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Posts Tagged ‘economy’

The phrase used by optimistic economists for the last year is starting to come to life. But I’m not going to talk about the economy, or politics, or even Team Blue (which, by the way, needs a mascot, I think … but Blue Devils is taken and I don’t think Blue Balls would go over well for either side, so I could use some input on that). With the Ides of March just around the corner and spring soon to follow, I’m talking about real green shoots, the kind full of chlorophyll that push up from the soil into the sun when the frost leaves and the ground starts to warm.

The resurgence of the “Victory Garden” over the last couple years has been nothing short of amazing. Some seed suppliers are finding themselves overrun with orders and the busy season is just getting started. Widely popularized during World War II, the Victory Garden is essentially a small vegetable patch for a family or similarly sized group of people, providing a source of wholesome food for very little monetary investment. With a less-than-stellar economic situation for millions in the U.S. over the last few years, these gardens have again become popular. For a few dollars worth of seed, a family can enjoy a supply of fresh vegetables for months to come. I’m joining the bandwagon this spring with big plans and elbow grease on stand-by … because one way or another there will be a garden outside my door.

I realized last summer how disgusted I was with the produce offered at local supermarkets. What hasn’t been dropped, crushed, bruised, poked, or otherwise beaten half-unidentifiable costs an arm and a leg. And if it happens to say “organic” on the label, just go ahead and triple the price, no matter how puny, shriveled, or misshapen the items might be. But price aside, that produce has also been doused with god knows what all kind of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and – I’m quite certain – people-icides. A few years ago I researched just what went into the classification systems of food products and was astounded at the lack of regulation in what we eat.

To begin with, the vast majority of fresh food in this country is imported, and not just exotics like bananas and mangoes but boring old staples like lettuce and tomatoes. Remember the spinach scare a few years back? Tons of produce tainted with E. Coli were shipped all over America and had to be recalled after people fell ill and some died. It had been imported. The government assured its people that it was an isolated incident. But food marketing in the U.S. is essentially an honor system. If Company A claims its goods are organic, they can market it as such with almost no oversight. Although there are reams of laws and stipulations that should be followed, the chances of enforcement are miniscule. No one is out there testing produce to see what chemicals it has come into contact with. No one is randomly sampling imports (or even U.S. produce) to see if it carries pathogens on its merry way to your plate. Caveat emptor indeed.

And what does all the spraying and genetic engineering and hybridization supply us? Judging from the local supermarkets, rubbish. Most of the produce is picked so green it could sit on display for a month (for those of you who may not know better, “fresh” produce should go off much quicker than that) and has all the subtle flavor of a cardboard box. In an age when I can fly halfway around the world in less than a day, including plane changes and layovers, why is my produce almost old enough to legally drink?

So this year I’m growing my own. Not a lot, but a good variety. And though I’ve a poor history with plants, I sincerely bet the result will be exponentially better than what I find at the store. Surely it can be no worse.

And in an effort to both encourage local business and “stick it to the man,” I’ll be using all heirloom seeds from a small supplier. (Gurney’s and Burpees be damned; I could never get a decent tomato out of them anyway.) When I’ve finalized my plans I’ll post them here just in case anyone should care to join the Victors with a garden of their own.

Oh, and you know what, if you’re tight on funds and worried about getting enough fertilizer for your garden … just use some of that bullshit Washington keeps shoveling at us. Lord knows there’s plenty of it. 😉

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Cash For Clunkers seems like a pretty good program. Bring in a not-so-great vehicle and get up to $4500 in credit toward a new vehicle, a value virtually no one would get from a traditional trade-in program. There are a few stipulations but nothing outlandish. And it’s helping both the consumer and the economy, right? What could my beef possibly be?

The long-term result. But even the short-term isn’t exactly pretty. Right now, this program is “helping” people buy cars that get “better” mileage than what they had. But $4500 isn’t a great discount on a new car and I don’t know whether most dealerships will allow it to be paired with other incentives or not. If not, buyers are getting screwed. Secondly, the mile-per-gallon average is grossly overestimated and has decreased the last five years or so. Which means buyers get less bang for their buck even when they try to make the best choice. On top of that, until an amendment to the program passed today, August 1, 2009, the cars being turned in were to have their engine blocks “killed” at the time they were traded (officials recommended water glass, a sealant and bonding agent, be run through the engine in place of oil; the damage would be total and irreparable) … except that, at the time of purchase, many buyers do not know if their old vehicle will be accepted into the program. Some dealers required buyers to sign waivers and release forms to indemnify the dealership against damages. Because if the old car wasn’t accepted, or if the new car didn’t meet your standards, or you decided you couldn’t really afford it, or if you needed to back out of the deal in any other way, your old car was already toast. Sorry, Charlie, you said you didn’t want it anymore.

And the long-term outlook is worse.

If you hadn’t noticed, used vehicles are going pretty cheap at the moment. They have been for about, oh, the last eight months or so … since the stock market fell and the country began to worry about ridiculously bloated banking corporations. My biggest beef with this program is how it will take thousands and thousands of perfectly decent used vehicles out of the market. Just how many? Well, using a bit of fuzzy math, I’m going to take the total Cash For Clunkers budget (including the new increase) of $2.95 billion and divide it by 4000, since some people will get a $3500 credit and some get $4500 … and for the sake of brevity I’m going to assume it’s a pretty even split. Okay, now if even 1 in 3 of all those vehicles being turned in were potentially re-salable (I think the average would be much higher than that, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and remain conservative in that respect) that means roughly 245,000 re-salable vehicles will be crushed or shredded by time the program ends.

Want to see a few examples of the “clunkers” being traded in? Here’s a random group provided by the owners themselves.

(Click here to view full-size.)

Yup, those look like total and complete piles of shit. I don’t know how the owners managed to get them to the dealerships for trade-in.

Sarcasm aside, that’s almost a quarter of a million perfectly good cars and trucks, including those above, permanently and irrevocably destroyed. How is that bad? Well, for some sellers it won’t be, because the price of un-crushed used cars will go up. But, ultimately, all those cars and trucks permanently removed from the market will have an effect on prices. What happens when demand remains constant (or increases) but supply diminishes? The price goes up. And that means higher costs for people who can’t afford new cars. It puts one more burden on an already overburdened class and will result in real clunkers getting driven for longer periods because owners can’t afford to replace them. It means greater hardships and fewer choices for low-income owners. And not only will the price of used cars increase, the price of many parts will increase because those hundreds of thousands of vehicles were crushed or shredded with their drive trains intact. (By law, the scrapyards are not allowed to part them out.) So millions of perfectly usable parts will be wasted, salvage operations face a shrinking pool of resources, and low-income car owners foot the bill.

Granted, Cash For Clunkers will probably get some junkers off the road and likely help a section of lower-middle class consumers sign on for a car they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it seems to me that the “cons” here outweigh the “pros.” By far.

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If you’ve read much of the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, you’ve probably heard of Orson Scott Card. Probably best known for his “Ender” series (beginning with Ender’s Game), he has authored dozens of books and short stories as well as having worked on scripts, comic book novelizations, video game dialogs, and many other projects.

Buried somewhere in his bibliography, which most people probably scan right by, is a little book called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Classified as an “alternate history,” the story centers around a small group of people specially chosen to go back in time and reduce the nagative impacts of European contact with the New World. It was published in 1996, and I happened to have just finished reading Ender’s Game when Pastwatch hit the paperback shelf in Wal-Mart so I picked it up to see if he was an author worth following.

While it didn’t convince me to follow him as an author, I did fairly enjoy the book. And the older I get – the more I see of the world around us – the more one facet of it returns to me. That small group of people from the future who travel back in time do so because their own time is a dead end. The world has been decimated, and it becomes clear that it can no longer sustain the human populace. Homo sapiens face imminent extinction. But only a few people realize this. Most of the world’s population toil on in complete ignorance.

Sometimes I wonder how near this we are. Eco groups shout doomsday prophecies of global warming; governments and economies fall apart; religious zealots spark worldwide fears; scientists offer a thousand obscure but entirely possible paths to “the end of the world” … but they’re all pretty easy to write off, aren’t they? Nobody believes global warming will wipe out mankind, not even the most hardcore eco-warrior. Governments and economies may fall apart but some form of rule always asserts itself and nuclear armageddon is extremely improbable. And while quasar bursts and ballooning red giants may one day spell the end of this planet, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Despite all the fearmongering, we’re a rather logically placid species. Someone screams that the sky is falling and most of us just look up, squint a little, and wave it off with a “Nah, go have your head examined.” In many ways, I think we feel invulnerable: “it won’t happen, not to me, not here, not now.” We understand that it really can happen, even to ourselves, right here and now, but that’s a bit heavy to deal with in the day-to-day. A little denial goes a long way toward stable social constructs and the perception of safety.

It’s human nature. A lot of people don’t want to know when something bad is going to happen, whether or not that knowledge could change the outcome. Like ostriches burying their heads in the sand, many people prefer ignorance to disillusionment. I do myself, on some levels; if I could un-see certain things, I would. Which brings me, finally, to the point, the question: would you want to know that the world was imminently doomed?

Yes. I believe I would. I would like a chance to atone for certain things and to set my affairs straight. Of course, death may come at any time, so I suppose on a very personal level the threat of doom is always imminent. “Death comes unexpectedly,” the author of Beowulf astutely noted. But perhaps not so unexpectedly on a global scale.

My greatest lament, when the human race expires, is that we were such a blight on this planet. Without us, it was a fertile and amazing world. And yet within a few millenia, an ecological blink of the eye, we managed to destroy, pollute, and otherwise adversely affect every inch of it. I only hope that after we go some bacteria will survive to begin again. Surely not all creatures of “intelligence” are so hopelessly and destructively ignorant.

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My fellow Americans, and other readers from around the world, I believe something very strange has happened to us. An author named Robert Heinlein once wrote a book called Stranger in a Strange Land, and while I’ve never read said book I feel the title is all too accurate in describing my little corner of the world. I do indeed feel like a total stranger in a very strange land.

I used to think I had a pretty good handle on this world, and pretty well knew my place in it. But things change, don’t they? Oh my, yes, how things change. The kicker, of course, is that it’s really only my perception of things that has changed, not the things themselves. There was always deception and dishonor, corruption and cowardice, only now I really see them. Everywhere.

Does anyone else find it ridiculous that this country spent sixteen years under the thumb of two lying, cheating, self-serving men who left nothing behind but a wake of death and destruction? Or how about the fact that the popular vote in the last two presidential elections was completely ignored by the electoral college, the supposedly “representative” group of men and women who ultimately choose which candidate will rule the nation? Is it just me or has inflation made the prices of goods and services skyrocket while wages have only slowly crept upward? And isn’t this the same inflation that Washington still refuses to acknowledge while it prints fiat money as fast as it can?

Do these things make sense to anyone? Am I taking crazy pills or something??

Because they seem as wrong as wrong can be to me. It seems unfathomable to me that politicians now speak of “trillions of dollars” as if it were only millions. That Barack Obama is hailed as a saviour when so far his works have only driven us deeper in the ground. (Hey, buddy, we were already six feet under … isn’t that enough?) I find it hard to believe that China wants to drop the dollar when ten years ago a college professor explained to me how ludicrously unlikely it was that America would ever fail. How nonsensical that a major city should ever drown on the inaction of its leaders and the entire conglomeration of local, state and national governments; that the uncontrolled spending of large banks should bring the economy to its knees worldwide; that the Democratic platform and the Communist platform should differ on only two points.

I know that these things are true, but I have a hard time understanding them. It’s as though I’ve slipped into a parallel dimension, or, like Rip Van Winkle, somehow awoken to a future where little of the world I knew remains. Where corruption has infiltrated every facet of our legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government at every level, from small-town council to the president himself. Where corporate and political greed has nullified the needs of the American people. Where anything is for sale if the price is right and to hell with the consequences.

Welcome to the Strange Lands. It looks like the Dark Ages are back.

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“All the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.” – Jimmy Carter

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” – Gerald Ford

“When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Why shouldn’t the people fear the great? The liberties of mankind were never destroyed by any other class of men.” – Abraham Bishop

“America is great because America is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” – Alexis de Toqueville

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Supposing any reader of this blog has some cursory knowledge of the current state of the American economy (in the crapper) and my inherent mistrust of politicians (crooks, cons, and thieves, the lot of them), here’s my take on the new stimulus that was passed yesterday.

It’s crap.

I know all the governmentals were standing around wringing their hands and trying to think of even one idea that held water but if this is the best they could come up with then we really are a doomed nation. That sounds harsh. Cutting. Sarcastic. And it’s the nicest thing I could think to say. Without knowing the specifics of the bill (because this lowly peon didn’t feel like slogging through 1588 pages of such political grandeur), I have serious doubts about the actions it reputedly mandates and the resulting fallout.

From what has been publicized, the stimulus contains plans for hundreds of billions of dollars to be “diverted to such necessities as dog parks…a frisbee golf course…and an ‘eco-friendly’ butterfly garden.” Oh my, yes, let’s all play some frisbee golf and no one will be worried about their mortgage or the insolvency of their bank or the climbing rates of inflation. By jove, Washington, I think you’ve got it!

According to one CBS article, the stimulus also includes $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (for the unemployed artists among us, I suppose). Another CBS article lists $870 million to “combat flu” and $19.5 billion for school modernization. All I can say is, for that much money, they better be giving shots against a deadly and highly contagious version of the bird flu that, like the influenza outbreak of the late 1910’s, poses a tangible threat worldwide. And can’t our schools hang on with what they’ve got for just a couple more years without these billions of dollars? Can’t the sex ed programs just re-use a few of their demo condoms and call it good?

CNN reports $248 million slated for new furniture at the new Homeland Security headquarters…which they intend to spend at least $448 million building (and I’m certain that that project won’t run over-budget…huh-uh). The list goes on:

+ $6 billion to turn federal buildings into “green” buildings (it’s going to take several years for those low-flow toilets to pay that $6 billion back, you know)
+ $110 million to the Farm Service Agency to upgrade computer systems (who the hell are they anyway? never heard of them and their obviously horribly deficient computer systems)
+ $600 million for new hybrid vehicles for federal employees (exactly how many freaking employees are driving cars paid for by the Fed? my employers sure as hell never bought me a new car to get to work or run their errands)
+ $75 million for salaries of FBI employees (it does not state whether these are salaries for new employeee hires or simply raises for current workers…but I’m betting most of it is the latter).

And these are from a relatively short list; God knows what is stuck back in the nooks and crannies of that most voluminous bill (which allocates the equivalent of over $500 million per page). And before I get flamed for my less-than-supportive attitude, let me say here and now that I know most of these objectives would create more work. The problem, I think, is how few of those positions will be permanent. The bill is designed around a one-year time-frame for most of these appropriations, two years tops, and then all that “extra” funding is going to disappear. It might help boost the job market for a few months but then those jobs are going to end and those men and women are going to be looking for work…again. And this bill is too massive to repeat on an annual basis, or even bi-annually. The country is broke as it is, operating in a deficit trillions of dollars deep and getting deeper all the time. Gross and wasteful spending is not a solution to our problems, not by a long shot.

And while we’re on the subject of waste, let’s talk pork. I think Caleb Howe over at AOL said it best

“I mean, look at it this way. If you are cooking a chicken, in a duck … in a turkey, and you decide to wrap it in bacon, then you’ve added pork to your meal. But if, on the other hand, you’re cooking a bacon log, you aren’t adding pork, are you? It’s made of pork. That is it’s nature. You may be adding cheese, or perhaps pineapple wedges (awesome) but you aren’t adding pork. So I guess that’s kinda what Obama is trying to say. This is a spending bill. You don’t have to earmark it when spending is the objective. You can’t, you see, earmark an earmark.”

Splendidly put. This bill is a perfect example of runaway government and blatant misuse but, guess what, it passed and we’re stuck with it now. The pork is on the table and we’re about to be force-fed. For decades and decades, Washington has bled the taxpayers dry while they bloated on ridiculous excesses and obscene expenditures. Democrat and Republican alike. This is just the latest installment of “Screwing the American Public: the Art of Pocket-Lining and Two-Faced Backstabbery.”

Instead of ATV trails and a butterfly garden, how about a legislature that is actually concerned about this nation and how to keep it afloat? How about a modicum of honesty and integrity, just this once, so that these billions and billions of dollars are put to good use and maybe, just maybe, the nation will pull through this mess in one piece? But I ask too much. Silly, silly me.

To read the act yourself, visit ReadTheStimulus.org.

On a side note, the CNN breakdown also shows $125 million for the Washington sewer system but I’m not bitching about that one … with all the shit flying around Washington they need a good sewer system.

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Unless you’ve been in a coma or huddled in the dark under a very, very large rock, you’ve heard about our new president. Not just “president-elect” anymore but now officially entrenched, Barack Hussein Obama is the man in charge, commander-in-chief.

I don’t know about you but I didn’t exactly go out dancing in the street. I can’t honestly say I understand his plans for the country (I don’t believe anyone does; he’s given out precious little specifics about them) and that leaves me worried for the country. As he well noted in his inaugural speech, we are in trying times and finding a way out will take time. If, that is, we are indeed able to find our way out.

Obama probably has great plans for us. (Though, personally, I think it would take a real-life miracle to fix the crises we face.) He may employ brilliant advisers and ingenious schemes to reach his goals … but I just don’t think so. To carry out the objective he’s set forth, I think we stand to lose more than we would gain for the “greater good.” Not that it’s anything new (I hated Bush’s version of “national security” that cost us several of our freedoms) but I still don’t think it’s right.

And Obama keeps being compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but FDR enacted many programs that faltered for the better part of a decade and were only beginning to work when the economical “saving grace” of war came along. Desperate times call for desperate measures but when the government starts making up new rules and pulling rabbits out of hats, it’s getting ugly. You better hope whoever is holding the reins is worth trusting.

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