Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dam It...An earthquake

Most of us consider an earthquake an 'act of God.' Even if we don't believe in any particular god. We believe that certain things are beyond the cause and effect of humans. But is it so???

There is now talk that a dam that created a reservoir in China may have caused or hastened the earthquake that left 80,000 people dead or missing in Sichuan Province. Seems all that weight of water less than a mile from a fault line could change the actual geological activity.

With a dam fifty stories tall you might really be able to change nature at its most basic. Which leads me to wonder if we can the a force for preventing or delaying seismic activity. But probably not. Our best efforts at intended consequences seem to always go off track.

See the story here in The New York Times.

The Destruction of the Rain Forest

Like global warming (and a cause of it) we assume that the rain forests are being decimated as we speak and that there is little we can do about it except shake our heads at big corporations (and individual indigenous people) destroying the forests to harvest things from it or to clear fields and raise crops.

I was surprised then to read in The New York Times that another trend might be partially or even completely reversing the downward spiral in the number of acres of this pristine wilderness.

Yes, as people leave the land and go try their hand at life in the city, their cultivated land is quickly turned into...rain forest. Naturally there is a debate about whether these new forest are really rain forests or 'caricatures' of same. Read the article for yourself here. But whatever is happening surely urbanization causing new acres of natural (or quasi natural) forest qualifies as an unintended consequence. Individuals leaving the land, of course, does not stop global corporations operating so that, as one 'expert' put it "every stick of timber is being cut in Congo is sent to China." But there is certainly more going on than the simple views bandied about outside JUC. Yeah, it's here where we find the 'hmmm' in every story that might seem black and white.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Women's Work

In this picture from the sixties you see a couple of my aunts in the center. One was a school teacher and one was a secretary or admin in a bank trust department. I had a couple of other aunts who were teachers, another secretary and one who was a non-com in the Navy. My mother finished her education to become a teacher after I went to school. By the time I graduated from college a few more things were open to women. I got a job as a computer programmer. I worked that job for two and a a half years and was never promoted. Still I didn't have to take a job as a teacher (fact is I washed out of the requisite ed. courses to get a certificate) and while I visited the Navy recruiter, a job offer for this computer job came along before I had to resort to that and I got free training there. The year was 1970. I bet my Aunt Mary (looking at the camera on the right above) was still wearing gloves to work. We both worked downtown and we'd meet for lunch sometimes. I was required to wear a dress or suit with skirt to work.

So why am I telling you this? What are the lurking unintended consequences? Well, in the depression of 2008/2009 (and beyond?) a funny thing has happened as people were laid off. The majority of laid off employees are men and women's percentage in the work force was already increasing. They work in many more fields today but many are nurses, teachers, etc. A trend is occurring that could make the proportion of women in the work force greater than fifty percent. The NY Times wrote about this phenomena. Of course, since women are still paid less, generally, this is a way to slash payrolls I suppose.

More women than men in the work force! But, where a couple has only a working wife, will he do the dishes and shrub the shower?

History shows us that men won't take it easily, though. When they returned from WWII, they just booted the women out of factories and construction. This time maybe some will retrain as nurses and teachers.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Crack Kids

Remember all the approbation? How crack-using moms were vilified and their kids taken away because they endangered them in the womb and how they were born addicted, those kids, with an uncertain and hopeless future? Yeah, turns out, writing about the subject in Tuesday's New York Times that they titled it "The Epidemic that Wasn't."

Turns out that if you were a baby boomer and your mom smoked and drank (and who wouldn't if you were a woman after WWII), it could be you were more abused in the womb. Yeah, crack cocaine? About the same as if your mom smoked cigarettes. She drank a little too much? Worse than that.

Lots of mothers-to-be are very kind to the developing pup these days, giving up caffeine, alcohol, druges, cigarettes for the duration and even for the nursing period.

[The picture? Stolen from an ebay trader trying to sell a hyper-realistic doll. Scary, I know.]

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Who's Next?

We have a half Kenyan/half white American president who promised equality. So, of course, all the slices and dices of our great patchwork country are ready for their close-ups. Latinos. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered. Women, women, women. Atheists and other non-Christians. (Not to lump Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc. with atheists but also not to leave anyone out.) And the disabled. Governor Patterson of New York is blind and black, but he only got the top job because the white straight guy had a sexual activity dust-up. Everyone is ready to have their day. Lots of people took heart in Obama, but he is not them. He is not native Hawaiian, nor Japenese-, Chinese- or Vietnamese-American. He is straight. He is male. (Having a house full of females including the mother-in-law doesn't get points.) His ansestors weren't slaves. (That I know of.) He is not descended from the Sioux or Commanche. He is not a native Alaskan.

Everyone wants a turn, wants to be heard and be as important as everyone else. Most especially the probable majority...women.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

You're a Doll

There have been a couple of dust-ups of late about dolls that maybe are trying to capitalize on the newsworthiness of some children. Here and here. Everyone is outraged! Especially Nancy Grace who is, as far as I can tell, now depending for her entire career on one dead kid. What I want to know, really, is where the Elián González and Jon Benet Ramsey dolls are? (OK, I'm not looking. I couldn't take it if there were dolls for this pair.) As for dolls for the Obama kids...well there was a Caroline Kennedy doll back in the day. Where was the outrage? Do you think it helped or hurt her in the pursuit of a Senate seat? (Read the great article from The New Yorker here. It even mentions the doll.)

[Apologies to the ebay trader from home JUC has stolen the image of the puzzled (?) baby doll head.]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Riding the Wave

I took Paste Magazine up on their offer to let me make an Obama poster for myself. I think I'll ride the wave of my vast popularity (yeah, right) to expound on two things that have been troubling me. They don't have much to do with one another. Or do they? We shall see.

OK, number one: does Obama still smoke? It's clear he did smoke cigarettes (he admitted as much). It's clear he tried to quit. Perhaps multiple times. And he appears to be chewing nicotine gum. (He was seen in his new armored Cadillac popping gum. I can't believe a president would chew gum except if he was trying to kick a habit.) So...he did smoke and maybe he still does. He isn't supposed to inside the White House. So probably he's chewing gum, wearing patches or he has well and truly kicked it. But what if he did still smoke? Well, no one is out to bail out big tobacco and couldn't he do that by introducing his generation to the joys of (even furtive) smoking all over again? Well, it would do my RAI stock some good. (As it is if they keep their dividend and the price stays where it is the yield is over 8%. Go on, buy some. Even if Barack doesn't keep smoking, you know the homeless guy on the corner with the cardboard sign will still have cigs as a high priority.) Smoking is an interesting unintended consequence spiral. I hate secondhand smoke. I was against a local smoking ordinance because I thought it was too onerous on the bar and restaurant owners, but, wowie, zowie, I love sending those guys out on the street to smoke while I eat, drink and listen to music in comfort! And, yes, I still own RAI. I would own defense stocks, too, but I don't happen to at the moment. (Except somewhere in my mutual funds, I bet I do.) I mean, no, I don't think we should blow people up but still, we do. Have to invest in something. Can't just stick to solar energy and hybrid cars and health food restaurants.

So, yeah, now that you are listening because of my super campaign poster...I've got another ax to grind in a somewhat similar vein. Where did the money go?

Really, you always wonder that when market value in the stock market disappears and all these companies are showing losses, don't you? It's worth thinking about. Some salient points:

  • Let's say you had some stock. Last January you checked the price and updated your net worth accordingly. You didn't sell the stock. You just valued it. Let's say it was selling for $60 and you had 1000 shares. You are thinking: I have 60K there. I could sell it and buy a fancy car. But you didn't sell it. You held on to it. If it's worth, say $40 a share today, you 'lost' 20K, right? Well, not really. You, personally, never traded the stock at 60. Let's say you bought it back in the dog days of 2001 (although before the 9/11 meltdown) for an average price of $24. As it happens you are sitting on your original 24K plus an unrealized capital gain of 16K. Oh, and by the by, maybe you got $3.40 a share per year in dividends for those years since 2001. That's 23K. Where is that money? I don't know, dude. Did you buy a (cheap) car? A bunch of iPods, iPhones, iMacs, iThis, IThat and flat screens? The money doesn't really disappear. Although we might not have it. (And, to be fair, Uncle Sam got 15% of your qualified dividend. So the government got $3400 and you know they wasted it maybe paying Congressmen or something but still the money didn't really disappear.)
  • Let's say you had a dollar. You gave it to a homeless guy. He bought some cigarettes. (Ch-ching. Dividends for my RAI stock.) But your dollar is gone. The homeless guy turned it into smoke. But still. The convenience store got it. And they used some of it to pay the middle man for the cigarettes and some to pay utilities and a little bit to pay the clerk, maybe. (Remember that "Simpsons" episode where Apu said to Homer, who did a brief stint as convenience store clerk, "You stole from me, you were lazy, late, indolent, were the best employeed I ever had." I'm paraphrasing, sue me. I'm also digressing.) Anyway, the money never disappears. It really doesn't. (Well there is that change rattling around in dranis, but really not so much.) So when the government prints more money to give it to banks, there is MORE MONEY. And eventually, sadly, money is worth less stuff.
  • So, yeah, maybe you bought a house. For more than it was worth. And got an insane zero down loan with a rate that was low until it was high, high in a way that gives usury a bad name. You are sitting there in the fancy house and you are going to be bounced by the bank. Still you got to live there. And someone got that much money for the house. The bank gave it to them. And they have collected some money from you and they have the house. The money is still flying around somewhere. You don't have it, but then what money did you put up? Some low payments? Count it as rent, pack your stuff, get out.
  • Now let's say you invested a million with Bernie Madoff. (Did he take amounts that small?) Anyway, your money is toast. But that's your money. The million is around somewhere. If you never took anything out, then Bernie gave it to someone else. Or the yacht company. Or he bought some jewelry over at Tiffany's or bought a chateau. Trust me, your money isn't gone. You'll just never see it again.
Now, do me a favor. Go scrounge throught the couch and your drawers for change. If you smoke, go buy a pack. If you don't, give it to a homeless guy. Get that money moving. It's all out there.

I may have more to say about this subject. But I had a glass of wine tonight (the winery gave money to pickers and bought a bottle and distributors and the restauarant get the idea) and it's muddled my thoughts. But my thirteen bucks? It's out there somewhere!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Need A Job? Need an Adventure?

The young man in the picture above is a dear family friend surrounded by a couple of my great nephews and a great niece. He's like an uncle to them. He and his brother have both gone to Iraq and back.

In 1970, I graduated from college. I had a bit of a struggle to get a job. It was a time of unbelievable inflation and there was a financial crisis. I finally got a job but not before I'd visited some military recruiters. I was determined to get a job and some training somewhere. I had no money to go to law school or graduate school or take a year off in Europe to find myself. Note that this was before the draft ended for the Viet Nam war and before women were placed in quite as much harm's way due to the restrictions on their service. Which is not to say none died. They did.

Today's New York Times notes that as jobs disappear the military recruiters are exceeding their goals. There are other women out there and many men, too, who are looking to the military to support themselves and gain skills. So the bad economy is creating a boon for recruiting. Maybe as an unintended consequence someone will die who would not have. Or maybe someone will gain valuable skills. If Obama stands down in Iraq and somehow solves the problem of Afghanistan and all the other spots around the world, though, we won't need as many soldiers and sailors and Marines. And then these men and women will be 'riffed' (reduction in force is a kind term for being laid off from the military). When the Viet Nam war ended, my brother-in-law's military career ended with it. He went on the a career in the "military industrial complex" but I'm not sure the timing was his choice. And we all remember (OK, probably no one reading this does) when the "boys came home" from WWII and all the women who had been admitted to factory jobs were sent home whether they had a way to support themselves or not.

Employment, war, the economy. A tangle of consequences and most, yes, unintended. People get a job, training. Other people make bombs, Humvees, missiles. They have jobs and paychecks and buy houses and flat screen TVs and give to charity. Some people die. Maybe a lot. Viet Nam? Over 50,000 Americans and probably millions of Vietnamese. Obama promised to step down war and save the economy. Sadly, wars help economies sometimes.

The Danger of One Dimension

Some times it's best to temper your outrage. Sometimes it's best to give someone you loathe and see no good use for, the smallest benefit of the doubt. Maureen Dowd manages to celebrate Obama's view that there are many sides to issues ("Obama is delighted by doubt.") and skewer President Bush for casting things as good vs. evil only to land in the muck herself with this statement:

“You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made,” he [President George W. Bush] said Thursday night. “But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”

Actually, no. His decisions have been, for the most part, disastrous. If he’d paid as much attention to facts as fitness, 9/11, Iraq, the drowning of New Orleans, the deterioration in Afghanistan and the financial deregulation orgy could have been prevented.
She gives him some decisions that weren't "disastrous" and then says that a list of things could have been prevented by, we assume, a less completely stupid (or evil?) president. Ergo, if Al Gore had been president, there would have been no 9/11 and no sub-prime loans? That she could use 'could' (not 'might' and maybe could is not as strong as 'would' but still) and prevent and 9/11 in a sentence is a strong statement indeed. Lucky for the pundits that people are willing to give Obama a long honeymoon period (as polls are showing).

This is what makes people discount the opinions of most of the pundits in Op-Ed land. Even if we blame George Bush for everything for the next eight years, this will not get us to a point of looking at the nuanced and scary world where lots of people don't think like we do. It will not get us to the point where we realize our own (well, not me personally, but still) blame in the mortgage and credit crisis. Blaming one man, even the president, for the acts of rogues is a dangerous game. I don't recall anyone upbraiding Bill Clinton for the attack of African embassies in 1998. (Although I'm sure if I searched I could find some right wing 'thinker' who did!) There was some dust up about Clinton's response, though. Seems we bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in the Sudan and claimed they were making chemical weapons. What did seem to be a fact was that the plant made a lot of the drugs for people and animals in Sudan. What is not as clear is that it made chemical weapons. And none of this fact-based (really?) and measured response by the Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton "prevented 9/11." Bush had been in office less than nine months on 9/11!

Maureen, I'm sure the former President of the Harvard Law Review does "delight in doubt" and that he will not take to heart this black and white blame game against George Bush.

When you write to sway our opinions (as opposed to connect with those who agree with you one hundred per cent), you should be careful with sweeping statements. I'll only be reading you in the future, Maureen, for more fodder for the JUC.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


When I was in Junior High School English I was asked to make a poetry notebook. We had to hand copy or type poems we admired and assemble a book. I couldn't see the point. (Which was, I'm sure, to make us familiar with the poems in a way just reading could not and, of course, prove we'd read them. Today the kids would blindly cut and past and print and, well, there wouldn't be a point. You'd have to make them write about the poems but then they'd still probably plagiarize from the WEB. But I digress. We'll get back to that.)

It seems that everyone is euphoric about Obama's election and determined to be present at the historic inauguration of the first president whose father is African and who played basketball in Hawaii and the president upon whom hope is heaped (he asked us for it, our hope that is) that all the pains of the last eight years may be erased and world peace and economic stability achieved.

I get it. I think it is more exciting than the (upcoming) Super Bowl and Oscars. I think it is more exciting, probably, than any inaugural in my lifetime. I think it is probably the most riveting non-tragedy in my lifetime. Kennedy's assassination, LBJ's swearing in, Ruby shooting Oswald was something you couldn't take your eyes off. 9/11 similarly. But for a happy occasion (or if you were not for Obama at least a neutral occasion showing that the country is indeed a sort of democracy), this seems like the biggest deal in my lifetime. If I'd been alive for VE day and VJ day, that would have probably won.

But. Going to Washington? You'd have to pay me. I'm not even going to join a remote throng in Austin. I'm going to sit in my condo and watch coverage on my flat screen TVs. I might have to pay some attention to the Australian Open, however. It is a Tennis Grand Slam, after all.

So what am I getting at? Well, happy crowds or mad crowds, doesn't matter. Crowds are unwieldy, expensive and dangerous.

Bush declared a state of emergency because of the fear that more funds would be necessary to control the crowds. Cell phone companies warn that they won't be able to handle the traffic. ("Where are you?" "I'm by the Lincoln Memorial in the Obama shirt.") People are staying in hotels hundreds of miles away. People don't know how they are going to get around from party to party. (Or to and from the faraway motel room.) Think Super Bowl victory celebration times a hundred. (These celebrations have turned violent even. Euphoria and anger are too close together it seems.)

So what does any of this, any of these unintended consequences of large groups of celebrants gathering, have to do with that poetry notebook?

Well, I guess that as I wound it up, after typing the penultimate poem from some book, that I thought of all these kids in my class doing this same thing and it struck me as funny. So this was the last poem my English teacher would see, I decided, if she checked that far. (She did. She guessed who the anonymous author might be. I did not fail, however.)
Crowds may cheer;
But never fear,
They also jeer
And rarely hear
What is intended or recommended.
These uncivilized masses:
English classes.
Too many people, too few resources. No matter how cheerful everyone is...I wouldn't be there. I'm doing my part and staying home. It's my creative answer to it all. I won't be at the Oscars or Super Bowl either. Wouldn't want to be. The Austrailian Open, though? Yeah, I'd like to join that crowd.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Barriers and Equilibrium

That's a fragment of the Berlin Wall that is in Midtown Manhattan. (Or was when I took the picture. I bet it's still there.). I saw the Berlin wall when it was in operation. We took a bus to East Berlin. On the way back we stood aside while they looked in and under the bus for people who were trying to escape their Utopia. I didn't see Berlin again for over two decades. The fragments of the wall were museum pieces (and chips were sold in souvenir shops). I also took pictures of fragments of the wall in Canada (Toronto I think) and Dallas. We scoff at the wall. We exhibit pieces as relics. "Tear down this wall!" we cry imitating Reagan. Yes, Reagan.

I am using this picture to represent walls and barriers everywhere. But I especially want to talk about the long border to our south, the one between the United States and Mexico. The idea of building a wall along our southern border to keep the flow of economic refugees out is so ludicrous that I thought it would never go forward. But go forward it did. If you are a fan, I'm sure you are saying: "But it also keeps mean old drugs out of our country." Yeah, like with the profits involved a wall could ever stop that. They have planes and other sophisticated means. The whole drug war is a subject for another JUC entry. Maybe another day. But we will keep getting back to it here.

No. We are building a wall to stem the tide of maids and laborers. To cut off a cheap labor supply for meat-packing plants. Perhaps the well-paid, unionized auto workers see a future there. Will they just miss the boat on efficient hybrids to encounter a turn to the vegan life style to interrupt their careers with their high school diplomas? But, I digress. (Ed. Note: Save unions for another day.)

We are actually building this wall. People are protesting the splitting of neighborhoods from shops and the condemnation of land and the walling of wildlife movement and other inconveniences. I doubt it really changes the game in illegal crossing with the risks and human suffering.

Well, recently, I started to hear that Mexican immigrants were getting squeezed out of jobs and returning to Mexico. (Although I did find that one wall contractor was busted for using illegal labor. Ha.) This wall is trying to stop, after all, a barrier to economic equilibrium. There is no reason that Mexico and, say, South Texas should have this huge economic difference. It is maintained by the border itself, the border that defines what government you have.

When I heard about the potential recession-era return of immigrants, I thought, "Now that belongs in the Journal of Unintended Consequences. Who knew we could solve that problem by destroying our own economy buying houses we couldn't afford that were so big we had to hire illegal immigrants to clean them?"

But if that was the end of the story it might not have been enough to get JUC out of its hiatus. (It wasn't a retirement exactly. Isn't hiatus a great and useful word?) No, there had to be something more. Then I learned that the situation in Mexico with corrupt and ineffective police was so bad that people were afraid to return. Indeed, the relatives of people who are in the U.S. (legally or illegally) are being kidnapped and ransoms paid from the U.S. These people aren't going home but are trying to get their relatives out, merely to get them in a more secure environment.

Amid the terrible violence in Mexico is another unintended consequence. Maybe the whole of history is one unintended consequence? We (well me) at JUC tend to think so. Yeah, in some cases the police and army are getting control of drug lords in certain areas. This has sent these goons off to other regions where they duke it out with other bad guys for dominance and, in the process terrorize more poor, honest citizens. (I tried to find a link to the story that made this assertion but I was quickly overwhelmed with stories about the violence in Mexico. Ed Note: If I'm going to link up specific news stories you read you are going to have to save them!)

Border towns used to benefit from tourists from the U.S. Our politicians didn't really mean to stop this, but first the long lines to return and now the high probability of violence have shut down the innocent trade in onyx chess sets and sombreros.

I was against the wall. (As in 'not for it' as opposed to up against it!) Fact is, I'm against illegal drugs. (In that, I'm against creating a huge economy of violent sellers of same and filling up our jails with people who are caught with the substances.) Naturally I realize that legalizing drugs and liberalizing immigration have a vast potential of unintended consequences of their own. But thank your lucky stars that you live where the police and army still have the bandwidth to control criminals somewhat while rounding up thousands of economic immigrants and people with a ounce of weed. (If indeed you do live in such a place. There are spots in the U.S. where I suspect the drug lords run the show.)

But illegal drugs? Well, that's a subject for another day. Today I just want to say that walls do not succeed long term in changing economic and political imbalance. And that this economic imbalance between us and Mexico is subject to the laws of unintended consequences with the recession sending people home, but the violence there making them want to stay, job or not.