get the nutrients we need and that therefore we would have to consume more calories to get those nutrients and that the more calories we eat the fatter we get.

The second book was Empires of Food by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas. The authors main conclusion is simple and very common sensical--civilizations grow with their food supply and when that supply is interrupted the civilizations die. But like so many other matters of common sense, that fact is very easily ignored. Why, you might ask? Because of four widely held assumptions. We assume that the earth is fertile. We assume that the weather will be moderate. We assume that specialization is always a good thing. And we assume that the needed energy to produce food will always be there. But these assumptions have broken down before. Whenever anyone thinks about the 'fall of the Roman Empire' they usually think of political chaos, crippling taxes, an out of control military, barbarian invasions or religious strife. We don't think about a climate shift from warm and moist to cold and wet. Nor do we think of soil erosion and exhaustion. Nor do we think of what happens when a region that specializes in cash crops for export can no longer import food. But that was exactly what was happening at the same time that the military was marauding through the country side, emperors were rising and falling with the seasons, barbarians threatened, and a fiscally strapped government imposed crippling taxes. I hadn't mentioned the last assumption yet because I disagree with part of the author's analysis. They restrict the assumption that the energy to produce the food to our modern fossil fuel based agricultural system. And yes we are incredibly dependent on fossil fuels but energy dependence is not a modern phenomenon. Roman Agriculture depended, largely, on muscle power--human and animal. Food shortages result in malnutrition. Malnourished people and animals can't work as long or hard which means they produce less of anything, including food. Malnourished people are more susceptible to disease and during the second, third and fourth centuries the Roman empire experienced several epidemics which seriously reduced the population. The Romans experienced their own 'energy crisis.' I will leave it to you to draw you own conclusions about where our own 'food empire' is headed.

Friday, August 27, 2010

TGIF, everyone. We have had nice cool weather for the last couple of days and it is supposed to continue until Sunday when the temps and humidity are both supposed to rise. They say the 90s aren't done with us yet and have predicted that for Monday and Tuesday. The gardens are doing nicely. I took the last of the eggplants and gypsy peppers. The eggplant has been dried already while the gypsies are going to wait till tomorrow when I will do them, and a few tomatoes and herbs. I had thought to do that today but I got started cleaning up and consolidating my collection of candle wax, cleaning out the candle holders, and topping off a couple of candles I had poured a while ago. I also needed to clean up and consolidate that area so I would have a place to put the cuttings I want to try to root. I also put some marigolds and mums in place of the eggplants and peppers I pulled. They will provide some nice color into the fall.

I often wonder what has happened to the business environment in this country. Toyota is in the middle of yet another recall. Toyota's reliability was once a bankable commodity. Then there is Johnson & Johnson with nine recalls in less than a year. I remember the Tylenol recall of a couple of months ago but in that one I was a bystander. We don't use Tylenol because it isn't really effective for us. But the recall of Acuvue contact lenses was a different matter. I checked that out very carefully because I wear Acuvue lenses--thankfully not the ones covered by the recall. As if the recall wasn't enough the FDA has warned a subsidiary of the company to stop marketing two medical products one of which has not yet been approved and the other which was being marketed for unapproved uses.

This MSNBC story is interesting in light of the recent egg recall (and other food recalls of the last few years) but confirms some of my gut instincts on the probable effect of the recalls on consumers' habits. Any changes in eating habits are likely to be transitory unless the individual consumer has been directly affected. I noticed a poll associated with the story which asks if the reader has changed his/her eating habits due to the scare. I can honestly say that I haven't. Our habits changed before the salmonella outbreak and for reasons other than safety. We found that we liked the locally raised, cage-free eggs we buy at one of our year-round farmers' markets better than those we got from the supermarket and were worth both the few cents more per dozen and the longer trip to get them. We stopped buying the packages of salad-ready lettuce mixes well before the e-coli scare. They just did not keep well and it is no bargain when half of the package goes bad before you can eat it. The recall simply confirmed us in a change we had already made. However, I rather expect that most people will go back to buying what ever they had been buying once the scare recedes. Emily Perkins and John Meo at the Norwich Bulletin have a humorous and personal take on the matter. It is a fun read.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good Morning, All. I intended to post yesterday but got side tracked. I didn't have a lot to say anyway.

First up is this story is from yesterday's HuffingtonPost. I hope a lot more judges get on Rakoff's bandwagon. Corporations should be held accountable for corporate misdeeds and I am not so sure that the shareholders are being victimized twice as Judge Rakoff has been quoted. After all, there seems to be a corrupt environment in the major banks and that takes the complicity of the shareholders, the executives and the boards of directors. But, to date, only the collective entities--the companies--have been held accountable. I hope the next round in this mess does bring some accounting for the top executives. Personal responsibility is a wonderful deterrentbut it has to pervade the system from top to bottom. But then that would mean we have to have some set of ethics to which people are expected to conform. Today, the Ten Commandments should be renamed the Ten Tentative Suggestions.

Elanor Starmer at the San Francisco Chroicle has an interesting piece in light of the egg recall. I have thought about the potential problems of industry consolidation for some time. It comes down to a numbers. If something goes wrong with a company that controls a significant part of the market, large numbers of people can get very sick or die. And I definitely want a choice. I want to know what is in the food I get and where it comes from.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Good Monday morning to everyone and hope you all had a very nice weekend. Ours was. Temps moderate and likely to stay that way through the week. The potential for rain seems to be dissipating so it should stay dry as well. I saw a number of peppers that are ready to harvest and pop into the dehydrator. If I wanted a second crop of beans I could take some but we already have 5 quart freezer bags of them. The ones on the vines now are going to go for seeds. I peeked at the eggplant I put in to dry yesterday and they are looking very nice. I will package them up a little later. In addition to the pepper I have herbs on the agenda--basil and sage in particular.

I found this article from Xinhuanet by way of HuffingtonPost. All I can say is welcome to our world. China has entered the 21 century for sure. Now they really know the meaning of 'traffic jam' and 'construction season.'

This writer in the Charlotte Observer has a humorous take on the tomato situation this year. It somewhat parallels my own. Last year my tomatoes suffered from the cold summer. This year they are suffering through the heat. Either way my slicing tomatoes simply haven't produced all that well. Those I have gotten are wonderful. I have also lost count of the number of 90+ days.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Good Sunday Morning to all of you. The temps and humidity are down today, and we expect them to remain moderate for the rest of the week. We didn't get very much rain yesterday and the sun made its appearance so the temperatures were higher than forecast. I will have to water very well today. (I just finished the watering. I see several peppers that should be harvested tomorrow and put in to dry. I also need to clip the herbs. Yeah, I know. I have said that for the last week. I would have done it today but I wound up trimming, cutting, treating and drying the last eggplant I took. Also had some tomatoes to get in the dehydrator. Either that or loose them. I absolutely hate the thought of loosing anything.)

NPR had this story today. I don't doubt that a lot of Americans are rethinking the whole notion of home ownership as the American Dream. We did that several years ago when we decided not to buy a mobil home that Mom saw listed in the papers--we decided not to even investigate it. We saw two major problems with it. First, it would have totally wiped out Mom's reserves. We would have had absolutely nothing to fall back in case of an emergency. Second, my employment situation was already dicey and I was nearing the end of my last (worthless) degree program so we had no idea whether we would have to move when I finished and got a real job. Third, I remembered all to clearly a big, nasty brawl where I used to live when the owner of the mobile home park decided to sell to a developer. Those who owned the mobile homes but leased the slots had to either move their homes or lose them. Most lost them. The cost to move a mobile home was several thousand dollars and most couldn't afford it even with state aid. I was merely a bystander but it left a very nasty taste in my mouth. Recently, I had another thought about the whole 'home-with-a-white-picket- fence-and-a-30-year-fixed-rate-mortgage' version of the American Dream--it is so very outmoded. It was outmoded even for my parents much less for me and my younger siblings or anyone younger. How many of us have a good job that keeps us in the same place for 30 years? In my family--only two of my siblings fit that bill. For myself, my other sibling, and my nieces and nephews we have had neither the jobs nor the geographical stability to make the house with a 30-year fixed rate mortgage practical. I was the luckiest of us because I sold my house during a sellers market at a profit. I notice that there has been a drumbeat of criticism leveled recently at Fannie and Freddie that the article continues but I wonder--why do they focus on the two GSEs? Why don't they spread the criticism around to the banks who benefitted from the government guarantee the GSEs provided? Why don't they renew the criticism of the mortgage backed securities the big banks packaged, sold, repackaged and resold? The article rightly notices the lax lending standards but never goes to the heart of the problem--and over-sold, acquisitive, one-size-fits-all 'dream' peddled by a bunch of conmen who passed the costs on to the all of us while they pocketed obscene 'profits.'

It looks like the mainstream media is picking up a bit on the egg recall story. This one comes from AP. The broadcast news, however, barely mentions the story and has glided over the long string of violations the DeCoster farms have racked up in at least two states. But, again, the story doesn't go to the heart of the problem--the industrial system itself. The problems with tainted eggs (or lettuce, or tomatoes, or peppers, or meat) is the same as the problems that plagued Toyota. The 'manufacturers' push so much product through and distribute it so widely that it takes months before the problem is even recognized and then months more to trace it to a specific cause. And, in both cases, a customer can be an informed consumer but still get burned. Furthermore, the end consumers have no way of following the supply chain back through the suppliers that contributed to the product they bought. How can the customer who gets sick from eating an egg at a restaurant follow the chain back to the farm where the egg was laid to the chicken that produced the egg to the farm that supplied the bird or the feed supplier that sold the feed the bird ate? I have other problems with a system that treats living animals as though they were inanimate widgets but I will save that rant for another time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Good Morning, everyone. It is wet today so I will stay inside. I don't have anything in the gardens that absolutely have to be harvested so it will wait. If the skies don't clear off and we don't get bright sun, the containers won't need watering. That is fine with me. I am in the middle of a very interesting and entertaining book (Empires of Food by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas) and I have that last bit of cotton yarn to crochet into wash cloths.

Thanks for your comments, Lois. The garden is yummy. And now that the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are winding down I have gone into evaluating mode: what worked, what didn't and what to do next year. I will write more about that later.

AlterNet had this article today which sent us to our bathroom to check out our soaps and toothpaste. So far we have found only one product which contains either of the two chemicals the article focuses on. We won't be buying that one again. A couple of points resonate with us. First--evidently the chemicals are not all that effective as anti-bacterial agents but companies incorporating them can claim to have an anti-bacterial product. Our attitude is--if it doesn't work why bother? Parallel to that is the fact that labeling something by a certain name doesn't mean it is really that name. We are getting more and more cautious about accepting any company's claims about it's products. Second--our system for developing products is incredibly narrowly focused. I am absolutely sure that the chemicals were incorporated into various products to give the appearance, if not the reality, of fighting germs. The illusion was more important than the reality. Further, the developers and marketers gave no thought at all to possible adverse effects. Sixty years ago drug companies marketed thalidomide as an answer to severe morning sickness. It did that job quite well. But it also caused severe birth defects and that side effect wasn't recognized until several thousand deformed babies were born. Third--once these chemicals get into our environment it is almost impossible to get them out. Think about the problems of bisphenol-a and plastics.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Good Morning, Everyone. We are back in the oven for a few days. We had to close up and put the air on yesterday and will do so again today. I have a few items to take in from the gardens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. And, yes, a few more of the cayenne peppers. But we have found a place in the kitchen where we think they might be hung to dry. We can string a line between the walls, about 6 feet, and position the peppers on that in the middle where they won't interfere with the cabinet doors. We don't often get into those cabinets anyway. Mom is still recovering from the pepper prep on Monday. If drying the peppers inside doesn't do well for us, we have a plan B--choose dry days and move the operation outside. We have a portable tv table and an outlet by the patio door. Sounds like a solution.

One of our neighbors likes eggplant so I gave her a bunch of the Fairy Tales fruit. We have just about enough. I don't think I will grow the Fairy Tales variety next year. We like them well enough but like the Ichiban better. And I will limit the number to two plants. I will also limit other plants as well. They all need much more room than I gave them. I usually start twice as many seeds as I need in case they don't germinate. But I have a hard time culling them. If they sprout I want to let them grow. Instead, I will plant exactly what I can put in the gardens and, if some fail, I will replace them with plants from the local nursery, even if I have to use a variety I wouldn't have used otherwise.

Well, the drum beat is growing to 'do something' about Social Security, as this article in the New York Times shows. But I have a major problem with how the whole matter is presented. When ever anyone talks about the deficit and where the government is spending its money you see the list of the 'usual suspects' and at the top is military spending (and only the acknowledged spending, not military spending assigned to other departments) followed by Social Security. Why should I have a problem with that? It makes it appear as though Social Security contributes a whole $738B to the deficit. It ignores the fact that Social Security has its own dedicated income stream. If those listings were accurate the total Social Security would add to the deficit this year would be about $1.5B, largely because of the recession related drop in revenue. I don't think we should be talking about benefit cuts or means tests (which is exactly what reduced benefits for higher income earners means) or raising the retirement age. I think they should raise the income cap which, I believe, hasn't changed since the 1980s. What has been the inflation rate over the last 25 or so years? Raise the cap to reflect inflation.

Robert J. Elisberg puts very succinctly exactly why I will not vote for any Republican candidate for statewide or national office this year. I noticed earlier this year when the candidates for the primaries came streaming out of the woodwork that every Republican had the same agenda--repeal health care reform, repeal or block financial regulation, privatize Social Security, cut taxes (without saying for whom) and cut spending (without saying which programs would get the axe). The only Republican I will vote for is our town's mayor who has accomplished some very necessary things, including road repairs that languished for years before he got into office. I don't necessary like the Democrats running but I didn't like the Bush years at all and the Republicans promise a return to those policies. I still think we need a good organized third party that reflects those of use in the middle. The Tea Party ain't it. Nor are the Greens, the Libertarians, or any of the others out there.

We just got a bit of a chuckle from reading the latest e-mail from one of our local farm markets. They have a special on jumbo eggs which they assure customers is from a farm in a local town 'Not from Iowa.' Those are the eggs we buy and some time ago we looked up the farm on the internet just to see where it was and how they treat the hens laying the eggs and how they process the eggs after--cage free (though not free range) with an onsite USDA inspector. That is worth the few cents per dozen more than the Lucerne or Dutch Farms eggs we once bought.

Grist has this story concerning the owner of the Wright County Farms egg production operation that, quite frankly, is stomach turning. If the time line is correct this bastard has been engaged in illegal and unethical practices that are a danger to the public on many levels for more than 40 years and no one has shut him down.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Good Morning on this wet Wednesday. We had rain overnight so I won't water anything right away. We had an interesting morning yesterday. Mom was preparing cheese stuffed poblanos(chillies rellenos) while I was preparing our first cayenne peppers for drying. As some of you may know, the first step in doing up the poblanos is to char the surface and let them steep in a paper bag until the skin separates after which you can scrape the skin off and remove the veins and seeds. It can be done on electric burner but it takes a bit of doing and the results are more than a bit uneven. And the charring creates fumes that can be intense. Meanwhile, I was cleaning the cayenne peppers and, even without heating, they added to the irritation. If I had a place to string the peppers to dry I would do it, but I don't. Also I planted the Cow's Horn variety which are about 9 inches long and two inches in diameter. Much too big to put in the dehydrator whole. Next year I may grow the standard variety instead. They would fit. We recently saw a segment on the History Channel devoted to peppers which showed workers preparing hot chillies for processing. They were wearing gas masks. We know why.

This New York Times story was the first one I found on HuffingtonPost this morning. I am not surprised. Last year, the Federal government came through with help to prevent layoffs and I asked then 'what about next year?' Well, now we know--another $10B so that school districts can hire back teachers. But now the districts are asking the same question I asked last year. The Chicago Board, according the news reports, does plan to rehire teachers but not as many as they fired and the Union has already announced plans to challenge which teachers the Board plans to rehire. The question I have now is 'how much longer can we kick this can down the road?'

This HuffingtonPost story should also be no surprise. Without Freddie and Fannie, and without cash sales there would have been no mortgage market during the first half of the year. Of course the big banks want the two GSEs to continue. How better to maintain their profits? So the big banks want to continue to create mortgages that will end up on someone else's books while their profits are assured. Capitalism is wonderful until it isn't.

HuffingtonPost also linked to this article in the Daily Beast which continues the theme from yesterday of who do you trust concerning the Gulf oil spill. The whole situation reminds me of the scenarios in Jaws and its various progeny--on the one hand you have people who are telling pubic officials or corporate suits that there is a deadly problem but those people in charge don't acknowledge the problem for various economic/political concerns. Problem here is that I strongly suspect we will continue to engage in a half-assed attack on the problem which will mitigate the damage to corporate bottom lines and political careers while stretching out the damage to everyone else.

This MSNBC story surprised us this morning. We used to buy a couple of the brands of eggs mentioned but last spring found that we much preferred a brand carried by one of our year-round farm markets which is locally produced. Mom likes the flavor much more and the price isn't that much more. Now we have another reason to stay with the more expensive eggs.

I also found this story on MSNBC which had me scratching my head. I saw stories on the national news, CNN and CNBC which claimed that their reporters had sent samples of Gulf sea food to independent lab for testing. The results claimed that they found no traces of oil 'hydrocarbons' or the chemical dispersants. But the story to which I linked above says that the FDA and NOAA are developing tests for the dispersants. They don't have reliable tests yet so what gives? How can they be sure the independent labs know what they are doing or how accurate their results are?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Good Morning, everyone. Yesterday was an absolutely beautiful day. Low 80s. Nice sun. We could handle that all year around. We are supposed to have more of the same today with possible afternoon showers and/or a 'rogue' thunderstorm. Unfortunately, the heat is supposed to return toward the end of the week. The weather people say that we have had about twice the number of days over 80 this season as we normally have. And it may not be over. Oh, well.

I will be spending more time working on my gardens than usual. What is usual, you ask? About half an hour to 45 minutes. I don't usually find many weeds once my plants are established and the few I do find are easily pulled. I haven't worried about mushrooms either since the plants got past the seedling stage. I haven't really had that much of a problem with insects or slugs. The beer baited traps have taken care of the slugs and the insects have succumbed to either the insecticidal soap or the pyrethrin insecticide. Why would I be spending more time today? I have some peppers, tomatoes and herbs to pick. I am also going to remove some of the marigolds that are a bit tattered and replace them with some in small pots that are still doing well. Then I have to dry the peppers and herbs.

So, the Administration and BP have told us that only one-quarter of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill remains. But now we have a contradictory claim form University of Georgia scientists who say that as much as 80% may still be hanging around. I noticed that the author of the HuffingtonPost story cites the Washington Post's caveat that the study has been neither published yet nor peer reviewed. Why is it that we don't ask whether government or industry figures have been peer reviewed? Nor do I remember anyone at the press conference where all those government officials showed off the pretty pie chart supporting their claim give any indication of what they based their conclusions on. The University scientists say they based their calculations on a range of 'reasonable' estimates of how much oil would likely have degraded or evaporated. I also noted that they say that only oil at the surface can evaporate and I remember that the main function of the dispersants was to emulsify the oil so it would remain suspended below the surface. My final conclusion--I don't trust either estimate but I lean toward the University study. We have been told repeatedly that this is an unprecedented situation. If so we can't really know what the ultimate effects will be. They are still finding out what the long term effects of the Exxon Valdez spill are two decades after.

I found this interesting HuffingtonPost article by Keith Harrington. Harrington is quite right when he says the autopsies on the climate change legislation don't include the most basic contributory causes to the death of the bill. But then he doesn't go far enough in his analysis either. What would a steady state economy require and how can we achieve that requirement? To have a steady state economy we need, first and foremost, a steady state population. Nature achieves that through 'death' control. A population overshoots the carrying capacity of the environment (the number of whatever organism the environment can support) causing a famine which brings the population down below that carrying capacity. It is the old fox/lemming cycle. The lemming population grows because they have enough food and the fox population grows also because their food source is increasing. But at a point the lemming population runs out of food and they start starving. As the lemming population declines the foxes start dying also because they can't find enough lemmings to eat. Humans have some advantages over lemmings and foxes. We can apply technology to the supply problem and we have. But that simply increases the number of people the environment can support. It doesn't change the basic fact Malthus explained two hundred years ago: a growing population will overshoot its resources. We don't much like Nature's remedy but we aren't exactly thrilled with the alternative--birth control. China is the only society I can name that has tried it on a large scale and, though the 'one child' policy has, to large extent, reduced their population growth, they are finding other problems have surfaced. While Harrington is right--we haven't gone far enough in identifying the sources of our problems--just identifying the problems are not enough. We have to figure out if we can formulate solutions and that may be an insurmountable problem in itself.

Russ' Filtered News has a nice post which refutes one of the often repeated canards opponents use when talking about the proposed 'ground zero' mosque: there are no Christian churches in Muslim countries. And he asks a very pertinent question: why should we abrogate our right to religious freedom just because other countries (allegedly) prohibit religious freedom. Of course, I have maintained for a long time that our vaunted notion of freedom of religion has from the beginning been 'freedom for us, not for them.' Puritans in Massachusetts were quite happy to hang Quakers right along side witches. Religious freedom has, as a professor I once knew often said, is a principle more honored in breach than in practice. But what is also disturbing is the intertwined dismissal of another supposedly sacrosanct principle: the right of people and groups who own private property to decide what they should do with that property. And dear Newt Gingrich's critique equating the establishment of a mosque 'at' ground zero and a Nazi putting up a derogatory sign at the Holocaust Museum doesn't hold water either. The Museum is on public property and even supporters of the Museum can't put up signs there. A better notion is whether it is all right for an opponent of the mosque to buy the rights from a private owner to put up a sign near the mosque, or an opponent of Catholicism to do the same near any Catholic cathedral. I would say absolutely--they do. But that doesn't abrogate the rights of the Catholic Church (or of a Muslim community) to build. And the aspect of this whole controversy that really burns me up is the sheer stupidity of equating a small group of violent criminals with the entire community of Muslim believers world wide. That is no more reasonable than equating criminals who happen to be Catholics (or Mormons, or Baptists, etc.,) with Christianity as a whole.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Good Sunday to everyone out there. It is a bit cloudy today but I don't think we got any rain overnight on top of damned little yesterday. Go figure--flooding in Iowa and dry as a bone here. I will get out a little later and water everything. We are getting a bumper crop of eggplant--much more than we normally use. I guess we will use a lot in soups and casseroles over the winter. It is a bit of a surprise since the eggplants I planted last year did squat.

I found this article about Rep. Brad Miller (D-SC) who is trying to get some regulation on the big banks that might cure a pernicious case of conflict of interest. Those banks often service mortgages for other entities that own the mortgages--collecting payments and distributing them to the mortgage owners. But those servicing banks often hold seconds and home equity lines of credit on those accounts they are servicing. When homeowners have trouble paying they are more interested in making sure their own loans are paid whether the loans they are servicing for others are paid or not. And if the matter goes into foreclosure they are not interested in any settlement which would reduce the loans they hold even if it would keep the homeowner in the home and pay the first mortgage. That is a major reason the Federal programs to refinance troubled loans hasn't helped very many homeowners. This reminds me very much of the Goldman situation with derivatives--they created the derivatives to specifications of one customer and then marketed them to other customers without disclosing that relationship or the fact that they were shorting those same derivatives (betting against them). In both cases we are dealing with ethically challenged entities that have way too much power in the economy all of depend on.

As I logged onto my blogger account to moderate comments I was pleasantly surprised. I found three big buttons--publish, spam, delete. Previously I could only publish or delete at the small underlined buttons at the bottom. I really lie the spam designation. As I noted some time ago I have a couple of simple rules for comments--no advertising and nothing anonymous. Otherwise, I publish almost any comments. Now I will be able to designate all those anonymous posts that pretend to comment hoping I will publish their links to 'penis enhancement' products, adult sites, or even worthwhile commercial products as the spam they are. This is a non-commercial blog and I want to keep it that way.

I LOVE the title of this Robert Reich post: "Forget a Double Dip: We're In One Long, Big Dipper." That has been my response whenever I hear the financial talking heads pontificate on the possibilities of a double dip recession. For me it has been one long recession that began about 10 years ago. It became acute three years ago. You have to have a recovery before you can have a double dip. The rest of what he writes is pretty well on the mark also.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Good Saturday morning to you all. We are expecting the last of our 90+ weather, at least for a few days. But along with the break we are also supposed to get some rain with possible thundershowers tonight. I didn't realize it until I read one of my local news sources late yesterday but we were under an ozone alert along with the excessive heat warnings. I haven's seen one of those for a while. The gardens are still going well but I notice that some of my plants are definitely winding down. It got me to thinking about next year (almost everything now gets me thinking about next year) and planning my reading to include succession planting in containers. One of my new books has a section on that. Maybe next year I can plan to put in some cool weather plants when the warm weather plants are spent. Something to think about. Oddly I have never done any succession planting--even when I had a big backyard garden some 20 years ago. I have been the type to put in the seeds and seedlings without much regard to seasonal considerations. I have the time to research the matter and plan.

HuffingtonPost linked to this Salon article which crystalized some thoughts that have been in the back of my mind every time the news carried a story about the push for tougher sanctions against Iran. I came at it from a slightly different point though. My question was 'Where is plan B?" You know--the plan you go to after Plan A fails. I never saw an answer to that. And the push for tougher and tougher sanctions reminds me of the old game of school yard bullies of drawing lines on the ground and daring you mark to cross them (or pushing them into a corner.) Sooner or later they (and you) have only one course--a fight. You might say the have a choice--give up their nuclear development programs, or put them under international control. Two things mitigate against that: national pride and the fact that nuclear powers are treated more respectfully in the international community. We deal with India, Pakistan, Russia and various former Soviet Republics, Israel AND Korea very differently than we do Columbia, Sudan, or Kenya. We have no 'Plan B' and that worries me.

I had a couple of interesting thoughts concerning the Social Security controversy that melds a couple of things I had been reading. For some years we have been whipsawed between those who bemoan the fact that we aren't saving and those who want us to continue to spend heroically. Often those sentiments have followed each other in the soundbites that pass for news nowadays. But we have been saving, and saving heroically, but people just don't recognize it as saving. Every dollar we have earned has been docked for Social Security--that is essentially an enforced savings plan. The only difference is that we don't withdraw from the system the same money we put into it--that is, it isn't tagged with our individual names. And what is more, our employers have essentially had to give us a boost in income we wouldn't have had otherwise. That also goes to Social Security. I wonder--in an imaginary world where Social Security didn't exist but where every worker put the same money (voluntarily) into Treasury bonds and didn't withdraw it for 40+ years of their working life, would we still have all this blather about the Federal government going broke as we started retiring and cashing in the bonds? Is there any real difference between individuals and investment groups buying Treasury bonds and the Social Security Administration--besides the fact that the latter seems immanently more lootable because it is defined as a tax? Another story came to mind as these thoughts coalesced in my mind: I read an article on Japan and how it has been able to fund a debt that, in terms of percentage of GDP (around 200), makes ours look puny. Essentially the debt has been funded by the savings of the WWII generation and their children (equivalent to our Baby Boomers). Those savings, put into government bonds have allowed the government to fund the massive debt over the last couple of decades. Now, however, they are facing the same problems we are. The WWII generation has retired and have been cashing their bonds to live on. Their Baby Boom generation is beginning to retire and will start cashing in their bonds. But the next generations are not saving at the same rates because they simply don't have the employment opportunities their parents and grandparents had. (See the links on yesterday's post.)

Well, that story of the flight attendant who had a meltdown because an uncooperative passenger hit him, accidentally, on the head while trying to remove a bag from the overhead compartment before the ok had been given to do so has taken a new turn as of the news last night. The other passengers tell a quite different picture of a rude, overbearing man who basically engineered the confrontation. And he says he wants his job back. For the most part, the propensity of the news media to cover such stories to the point of nausea doesn't surprise me any more. I was somewhat surprised to see the public response. The numbers of people who thought this guy some kind of populist hero amazed me. But then I had a typically MaryContrary thought. What I think people responded was not the story of the poor put-upon employee dealing with an abusive member of the public but the story of the guy, frustrated with his job, who musters the courage to quit in a particularly dramatic way. Given today's labor market and the number of dissatisfied workers who would love to tell their bosses where to shove the job but are afraid of not finding another anytime soon, perhaps it isn't so surprising that Slater has achieved this level of public adulation. I think the airline would be crazy to hire him back.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Well, TGIF, everyone. Another week gone and August is half done. It is still hot with heat advisories and warnings still out for another day. The gardening is already done. Another handful of yard long beans which means the fifth quart freezer bag is almost full. I put a bunch of tomatoes in the dryer along with a bunch of peppers. And a nice mess of eggplant is waiting for Mom when she gets ready to freeze them. I was tempted to take a couple for drying but since much of what we have harvest already is in the freezer (minus what we have eaten) I thought I would let that go. As this season winds down my thoughts turn to next year. Peppers and tomatoes are the mainstay so planning means deciding where to put them and what to put in around them. If we try anything new we have to either eliminate something else or change the arrangement to include it. We will see what happens. So far nothing has ever worked out exactly as I imagined it.

The first thing I saw when I went to my Google start page was the HuffingtonPost link to thisCNBC article. A 'lost decade' for youth? That goes very nicely along with the 'lost decade' for the stock markets which are slightly below the level at which they started this year which was at the level they started out this decade. A couple of days ago one of the bloggers I follow described the situation of the last two 'lost' decades in Japan where large numbers of young people have checked out of the nation's economic life. For a description of the plight of young Japanese see Charles Hughes Smith at oftwominds.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Good morning, all. We are under a heat advisory/warning out here today and through the weekend unless they modify that a bit. Not likely since the temps are expected to be in the 90s with heat indices going into the low 100s. Today, as yesterday and probably the next three days, I got my gardening done early. We harvested some eggplant (moussaka for dinner today), tomatoes, mexibelle, gypsy and big bertha peppers, a half quart of yardlong beans (I am working on my fifth quart bag in the freezer--we will have plenty for the winter) and bunches of stevia, basil and sage. I will be busy drying it all today. Gardening is like so much else in life--hurry up and wait. You hurry up to get everything planted, wait till it is ready to harvest, and then hurry up to either use it, freeze it, or dry it. The nice thing about a small set of container gardens is that the hurry up is not overwhelming.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Good morning, everyone. Yesterday I had to go to the local library. One of the books I requested had come in. And I made a trip to Barnes & Noble. I wanted some books on specific topics and actually found a couple of them. I need some reference books on garden pests (which I didn't find--not apart from more inclusive gardening books which I didn't want), vegetables, especially tomatoes (found one on tomatoes specifically--wasn't particularly interested in the broader works on veggies), and food drying (the two I found I had already checked out from the library so I will see if I would like either to add to my library.) Today I hope to get back into the gardens. It has been way too hot to do much and the temps have risen early. If I am lucky I will be able to get some things accomplished between the rain drops. The weather people say scattered rain today. Yesterday we has some spaghetti with some of the Italian flavored sausage (ground pork) Mom made up Monday. We had done this before with commercially prepared Italian sausage but the differences were striking. She didn't have to pour off water and fat--at all. And the taste was entirely different. She had wondered if we would like that--we have become so accustomed to the taste of the commercial product we really didn't know. Actually we like ours better. That seems to be a normal occurrence these days. Sunday we had a pizza--one of the frozen variety of a brand that had been pretty good. Half way through she asked if I found it too salty. I did and the pepperoni and sausage didn't taste all that good either. That will be the last frozen pizza we will buy. Even on sale it isn't worth the price. I wonder if we have reduced the amount of salt in our diets to the point where we actually can taste it. I asked her how many of the ingredients on the label (and we do read labels--often) had sodium in one form or another. She recalled four off the bat--and several ingredients she simply didn't know and couldn't pronounce. As I said--that was the last frozen pizza we will get.

I found this little post on HuffingtonPost this morning and it got me thinking. I read the article Richard Eskow critiques and thought the arguments didn't really hold water. I couldn't quite put my finger on why my gut was telling me that the arguments were crap, not being an economist, until started reading Eskow's article. Social Security surpluses were put into treasury bonds. Eskow calls them IOUs that are 'both a financial instrument and a moral obligation.' They are more I think. I read a couple of weeks ago that the IMF was suggesting that the U.S. renege on its 'unfunded liabilities' such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Well, Social Security is funded--by the interest on treasury bonds and by current receipts. Let's take this a bit further and ask what would happen if the U.S. simply walked away from the treasury bonds associated with Social Security. What would that say about the 'full faith and credit of the U.S.' And what would various governments and sovereign wealth funds that have funded our deficits for the past several decades think about the safety of their own investments?

I found a post this morning on the burningplatform that posted a letter from a New Jersey businessman titled 'Why I Am Not Hiring' that also got me thinking. That is a very dangerous thing to do. Basically the businessman argues that to provide his employee, 'Sally,' with an annual wage of $44k he has to fork over $74k. Of this something like 22% of her 'paper' wages of $59k goes to taxes, medicare, unemployment, medical and dental insurance etc. He of course has to match her Social Security and pay the company's part of health insurance, etc. But I have to ask--if all of those onerous, mandated deductions disappeared, would 'Sally' receive $59k or $44k. In other words, who would get the benefit--her to the tune of a 22% increase in pay or him to the tune of a one-third reduction in labor costs? I am a cynical old bitch but my guess--it wouldn't be her.

MSNBC had this article from Business Week that was interesting about people who make the choice not to have cell phones. I can relate to most of the arguments. I want to control my technology not be controlled by it. And I want my technology to fit my life rather than fit my life to the technology. I remarked before that I don't use a PDA though have bought two of them in the past. I found that using a paper and pencil is easier than the PDA. Now ads for those devices don't even tempt me nor do ads for phones that tout PDA functions. My phone is a phone not a calendar, not an internet surfing device, not a camera even though the phone has those capabilities. It just happened to be the cheapest model that would fulfill my needs. The whole article really dealt with people who made the surprising decision to control the technology in their lives rather than be controlled by it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Good Monday to everyone. We have overcast skies today but the temps overnight were in the mid 70s which probably indicate a hot and humid day. One of several forecast for this week. We may get rain but we will take a 'wait and see' attitude toward that. As has happened so often this year it may not materialize here while just down the road they get drenched. Nothing much happening in the gardens.

Evidently, President Obama is going to be in Texas today talking education policy. The Chronicle has a nice story I have one problem with the emphasis I have seen so far: the focus seems to be on college graduations. I gather we are now 12th in the world behind Russia, among others, and the Obama and Sec. of Education Duncan see that as a threat to our economic competitiveness. Why do I have problems with that focus? For one thing, look at the sites I have linked to over the last few days. One described Hawaii's efforts to close the education budget deficit by closing the schools for some 17 Fridays during the last school year. According to a article I didn't link, a Utah state senator has proposed canceling the entire senior year of high school. That has parents, teachers and students up in arms. This morning the local news reported that the Chicago school system may try closing their budget gap by laying off up to 1200 teachers unless the union agrees to forego the 4% pay raise teachers are scheduled to receive this year. That would be a particularly bitter pill for teachers because they had worked for at least 2 years without a contract after the previous one expired and much of the pay raises were to recoup the wages they had lost during that time. I am talking about primary and secondary education here which feeds the colleges and universities. If we don't have high graduation rates of quality students from high school how are we going to get high schools where are we going to get the future college graduates? The next question that no one seems to want to answer is: what are these students educated for? Cab driving? Flipping burgers? Panhandling? Where are the jobs for college graduates in this country?

A lot of bloggers have linked to this MSNBC story this morning and it hits a nerve in this household. Like some of the people featured I took social security early after a long stint (two-and-a-half years) of unemployment. Over the past ten years I have had 3 periods of out-right unemployment lasting 9 months, 5 months and 30 months, the first and last without unemployment compensation. That makes almost 4 years out of the ten unemployed. Of the remaining seven years I had a full time job (without benefits which weren't offered at the small business I worked for) for 18 months. Ten years ago I would not have dreamed that I would take Social Security before I could qualify for full benefits at age 66. Heck, I wouldn't have taken them before age 70 if I had a job that paid my bills. At one point during this decade I had 3 part-time jobs trying to make ends meet. It simply didn't work. For nearly three years 18 hours of my days were spent commuting and working. The experience is not one I would wish on my worst enemy. Well, I will take that back. I wish it on the Republican leadership of the Senate and all of the other assholes who want to raise the retirement age for social security and don't want to extend jobless benefits for the long term unemployed.

I am back after a bit of a respite which we used for a quick trip to the grocery store. We ran out of pint freezer bags and Mom is in the middle of grinding up three large pork roasts for ground pork and sausage. She puts up the final product in half pound packages for which the pint bags are perfect. I mention this only because the trip yielded a big surprise. Actually, a couple of surprises. She needed some flour and a couple of spices/herbs so we went down the baking aisle. First surprise--oh, how the flour section had shrunk. No white flour packages between 5 and 25 pounds. Second surprise, besides white flour the only other variety was whole wheat. No rye. No specialty flours. Third surprise, the smallest packages and varieties of yeast I have ever seen. Our conclusion--not many are baking anything from scratch. And I have to wonder how many are using the bread machines that were all the rage only a couple of years ago. We have talked with increasing frequency about going back into baking our own breads but now we have wonder where would we get the necessary ingredients. It wasn't all that many years ago that I did make up all my own bread: white, sourdough, potato, ryes, whole wheat and a good may others. Now I would be hard pressed to find what I needed. Another instance of this marvelous market place which doesn't meet my needs--at any price.

Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars has an excellent take on the job market and the recent chorus of employers moaning about not finding enough 'qualified' applicants for their job openings. Her solution: hire good people and train them. Oh, and while you are at it pay them a living wage. That would be nice.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Good Sunday morning to you all. We are supposed to start our next series of 90+ days today. I don't know what the official temperature was for our area yesterday but our thermometer pegged at 90. Luckily the humidity was low so we were not uncomfortable even without the air conditioning. We will see what today brings. Hopefully, we can leave the air off again. My first batches of dried gypsy peppers and salsa tomatoes have turned out quite nice. I have two more gypsies ripe enough to harvest and dry. I am thinking of getting a small container of blueberries on our next visit to the farm market and see how they dry. Right now it is a bit of an experiment to find out what works well and what needs to be tweaked.

I just had a thought as I sat down to read news and blogs this morning: we accumulated so much debt, collectively and individually, over the last half century that getting that under control is a task that rivals Hercules' cleaning of the Augean stables. And as we dig down through layers of crap we find more layers waiting to be revealed. This story from the New York Times illustrates my point. Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae are much like AIG--so thoroughly intertwined in our economy that dealing with them in a way that doesn't cause major pain and dislocations nationwide is extremely difficult. Doing so in this political environment--damn near impossible.

And this Washington Post article continues the story and takes it into the debate on taxes. How do we change a pattern that now permeates our whole society and that is aided and abetted at every turn by the Federal government itself? And the author is very likely right in his assertion that changing the tax code to eliminate or reduce the tax breaks that make debt so profitable for business would be fought tooth and nail by the business sector. But a thought just crossed my mind--might the business landscape become just a bifurcated as the rest of society between those who have and those who have not? The biggest complaint of small business over the last couple of years has been how difficult it is to get credit. Perhaps we should be glad that credit at the lower end has dried up. If our politicians are honest about helping small business perhaps leveling the debt playing field a bit by eliminating the tax breaks for debtor corporations is a good step. I wouldn't bet on it though. It sounds too much like good sense.

As I was reading this morning I had a very uncomfortable sense of deja vu. I think I have written a very good while ago that my paternal grandparents had a small farm when I was a child. The farm was about twenty acres on a gravel road. The house was a large two room tent--kitchen/dining in one room everything else in the other. The kitchen had the only running water--cold only. You answered nature's call at the outhouse a bit away from the house during the day and at the chamber pot behind the wood burning (later oil) stove in the bed/living room. They had electricity--two, maybe three, outlets and a bare incandescent bulb in each room. They also had an electrical outlet at the pump which was also electric. Grandma did all her laundry out there with an old wringer washer plugged in to pump's outlet. Why the deja vu, you ask? Well, because of this. And the New York Times article I linked yesterday (I think) about cities cutting off the power to their street lights or discontinuing their bus service--both to save money. My question--how many of the civilized services can we strip away before we can no longer call ourselves civilized? And in a fiscal crunch which payments continue to be made to whom and at whose expense? Robert Cruikshank at Calitics asks that very question. As does Glenn Greenwald at bearmarketnews. He also has an interesting quote from an Atlantic article written by a former IMF economist which should give us all pause. The economist was writing about the collapse of developing countries but his points all too closely describe what has been our Federal government's policies for the last decade or more:

"Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or — here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique — the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk — at least until the riots grow too large."

The wealthy have had a nice ride but working and middle class people have been punished severely.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hello and good morning, everyone. Yesterday was as the weather people advertised. A seasonal mid-80s with low humidity. Today is supposed to be more of the same. I just checked the gardens and I have nothing major to do. Yesterday I collected several eggplants and several peppers. A couple of the peppers were not intended. The branch on which they were growing broke and I had to take them or lose them. I will have to do a better job of supporting the peppers next year so the branches don't break under the weight of the fruit. Mom cut the green peppers into strips and froze them while I took the gypsy peppers for drying. Today I will see how a couple of the tomatoes dry in my little dehydrator. I also need to collect basil and stevia for the dryer. The stevia branches out into a nice little bush if cut frequently. In about a month I plan to take several cutting of it to see if I can root them for over winter inside. I have read that that can be done.

It looks like BP has managed to seal off the Deepwater Horizon well---finally. Now it seems everyone is breathing a sigh of relief and getting ready to move on. I notice significantly fewer stories in the media. I commented yesterday on the 'feel good' report on the 'disappearance' of more than half of the oil. I said then that I am a bit pessimistic and totally skeptical of any numbers coming out of either the government or BP on any of this. I have been from day one and have become more skeptical as the estimates of the oil flow were ratcheted up each day. I read some time ago that the eventual fines will be based on how much oil came out of that broken well. Here is another story about that topic which explains just how much advantage BP has gained by making sure that no accurate flow rate was obtained. I wrote yesterday about the crisis of legitimacy that has infected our society and political culture. Part of what feeds that crisis is the lack of trustworthy, credible, and accurate information. How much oil did BP lose? We simply don't know. How effective and safe are new drugs big pharma keeps shoving at us? Again, we simply don't know. What is in our food and is it safe? Yet again, we simply don't know--in spite of labeling laws.

We have been wondering how much of what had become normal over the last few decades would remain given how bad the economy is, and may get. When it comes to the economy I am definitely a 'glass half empty' gal. This story gives an indication of why. How many of the public services we have been told for so long are necessary are going to be cut because we won't, or can't, raise taxes. In Illinois, the governor and legislature has been deadlocked for over a year on the proposal to raise the income tax, one of the lowest in the country, from 3 cents to 4. We can't go a single day without seeing an ad from the Republican challenger horrifying voters with the proposed '33% increase' the current, Democratic governor wants to 'impose.' But, of course, the Republican doesn't say what he would cut to balance the budget. Then there is the idiocy I heard on the tv news this morning from Milwaukee (click here if you want details)--the teachers' union, which is facing layoffs because of budget deficits, is suing to force the school board to reinstate Viagra and other 'erectile disfunction' drugs in the health insurance drug plans. Five years ago school board dropped the drugs because of the cost. Evidently, the union thinks it is more important to provide Viagra, etc., rather than preserve jobs.

As I noted yesterday, the Russian drought with its killer heat wave and wild fires has made the mainstream media. But the increased news coverage has come largely on the heels of the announcement of an export ban from Aug. 15 through the end of the year. So now the story has interest over here because the cost of our loaves of bread may rise 'a few cents.' The author of the story I have linked wonders how much the manufacturers can get away with. Well, last winter the companies that make the breads we normally buy here cut the size of the loaves by about one-fourth without reducing the price. I would say they can get away with quite a lot. A bit more and I might find it more economical to make our bread myself. And I can do it. How many others out there can?

Last winter I read a couple of stories concerning foreclosures which described successful efforts by some homeowners to fight foreclosure on the grounds that the parties trying to foreclose had no right to do so because they had no records showing they owned the mortgage. In the frenzy to make, sell, repackage, securitize the mortgages the various banks and brokerage houses simply became very slipshod about the paper trail. This story comes as no surprise to me. Given the level of fraud in the mortgage business (and not all of it on the part of the borrower) it seems inevitable that there would also be fraud in the foreclosure part of the business.

Mahablog has a nice post today that succinctly recounts much of what I have thought (and said) for sometime. We not only have a system where immature idiots are wielding an inordinate power but one in which selfishness has been raised to an artistic virtue. I remember reading a headline a bit ago (I didn't read the article because the headline told me that my blood pressure would skyrocket if I did) that touted eliminating Social Security because we oldsters were being so "me first" in this economic crisis. But at the same time the minions of the richest among us want their Bush Tax cuts extended and somehow that isn't being 'me first.' I am reminded of something I read a year or two ago where the writer recounted his experience trying to get his fellow tenants to contribute money hiring a service to collect and pick up garbage. Most of them refused. They were immigrants from what had been the Soviet Union and wanted nothing to do with 'socialism.' That is an attitude that has become more and more prevalent. Unfortunately, we seem to have no ability to discriminate between true socialism and concerted social action to accomplish a broad social good. That is a sad development.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Good Morning, All. It has been nicely cool this morning and the highs are supposed to stay near normal--mid 80s--with low humidity. Hopefully I can keep the air off. The heat will come back Sunday--blast!!!

I found this New York Times article first thing this morning. I simply can't enough swear words to express my disgust. So the big banks screwed each other. They screwed homeowners. They screwed the taxpayer on the national level. And, it seems, they have screwed many of the nation's school systems (and, potentially, individual teachers who may find they have no pensions after all.) How I would love to put stakes in those vampires' hearts!!! But our government wouldn't even (and probably won't in the future) break the b@*&#@ds up.

Ezra Klein has a 'right on the money' post this morning. He is especially right in tarring both sides of the political aisle with the same brush. Neither side is really interested in working on compromises that might benefit the country as a whole. Both are terribly interested in winning the next election and believe that means stymying the other sides--even if the suggestions that side offers have real merit (perhaps especially if they have merit.) That is why little gets done and what is accomplished is so diluted and compromised as to be ineffective.

Klein also has some good comments on the Missouri vote last week in which voters tried to invalidate the individual mandates in the health care reform legislation. But his points go beyond the notion of a state invalidating Federal law (which had actually been decided by Andrew Jackson's martial moves against North Carolina during the nullification crisis and by the Civil war). Klein touches on a problem that is infecting the country from top to bottom--a crisis in legitimacy. Symptoms of the crisis are everywhere. Birthers continue to insist that Obama 'show them the birth certificate.' And even if they were convinced that the birth certificate did in fact show he was a 'natural born' citizen some claim his youth abroad invalidates his citizenship--which is a crock of s**t. Arizona officials continue to insist that the Federal government not only 'do its job' with respect to immigration but that the Feds do the job the way Arizona wants them to. And if the Feds don't they claim the right to do it themselves no matter what the Constitution says. Republicans in Congress continue to stymie needed legislation and appointments even though they are only one-third of the Congress. The notion that the majority rules is wonderful unless you are, like them, a minority. Now many are hypocritically opposing measures various of their own members proposed when they had a majority. But the key here is neither side acknowledges the legitimacy of the other or the legitimacy of laws that they themselves did not propose or the legitimacy of laws they them selves propose but the other side adopts or of facts that contradict their dearly held beliefs.

Well, now that the Russian government has prohibited wheat exports the story about the heat wave and the significantly diminished wheat harvest is making the mainstream media. This story from the Financial Times is only one of many today. The story actually made the morning news here along with the admonition that we should expect higher prices for bread and everything else made from wheat. Russia is, normally, the third largest exporter of wheat. The ban has left major customers, like Egypt and Indonesia, scrambling. I have been reading about this and sketching out the implication in my own mind for the last three weeks. That is when it really hit the blogosphere.

Another interesting story comes out of Washington. A sudden crop failure may be associated with residual amounts of long-lasting herbicides that have wound up in compost. Many of those affected are organic farmers and gardeners who never applied the herbicides themselves but used compost from animals who ate hay that was treated with the chemicals. A similar round of crop failures occurred a decade ago and was traced at that time to herbicides. Regulators face a daunting task in tracing the herbicides from the farms that applied them to hay and wheat to the animals that ate the hay to the compost made from their manure and finally to the farmers who bought and spread the compost on their own fields. Some are as far away as California. Rather reminds me of trying to trace melamine tainted components of baby formula and pet food back to the supplier in China.

Tim Rutten apparently has read the same history I have and sees similar parallels in our political situation. His notion that we are in the middle of a 'moral panic' may not be far from the truth. The last full blown moral panic we had in this country came in the 1950s. That decade saw the rise and fall of Joe McCarthy, massive fears of homosexuality, the comic-book burning craze which resulted in the repressive Comics Code which enforced an infantilism on the medium that lasted until the 1980s and 1990s. If that is anything to go by, we will be spending the next decade in an extended insane asylum. In some ways we never really left it. After all the Cold War seems to have moved seamlessly into the War On Terror--even if the Obama administration wants to discontinue the use of the term if not the war itself.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hello, again, everyone. Barbara O'Brien asked me to let her 'guest post' this here. I think her title is very apt. All too often in our modern world we find our trust has been abused.

“Trust Us” Is Getting Old

When British Petroleum (BP) applied for a permit to build the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and begin drilling, it claimed to have the technology and know-how to handle any oil spill.

But in the face of an actual spill, BP is much less confident. “This scares everybody: the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far,” BP CEO Doug Suttles said. “Many of the things we’re trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 ft.”

They’ve never been tried at 5,000 feet. Drilling for oil this deeply under the ocean is a relatively new enterprise for our species. Oil has been drilled offshore in shallow water for more than a century. But deepwater drilling is much more expensive than shallow-water drilling. For a long time drilling in deep water wasn’t tried, because it would have cost more to extract a barrel of oil than a barrel of oil was worth on world markets. It took the spikes in oil prices in recent years to make deepwater drilling profitable.

Politicians and oil executives assured us that offshore oil drilling was safe. Those tree huggers who worry about environmental disasters are nuts, they said. Yes, there have been oil rig disasters in the past, but (big wink) we know what we’re doing now. Trust us.

The laws of physics work differently nearly a mile underwater than they do on land, or shallow water, however. By now, it is obvious BP is still trying to invent a procedure that might stop the oil leak, maybe, if we’re lucky. No one appears to have been ready for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Really, this “trust us” business is getting old. How many times have we been told to “trust” some new thing, and then when the dangers surface we find out the “trusted” ones hadn’t told us the whole truth?

In the mid-20th century we humans went into overdrive digging asbestos out of the earth to use in countless structures and products. There is asbestos in navy ships, in shipyards such as Bath Iron Works, asbestos in our homes and schools, asbestos in old car parts, and asbestos in landfills. And eventually, years after medical science had determined asbestos exposure causes terrible disease, industry executives and politicians reluctantly agreed to shut down asbestos production, or at least most of it. And now the cost of asbestos abatement and mesothelioma treatment is an ongoing problem for individuals, taxpayers, and businesses.

And do we want to talk about Vioxx? Tanning beds? And now there are questions being asked about Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in just about every plastic bottle you’ve ever

touched. It may be dangerous, it may not. Opinions vary. Just note that the same political and business leaders who deny BPA could be dangerous are the same ones who like to yell “drill, baby, drill.”

Barbara O’ Brien

Good Morning, All. A dry day finally. But the humidity is very uncomfortable. We have had condensation on our patio doors for the last several days. That is very unusual for this time of the year. By now we should be entering our dry season. I don't think I will have to water the large containers today. And I will be able to get out and check everything over--for the first time in two days. And the cat is happy for the first time in two days--he can go outside.

I have been watching the 'happy, happy' news reports on where the oil spilled from theDeepwater Horizon site. The 'static kill' seems to be working, the relief wells are on target, thedispersants don't appear to be any more toxic than the oil itself, and some 50% of that oil has simply disappeared. I guess I am a 'gloomy Gus' because I keep waiting for the next bad news to come along or for some of these feel good stories to go sour. Perhaps we all should read thisNew York Times story (found by way of MSNBC). We like to think that disasters like this are once in a blue moon occurrences but evidently the accident 'has been waiting to happen' for some time. It wasn't a question of if--it was a question of when. And I am pessimistic enough to think that, with the oil stopped and the oil itself dissipating, the pressure to change things will lessen to the point that nothing significant will be done. After all, think of all the economic benefit these companies provide. We wouldn't want to stifle that, would we?

To carry on with the notion of 'when the other shoe falls' or 'what are they not telling us now' I found this HuffingtonPost article. I would be outraged by BP's secrecy but the U.S. Government's apparent complicity takes the matter to a much higher level of anger. And it illustrates just why trust in all social/political/economic institutions is in very short supply.

Matthew Yglesias has book recommendation that sounds interesting: The Moral Consequences of Economic Collapse by Benjamin Friedman. I have often had a gut feeling that economics has been driving the increasingly bitter and vitriolic politics we have experienced of late. I have requested the book from the library so I will soon see if there is some backing for my feelings.

And then there is this article on I am almost at a loss for words because so many questions are running around in my mind. The author asks a major one: if the soybeans are taking up those drugs and chemical contaminants what about the other plants in our food chain. And what about the animals that eat those plants and that we then eat? I remember one of the most pernicious things about DDT (besides thinning birds' egg shells) was the fact that it actually became more concentrated the higher along the food chain you went. And guess who is at the top of that chain? Does the same thing happen in this case?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Good Morning, again, Everyone. I never finished the post I started yesterday. Just didn't see anything worth commenting on. July was one of the wettest Julys on record and the 7th warmest. August is shaping to repeat. Several areas in northern Illinois and Indiana had flooding rains yesterday. Commuters had a miserable time with a number of major streets flooded at underpasses. Right now we are under a thunderstorm watch and the storms should be moving through sometime in the next hour or so. Needless to say--no gardening today. Maybe none tomorrow. (Update: the winds have come; the rain can't be far behind. The trees are rocking and rolling now. These gusts must be near the ones recorded earlier in Illinois at 65+ mph. Mom just yelled that I had better get our garbage tote in (it is garbage collection day) because several were rolling down the street. Luckily, I had already done that about half an hour ago.)

I found this New York Times article by way of HuffingtonPost. Any one surprised by this has his head firmly in the sand. It was only a question of when employers would move from furloughs to outright pay cuts--not if. On the one hand human labor is very expensive--for employers because it is usually the largest item on their books. On the other it is getting very cheap--there are so many unemployed that getting lower cost replacements is not very hard. I did a rough calculation of what income Chicago city employees have lost with the furloughs and came up with something like 10%. I would almost bet that even if public employees take the outright cuts in wages the furloughs will continue. Chicago alone is looking at a $600+million deficit in next year's budget and have few resources to close it. The Illinois budget (which hasn't been passed yet) is somewhere north of $12 billion. I asked sometime ago (when the furloughs first got going) when would employees decide that the something they were preserving by accepting was indistinguishable from nothing.

So the economic recovery is waiting on the consumer, according to HuffingtonPost. If this household is typical of any significant portion of the rest of America, the economic recovery is going to be waiting a good while. Our savings rate may actually be higher than the 6+% cited in the story. However, we haven't gone to generic brands totally. We are far more discriminating in our purchases. Sometimes we find that 'cheap is not our friend.' Quality may be worth paying for and, if it is, we do. We have also shifted to using our debit cards though we keep the credit card (notice the singular) for specific purchases. If we can't afford it on the debit cards, we don't buy it.

This story from the New York Times (by way of Google News) illustrates so well why politics absolutely infuriates me. A bill, or rather competing Democrat and Republican bills, designed to address the consequences of the BP oil spill have been withdrawn because 'moderate' Democrats want changes. The major questions involve the cap on liability for companies involved in a spill and revenue sharing. On the first--I think there should be no cap. Any damage caused by a spill (accidental or negligent) should be set right by the company, or companies, involved. That includes both environmental and economic damage. I don't care if the lack of a cap would deter small drillers. BP (and probable others) hoped to hide behind a ridiculously small liability cap. Removing the liability cap would shift the economic calculations for all drillers, small and large, toward safety. On the revenue sharing--I think that the local states and areas should get a larger share of the revenue.

I have seen stories for the last couple of weeks about the heat wave in Russia. Evidently the record heat has translated into a hellish fire season. Look here for some of the details.

Toby Barlow at HuffingtonPost has an excellent rant on the topic of climate change and the news media. I said above that I have seen stories for the last couple of weeks on the Russian heat wave. Where I have NOT seen these stories is in the mainstream media news reports. The first report I saw was on a blog and the author was cautious about mentioning it because his source was the Chinese media. He was not sure how far to trust that source. I decided to check it out further and found the story on the English language version of Pravda. I would say that was confirmation. As Barlow notes no one in our media talks about the effect of the heat on the Russian wheat crop even though Russia is a major exporter. What effect, you ask? Perhaps as much as 20+% loss. According to Russian sources. Instead, we are bombarded with worthless 'news' about how poor Lindsay suffered in jail and that maybe Bret will retire.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Good Monday morning, All. It is hard to believe that this is August. We have been complaining about how our time just goes by in an flash. It is supposed to get into the 90s again today and tomorrow with rain tomorrow. Sporadic thundershowers actually. I have already finished my gardening for the day. Have to do it early when the temps get up there. I was amused by the meteorologist on the local evening news last night. He has been bombarded with questions about when we can expect cooler temperatures. Everyone who was complaining about the cold six months ago are now complaining about the heat.

Thanks for the compliment, Kay. The new blogger tools for changing the design of the blog are nice.

I was absolutely astounded when I read this story and saw these pictures on MSNBC. Can you imagine a raft of garbage in a major river thick enough for people to walk on? That is what China has just upstream from the Three Gorges Dam. The recent torrential rains have washed it down and concentrated it not far from the dam. The garbage threatens the locks.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Good Sunday morning to everyone. It will, I think, be a lazy day today. A puttering around day. I don't have much to do in my gardens. That is the nice thing about containers. I don't have a lot of weeds to worry about and, so far, the insect pests have been manageable. I have a few more tomatoes to pick and maybe a couple of eggplant. I am still hunting for tomato hornworms but have only found one. It was a voracious little monster now gone to worm heaven. I have rearranged my tomatoes so I can look them over more thoroughly.

I found this article on MSNBC that piqued my mind a bit. I have heard on-again, off-again talk over the last months about a 'double dip' recession. The first thing that hits me is that you have to have at least a bit of a recovery for a double dip. At my level of the economy there hasn't been much of a recovery. Perhaps the high end retailers have seen things pick up but they cater to those who haven't seen much of a recession anyway. The stock market has picked up but that is an abstraction that doesn't mean much outside those who have stock. I hope those who have retirement investments in the stock market put a lot of that money into other, safer investments. Earlier this week the MSNBC talking heads were gushing about an uptick in hiring. However, I think the remarks from the Caterpillar spokesman were rather telling. He said the company planned on hiring 9k new employees over the next few months. The reporter asked how many of those would be in the U.S. Only about 3k.

Another aspect of the story that irritates me is the focus on that imaginary creature that only exists in statistics--the 'consumer.' What we have is a Catch-22: employers aren't willing to hire unless the consumers start buying again; the consumers can't buy until they have jobs that will provide them with the wherewithal to buy. But the underlying problem is that two-thirds of this country's economic activity is consumer driven. But none of the experts can figure a way around that dilemma. Then, as a parallel irritation, there is the focus on bad news and that affects consumers. Consumers are frightened to begin with and hearing the party-pooping prognosticators predict a double dip simply scares them more leading them to curtail spending which retards any possible recovery. A self-fulfiling prophecy, in essence. The problem is accentuating the positive, as the old song goes, doesn't change the underlying conditions and at some point reality has to intrude.

Political Perspectives has a post that ties into this discussion. I haven't heard the statistics the author cites but my gut reaction says they may be accurate given what I have heard elsewhere. Manufacturing has recovered but jobs have not and I don't think it is just a case of jobs being a 'lagging indicator' as is so often pointed out. And, as I have pointed out before, we have become a country where most of us sell goods made outside our borders (and simply assembling parts made overseas doesn't make the product 'American") to others selling goods made outside our borders ad infinitum and ad nauseum.