May 31, 2008

The Qur'an on Islamophobia

Of course, this is only part of what the Qur'an has to say on this topic. (Yusuf Ali translation.)

O ye who believe! take not for friends and protectors those who take your religion for a mockery or sport,- whether among those who received the Scripture before you, or among those who reject Faith; but fear ye God, if ye have faith (indeed). (5:60)

When ye proclaim your call to prayer they take it (but) as mockery and sport; that is because they are a people without understanding. (5:61)

Say: "O people of the Book! Do ye disapprove of us for no other reason than that we believe in God, and the revelation that hath come to us and that which came before (us), and (perhaps) that most of you are rebellious and disobedient?" (5:62)

...

Say: "O People of the Book! ye have no ground to stand upon unless ye stand fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord." It is the revelation that cometh to thee from thy Lord, that increaseth in most of them their obstinate rebellion and blasphemy. But sorrow thou not over (these) people without Faith. (5:71)

Drum Corps Saturday - 1974 Troopers

One more 1974 drum corps to show, the Troopers of Casper, Wyoming. This video was taken at DCI Midwest in Whitewater, Wisconsin. At DCI in Ithaca, New York, the Troopers placed fifth in both the prelims and finals, with scores of 84.40 in the prelims, and 85.65 in the finals. If you want to skip ahead to the Sunburst, go to the 1:23 point in the second video. :)

For more information on the Troopers, visit their website.

The Repertoire: Ghost Riders in the Sky * Yankee Doodle * Yellow Rose of Texas * The Virginian * Thanksgiving Prayer * Day By Day (from Godspell) * Battle Hymn of the Republic




May 30, 2008

Bedtime Music: Paul Young - Everytime You Go Away

Needing to fill out this week's last slot for Bedtime Music, I've decided to use Paul Young's 1985 hit, Everytime You Go Away, a video Milady and I happened to watch last night on MTV.

The song is actually a cover of a song written by Daryl Hall, and appears on Hall & Oates' 1980 album, Voices. However, the original was never released as a single. Young's version hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in late July 1985, and reached #4 in the U.K.


May 29, 2008

Bedtime Music: Seal - Kiss From a Rose

Not much to say here except, great song, ok video, forgettable movie. Although... odd fact here: Kiss From a Rose is actually written in 6/8 time (unusual for a pop song), which actually makes it... a waltz! (How many of you knew that? ;) )

May 28, 2008

Bedtime Music: TLC - Waterfalls

In '95, I had moved out of an old apartment where I didn't have cable to one where I did. I started watching a lot of VH1 then, and there was this very good video playing on heavy rotation that I liked. I'm not very much into R&B, but the music and the social messages on the video for Waterfalls made a strong impression on me.

Why Beef Prices are Heading Higher

Bonddad recently wrote about a Bloomberg article on rising beef prices. My quibble isn't with his technical analysis, but with one of his comments. He thought that demand was increasing for beef because...

...as the world's standard of loving [sic] increases (think India and China making more and more money) people will want better things like steak.

Now, generally speaking, what he said is true; as people's incomes rise, we do want goods that are better than what we had before. In economics, we call these "normal goods." A normal good is any good for which demand increases when income increases. A car is an example of a normal good. All things being equal, what would you rather do if your income increases, continue taking the bus or train to work or buy a new car? Of course, you'd buy the new car. (Conversely, an "inferior good" is a good that decreases in demand as income rises; an example for the US being ramen noodles.) Anyhoo, Bonddad is suggesting that because incomes are rising in countries like India and China, they want to eat better foods such as American steak. However, the truth is that beef exports to other countries isn't the reason.

In 2006, the US exported a total of 1.145 billion pounds of beef out of a total supply of 29.912 billion pounds, which comes to 3.83%. So a little under 4% of all US beef available in the country was exported. In 2007, the percentage was 4.74%, in 2008 total beef exports is projected to be 5.44%, and for 2009, 6.21%. [All of these numbers and the following data come from the US Department of Agriculture's monthly report, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, for April and May 2008.] So, beef exports are increasing, but very slowly. Rising beef exports out of the total available for sale in the US will cause domestic beef prices to rise, but not by that much. Let's look at the more likely culprit.

American cattle are normally either grass-fed or corn-fed. Per Wikipedia, "In the United States, cattle in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are typically fed corn, soy and other types of feed that can include "by-product feedstuff." As a high-starch, high-energy food, corn decreases the time to fatten cattle and increases yield from dairy cattle." Per a 2003 Colorado State University study, "80% of consumers in the Denver-Colorado area preferred the taste of United States corn-fed beef to Australian grass-fed beef." And so a very significant portion of America's annual corn crop goes to feed cattle, and the price of corn has been rising dramatically, like other agricultural products, such as rice. Just how much corn is being used to feed cattle?

In 2005/6, the US had a total supply of 13.237 billion bushels of corn. Of that amount 6.155 billion bushels (46.50%) were used as "feed and residual," 2.981 billion bushels (22.52%) were used as "food, seed and industrial," and 2.134 billion bushels (16.12%) were exported. The remainder (1.967 billion bushels, 14.86%) was "closing stock" and used in the following year, 2006/7. Now, looking at these individual categories, we see that "feed and residual" was 44.73% in 2006/7 and is estimated to be 42.73% in 2007/8 and 39.19% in 2008/9. Clearly, "feed and residual" isn't a problem. Likewise, exports aren't a significant cause of corn inflation either: 16.98% of all US corn was exported in 2006/7, and 17.37% and 15.53% is expected to be exported in 2007/8 and 2008/9, respectively. Which leads to "food, seed and industrial."

The first two of these should be self-explanatory. It's the industrial that we're concerned with. The industrial use of corn comes primarily in the form of ethanol. You know, the alcohol addititive to your gasoline so that you wouldn't pay as much money (you hoped) to run your car? Turns out that ethanol is bringing up the price of corn. The USDA breaks out the amount of corn that's used in the production of ethanol, which is very helpful for our analysis. In 2005/6, corn used for ethanol made up 1.603 billion bushels out of the 2.981 billion bushels mentioned above (the remainder was presumably used for food and seed). Which means that that 1.603 billion bushels made up 12.11% of the total American corn supply. In 2006/7, that percentage increased to 16.92%, and is expected to increase to 20.84% and 29.58% in 2007/8 and 2008/9, respectively. That's where the corn's going! So, let's connect the dots.

Because Americans prefer corn-fed cattle over grass-fed, cattle producers feed them lots of corn and other grains that, in turn, help them to fatten up quicker before they're slaughtered. Still, it takes feedlot cattle 14-18 months before they are killed, which means they eat a lot of corn. (I don't know exactly how much an average cow eats in its lifetime. No doubt the farmers do.) Because the price of corn has been going up ($2.00 per bushel in 2005/6 to $3.04 per bushel in 2006/7), it costs the cattle producer that much more to feed a cow until it gets to its terminal weight. Which means that cattle producers are actually losing money now for every cow they sell. According to the Bloomberg article, the feedlots were losing $139.56 a head in April, up from a record loss of $169.80 a head in March, and down from a profit of $46.79 a head in April 2007. No doubt there are some other factors that probably have affected the price increases for corn (oil and fertilizers come to mind), but the primary cause of the price increases in beef appears to be due to the increases in the price of corn. Which, no doubt, must be a relief to the Indians and Chinese, who don't tend to eat beef anyway; the former tend to eat mutton and chicken, the latter pork.

Cross-posted at J2TM and at Daily Kos, where there are a lot of very good comments. Check them out.

The War Prayer

An animated film of Mark Twain's The War Prayer. The animation is a little long (run time: 14:21), but well worth watching.

The Messenger who speaks aloud the second part of the Minister's and congregation's prayer for victory reminds me somewhat of the Parable of the Companions of the City (Ya Sin; 36:13-32), especially
ayah 36:30:

Ah! Alas for (My) Servants! There comes not an apostle to them but they mock him!

May 27, 2008

Bedtime Music: Fourplay - Chant

If you're in any way into Jazz then you're familiar with Fourplay, the quartet of jazz musicians who have been performing together since the early 90s. This song, Chant, was the lead-off song on their second album, Between the Sheets, which came out in 1993. Band members in the video are Bob James on keyboards, Lee Ritenour on guitar (who has since been replaced by Larry Carlton), Nathan East on bass (and who also does lead vocals in the video), and Harvey Mason on drums. This particular video was performed live at Capital Studios in Los Angeles.

May 26, 2008

Bedtime Music: Tower of Power - So Very Hard to Go

When I was working on my Anaheim Kingsmen post last night, it occurred to me that, even though I love the exit of "So Very Hard to Go/Firebird Suite," I've never actually listened to the whole of Tower of Power's 1973 release, So Very Hard to Go. Thanks to Youtube, problem solved. What a beautiful song! So beautiful that I'm kicking Monday's Bedtime Music video to Tuesday night, just so I can put SVHTG in tonight.

This video, according to the Youtube notes, was taken at the North Sea Jazz Festival, which is an annual event in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. I'm not sure exactly when this video was taken, but Tower of Power last appeared at the NSJF on 15 July 2006.


Mars Phoenix Lander Lands on Mars


Photos credit: NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona

I'm happy to say that the Mars Phoenix Lander has landed safely on Mars. The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral last August, and successfully set down in the part of Mars known as the Vastitas Borealis (literally, northern vastness or widespread lowlands). The Vastitas Borealis lies 3-4 km below the mean radius of the planet (the Martian equivalent of sea level), that completely encircles the northern hemisphere of Mars from about 50°-60° North to about 80° North, where it meets the Planum Boreum, the northern polar plain where the ice cap is located. It is believed that the Vastitas Borealis may have been an ocean in Mars' ancient past, and that the Phoenix Lander may discover ice beneath a thin layer of dirt.

Unlike the rovers
Spirit and Opportunity, which are both mobile and have been operational for a number of years, the Phoenix Lander will remain in one place, where it landed, and is expected to survive for about three months or so, when the weather will freeze the spacecraft. In the meantime, the Phoenix Lander has an arm that will scoop soil and ice samples and place them into several chemistry laboratories inside the spacecraft, which will try to determine the soil chemistry, the amount of water and water vapor in the soil, and the soil's level of conductivity. The goal is to determine whether the Martian environment has ever been favorable to microbial life. In addition to the above-mentioned equipment, there's also several cameras on board plus a meteorological station, all of which are standard equipment for Martian vehicles today.

The two photos here are some of the first images taken by the
Phoenix Lander. Both photos, which are approximate-color images, show a landscape that is strewn with tiny pebbles and shows polygonal cracking, a pattern seen widely in Martian high latitudes and also observed in permafrost terrains on Earth. The polygonal cracking is believed to have resulted from seasonal freezing and thawing of surface ice.

For more information on the Mars Phoenix Lander, check out another of my blogs, Areology.

May 25, 2008

Movie Sunday - Raiders of the Lost Ark

For this week's Movie Sunday, the choice of movie is a no-brainer: Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the fourth movie being released Thursday (today as I write this) and Milady loving all the "Indy" movies - we've even bought the tickets last weekend - I don't have to use too many neurons to decide which movie to highlight.

(Update: Milady and I caught the movie yesterday (Saturday) afternoon. We were a little surprised at the small crowd; for Ironman you couldn't get tickets for days and days. Yesterday, the theater was less than half full. Still, we both enjoyed the movie. I'd give it 3.5 of 5 stars.)

I first caught this movie as a double feature with Jaws at the Heights Theater, which I'm happy to say is still open. That was the first time I saw both movies for the first time, actually. Talk about a bargain. ;)

BTW, Archaeology magazine has an article on the Legend of the Crystal Skulls in the current issue. As a sidebar article, there's some information about the South American idol that Indiana Jones takes in the first video clip below:

In the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones is hot on the trail of an extremely valuable golden idol created by an unidentified ancient South American culture. The goddess's image, which Jones deftly snatches from an altar (setting off a series of booby traps that culminate with an enormous boulder nearly crushing our hero), is of a woman in the act of giving birth. The golden figure was modeled on a purportedly Aztec greenstone carving called Tlazolteotl, considered to be a masterpiece by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, D.C.

In my research into the object's acquisition history, I discovered that a Chinese dealer in Paris sold the figure in 1883 to a famous French mineralogist, Augustin Damour. His friend, Eugene Boban, advised Damour on the purchase. In examining the artifact's iconography, I found that the birthing position is unknown in documented pre-Columbian artifacts or depictions in codices. I have also used scanning electron microscopy to analyze the manufacture of the idol and have found there is ample evidence of the use of modern rotary cutting tools on the object's surface. In my opinion, the Tlazolteotl idol, like the crystal skulls, is a nineteenth-century fake.




Indiana: The Ark of the Covenant, the chest that the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments.
Major Eaton: What, you mean THE Ten Commandments?
Indiana: Yes, the actual Ten Commandments, the original stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing...
[the officers stare at him blankly]
Indiana: Didn't any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?



Marion: You're not the man I knew ten years ago.
Indiana: It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.

May 24, 2008

Drum Corps Saturday - 1974 Anaheim Kingsmen

This was a fantastic show with the horn line winning Best Horns in the final. The Kingsmen placed second in the prelims with a score of 86.85, and third in the finals with an 88.55, behind the Santa Clara Vanguards and the Madison Scouts. The exit is fantastic; one of my favorites. Although the Kingsmen survived through 1986, this was the last year the corps made the DCI finals.

For more information on the Kingsmen Alumni Corps and the Kingsmen Star Corps, click here.

The Repertoire: Dance at the Gym (from West Side Story) * Symphonie Fantastique * Artistry in Rhythm * So Very Hard To Go * Firebird Suite




May 23, 2008

Bedtime Music: Eric Clapton - Layla (Unplugged)

The face that may not have launched a thousand ships, but apparently inspired four songs (George Harrison's Something, and Eric Clapton's Bell Bottom Blues, Wonderful Tonight and, of course, Layla). The title of the song was inspired by the Persian tale of unrequited love, Layla and Majnun.

This video is from the 1992 appearance of Clapton on MTV Unplugged, and appears on Clapton's Unplugged album from the same year.


The Church vs. The Mall: The Case for Blue Laws

Starting in the 1950s, American states began to repeal "blue laws" that prohibited retail activity on Sundays. A new study by Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Daniel M. Hungerman of Notre Dame shows that the repeals of blue laws nationally has created both social and economic problems as a result.

The basic hypothesis of the study is that, with the repeal of blue laws, churches must now compete with secular activities, both from the perspective of time allocation (Do I go to church this morning or do I work, play or shop?) and of goods allocation (Do I spend my money at the mall or do I donate to the church?). Results from the survey show that the church suffers from both perspectives. In economics-speak, the opportunity cost of going to church has risen. With the blue laws, there was not as much opportunity cost to attending church. If you didn't go, you didn't have more options available to you (e.g., going shopping; the stores were closed). However, with the blue laws' repeal, now people had more options open to them. If you didn't want to attend church, then you could go shopping instead. One hour of worship at church meant that you had lost one hour's worth of secular activity.

Not surprisingly, church attendance has decreased, and donations to churches have fallen although, interestingly enough, donations to non-church charities didn't fall after the repeal of blue laws. The people who have stopped going to church were what the authors called "initially religious." Meaning, they used to be go to church but, with the repeal of the blue laws, they drifted away from the church. (However, as the authors also noted, the initially religious didn't become less religious, they only worshiped in a church less.) These "initially religious" are also the people who had the biggest increases in substance abuse. The authors found that among the initially religious, the more often they attended church in the past, the more likely they were to begin heavy drinking. For example, those who attended most frequently were 6.5% more likely to drink than those who didn't attend, which corresponded to about one-third of the difference in heavy drinking between weekly attendees and non-attendees. Likewise, those who who attended somewhat frequently were 3.3% more likely to drink. Results for marijuana consumption were very large (10.5% and 6.7%, respectively), while cocaine consumption increased somewhat less than alcohol consumption (4.1-4.3% for both very and somewhat frequent attendees).

The authors conclude with the following:

Absent strong negative externalities, there seems little argument for restricting the days of the week that commerce can take place. But religious participation may be one of those activities with such externalities. As such, secular regulations such as blue laws which promote religious participation can have external effects. Whether those external effects are sufficiently large to justify restrictions on commerce is an excellent question for future research.

In other words, should blue laws be put back onto the books? I would argue that there is a case for doing so. The Qur'an tells us several times to enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah (e.g., 3:104, 3:110, 3:114, 22:41). Would not society benefit by encouraging religious participation, by having American Christians going back to church on Sundays, by donating money to churches (instead of spending it at the mall), and by reducing the amount of substance abuse (and hypocrisy), especially among those who used to be the best attendees? I would think so.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and MIT's Quarterly Journal of Economics both have the final draft of the report available for download, but only for a fee; you can read an earlier draft of the paper here [pdf].

HT: Economist's View

Update: "Macro and Other Market Musings" has More on the Opportunity Cost of Religion.

May 22, 2008

Bedtime Music: Dire Straits - Money for Nothing

Speaking of influential music videos... How many times did I hear Money for Nothing in the summer of '85? It's hard to believe that the CGI in this video were considered groundbreaking at the time, isn't it?

May 21, 2008

Bedtime Music: Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer

I'm not much of a Peter Gabriel/Genesis fan, but this video of Sledgehammer has been a long-time favorite.

Trivia:
  • Among the extras who appear at the end of the video are Peter's daughters, Anna and Melanie.
  • Peter lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the stills for the video.
  • The two head-less chickens in the video were animated by Nick Park (of Wallace and Gromit fame).

  • James Hamilton: Oil Price Fundamentals

    James Hamilton at Econbrowser looks at the question of what's been driving oil prices higher, market fundamentals or speculation? I've got some additional comments down below.

    The developed economies consume a disproportionate share of the world's energy, with North America and Europe accounting for about half of the total oil use in 2006. However, it is the newly industrialized countries and oil producers that account for the recent rapid growth in demand, with Asia and the Middle East accounting for 60% of the increase in petroleum use between 2003 and 2006. North America and Europe contributed only 1/5 of the growth.

    Particularly dramatic in this growth has been China, whose petroleum consumption between 1990 and 2006 increased at a 7.2% annual compound rate. It's always amusing to project these impressive exponential growth rates. If that rate of growth were to continue, China would be using 20 million barrels a day by 2020, about as much as the U.S. is today. By 2030, China would be up to 40 mb/d, twice the current U.S. consumption.

    Are such projections plausible from the point of view of potential demand? During 2006, China used about 2 barrels of oil per person. For comparison, Mexico used 6.6-- Chinese oil consumption could triple and they'd still be using less per person than Mexico is today. The U.S. used almost 25 barrels per person. According to the data collected for a new research paper by Max Auffhammer and Richard Carson, there were 3.3 passenger vehicles per 100 Chinese residents in 2006, compared with 77 in the United States. Yes, I would say that these astonishing numbers for potential future Chinese oil demand are not at all inconceivable.

    ...

    I do think there are prospects for a significant boost to world petroleum production this year, thanks to a number of big new projects scheduled to begin production. The Wikipedia database reports 7 mb/d in eventual gross new production capacity eventually expected from projects that are supposed to begin producing during the current calendar year. Before you get too excited about that number, however, several cautions are in order. First, 7 mb/d refers to the eventual peak production, not the amount that can be produced this year. Second, there is inevitably some slippage and delays. For example, the list includes 250,000 b/d from Thunder Horse, BP's Gulf of Mexico project that was initially hoped to start giving us oil in 2005, but is still undergoing repair work. Third, the above tabulation refers to gross new capacity, much of which is needed to replace declining production currently being observed in the world's mature producing fields. At any point in time, some of the world's producing fields are well into decline, some are at plateau production, and others are on the way up. It is not clear what average decline rate is appropriate to apply to aggregate global production, but a plausible ballpark number might be 4%. That would mean that in the absence of new projects, global production would decline by 3.4 mb/d each year. To put it another way, a new producing area equivalent to current annual production from Iran (OPEC's second biggest producer) needs to be brought on line every year just to keep global production from falling. Of the 7mb/d in gross new capacity from the projects tabulated above, projects in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Mexico account for about a third of this gross increase. Data currently available for the first two months of 2008 show actual production in Saudi Arabia down 350,000 b/d from its average 2005 value, though the latest news suggests that Saudi production may be close to returning to 2005 levels. Mexican production is currently down 400,000 b/d from 2005, and Russian production is down 100,000 b/d from its average level in the second half of 2007.

    To summarize, I think we will see some net production gains this year, and expect this to bring some relief for oil prices. But I cannot imagine that the projected path for China above will ever become a reality. Oil prices have to rise to whatever value it takes to prevent that from happening.

    So yes, I do believe that speculation has played a role in the oil price increases, particularly what we've observed the last few months. But it's a big mistake to conclude that speculation is the most important part of the longer run trend we've been seeing.

    I've been studying petroleum consumption for a number of months now, and have done my own forecast for China through the year 2012 (a five-year forecast). Although I haven't had the chance to post the executive summary of my Northeast Asia forecast on my new business blog, J2TM, China's petroleum consumption rate on a per-capita basis is very, very small. Hamilton said that China "used about 2 barrels of oil per person" in 2006, but the actual number is 1.0256 barrels per person. Likewise, the petroleum consumption growth rate on a per capita basis has been very weak as well. The Chinese compound annual growth rate between 1985 and 2006 was 1.86% per year. I'm forecasting a per capita growth rate of 0.61% to 0.88% for the period between 2006 and 2012. Of course, aggregate consumption growth rates should be somewhat higher but, at current consumption growth rates, it will take decades for China to reach Mexico's consumption level, let alone that of the U.S. (To be honest, I don't think that China will ever get that far; I suspect most oil worldwide would be gone before China could get up to the U.S.'s level of gluttony.)

    Overall, though, I agree with Hamilton's analysis; I think oil prices are primarily driven by market fundamentals. There
    probably is some speculation at work here (as there is for commodity prices), but I think a relatively stable level of supply and an ever increasing level of demand are the primary factors bringing oil prices higher.

    (Update: Thanks to Dr. Hamilton for his comment; I went back to my original analysis and found an error in my original analysis (it only affected China, thank God). Mea culpa! According to my new analysis, the annual compound growth rate for Chinese petroleum consumption between 1985-2006 was 6.64%, not the 1.86% I wrote above. Likewise, my new petroleum forecast has a growth rate of 5.79% through 2012, by which time I would expect per capita petroleum consumption to be 2.8362 barrels per person. I also ran out the projection for China's consumption through the year 2030; by that time consumption would be 8.4452 barrels per person; China would reach Mexico's current consumption level in the year 2026; in that regard my initial forecast is not too far off - almost two decades instead of "decades." I still stand by my comment regarding China matching American consumption. That sort of forecast is just too far into the future to be of any value, IMO. So, I stand corrected, and I thank you for that.)

    May 20, 2008

    Bedtime Music: Debussy - Clair de Lune

    Written in 1890 and originally the third of four movements in Claude Debussy's Suite bergamasque, Clair de lune ("Moonlight") is one of the most popular and widely used pieces of classical music today. This particular video is of Soviet violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974), with Frida Bauer on piano. The recording was made in Paris in 1962.

    Jeffrey D. Sachs: Surging Food Prices Mean Global Instability

    Quite by coincidence, I came across the following article from Scientific American just a short time after publishing my last post. This article, by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, focuses primarily on one of the root causes of the current food crisis, the conversion of maize ("corn" to us Americans) into ethanol. One of the good things about this article is that four recommendations are given, the first of which ties in very well with the food sovereignty idea/Malawi case study mentioned in my previous post.

    While you're at it, you should also read Angry Bear's
    The Biofuel-Backlash Backlash and Econbrowser's Reconciling Estimates: Biofuels and Food Prices.

    The recent surge in world food prices is already creating havoc in poor countries, and worse is to come. Food riots are spreading across Africa, though many are unreported in the international press. Moreover, the surge in wheat, maize and rice prices seen on commodities markets have not yet fully percolated into the shops and stalls of the poor countries or the budgets of relief organizations. Nor has the budget crunch facing relief organizations such as the World Food Program, which must buy food in world markets, been fully felt. The results could be calamitous unless offsetting policy actions are taken rapidly.

    The facts are stark. A metric ton of wheat cost around $375 on the commodity exchanges in early 2006. In March 2008, it stood at over $900. Maize has gone from around $250 to $560 in the same period. Rice prices have also soared. The physical inventories of grain relative to demand are also down sharply in recent years.

    Several factors are at play in the skyrocketing prices, reflecting both rising global demand and falling supplies of food grains. World incomes have been rising at around 5 percent annually in recent years, and 4 percent in per capita terms, leading to an increased global demand for food and for meat as a share of the diet. China’s economic growth, of course, has been double the world’s average. The rising demand for meat exacerbates the pressures on grain and oil-seed prices since several kilograms of animal feed are required to produce each kilogram of meat.

    Feed grains have risen from around 30 percent of total global grain production to around 40 percent today. Land that would otherwise be planted to the main grains is shifting to soya bean and other oil seeds used for animal feed. It is forecast, for example, that U.S. farmers will cut maize plantings by 8 million acres, while raising soya-bean production by about the same amount. The grain supply side has also been disrupted by climate shocks, such as Australia’s massive droughts.

    An even bigger blow has been the U.S. decision to subsidize conversion of maize into ethanol to blend with gasoline. This wrong-headed policy, pushed by an aggressive farm lobby, gives a 51-cent tax credit for each gallon of ethanol blended into gasoline. The 2005 Energy Policy Act mandates a minimum of 7.5 billion gallons of domestic renewable-fuel production, which will overwhelmingly be corn-based ethanol, by 2012. Consequently, up to a third of the U.S. mid-Western maize crop this year will be converted to ethanol, causing a cascade of price increases across the food chain. (Worse, use of ethanol instead of gasoline does little to reduce net carbon emissions once the energy-intensive full cycle of ethanol production-- including the energy-intensive fertilizer and transport needs --is taken into account.)

    The food price increases are pummeling poor food-importing regions, with Africa by far the hardest hit. Several countries, such as Egypt, India and Vietnam, have cut off their rice exports in response to soaring prices at home, thereby exacerbating the effects on rice-importing countries. Even small changes in food prices can push the poor into hunger and destitution: as famously expounded by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, some of the greatest famines in history were caused not by massive declines in grain production but rather by losses in the purchasing power of the poor.

    At a time when hundreds of billions of dollars each year veer to war rather than peaceful development, and when media attention is riveted on the U.S. financial crises, it is hard to raise even a few billion dollars for desperately hungry people. Still, it is urgent to do so. At least four measures should be taken in response to soaring food prices.

    First, the world should heed the call of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to fund a massive increase in Africa’s own food production. The needed technologies are available—high-yield seeds, fertilizer, small-scale irrigation—but the financing is not. The new African Green Revolution would initially subsidize peasant farmers’ access to high-yield technologies and thereby at least double grain yields. The funding would also help farm communities establish long-term micro-finance institutions to ensure continued access to improved agricultural inputs after the temporary subsidies are ended in a few years.

    Second, the U.S. should end its misguided corn-to-ethanol subsidies. Farmers hardly need them given world demand for food and feed grains. There is certainly a case for re-doubling the scientific efforts to produce bio-fuels on lands which do not compete with food crops, for example from cellulosic ethanol, but this technology is still not ready for the market.

    Third, the world should support longer-term research into higher agricultural production. Shockingly, the Bush administration is proposing to cut sharply the U.S. funding for tropical agriculture research in the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), just when that research is most urgently needed. This is an example of the Administration’s anti-scientific approach at its worst.

    Finally, the world should follow through on the promised Climate Adaptation Fund announced last December in the Bali Climate Change conference, to help poor countries face the growing risks to food production from increasingly adverse climate conditions. Even as the world staunches the immediate crisis, there will be more wrenching dislocations as drought, heat stress, pest infestations and other climate-induced shocks occur increasingly often.

    HT: Economist's View

    Walden Bello: Manufacturing a Food Crisis

    In reading this important article by Walden Bello in The Nation, one wonders who the people at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) really are: dogmatic eggheads who blindly follow the "free trade" mantra without regard to the human consequences, or useful fools working on behalf of rich northern nations and corporations? Perhaps both. Bello shows that, since the early 80s, the World Bank, IMF, WTO and free trade agreements like NAFTA have caused several nations (Mexico and the Philippines are given as examples) to go from being net exporters of food to net importers, largely as a result of World Bank and IMF policies that helped keep several governments solvent but at the expense of ruining local farmers. The countries were forced to accept highly subsidized food imports from the U.S. and the European Union or, in the case of Malawi, to sell off their food reserves in return for loans. In the meantime, more and more farmers are committing suicide (especially in India) as their livelihoods are ruined, and about 1,500 Malawians died from starvation when a famine struck that country in 2001-02, when little food was available because the country had been forced (earlier) to sell their food reserves. (One wonders whether the IMF and the other NGOs realize how much blood is on their hands.) The case of Malawi is particularly rich with irony considering that the World Bank forced the Malawian government to scrap a subsidy program for its farmers (which had been very successful, bringing in a bumper crop of corn), because "the subsidy distorted trade." And, yet, "[s]ince the late 1990s subsidies have accounted for 40 percent of the value of agricultural production in the European Union and 25 percent in the United States." What hypocrisy.

    There is nothing wrong with international trade; we all benefit by it. But "free" trade often isn't free and can carry an extremely heavy cost. Trade, like anything else, needs to be regulated if it is to work most effectively. Obviously the human costs, in terms of suffering and needless deaths, are factors that need to be considered, but aren't. The suggestion of "food sovereignty," mentioned at the bottom of the article, makes sense. We need to realize that most of these farmers in Mexico, the Philippines, and around the world are among the poorest of the poor who, like everyone else, need to be able to support themselves and their families. Poor national governments need to weigh more carefully the demands of debt servicing by organizations like the IMF and World Bank against the needs of their citizens who are most at risk.

    Some excerpts:


    However, an intriguing question escaped many observers: how on earth did Mexicans, who live in the land where corn was domesticated, become dependent on US imports in the first place?

    The Mexican food crisis cannot be fully understood without taking into account the fact that in the years preceding the tortilla crisis, the homeland of corn had been converted to a corn-importing economy by “free market” policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and Washington. The process began with the early 1980s debt crisis. One of the two largest developing-country debtors, Mexico was forced to beg for money from the Bank and IMF to service its debt to international commercial banks. The quid pro quo for a multibillion-dollar bailout was what a member of the World Bank executive board described as “unprecedented thoroughgoing interventionism” designed to eliminate high tariffs, state regulations and government support institutions, which neoliberal doctrine identified as barriers to economic efficiency.

    Interest payments rose from 19 percent of total government expenditures in 1982 to 57 percent in 1988, while capital expenditures dropped from an already low 19.3 percent to 4.4 percent. The contraction of government spending translated into the dismantling of state credit, government-subsidized agricultural inputs, price supports, state marketing boards and extension services. Unilateral liberalization of agricultural trade pushed by the IMF and World Bank also contributed to the destabilization of peasant producers.

    This blow to peasant agriculture was followed by an even larger one in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Although NAFTA had a fifteen-year phaseout of tariff protection for agricultural products, including corn, highly subsidized US corn quickly flooded in, reducing prices by half and plunging the corn sector into chronic crisis. Largely as a result of this agreement, Mexico’s status as a net food importer has now been firmly established.

    With the shutting down of the state marketing agency for corn, distribution of US corn imports and Mexican grain has come to be monopolized by a few transnational traders, like US-owned Cargill and partly US-owned Maseca, operating on both sides of the border. This has given them tremendous power to speculate on trade trends, so that movements in biofuel demand can be manipulated and magnified many times over. At the same time, monopoly control of domestic trade has ensured that a rise in international corn prices does not translate into significantly higher prices paid to small producers.

    ...

    The Philippines provides a grim example of how neoliberal economic restructuring transforms a country from a net food exporter to a net food importer. The Philippines is the world’s largest importer of rice. Manila’s desperate effort to secure supplies at any price has become front-page news, and pictures of soldiers providing security for rice distribution in poor communities have become emblematic of the global crisis.

    The broad contours of the Philippines story are similar to those of Mexico. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos was guilty of many crimes and misdeeds, including failure to follow through on land reform, but one thing he cannot be accused of is starving the agricultural sector. To head off peasant discontent, the regime provided farmers with subsidized fertilizer and seeds, launched credit plans and built rural infrastructure. When Marcos fled the country in 1986, there were 900,000 metric tons of rice in government warehouses.

    Paradoxically, the next few years under the new democratic dispensation saw the gutting of government investment capacity. As in Mexico the World Bank and IMF, working on behalf of international creditors, pressured the Corazon Aquino administration to make repayment of the $26 billion foreign debt a priority. Aquino acquiesced, though she was warned by the country’s top economists that the “search for a recovery program that is consistent with a debt repayment schedule determined by our creditors is a futile one.” Between 1986 and 1993 8 percent to 10 percent of GDP left the Philippines yearly in debt-service payments — roughly the same proportion as in Mexico. Interest payments as a percentage of expenditures rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1994; capital expenditures plunged from 26 percent to 16 percent. In short, debt servicing became the national budgetary priority.

    Spending on agriculture fell by more than half. The World Bank and its local acolytes were not worried, however, since one purpose of the belt-tightening was to get the private sector to energize the countryside. But agricultural capacity quickly eroded. Irrigation stagnated, and by the end of the 1990s only 17 percent of the Philippines’ road network was paved, compared with 82 percent in Thailand and 75 percent in Malaysia. Crop yields were generally anemic, with the average rice yield way below those in China, Vietnam and Thailand, where governments actively promoted rural production. The post-Marcos agrarian reform program shriveled, deprived of funding for support services, which had been the key to successful reforms in Taiwan and South Korea. As in Mexico Filipino peasants were confronted with full-scale retreat of the state as provider of comprehensive support — a role they had come to depend on.

    And the cutback in agricultural programs was followed by trade liberalization, with the Philippines’ 1995 entry into the World Trade Organization having the same effect as Mexico’s joining NAFTA. WTO membership required the Philippines to eliminate quotas on all agricultural imports except rice and allow a certain amount of each commodity to enter at low tariff rates. While the country was allowed to maintain a quota on rice imports, it nevertheless had to admit the equivalent of 1 to 4 percent of domestic consumption over the next ten years. In fact, because of gravely weakened production resulting from lack of state support, the government imported much more than that to make up for shortfalls. The massive imports depressed the price of rice, discouraging farmers and keeping growth in production at a rate far below that of the country’s two top suppliers, Thailand and Vietnam.

    The consequences of the Philippines’ joining the WTO barreled through the rest of its agriculture like a super-typhoon. Swamped by cheap corn imports — much of it subsidized US grain — farmers reduced land devoted to corn from 3.1 million hectares in 1993 to 2.5 million in 2000. Massive importation of chicken parts nearly killed that industry, while surges in imports destabilized the poultry, hog and vegetable industries.

    During the 1994 campaign to ratify WTO membership, government economists, coached by their World Bank handlers, promised that losses in corn and other traditional crops would be more than compensated for by the new export industry of “high-value-added” crops like cut flowers, asparagus and broccoli. Little of this materialized. Nor did many of the 500,000 agricultural jobs that were supposed to be created yearly by the magic of the market; instead, agricultural employment dropped from 11.2 million in 1994 to 10.8 million in 2001.

    The one-two punch of IMF-imposed adjustment and WTO-imposed trade liberalization swiftly transformed a largely self-sufficient agricultural economy into an import-dependent one as it steadily marginalized farmers.

    ...

    A study of fourteen countries by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization found that the levels of food imports in 1995-98 exceeded those in 1990-94. This was not surprising, since one of the main goals of the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture was to open up markets in developing countries so they could absorb surplus production in the North. As then-US Agriculture Secretary John Block put it in 1986, “The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products, which are available in most cases at lower cost.”

    What Block did not say was that the lower cost of US products stemmed from subsidies, which became more massive with each passing year despite the fact that the WTO was supposed to phase them out. From $367 billion in 1995, the total amount of agricultural subsidies provided by developed-country governments rose to $388 billion in 2004. Since the late 1990s subsidies have accounted for 40 percent of the value of agricultural production in the European Union and 25 percent in the United States.

    ...

    This is not simply the erosion of national food self-sufficiency or food security but what Africanist Deborah Bryceson of Oxford calls “de-peasantization” — the phasing out of a mode of production to make the countryside a more congenial site for intensive capital accumulation. This transformation is a traumatic one for hundreds of millions of people, since peasant production is not simply an economic activity. It is an ancient way of life, a culture, which is one reason displaced or marginalized peasants in India have taken to committing suicide. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, farmer suicides rose from 233 in 1998 to 2,600 in 2002; in Maharashtra, suicides more than tripled, from 1,083 in 1995 to 3,926 in 2005. One estimate is that some 150,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives. Collapse of prices from trade liberalization and loss of control over seeds to biotech firms is part of a comprehensive problem, says global justice activist Vandana Shiva: “Under globalization, the farmer is losing her/his social, cultural, economic identity as a producer. A farmer is now a ‘consumer’ of costly seeds and costly chemicals sold by powerful global corporations through powerful landlords and money lenders locally.”

    ...

    At the time of decolonization, in the 1960s, Africa was actually a net food exporter. Today the continent imports 25 percent of its food; almost every country is a net importer. Hunger and famine have become recurrent phenomena, with the past three years alone seeing food emergencies break out in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and Southern and Central Africa.

    Agriculture in Africa is in deep crisis, and the causes range from wars to bad governance, lack of agricultural technology and the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, as in Mexico and the Philippines, an important part of the explanation is the phasing out of government controls and support mechanisms under the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs imposed as the price for assistance in servicing external debt.

    ...

    The support that African governments were allowed to muster was channeled by the World Bank toward export agriculture to generate foreign exchange, which states needed to service debt. But, as in Ethiopia during the 1980s famine, this led to the dedication of good land to export crops, with food crops forced into less suitable soil, thus exacerbating food insecurity. Moreover, the World Bank’s encouragement of several economies to focus on the same export crops often led to overproduction, triggering price collapses in international markets. For instance, the very success of Ghana’s expansion of cocoa production triggered a 48 percent drop in the international price between 1986 and 1989. In 2002-03 a collapse in coffee prices contributed to another food emergency in Ethiopia.

    As in Mexico and the Philippines, structural adjustment in Africa was not simply about underinvestment but state divestment. But there was one major difference. In Africa the World Bank and IMF micromanaged, making decisions on how fast subsidies should be phased out, how many civil servants had to be fired and even, as in the case of Malawi, how much of the country’s grain reserve should be sold and to whom.

    Compounding the negative impact of adjustment were unfair EU and US trade practices. Liberalization allowed subsidized EU beef to drive many West African and South African cattle raisers to ruin. With their subsidies legitimized by the WTO, US growers offloaded cotton on world markets at 20 percent to 55 percent of production cost, thereby bankrupting West and Central African farmers.

    ...

    In 1999 the government of Malawi initiated a program to give each smallholder family a starter pack of free fertilizers and seeds. The result was a national surplus of corn. What came after is a story that should be enshrined as a classic case study of one of the greatest blunders of neoliberal economics. The World Bank and other aid donors forced the scaling down and eventual scrapping of the program, arguing that the subsidy distorted trade. Without the free packs, output plummeted. In the meantime, the IMF insisted that the government sell off a large portion of its grain reserves to enable the food reserve agency to settle its commercial debts. The government complied. When the food crisis turned into a famine in 2001-02, there were hardly any reserves left. About 1,500 people perished. The IMF was unrepentant; in fact, it suspended its disbursements on an adjustment program on the grounds that “the parastatal sector will continue to pose risks to the successful implementation of the 2002/03 budget. Government interventions in the food and other agricultural markets… [are] crowding out more productive spending.”

    By the time an even worse food crisis developed in 2005, the government had had enough of World Bank/IMF stupidity. A new president reintroduced the fertilizer subsidy, enabling 2 million households to buy it at a third of the retail price and seeds at a discount. The result: bumper harvests for two years, a million-ton maize surplus and the country transformed into a supplier of corn to Southern Africa.

    Malawi’s defiance of the World Bank would probably have been an act of heroic but futile resistance a decade ago. The environment is different today, since structural adjustment has been discredited throughout Africa. Even some donor governments and NGOs that used to subscribe to it have distanced themselves from the Bank. Perhaps the motivation is to prevent their influence in the continent from being further eroded by association with a failed approach and unpopular institutions when Chinese aid is emerging as an alternative to World Bank, IMF and Western government aid programs.

    ...

    It is not only defiance from governments like Malawi and dissent from their erstwhile allies that are undermining the IMF and the World Bank. Peasant organizations around the world have become increasingly militant in their resistance to the globalization of industrial agriculture. Indeed, it is because of pressure from farmers’ groups that the governments of the South have refused to grant wider access to their agricultural markets and demanded a massive slashing of US and EU agricultural subsidies, which brought the WTO’s Doha Round of negotiations to a standstill.

    Farmers’ groups have networked internationally; one of the most dynamic to emerge is Via Campesina (Peasant’s Path). Via not only seeks to get “WTO out of agriculture” and opposes the paradigm of a globalized capitalist industrial agriculture; it also proposes an alternative — food sovereignty. Food sovereignty means, first of all, the right of a country to determine its production and consumption of food and the exemption of agriculture from global trade regimes like that of the WTO. It also means consolidation of a smallholder-centered agriculture via protection of the domestic market from low-priced imports; remunerative prices for farmers and fisherfolk; abolition of all direct and indirect export subsidies; and the phasing out of domestic subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture. Via’s platform also calls for an end to the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights regime, or TRIPs, which allows corporations to patent plant seeds; opposes agro-technology based on genetic engineering; and demands land reform. In contrast to an integrated global monoculture, Via offers the vision of an international agricultural economy composed of diverse national agricultural economies trading with one another but focused primarily on domestic production.

    Walden Bello is senior analyst at and former executive director of Focus on the Global South, a research and advocacy institute based at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He is the author or co-author of many books on politics and economic issues in the Philippines and Asia, including, most recently, Deglobalization (Zed), and recipient of the 2003 Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” In March he was named Outstanding Public Scholar for 2008 by the International Studies Association.

    HT: Economist's View

    John McCain: The Double Talk Express



    May 19, 2008

    Bedtime Music: Herbie Hancock - Butterfly

    Herbie Hancock's 1994 album Dis is Da Drum is one of those great albums that I have back in storage but haven't been able to find a replacement of while living here in S'pore. (I guess I'm gonna have to suck it up and put some money into my PayPal account so I can download the MP3s off of Amazon. ;) ) Two songs in particular from that album are stellar: the title song, "Dis is Da Drum," and "Butterfly." This is the latter song, which was performed live; the actual song stops around the six-minute mark. There's some additional stuff tacked on to the video, so feel free to click out at that point. (Unfortunately, I'm not able to find a better video at this time.)

    May 18, 2008

    Movie Sunday - Close Encounters of the Third Kind

    I was rather busy as a teenager, but in the late fall of 1977, my dad (aka JDny) took me to the cinema to watch a movie with him, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Of course it was spectacular, I was blown away, blah blah blah, you know, just like everyone else, except that, just like everyone else, we were all still going gaga over another movie that had been released a few months earlier, Star Wars. That was Close Encounters biggest problem, coming out in the same year (not the same month, but the same year) as Star Wars. Still, Close Encounters is a great movie and had some wonderful performances by Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, and the late Fran├žois Truffaut. Five years later, Steven Spielberg would take up the same basic idea and make us all go gaga over ET.



    If we're all ready on the Dark Side of the Moon... play the five tones.


    I guess you've noticed something a little strange with Dad. It's okay, though. I'm still Dad.

    May 17, 2008

    Drum Corps Saturday - 1974 Santa Clara Vanguard

    Someone has put a ton of excellent drum corps videos onto Youtube, to which I can only say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" :) This particular video is from the 1974 DCI prelims at Cornell University's Schoelkopf Field in Ithaca, NY. Santa Clara won DCI that year with a score of 89.500, beating out the Madison Scouts, who were my favorites that year. And, once again, yes, I'm in the crowd somewhere. ;)

    (Note: These videos were taken from a TV broadcast, and so there's a fair amount of chatter both before and after the show.)

    The Repertoire: Die Gotterdammerung (from The Ring) * A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra * Overture to Candide * A Little Night Music * Weekend in the Country (from A Little Night Music) * Send in the Clowns (from A Little Night Music)




    May 16, 2008

    Bedtime Music: ELO - Strange Magic

    If you've read my blog for a while, you've probably guessed that the Alan Parsons Project is my favorite band. In case you were wondering (and even if you weren't), my second-most favorite band is Electric Light Orchestra. (I've never stopped to think whom my third-most favorite band is. ;) ) Strange Magic was originally released on ELO's 1975 album, Face the Music. This version here is from a 2001 concert recorded in Los Angeles that was released as a DVD, Zoom Tour Live. (Yes, I do own the DVD.) "Strange Magic," of course, is one of those songs that rely upon the dreamy melody that ELO is famous for.

    Kevin James, Moron

    This guy, Kevin James, appears to be one of the dimmest of the dimbulbs that support the Bush administration. Truly amazing stupidity. And they asked him to be on TV??? This guy's a lawyer? Yeah, right! The following was taken from Wikipedia:

    "You don't know anything. You don't know what you are talking about.”
    — Chris Matthews to Kevin James

    On May 15, 2008, James appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews, debating with Mark Green of Air America Radio to discuss remarks made by George W. Bush's speech to the Israeli Knesset in which the president drew a comparison between Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in World War II with Barack Obama's expressed willingness to meet with leaders of U.S. adversaries.

    After James vigorously supported Bush's comparison, Chris Matthews asked James for a "history check", asking James "What exactly did Chamberlain do wrong?" Frustrated by what Matthews perceived as James' inability to demonstrate any knowledge of the period, Matthews went on to repeat the question a total of 28 times. Finally with James' admittance of "I don't know," Matthews accused James of being a "blank slate" who didn't know anything about history. Matthews ended by telling James "When you are going to make a direct historical reference, get it straight," and then likened James to White House spokesman Dana Perino, who in an appearance on NPR's radio program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me admitted she had had no idea what the Cuban Missile Crisis was.


    HT: TBogg

    Update: Crooks & Liars has a rough, partial transcript of the video:

    Chris: I want to do a little history check on you—what did Neville Chamberlain do wrong in 1939? What did he do wrong?

    Kevin: It all goes back to appeasement. It’s the key term.

    Chris: No, what did he do, tell me what he did?

    Kevin: It’s the key term.

    Chris: You have to answer this question. What did he do?

    Kevin: It’s the same thing, it puts it all…

    Chris: Well tell me what he did?

    Kevin: It’s appeasement.

    Chris: What did Chamberlain do wrong..

    Kevin: His actions, his actions enabled, energized, legitimized

    Chris: What did Chamberlain do?

    Kevin: It’s the exact same thing.

    Chris: No stop, Kevin. I’m not going to continue with this interview unless you answer what that thing is. What did Chamberlain do in ‘39, tell me? ‘38?

    Kevin: Chris, it’s the exact same thing alright?

    Chris: What did he do? What did he do!

    Kevin: '38, '39 Chris what year do you want?

    Chris: What did he do? I want you to answer, what did Chamberlain?

    Kevin: He’s talking, He’s talking about appeasement.

    Chris: What did Chamberlain do, just tell me what he did, Kevin? What did Chamberlain do that you didn’t like?

    Kevin: What, what Chamberlain did? What, what, the President was talking about, you just said the President was talking about Barack. Look…

    Chris: You’re making a reference to the days before our involvement in WWII. When the war in Europe began. I want you to tell me as an expert, what did Chamberlain do wrong.

    Kevin: You’re not going to box me in here, Chris. President Bush was making that. I’m glad, I’m glad.

    Chris: You don’t know, do you? You don’t know what Neville Chamberlain did

    Kevin: Yeah, he was an appeaser, Chris….

    Chris: You are BS’ing me… You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    May 15, 2008

    May 14, 2008

    The Bill O'Reilly Meltdown

    Hysterical. If you hate Bill O'Reilly, this is your video. :) And be sure to check out the remix (warning: lots o' profanity on the latter).



    HT: WTF Is It Now?!?

    May 13, 2008

    Red Bull Meets the Bee

    Interesting video from Youtube taken from the helmetcam of a Red Bull Air Force parachutist dropping into a San Diego Chargers football game. Just before the guy touches down onto the field, a bee meets up with the camera lens at the wrong time.

    BTW, you may want to lower the volume of your computer before playing this; the sound of the wind rushing past is a little loud.

    May 12, 2008

    350

    Bill McKibben writes in the LA Times that we here on Earth are very much in danger of losing our civilizations if world governments don't get their act together very quickly (by the year 2012). The adjustments that need to be made will be very painful, politically and economically, but the choice will be either to make the adjustments now or see humanity slide into an environmental disaster. Some excerpts:

    All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it's dusk on planet Earth.

    There's a number -- a new number -- that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    A few weeks ago, NASA's chief climatologist, James Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several coauthors. The abstract attached to it argued -- and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper -- that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

    Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points -- massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them -- that we'll pass if we don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.

    So it's a tough diagnosis. It's like the doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high and, if you don't bring it down right away, you're going to have a stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the cheese, and, if you're lucky, you get back into the safety zone before the coronary. It's like watching the tachometer edge into the red zone and knowing that you need to take your foot off the gas before you hear that clunk up front.

    In this case, though, it's worse than that because we're not taking the pill and we are stomping on the gas -- hard. Instead of slowing down, we're pouring on the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year -- two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast.

    And suddenly the news arrives that the amount of methane, another potent greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well. It appears that we've managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost, and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth.

    And don't forget: China is building more power plants; India is pioneering the $2,500 car; and Americans are buying TVs the size of windshields, which suck juice ever faster.

    ...

    We're the ones who kicked the warming off; now the planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun's heat.

    ...

    If we did everything right, Hansen says, we could see carbon emissions start to fall fairly rapidly and the oceans begin to pull some of that CO2 out of the atmosphere. Before the century was out, we might even be on track back to 350. We might stop just short of some of those tipping points, like the Road Runner screeching to a halt at the very edge of the cliff.

    More likely, though, we're the coyote -- because "doing everything right" means that political systems around the world would have to take enormous and painful steps right away. It means no more new coal-fired power plants anywhere, and plans to quickly close the ones already in operation. (Coal-fired power plants operating the way they're supposed to are, in global warming terms, as dangerous as nuclear plants melting down.) It means making car factories turn out efficient hybrids next year, just the way U.S. automakers made them turn out tanks in six months at the start of World War II. It means making trains an absolute priority and planes a taboo.

    It means making every decision wisely because we have so little time and so little money, at least relative to the task at hand. And hardest of all, it means the rich countries of the world sharing resources and technology freely with the poorest ones so that they can develop dignified lives without burning their cheap coal.

    It's possible. The United States launched a Marshall Plan once, and could do it again, this time in relation to carbon. But at a time when the president has, once more, urged drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it seems unlikely. At a time when the alluring phrase "gas tax holiday" -- which would actually encourage more driving and more energy consumption -- has danced into our vocabulary, it's hard to see. And if it's hard to imagine sacrifice here, imagine China, where people produce a quarter as much carbon apiece as Americans do.

    Still, as long as it's not impossible, we've got a duty to try to push those post-Kyoto negotiations in the direction of reality. In fact, it's about the most obvious duty humans have ever faced.

    Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author, most recently, of "The Bill McKibben Reader," is the co-founder of Project 350 (www.350.org), devoted to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. A longer version of this article appears at Tomdispatch.com.

    HT: Economist's View

    May 11, 2008

    Kevin Phillips: Numbers Racket: Why the Economy is Worse Than We Know

    Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy (a book I endorse), has an article in Harper's Magazine about the fudging of economic data by the American government. The problem, according to Phillips, apparently began with the Kennedy administration and has continued on an erratic basis through to the present day, with the guilt being shared by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The first third of the article documents how the Consumer Price Index (CPI), unemployment statistics, and the gross domestic product (GDP) numbers have all been manipulated over the decades, not necessarily out of some grand conspiratorial plot, but out of "accumulating opportunisms."


    Sources: John Williams, ShadowStats.com, U.S. Bureau of Labor

    The second third of the article looks a little more deeply at the opacity that has developed over the three economic statistics mentioned above:

    Of the "big three" statistics, let us start with unemployment. Most of the people tired of looking for work, as mentioned above, are no longer counted in the workforce, though they do still show up in one of the auxiliary unemployment numbers. The BLS has six different regular jobless measurements—U-1, U-2, U-3 (the one routinely cited), U-4, U-5, and U-6. In January 2008, the U-4 to U-6 series produced unemployment numbers ranging from 5.2 percent to 9.0 percent, all above the "official" number. The series nearest to real-world conditions is, not surprisingly, the highest: U-6, which includes part-timers looking for full-time employment as well as other members of the "marginally attached," a new catchall meaning those not looking for a job but who say they want one. Yet this does not even include the Americans who (as Austan Goolsbee puts it) have been "bought off the unemployment rolls" by government programs such as Social Security disability, whose recipients are classified as outside the labor force.

    Second is the Gross Domestic Product, which in itself represents something of a fudge: federal economists used the Gross National Product until 1991, when rising U.S. international debt costs made the narrower GDP assessment more palatable. The GDP has been subject to many further fiddles, the most manipulatable of which are the adjustments made for the presumed starting up and ending of businesses (the "birth/death of businesses" equation) and the amounts that the Bureau of Economic Analysis "imputes" to nationwide personal income data (known as phantom income boosters, or imputations; for example, the imputed income from living in one's own home, or the benefit one receives from a free checking account, or the value of employer-paid health-and-life-insurance premiums). During 2007, believe it or not, imputed income accounted for some 15 percent of GDP. John Williams, the economic statistician, is briskly contemptuous of GDP numbers over the past quarter century. "Upward growth biases built into GDP modeling since the early 1980s have rendered this important series nearly worthless," he wrote in 2004. "[T]he recessions of 1990/1991 and 2001 were much longer and deeper than currently reported [and] lesser downturns in 1986 and 1995 were missed completely."

    Nothing, however, can match the tortured evolution of the third key number, the somewhat misnamed Consumer Price Index. Government economists themselves admit that the revisions during the Clinton years worked to reduce the current inflation figures by more than a percentage point, but the overall distortion has been considerably more severe. Just the 1983 manipulation, which substituted "owner equivalent rent" for home-ownership costs, served to understate or reduce inflation during the recent housing boom by 3 to 4 percentage points. Moreover, since the 1990s, the CPI has been subjected to three other adjustments, all downward and all dubious: product substitution (if flank steak gets too expensive, people are assumed to shift to hamburger, but nobody is assumed to move up to filet mignon), geometric weighting (goods and services in which costs are rising most rapidly get a lower weighting for a presumed reduction in consumption), and, most bizarrely, hedonic adjustment, an unusual computation by which additional quality is attributed to a product or service.

    ...

    "All in all," Williams points out, "if you were to peel back changes that were made in the CPI going back to the Carter years, you'd see that the CPI would now be 3.5 percent to 4 percent higher"—meaning that, because of lost CPI increases, Social Security checks would be 70 percent greater than they currently are.

    Furthermore, when discussing price pressure, government officials invariably bring up "core" inflation, which excludes precisely the two categories—food and energy—now verging on another 1970s-style price surge. This year we have already seen major U.S. food and grocery companies, among them Kellogg and Kraft, report sharp declines in earnings caused by rising grain and dairy prices. Central banks from Europe to Japan worry that the biggest inflation jumps in ten to fifteen years could get in the way of reducing interest rates to cope with weakening economies. Even the U.S. Labor Department acknowledged that in January, the price of imported goods had increased 13.7 percent compared with a year earlier, the biggest surge since record-keeping began in 1982. From Maine to Australia, from Alaska to the Middle East, a hydra-headed inflation is on the loose, unleashed by the many years of rapid growth in the supply of money from the world's central banks (not least the U.S. Federal Reserve), as well as by massive public and private debt creation.



    U.S. Unemployment Rates:
    Red - Including workers who are part-time for "economic reasons"
    Yellow - Including other "marginally attached" workers
    Blue - Including "discouraged" workers
    Black - The official "unemployment rate"

    Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics


    The last third of the article sums up the numerous economic problems the U.S. is currently facing:

    The real numbers, to most economically minded Americans, would be a face full of cold water. Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today's U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession. If what we have been sold in recent years has been delusional "Pollyanna Creep," what we really need today is a picture of our economy ex-distortion. For what it would reveal is a nation in deep difficulty not just domestically but globally.

    Undermeasurement of inflation, in particular, hangs over our heads like a guillotine. To acknowledge it would send interest rates climbing, and thereby would endanger the viability of the massive buildup of public and private debt (from less than $11 trillion in 1987 to $49 trillion last year) that props up the American economy. Moreover, the rising cost of pensions, benefits, borrowing, and interest payments—all indexed or related to inflation—could join with the cost of financial bailouts to overwhelm the federal budget. As inflation and interest rates have been kept artificially suppressed, the United States has been indentured to its volatile financial sector, with its predilection for leverage and risky buccaneering.

    Arguably, the unraveling has already begun. As Robert Hardaway, a professor at the University of Denver, pointed out last September, the subprime lending crisis "can be directly traced back to the [1983] BLS decision to exclude the price of housing from the CPI. . .With the illusion of low inflation inducing lenders to offer 6 percent loans, not only has speculation run rampant on the expectations of ever-rising home prices, but home buyers by the millions have been tricked into buying homes even though they only qualified for the teaser rates." Were mainstream interest rates to jump into the 7 to 9 percent range—which could happen if inflation were to spur new concern—both Washington and Wall Street would be walking in quicksand. The make-believe economy of the past two decades, with its asset bubbles, massive borrowing, and rampant data distortion, would be in serious jeopardy. The U.S. dollar, off more than 40 percent against the euro since 2002, could slip down an even rockier slope.

    The credit markets are fearful, and the financial markets are nervous. If gloom continues, our humbugged nation may truly regret losing sight of history, risk, and common sense.

    HT: Economist's View

    Update: Mark Thoma, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Oregon, has responded to the Kevin Phillips article. Generally speaking, Dr. Thoma doesn't agree much with Mr. Phillips'.

    The question is which gives the more distorted picture, the old definitions from 25 or 30 years ago, or the newer definitions. I'm sticking with the newer definitions, though sometimes it doesn't matter much...

    Dr. Thoma made a decent argument, but he undermined himself (IMO) when he wrote:

    The economists in the agencies that prepare our national economic statistics are dedicated individuals whose only goal is to make the statistics as accurate as possible. They are not political hacks willing to distort the picture of the economy to help the administration. Far from it. Their goal is to provide the most accurate statistics possible and there are always improvements they would like to see made.

    I'm not questioning the professional dedication of American government economists and statisticians, but this statement strikes me as naive to think that politicians don't tell their bureaucratic underlings that they want to see the numbers massaged in a certain way. Trust me, as a former accountant, I've seen far too many bosses tell their staff that the numbers (and supporting documentation, such as charts and graphs) need to look a certain way. And those underlings, wanting to keep their jobs, will massage the numbers in such a way that they both conform (mostly) to GAAP and keep the boss happy. The bureaucratic economists are going to be able to tell their bosses, the politicians, "no?" I don't think so.