The Econ of Eating

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I recently reconnected with the editor of my high school newspaper when I discovered that he has been attending FreedomFest for several years. A former bureau chief for Forbes, he is now retired in the northern California town where we attended high school and writes a weekly column as a restaurant critic. I’ve enjoyed reading his reviews. They tend to focus as much on the restaurateur as on the food, and they are always kind and encouraging to entrepreneurs. Just for fun, I decided to mimic his formula and write a restaurant review of my own. Those who frequent New York diners will feel right at home in my review, if not in my specific diner.

Every Monday and Wednesday I drive up the river to Ossining where I park my car in an upper lot and hike down 122 uneven stone steps (yes, I’ve counted them) to Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison where I teach college and pre-college courses to the inmates. I check in at noon for my 1:00–3:00 class, hike back up to the lot for my two-hour break, and then return at 5:30 for my 6:30–8:30 class. The hardest part of teaching at Sing Sing isn’t dealing with the security guards, or the stairs, or the oppressive heat from the radiators, or the faint odor of mold that permeates the air and clings to the students’ papers. It’s figuring out where to eat between classes.

“How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce.

Ossining is a small village on the Hudson River, and dining options are limited. It has several convenience-store delis, a couple of Chinese takeouts, a few nice restaurants that don’t open until dinner time, a McDonald’s, and a diner. I usually opt for one of the latter two for my afternoon break, since those are the only places that offer seating.

At least once a week I select the Landmark Diner, so named because it has been a landmark in Ossining for over half a century. Most New York diners are owned by Greek families that immigrated to America shortly after World War II. The Landmark's story may be the same. What I know is that the owner — let’s call him Themi Papadopoulos — recognizes me and shows me to a booth in a corner where I can eat my solitary meal and grade papers until class time. The restaurant is slow between 3:30 and 5:30, so he doesn’t mind my taking up the booth. And I always purchase a full meal.

Like most New York diners, the Landmark sports a menu at least 25 pages long, including four pages of breakfast plates, eight kinds of burgers, a dozen styles of chicken breast, another dozen fish options, at least 20 pastas, plus soups, salads, and steaks. “How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce. And most of it seems to be pre-cooked. The only difference between chicken piccata and chicken marsala is the jar the sauce comes out of. Your best bet at a diner is either bacon and eggs or a hamburger and a milkshake. It’s the only food that tastes fresh. And it’s usually pretty tasty.

Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance.

This week, after showing me to my booth, Themi told me about the day’s specials — pasta primavera, braised salmon, and a half roasted chicken. Tired of my usual hamburger patty, and thinking the specials would actually be fresh, I chose the half roasted chicken. But first, wanting to make sure my selection would be half a chicken and not half-roasted, I asked him if the specials were already available, so early in the afternoon. “Of course!” he assured me.

Platters are huge at New York diners, harking back to the days in the old country when family members labored long in the vineyards or marble quarries and needed a hearty meal. The specials come with soup or salad, bread, potato, and vegetable. That day’s vegetable was red cabbage, another staple at Greek diners. Braised in vinegar, it has a sweet, tangy flavor that complements chicken or pork nicely. Of course, the flavor pairings are more successful when the vegetables are served along with the meat rather than between the salad and the main course, as mine were. Still, the delay of that course boded well for a thoroughly well roasted chicken, so I didn’t complain about my side dishes not being on the side of anything.

When my chicken arrived it was huge, almost the size of a capon, and the outer skin was brown and crisp, adding to my expectation of a succulent, moist, well-roasted meat. Alas, it was not so. The meat was hard and dry, with that unmistakable gaminess that happens after the Thanksgiving turkey has rested in the refrigerator overnight. Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance. I should have remembered that diners don’t roast anything.

I moved my chicken plate to the edge of the table and continued to nibble at my potatoes and cabbage until it was time to return to the uneven staircase at Sing Sing. As I was paying, the cashier asked how my food was.

At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries.

“Since you asked, the chicken was a little overcooked,” I acknowledged helpfully.

“Did you eat it? Would you like something else?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t eat it, but the rest of the food was fine. I don’t need anything else,” I insisted, not wanting to look like one of those people who try to get a free meal.

Themi walked over and apologized. “She’s a regular customer,” he said to the cashier. “Take 10% off the bill."

What a bargain! With tax and tip I paid $24.00 for a side salad, a scoop of potatoes and a scoop of cabbage. Yet I knew that the offer of a free meal was sincere. At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries. The successful restaurateurs are those who keep their customers satisfied.

It was a bargain because I didn’t come in for a great meal. We don’t go to diners for great food. We go for the familiarity of that 25-page menu. For the familial welcome of the owners. For the quiet table where we won’t be rushed out. And because all of those desires were satisfied, there was no reason for me to ask for a refund. I received what I came for.

I’ll be at the Landmark again next week. It will always beat standing at the deli.




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Carrot or Stick?

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The Green, Green Cane of Cuba

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Cuba has garnered a reputation for, and has been touted as, a model of green, organic, non-GMO sustainable production and consumption. According to the Organic Consumers Association (quoting Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, a study), many of the foods that people eat every day in Cuba are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Some of this is true, but because the regimen has been adopted out of necessity and not out of ideology (unless you count the Communist ideology that brought this on in the first place), it is not rigorously adhered to in the way in which, for instance, an organic farmer in the US might adhere to it. It is expediency, with ideology added after the fact to capitalize on necessity.

At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail.

As USA Today reported in March, “Cuba once focused on capital-intensive, industrialized agriculture on large state-run farms, but was forced to change after economic support from the Soviet Union evaporated. Beginning in 1990, Cuban food production fell precipitously. The country shifted to a low-input agricultural cooperative model. Even so, it suffered serious food shortages in 1994, which prompted further changes.” It might be added that, changes or not, sugar production has fallen by 60% over the past 30 years.

Unable to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba resorted to using horse, cow, pig, chicken, and even human waste for soil nutrition. And it tried to become self-sufficient in food production. At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail. And woe betide the gardener who broke a shovel — sabotage!

Into the breach stepped Uncle Sam, easing the embargo restrictions on exporting food and medicine to Cuba.

On my recent bike trip across Cuba, I was accompanied by a bourgeois socialist couple — retired on government pensions, upbeat about Castro’s “reforms,” berning-for-Bernie — who wanted to see the island before it was “ruined” by McDonalds, Walmarts, discount dollar stores, and other popular tendrils of free choice that might invade once the embargo is lifted. Fair-weather vegetarians (don’t mention bacon around them!), free-range egg fans, supplement-swallowing, sugar-hating, GMO-abjuring, organic-food faddists, they were also looking forward to eating “healthy” food in Cuba.

Well, Cubans don’t do vegetarianism. Castro pushed salads — mostly cabbage — on them during the “Special Period” in the ’90s; and, at least for tourists, greens remain a dependable staple, composed mostly of cabbage, tomatoes, beets, and cukes topped with canola oil and vinegar. But Cubans much prefer meat, beans, rice, and starchy veggies — yuca, malanga, and plantains, preferably fried — plus anything with sugar: rum (and any other alcoholic drink, such as the mojito, with an added dollop of sugar), guarapo (pure sugar cane juice), raw sugar cane, churros, cucurucho (a mixture of honey, nuts, coconut, and sugar), coffee brewed with sugar (traditional), malta (a thick, extremely sweet version of non-alcoholic malt stout), coke mixed with sweetened condensed milk, ice cream, and extra sweet pastries.

Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice it up.

On our visit to Cuba, my wife and I saw chickens everywhere, scrawny but free range. Every evening when arriving at our lodging, our host would offer us dinner, an always preferable alternative to eating in a government restaurant. I’d ask what was available and, knowing Cuban cuisine, would decide for the group. Initially I’d lean toward chicken out of respect for my “vegetarian” companions. Invariably, the chicken portions would consist of a giant thigh and leg with meat so white one could have mistaken it for a breast.

Aside: contrary to popular US perception, Cuba does have a fast-food restaurant chain — El Rapido, a state-run enterprise. Guidebooks and trip accounts tout it as dependable, with food quality varying from passable to good, especially the chicken — again, a thigh and leg combo. We never ate at a Rapido — but not for lack of trying. The ones we stopped at were either out of meat or not serving food because something had malfunctioned, or something else had gone wrong — but still open, with full staff just sitting around.

Riding with me in a taxi one day, Melinda, one of my progressive companions, wondered how the chickens we were served were so big when the ones we saw roaming about were so rickety. So I asked our driver. He said Cubans don’t kill their chickens, they’re for eggs. Eatin’ chickens are stamped with madinusa. Not familiar with the term, I asked him what it meant. He looked wryly at me, sideways, and then I got it: Made in USA.

When I told Melinda she gulped and said, “You mean we’ve been eating Purdue chickens? From now on let’s ask for pork; at least it’s organic.”

Pork is the ubiquitous Cuban meat. The only available roadside lunch snacks were in-season fruit stands and roast pork sandwiches consisting solely of pork and bread. (Cuba grows no wheat; it’s all imported, some of it possibly GMO.) Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice up the pork sandwiches (yes, it’s a strange combination, but delicious).

Beef was the least available meat, even though we saw lots of cattle in the central provinces. Apparently it’s reserved for the nomenclatura and tourists. Though not available in government ration stores, it can be obtained by anyone at convertible currency stores — if you have the money. At one B&B where the owner was tickled pink that I was a Cuban-American, it brought out her impish side. I requested ropa vieja, a traditional brisket or flank steak dish. She thought about it for a minute and said, “We can do that. And it’ll be the best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.”

I responded, “Remember, I had a Cuban mother.”

Without skipping a beat she retorted, “It’ll be the second-best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.” We both laughed.

Fish is widely available but of varying quality. Whenever it was offered as fresh and a good species, especially pargo, Cuban Red Snapper (nothing like it!), I opted for it. Yes, Cuba hasn’t overfished its stocks. But not for eco-ideological reasons; rather for “sugar cane-curtain” reasons: to limit small boat traffic along its shores, minimizing escape and infiltration attempts. Additionally, small-enterprise fishing businesses haven’t been allowed: the state will provide the fish. However, lobster is often available, and it is to die for — huge, cheap, and delicious.

Arguably, our best meal was at a paladar (private restaurant) in Playa Giron (aka Bay of Pigs). We were the only ones there. The menu, recited, not read, included a special trio of fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster, all for $15 each, including cheap imported Chilean wine and all the trimmings. When the waiter was through I asked him about caiman (the Cuban croc), which I’d heard was available for eating in the Zapata swamp area. He answered that yes, they served it but couldn’t announce it, as it was a protected species. Though I desperately wanted to try it and cock a snook at the Castro regime, we all opted for the special.

One of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — the source is nostril level and in-your-face.

One B&B owner, who’d been in the tourism business all through the Special Period, both legally and illegally (and had spent time in jail), elaborated on what food was like back then. He cooked us a typical dinner (as a side dish to the marlin and lobster he was serving us): boiled cabbage. I don’t know what he did to it, but it was surprisingly tasty. He added that breakfasts in the special period consisted of sugar water followed by labor in the cane fields — a dish he didn’t serve us.

You see a lot when you ride a bike through the countryside. At least once we saw someone spraying pesticides on crops. When I mentioned it to Melinda she despondently admitted that she too had seen it. But one of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — Cuba’s breezes dissipate that possibility, and there’s little heavy industry. The source is nostril level and in-your-face. All those old cars that look so charming have been retrofitted with diesel engines that have zero emission controls. Clouds of black smoke spew out of nearly every vehicle, to such a degree that one of our companions got sick. Riding for any length in one of those classic cars will make you sick. Floor holes funnel the poison into the cabs, which means that all windows must be open all the time. Our B&B in Havana closed all the windows facing the street, to keep the exhaust out. Though the problem is acute in cities and towns where traffic can be dense, even out on the highways we’d hold our breath and avoid in any way we could the passage of a bus or truck, the most common vehicles on highways.

Garbage, like many things in Cuba, is full of contradictions. Cubans are a very clean people. One informant told me that trash collectors are particularly well paid. In general, the streets are quite clean. But . . . every once in a while mounds of garbage dot cities, towns, and the countryside, almost as if they’ve been warehoused in discreet piles and then forgotten, only to make a sudden reappearance.

On the way to find my grandmother’s grave, I struck up a conversation with a street sweeper, about my age. He was pushing a two-binned pushcart and sweeping with a handmade broom. He had a very photogenic face and was smoking a cigar. Intermittently picking up trash — there wasn’t much — and sitting in the shade, he caught my eye. I asked if I could photograph him. He was proud to be so noticed. After some introductory remarks and typical Cuban give-and-take, he declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” I asked him to elaborate. He said things were much better before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

According to one person I talked to, the only municipal potable tap water in Cuba is in Baracoa, in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the far east end of the island. And it is delicious. Cool, free-flowing rivers fill Baracoa’s reservoir. Elsewhere, municipal water is a mess. In Guantanamo and in Havana, where I actually watched the process of getting tap water (and likely in other places too), it runs like this: Early in the evening, the water mains fill up. In a couple of hours the water level in the pipes gets high enough to reach the house branches. At this point, my two B&B owners turned on an electric or gasoline pump to get water from the mains into a cistern. Another couple of hours goes by; then, around 11 pm, another pump moves the water from the cistern up to a rooftop tank. Voila! Domestic water! — though not provided in the greenest way. Rural areas depend on trucked water and cisterned rainwater. Potable, government bottled water is also widely available. It is definitely not delicious. Though it has no actual repellent taste or smell, I have never tasted worse purified water. The consumer cost of both water and electricity is trivial — again, hardly an efficient or green approach to conserving resources.

Cuba’s organic farm production and the Obama administration’s trade overtures have caused concern among Florida’s organic farm growers. The March 18 issue of USA Today reports that

Florida farmers say the Obama administration’s plan to allow Cuban imports threatens their $8 billion-a-year business. Florida’s larger organic growers, already struggling to remain profitable, may be particularly hard-hit because Cuba has developed a strong organic farming sector.

Initially, Cuba most likely would export many of the same products grown by Florida organic farms, and the communist nation would enjoy the advantage of lower wages, state subsidies, cheap transportation and the novelty appeal of Cuban products.

It’s not just the subsidized competition that is worrisome. One American farmer asks, “When you buy Cuban products, are you helping the Cuban farmer — or the Cuban government?” He goes on to note that he worries about diseases, pests, and invasive species. Two-thirds of Florida farmers are against any deal. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are the primary products of Cuban state farms, but avocados and more exotic produce such as guanabana (soursop) are in the running.

The street sweeper declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” Things were much better, he said, before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

USA Today adds, “Eva Worden, a Cuban-American organic grower in Punta Gorda, Fla., supports a resumption of trade between the U.S. and Cuba but wants to be sure the fruit and vegetable needs of the Cuban people are met before encouraging exports.”

Natural, organic, and even “genetically modified” terms have always been a minefield of imprecision and ideology. When politics is added to the mix, it’s anyone’s guess what government policy might turn out to be. Best to let the consumer decide . . .




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Population Growth Made Simple-Minded

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The "Population Bomb" is back. Progressives, including the climate change crowd, have recently rediscovered the looming global population crisis. Burgeoning humanity is the root cause of famine, pollution, resource depletion, stagnating wages, increasing inequality, decreasing dignity, and many other affronts to the liberal intellect, not least global warming. Indeed, human fertility is the greenhouse gas (GHG) of population growth, absorbing the earth's resources as CO2 molecules absorb heat. We must now brace ourselves for a relentless torrent of drivel — articulated with the silliest alarmist buzzwords, teased from the pious liberal vernacular of condescension and hyperbole — to support the simple-minded liberal idea that the world would be a better place without so many of us. It is a goal that is achievable, we are told, only through the simple-minded liberal solution of empowering women to have fewer children.

To this end, it is said, a strong global family planning program is needed for the many tens of millions of women who would voluntarily limit their childbearing, if only they had access to free, or affordable, contraceptives. In a population debate held by The Economist, advocates of the "earth would be better off with fewer people" position won, 80% to 20%. To achieve a world "with better choices and better outcomes," declared the winning side, "family planning represents a relatively small and very wise investment." For Catholics — following the admonition of Pope Francis, that it is irresponsible to breed like rabbits — the cost is minute, as they are advised to employ natural family planning methods. So that people canlearn the precise family size, education, it is presumed, must be provided for everyone. The total cost to investors (i.e., taxpayers residing in Western industrialized countries) has yet to be determined.

The benign and altruistic image of the Progressive family planning scheme may become tarnished, in practice.

Such an investment is needed for both the developed and the developing world. After all, "rapid population growth is leading to the destruction of forests, the spread of deserts, and the pollution and overfishing of waterways and oceans. In addition, it is one of the leading drivers of climate change." Besides, unintended pregnancies plague even the industrialized world (e.g., more than a third of US births are said to be unintended).

At current fertility rates, world population could reach 11 billion by 2050, an increase of more than 4 billion. Essentially all of the added population (97%) would be born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where economic depression, social unrest, and political instability are common. Most of this inordinate growth would occur in countries having a disproportionate percentage of young, so-called "youth bulges." Here are impoverished countries that are unable to meet the basic needs of their existing populations. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (The New Population Bomb),

most of the world's expected population growth will increasingly be concentrated in today's poorest, youngest, and most heavily Muslim countries, which have a dangerous lack of quality education, capital, and employment opportunities; and, for the first time in history, most of the world's population will become urbanized, with the largest urban centers being in the world's poorest countries, where policing, sanitation, and health care are often scarce.

In a five-part LA Times series (Beyond Seven Billion), Kenneth Weiss cites the "arc of instability" that spans Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, with special note on the "youth bulges [that] have emerged in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and the Palestinian territories." The hope is that free condoms and birth control pills, tossed into the grateful clutches of childbearing women, will reduce this growth by 2 billion, shrinking mid-century population to a meager 9 billion, "the equivalent of adding another India and China to the world."

But the benign and altruistic image of the Progressive family planning scheme may become tarnished, in practice. It won't be global; it can't help but be intended for the childbearing women of the youth bulges. Nor is it likely to be voluntary. Some experts (mainly from the eco-socialist faction of Progressivism) believe that any meaningful reduction will involve mandatory abortion and sterilization — what they call "green racism," aka, eugenics disguised as environmentalism.

Yet even if the concern — that voluntary global family planning is a euphemism for Third World population control — is not raised, the challenges are formidable. Family planners from the developed world (home of the most egregious climate polluters) must explain to ordinary people in the developing world (home of the most egregious population breeders) that their sexual behavior is bad for the planet. Alternatively, family planners from wealthy, white-majority countries must explain to impoverished people of color that the world would be a better place with fewer of them.

The trick to quickly reducing population growth is to provide education and modern contraceptives to those beginning their reproductive years — just in time to plan a small family. For developing countries, this means a one-billion-strong youth bulge of "adolescents" who can find themselves in the throes of marital bliss by age ten, and whose ideas as to appropriate family size are largely shaped by parents and grandparents, who want large families to take care of them as they age. There are also significant religious and cultural pressures behind the tradition of large families. Moreover, to the leaders of many developing countries, high birthrate is thought to engender such benefits as economic, military, and political power.

Family planners from wealthy, white-majority countries must explain to impoverished people of color that the world would be a better place with fewer of them.

Most developing countries have no plans to reduce fertility rate. India, for example, boasts of its "ample human resources," happy with its poor, rapidly growing, working-age population, whose cheap labor provides a competitive edge. Why not? The US, through its immigration policy, is frantically enlarging its supply of poor, uneducated, low-wage labor. In 1970, its immigrant population was 9.6 million (4.7% of 200 million). Today, that number has grown to 40.3 million (13.1% of 318 million). Recent statistics show that, compared with existing American residents, immigrants are significantly less educated, have a significantly higher poverty rate and duration, and are significantly more dependent on welfare. And this ample human resource is more fertile.

According to Pew Research, US population will leap to 438 million by 2050, with 82% of that growth from recent immigrants and their descendents. Environmental ethicist Philip Cafaro wonders "what climate change mitigation measures . . . could possibly equal the increased greenhouse gas emissions" produced by such an influx. The sentiment among enlightened liberals such as Cafaro is that America can no longer afford massive immigration; it contradicts progressive ideals.

If world population increases to 11 billion by 2050, it will be "akin to adding three Chinas," says Weiss. What renowned biologist E.O. Wilson called “the raging monster upon the Earth”has already pushed earth beyond its carrying capacity. The Global Footprint Network tells us that "humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste" and that at current population and consumption rates, two earths will be required as early as 2030. For uneducated youth bulge readers, the authors took care to explain, "And of course, we only have one."

By 2050, three earths will be required, unless we "begin to make ecological limits central to our decision-making and use human ingenuity to find new ways to live, within the Earth’s bounds." This is the kind of thinking that excites Progressive family planners, for it leads to the "Double Whammy" of population growth. First, there is what demographers call population momentum. Then there is what cynics might call the "prosperity bulge" paradox. Both, naturally, demand additional, much more advanced, family planning, available only through a large, highly paid bureaucracy.

Could cattle ranches the size of Texas be in the cards?

Even when youth bulge females choose smaller family sizes (smaller still, after impoverished and illiterate females factor ecological limits into their decisions), the monster will rage on, because of the huge number of people still in their reproductive years. In China, for example, despite the remarkable success of family planning (forced abortions, sterilizations, and infanticide) that has eliminated over a half billion children, a current population of 1.3 billion continues to heave forward. As Reiss explains, "Think of population growth as a speeding train. When the engineer applies the brakes, the train doesn't stop immediately."

To date, not even China's mountains of garbage have slowed the population train. Nor have India's rivers of sewage, a "ticking health bomb," impeded its travel. Nevertheless, Progressives are optimistic that the smaller family sizes engendered by their program of education and contraception will eventually stop the train – one hopes before Mount Everest's "fecal time bomb" explodes.

As Third World fertility declines, however, smaller families will consume more of earth's resources, not to mention the additional pollution, waste, and GHG emissions that they will produce. And they will do so with wealth accumulated through becoming, in accordance with the Progressive family plan, happier, healthier, and more productive members of the global economy. Empowering women to have fewer children will turn youth bulges into prosperity bulges. Family planning in China alone has already helped lift more than 300 million from poverty to the middle class.

The earth, says Scientific American's David Biello, which annually supplies humanity with "60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper," will then have "to find more than 140 billion metric tons of such materials." Imagine the land area needed for sprawling new industrial parks and shopping malls — possibly the equivalent of an extra Alaska. And, as Weiss points out, "hundreds of millions of newly affluent people, mostly in Asia, will want to add dairy products and grain-fed beef and pork to their diets." Could cattle ranches the size of Texas be in the cards?

Such a paradox has already been encountered by climate change experts, who thought that only industrialized countries needed to cut GHG emissions to thwart global warming — that developing countries would not increase their consumption of fossil fuels, in an effort to become, well, industrialized. Population experts will face the vastly greater problem of persuading middle-class arrivals from developing countries that they should not consume humanity's production (from food and energy to luxury items such as household appliances and indoor plumbing) at the same rates as do industrialized countries.

Progressive thinking may send everything back to where it all started: a world in which billions of people live in squalor, except that they will be members of smaller families.

If technological advance ensures an abundant supply of cheap resources (as it has done exceedingly well since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), then consumption by prosperity bulge families will increase. Thanks to family planning, they will have more money; thanks to technological innovation, prices will be less; more will be consumed. This prospect — an ever increasing demand for resources, at an ever increasing disregard for the environment — horrifies Progressives, to the point where they simply rule out its possibility.

Current Progressive thinking is that since humanity is already consuming 1.5 earths worth of resources (recall that we only have one earth), scientists and engineers (even our brightest) will be unable to figure out ways of boosting production from the 60 billion metric tons of resources that we currently consume to the 140 billion metric tons that will be needed. In this case, there will be rampant resource scarcity, which will cause dramatic price increases, which in turn will steal away the income gains of prosperity bulge families, thrusting them back into poverty — back to where it all started: a world in which billions of people live in squalor, except that they will be members of smaller families. Oops! Deeper liberal thought may be required here.

In summary, youth bulges and population momentum in the world's poorest and most uneducated countries will exacerbate the already raging monster upon the earth, a speeding runaway train overloaded with desperately hungry passengers who breed like rabbits, especially in the arcs of instability and double whammy regions that, by 2050, will add to the world’s population the equivalent of an India and a China, possibly the equivalent of three Chinas, which, for the most part, will be crammed into wretched, filthy, crime-ridden cities, and require for its support resources that are equivalent to three planet earths, unless Third World adolescent females are either cajoled with free fertility education and modern contraceptives or coerced through green racism to have smaller families.

At 7 billion people, humanity has already pushed earth beyond its carrying capacity, currently consuming 1.5 earths worth of resources. So it's not clear why the goal of Progressive family planners is to slow world population growth to only 9 billion by mid-century. Shouldn't they be shooting for 4.7 billion (the one planet resource equivalent)? What is clear, however, is that liberal population experts now believe that rampant population growth urgently needs a strong, global family planning program. And to be consistent with Progressive ideals, immigration into industrialized countries should be drastically reduced, or eliminated. Says Cafaro, “Immigrants are not coming to the United States to remain poor. Those hundreds of millions of new citizens will want to live as well and consume energy at the same rates as other Americans."

Also consistent with Progressive ideals, liberal populationists will want a new government agency to implement their grand family planning policy. Let's call it the Department of Population Engineering (DOPE). DOPE professionals will begin by empowering youth bulge women to have smaller families, thereby slowing the growth of a population that is polluting the planet, raising its temperature, and exhausting its resources. Next, they will concoct policies to keep the prosperity bulge from polluting the planet, raising its temperature, and exhausting its resources.

By 2050, DOPE will grow to a size akin to three EPAs, and each DOPE family planner will require a brain three times the size of a climate scientist's.




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Okies in Outer Space

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After last year’s Gravity introduced technological advances that led to cinematic magic on the screen, I couldn’t wait to see Interstellar, this year’s much-heralded space flick. Helmed by master action director Christopher Nolan and with a cast led by last year’s Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, it had every reason to be, well, stellar. That it has taken me two weeks to write this review might give you a hint as to my reaction.

Interstellar is set in a not-so-dystopian future when the military industrial complex has been disbanded, machines and computers are no longer being manufactured, the space program has been closed for refusing to drop bombs, and textbooks proclaim that the lunar landing was a hoax. Anarchy has not led to chaos, however. No dictator enforces tyrannical rule, nor have marauding gangs taken over à la Mad Max. Neighbors play baseball, farmers plant corn, and life seems idyllic — except for the fact that corn is the only crop that will still grow, and gigantic clouds of dirt rivaling those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s regularly blow through town. Yet no one on earth seems remotely aware of the impending extinction or even has the gumption to move to another part of the country. At least the Okies packed the rocking chair on top of the truck and moved to California to find better fields and opportunities.

I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance. But that part of the film is short-lived.

A few souls do remember the old days. Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer who used to be a pilot, wistfully laments to his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), “There was a time when we were explorers and pioneers. Now we’re just caretakers.” When Murphy’s teacher calls Coop to task for telling Murphy that the moon landing really did happen, Coop rightly asserts his authority as a father to teach her what he knows to be true. Freedom of thought, if not intellectual honesty, seems reasonably alive and well in the future, according to this film. As I settled in to watch it unfold, I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance.

But that part of the film is short-lived. Through pseudo-supernatural means, Coop and Murph are led to an underground research lab where former NASA rocket scientists have been working on a project to discover a compatible planet in outer space. They hope to transport the remnant of humankind there. Within hours Cooper is pressed into service as the only pilot capable of flying the rocket, and a couple of days later he is blasting off. Tearfully he hugs his children goodbye, knowing that, because of the effects of traveling beyond the speed of light, he is likely to be much younger than they are when he returns. Murphy is understandably despondent and refuses to say goodbye even as Coop drives away.

Murphy’s refusal to talk to her father is the only dramatic conflict we encounter inthe first half of this nearly three-hour film. No one is hoarding or looting, and everyone seems calm. “The last to starve will be the first to suffocate,” someone shrugs about their future, but no one seems to be in a panic about it. They aren’t even motivated to move to a less dusty area where the climate might still be conducive to agriculture. Without dramatic conflict, the film has about as much tension as a science documentary.

That all changes in the second half of the film, when our space travelers encounter catastrophic forces of nature, mortal combat with crazed enemies, devastating rocket explosions, split-second rescues, and a time-travel sequence that, while implausible, is inventive, suspenseful, and exciting. For the last hour of the film I was right where I wanted to be, on the edge of my seat. But it took way too long to get there.

Ultimately Interstellar is more about an irrational father-daughter dynamic than it is about space travel or saving the world. It suffers from serious plot holes, unresolved character discrepancies, and weak dramatic conflict. The special effects are pretty special, and the second half makes the film worth seeing once. But I wouldn’t want to sit through the first half twice.


Editor's Note: Review of "Interstellar," directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 169 minutes at well below the speed of light.



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The Joy of Work

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Chef is a film about the joy of cooking, but more than that; it is a film about building a business, doing something you love, working together as a family, and promoting one’s enterprise in the age of social media. It’s a small film with a surprisingly big cast that includes Scarlet Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr., along with a slew of other well-known actors with whom director Jon Favreau has worked on such bigger budget blockbusters as Iron Man.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is an innovative head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant. He loves food, he loves cooking, and he loves the crew he has assembled in his kitchen. He is a true artist with a knife and a stove. But his focus on his work has led to a rift within his family. He is divorced from his beautiful wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), and he doesn’t know what to do on “divorced-dad weekends” with his charming 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony); he’s always in a hurry to get to the farmer’s market and plan the menu for the restaurant, and Percy is just in the way.

When Carl and his kitchen crew learn that a top food blogger (Oliver Platt) is coming to the restaurant Saturday night, Carl wants to create a variety of new dishes to showcase, but the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to stay with the tried-and-true menu that his regular customers know and enjoy. The blogger writes a scathing review, and Carl responds with his first-ever tweet, which he doesn’t realize is public. Their cyber war goes viral, and soon Carl is out of a job.

The red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Sadly, such obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

All of this leads to a classic road trip movie. Carl starts a traveling food truck business and takes Percy and his best friend, sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) with him. Together they travel from Miami to Los Angeles, developing delicious sandwich menus based on local foods and ingredients they discover in regions along the way. This is what makes the movie sing. Father and son work in perfect sync as they develop flavor combinations, cook sandwiches side by side, and discover local specialties. Percy tweets pictures and details about their journey, and customers eagerly await their arrival in new cities. The film becomes a delightful tribute to the small family business and the wonders of social media. Do what you love, and do it with the people you love, and life will be good — even if you are living in a food truck.

Of course, no one could really do this. America might be the home of the brave and the land of the free, but it’s not the land of the free market. Carl wouldn’t really be able to do this on a whim in a matter of days. As Kasey Kirby and Laura Waters Hinson demonstrate in their fine documentary about the food truck business, Dog Days (this year’s Anthem Film Festival winner for Best Libertarian Ideals), the red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Never mind that Carl is providing a product that customers crave and willingly purchase; you can’t sell food without health inspections, business licenses, and location permits, and these all take time and money to secure — lots of it. Sadly, these obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

But red tape is not the point of this film, so Favreau wisely sidesteps the issue by giving a brief nod to the permit requirement and then asking us to suspend disbelief about the time it would take to acquire these permits in every city along the road. He focuses instead on the sheer joy of working together in a family business. Like many families today, the Caspers have been pulled so far in different directions that there’s an empty space where the home once was. As the story starts, Inez is a successful event planner who must be available for her clients beyond the standard 9–5 workday. Carl’s chef duties are mostly performed in the evenings. Percy’s “job” is school. Maids and gardeners take care of the work they might have done together at home. They are related by DNA and by a family name, but their productive lives are completely separate. The things that give each of them a sense of identity — the things they produce — are unconnected. Like many couples today, their root system dies as they branch out in different directions.

When the family business brings them together, the Caspers feel joy again. Yes, they work hard. Yes, it’s hot and humid in the truck. Yes, young Percy gets hurt sometimes — he burns his hand on the lid of the sandwich maker, and he cuts his finger with a paring knife. But he doesn’t let it stop him. He loves working with his dad. He loves providing food for customers who line up to taste their sandwiches. He loves mimicking his dad and knowing that his own work matters.

Carl says to Percy as they embark on their adventure, “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.” It reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s commencement address to the Mercy College graduates at Sing Sing this year. As she praised their accomplishments she said, “I tried to go to college but I had learning disabilities and I failed. My mother told me, ‘You might not be good at this, but you are good at something. You just need to find it.’ And I found it.” Chef celebrates the joy of finding what you’re good at; the joy that comes from doing work that is productive, creative, useful, and fulfilling; and the joy that comes from doing it with those you love.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chef," directed by Jon Favreau. Aldamisa Entertainment, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Greenbacks and Green Energy

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Larry Kudlow kicked a hornets’ nest when he suggested last month that the riots that were then breaking out in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and Yemen were caused not just by indigenous anger at tyrannical regimes but by skyrocketing food prices. Kudlow noted that Egypt in particular is the world’s largest importer of wheat, and rising wheat prices had pushed the Egyptian annual inflation rate to over 10%.

Kudlow suggested that the Fed’s easy-money pump priming may be in part to blame. As he noted, commodities are typically priced in our currency, and the Fed has been producing it as fast as rabbits on meth. The CRB food index is up 36% in one year, and inflation is blossoming around the world — in Latin America, Asia (China and India especially), and now even in the EU.

Kudlow was (as usual) quite prescient. Recent stories confirm the increasing squeeze of food inflation. First is the report that the dollar’s rapid descent is hurting many people in undeveloped countries, such as the Philippines. A large percentage of Filipinos work abroad for American employers, or for employers in countries (such as Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia) whose currencies are closely tied to the dollar. As the American dollar loses value, the funds that Filipinos who work abroad send home to help their families also lose value. Considering that remittances from abroad account for about 10% of the country’s economic output, this is causing immense hardship.

The once-lowly Philippine peso has appreciated against the dollar by over 15% in the last three years. So the dollar’s fall is hurting a lot of people. One woman quoted, who uses her husband’s remittances to feed and educate their three children, has seen the number of pesos she gets from him go down by nearly 25% over the last few years.

The problem is the same for China, India, and Mexico, all countries with large numbers of workers paid in dollars or dollar-linked currencies.

Besides the Fed’s endless pump-priming, another cause of food inflation has been the continuing boondoggle called the ethanol program. For years, the federal government has been shoveling tens of billions of dollars at corn growers to get them to produce corn for making ethanol for fuel.

Now, this program has long been criticized as a way of replacing petroleum. It is hugely costly, especially when you consider how much energy it takes, in fertilizers, planting, harvesting, and shipping the corn. Why, even Al Gore — the über-Green — is now questioning the wisdom of the corn-based ethanol program.

Not as much comment has been made on the role our massive ethanol program plays in jacking up food prices. Since now roughly 40% of America’s corn (which means 15% of all corn produced worldwide) is being used for ethanol, corn prices have skyrocketed, increasing food prices in countries (such as Mexico) where corn is a major staple for people or a major source of cattle feed.

Moreover, the billions of bucks shoveled out by the federal government have induced many farmers to switch from growing wheat to growing corn, thus helping to drive wheat prices up even further.

Just as Gore now doubts the wisdom of using corn-based ethanol as a substitute for petroleum, no less a luminary than Bill Clinton is wondering whether the ethanol program isn’t causing food riots and political instability all over the world. He expressed these heterodox thoughts at the Department of Agriculture’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum. While he said he still believes in corn-based ethanol, he urged farmers to consider the effects of their choices on developing countries.

He was being ludicrously timid. The corn-based ethanol program should have its subsidies ended immediately. Then we would see what the real price — set by supply and demand, not by Congress — should be. My bet is that the industry would shrivel up rapidly, freeing grain for human consumption.

As the cliché has it, what goes around comes around. A recent story reports that the global food inflation is now hitting American stores. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that US food prices will jump 3% to 4% this year — hardly news to anyone who has shopped for food lately.

In fact, consumers would have felt the sting of inflation earlier and deeper, except that supermarkets have not been passing on the full hit, for fear of hurting sales. But as prices for food commodities keep rising, sooner or later the full cost of those increases will have to be paid by the American consumer.

At that point, perhaps we will see food riots. Or at least see Obama join Egypt’s Mubarak as a toppled leader.




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