Saturday, April 30, 2011

Impressions from East Africa: food

I can tell you what I haven't seen in Africa yet:  not a single American fast food chain.  This isnt to say that they don't have any similar things.  I guess there are a few local fast food type places in Nairobi, although I didn't see them.  Also, lots of restaurants serve fried potatoes ("chips" they call them, as in Britain, instead of "French fries").

I haven't been able to really nail down a specific culinary style since I've been here, but the food is very tasty.  Cooked spinach seems to be common and that is one of my favorites.  Rice is standard at every meal.  Lentils and potatoes make frequent appearances.  At Saids house, his wife (Mama Kay) made a spicy red dish with meat and sauce that was excellent over rice.  Because of the amazing weather here, produce is outstanding and fruit is amazing.   Oddly, they don't seem to eat much salad despite all of the fresh vegetables.  I haven't seen anyone growing lettuce.  Actually, I only had my first salad of the trip at Dr Hansen's house, our 7th day in Africa.

When touring the hospital a couple days ago, Dr Hansen was saying how he almost never sees precocious puberty in children in Africa.  As for my own observations, I have seen very few under-nourished children since being here, but also I don't think I've seen a single over-weight child, let alone an obese one.

We were talking about the precocious puberty that we see in the states the other day.  It seems, anecdotally, more common in the African American community, and I bet there are stats to back that up.  It definitely affects Americans of all types, though.  Being here has pretty clearly demonstrated that it has nothing to do with being of African ancestry*, so it must be something about being of African ancestry in America.  Well, African Americans are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, and quality of diet decreases with socioeconomic status.

So what is it about the American diet that causes precocious puberty?  One culprit could be the antibiotics and growth hormones we pump in our food.  As Colleen pointed out, a chicken breast in Africa is much smaller than an American chicken breast.  Here, the chickens just wander around the fields all day eating bugs.  In America, chickens are manufactured.  Their breasts are so big they sometimes can't even walk.  Alternatively, the precocious puberty could just as easily be related to the number of calories American children get, and from where.  Simply over eating might encourage premature development.

There are a lot of claims about what American food is doing to American children.  Its hard to figure out what is hype and what is real.  Seeing a place like Tanzania provides a helpful contrast.   The food is mostly locally grown.  The cows and goats actually eat grass instead of growth hormone-infused corn.  The chickens are essentially feral.  The food is home cooked, and not from chain restaurants.  It becomes much easier to see what American food is doing to American children.

Obviously, American food has been negatively influencing American adults, too.  I had put on 10-15 pounds over the last year that was just not going away; I wouldn't be surprised if half of it was gone when I get home, if not all of it (my weight easily fluctuated).  Dr Hansen has lost forty pounds since being here.  So if anyone is struggling with their weight, just move here.  I've heard that McDonalds wants to expand onto this continent.  They should do Africans a favor, and not.  There are enough challenges here to deal with already.  The last thing Africa needs is an obesity epidemic driven by American government-subsidized industrially processed food.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Impressions from Tanzania, Part I

Warning:  I am writing about things that I really know very little about.  Anyone who has seen my political blog knows I do that all the time.  Well, believe it or not, I didn't come all the way over here so I could write about the weather, and about what I did all day.  My main objective is to get at least a superficial feel for the culture and the challenges that east Africans face.

One of the shocking things about being here is that you initially don't feel like you can just casually walk among some of the "poverty" that I've seen here.  Some of the dwellings that are here would not be out of place in the set of the movie "District 9".  Not only do we casually walk through these areas, nobody seems to care.  Its not like the music stops, the DJ screeches the record, and everyone stares at us (and this is Colleen and I without Said escorting us).  The people are usually indifferent, sometimes curious, but never shocked/insulted/hostile at our presence.  I wondered before coming here if I would feel unsafe at all, but I really haven't, except for when traveling in crazy packed buses.  By the way, I don't have any pictures from when walking through places like this because I don't want to offend anyone by blatantly taking pictures of them.

The reason I put the word poverty in quotes above is because these people are extremely poor by Western standards but they don't act like we are led to believe that poor people act.  I'm not sure why there is such a gulf between distant perception and reality in this regard.  I can't have been the only American with that impression, because I would confidently say that I am less easily influenced by others, and more skeptical in general, than most Americans. 

The image we have of the third world from American television sets is a bunch of people sitting around with blank looks on their faces.  In contrast, these people in Tanzania move like they are on a schedule.  Everyone has a livelihood.  Brick-making is a big one.  Younger boys are constantly filling wooden wheel barrels full of rocks and then pulling them to the brick makers.  Lots of people are working the fields.  Machine and mechanic work is common.  Carpentry and construction is too.  Maybe the most common are merchants; it seems like every other person has a shop of some sort, or is selling stuff at market.

So there is an extremely intensive economy here, and it is surprising how intensive it is, given my preconceived notions, which I feel foolish for even having at all.  It isn't a productive economy of course, at least not by our standards.  It takes investment in capital to increase productivity.  China only 30 years ago was a hugely unproductive economy, but now look where it is, thanks to investment and good government policies for business.  The real challenge is to figure out a way to get the technical know-how and the capital in so that the people can take off.  Obviously.

Colleen's friend Mary, who runs the school for special needs children, is a perfect example.  She was an entrepreneur who had a vision and a dream of a school, but no money to buy land or build it.  Colleen provided the initial catalytic boost and Mary has ran with the project, taking it beyond the level that any one person, whether it be the richest Westerner or the most motivated Tanzanian, could have on their own.  When it comes down to it, Colleen didn't buy land or build a school.  Anyone with money can do that.  Colleen invested in a Tanzanian, and Mary turned that investment into something great for her people.  This is an incredibly important distinction that must frequently be lost on people, especially western philanthropists.

Anyway, there is lots more to write about, but I'll stop there.  The concluding theme to this post is that the people of Tanzania are far more wealthy than I ever imagined; as an American it is easy to forget that wealth means more than assets and cash on hand minus liabilities.

By the way, the rest of my travel posts can be found here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Ethanol Gridlock, and Orwellian Obama

The Economist had a good article a few weeks ago highlighting an anomaly: a case of "conservatives" like Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) defending big government. Every year, the United States spends billions of dollars to prop up the local ethanol industry with subsidies. At the same time, we impose a tariff on imported ethanol. The imported ethanol would mostly come from our Brazilian friends, who produce ethanol from sugarcane. In fact, Brazilian ethanol is at least 4 times more efficient than our corn-based stuff. That is why local ethanol producers need both help, in the form of subsidies, and hindrances on the competition, in the form of tariffs, to stay competitive at all.

These policies make Americans worse off in general, because we have to pay more for our ethanol (although that cost is hidden among government spending as a whole). Furthermore, corn prices are going up to never before seen levels, since we're converting so much of it to ethanol. The consequence has been devastating to people around the world, especially in nations poorer than our own. This is classic big government at its worst, and yet some of its most staunch defenders are conservatives. That such a no-brainer issue has been such a challenge to deal with is a discouraging foreshadowing of the spending battles to come. Big props to Republican Tom Coburn for fighting back against pseudo conservatives like Norquist, and trying to get this wasteful spending eliminated.

Ethanol subsidies are a form of tax expenditure, and eliminating these would save the federal government literally hundreds of billions of dollars. President Obama mentioned this as a goal in his budget speech the other night. Obama used the phrase "spending reductions in the tax code", in other words, reducing tax expenditures. Jon Stewart was making fun of Obama for using what he thought was Orwellian language to mask a call for tax increases in general, but Stewart misinterpreted what Obama was saying. Tax expenditures are just government spending by another name. Faux conservatives will try to obfuscate this point. They will accuse President Obama of trying to raise taxes, but he is really trying to eliminate big government subsidies. He is going to need all the help he can get, especially from honest Republicans like Tom Coburn.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Republican Debt Ceiling Bluff

Last fall, Obama compromised with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for another two years. He was roundly criticized by the left for caving in to Republican demands. I actually thought Obama got a great deal when you consider how weak his negotiating position really was. An outcome of failed compromise was more tolerable to the GOP than it was to Obama, for various reasons, so he really couldn't force their hand on anything. Obama recognized his weak bargaining position, and took what he could get. It may not have been satisfying but it was the right move.

Fast forward to several weeks from now, when Republicans will apparently be "demanding fundamental changes in policy on health care, the environment, abortion rights and more, as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling." This is code for Republican intent to defund planned parenthood and strip the EPA of regulatory authority. Contentious issues, no doubt, but they are also issues that don't really affect government spending. They are a partisan distraction.

In the coming battle over the debt ceiling, I don't think Republicans realize how weak their bargaining position actually will be. The fundamental problem for the GOP is that they control one house of congress, but not the other. Since they control the House, it is absolutely a foregone conclusion that the House GOP will, at some point, vote to raise the debt ceiling. Concessions by democrats or no, forcing the US government to default would be most intolerable to the GOP's powerful backers. Obama himself is shielded from the process because any bill will have to make it through the Democrat-controlled senate; a bill with lots of partisan riders won't pass. Even if the GOP managed to buy off some of the few remaining centrist democrats, there will be at least 41 liberal Democrats who would filibuster an intolerable GOP-sponsored bill.

In the context of failed negotiations, the end-game is this: the GOP-led house passes a bill with severe cuts and partisan riders while the Democrat-led senate passes a modest bill with a few token spending cuts. At that point it is a game of chicken to see who jumps first. Who fears a US government default more, the Republican Party or the 41 most liberal Democrats in the senate? Is it plausible that banks, corporations, and other business interests will tolerate a US government default over a petty battle about say planned parenthood? As the default deadline approached, the Republicans would be forced to pass the senate bill by overwhelming pressure from their powerful backers.

Conservatives, now more than ever, need to start looking for the pragmatic voices in the Republican Party to lead in these negotiations. I absolutely believe that if Republicans put partisan battles aside, Democrats would join them and real progress on spending could be made. There are tons of low-hanging fruits that could be plucked to get real reductions in government spending. I am not confident that the GOP can yet be led by pragmatists. I anticipate they will insist on continuing to fight distracting partisan battles. If Republicans charge into this looking to win a political fight, they may be dealt a defeat of staggering proportions when the Democrats call their bluff.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Privatize Medicare?

I applaud Paul Ryan for having the guts to propose a drastic solution to our long term fiscal problem. That being said, I think his plan misses the mark. People have looked at the case of Medicare Advantage as a proxy for the effect of health care costs when using a voucher system. They've found that costs are not controlled in such circumstances. So there is no reason to think that privatizing medicare would actually slow growth in spending.

Remember: it is not medicare that is the problem, it's the fact that health spending is growing faster than the economy as a whole. If you could bring those two into line, medicare would be fine. The other problem with the Ryan plan is that the idea of privatizing medicare will be very politically toxic which will make it almost a non-starter. Any real solution to our fiscal mess needs to be politically viable.

As I've said before, Obama's ACA addresses the problem of access to health care, but does not reform the way we deliver health care. I'd love to see the Republicans and Obama agree to sit down and work on the ACA to include more cost-control measures. Obama would go along with it, no doubt, because with a bipartisan stamp of approval his bill would be implemented, Americans would get universal coverage, and the system would be sustainable. Republicans should go along with it because that is the only real shot we have to "bend the medicare cost-curve".

Yea, I'm still naive.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Poor people just lack discipline!

In Arizona, the local GOP has decided to start penalizing poor people for being obese, in an effort to close budget gaps. We certainly do have an obesity epidemic in this country. Perhaps a better way to address the problem is to stop paying people to eat unhealthy food.

Thanks to big government subsidies to meat and corn producers, we essentially pay people to eat meat products, fast food, junk food, and other sorts of other processed garbage. On the surface, removing this distortion looks like a no-brainer: we could reduce the size of government, save money, and reduce obesity rates by letting the free market work its magic. Unfortunately, no conservatives are championing this cause. As it turns out, the food industry is more effective at lobbying than poor Americans. Stopping government hand-outs to food corporations is difficult, but blaming poor people for lacking self control is really easy.

Speaking of self control, our current policies actually make willpower irrelevant in many cases. Increased demand for processed foods also means decreased demand for produce and healthier choices. Consequently, in many poor areas there are urban food deserts, where the only sellers are convenience stores and fast food chains. Unsubsidized produce sellers can't compete with cheap fast food and processed foods. A person in that environment may have the willpower to eat healthy foods, but lack a market. Imagine for a moment being a low-income single mother, trying to raise children in an area with no local grocery stores. It becomes easier to see our agriculture policies contributing to a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating, obesity, and poverty.

What we have right now is a government that is actively encouraging people to make bad decisions. It would literally be no different if the government was handing out free packs of cigarettes, or had heroin dispensers on every street corner. "Hey addict its your fault, get some self control!" Apparently everyone is OK with this status quo, but what about the opposite? What about a government that encourages people to make good decisions? We could strip the subsidies from meat and corn and place them on fresh produce and other healthy choices. Alas, that is a political non-starter, because that would be socialism!

At any rate, I would be OK with the truly 'conservative' solution: strip the subsides, shrink the government, and let the free market work.