Archive for March, 2011

you can’t fool Mother Nature

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

March 28, 2011

I am still thinking about our vacation in Florida. Last week I wrote of the “kindness of strangers” dividends. This week I turn to other lessons, some of them not as warm and cuddly.

The house we rented in The Villages was fine. Actually it, along with The Villages as a whole, was close to perfection. Two big screen TVs, digital cable, air-conditioning, king-sized bed, wi-fi access, your own golf cart, etc. etc. With close to 100,000 people, The Villages offered more recreation choices than I knew existed. Not only 30 or so golf courses, but tennis, swimming, piffle-ball, bocce ball, bridge, bingo, arts and crafts, shuffle board, movies, entertainment every night—in fact, they advertise “over one thousand activities. ”

On our big screen TVs we watched the appalling tragedy in Japan as well as the comic-opera in our hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. You might think there was no connection—our retirement resort, earthquakes in Japan, and protests in Madison. You would be mistaken. Bear with me.

In 1983 the award-winning movie masterpiece, The Ballad of Narayama, was released. The movie recreated with humor and pathos the life of a small village in northern Japan a hundred and fifty years ago. The villagers did not have to cope with tsunamis or earthquakes, but they did have to live with harsh traditions in order to survive.

The economic life of the village was based on small garden-sized plots where they grew rice and potatoes. When harvests were good, the villagers sang songs, had festivals, enjoyed a lyrical bond with nature, had fun with sexual shenanigans and told bawdy jokes. If the crops failed, people starved to death.

If too many children were born in Narayama, some had to be sacrificed. Baby boys were left to starve in the rice paddies (their decaying bodies added fertilizer to the fields). Girls were raised long enough to be sold into prostitution (to get a few yen for the hard-pressed family). In a horrendous case of potato theft, the responsible family was buried alive.

As for old folks, there weren’t any. No one at Narayama “retired.” When an adult reached the age of seventy, no matter how healthy, tradition demanded he or she be carried to a nearby mountain and left there to die of starvation. Since resources were severely limited, there was little room for people who could not or would not produce—a typical zero-sum economy.

The story of Narayama could be told with variations about almost all agricultural-age villages over the last ten thousand years. Today it is different.

We don’t abandon babies. We don’t send old people to starve on mountains. Why not? Because we are more “moral” or more “enlightened?” No. Not really. It is because we are the beneficiaries of the industrial and scientific revolutions, and also because many of us live in free-market liberal democratic societies.

This does not solve all problems to be sure. We still have to cope with earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, tornadoes and climate changes. We still have to cope with oil spills, nuclear accidents, wars, unemployment, stock market crashes, automobile accidents, crime, old age. You name it—life is not a bed of roses.

As a healthy couple in our 80s, Jane and I, along with quite a few million other seniors in this country and abroad have been conditioned by our traditions to expect young folks to support us in style. In my working days I never had the kind of luxurious life style we found in The Villages. Nor I expect did many of the protesters. I personally know at least five retired government employees who make more money now from their combined Wisconsin pensions and social security checks than they made while working full time for our schools and agencies!

Herein lies a problem. America (and Japan, Europe and China too!) is aging. Fast. More and more old people, like Jane and myself, are becoming more and more dependent on fewer and fewer young people for our daily rice and potatoes—and pretty much everything else.

Something has to give. Great as the scientific and industrial revolutions have been, great as free-market liberal democracy has become, you can’t fool Mother Nature. There is still no free lunch. Some realities of the Narayama village still exist, no matter how disguised they might be in our modern world of plenty. Somebody still has to produce the goods and services we seniors (and all other non-producers—children, students, handicapped, free-loading adults, etc.) consume.

Leftists like Michael Moore, Jessie Jackson and many of the Madison protesters seem to think if we took more money from the wealthy (or greased up the government printing presses), all would be solved. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of economics, taxation and money supply. I do have enough common sense to know that someone has to work hard to grow the food I eat; to produce the automobile I drive; to find and supply the gas I need to heat my house, drive my car and cook my food; to transport the materials and food I consume; to take away my wastes; to build an maintain the house I live in; to repair the roads and computers; to staff the hospitals and schools; etc. etc. Money is a good way of keeping score. But in the end, consumers can only consume what producers produce.

Leftists in this country and abroad seem to think they can leap frog over this reality by some kind of socialist legerdemain. All people, they claim, have a right to be free of want and fear. All people have a right to a fair and just living wage. All people should have the right to a fair trade (whether or not they contribute anything to the exchange), instead of a free trade (where each must contribute to the exchange). And the government should make sure this happens.

Wouldn’t it be loverly. History is not reassuring.

The recent history of China is one of the most telling examples. Under Mao the egalitarian socialist command-economy program was tried for over 30 years. (The Soviets tried the same for more than 70 years.) People power, down with the rich, distribute wealth more fairly, and everyone will be equal and happy.

In a new book Red Capitalism, Carl Walter and Fraser Howie relate a fascinating tale. In the late Mao days in 1974, the future reformer Deng Xiaoping was chosen to lead a large delegation to the United Nations in New York. When they went to the Chinese treasury to finance the trip they found to their dismay that they could “muster only $38,000 in foreign cash.” In other words the egalitarian command-economy of the entire nation made a “profit” of only $38,000 after 30 years of trying. That “trying” had also cost over thirty million Chinese their lives when they starved to death during the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961.

That same Deng Xiaoping later became the leader of China and radically changed the command-economy of socialism to free-market of capitalism. (Unfortunately he did not change the political system to liberal democracy, but that is another story.) After just a few decades operating with the new free-market economic system, China had foreign exchange funds of over three trillion dollars (much of it invested in the United States to prop up our lagging economy). China is not only well fed now, but in 2011 is the best customer of what used to be our largest corporation, the bankrupted General Motors.

We, like China, do not live in a zero-sum economy today. We live in a free-market win-win economy. Natural resources may be limited, but real wealth is not. So long as we encourage free-market efficiency and discourage command-economy subsidies we should be able to support retirees and other non-productive minorities in satisfying life styles. Maybe not as extravagant as The Villages, but still pretty nice.

In practice this does mean that the government has to pursue effective pro-growth policies. What is the alternative? If fewer young people have to support more oldsters (and other non-producers), they will have to work harder or more efficiently. Or both. We will need more of what I call “light green,” but less of what I call “dark green.” (See my News of Sept 5, 2010.)

Pro-growth means less regulation on business; lower taxation; fewer “sweetheart” deals between labor unions and labor-union-elected legislators; fewer subsidies for banks and industries; more freedom to exploit our own natural resources, especially oil and gas reserves; more risk-taking with promising technologies like nuclear power, genetic engineering, deep-water and shale oil and gas exploration; fewer frivolous law-suits; fewer subsidies for single-parent welfare babies; fewer subsidies for environmental boondoggles (like high-speed trains, electric cars and biofuel/solar/ windmill fantasies); fewer “fair-markets” and more “free-markets”; a higher retirement age (when social security began under FDR the average age of death was 62); better health care by encouraging high-deductible insurance, sale of insurance across state lines, and most important of all, tort reform; more attention to gifted education and vocational education (all children can be “winners,” but they can’t all be “above average”); fewer  government deficits; more free-trade pacts with countries around the world; fewer Republican subsidies of banks and businesses; fewer Democratic subsidies of unions, environmentalists and trial lawyers. Come to think of it, this probably means more attention to Tea Party reforms.

I realize some, perhaps many, of my readers will not agree with some of these “lessons.” Love to hear why.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Look for more examples of Tea Party ideas in my new book, The Road to a Tea Party: a Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. You can find it this summer on www.hawkhill.com or on amazon.com.

the kindness of strangers

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

March 21, 2011

The best thing about going away is coming home. Our 3000- mile vacation trip to Florida was a bit of a bummer. We should have paid more attention to Yogi Berra’s advice. “Don’t follow the crowd. Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Like many trips before, it was saved in part by the kindness of strangers.

I often preach about the virtues of free-market transactions where both sides win. On the road you have a more than normal variety of such win-win transactions. I am always pleasantly surprised, both in this country and abroad, how often these exchanges are graced with extra dividends—like the kindness of strangers.

Like the way strangers often go out of their way to give you directions; the way a bookstore clerk at Barnes & Noble in The Villages picked up and returned my lost credit card, then  checked out an old man with a walker who had his head in his hands; the corny jokes of the breakfast cook at an on-the-road Waffle House (and the way he laughed at my corny jokes in return); the warm smile of the motel clerk who went out of his way to start the hot tub when we were the only guests wanting to use it; the friendly waitresses at national-chain supper clubs who would sometimes sit down with us to help us read the menu; the helpful check-out people in the local supermarkets or the gas-station convenience stores who always seemed to take your money with a warm smile. As you can see, I am a sucker for warm smiles. Amazing how often they make my day. At home or on the road.

This trip was especially rich in these dividends. We stayed two days in a Best Western beach-resort hotel in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. They advertised and delivered a great serve-yourself breakfast, complete with eggs, sausage, cereal, muffins and waffles. Jane was having trouble figuring out how to make the waffles. A middle-aged man from Atlanta, just arrived with his family, graciously took charge and with a minimum of fuss solved the waffle iron snafu and made us both some fine waffles. His wife brought the syrup.

The next morning—same thing. This time the “stranger” was a stern-looking employee of the hotel in uniform, with a thick Latino accent. Her efforts were equally friendly, effective, and appreciated.

The hotel also advertised a tropical bar serving the beach and swimming pool crowd. Jane and I thought a couple of piña coladas would hit the spot when we came back from a hard day in the sunny Emerald Beach Gulf waters. There was no one behind the bar. When I went to the hotel desk to make a mild complaint, a friendly woman with a Norwegian accent explained that the beach bar was only open on weekends. This was Monday. (It used to be open all week long but they, along with many other hotels, restaurants and shops along the Emerald Coast of Florida, had been decimated by false reports that their beautiful beaches were smeared with oil from the BP spill a few months ago.)

Ellen, the Norwegian hotel clerk, said she would be happy to make us a couple of piña coladas herself. And she did. When she brought them out to our table by the pool we chatted and got to know each other a bit. I thanked her for the drinks and asked if she would add it to our bill. She waved airily and went back to work. When I checked out the next morning, there was no charge for the piña coladas.

The kindness of strangers.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Look for more examples of win-win transactions and their sometimes extra dividends in my new book, The Road to a Tea Party: a Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. You can find it this summer on www.hawkhill.com or on amazon.com.

“kill all the goats”

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

March 14, 2011

On vacation still, I am taking a few weeks off. This week I yield the pen to a regular reader, Steve Gorzula. Dr. Gorzula has 36 years of experience in river basin management, wildlife conservation, environmental and social impacts of development projects and environmental legislation. He spent 24 years living and working in developing countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. On behalf of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), he has carried out surveys and developed management plans for caimans, boas and anacondas in Guyana and pythons in Ghana.

Recently Steve gave a lecture to a conservation group in New Jersey. He admits it did not go over well with the politically correct audience. Here are a few of his contrarian gems.

“Climate change and global warming are topics that should be treated with extreme caution … the short-term fluctuations in global climate are not a new discovery. What is new is that global warming has replaced nuclear winter, acid rain and saving the whales as the must-have buzz phrases for many scientific grant applications.”

“I told them that my first step to saving the planet would be to kill all the goats. I concluded by saying that I don’t mind cyclists believing that they are saving the planet, nor lttle children believing in the Tooth Fairy. I just don’t want those children to grow up believing that they are qualified dentists.”

“Redistribution of wealth as a politically-correct solution to climate change is cute, but it won’t work.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Still working hard now on my book, THE ROAD TO A TEA PARTY: A Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11, and the Future of Free-Market Liberal DemocracyTHE BIG PICTURE. Look for it this summer on our web site: www.hawkhill.com or on www.amazon.com .

Travel–the good and not-so-good

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

March 7, 2011

My wife and I are on vacation this month of March. We have travelled by car (a Dodge mini-van with 95,000 miles on it when we left Wisconsin) over 1500 miles by now. At present we are in a rented house in The Villages, a senior resort community north of Orlando, Florida. If you are a sports fan you have probably seen their national ads featuring golfers Nancy Lopez and Arnold Palmer.

On this long automobile trip we have had a lot of time to look, think, and talk (occasionally using our new cell phone, which is another story). We stopped for a family visit in Dayton, Ohio for a few days, and spent another few days with old friends in northern Alabama. Sometimes we drove on the Interstate Highway system and sometimes on smaller back roads. Given the possibility, Jane always chooses to “go the scenic route.”

Here are a few observations and thoughts.

Our infrastructure system in the U.S. is not bad. Over the entire 1500 miles we have had no problems with roads, bridges, traffic jams, or quality services. All were surprisingly good. I consider this a compliment to our U.S. system of public-private investment and cooperation.

I can still remember travelling as a boy with my family during the Great Depression in the 1930s. It was our first and only long-trip vacation. My father drove on a 1000-plus miles auto trip from Ohio to Washington D.C. and back. One of our overnight stops was in Pittsburgh. In my Dayton experience bridges were built to go over rivers. In Pittsburgh I learned that often bridges were built over other roads and even over neighborhoods, factories and sports stadiums! Amazing!

I also remember the air over Pittsburgh, as well as over other cities and villages we passed through in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was thick enough to coat your tongue, had a nasty taste and made you cough—often. The rivers spanned by the often rickety bridges also looked pretty dark and foul.

I remember, too, the small towns in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland that we passed though on crowded two-lane highways in our old Chevy sedan. The towns were usually graced with broken-down porches, rusty cars in the driveways and boarded up stores. Almost universally the only decent looking buildings in many towns and small cities were the churches and the public schools.

As for the private businesses along the highways, I remember gas stations and a few diners, but no Holiday Inns, McDonald’s or rest stops.  When you needed to stop overnight your choices were city hotels or tourist homes (the ancestors of today’s bed and breakfasts). Our trip to Washington was in August, a very hot August. The tourist homes we stayed in (and the hotel in Washington) had okay beds and pillows but no air conditioning.

Today there is much concern about the decay of our infrastructure and the supposed environmental crises (overpopulation was the big worry thirty years ago, today it is climate change). Based on our auto trip, both seem to me to be vastly overblown. I admit that when we went around big cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Nashville and Birmingham we thought the alarmists who complain about overpopulation might have a point. On the other hand when we cruised through the seemingly endless (and boring from the car window) miles of lush farmland in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio we changed our minds. We saw an awful lot of productive land with very few people—and not that many cars.

So too in the mid-south of Kentucky and Tennessee, and in the deep south of Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, we saw much land, many forests, a few farms, and not that many people. In past years we have driven through the western half of this country, as well as flown over it in jetliners. Again, one of the main impressions was land, forests, and still more land and forests, and very few people. In sum, this country is a long way from being “overpopulated.” Also a very long way from being “polluted.” We have today millions of acres of healthy forests, rich farmland and unspoiled wilderness. (The one state I have never visited—yet— is Alaska. I understand that state has even more wilderness and even fewer people.)

Jane and I have also travelled extensively in Africa, Asia and Europe, by car, train and air, and the same things apply—much land and few people. In China for instance, one of the more densely populated countries, there are indeed over a thousand cities that have more than a million people. And yet where we travelled by bus and train in Yunnan and Setzuan Provinces you would be amazed how much wilderness and empty land there was. This was true even on the island and peninsula that some say is the most densely populated area in the world, Hong Kong and nearby Shenzhen (which in 1970 was a remote fishing village, now home to over eight million people!)

What’s the point?

Two things come to mind. On the one side our U.S. democratic government has on the whole done a remarkably good job in our lifetimes—both for our own citizens and for the world, in combatting tyranny and enhancing prosperity. At home, the federal government led the way in the 1930s by financing the TVA that brought electricity, flood control and prosperity to that Tennessee Valley we passed through in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama; in the 1940s by leading the fight to defeat the Nazi and Fascist tyrannies; in the 1950s by building the Interstate Highway System and financing the GI Bill of Rights that gave college educations to so many veterans, men and women (Jane was a Marine in WW2); in the 1960s by passing the Civil Rights Laws that liberated so many millions of African-Americans, Native-Americans, Latino-Americans and indeed Americans of all races and creeds; and in the 1980s and 90s by winning the Cold War against worldwide Communist tyrannies. Our states and local governments have done their share, especially in generously supported the schools and colleges that educated the children and adults who went on to build the prosperity we, and much of the rest of our world, enjoys today. All of these government investments, federal, state and local, have paid off royally.

On the private side, the freedom that our U.S. free-market liberal democracy has nurtured has also paid off handsomely. The list is long and impressive: an incredible variety of automobiles today that are all reliable, safe, fast and comfortable; aircraft from charter turboprops to giant jetliners; ships, from motorboats and canoes to ferries, cargo containers and mega size cruise ships; comfortable lodging in Holiday Inns, Best Westerns, Day’s Inns, and a hundred other inexpensive and luxury hotels; plentiful, safe, and nutritious food at supermarkets nationwide; fast food at McDonald’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Arby’s; slow food at innumerable restaurants, organic and not, in even the smallest of American cities and towns. Add to that list cell phones, computers, the Internet (what would I do without it here in our Florida vacation home), air conditioning, television, remarkably good medical care, anesthetics, comfortable inexpensive clothes, a rich variety of books, magazines and newspapers (uncensored), an enormous richness of sports for players and for fans; not to mention our impressive shelters—homes, offices, factories and homes-away-from-home that house us in comfort and safety with a plethora of furniture, appliances, gadgets and gizmos to make life easier, safer, more productive and more fun.

And finally, and most important of all—friendly compassionate neighbors and fellow workers (black, white, yellow and all shades in between) in the north, south, east and west (and all locations in between).

This last benefit comes thanks to the rich combination and cooperation of our public and private sectors, with special credit going to the schools and churches that minister to our moral health. May they continue and prosper.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I am working hard now on my book, THE ROAD TO A TEA PARTY: A Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11, and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. Look for it this summer on our web site: www.hawkhill.com or on www.amazon.com .