Today, I’ve added my schoolwork from fall semester of my senior year of high school, when I wrote some of my favorite essays for British Literature, International Relations, and college applications. I’m very happy I found them. I wish I had more on my computer, but I’ll have to wait until my next home visit (Christmas?) to find my Song of Myself, my parody of “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” and the like. Stay tuned!
Archive for September 2010
A couple days ago, my friend Alec Williams posted this:
“40 million Americans are receiving some form of food assistance. The richest country in the world leaves 1 in 8 people unable to afford their own food.”
If you are on the left, you might argue that the gap between the rich and the poor is too wide in America, and that businesses are not working hard enough to get Americans jobs. If you are on the right, you might argue that some of those poor are changing their spending habits and life activities because they know that assistance is coming, and service union demands have made it harder for companies to employ people. You’d have an argument either way. But I think there’s a simpler explanation that isn’t discussed nearly enough. It’s this:
Food is too expensive in America.
Here in the middle of Taipei, I don’t run my refrigerator. It’s not cost-efficient, since it would mean running my electricity all day long, and I can already eat fresh and nutritionally balanced food from restaurants and food stands for $7 a day. An upscale restaurant would charge me $8 for a meal. In China I could make it on even less, something like $2 a day. I’ve been to plenty of countries with less expensive food. It isn’t because they have magic beans: Norman Borlaug, the man who did the most to end world hunger, was an American. It’s for other reasons.
Some are innocuous: health regulations and paperwork cost money and time. The cheapest food here is sold in small, popular roadside stands that seem like they don’t have to answer to anybody.
Some are simple trade-offs: sales and income taxes hurt producers as much as they hurt consumers. Labor costs are higher in the U.S., partially because of Social Security, medicare taxes, health benefits, and minimum wage laws, partially to compete for labor. (Some readers have said labor costs are the biggest factor.) They have to raise prices until they can turn a profit or get out of the business: luckily for them, everyone needs food, so demand is inelastic. (On a related note, food stamps might drive up prices, too, since producers know the bottom of their market is subsidized.)
My friend Antonia Wang says that since Americans spend 9.5% of their income on food, which is the lowest percentage of any country ever, we shouldn’t call our food expensive. The problem, rather, is that the wrong things are cheap: processed foods. She says, “The ultimate reason is that Americans don’t cook anymore. And making pancakes from Bisquick and pasta from Hamburger Helper is NOT cooking! People can’t tell good food from bad food if they don’t know good ingredients from bad ingredients. And they can’t distinguish because they get packaged and boxed stuff instead of fresh, unprocessed produce and meats.”
And then there’s farm subsidies and trade barriers, which are ubiquitous in both the States and in Japan. In both countries, farmers are influential in the less-populated states, and that means they influence both the politicians who represent them and the politicians who need their votes in national elections. (I suspect ethanol’s massive subsidies are attributable to Iowa’s position as the first state in the presidential primaries.) In the States, subsidies are so skewed toward the big farmers that Willie Nelson still has to do Farm-Aid for the little ones. When subsidies create surpluses (like what we have with corn), they do drive down food prices, and when they keep people in business who are less effective, they push prices up. The Franklin Roosevelt administration paid farmers not to farm in order to prop up prices; we don’t do that anymore, but we do pay farmers not to farm to protect wildlife and pay some people who aren’t farming. On the whole, people have argued to me, subsidies drive prices down, provided you exclude the tax money spent on the subsidies in the first place.
Trade barriers lift prices up by locking out cheaper goods from other countries. Only Americans know what high-fructose corn syrup is, and it’s because our sugar is so protected and so much more expensive than everyone else’s that our companies substitute that yellow stuff. Japan is protective of its own rice. I’ve mentioned before that U.S. farmers demand we send their food as aid to struggling countries, which helps wipe out their local farmers who can’t compete with free meals.
Everything is too expensive, and we produce too much of the wrong things because we change the incentives. Processed food is cheaper than fresh food, so we’ve substituted toward buying things that are worse for us. But not enough people realize what’s happening, so our legislators pass farm bills year after year. As a legislator, Barack Obama voted for them just like everyone else.
So that’s farming, but I think it’s symptomatic of a larger problem. Well, okay, nothing can be more important than food, but bear with me.
I think the problem in our country isn’t corporations or welfare: it’s corporate welfare. One of the best articles I’ve ever read is this one: Corporations Versus the Market by Roderick Long. I’d read the whole thing, but in short, big businesses have the same weaknesses as big government: blindness to local problems, cumbersome bureaucracy, inflexibility, and so on. Local businesses can do very well against them if they work hard and are innovative. McDonald’s, for all its success, is limited: it has to make food the same way all over the country. A local restaurant can make things you couldn’t have anywhere else, but McDonald’s can’t because consistency is its mantra. You and I may never know about the greatest restaurants in the country, but they’re out there.
The ace in the hole for big businesses is that their size makes it possible for them to negotiate with politicians and bend the market in their favor. Do you remember when Wal-Mart was in the news all the time, and the right said it was an example of free markets while the left said it was destroying small towns? It turns out Wal-Mart holds out for tax breaks and incentives when it looks to open new stores in order to guarantee its success.
The Bush and Obama Administrations have bailed out the people on the top (banks, car companies, you know them – Goldman Sachs and the US Government are like best buddies now) and the people at the bottom (mortgage plans, cash for clunkers, stimulus, extended unemployment payments). Small businesses employ half of private sector employees and have produced two-thirds of the net new jobs over the last 17 years, according to the SBA. When the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper the opinion of the Japanese business community, it asks the presidents of the biggest corporations. It’s like asking the lions what’s best for the food chain. What about all the small businesses? Can I mention Joe the Plumber and keep your esteem?
It’s like burning a candle at both ends. It’s like a novice chef making a soup and adding too much salt. He can add all his other seasonings too, but that would make it too strong, like a school lunches where the kid mixes everything together in the middle of the tray. He could add more water, but his pot is only so big, and that would thin out everything else. It’s hard to find the right balance when you start tampering, so it’s easier to keep it simple. Let’s start over by taking the privileges away from the titans.
(Footnote: I’m sorry there aren’t more citations; my time is limited.)
(Second Footnote: Thanks to my friends for helping me edit this article: Spencer Hahn, Brian Hornung, and Antonia so far. Writing about national politics is difficult.)
Aussie marathon man to run from North to South poles for charity.
There are so many people doing incredible things we’ll never know about. I love his perspective on his abilities: “I believe I’m born with a gift,” Farmer, 48, told AFP. “My gift is to be able to run long distances faster and perhaps further than any other person on Earth, so I figure I’d be a fool if I had this gift and didn’t use it.” In other words, he isn’t better than anyone else: he was different from the time he was born; he can’t explain it; he wants to make the most of it.
Chinese city is world’s hacker hub
Isn’t this great? A den of pirates that look like they aren’t doing anything? I imagine a swarm of swarthy gentlemen slurping up 10 cent cups of ramen noodles in the mess hall and keeping their eyes glued to their screens. A horde of shirtless programmers pounding away at keyboards in the galleys. Vending machines in place of barrels of rum. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t laugh about this too hard since I’m well within range of their cannons now.
Why the United States Should Look to Japan for Better Schools
This editorial is five years old, but I don’t think it’s been discussed enough. Japan is serious about teacher training, and they do it for their teachers’ entire careers. In my opinion, the best way to improve is to teach in front of other teachers, then hear their critiques. It’s more real than studying reading books of theory before going to a classroom, then never getting trained again after you’re established. I’ve seen even 50-year olds benefit from the suggestions of others. Maybe one reason the mandatory retirement age is so low (60) is that they don’t want people who are set in their ways.
Why Americans can’t write political fiction.
This is an in-depth comparison of American and European writing in the genre. I must add that perhaps the greatest political novel was “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century. It covers a hundred years of intrigue and civil war following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in the second century. It’s a Chinese proverb that the young shouldn’t read Luo’s “Outlaws of the Marshes” because it would inspire them to a life of crime, and the old shouldn’t read “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” for the same reason.
Today’s four links:
Hand-Holding Across the Aisle: A sweet story about marriages between Republicans and Democrats.
The maps that show the racial breakdown of America’s biggest cities [based on 2000 census]. We could be more integrated. But then, sometimes I feel like half the foreigners in Taipei are inside my dormitory.
Law Schools Now Require Applicants to Honestly State Whether They Want to Go to Law School. It’s The Onion, but it’s funny because it’s true!
And in honor of today’s election…
That’s the one you right-clicked, right? There’s no way you can resist a title like that!
I love four sports leagues and four sportswriters.
My favorite American football writer was Paul Zimmerman, alias Dr. Z. He was born in 1932, grew up in the Bronx, played offensive lineman for Columbia, Stanford, and the U.S. Army overseas, knocked around in minor league football in the time of Unitas, then caught on in journalism in 1963. He wrote for the New York Post from 1966-1979, also contributing a wine column, then wrote in print and later online for Sports Illustrated from 1979 until 2008.
Nobody in print knew more about the game than Dr. Z. When Michael Vick played for the Falcons, he had a dream that they played the single-wing formation Pop Warner invented after World War I. He was the Jets beat writer when Joe Namath played there. He covered every Super Bowl but the first one. He knew everyone, and he’d seen everything, but he continued to work around the clock to understand what was happening in the here and now. He watched almost every minute of football played every season so that he could fairly evaluate the players, for whom he had the utmost respect. He especially cared for his kin, the linemen, who most people only notice for their weight. And he never stopped writing about wine.
Every month, Dr. Z would joke about how his mind was going as he got older. I smiled because I thought it never would. And then it did. He suffered a stroke in 2008, in the middle of the season, and now he’s partially paralyzed and can’t speak. Now the most analytical football writer is Gregg Easterbrook, and he’s great, but his columns are so long that the one I read from start-to-finish was the one after the Colts lost the Super Bowl, as a substitute for the Book of Job. So I simply read less about football. I miss The Doctor. I even watched “Gunga Din” because he loved it so much.
My basketball writer is Bill Simmons. I know EVERYONE my age likes him, but that’s what fascinates me. Without him, I wouldn’t understand what’s happening in pop culture or television. There isn’t a mailbag on the web that’s better than the one he cracks open every couple months, because men trust him so much they’ll tell him everything about them. He saves his most farcical stories for the end and concludes, “Yep, these are my readers.”
I brought his atlas “The Book of Basketball,” which was 800 pages and 80 pounds, to Japan in my carry-on, and then I read it in four days. The most accurate writing is actually done at The Wages of Wins, which is run by economists, so if you want to know what’s going to happen, visit them. They make blueprints. Bill Simmons paints pictures. He’ll make you feel like you understand exactly what happened at a game, whether it was last weekend or in 1975.
Phil Ball is an Englishman living in San Sebastian and writing about La Liga. I could read Spanish writers if I like, but Ball seems more knowledgeable than the rest. Just as crucially, he’s more level-headed: he won’t pitchfork Barcelona or Real after a bad game most of Spain’s writers and fans do, and he doesn’t have allegiance to either. I’d never bought a sportswriter’s book until I ordered “Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football.” His gift to the world is explaining the deep connections between the professional league and Spanish society and politics as a whole, something the Spanish writers just take for granted. If you understand the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, you understand the country, and more power to you if you also know Athletic Bilbao, Atlético de Madrid, and the rest of the nation.
Finally, baseball. I’m not sure how old Joe Posnanski is: he looks older than my Dad, then again, but so do I. What’s disorienting is that he can list the 32 pitchers with the best fastballs in baseball history, or the 32 flukiest home run seasons ever, and back it up with so many anecdotes and so much data that it seems like he was there for every one of them, like he’s a memory card for all of baseball. He doesn’t just remember what a team was like in the 80’s; he remembers what it was like in 1987. Yet he understands and loves statistical analysis, which is something most older writers have been fuming about since we’ve had graphing calculators.
Here are the cities on Posnanski’s life path: Cleveland, Augusta, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. If you had to make a list of places where you can raise a nice family, but you won’t ever get famous, it would look a lot like that. Yet he was too good of a writer to ignore, and as of last year he’s the senior writer for Sports Illustrated on not just baseball…but everything. Because he’s been out of the spotlight but working hard, there’s so much he can tell now. He knew nothing about soccer, and they sent him to the World Cup anyway, because he can create an angle for any story, and he’s such a nice guy that you want to listen to what he’s telling you, even though you’re starting at a shiny box a thousand miles away, and there’s no way he’ll know if you read his column or not.
Sports is entertainment. I’ve always wondered if I spent more time on it than I’d need to to carry a conversation with other Americans. It’s not like I get twenty dollars in my bank account whenever Peyton Manning throws a touchdown. People like this keep me coming back. I always thought writers had to have the answers for the “big questions,” but their stories and their humor have made me happier. I’ve enjoyed their writing for years without hearing a word about God or Society. I’ve spent at least three times as much time reading about sports as I’ve spent watching sports, and as long as there are writers like this, it’ll never change.
Look under the “Schoolwork” category. There’s philosophy, politics, law, literature, and Spanish.
Rurouni Kenshin: Finding the Word in Unexpected Places
Religio, Volume 1, Issue 2, Fall 2007, Pages 12-13
These are my letters home about a variety of subjects.
Every two weeks, I participated in an adult English conversation salon. Most of the people were Japanese, and most were elderly, but their excellent English exhibited their lucid minds. Everyone gave a speech about a certain subject. When I couldn’t make it, I sent something to be read in absentia.
I applied to work at Tokyo Orientation for new teachers, and the first two pieces are proposed speeches for that. I was asked to speak at the Kumamoto Prefectural Orientation, and so the third is what I submitted for the handbook.
Here are a couple other Japanese compositions.
Here are a few things I used in school.
Here’s what I’ve written about Japan since leaving.