Friday, July 4, 2014

Welcome to the Asylum

There’s been much controversy of late regarding the resettling in Cambodia of asylum seekers who were trying to reach Australia, but were intercepted before they managed to get there and are now residing on Nauru, a tiny Pacific island state, and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
The brouhaha over the plan has been vocal and vociferous. Many international institutions deride Australia for not meeting its commitments towards refugees; in some ways it has to be recognized as a cop out. On the other hand I can sympathize with the country since not being really tough in discouraging the migration might result in a torrent of people seeking an escape route to Aussie from their hardscrabble lives. After all, there are at least a billion desperate people in the world that would go to great lengths to do that.
(As this is being written about 250,000 Cambodians illegally working in Thailand have been driven out of that country. People desperate to improve their lives are found in a lot of places. But note, Lao and Burmese working illegally in Thailand are not facing the same pressure to leave, so this is just an excuse to dump on Cambodians. But Thailand needs those workers so this is also a blow to a lot of Thai businesses.)
On the local front, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a network of several local NGOs, has called for a halt to the plan saying it wouldn’t be fair to asylum seekers since local security forces are “known to commit abuses such as killings, torture and arbitrary detention”.
That sounds more like the USA than Cambodia. Yes, there have been several people killed in the recent past who were involved either in political or land-grab demonstrating or workers’ strikes and several more environmental or labor activists have been killed in the past decade, but innocent people are killed every week in America by hyped up, militarized, trigger-happy cops, with minorities especially targeted.
Torture? Remember America’s rendition program where suspected terrorists were and maybe still are abducted everywhere the CIA operates and sent to third countries, like Syria for instance, to be tortured? Or how about the man associated with the 9/11 bombers who was waterboarded 180 times after the CIA had gotten all the information they were going to get from him? After 179 times were they actually looking for information on the 180th try or were they just having fun? BTW, waterboarding was one of the favored techniques of the Spanish Inquisition and has been used ever since by people and governments who desire to inflict fear and pain.
But in Cambodia? That’s news to me. Admittedly the cops here can be brutal when told to prevent demonstrating, but that’s true probably everywhere but Scandinavia and a few other pockets of exceptional humanity in a violent crazy world. About 10 years ago in Genoa, Italy at the time of an international finance meeting, the police walked into a warehouse late at night where demonstrators were asleep or peacefully talking and busted heads with 100 people injured and needing medical treatment. On that basis Italy would not be fit as a place for asylum seekers, but in fact gets tens of thousands of migrants seeking refuge yearly. You certainly would never accuse America’s cops of being gentle and law-abiding. Police are supposed to apprehend suspected law breakers and turn them over to the courts for justice, but are all too happy to administer nightstick justice on the spot. Not everybody who’s apprehended is guilty so it’s totally wrong for the police to abuse people before they’ve had their day in court.
Arbitrary detention? Nothing beats Guantanamo for keeping people for long periods without charges. About fifty of the current inmates were cleared for release years ago, innocent of all suspicions, but still languish behind bars. Having spent some time in the slammer myself, I strongly believe that it’s better to let a guilty person free than imprison an innocent one. While the government here has put people in prison on politically motivated charges, international pressure assures that they don’t remain very long even if their original sentences were for extended periods. In contrast Thailand just sentenced an anti-coup activist to 15 years in prison.
By the above I don’t mean to gloss over the very serious problems and unfortunate backsliding occurring of late in Cambo. It feels sad and depressing to see my adopted home treat so many of its people so harshly, but they still keep fighting back and while the recent killings have certainly dampened many people’s enthusiasm for protesting, the desire and spirit for change and improvement has not diminished. There are demonstrations and strikes happening nearly every day in spite of prohibitions against the activity. But keep it in perspective. When the military overthrew President Morsi in Egypt, more than 1000 protesters were killed and 15,000 imprisoned. Closer to home when the Thai military broke up the red-shirt protest in Bangkok in 2010, 90 people were killed and 1000 injured.
Now I can understand people seeking asylum in Australia - most of those coming lately (as of 2012) are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka - not wanting to be shunted over to Cambodia instead. Getting resettled in Oz would be like striking it rich, whereas Cambo?: Welcome to the Asylum.
I mean, if a guy is truly fleeing persecution, rather than an economic migrant seeking a better life in Oz, then I reckon Cambodia is as good a place as any to seek refuge. When you come down to it, a lot of us expats here are refugees from the real world of freeways and alienation and overregulation and McDonald’s 15% meat hamburgers. Many of us think it’s paradise or pretty close so I don’t see why it should be a problem for legitimate asylum seekers.
 I expect many of those true asylum seekers, if they understood they could only show up at the airport in Cambodia with a valid passport and stay as long as they liked, would choose that option over paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers and taking grave chances with their lives on rickety overloaded boats. Besides, with Cambodia already welcoming an international community of expats, it seems they’d fit right in, as easy as adjusting to Australia anyway. And with most of the country’s economy being informal they ought to be able to find a way earn money and supplement their Aussie subsidy.
Many might not have passports or not be able to leave their country the legitimate route through border control, so they would still be left with the smuggler option. Still if they came here by way of being captured offshore by Australia and that country is willing to give Cambo a reported (but not confirmed) $40 million to take a mere 100 refugees, they’d certainly be well taken care of. They wouldn’t have the same cushy life as in Oz, but it’d be quite comfortable nonetheless… it might not be western standards, but still very doable.  
Cambo is certainly more acceptable and logical a place to resettle refugees than Nauru or Papua New Guinea, the two nations now holding asylum seekers. Nauru as an independent state has the world’s smallest population outside the Vatican; less than 10,000 people. It once had a thriving phosphate mining industry but that has been totally depleted and 80% of the country’s environment has been degraded. It has received tens of millions of dollars from Australia since refugees were first shunted there in 2001 and there are currently about 1100 people at the country’s detention center. It’s very far from everything and too small to absorb asylum seekers. They also had a big riot which caused a lot of damage last year.
PNG is certainly big enough but it’s got one of the lowest rates of urbanization in the world and most people live in tribal societies – Wikipedia calls them customary living arrangements, evidently the new euphemism for tribal. It’s so underdeveloped the only way to get between its two largest cities is by air. It’s not a place that could easily absorb international migrants. So once again, Welcome to the Asylum.
Meanwhile, in Kampot, my own little corner of the asylum, there’s lots happening, though a big topic of conversation lately is the government push for every one of us to obtain a work permit, whether we work or not, and the backdating of fees – at $150 per year (permit $100, health certificate $30, processing fee $20) for up to 7 years, which can get to be a big chunk of moolah. It seems they are starting in Kampot because being in a small city we are easy targets. Most of us have known right along that the country would eventually tighten up its regulations and paperwork. It had to happen.
Most people urge waiting till they come for you, but we’ve been warned that there will be arrears to pay if we don’t have the permit by July 1. Some people have gone down to the Ministry of Labor office to inquire (thus the info I’m imparting) and a few have paid up. One guy, who refused to cough up $1000, got a visit from the police two days later who offered the permit for $450, so there’s room for negotiation. We somehow need to make a fuss about the backdating since it’s kind of unfair to expect us to pay for 7 years when permits were never mentioned previously and probably not even available. It may be easy to ignore a few hundred Kompotians wailing, rending their garments and gnashing their teeth but when it comes to tens of thousands (or is it hundreds of thousands) of Penhers getting hit up, there could be an uproar and maybe a softening of the rules. More on this as the story develops.
In fact work permits is not the only place where the government is tightening up. Paying road taxes has also become more formal. Previously when I went to pay my tax I only had to show the previous’ years form and they gave me a new one. Now they want a copy of the registration card and passport. I took the new form in and Wow, Fiasco. It turns out the form I’ve been using to pay my taxes isn’t for my car, it doesn’t match the registration card… I’ve been paying somebody else’s taxes for six years! The guy behind the desk refers me to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, supposedly to fix the paperwork… now that would cost some money.
Even better - a lot worse actually - after delving into the paperwork to try to figure things out, I discovered that the registration card also isn’t for my car! It doesn’t match the year or ID number. Evidently, at least very likely, the plates and registration were pulled off a wreck and put on mine to avoid paying import tax. My car’s an illegal alien!!! If that’s the case it’d cost more to pay the import tax, not to mention the tons of money (read baksheesh) for all that new paperwork, than the car is worth.
Chances are good, in spite of my best intentions to be an exemplary non-citizen and pay my taxes, that I’ll be running illegally from now on… at least I’ll save $25 per year on taxes… but maybe need to pay a few bribes on the road for not being up to date. The nightmare scenario is that they someday want to check the registration against the car ID…
In other news an expat community project of building a playground on the riverfront, for which $7000 dollars was raised, has been wildly successful. Around dusk every afternoon the structure is packed with screaming joyful kids..
Hugh of Bodhi Villa is working on the old Alaska disco building that sits over the river across from the new (old) market. It’ll be a restaurant and a live music venue. Judging by the success of Bodhi’s live music cum disco Friday nights, which have been going for 10 years and are always jammed, it’s bound to be a hit. In the process of totally redoing the old blocky, ugly, nondescript building, the original structure, built in the 1930s around the same time as the market, has been exposed: it’s a beaut, matching the design of the market. The market is now completely occupied, at least all the outside shops, and the large open areas at both ends are now hosting successful restaurants.
A new boat dock is almost finished which will include an immigration office so travelers will be able to go direct to Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island from Kampot. The island is much closer to Kampot or Kep than Ha Tien in Vietnam.
Eric is leaving Bokor Mtn. Lodge after 9 years managing it. He held a great end-of-an-era party with Kampot Playboys providing music… they’re getting really good. He provided food and six kegs of beer. It was a great time; everybody (almost) showed up. Recent specialty-food additions to the restaurant scene include Auberge, owned by a French-Swiss, which has some tasty gourmet eats. To test the market he provided 12 of us with a 7-course gourmet meal for a paltry five dollars… the first time anyway. Davino Italian restaurant gets good reviews and soon NOLA will open with authentic New Orleans Cajun.
Gettin’ up in the world… which also means a new Mad Monkey guest house – they have two others in Cambodia. It seems out of place to me and represents a trend we residents are not especially fond of. Friend of mine went there to check on the pool: too small and surrounded by thirty backpackers was his assessment. A lot of old-time Cambo expats have a very low opinion of backpackers. I don’t see it; I reckon they were all backpackers once. If you’re young (or old) and out traveling you of course want to talk to people about where they’ve been and where they’re going and you’re cheap because you want to stay a long time on a little money. Besides suitcases are weird in a place like Cambo with sidewalks all ragged and trashy. They limit your mobility.
Just the idea of having so many more people passing through makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. We don’t have any grand tourist attractions or girlie bars and the town is still really small – about 40,000 people - so maybe the growth that’s inevitable will stay under control.
One heartening note is that most of the new construction in Old Town is either restoring the old structures or building new in the old style. Only a few dolts have bucked the trend.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Good Sports - Bad Sports

Growing up we were taught to be good sports; to put your heart into the game, but always compete fairly and if you lost to take it as a good sport and not get upset about it: It’s just a game, you do it for fun.
Hopefully it still works that way when playing informally, but unfortunately sports today have become so commercialized and such big moneymaking machines that the term ‘good sport’ barely registers anymore. If there are big bucks involved a player will try to bend the rules if he thinks he can get away with it; anything to get the advantage.
In America club owners demand huge subsidies from local government and players demand huge salaries, but there’s no loyalty whatever to the fans or the city they’ve extracted so much from. The American system of sports is especially pernicious as it leaves all major decisions to the club owners who have exemption from anti-trust rules. They essentially function as a cartel and decide amongst themselves who can buy a team, which city is privileged to have one and how many teams make up the league. The latter is especially important for franchise value: the fewer the teams the more each is worth.
In every case but one - the Green Bay Packers (American) football club - the owners are rich people whose primary motive is income. They may like or even love the sport they possess a part of,  but that’s secondary to the cash flow. You don’t own a franchise worth upwards of half billion dollars without insisting that it pay off. This is exemplified in the case of Paul Allen, described in a recent article, Pity the Poor Billionaire, who though he had $20 billion in the bank, demanded a new $500 million stadium for his Seattle team or else he’d be glad to move it to a more grateful city. The city balked, refused his demand, so he financed an initiative with $5 mil of is own money and got the people of the state of Washington to buy it for him. At the time, $500 mil was a mere 2.5% of his fortune. As such he could’ve gifted the stadium to the people with the equivalent of pocket change and been known for generations as a great benefactor, instead he felt he had to extort every penny he could from the citizenry. The word Seattle is in the team’s name, but that doesn’t mean much, it’s obviously only a temporary arrangement. That’s the kind of people who own major league teams.
Sometimes an owner will make business decisions which pad his wallet while lessening his team’s chances of winning in the playoffs. The fans be damned. Or take the case of Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, who was outed recently as a racist… and that in a league in which 80% of the players are black. Recent articles I’ve seen in the leftist blogosphere suggest the team should be owned by the city or the people in some form. Great idea except the owners’ cartel would never allow it since it would completely change the mercenary aspect of the game and threaten their profits. Only one team is community owned, the aforementioned Packers. Only congress can end the power of the owners’ cartels.
Green Bay, Wisconsin is a small city of about 100,000 people and yet they support a competitive team in all aspects. Its team is the only one in all American professional sports that is community owned and by far has the smallest economic base. Yet it has won more championships than any other team in its sport, the last only a couple years ago. It was grandfathered in when the current ownership rules were adopted in 1980. All rules in all American sports today prohibit this type of ownership and for good reason; for the fans and city, public or community ownership is far preferred.
The way that football – soccer to Americans – is organized in the UK offers a superior alternative that could break the monopoly that the owners have over sports in the US. They have a premier league and secondary leagues. Each has eight teams. Each year the two worst performing teams in the premier league get relegated down to the next lower league and the two best from the lower move up. Instead of the owners’ cartel deciding how many teams there are in the league and which cities can have them, there would be no limit to the number of cities who could have teams or even how many teams a city could have – New York once supported three baseball teams. Any person, entity, community or city could organize a team from scratch, start at the bottom league and work their way up, though I personally prefer all teams be community owned.
There are quite a few mid-sized cities in America which could support professional sports teams but are shut out of the possibility by the limited number of franchises and unwillingness to put up the hundreds of millions necessary to secure a franchise. Portland, Oregon is a case in point. With a metro area of two million it could easily support football and baseball teams, but today has only basketball. There’s no way the people of Portland are going to take money out of schools, infrastructure and services and hand it to billionaire club owners, so they’ll never get to enjoy those sports in today’s setup. For me it rankles so much to see the great rip-off I’ve lost nearly all interest in professional sports.
The Olympics is another case of a great sports idea turned on its head by the vast sums of money necessary to be a host city and the widespread disruption and dislocation that precedes the games. One of the reasons suggested for contributing to Greece’s financial problems was the cost of the 2004 Olympics, the most expensive to that point at $11b. In 2008, Beijing put on its extravaganza at a cost of about $42b and forced the dislocation of half million people. The London games in 2012 cost $16b. Prime Minister David Cameron famously said it was worth it for the great publicity it got for the city. Sixteen billion dollars for a publicity campaign? For a city that’s already one of the most touristed cities in the world? Of course we know politicians will say anything to try to justify their poor decisions. There are a lot of good things the city could’ve done with that money better than a one time publicity stunt.
While the Olympics are happening, local residents are faced with all kinds of inconveniences and after it’s all over a lot of the sports venues are demolished or left to deteriorate since most are built for one use… there’s no city in the world that needs or can utilize all those stadiums and sports venues.
Regardless of any long term benefits that might accrue to the host city it is a tremendous burden. The whole concept needs to be rethought. The ancient games were held on Mt. Olympus, why not return to the original location (or one similar) and hold the modern games there on a permanent basis? The games would be held in a rural setting and each venue built to last. There was a controversy recently over the Olympic committee’s decision to eliminate wrestling, one of the original sports, from the roster. In this new concept every sport would come up with the money to build its needed venue and as long as there was sufficient support from the community, it’d be difficult for a single committee to say which sport is allowed and which isn’t. Beach volleyball an Olympic sport but not wrestling? What kind of crap is that?
In a countryside setting there’d be space for visitors to camp out as well as hotels to stay in. That way even average people could afford to attend. What did a hotel room in London cost during the games? And since venues would be permanent and paid for by the sports themselves, the games would cost far less to hold and therefore ticket prices would also be far less. It would be a permanent sports center available for sports lovers everywhere and used between games for training or just enjoying.  
Finally a word about soccer - world football - my favorite sport, at least in theory. I played in school during a time when I’d quit smoking. After I returned to evil tobacco my chest hurt so much from all that running I had to make a choice: tobacco or sports. And since I couldn’t figure out how to quit smoking again, I gave up soccer. At the age of 40, after I’d quit smoking for the last time, I found a pick-up game and played every Sunday morning, rain or shine, cold or hot for four years until I hurt my back and could barely walk, let alone play. By the time I recovered, I figured my serious soccer days were over, besides over the four years I was always the oldest player on the field and thought I shouldn’t press my luck.
It’s energetic, uses lots of skills and allows everyone to compete, even a shorty like myself. Tall people have an advantage, but not like basketball where short people are almost totally locked out.
Unfortunately the way the game is designed it’s weighted so heavily towards defense that, when played professionally or with highly competitive teams, goals are few and far between. In what other sport can you witness a full 90 minutes of play without a single score? In championship games, after two overtimes without a single score, 0-0 (or 1-1, etc.) games are decided by a penalty kick. After the last World Cup, Sepp Blatter, long time head of FIFA, world football’s governing body, commented that it was a travesty for championship games to be decided by penalty kicks and he wanted to think of some way to improve on that method of deciding winners.
Penalty kicks are merely a symptom of the difficulty of scoring. With the rules and design of the game the way they are the better the teams get and more evenly matched they are the less likely they are of scoring. In the first round of the last World Cup, of a total of 48 games there were 6 nil-nil ties, 6 1-1 ties and 12 games decided by 1-0 scores. A total of only 24 goals scored in 24 games.
It’s boring and frustrating to watch a game for 90 minutes and not see one score. What’s more, when scoring is so difficult most goals are flukes or accidents and hardly indicative of better playing. Even if a game of 1-0 has a clear winner, it’s not at all clear that that was the best team, they were just lucky.
There are three factors that make scoring difficult. The first, and easiest to correct, is the size of the net: simply make the goal bigger. If you add one meter on either side and maybe 50 centimeters on top you will double or triple the number of goals scored.
Secondly, there are too many players on the pitch. It’s so crowded that players have no room to maneuver. As soon as one gets the ball he’s surrounded by the opposing team. It’s nearly impossible for a player possessing the ball, no matter how good he is, to make a run from the center of the field to the goal. They don’t get to show their stuff. I was taught to always pass the ball instead of kicking it far forward in the field, but players often feel so blockaded, that’s exactly what they do, even in professional games. In American football most plays involve small distances but occasionally, maybe once or twice in a game a player will get the ball and move it half way or all the way down the field. It’s very exciting and beautiful to watch. That cannot happen in soccer. I suggest a maximum 8 players on the field to give them room to maneuver. They’ll have to run more and cover more distance so it should be easy to substitute.
The third problem is the off-sides rule. This is designed to keep the players all bunched together, which again makes for a boring and low scoring game. It should be modified or eliminated altogether. Some combination of fewer players and a relaxed off-sides rule would leave a lot more space on the field and make for a much more exciting game.
Soccer has never taken off as a professional sport in America though enthusiasts are always trying to put a league together. Yet it’s the most popular sport in school. Easier scoring might make the difference, at least it would be a lot more fun to watch.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Eat Your Damn Veggies

Or not. It’s your life.
I’ve always believed that everyone has a right to choose their own poison. You want to smoke yourself, drug yourself, drink yourself to death? You want to starve yourself or stuff yourself? You want to gamble away your and your family’s future or simply commit suicide and let others deal with your perfidy and weakness? Go right ahead; knock yourself out.
And, needless to say, one person’s poison is another’s sustenance, besides the fact that there’ll always be disagreements as to what constitutes poison. This train of thought was prompted by gotcha facebook posts by two friends who’re always looking to post anything that promotes meat eating and disses vegetarianism.
One study came to the conclusion that there was no correlation between meat eating and health. The other claimed that vegetarians were not as healthy as carnivores. Let me start with a personal anecdote. About 20 years ago I visited a friend who was in his mid-sixties who had recently had a heart attack. In the course of our conversations I discovered that his cholesterol level was up around 340. A healthy, active vegetarian has a level of about 125, anything above 200 is entering the danger zone, 340 is stratospheric, catastrophic.
The fear of paralysis and/or death caused him to change his ways. He ate chicken with the skin and excess fat removed and fish. He dispensed entirely with red meat and made other similar dietary changes and went onto live another ten years. Now it’s entirely possible, though I think ludicrously unlikely, that his high cholesterol level had nothing to do with his heart attack. It’s also possible, though once again devilishly hard to imagine, that his change of diet had nothing to do with his ten additional years of life. It’s just an anecdote, not a scientific study, you can make of it what you will, but it made a big change in my own eating habits. I mean, who needs a heart attack?, Who wants to be stuck in a wheelchair because half my body is paralyzed? For the sake of enjoying lots of animal fat? Could bacon be that important?
According to Wikipedia, heart attacks usually happen “because one of the coronary arteries that supplies blood to the heart develops a blockage due to an unstable buildup of white blood cells, cholesterol and fat.”  Further down the heart attack page it cites a meta-study – a study of other studies – that finds no correlation between diet and heart attack (probably the study my friend referred to). Sounds like a powerful contradiction there: cholesterol and fats cause heart attacks but diet has nothing to do with it??? Where else would they come from if not diet? Further along on the page, along with that study there is a list of studies, some of which did find a correlation. It also included a list of international and national health agencies that recommend minimizing ingestion of fats, especially saturated fats and trans fats. Animal fats are saturated as are some plant-based fats like coconut oil, palm oil and chocolate. Trans fats are not commonly found in nature and are mostly part of processed foods so it makes sense that they’d be bad for your health.        
In trying to get a handle on this whole question I spent hours, it seemed, poring over passages with words like myocardial infarction, low-density lipoprotein, hypercholesterolemia and a mind boggling list of mind boggling others and the conclusion I came to, in spite of seemingly blatant contradictions, is (1) you can find whatever you want to justify whatever you believe in and (2) I don’t know half enough about the science to understand what I was reading. Besides, you know what they say: There’s lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.     
 My other friend is on an anti-vegetarian vendetta so did a gotcha with a questionnaire survey done in Austria which concluded that vegetarians are less healthy, including that they’re more prone to mental health problems. In other words, herbivores not only like to eat nuts but they tend to go nuts. Carrots make you crazy, melons make you mad, lettuce makes you loony, beets make you batts. Once again you can twist statistics around your little finger and prove almost anything you want with them. On that basis I’m finished with incomprehensible and undecipherable medical facts and dodgy surveys and will stick with logic, reason and feelings for the rest of this essay.
After seeing my friend I followed to some extent his strict minimal fat diet. Though I continue to eat red meat, I always cut away the excess fat and try to minimize the amount, like one pork chop instead of two, a 100 gram hamburger instead of a 200 gram; in fact, the bigger burger now makes me feel bloated. I use meat to flavor a mostly veggie stir-fry. I never ate a lot of cheese or eggs but I do use butter regularly. I use chicken skins to make broth, but then discard them. I may be defeating half the purpose, but there’s no need to be fanatic about any of it… that is, unless you’ve already taken yourself close to death. To me a meal without veggies is naked and incomplete. I eat the lettuce on my plate as a matter of principle, as well as liking it, though most people look on it as decoration.
Back when I visited my friend my cholesterol was 193, getting close to problematical. Now cholesterol is calculated differently. On a recent checkup my good cholesterol was high and my bad was low. Was that good bill of health related to my change in eating habits? I’m convinced it was, at least partly because it makes sense.
Saturated fat is thick, heavy, greasy. It stands to reason that eating a lot of it would clog up your arteries. Some of that buildup, I surmise, can be counteracted with exercise which serves to jiggle loose some of those sticky, slow moving fat molecules. Eating lots of veggies would also seem to have the same effect as it stands to reason that as they move through the bloodstream relatively easily they would nudge loose those lazy, stubborn, clinging fats.
I spent two years as a vegetarian. I was caught up in the brown rice revolution of the late sixties. After eating a lot of vegetarian meals, my last meat meal before turning was a carbonara: with bacon, eggs and butter the essence of saturated fatty. Before my partner and I got half way through it we agreed that it tasted strange, heavy and oily. Vegetarian food is fresh, light, lively and easy to digest. Meat hits your stomach like a lead weight. That’s probably one reason why people like it: it makes you feel full.
I started eating meat again because I was craving it and since I came from vegetarianism strictly from taste and concern for health, rather than an outsized moral concern for animal welfare or an anti-meat ideology, it was no problem reverting back to being a carnivore. I believe it’s worse for your constitution and morality to crave meat while eating veggie than it is to eat meat.
Meat eaters don’t need to worry much or think much about getting proper nutrients, it’s all there in the meat, but vegetarians do; they need to be sure they are getting the proper balance in their diet, it doesn’t come automatically.
While I will accept some controversy and disagreement as to the relative merits of eating meat or not meat, there’s no question as to the impact on the earth of eating meat, at least in regard to how it’s produced in the west. The rise in middle classes around the world has the potential to waste the planet. It takes something like 16 kilos of corn to produce one kilo of beef, as well as far more land and water. Large areas of the Amazon are being cleared for cattle grazing and that’s happening to some extent around the world. Inputs to produce pork are much less than beef because they can be kept in tiny enclosures, but that necessitates heavy doses of antibiotics to keep them alive.
Ninety percent of all antibiotics in the US are consumed by animals, which has led to people receiving unwanted doses not just in the meat they consume but also in their water: antibiotics can be found in all American rivers. Part of that comes from rivers which receive runoff from areas with pork or chicken factories and part from human waste since sewage treatment plants do not remove the drugs. The biggest danger of the large volume of antibiotics in the environment is that it has led to superbugs that cannot be treated with available drugs.
If fat is a concern then pork is better than beef since there’s little fat within the meat itself and the exterior fat can be cut away, whereas, at least in a Western context, beef is laced with fat that cannot be removed. In fact, the fat is what makes beef tender and taste good. I recently read an article about a special beef cow that is so good, it’s steaks sell for $300 in some Hong Kong restaurants. According to the article, one taste and you’re sold. They included a picture of the steak: it was maybe 20% fat.
In Cambodia, cows eat grass, real cow food. An outbreak of ecoli poisoning from eating beef in America a couple years back was attributed to bacteria that only live in cows fed corn instead of grass. Cambodian beef is tough partly from how little fat there is in the meat. A restaurant owner friend took to adding fat to his hamburgers to compensate for the lack of fat in the meat. If you love saturated fat, then great, but if you’re thinking about your health then, in my opinion, very dumb.
But you love your McDonald’s burgers you say (or whatever fast food advertising has captured your imagination). Maybe you do or maybe you really don’t. Pretty arrogant of me to question your likes, you think. (As it turns out, it was recently revealed that McD’s burgers are only 15% meat, the rest filler… but that’s beside the point.) A study was done a while back with 3- to 5-year-old kids. They were fed McD’s burgers in a plain wrapper and a corporate wrapper. Ditto with fries and baby carrots, which aren’t sold there. In every case a large majority thought the food tasted better in the corporate wrapper. The taste of the food had nothing to do with their choices… and maybe not yours either.
What if there was an equal amount of advertising promoting healthy food choices? How about ads for broccoli, snow peas, carrots? Change the whole dynamic, wouldn’t it? Not to mention the health of generations of people. But can’t happen because there’s not a lot of money in it, not like fast food or prepared food profits. Kids generally don’t need to be encouraged to like sweets or meat, it comes naturally, but they do often need to be taught to like veggies.
It’s like exercising. It’s something we all know is good for us, but because it implies that we’re doing it for a reason other than the exercise itself, we have a hard time getting ourselves to do it. Like a (fat) friend of mine who will take a ride to avoid a 200 meter, 3 or 4 minute walk. Why should I walk when I can ride?, he says. I turned it around and asked, Why not take the opportunity offered for a tiny little bit of exercise, since you mostly sit around on your ass all day? Maybe it’s the same with food. Maybe knowing it’s good for you can morph in your mind into liking it.
When I see someone remove the lettuce and tomato from their meat sandwich, I think, what’s the big deal about eating a little vegetable matter to offer some balance to your diet and help wash down your greasy meat?
When I see an old fart, especially a fat old fart, chowing down on a big plate of eggs and bacon (80% fat) or sausage (50% fat) with nary a vegetable in sight, or leave what veggies were served on his plate, I think, Can it really be worth it?
You don’t have to be fanatic or absolutist about it, just conscious. If I see organic food in the market that’s reasonably priced I’ll buy it even if it costs more because that’s one less time I’m eating poison. There’s no percentage in eating poison, nothing good can come of it. Moreover, that one time less might be the one time less that keeps me from getting cancer.
Let me finish with a story about Ram Dass, famed hippie/Hindu guru who started in the sixties. His first and most famous book is Be Here Now, which basically said whatever you’re doing do it right. I saw him speak around 2001 not long after he had a stroke which paralyzed half his body and put him in a wheelchair. His words were still golden, but because of the stroke it often took him a long time to find them; sometimes there was a minute between thoughts he could get out of his damaged brain. He told of the fast life and indulgent food choices that led to his stroke. He thought because he was an important spiritual person who millions looked up to, he didn’t have to follow the rules that applied to ordinary people.
Well, you’re no guru so you don’t even have a lame excuse for tempting the gods. When you are young, strong and resilient you can abuse your body to no end and still come back strong, but the harms in our diets as well as all the other toxins in the water we drink and air we breathe are such that they often don’t show up for decades. Don’t play the avoidance game and try to justify your poor diet by saying you live for today and don’t care about tomorrow, because you’re going to be just as interested in living and enjoying life when you’re 50, 60 or 70 as when you’re 20, 30 or 40. And it’s more than enjoying life now and dying early, it’s finding yourself in a wheelchair at the end of your life depending on other people to wipe your ass and change your diaper.. so no more excuses, Eat your damn veggies!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Pity the Poor Billionaire

A couple years back a hedge fund manager likened himself having to pay the standard income  tax rate for billionaires, instead of the capital gains rate which is less than half the former, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. Poor besieged fellow.
He’s a manager after all, not the owner of the resources, so why should he be entitled to the lower rate? And why is there a lower rate for capital gains? Why is income from sale of assets taxed at less than income from having a job? Or as Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest people, has asked, Why do I pay a lower rate than my personal secretary? Simple answer: lots of money begets lots of power. Buffet would be glad to pay a higher rate, but he’s the rare exception.
Of course, they insist it’s good to shower billionaires with lots of public welfare because if they have lots of money they’ll make lots of jobs. It never works that way because when the 1% take all the economic gains of society, the rest don’t have enough money to buy things, thus no demand for labor to make things. They don’t call it corporate welfare, it’s called incentives. Give the big oil companies big tax breaks and they’ll drill for more oil. The largest, most profitable corporations in the world need welfare to do their job. If the government needs money you don’t end big oil subsidies, you cut food stamps, since ‘handouts’ sap poor people’s will to work. That goes all the way back to president Herbert Hoover who was aghast at the idea of feeding hungry Americans at the start of the Great Depression when unemployment stood at more than 30%. The fact that there weren’t enough jobs then or not enough now doesn’t register on the minds of regressives.
The point is that money to fund the government has to come from somewhere. If you don’t take it from the wealthy you have to take it from the lower and middle classes. All taxes are political, every one makes a political statement. There’s no such thing as a ‘neutral’ or ‘technocratic’ tax that doesn’t involve taking from one and giving to another. The conservative option is to cut government: You can save a lot of money by putting 50 kids in a classroom instead of 25.
At a time when income inequality is greater than it has been since 1929, the place to get the money is from the top, they are sitting on more money than they know how to spend. More than 90% of all the gains since the US started ‘growing’ again after the crash of 2008 has gone to the top 10%.
Just recently another long-suffering billionaire likened the anti-1% rhetoric sweeping the progressive side of politics to Kristalnacht – the night of broken glass – when shops owned by Jews all across Germany were trashed as a prelude to genocide. Asking the superwealthy to pay their fair share of society’s costs is just like the Holocaust. Poor fellow, he feels unloved by the 99%, the great unwashed masses, and evidently is afraid he’s about to be sent to the gas chambers.
He also thinks rich people should get a lot more votes. A filthy rich person like himself is a lot smarter than the sad sack who collects bottles and cans to earn a few bucks so why shouldn’t he get a few extra thousand votes? The elite of Thailand and Venezuela probably think that’s a great idea since in both cases they are demonstrating and trying to bring down fairly elected governments. They have repeatedly lost their respective elections to the populist parties in power but can’t stand to see peasants and commoners in control. The US began as a democracy, but you had to be a white, male, landowner to vote. Can we go back to those simpler times when everything was decided by a small elite?
I’m always baffled when people come to the defense of Bill Gates, one of the people I most love to hate. They think I’m angry at all superwealthy. Not at all, there’re quite a few who’ve gotten their money fairly and honestly, at least within the rules as established, and feel civic responsibility to use some of it for the betterment of the world. Gates does qualify for some of those kudos, but his craven machinations far outweigh his philanthropy. But before taking on Gates I’d like to take a step back and talk about his first partner at Microsoft, Paul Allen.
Allen owns (or did, I don’t keep up) one of the major league sports franchises in Seattle. He wanted the city build him a new stadium for $500 million, since new stadiums are designed to make more money for owners; lots of luxury boxes, et al., and threatened to take the team elsewhere if they weren’t willing to pay him tribute. Seattle said no, they couldn’t afford it. After all, ever since Reagan and the regressives started hacking away at taxes and government, there’s never enough for schools, infrastructure, etc. But he wasn’t ready to give up so he financed an initiative to get a measure on the Washington state ballot to have the whole state pay for it. He poured five million dollars of his own money into the election and got the people of the state to agree to pay for the new stadium. Here’s the rub: The guy had 20 billion dollars in the bank at the time. So add it up: $500m is 2.5% of $20b. $500m sounds like a lot of money to you and me and the people of Seattle but to him it was pocket change, a tiny part of his fortune. He could’ve gifted the stadium to the people without even noticing the change in his checkbook. He could’ve been considered a great benefactor, but instead extorted the money from the common people, including some who’re struggling to survive.
That’s the evil of wealth, no matter how much you have, you always want more and it’s not important how you get it or who gets hurt in the process. It’s all part of the game. Bill Gates is one of the worst; a large part of his fortune came from lying, cheating and flouting the law.
He started by purchasing IBM’s software division. IBM made one of the worst business decisions of all time when it sold off its software and Gates made one of the best. Now I’ll take another step back and bring Steve Jobs of Apple into the picture. Jobs’ business plan involved doing the whole process from manufacturing on down and producing a superior product that people would pay through the nose to have. Several friends urged me to go with Apple when I first got into computers in the early 90s, but I couldn’t see myself paying double for his products and having a much more difficult time getting service, since I was headed for Asia. Since he kept everything in-house and charged exorbitant prices, Apple could never get very big, but still he amassed a fortune of $6b. What did it get him? He still died young. He could’ve had a fairer pricing policy and died with only $2b or $3b in the bank. In fact, if his prices had been competitive, he might have sold twice as much and left the same fortune. But if you’re a real businessman, you’re not allowed to act that way, you’re supposed to charge whatever the market will bear even if it means soaking your loyal customers.
Gates’ business plan was just the opposite. He only cared about selling software so he opened up the hardware part to competition and soon cornered 90% of the software market. However, he wasn’t content making a lot of money, he wanted every penny he could get his grubby hands on so he engaged in serial scummy and illegal business practices. He was indicted, convicted and paid heavy fines three times in the US in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the last ten years Microsoft has paid about $2.2b in fines in Europe. The last, in March 2013 that cost the company $730m, was for repeatedly ignoring previous promises to reform. Well, it’s evidently more profitable to pay huge fines and promise to change than actually change your business practices. And for what? Gates already has $77b in the bank, richest man in the world, do you think maybe that ought to be enough to not need to resort to sleaziness to grab even more?
Microsoft is adept at using tax shelters to avoid paying its fair share of government. That’s easy when most of your value is in intellectual property. You form a corporation that holds all of your patents in a country that has no corporate taxes. There’s one modest 6-story building in the Cayman Islands that’s headquarters to 18,000 corporations. Every time somebody buys a Microsoft product part of the profit goes to the shell-corporation owner of the intellectual property. Tax shelters are used by lots of corporations and are all very legal. They’re legal because corporations like Microsoft use a lot of their money and clout to make it happen so.
His house in Renton, Washington cost him $55m. It’s a marvel of technology but not a thought or a cent was expended on sustainability or renewable energy. He was taken aback when he got his first property tax bill - $600,000!!! He complained that it was too much. ‘Yes, the house cost me $55m but I couldn’t sell it for that much so I shouldn’t have to pay taxes on the full amount.’ $600,000 was a mere .0001% of his stash, but he couldn’t bring himself to pay the bill and finance local government without a fight.
What about all the money he’s put into his foundation, about $35b? Yes, he has tried to redeem himself by supporting good causes, but he’s also spent a lot of money financing causes which I personally consider detrimental to society; charter schools, genetically modified crops, for instance. Some of that should’ve been paid in taxes so that the people through their elected government got to choose how it’s spent.
The superwealthy are sitting on about $20t in assets, that’s trillion. A 5% wealth tax would bring in about $1t, enough to put every unemployed person in America to work building infrastructure and converting to a renewable energy economy. The rich wouldn’t even know the difference, they wouldn’t spend any differently than they do now, it wouldn’t affect any of their lifestyle choices to give up 5% of their fabulous wealth to help transform the American economy.
Finally, let me end by giving a thumbs up to Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon/Mobil for understanding the importance of a clean environment. He’s joined his neighbors in opposing the development of a fracking oil well near his estate. Something about hurting his property values.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Buying Votes - Democracy to the Test in Thailand and Cambodia

Thailand is in turmoil again and the divisions, once again, seem irreconcilable. At least not in any way consistent with democracy. This time it’s the yellow shirts who are on the warpath with the aim of shutting down the capital, Bangkok, until they achieve the ouster of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, brother of the despised Taksin Shinawatra. The yellow shirts have the backing of the Bangkok elite and voters in the south. The principal political party they back – the Democrat Party – hasn’t won an election in more than 20 years. They consider any government affiliated with Taksin to be controlled by him from his self-imposed exile. At this point, they are as opposed to democracy as they are to Taksin. Their plan, once they bring down the government, is to install an appointed people’s council and, I surmise, change the electoral rules to prevent the majority from office.
Yingluck’s backing, the red shirts, is in the more populous north and northeast. Starting with Taksin’s win in 2001, he or parties affiliated with him have won every election and by wide margins. His first win was the first time any single party had won a parliamentary majority and their hold of the majority of Thailand’s people is rock solid. The snap election called by Yingluck for early February to try to ease tensions is certain, absent a military coup before then, to return her to power.
The yellows complain most about his corruption. On that score they’re correct, he’s an unmitigated sleazeball. This is best exemplified by they way he had the tax laws changed to exempt the $2 billion sale of his telecom empire from taxes just before the sale.
I consider him reprehensible on another account; that is, being responsible for mass murder. He promised in his first campaign to eradicate drugs within three months. Once elected he directed the police to kill lots of drug dealers. Within a few weeks about 2500 ‘drug dealers’ were summarily executed. In quotes because without access to fair trials and the ability to defend themselves, it’s absolutely certain that hundreds of innocent people were murdered. Maybe they were small-timers who sold only to supply their own needs. Others just happened to be on some police captain’s hit list. His mass murder campaign was supported by the vast majority of Thais, so you won’t hear the opposition complaining about that.
But they hate him most for the way he ‘bought’ poor people’s votes, you know, free health care, easy credit for the peasantry, development money for villages. That is rich coming from them since political parties in Thailand have a long history of actually using cash to buy votes on election day.
Step back for a minute. If an American politician proposed increasing Social Security, instituting true universal health care, making higher education more affordable, would you call that buying my vote? Yes, it would benefit me personally, but I also think those changes would be good for the country. Would I vote for a party that proposed to increase taxes on the poor so they could lower taxes on the wealthy? Hell no, that’s a vote for the greedy elite.
Whatever you think of Taksin, he’s the first Thai politician to ever consider the needs of the lower classes. Maybe you think he actually hates the peasantry and only bought their votes to gain power. Regardless, he’s the first to actually put money into Thailand’s majority. I spent a lot of time in the country in the early 1990s, including living and working there for most of 1993, and what I came away with was that the needs of the poor were totally neglected. It was always a government for the elite. For instance, When Bangkok’s skytrain, its first mass transit line, was completed in the late 90s a ride was priced at about $1. That was at a time when the minimum wage was about $90, so impossible for the poor to afford. The middle classes sped through town in air-con comfort while the poor spent hours in slow-as-molasses traffic sweltering in non-air-con discomfort. 
After Taksin was deposed, his party was still in power, so they chose another prime minister. He was ousted because of a conflict of interest: He earned $50 hosting a cooking show on TV. His replacement was kicked out by the Supreme Court on another technicality in the midst of the yellows shutting down the international airport and generally causing chaos. At that point a member of the opposition, Abbisit Vejijjiwa (forgive my spelling and minor discrepancies in my timeline) was put into power which in turn brought out the red shirt Taksin supporters. Their turn to shut down the city was broken up by the murder of 90 of their demonstrators. Meanwhile it was a forgone conclusion that the red shirts in the leadership of Yingluck would win the next election.
The country remained relatively calm for a few years until Yingluck proposed a blanket amnesty that would have included her brother as well as Abbisit and other elitists who are currently under indictment for the deaths of those 90 demonstrators. That sent the yellows into a state of apoplexy. Regardless of what it might have meant for their side, the idea that Taksin might be able to return set them into an artery-busting rage. Yingluck quickly removed the amnesty law from consideration, but the elitists were already fired up beyond reconciliation. So that’s where it stands now. They want to change the electoral laws to prevent the lower classes from gaining democratic power, thus abrogating the fundamental tenet of democracy; that of one person, one vote.  
Many countries have electoral systems that favor one group or the other. In Japan, Malaysia, the US, for instance, rural voters have disproportionate power. In Malaysia the smallest population district has 9 times the voting power per person of the most populous one and the ruling party remained in power after the last election even though they lost the popular vote. But can you imagine what will happen to the country if new laws created at the behest of the minority attempt to permanently prevent the majority from power?
The yellows have lost touch with reality. The red shirt majority will never abide by being stripped from power without a fierce struggle. Personally, I can’t help feeling that the elite hate Taksin more because he gave the poor hope for the future than for his corruption. This is similar to the Repug party in America which can’t stand the thought that the government  actually should put public resources into helping people. Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, whatever it is, if it’s designed to help anyone but the moneyed elite, they’re against it, since in their minds anyone who isn’t rich isn’t deserving of government largesse.
Cambodia, right next door is also in turmoil with the first mortalities from demonstrations happening at the beginning of the year. Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition CNRP – Cambodian National Rescue Party – has kept his elected legislators out of parliament in protest of voting irregularities. Latest studies have shown that the areas with the greatest problems were where Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party did best. Still, as mentioned in a previous post, the manner in which the seats are allocated strongly favors the CPP and even if the CNRP had won the popular vote they still could’ve lost the election. The major problem for them now is the reform of election laws. There’s no sense in having new elections until the voting laws are reformed and I see no way for that to happen if they’re not in parliament.
The opposition has been holding daily demonstrations since December 15, blocking major thoroughfares and causing massive disruptions. The government had been showing tremendous restraint until military police were brought in who started bludgeoning at random, which in turn brought out the worst in the demonstrators who started throwing rocks and burning tires. In addition to being a flaming racist bigot, Sam Rainsy has been piggy-backing on the dissatisfaction of garment workers who’ve been demanding a doubling of their wages. The workers were not much of a force for that change until the opposition took up their cause.
As opposed to Taksin who could promise government largesse for the poor and deliver, since the Thai government clearly had the resources, Sam Rainsy is blowing wind. It’d be great for the workers to earn a minimum wage of $160 month, but that is not something a government can take lightly. Not only might it put the current 20% annual growth of the industry in jeopardy, but it would also likely distort the job market. A large percentage of garment workers, most of whom are women, send money home to their families even at the current $80 month. While that pittance provides only a very hardscrabble life, nearly all of them will say they are much better off earning the current minimum than they would be living in their villages where jobs are practically non-existent. They certainly can be and have been an unruly bunch in their fight for better conditions but having the backing of Sam Rainsy has emboldened them and brought them to join the opposition’s demonstrations. At the present time almost the entire industry has been shut down.
Hun Sen clearly has been shaken, he even rhetorically asked, ‘What have I done wrong’. His major problem is that he’s been in power too long, almost 30 years. No matter how good you are as a leader you are going to offend and anger a lot of people in that time. Moreover, you lose sight of your human fallibility and make things happen without a lot of consideration of their impact on ordinary people. His strong focus on development has propelled the               country to multiple years of high growth - 7.5% this year - but this has involved over the last decade the forcible relocation of hundreds of thousands of people in both urban shanty towns and rural villages.
All of the capital’s former shanty towns have been leveled and nearly all of its lakes and wetlands filled for development. In the filling of one large lake close to the center of town 4000 families were displaced. Some of those families are still demanding fair compensation three years after they were removed and have taken up demonstrating and blocking roads at the same time the other demos are happening, adding to the capital’s traffic woes. (The desire to concrete over park space is not unique to Cambodia; massive demonstrations took place in Turkey when the government announced plans to build on the last green space in central Istanbul.) When added to demonstrations by the opposition and garment workers and lately teachers demanding $250 per month, the PM is getting it from all sides.
Nearly 10% of the country’s land area has been granted to agro-industrial businesses. While this is an excellent development model in the World Bank view of things (but not mine; I think it’d be far better to divide the land up amongst many small holders then single large agribusinesses) it has involved large scale removal of villagers. And not just ordinary public land is being sold off – actually 99 year leases – but large parts of forested national parks and protected areas are also being leveled for sugar, rubber, acacia, oil palm and more. This all adds up to a disgruntled population and an easy target for Sam Rainsy who mostly focuses on Vietnamese concessions to further stoke racial tensions, even though they make up only a small part of the land sold off.
Hun Sen is often been portrayed in the international media as a dictator. That’s over the top in my opinion since true dictators only stay in power through intimidation and force, torture and incarceration of political opponents. He has no feared secret police. His party has consistently won elections. Though they aren’t perfect, it’s nothing like dictators who win with 99% of the vote. The fact that he only narrowly won the last election is proof enough that they are largely free and fair: not totally, but neither are elections in America.
Strongman, however does fit. In the past he has closed down whole businesses on a whim: Several years ago sports betting parlors employing thousands were closed down literally overnight when he gave the word. About three years ago he warned functionaries in the police and army that official license plates were not allowed for private vehicles – they get some free fuel and other perks. When the practice was not ended a year later, he gave them two months and threatened to impound any vehicle that still had official plates. They disappeared by the deadline, though they are now creeping back into use.
Until this latest election he talked about staying in power for another 20 years and back at the height of the Arab Spring, he smugly and confidently assured the people that it could never happen in Cambodia. I don’t think he’ll be ousted by street demonstrations, but he may be forced into new elections before his mandate ends.
The most unfortunate part of the whole mess is the total inadequacy of the opposition, especially the racism. Already Vietnamese businesses have been torched and destroyed. The way Sam Rainsy has played to the people’s prejudices, there can be no surprise if innocent Vietnamese citizens of Cambodia are attacked and even killed. He’s got many Cambodians thinking the biggest threat to their country is Vietnamese taking over even though they make up at best about 8% of the country’s population. According to him, illegal Vietnamese immigrants are a vanguard force that will eventually help the Viet government take over all of Cambodia. It’s total crap, but the people believe it. The greatest irony is that many of the young demonstrators screaming anti-Vietnamese epithets at police and CPP supporters and demanding Hun Sen’s ouster would not be alive today had Vietnam not intervened to stop the Khmer Rouge genocide which was taking tens of thousands of lives every month.
His attempt to buy garment workers’ votes by promising a doubling of the minimum wage would either unattainable if he was elected or if instituted could cause havoc in the economy with college grads earning less than garment workers. Much as I sympathize with their plight, those changes need to be more gradual, a condition which now seems impossible for the workers to accept after being stoked up by Sam Rainsy.
In latest news the government, using some violence, has cleared demonstrators from Freedom Park, a centrally located square capable of holding about 5000 people, and has temporarily prohibited further demos. The government had seemed to be showing a lot of tolerance towards the demos, but it’s not surprising they would crack down after violence resulting in casualties.
Finally, no matter how good a leader is, after 30 years in power it’s time for a change, except in this case the alternative would be worse.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Breaking Poorly

The big hit of the past TV season was Breaking Bad, so I’m told. This I only know second hand since I don’t do boob tube. In the past 50 years or so I’ve only lived with one for about 3 years. Even though I’ve never watched the show I can state with some confidence that it exemplifies the reasons why I can’t stand TV. It simply doesn’t know how to ring true or represent what’s actually happening in the real world. That’s in spite of the fact that it purports to be part of the new genre of ‘good’ TV.
The story revolves around a good guy who turns bad because of big financial problems. Being a chemistry teacher he uses his skills to cook meth to make up for going bankrupt, loosing his house and having a chronic disease, cancer I think. The entire premise of the show is unbelievable if not preposterous. While it is possible for a person to do meth on a regular basis and still retain their basic goodness, I might not believe it if I hadn’t personally known such a person, because speed freaks, not to mention meth cookers, tend to be on the bottom rung of low-lives. They’re tense, angry, nasty and short on basic humanity. Of all the illegal drugs, meth has the most damaging effect on personality and health.
In other words, if a ‘good’ guy goes into illegal drugs it wouldn’t be as a meth cooker, it’d be making LSD or Ecstasy or one of the other designer drugs or setting up an old fashioned marijuana grow operation. Back in the States recently talking to my 21-year-old grandson about the show I asked him if it was ever mentioned in the show how millions of people lost their homes because of the unconscionable greed of the banksters who crashed the economy while getting rich themselves. And how even as millions of common people were kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves, the banks and their CEOs got bailed out by the government. Needless to say, that was never spoken of since it’s not part of the corporate TV narrative. I expect the subject of foreclosures was dealt with as if people lose their houses all the time with no-one else to blame but themselves.
The other reason why Mr. Good guy turned Bad is a chronic illness so I queried my grandson further asking if the show ever mentioned that the US is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t provide universal health care, that doesn’t take care of all its citizens; thus the only rich country in which people go bankrupt because of health care costs. Of course not, that would be political, that would mean talking about the things that real people talk about. I’ve never seen a show in which the characters talked about the things I and my friends talk about. There’s never been a conversation on TV that reflected the feelings of real people, at least those who aren’t totally bought into the corporate program. It’s pap, time-filler, skim-the-surface thinking, meant to be clever while keeping watchers stupid, stupefied and uninformed. When asked if they approve of the Affordable Care Act, Americans say yes. When the same question is asked about Obamacare they say the opposite even though they are one and the same. People don’t get that clueless and stupid by accident. They have to be taught to be dunces.
It’s like during the recent government shut-down fiasco when corporate media framed the story as both sides not being willing to compromise as if both were at fault, when it was the Repugs trying to hold the government hostage to achieve their goals of repealing Obamacare when they were unable to do so through the ballot box, you know, democracy. For once, Obama found his guts and refused to go against the will of the people, who after all had just re-elected him. Too bad he didn’t bend to the common will when he designed Obamacare, his monumentally complicated gift to the insurance companies. All polling has consistently shown very large majorities for single-payer health care, Medicare for all Americans. (For you non-Americans, Medicare is socialized medicine for people over 65 and the disabled.) He was afraid if he didn’t get the insurance companies behind the plan he’d get nothing so in the end the American people got crap. The fact that it is significantly better than the extremely rotten system that came before in no way makes it less than crap.
For instance, people have a choice of plans that range from bronze to platinum. The bronze plan requires a 40% co-pay which, considering the extreme cost of all health care in America, is essentially worthless. It only makes sense when Medicaid, the subsidized health care for low income people is added. Those whose income is too high to qualify for Medicaid will still be forced into bankruptcy from co-pays. At the present time 60% of all health care related bankruptcies are from people who had health insurance.
Obamacare doesn’t do anything to tackle the high cost of medication. For instance, living in Cambodia where it’s almost always humid I invariably have a fungus growing between my toes and need a fungicide to keep it in check. Here I pay 62 cents for 10 grams of anti-fungal cream, which is manufactured in Malaysia, a middle income country. In the US, in a discount market, the same cream costs $6.30 for 1.5 grams: seventy times more. This is a common generic medication; there’s no research necessary and no patents involved and no reason other than greedy underhanded corporate dominance and high friends in government that can justify or explain, that discrepancy. Americans are getting ripped off, clear and simple.
For all his efforts to placate the insurance industry - Obamacare is modeled after a plan designed by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank - all he’s gotten is flack. For all the shit he’s had thrown at him, he should’ve done it right the first time and set up a single payer system. That could’ve included an opt-out provision for crazies who prefer private insurance to Medicare.
I had an opportunity while back in the States recently to use Medicare for the first time, and in fact got to use an Obamacare rule-change that only came into effect on October 1st this year. Now all insurance has to provide free preventative services and so I thought I ought to get a check up, since I don’t remember the last time. Previously, Medicare patients who didn’t pay $100 extra per month had to pay 20% of costs for everything including check-ups. Simple as it is, Medicare is more complicated than it should be. It should be free for everyone all the time.
Many people back there asked me about health care in Cambodia. If it has to do with medicine, it’s very cheap – a course of antibiotics is a dollar or two – and there’s no such thing as prescriptions. If they have it they’ll sell it to you with few exceptions. For instance, getting morphine isn’t always so easy unless you say, or they can see, that you are in terrible pain.
Treatment is also cheap enough, but also inferior. A friend broke his hand and had it put back together here in Kampot. It works, he can still play drums, but it’s offset sideways about a quarter-inch from where it should be. A serious fracture requires a trip to Vietnam or Thailand unless you want to come out all twisted out of shape.
Another friend had a serious hernia, size of an orange was how he described it. He didn’t trust Cambodia so went to a Thai border town. At first he went to a branch of a hospital chain that caters to foreigners. They wanted $3500. He decided that was too much and wandered around till he found a hospital for locals. Three nights in the hospital, doctors and all expenses included, cost $380. In America, probably 100 times as much, though there they’d probably kick him out of the hospital after one night and it’d only cost ten or twenty grand. I have a hernia issue myself. It’s a small bubble and if my guts start to pop out I can shove them back in – makes a strange squishy sound when I do that. Considering my friend’s experience, I can probably get mine fixed as an outpatient here for far less than the 20% share I’d have to pay on basic Medicare back in the states.
I know guys back in the States who, seemingly strong and healthy, had minor heart attacks. I’m not sure how that would get taken care of here, though there is a new teaching hospital started by a western doctor near the city. Would I get there in time to avoid complications? I don’t think about it much… whatever happens. I’ve been to see a doctor maybe 5 times in the past 50 years, take only recreational drugs and get plenty of exercise. I’m certainly getting creaky in places, but I’m not going to obsess or worry about it, just try to take care of it naturally. For instance, my toes tend to cramp up. When I asked a nurse friend about it five years ago, she said calcium deficiency. So now I drink milk – not all that much but for decades previously I only used it in coffee – and almost every time I cook I include a dark green vegetable which is the local equivalent of spinach and when I remember I take calcium supplements. My toes still seize up occasionally but nothing like before.
I can just imagine how decrepit I’d be if I didn’t exercise and eat healthy. My cholesterol is excellent and my liver and kidneys are working just fine. My blood pressure is higher than it should be, but still not in the problem area, and my lung capacity is a bit short, which is not surprising considering I’ve been smoking one thing or another for the last 60 years... I can still play sax, so it can’t be that bad. So, all in all still kicking at 72.
But like with my friends, health problems can hit you quite suddenly, so who knows what can happen? Worst comes to worst, I’d have to make a trip back there into the hands of Medicare and Medicaid and try to survive on $680 per month. Wow, that would be an awful fate.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Misplaced Displaced Outrage

Lately, I often seem to come across people who, though they may not see themselves as regressives, still dutifully parrot the wingnut party line in regards to slamming the ‘takers’, ‘moochers’, ‘freeloaders’,  ‘lazy welfare cheats’ who live off of the taxes paid by hard working people like themselves. Now that burns me, not because there aren’t lots of common people who’re gaming or trying to game the system, but rather because they find it so easy to pick on the little guy while being blind to the really big rip-off sleazeballs whose gaming not only involves billions, but often also crashes the whole system when their games don’t work out.
In the latest iteration a friend of a friend on facebook was snidely pointing out that individuals who’re about to lose $36 of their $657 monthly food stamp allotment will just have to get by with less beer and cigs. I had to point out that the figure he quoted was for a family of 4, not an individual. A big part of the problem is that many of these people have their information so wrong they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, not to mention that they’re so out of touch with reality, they actually believe the crap that comes out of their mouths. Anybody who thinks the government gives individuals more than six hundred dollars a month in food stamps might as well be living on a parallel universe.
Five billion dollars is being cut from the food stamp program to satisfy the Repugs new found crusade to reduce the deficit. New found because they love deficits and debt when they’re in power. Besides they’ve never come across a program that helps the bottom rung of society that they didn’t hate and it’s been that way since the first social programs were enacted in the 1930s Great Depression. Herbert Hoover, president when the depression began in 1929, was adamantly opposed to feeding the poor since it would ruin their self-reliance. Better to starve than depend on government handouts. The Dumbocrats are hardly blameless, since they love to capitulate to every petty demand of the Repugs.
47 million people are on food stamps; not surprising considering that unemployment is still very high and a lot of the new jobs being created pay so little that even many full time workers, such as those working for Mall*Wart and the fast food chains, qualify for benefits. McDonald’s website has a page devoted to helping its employees in their budgeting. One item is get a second job. Another is apply for food stamps. Another allocates $20 per month for health care.
But lets put that $5b food stamp cut into a little perspective. General Electric, one of the world’s largest, richest corporations, earned $14b last year. It not only didn’t pay any taxes but got a $3.5b refund from the IRS. The difference between what they should have paid at 35% and what actually happened was $8b. So, in essence, 47 million people take a hit so one corporation can enjoy just 60% of its corporate subsidy. Or how about the special tax breaks for Big Oil of another $8b per year. Exxon Mobile before 47 million Americans? Obviously top priority for the US government. Clearly doesn’t impact their self-reliance. They’re already so rich, the paltry $8b we throw at them doesn’t even amount to all that much when you consider just one of them has profits up around $50b annually.
Another much more egregious example of misunderstanding and/or manipulation and/or just plain ignorance, was a screed forwarded by a friend, in which the writer railed against the situation in New Orleans, in which welfare mothers receive $1500 per month per child. He then went on to tally up what a single mom with 9 kids would get; something like $16,000 per month. Now I’ve heard that places like New Zealand and the UK are quite generous with the dole, but the idea that anyone in their right mind could think that welfare pays that much in the US is hideously, ludicrously out of touch. And further, the idea that anyone with half a brain could think that that happens in Louisiana, probably the stingiest, meanest state in the country regarding welfare, is almost beyond comprehension; nobody could be that stupid or misinformed. Deceitful yes, but not that innocent of reality.
The family-values radical conservatives who pride themselves on their welfare stinginess think staying home and taking care of the babies is only valuable or important for middle class women. The single parents dependent on welfare are supposed to get a job, even though affordable child-care is rare and the jobs they might be qualified for don’t pay enough to live on. Nevertheless, they are the lazy takers sucking on the government’s tits whose only goal is to scam the system so they can live high and drive Cadillacs. $16,000 a month for nine kids, pretty good deal, huh?
A while back another government hater went on about how BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – paid its drivers $100,000 per year. As it happens, not long ago the BART drivers held a strike action and according to the news reports, drivers earn $60,000 not $100,000. Besides BART is not really a government, at best it’s a quasi-government, charged only with running the trains. At any rate the median house price in the San Francisco Bay Area is now about $550,000. Even the meanest, cheapest run-down shack is likely to cost in excess of $300,000 and with mortgage, taxes and insurance, not to mention upkeep, that ultimate fixer-upper will cost a minimum $3000 per month. Compare that to driver’s pay which is $5000 per month before taxes. $60,000 sounds like a lot of money to me, but in the Bay Area, it’s just barely getting by.
It’s all part of the drive on the part of conservatives to demonize public servants. They have it too easy, they’re living high off the public hog. Even while Wisconsin’s Repug governor was giving a $200m tax break for corporations he insisted it was important to reduce civil workers pay and strip them of any worker rights. Teachers earn about $50,000 in Wisconsin. Doable but hardly luxurious. Back in the 1950s and 60s, teacher pay was so low that only certain people could do that job. It was either those who were so dedicated to teaching they were willing to sacrifice their economic well-being to do something they loved, or the losers, people who couldn’t make it in the commercial world. They were decent enough people, but, for a variety of reasons, they happened to be lousy teachers. They were quirky or nervous or too strange to make in a corporation, but they passed the civil service test and had the qualifications and so got the jobs and besides the schools had no choice, the potentially good people didn’t want to make the personal sacrifice.
At that point the public realized how important is was to raise pay so that quality teachers would be attracted to the profession. One of the most important tasks a society has is to educate its children. Lately, plying the 1% with generous tax benefits, giving the banks $85b per month of free money, letting the corporations create offshore tax havens and other tax dodges so they don’t have to support the US government, leaving stock transactions untaxed so the big banks can play with their lighting fast trading schemes that have no social purpose whatever and are destructive besides, all those are (seemingly) more important than education, health and social welfare in the eyes of conservatives and their Dumbocrat enablers.
A recent study tried to gauge the happiness of the people of different nations. The high-tax welfare states of Scandinavia all came out on top. They are all highly productive, very wealthy countries so, evidently, sky-high taxes don’t necessarily stymie innovation and growth, but they do provide the security and benefits that let people enjoy life. They work fewer hours than Americans and are guaranteed a minimum 4 weeks vacation per year by the EU. I met a Dutch couple high up on a mountain in Nepal some years ago, both of whom worked in a bank. They got 7 weeks of vacation a year and said some of their co-workers thought that wasn’t enough. Americans are lucky to get 3 weeks after working the same job for 10 years.
When the rollout of automation in the 60s started reducing the need for workers many people believed or proposed that it could lead to shorter work hours and greater leisure time for workers. The industrialists hated that idea since it would lead to people earning and consuming less, so instead of working less Americans are now working more (those who have jobs at least). Amongst the benefits of a shorter work week, aside from the obvious spreading the work around, is that it would substantially reduce peak hour traffic. Whether it’s 6 hours 5 days a week or 8 hours 4 days a week traffic would ease up by about 20%. At any rate, that’s not where the US is headed.
Finally, you’ve heard that the US economy is growing, lately about 2.5% annually, and jobs are being created. Unfortunately, 95% of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1%, at least partly as a result of the FED printing free money for the banks and partly because most of the new jobs being created offer dismal pay. It wasn’t an accident. Maybe the policymakers who created the current conditions where almost everything goes to the top, didn’t realize that would happen, but nonetheless it was their policies that did it. Just as it was no accident, it’s also not inevitable, not engraved in stone, not dictated by the ‘free market’. In a democracy that truly represented the people rather than the elite that would not be happening. Meanwhile the fact that congress could hit on the bottom rung of Americans who’re getting food stamps for a measly $5b while keeping the position of the privileged sacrosanct, says we are a long way from fairness and decency… Mean-spiritedness Lives.