Thoughts

The answer to a great many questions of today

This post will seem to fall right out of nowhere for you, mainly because you haven’t been privy to my thoughts in recent years — how could you be, after all? It may also strike you as highly inconsiderate and you may even become angry with me. Let it be so. You will inevitably calm down and you may also agree with me in a few months or years. 

The pompous title may lead you to think I’m going to philosophize. Nope, it’s just a little bait meant to entice you to read on. I’m going to speak plainly, because this must be said plainly and repeated loudly, for all to hear and understand: the answer to a great many questions of today is “too many people”

Go ahead, ask a question about the state of the world or the state of the planet. Any question at all. The answer, if you dig right down to the core, is inevitably overpopulation

Shall we have a go right now? Here are a few examples; keep in mind you already know the answer: 

  • Scarcity of clean drinking water?
  • Disappearing forests?
  • Disappearing fish? 
  • Disappearing animals?
  • Garbage piling up everywhere?
  • Pollution?
  • Overconsumption?
  • Poor quality of manufactured goods?
  • Poor quality of foods? 
  • Traffic jams?
  • Growing numbers of lonely and depressed people in large cities? 
  • Filled up cemeteries that are now contaminating water tables and surrounding land?
  • Crowded schools?
  • Crowded hospitals?
  • Crowded nursing homes?
  • Crowded mass transport? 
  • Crowded buildings/smaller apartments/taller buildings/feeling like a sardine in a tin can?
  • Natural beauty ruined by poorly planned and poorly made modern development?

I could go on and on, I suppose, but I would also get sadder and sadder as this list grew bigger. It’s daunting to face up to the problems we’ve created for ourselves, simply because we collectively thought there should be more of us. “Sure,” we thought, “let’s go on f*****g, it feels good and we’re making babies. The world needs babies…” 

It turns out, the world doesn’t need that many babies. Babies of all species are absolutely adorable and they melt your heart with their cuteness, but the overpopulation of any species is a real threat to the species itself and to the planet as a whole. 

In the past, people thought the answer to many questions were more people. How do you solve a labor shortage? How do you fund social security? How do you gather enough revenues as a government in order to build and maintain a modern infrastructure and have enough employees to take care of it all? How do you grow the economy? We thought “more people” was the answer. Well, it turned out not to be so. 

Paradoxically, at over 7.2 billion people, we still have massive labor shortages, social security and other social safety nets are in the dumps, it turns out that governments can never have enough revenues, and most puzzling of all, that economies and companies do and must stop growing. As a matter of fact, the very economic model that drives every economy in the world is based on constant growth. We can talk about “boom/bust cycles” and “contagion” and “recovery” all we want, but in the end, it’s about growth. And you can’t have growth forever. At some point it stops. It has to stop. You either run out of people or you run out of resources. To pick an example out of recent memory, there are only so many smartphones that people will buy. Given the limited resources available on Earth, there are only so many TVs/cars/houses/pieces of furniture you can make before you turn the whole Earth into a dug-up wasteland. 

This is a huge topic: an immense “minefield” that we’ve built and that we’ve got to wade through and “disarm” if we want to have a sustainable future. It’s filled with “hot potatoes” that no one wants to touch or step on, because there’s a real price to pay in the real world if you are a person of any clout and you dare talk about these things publicly. But these things must be said and someone must make the hard decisions, or else… 

Shall I tell you what you’re thinking? If you’re a parent, the basic question swirling through your mind right now is: “How dare YOU tell ME whether or not I should have MY children?” How dare I even bring up the question of procreation, which most people, at some level or another, conscious or subconscious, believe is their God-given right and even more so, God-given blessing? 

I wonder though, should God ever truly speak to us — if He or She or It would even deign to speak to an arrogant, dirty, criminal and avaricious species like ours — would would be said? We don’t know. God isn’t speaking to us, in spite of what some deranged “religious leaders” seem to think on the topic. We are left to figure this out on our own. 

I think it boils down to egotism. We are all so caught up in ourselves, most of us much more so than we realize, that we believe the world would be deprived of something if we didn’t have children, as if our exact chromosomes will combine to create a super-child that will solve the problems of the world. Let me assure you, right here and now, that collectively, the world won’t miss a beat if any one of us stops having children. It might even breathe a sigh of relief, as in “Thank God, I’ve been spared another mouth to feed!” And no, your “super-child” won’t solve the problems of the world. YOU need to work on solving them RIGHT NOW, so STOP procrastinating and passing the buck to future generations! 

What about the other egotistical question, “But who will take care of me when I’m old?” Does it always have to be about you? Must you be a burden to your children in old age? How about you figure out some other way, such as taking care of yourself and your money, so that you reach old age in relatively good shape? That way you can be independent and function well, living from your own resources. Why, you might even be able to give back to society, through volunteering and donations, instead of being a feeble shell of your old self, depending on social security and being carted around by a nurse. 

Is it any wonder that the rate of birth among well-read, well-educated folks all around the world is declining rapidly? As people better themselves and start to think beyond their bellies and their willies, they begin to see that all is not well with the world, and they choose to have less or no children. 

When I think of the people who are having more children, it is unfortunately those who shouldn’t be having them. Let me make it CLEAR here that I am NOT talking about RACE. What I am talking about is: livelihood, education, household resources, strength of the couple’s relationship, geographical location, available opportunities and so on. Let me make it plainer: a child born to a couple who abuse each other physically and verbally, living on government aid or in poverty, or in a country roiling in upheaval and conflict, will have limited or no opportunities and will have a poor quality of life. That child will likely be abused by its parents, perhaps even sexually — certainly and at the very least emotionally — and will grow up just like them, stunted, tortured, a stump of a human being that will likely continue to hurt others, just as it was hurt, knowing no better way in life, unable to do better in life even when shown and helped. That mother and father should give serious thought as to whether they should be having children at all, because they cannot provide for them, but unfortunately they give no thought to this at all and typically have them in droves. Is that the right thing to do? 

The solution is simple in theory but near-impossible to implement: we must each of us choose to have but one child or no child. It must not be forced upon us, or else it’ll feel horrible. We must make that choice. If all the families in the world would choose to make this decision, for the sake of our world as a whole, the world population would enter a steady and unforced decline, a very welcome decline that would allow us to slowly plan and become accustomed to an ever-decreasing population and re-work our economic and government models in order to account for it. 

I cannot state how dire the situation truly is. In developed countries, it’s easy to get lost in the abundance of it all, even if you’re poor. You can still dream about “having it all” and you think it’s going to be like this all the time. But we are on the precipice. We have been for some time, our end postponed for a little longer and a little longer. Mind you, I’m not talking about Biblical stuff here. I’m talking about the planet shaking and scratching us off like a bad case of fleas, but it’ll certainly feel Biblical to us. I’m talking about us doing it to ourselves, because as a species, we are all of the stuff I said we are in the paragraphs above. And it’s so easy to solve this peacefully, slowly, without the use of force and fear and horror, if we act now and we act collectively. 

I am sorry to dump this on you so near to Christmas. I’ve been mulling over this stuff for years and I’ve alluded to it here and there, but I haven’t come out and said it outright so far. Since most of us will have some downtime and our bellies full this year-end, it might be a very good time to think on these things. 

I remain hopeful. Who knows, in the near future, instead of bugging newlyweds for grandchildren, parents might ask them instead, “Have you thought about not having kids?” or “Isn’t one child enough, honey?” Wishful thinking, I know… 

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Let's recap where we are economically

A video compilation of various Peter Schiff TV appearances (2002-2009) is available on YouTube. The quality isn’t that great, but the message is pure gold. He’s been saying since 2002 that the US economy would collapse, and he gave solid reasons why it would collapse every time. His messages got more pointed with each appearance, they made sense, and yet he was ridiculed over and over for his opinions by so-called pundits on various TV networks. Ben Stein once said to him: “Sub-prime is a tiny, tiny blip.” I bet he’d like to eat his words now…

In 2004, I wrote an article where I said some of the same things Peter Schiff was saying — namely, that an economy financed by debt would not go on forever, and that we might be headed for another Great Depression. Back in 2004, the real estate market hadn’t even hit its peak, so I based my observations on common sense. I have no education in finance, but I can spot a turd no matter what it’s called.

I wrote then that the slowing US economy was being falsely propped up by the war spending in Iraq, but that wouldn’t last. You see, the government operated under a false assumption. The thought that what pulled us out of the Great Depression — the ramped up spending for WWII — would do it again in modern times. They were wrong. As I also wrote then, the WWII spending paid off: the world wanted American products after the war — they were hungry for them, and the manufacturing economy, which had been making weapons, shifted into making lots of things for export, like cars and clothes and other badly needed things in war-torn countries. Back then, we had a manufacturing economy, and there was real demand for our products.

History unfortunately does not repeat itself. In 2004, things were different. The US had no American products to export (unless you count weapons of war). It had moved most of its manufacturing overseas, leaving little to make at home. It was going into massive debt to finance a war that would (among other doubtful goals) stimulate a slowing economy, yet, from the get-go, they were not building American goodwill overseas in order to stimulate demand for American products. Even if they had done that, there were no American products to export, since we did not have a manufacturing economy any more.

A quick aside: some were saying a while back that the US is in the information services business — you know, IT, expertise, analysis, consulting, research, etc. — white collar stuff. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone in the US can hold a white collar job. There are a finite number of people out of the US population (percentage-wise) that can do those jobs, and there are a finite number of such jobs available. To make things worse, information products lose their market value fast in times of economic hardship: when you need money to buy bread, you aren’t going to worry about knowledge; your stomach comes first. Also in the “things get worse” department, India and China are only two of the countries that can steal a large number of our information jobs as more of their people are educated. Don’t forget how many Indians work for Microsoft and other tech companies, and how many Chinese are involved in research. Unfortunately real products that fulfill real, tangible needs are still the king, because they are always in demand if they’re quality goods.

Okay, back to the war. It took people’s minds off the economy until the real estate market ramped up, and when that bubble burst, the whole ugly truth came to life. We had no economy to speak of, it was all propped up by debt, and all that debt was crashing down on us, as some, including myself, predicted. In my article from 2004, I said the following:

… unless we get someone in the White House who is willing to address the problem of debt head-on, I think our country is headed for certain disaster.

Fast forward to 2008. At the end of September of that year, I laid down my thoughts about the impending economic crisis. I was saying pretty much the same things I said now, except I approached the problem from a different angle. You see, we hadn’t yet elected Obama. Later that year, my wife and I, along with many other people, voted for him, because he was better than the alternative, and we hoped he’d do some good.

While the jury is out on that last part, and part of me says I should just sit back and wait to see what he does with his presidency, part of me goes back to the problem of debt and wonders if he’s tackled it head-on, like it needs to be handled. Unfortunately, he’s headed in the very opposite direction. He’s going to put our country into yet more debt in order to keep stimulating the economy. All this stimulating makes me wonder what status quo the government hopes to achieve. Just what state of the economy do we want to return to? Where do we want to go after we’ve spent all of that money? These words from Jim Kunstler say it best:

“… to what state of affairs do we expect to recover? If the answer is a return to an economy based on building ever more suburban sprawl, on credit card over-spending, on routine securitized debt shenanigans in banking, and on consistently lying to ourselves about what reality demands of us, then we are a mortally deluded nation.”

So, we’ve been going into more and more debt, for years and years, propping up a sick economy that has no more manufacturing backbone to stand on its own, and we’ve never taken our medicine. The US economy is like a sick man who’s hyped up on speed and other crap to keep from crashing into a bed and going through a proper recovery from a serious bout of the flu. It can’t go on forever. It has to at some point end. It doesn’t make sense otherwise. Like I said in an article from February of this year, there will be an ugly third act, where the fat lady will sing and the curtains will come down, and believe you me, it’s going to be a doozy.

Will it have to do with the severe de-valuing of the dollar and cause it to be replaced as the world reserve currency? Possibly, since some countries out there, like China and Russia, are already calling for a new global currency. I think there will be more unrest beyond the dollar debacle. And who knows, perhaps behind the scenes, that was the plan all along: bring on a crisis where bargains are to be had for those with the money to get them, and the sort of economic unrest that would make it easier to move certain pieces of the big puzzle into their place.

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Our economy: a very distinctive photoplay

I found this photo of a truck advertising the Rialto Theatre on Shorpy. What perked my interest was the juxtaposition of the truck in front of the US Treasury Building. Although the photo was taken in 1925, it’s somehow applicable to our times.

Rialto Theatre truck in front of US Treasury, 1925

Doesn’t it seem strangely non-coincidental that a photoplay/movie truck would find itself in front of the Treasury building, particularly when you consider what economic times we’re living in? I for one have been feeling like we’re watching a theater performance every time I turned on my TV in recent months. Politicians and government employees and suits from the Federal Reserve (which is separate from the US government) and CEOs have all paraded in front of the cameras and wept for the state of our economy when they themselves were at fault for its state. They’ve been crying crocodile tears and promising to make it all better, and we sat there mesmerized, hoping for a savior.

We had the drama of the economic downturn, then the drama of the election. The first act is over. Now we await the second act, which includes a bonus appearance from a fantastic pork-barrel stimulus plan guaranteed to make all the Washington hogs cry out for joy. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I won’t tell you what I think of it, but it’ll involve a lot of work from the US Treasury building in the photo above. They’ll need to print a lot of Monopoly money to finance it all.

At any rate, this is what I think of the economic crisis. And this is what I think of the way companies are treating their employees nowadays. Finally, this is what I think of the problems car companies are having. Call me the guy from the nosebleed seats who thinks the show sucks and keeps throwing peanuts at the performers. Maybe I’ll get booted from the theatre, but at least I’ve spoken my piece.

Just remember, there will be a third act…

Photo used courtesy of Shorpy.

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Using the economy as an excuse to shortchange employees

I’ve seen companies do some pretty disgusting things in my time, and the move some of them are pulling lately definitely ranks right up there with some of the biggest stinkers.

In effect, they’re using the current weak economy/recession as an excuse to lay off employees and burden the existing ones with the extra work, while keeping them mum under the fear of losing their jobs. If this isn’t corporate exploitation of its workforce, I don’t know what is.

I’m going to give you three examples, each juicier than the other, but I’m sure you can come up with more if you’re in the US and you’re employed in a full time job.

The niche business with an owner

I talked with an employee from a certain company lately, one which specializes in a niche market that has not been affected by the economic slowdown, nor does it look like it will be affected any time soon. I can’t disclose any identifying details, because the employee confided in me. What he told me was this: the president (and owner) of the company fired some employees while cutting year-end bonuses for the rest of the employees, using the recession as an excuse. The employees, the ones doing the hard work, have been handling a record amount of business for the past year, but the president cited a slump in incoming business. I was told the same president has been spending lavishly to expand his own mansion and buy extra cars and toys, during the same year when the supposed slump in business took place.

Adobe’s record profits

This example is more concrete than the previous one. In December, Adobe reported record revenues for the 4th quarter of 2008, and the sixth consecutive year of double-digit growth, yet they still laid off employees in November just the same. I’m not surprised though. I talked with a friend who is a long-time software developer, and he told me Adobe has another ugly habit: historically speaking, they have relied mostly on contractors, because it’s cheaper, and they’re easier to shed without bad press.

JPG Mag starts a bidding frenzy

Let’s look at JPG Mag. It’s the darling of many amateur photographers, because it gave them the chance to publish their work when other magazines might turn them down. I never really liked it, and I’ll tell you why: I thought they were cheap.

Here was an easy way to get print-worthy photographs without paying a dime. Turns out you could get amateur shutterbugs happy and willing to give away their work simply by dangling the illusory promise of publishing their pics in your magazine. The incentive was fame, which is as fleeting as a fart and just as troublesome, if you’ll excuse my expression. Where’s the moolah? Last I checked, bills were still payable in money, not fame.

When they announced they were going under, I thought it fitting. Good riddance to bad rubbish. First they don’t pay the photographers, then they fire the founders, now they’re going under — okay by me. Unfortunately, the buzz generated by their announcement stirred the vanities of those with bigger wallets, and a bidding war began.

But wait, there’s a nugget of bitter truth to be found among all this fake glimmer and shine. Turns out they fired all their employees, and now the CEO trumpets the company’s earning potential in messages to the bidders. PDN Pulse called them out on this, and rightfully so. Sure, now the company has earning potential since everyone’s gone. Hire a skeleton staff, make them do double or triple the work, pay no money to the photographers, and you’ve got a hand-dandy business model fit for the 21st century.

To sum things up

So you see, it’s okay to use the economy as an excuse when it befits your bottom line. Apparently, it’s okay to lay off people, it doesn’t matter that they’ve got bills to pay, that they’ve put a lot of hard work and time into your company. You shouldn’t do what you can to protect them in a weak economy when it’s harder to get jobs.

None of that matters, right? Ethics are so passé. You just use whatever excuse you can to make sure your precious bottom line gets bigger and bigger. It’s all about GREED. You can never have enough money, and people are only a means to it, right?

Well, I think that’s wrong. I don’t care if you’re afraid that the recession will affect your company. I don’t care if you really want that shiny new toy and a couple of employees and their mortgages stand in your way of getting it. I don’t care if your stockholders will bitch. If greed and money are your only motivators when you run a business, and you’d gladly step over people to balance the spreadsheets — don’t give me any of that I’m so sorry and I feel your pain crap — then you’re a spineless, slimy, pus-covered slug, and you deserve to be squashed under a steel-toe boot.

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Premium gasoline dips below $3 per gallon

As I filled up my MINI a couple of days ago, I glanced at the pump and noticed the price of the premium gasoline: $2.77 per gallon. I couldn’t believe it. I left the pump running and ran toward the street sign to take a photo.

I just didn’t think I’d ever see premium gas dipping below $3 again. While I’m sure others welcome the change — and I can’t say I disagree when you consider the issue solely from the point of view of one’s bank account — I still say gasoline needs to stay above $3 at the pump, in order to encourage proper driving behavior and to make research into alternative fuels and technologies viable.

It wasn’t that long ago that I paid $4.45 at the pump to buy premium gasoline for my MINI. There’s a huge difference between $4.45 and $2.77, and I don’t like this sort of yo-yo behavior when it comes to gas prices. First it was too high, and now it’s too low. It’s not right. It needs to stabilize somewhere between $3-4 dollars per gallon, preferably somewhere between $3.00 and $3.50.

If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on a gasoline tax (which isn’t a new idea, but already in use in Europe), see this post from March of 2005.

I took the photo above with my Nokia N95.

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A few words on the economic crisis at hand

I’ve just got to say what I’m about to say, because it’s gnawing at me from inside, and I need to have it out. I’m not going to pretend I’m some economic guru, and I’ll use plain words.

My thinking on economics is simple. I understand tangible products. If an economy makes stuff I can touch and see, if it manages to sell that stuff both inside and outside the country, and the unemployment rate is low, then things are well.

I think things started to go sour when our industries decided to shift manufacturing to third-world countries. The thinking was that cheaper labor would result in cheaper products and lower prices. The truth was that it took jobs away from our country and it really only resulted in higher profits for the investors, not lower prices for us. As more companies would announce they were moving factories abroad, I would wince, because I knew our economic power was decreasing with each and every move. When you’re making less stuff in your own country, it’s plain common sense to realize that your economy is weaker.

As our economy started to move away from manufacturing and toward the service sector, I winced again. If you’re not making tangible products, what are you really making? Services? Knowledge? That’s all nice and good, but you can’t base an economy on intangibles. You just can’t. You have to have a good, healthy mix. I suppose I shouldn’t complain about this so much, since I work in IT. Still, at least what I make is tangible. I make websites and web systems. You can see and touch those, or click on them anyway. But not everyone can be a knowledge worker. It takes a certain amount of dedication, interest, perseverance and education, and many people simply don’t have the inclination to do that, or to be knowledge workers. That’s where having a good mix of jobs to offer your people is important. The more manufacturing jobs you move away from the country, the less variety you can offer your people. Plus, what do you do with all the folks you’re laying off as you “restructure” your economy?

When real estate prices started going up like crazy, I knew they’d come down, hard. They were bound to do so. When a pathetic little townhouse with a few tiny rooms, made out of plywood and fake brick cladding, cost over $400,000, that couldn’t be good. As prices kept going up, and people bought up multiple properties using ARMs, banking on the hope that the values of these properties would continue to grow, but no regular person could afford to actually own one of them, that was just plain wrong. When the home prices in most neighborhoods are so high that they’re out of reach for most, that’s asking for trouble.

Then I heard about the gaming that went on behind the scenes, as loans were approved by mortgage companies which seemed to sprout out everywhere. We knew someone who worked at one of these companies, and that person was just shocked at what went on. Executives would push employees to approve more and more loans only so they could get fat bonuses and afford McMansions and Mercedes cars. Meanwhile, the employees got nothing but low pay and long hours.

What’s more, I also heard about investment firms buying up groups of mortgages left and right, and re-selling them, and creating ridiculous layers of investments and speculations on top of these (mostly) insecure loans, in order to squeeze as much profit from them as possible. I’m sure that if you go back and check most loans, you’ll find 5-6 layers of additional financial speculation on top of the original mortgage. That’s insane and it makes me sick when I think about it. Instead of letting someone borrow money and charging them the set interest fee for the life of the loan, banks were selling these loans left and right as soon as the papers were signed, not caring where they ended up, letting others take the fall when and if the loan defaulted, etc ad nauseam. I knew that wasn’t going to end well.

Fast forward a couple of years to where we are today, and is it really any surprise that we’re here? Is it? And what’s being done about it? The government wants to bail out the banks and give them insane sums of money. You can’t do that! If they’ve mismanaged their own money so badly over these past several years, while their executives got filthy rich, let those same “smart” executives figure out how to fix their own problems! But no, what we’ve got now are scare tactics employed across the main stream media, where politicians and bankers are trying to scare us into giving in and allowing the bailout plan to go through. We’ve got bankers lobbying politicians to get the plan passed, and we’ve got them salivating at the thought of getting a piece of the bailout pie. This is ridiculous and irresponsible!

I keep thinking about Bush’s televised speech when he wanted to go into Iraq. And then I think about his speech just a few days ago, where he used the exact same scare tactics and language to try and get us to agree to the bailout plan. Jon Stewart did a great job of contrasting the two speeches on The Daily Show [reference]. Here’s a man that’s derailed our country, our economy, our international standing, and our military over the past 8 years, and we get to see his scare tactics in use once more. He’s clearly beholden to special interests, and they write his agenda. They wrote his agenda when he said we should go into Iraq, and they’re writing his agenda now that he wants to bail out the corrupt bankers. Given his track record, does he really deserve any credibility? I don’t think so.

So what should we do? Ride it out. Let the bankers suffer and cry. Let’s take our proverbial castor oil, let the crap pass through the system, and move on. They said it would be a disaster yesterday, when the stock market tumbled 778 points, and yet it jumped back up by 485 points today as investors gobbled up stocks while the prices were low. I think we all need a serious round of belt-tightening. Many Americans need to learn a hard lesson, namely that life doesn’t work on credit, that you need actual, real money to buy stuff. People and politicians and banks everywhere need to learn real fiscal responsibility. They need to learn that they can’t run up bills on credit cards and loans and credit derivatives and bond issues and not expect them to come due at some point. They need to learn that saving is more important than spending, and that a healthy economy means an economy that keeps its jobs inside the country, and makes most of what it needs inside the country as well.

It is truly unfortunate that none of the candidates running for president is saying this. I support Obama on my website, as you can tell by the Obama button in the sidebar, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything. I think he’s the better choice out of the two, but he’s pretty short on substance when it comes to what needs to be done about our economic crisis. And he actually supports the bailout plan — probably out of fear, because he doesn’t want to be saddled with a big recession should he win office. I honestly wish Ron Paul was still running for president, because he’d get my vote, solely for his common sense approach to this whole mess.

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Good vs. bad globalization

As I traveled around Europe, I saw globalization in action, and made the following observations.

Being able to drive through various countries without needing to go through customs checks at the borders was wonderful. Unencumbered travel is a great experience.

The preservation of local or national cultures is of the utmost importance as people from various countries mingle more freely. Dominant cultures end up dominating, and that’s not a good thing. If I switched through various radio stations in Austria or Romania, I seldom heard German music, and even less often did I hear local music, like traditional Tirolean songs. Instead, I heard the latest hits from the US and the UK. I really don’t care to hear the same music I hear at home when I travel. I’d rather be immersed in the culture of the country I’m visiting, but that’s become quite rare nowadays.

Related to the point made above, the people who win from globalization preserve their local culture, because it not only enriches them, but it’s also a bankable practice when it comes to tourism. Clean, beautiful cities, where the old building were preserved and renovated, not torn down, and friendly local people are what tourists want to see.

The ability to export and import goods freely is great. It’s good for the local economies to have the potential of greater distribution. By the same token, it’s horribly bad when companies and factories move to areas where it’s cheaper to operate. Local economies, cities and people suffer so much when that happens. Just look at what’s going on in the US. I can see the same thing happening in certain cities in Romania. Just a decade or so ago, people used to have jobs and work in local factories or shops, and now they’ve all been sold or moved, and those same people, tied to those cities through their families and houses, are now scraping the ground to get by. I don’t know how they do it. It must be incredibly tough and frustrating.

Related to the point made above about not companies staying put and not moving, why do you think the US economy is hurting so badly now? It’s because it has become based on services and virtual goods like complicated and unnecessary financial speculation, not hard goods. Other than farming products, we make very little in the US these days. Most of the US products (and most of the world’s products for that matter) get made in China. Is it any surprise to see that China’s economy is booming?

Remember that countries have two ways to exert their influence in the world: (1) soft power, which refers to economic and cultural power, and (2) hard power, which refers to military force. US’ soft power has been waning in recent years, through its own faulty policies, and so the only way left for it to retain its dominance is to increase its hard power. The problem is that exerting hard power makes the soft power diminish even more and it also breeds enemies, which makes it even harder to retain dominance in the long run. Soft power preservation is the best long-term foreign policy a country could have, and the US has failed at it.

EU taxes are a heavy burden to bear. The VAT (Value Added Tax) is around 20%. That’s crazy. Not only does that make everything more expensive, but the markups are also higher. This means you’ll sometimes find that the same product, like a laptop or a camera, is up to 50% more expensive in Europe. That doesn’t make sense to me, particularly when salaries in so many Eastern European countries are unbelievably lower than in Western European countries, yet the prices are just as high.

In globalized economies, there’s greater potential to encourage correct or responsible behavior by standardizing business or agricultural practices. Vice versa, there’s greater potential to mess it all up as well, but let’s try to stay positive here. I liked what I saw in Europe when it came to land care and the preservation of forests. I also liked seeing entire fields filled with wind turbines, which generate electricity with zero pollution. I also liked seeing solar panels on the roofs of many, many houses in the countryside. I like the EU’s anti-corruption efforts, and I like the way they encourage good infrastructure through grants and loans to member countries.

When standards are put in place, there’s the potential to go overboard with rules and regulations. While the intentions are good, if you make it too onerous for an individual or a small business to compete or participate in the marketplace, you are effectively favoring large corporations and driving out the small guys. I see this happening with farming regulations in Europe. People that used to own herds of sheep and cows have now been forced to sell them or become part of large farming cooperatives, because they couldn’t afford to keep up with all the rules. Farmers operate on thin margins and big risks, and when you introduce extra costs, you are in effect killing them.

It would be a horrible shame to drive out all the small guys and let large corporations handle all of the marketplace. For one thing, you are killing the spirit of passionate people that love what they’re doing, and for another, you’re destroying a way of life that has served us well for thousands of years.

I do hope the EU and the US do their part to keep small farmers alive and well, while encouraging the production of food through responsible, renewable and healthy practices, free of genetic manipulation and unnecessary hormonal, pesticide and antibiotic treatments.

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Places

The C&O Canal

I suppose I should call this “Trip to the C&O Canal – Part Three”, since it’s the third time I write about the C&O Canal (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal) on my site. Here is Part 1 and Part 2. But it’s certainly not our third trip, because we’ve been there numerous times, during various times of the year.

This last time, we did it by bike, starting at Lock 7, which can be accessed from the Southbound Clara Barton Parkway. We traveled past the last gatehouse, which I think was was Lock 12, and past the Carderock Wall, to some section of the canal beyond it.

It’s a lot of fun to bike on the C&O Canal. For one thing, the path that accompanies the canal used to be the old towpath for the mules that pulled the barges, so you know you’re stepping on a piece of history. For another, the canal towpath was built to have no steep grades. Other than little hills that correspond to the drops in altitude at lock gates, the towpath is mostly level, so you won’t get long-winded trying to walk, run or bike up long hills.

As you’ll see in the photos above, some parts of the canal were completely dry. I’m not sure what caused this. Perhaps it was the summer heat, or as you’ll see in a couple of the photos, a sinkhole that opened upstream and possibly swallowed all of the water from those sections of the canal.

The idea for the C&O Canal originated with George Washington, though in another form. Having worked as a land surveyor in his youth, he dreamed of the possibility of making the Potomac River navigable. He thought the only way to do it would be to build skirting canals around its falls. While he was still young, he could not convince the State of Maryland to do this, but after the Revolutionary War, let’s just say it was easier for him to get people to do things.

The Patowmack Company was formed in 1784, and construction began on the skirting canals. Washington himself supervised the construction personally. Beside the canals, channels in the river itself were deepened and boulders were removed. There was a great deal of work to be done, and the work wasn’t finished until 1802, three years after Washington’s death.

Although the canals were useful, the route didn’t generate as much traffic as it should have. For one thing, it was only truly usable up to two months out of the year, due to low water levels. Plus, it was very difficult to get the boats back up the river, because of the current. People ended up dissembling the boats downstream, walking back upstream, and building another boat. This was not efficient nor productive.

George Washington’s idea was interesting, and people kept thinking of a way to capitalize on it. A way to use the Potomac River needed to be found. That’s where the construction of a canal came in. It wasn’t new technology, as that sort of construction was already used in Europe, and even dates back to antiquity.

On November 5, 1823, a convention was held Washington, which led to the chartering of the company that would build the canal on January 27, 1824, and finally, to the start of construction of July 4, 1828.

The construction of the C&O Canal ended in October of 1850 at Cumberland, Maryland. The original plan to extend the canal to the Ohio River had to be modified, because of the extremely hard nature of the work, its slow progression, and financial troubles with the parent company.

Parts of the Canal were opened as they became available, and it worked as a water route until 1924. Frequent flooding closed it for months, and sometimes, for entire seasons, and in 1889, the parent company went bankrupt. It was then taken over by the canal’s rival, the B&O Railroad. In 1902, they even took over the boats. Whereas they had belonged to the people themselves — to the families that toiled night and day to carry goods down the canal — from that year forward, they belonged to the Railroad company…

The B&O Railroad did as little maintenance as possible on the canal, and in 1924, when another flood destroyed parts of it, they closed it down altogether. The canal slowly deteriorated afterwards, until it was taken over by the National Park Service in 1971. They restored the towpath and re-watered parts of the canal.

Here’s an interesting fact [source]:

“Transporting goods and people by canal dates back to antiquity. The lock gates used on the C&O Canal were an adaptation of a design by Leonardo DaVinci in the late 1400’s. Until the advent of the railroad, water travel was far superior to land travel.”

If you’d like more information about the C&O Canal, I recommend the official C&O Canal NPS website. Make sure to use the menu on the left side of the page to navigate through the various sections. It’s a little hard to find your way around at first, but it pays off if you keep digging — there’s a lot of information posted there.

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-19

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-11

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