Who's Hating on Mrs. Obama's Garden?

Michelle Obama’s plan to plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn is old news—everyone’s been bombarded with that adorable photo of schoolchildren tilling the south lawn with Mrs. O.—and no one seems to have much of a problem with it. Sure, it’s not the first White House garden. It’s mostly a PR stunt, a lovely vegetable patch that children can visit on field trips. Maybe some of them will plant a garden of their own, or visit a farmers' market, or just eat more fresh produce. What could be wrong with that?

A lot, according to the Mid America CropLife Association. The large agricultural association was so horrified by the idea of a vegetable garden that they wrote an open letter to Michelle Obama (Mrs. Barack Obama to be precise) and sent it to industrial farmers' advocacy groups. You can read the entire letter on the web, but here are a few choice excerpts: 

Much of the food considered not wholesome or tasty is the result of how it is stored or prepared rather than how it is grown. Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical. Local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive...

If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?

There's a lot to be said for advancing beyond the hunter-gatherer phase of human existence, but I doubt a home vegetable garden is enough to disintegrate several thousand years of evolutionary progress. It gets even better: 

The White House is planning to have an "organic" garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama's and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder.

Really, shudder? Organic produce may be over-hyped, but the real problem is that "organic" produce doesn't do enough to find a truly sustainable solution. The Mother Jones food issue presents a number of proposals for the future of agriculture, (check back later this week for a special forum!) none of which involve reverting back to our Homo erectus habits. Or hating on home gardens.

California's Charitable E-Bingo Is E-Liminated

Californians can say goodbye to the electronic bingo machines (better known as e-bingo) in their charitable bingo halls thanks to a ban signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger that takes effect tomorrow. Turns out that bingo isn't just good old-fashioned fun anymore. Instead, it's at the center of a fight between nonprofits and Native American tribes who are all clamoring after bingo's big money.  

Federally recognized tribes will still get to operate the machines on their reservation land, but charities will have to shut theirs down. Despite a few upshots for charitable bingo operators in the new law, like an increase on prize caps from $250 to $500 for traditional bingo games, the e-bingo ban still puts them on the losing end because many have come to rely on the machines to keep their business afloat.

Gastrosexual Intercourse with Lynne Rossetto Kasper

The Splendid Table, NPR's signature cooking show, recently launched a Gastrosexual of the Month Contest. Gastrosexuals, we know (thanks Urban Dictionary), are foodies who use their culinary skills to impress friends and woo the opposite sex. Splendid Table host Lynne Rossetto Kasper, of course, is the ultimate gastrosexual: that sultry voice, that Midwestern perkiness, all that experimentation with raddichio. Grrr, and winners get to join the original saucy dish on the air.

I'm sure gastrosexuals nationwide are now polishing their essays on the sexiest culinary tool and waxing poetic about variegated beets and double creme gouda. Yet, the phrase "gastrosexual" is more a clever marketing tool than trendy neologism. A pseudo-scentific paper entitled "The Emergence of the Gastrosexual," concludes that the newest forces in the culinary scene are men, ages 25-44, who cook with the hopes of getting frisky. The paper, written by the dubious sounding Future Foundation, was commissioned by a British food company called PurAsia.

A descendant of the metrosexual, gastrosexual falls victim to the adding-a-witty-prefix-to-sexual-to-describe-a-cultural-phemonmeon curse, pushing it into marketing ploy territory. Further Googling reveals the website gastrosexual.com, an elaborate ad for PurAsia, complete with an interactive quiz, with a focus on Asian cuisine, that purports to answer the question, "just how gastrosexual are you" before guiding users on "a journey of enlightenment into the cuisine of the East"—a journey outfitted, of course, with PurAsia products.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the government’s long-overdue move to cut back  subsidies to private Medicare Advantage plans, much to the chagrin of the insurance companies that have profited so handsomely from this setup. As reported by the Medicare Rights Center, these insurers are already threatening to pass on the cuts to the old and disabled people who subscribe to their private plans:

The lobbyists for the insurance companies say the subsidy cuts could mean sharp premium increases and reductions in the extra benefits provided to enrollees in these plans. It is up to the companies offering these plans to decide whether to pass through the subsidy reductions to plan members. There is another option, of course.
Insurance companies can become more efficient at providing services. Universal American, a company with over 240,000 Medicare Advantage enrollees, spent just over 83 percent of its premium income on medical services for its enrollees last year. The other 17 percent went toward administrative costs and agent commissions (13 percent) and profit (4 percent).
Original Medicare spends about 3 percent on administrative costs. It does not make a profit. If Universal American and the other insurance companies could reduce their administrative costs, or even their profits, then their plan members might see little, or no, premium increase or reduction in benefits. Such a strategy, of course, puts the interests of people with Medicare ahead of the financial well-being of shareholders and insurance agents, whom Universal American recently enlisted to fight the subsidy reductions.

Actually, Universal American is trying to enlist more than just insurance agents in the struggle to hold on to their sweet deal. It's trying to bring Medicare Advantage subscribers and other ordinary old people into the fray, through a PR initiative misleadingly named The Coalition for Medicare Choices.

Happy Days Are Here Again--Not

After waiting about a year too long to admit that the country was actually in a recession, financial analysts are now rushing to declare it over—with the politicians and the press not far behind. In another example of the upbeat rhetoric I wrote about earlier this week, the Washington Post this morning suggested that some “tentative signs of strength” in the banking sector, along with small gains in the Dow, could offer ”at least some hope that the darkest days of the recession could be ending.”

To be fair, the Post also acknowledges that unemployment rates are still rising, and could pass 10 percent this year. But they give the final word to a Standard & Poors analyst who declares, in a triumph of Orwellian Newspeak, “Less weakness is the new strength.” (Many of these same “analysts,” of course, were the folks who told us that the bubble would never burst.)

As Obama huddles with his top economic advisors today, the administration is also promoting a sense of what Agence France Presse describes as ”shy optimism” about the economy. At an Economics Club luncheon yesterday, Lawrence Summers acknowledged that there were “still substantial downdrafts” in the economy–which is how he describes more than half a million Americans losing their jobs every month. “But you also have to see that there has been a substantial anecdotal flow in the last six to eight weeks of things that felt a little bit better,” he added.

There are plenty of others, however, who refuse to add their voices to this “anecdotal flow.” 

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 April 2009

Today we have rare footage of Inkblot and Domino sleeping.  Together, that is.  Look: their feet are almost touching!  Isn't that exciting?

Well, it passes for excitement around here, anyway.  May your weekend be equally exciting.

Boring is Good

Paul Krugman wants banking and finance to become boring again:

The banking industry that emerged [in the 1930s] was tightly regulated, far less colorful than it had been before the Depression, and far less lucrative for those who ran it. Banking became boring, partly because bankers were so conservative about lending: Household debt, which had fallen sharply as a percentage of G.D.P. during the Depression and World War II, stayed far below pre-1930s levels.

Strange to say, this era of boring banking was also an era of spectacular economic progress for most Americans. After 1980, however, as the political winds shifted, many of the regulations on banks were lifted — and banking became exciting again....And the meltdown came.

....But my sense is that policy makers are still thinking mainly about rearranging the boxes on the bank supervisory organization chart. They’re not at all ready to do what needs to be done — which is to make banking boring again.

Part of the problem is that boring banking would mean poorer bankers, and the financial industry still has a lot of friends in high places. But it’s also a matter of ideology: Despite everything that has happened, most people in positions of power still associate fancy finance with economic progress.

This is right on target.  High finance is always going to be more exciting than, say, running a regulated electric utility, but it shouldn't be a lot more exciting.

I've had the same thought on a narrower scale too.  There's a real sense in which credit derivatives and structured finance — things like credit default swaps and CDOs — are genuinely useful.  They shouldn't be outlawed.  But if they're done properly, the spreads on these instruments ought to be pretty thin.  Selling CDS ought to be about as exciting as selling property insurance and selling CDOs ought to be about as exciting as running a mutual fund.  But when you get to a point where merely packaging a bunch of securities and then rearranging them makes them suddenly far more lucrative — a blatant violation of the Law of One Price — you should know immediately that something is badly wrong.  These things should be reliable money spinners, but not much more.

So what's the best way of shrinking the financial industry and making it more boring?  This is plainly the key to any future regulatory reform.  Trying to cap pay, or even trying to reform how pay is established, is a hopeless task as long as the industry itself is huge and swimming in money.  But if you shrink the industry, pay takes care of itself.

Will H.R. 875 Kill Organic Farming? Nope.

For a few weeks now, Internet rumors have been flying about H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. The bill, proposed in February by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in response to the peanut/salmonella scare, would split the FDA into two agencies, one responsible for overseeing our national food supply and the other for drugs and devices. But an email (of the chock-full-of-exclamation-points variety) warns that Monsanto and other big aggers are behind the bill—and they want to use it to shut down every small-scale farm in the country, including your garden:

It is imperative that you look into this immediately and with extreme scrutiny as our heath and well-being are threatened!!! If this bill passes, you can say goodbye to organic produce, your Local Farmer’s market and very possibly, the GARDEN IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD!!!!!

 

Taxing the Dead

Michael Kinsley has a stemwinder today in the Post about the idiocy of Democrats holding out against their own president on reform of the estate tax.  Obama wants to keep the basic rate at 45% and the exclusion at $7 million per couple.  The holdouts want 35% and $10 million.  Ramesh Ponnuru comments:

Kinsley glancingly refers later to the possibility that the prospect of leaving an estate might motivate people to work harder. But he completely ignores what seems likely to be a bigger effect: that it would motivate wealthy people to spend less. You can agree or disagree with the case that the estate tax impedes capital formation. Ignoring the debate seems like a poor way of winning it.

I'll confess that I've pretty much ignored this debate myself.  I mean, you name the tax, and conservatives always have some white paper or another making an arcane argument for why raising it would wreck the economy and end up producing less tax revenue out of the ensuing rubble.  The linked analysis is typical of the genre, full of vague handwaving and precisely zero actual evidence.

Frankly, the prospect of higher estate taxes inducing wealthy people to buy platinum-plated bathroom fixtures instead of gold-plated ones doesn't strike me as a very serious objection here.  Ponnuru thinks this "seems likely" to happen if the estate tax is kept at 45%, but I guess I'd like to see some evidence of this before I waste any time trying to refute it.  This is generally good advice in any tax argument, of course, but it's particularly good advice in estate tax debates, which are so rife with outright lies from conservatives — farmers! small businesses! socialism! — that it's usually an offense against the English language to call them debates in the first place.  If we're going to spend any serious time on this topic, I'd rather spend it on finding ways to keep the super-rich from loopholing their way out of paying any estate tax at all, not pretending that our nation's brave farming families will be devastated by a mere $7 million exemption.

In the meantime, I'll just make an obvious point: no tax lives in isolation.  The question isn't whether a tax is good or bad, it's whether it's better or worse than other taxes.  After all, money has to come from somewhere, and whenever I ask myself whether it's better for that money to come out of the pockets of dead people or live people — well, I always come up with the same answer.  Selfish of me, I suppose.

The Decline of the West

George Packer has a chat with his roofer about why he's so irritable these days.  It's not the recession, it turns out:

It turned out that cell phones had become a major headache in his work. Customers called him all the time, expecting him to hear every little complaint even while he was wrestling with a roof hatch. Meanwhile, they were more and more unreliable, not answering their phones, missing scheduled appointments.

....“It’s the technology,” the roofer said. “They don’t know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug” — he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me — “and they go, ‘Ah, ah, um, um,’ and they just mumble. They can’t talk any more.” This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said — “the more educated, the worse.”

....This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofer’s world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions — had become, in effect, like small children with Asperger’s symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

WTF?  These folks call constantly on their cell phones, so it's not that they've lost the ability to carry on a verbal conversation.  It's just that they can't do it face-to-face.  Do I have that right?

Is anyone else skeptical about this?  Obviously I have zero experience with 20-something metrosexuals in New York City, but, seriously?  Is this happening?  More anecdotes, please.