Archive for August, 2010

Lest we forget

Posted: 31 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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parts 2, 3, 4, and 5

Delusions of grandeur

Posted: 31 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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Bloggers are enjoying themselves ridiculing South Sudan’s plans to rebuild its city centers from scratch—in the shape of safari animals.

As well they should! These are crazy schemes, fueled by oil revenues and delusions of grandeur.

But just as delusional is the attack on “constructivism and the demeaning character of collectivism,” and the glorification of so-called bottom-up, market-based approaches. This is what such no-planning has produced in Juba and Wau:

The problem is not central planning versus markets. It’s the set of economic and social forces that produced both the current urban disasters and the zoological plans for the future.

Economist of the day

Posted: 30 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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The peak unemployment rate of 10.1% in October 2009 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 27.2 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of 36%. The duration of unemployment peaked (thus far) at 35.2 weeks in June 2010, when the share of long-term unemployment in the total reached a remarkable 46.2%. These numbers are way above the ceilings of 21 weeks and 25% share applicable to previous post-World War II recessions. The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.

Robert Barro, “The Folly of Subsidizing Unemployment”

Food fights

Posted: 30 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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Clare Leighton, "Corn Pulling" (1952)

Fights over food permeate every aspect of our society—whether it be the current egg scare, the nature of recipe books, or the role of gardening.

Right now, we’re bombarded with celebrity-chef cooking shows and cookbooks (which are no more than ways of advertising and adding to the chefs’ growing food empires) but the recipe books that provide a cultural context for the food are rare. Clifford A. Wright [ht: lm] found one, Carlo Middione’s The Food of Southern Italy, which he distinguishes from another, Giada de Laurentiis’s Everyday Italian.

A recipe needs an introduction that helps the cook understand the background of the dish and to entice the cook to prepare it, and to provide inspiration and guidance. Middione introduces his recipe by telling us that it is a dish from Apulia. He writes: “When I left Puglia , the battle was still raging between two old men I had met in a restaurant there about whether it is necessary to remove the shells from the mussels of spaghetti con le cozze or not. One felt the shells looked unsightly on the plate, and no host or hostess who wanted to make a bella figura (look good) would do such a thing. The other man maintained you get more flavor with the shells left on, and if your hosts were really considerate, they would let you pick them up and suck on them to get every last drop of sauce. It really depends on the host and guests, whether to shell the mussels or not. Me? I never take the shells off. The discussion about whether the parsley should be cooked in the sauce along with the mussels or simply strewn on top of the finished dish would be too lengthy to present here.” . . .

De Laurentiis’ recipe doesn’t mention al dente pasta and clearly she doesn’t trust us to salt and pepper to our taste, or to even inquire what our tastes may be. Her recipe lacks the charm and inspiration of the Middione recipe, even though her recipe has more ingredients. Her recipe is cold and lifeless. Who makes this recipe? Why do they make it? Do different families make it differently? When do they make it? Do cooks argue about how to make it? Should you use cheese? This is important because Americans might not know that southern Italians never use cheese with seafood. We just don’t know.

A recipe is not a formula. A recipe is an inspirational aide to guide a cook to reach higher, to prepare food that will dazzle others and make them happy and to do that the cookbook author needs to help them in the decision to make the dish in the first place. It’s not just about ingredients. A recipe should have a soul, as it’s about the material expression of a culinary culture.

Just as a recipe is not a formula, so the context of gardening cannot be provided by a mere picture book. The reissue of wood-engraver Clare Leighton’s one gardening book, Four Hedges, is an opportunity to consider what gardening is all about and how it fits into our lives. As Robin Lane Fox [ht: js] explains,

For Clare, Four Hedges house and garden was a return to earthy reality after a dizzying lecture-tour of America. Her observations of labour and nature were not only linked to her eye as a wood-engraver. They connected with the social realism she shared with Noel [aka H. N. Brailsford]. Before they gardened together, she had taught in slum schools in south London, where a child once drew her a picture of spring as a flowery meadow behind a barbed wire gate and a sign saying “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”. . .

In 1946, Clare was invited to lecture to a big American garden society and told them of the challenge before them. We “must all add our weight to the spiritual balance”, she declared. “The Shelleys and the Mozarts and the Hans Andersens are remembered, not the financiers and the bankers.” The challenge has not changed.

Fighting for food—food with a context, food that connects people, food that nourishes bodies and represents a form of economic and social change—will live on long after we’ve forgotten the financiers, bankers, and celebrity-chefs.

The coverage of the mad Tea Party event has been all about the call for a return to religious values and the number and race of the partiers. Only Frank Rich investigates the sources of the funding and the history, and thus the goals, of the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party is financed by Rupert Murdoch and the brothers David and Charles Koch (who have a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans).* But, Rich notes, this is nothing new. It’s the latest in a long tradition of corporate tycoons funding a far-right-wing agenda stretching back at least to the du Pont brothers’ spawning the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R.

You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our “socialist” president. Only the fat cats change — not their methods and not their pet bugaboos (taxes, corporate regulation, organized labor, and government “handouts” to the poor, unemployed, ill and elderly). Even the sources of their fortunes remain fairly constant. Koch Industries began with oil in the 1930s and now also spews an array of industrial products, from Dixie cups to Lycra, not unlike DuPont’s portfolio of paint and plastics.

This does not mean, of course, that the Tea Party movement is not a sign of widespread disenchantment and fear in the United States, which have a wide variety of sources (both justified and truly dangerous). But, if we consider the Tea Party’s funding and history, it’s certainly not the historically novel movement of “marginalized outsiders” many members and advocates would have us believe.

* Jane Mayer [ht: lm] did the original reporting on the “billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.”

The growth of income inequality in the United States from the 1970s until the onset of the current crises is beyond doubt.*

But there are many different ways of measuring and representing the change in inequality. Chuck Marr, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, looks at the distribution of after-tax income in 1979 and 2007 and calculates what the distribution of income would have been in 2007 had the distribution of income remain unchanged. Here’s what he found:

In other words, the bottom 80 percent lost ground and only the top 20 percent gained. And, within the latter group, the top 1 percent made out like bandits.

Why would anyone be in doubt that (a) there was a dramatic change in the distribution of income between 1979 and 2008 and (b) this was one of the causes of the current crises?

*which, of course, doesn’t prevent many mainstream economists from simply ignoring it.