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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And the Winner Is — The Story!

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McFarland USA is not a great movie, but it is a great story. The pacing is slow, and at 129 minutes, the picture is justtoo long. The acting is average, and the casting, with men as old as 30 playing characters under 16, is often jarring, especially when a 30-year-old actor is romancing a 15-year-old girl. But the story, about a rag-tag cross-country team of mostly immigrant students who make it to the California state championships, grabs your heart midway through and keeps you engaged till the end.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has lost three teaching positions in three different states because of his inability to control his temper. He ends up in McFarland, an agricultural community of immigrant farmworkers and one of the poorest communities in California, because it is virtually at the end of the road. He wants nothing more than to put in his time while finding a better position somewhere else. When a local merchant recommends that he plant a tree in his yard that will provide shade in five years, White responds, “I won’t be here that long.”

They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies.

Then he notices some students running from school to their homes or work in the fields after school, and he realizes that they have what it takes to succeed in cross country. “No one can endure pain the way you can,” he reminds the team during a pre-tournament pep talk. “No one else out there gets up at 4 a.m. to work in the fields and then goes to school and then to practice. No one else can endure heat and thirst the way you can. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Coach White knows the pain they are able to endure, because he has joined them in the fields to pick cabbage, and it was the most physically demanding work he has ever done. He admires these young men on his team who are often marginalized and face ridicule and derision when they compete at other schools.

According to interviews, the real Jim White did not move from job to job until he hit rock bottom in McFarland; he chose to teach at McFarland High School because he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he figured a small school would be the best place to do that. It was his first and only teaching job, and he definitely succeeded in his goal of making a difference. All of his original team members went to college or the military and went back to McFarland and became leaders in the community. One did some time in prison, but returned to work in McFarland after serving his sentence. The pattern has continued with subsequent team members, many of whom have graduated from college and found employment serving communities like theirs.

That’s why I said that McFarland USA is a great story, even if it isn’t a great movie. These boys and their families work hard, produce much, and pay their own way. They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies. But they do it so their children can have a better life. Seeing the actual men striding alongside the actors who portray them during the closing credits is one of the best moments in the film.


Editor's Note: Review of "McFarland USA," directed by Niki Caro. Disney Studios, 2015, 129 minutes.



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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Cliven Bundy?

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Robert Duvall was born to play Cliven Bundy. The story of Cliven Bundy’s stand against the federal government has all the components of a great movie, except one: we don’t have an ending. Will it end in tragedy like the Branch Davidian standoff outside Waco, or will the ending be triumphant and peaceful?

If you haven’t followed the story, here’s a summary: Cliven Bundy’s family started its ranch northeast of what is now Las Vegas in 1877. Their cattle have grazed on the surrounding government land ever since. In 1993, the Bureau of Land Management tried to buy Cliven’s grazing rights to protect the desert tortoise. Cliven refused to sell. Then the BLM revoked the grazing rights. Cliven never applied for them to be renewed, and his cattle continued to graze on the land. The courts upheld the revocation of the grazing rights, and last fall gave Cliven 45 days to remove his cattle from government land. He didn’t remove them. The fines and fees that Cliven owes now total more than a million dollars. On April 5, 2014, the BLM began an operation to seize Cliven’s cattle. BLM Law Enforcement Rangers and Special Agents came, as did people who sympathized with Cliven. An armed standoff followed. On April 12, the BLM decided not to execute the court’s order, citing a “serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.” (The above is gleaned from Jamie Fuller’s April 15 post on the Washington Post blog “The Fix.”)

On April 14, on KRNV television in Reno, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporter Samantha Boatman, "Well, it's not over. We can't have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it's not over” (MyNews4.com).

Senator Reid’s has asserted that people can’t be allowed to get away with breaking the law. The assertion is, of course, false.

If Harry Reid says that it’s not over, you can be pretty sure that it’s not over. But what to do? Viewed strictly as a legal matter, Cliven’s an outlaw. To many Americans, however, Cliven’s cause appears to be just; to some, it’s worth fighting for. Even if you set aside accusations of nepotism against Reid and family, the influence of Chinese money, and the manipulation of the EPA, Cliven has many supporters who simply believe that the federal government has grown too big for its britches. With the addition of these viral accusations, proven or not, the number of supporters grows, as does their enthusiasm for the cause. How is this problem to be solved without bloodshed? I think I know a way. (To find out more about the allegations, start here.)

The solution lies in Senator Reid’s assertion that people can’t be allowed to get away with breaking the law. The assertion is, of course, false. People are allowed to get away with breaking the law. An example comes to mind.

On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, sent a memo to three of her underlings telling them that illegal immigrants with certain characteristics would be allowed to have work permits and a renewable two-year deferral of removal from the country. On that same day, President Barack Obama announced the change on TV from the lawn of the White House. It was thought at the time that about 800,000 people who had entered the country illegally would benefit from this memo, which was referred to as an act of prosecutorial discretion. (A summary of that act and an overview of prosecutorial discretion can be found in my earlier Liberty piece “Prosecutorial Indiscretion.”)

So. President Obama has shown Senator Reid the way to a triumphant and peaceful ending. All that needs to happen is for the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to send a memo to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management (Neil Kornze, Senator Reid’s chief aide until March of this year). The memo need only say that Cliven Bundy is to be allowed to have his grazing permit back and that all fees and fines levied against him are forgiven. To make things “just so,” President Obama would have to announce this act of prosecutorial discretion on the White House lawn. I think the President could be convinced to play himself in the movie.

Fade to black




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Ludicrous Leporidae Laws Lead to Legal Legerdemain

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When the Feds announced the sequester plan, I was quite afraid that essential federal employees would be furloughed like mere private sector employees.

Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded. Oh, sure, D.C. announced that a few thousand air traffic controllers and law enforcement officers were forced to stay home, but really essential services are safe. I present to you: the Federal Bunny Inspectors. Better known as the US Department of Agriculture.

You thought the USDA's main function was to pay farmers not to grow anything and to advertise food stamp enrollment in Mexico, didn't you? Because you’re a narrow-minded libertarian. If so, hah! Prepare to stand corrected, little miscreants.

Enter Marty Hahne, an illusionist based in Ozark, Montana. Now, Montana is a place where small businesses aren't doing too badly, considering that unemployment in the state is 5.5%, way below the national 7.6%. So obviously, this place needs more regulation.

What is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck.

That is probably why the USDA sent Hahne an 8-page message, starting with the delicious salutation "Dear Members of Our Regulated Community." You can't make this stuff up. It brings back the nostalgia of the famous "Hello happy taxpayers" line that Droopy the dog uttered in Tex Avery's cartoons.

But this is not a joke. The letter demands that Hahne write a disaster plan for the rabbit he uses in his show. We learn that the rabbit falls under a regulation dreamed up by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the pretense of implementing the Animal Welfare Act. Said regulation was promulgated last year, but somehow, sadly, Hahne missed it. As a result of his oversight, he has until July 29 to write his plan. He and his wife must then get training to implement the written plan and submit the plan to the USDA inspectors.The goal is to make sure that the rabbit is safe in case of a disaster.

But what is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck. I suggest, therefore, that Hahne write a document explaining that if he and his rabbit are run over by an addict, his wife could slide the rabbit under the USDA's office door for inspection. Training would be provided by regularly rehearsing the procedure, using roadkill.

However, if Hahne wants to save himself this trouble, there is an obvious solution, reportedly confirmed by a USDA inspector: conclude his show with a demonstration of a boa eating the (humanely killed) rabbit. The USDA would then consider the rabbit as a feed animal and drop its ridiculous requirements.

Other magicians have already decided to (gasp!) use stuffed animals to avoid the whole nuisance.

Let's hope that these workarounds don't gain ground. I'd hate to see our most industrious civil servants deprived of disappearing rabbits. They would then be forced to invent even more intrusive, counterproductive, obnoxious regulations in order to justify their own existence and expand their bureaucratic empires.




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A Stinking Rose Is Just as Sweet

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Families and communities have certain rituals that they enjoy year after year. For my family, the again-upcoming Minnesota Garlic Festival (this year it’s Saturday, August 13, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) has become Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Independence Day, all rolled into one.

For me, as our clan’s cranky libertarian, last year’s fifth annual festival took on new meaning, as I began to understand what it’s all about. It’s a gathering of loved ones, for sure — a chance to reconnect with relatives I’ve loved since the ’60s (some of whom seem almost unchanged since then). But it’s also a symbol of hope: hope not only that my family will go on despite the deaths of our elders and the march of time, but that the America we know and love will do likewise.

My last visit to the Garlic Festival reminded by that, while free enterprise may not be alive in a corporate system propped up by big government, it is thriving in Hutchinson, Minnesota, home of the festival.

Deep in farm country, 57 miles west of Minneapolis-St. Paul, “Hutch,” as it is affectionately known to the locals, is the county seat of McLeod County. It was chosen to host the festival because it is near Howard Lake, where garlic farmers Jerry Ford and Marienne Kreitlow live. They founded the festival. Marienne is my cousin. Jerry is her husband. This was ample reason for me to turn up at the festival this summer. But before talking about that, I want to say a few good words about garlic.

Garlic is grown underground, like potatoes. It grows in bulbs, each of which can produce up to 20 cloves. Each clove also functions as a seed, so a new crop is planted by burying some of the cloves. The U.S. is now the sixth-largest producer of garlic (China is first). We contribute only 1.4% of the global output, but garlic is now a cash crop in every state except Alaska.

For over 4,000 years, people have prized garlic for its supposedly near-miraculous powers. Besides warding off vampires, it has been regarded as everything from an aphrodisiac to a cure for plague. While the claims of medical science are more modest, it now recognizes this pungent herb as a natural antibiotic, as well as a remedy for acne and an aid in the management of high cholesterol. Some people also consider it an effective mosquito repellent.

Whatever the health benefits, I looked forward to last year’s festival more than any thus far — not only for the chance to reconnect with people I love, but also to rejuvenate my hope.

A few days before Christmas, 2008, I was brutally downsized out of my last corporate job, in the annuities department of a life insurance company. No warning was given, and the two versions I was given of the reason I’d been dumped didn’t even match, much less add up to a single plausible explanation. I was probably let go because our department needed no more than three employees, and I had been the fourth one hired.

While free enterprise may not be alive in a corporate system propped up by big government, it is thriving in Hutchinson, Minnesota, home of the Garlic Festival.

I have had enough of the big-corporate rollercoaster. I was laid off by four of the past five companies I worked for, and I resigned from the other because I was certain it was about to lay a bunch of us off (which turned out to be true). You can walk into a solid brick wall only so many times before picking yourself up and heading in a different direction. Taking the last debacle as a sign that better opportunity must await me elsewhere, I am now striking out as a freelance writer. But all I hear from the media is doom and despair — and right now, I need no more tales of woe. That’s how I felt when I came to last year’s Garlic Festival, on the second Saturday in August.

I was at the McLeod County Fairgrounds from ten in the morning to six at night. There was a booth selling garlic ice cream (“The best stinkin’ ice cream in town”). There were pony and wagon rides. There were vendors of squeaky-fresh organic produce, kettle corn, barbecued ribs, handcrafted soaps, lotions, jewelry and clothing, artisan cheeses, a surprisingly large selection of Minnesota wines, and of course garlic of every conceivable form and description.

But those were just the goods and products. There were also people — adults in Mardi Gras masks and costumes, kids making and flying kites, folksingers, Japanese taiko drummers, a bagpiper, belly dancers, beauty queens and magicians. At The Great Scape Café, local chefs served their delicacies to overflowing lines of hungry festival-goers.

I met more kind and friendly people, that one day, than I probably do anywhere else the rest of the year. Several folks remarked to me on the spirit of the event. Like me, they found it personable, hopeful, human in the best sense of the word. It was a jubilant recharging of the batteries, a reinforcement of my faith in the health of the American spirit. Same-sex couples strolled about, mingling with octogenarian farmers and small-town matrons with absolute ease. We were at home in our own skins, proud to call ourselves Americans and grateful to be living in the best country in the world.

As happens every year, I was reminded about how glad I am to have the relatives God gave me. My cousins came from far and wide. My Uncle Willard, the patriarch of our clan, is still as warm and generous as ever in his 88th year. We accept each other unconditionally, and cherish one another even when we disagree. This lesbian libertarian, as always, found no closed minds — only open hearts.

My libertarianism did make some of them nervous, as it seemed to me. They have largely unfavorable ideas about what we believe. Though they are not socialists, by any means, they tend to view capitalism specifically, and free enterprise, in general, with the sort of suspicion earlier generations reserved for the Big Bad Wolf. But I am unable to ignore them, or to see much fun in making fun of them. Even I, until the cataclysms of Bush and Obama, was a very left-of-center progressive, myself.

And that summer, they were all refreshingly nice; that’s simply their nature. But when I began asking them about their participation in the freewheeling free enterprise of the festival, or mentioned I was writing about it all for a libertarian magazine, they looked a tad uncomfortable. They seemed to wonder how a nice gal like me had gotten hooked up with anything so crazy. And at least a few didn’t seem sure they wanted to be thought of as participating in anything as sordid as free enterprise. That’s for wealthy money barons and big business. It is not, to any great degree, what they think of themselves as doing.

But why has free enterprise gotten such poor PR, anyway? Is it the result of a plot laid by communists in some dark and smoke-filled room? Some conservatives are quick to think so. I’m not so sure.

After the recent business bailouts by the taxpayers, and the constant spectacle of high-priced lobbyists courting big-shot politicians, willing to work backstage but never to come out in front of the curtain and defend the capitalist system to the folks in the crowd, it’s not surprising that a good many among the public believe big business deserves its bad reputation. Though welfare-queen corporations are only a small percentage of the total, the baddest of the big boys have often hidden behind the label of “free enterprise” so effectively that, to many Americans, they represent it. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but some roses . . . just aren’t.

A couple of the people I talked with brightened visibly when I told them I was writing an essay to offer readers hope. They, too, had heard so much despair of late that they’d almost forgotten what hope felt like. “Yes, do that,” one festival-goer urged me. “I want to read it, too.” Several other visitors and vendors shared similar sentiments.

So let’s talk about some more of the people I met.

Joe and his wife Mary, who sell handcrafted wooden items, fermented foods, and preserves, certainly seemed the hopeful sort. (With names like Joseph and Mary, one would think so.) I asked Joe whether what went on at the Garlic Festival represented real free enterprise, and he readily answered Yes. “One of the reasons we started doing this sort of festival,” he said, “was out of hope.” When I asked if he was hopeful about the future, again he said yes.

I met more kind and friendly people, that one day, than I probably do anywhere else the rest of the year.

But government regulation is a burden that smaller companies feel more painfully than their bigger rivals do. While Joe, who also does landscape maintenance, doesn’t feel overburdened in that end of his business, he noted that “in the food-vending and selling, I feel there’s a little more inappropriate regulation.” A lot of it, he feels, is “based on food fear in America.” The fear is “irrational, but easily manipulated.” To Joe, it makes perfect sense that the “consumer gets mixed up because the [big] corporations and regulations seem to ease their fear.”

Big companies, he appears to suggest, often support the fearmongering that leads to stricter and more stifling laws. I think he regards big corporations as so crafty and powerful that they can simultaneously create a problem and at least appear to solve it. He did not elaborate on how this happens. The festival folks in general appear to regard big business as crafty and dangerous, much as they might an invisible but highly poisonous gas. But government regulation is a burden that smaller companies feel more painfully than their bigger rivals do. A lot of those at the festival hoped to break the corporations' awesome and superhuman power using a means other than big government.

John and Stephanie, beekeepers and sellers of gourmet honey, seemed upbeat. John said that the festival was “a good place for us to feel better about ourselves as humans.” He observed that friendly trade relations build mutual respect — which is precisely what libertarians have been telling state department diplomats for years. When we trade with each other, we find that we need each other in ways we might not have realized.

John remarks that face-to-face connections between buyers and sellers are attracting a growing number of people. They’re a big part of the appeal of festivals, farmers’ markets, and community fairs.

Is this the attraction? Is this why people drive hundreds of miles to an event like the Garlic Festival, even during a severe recession? Perhaps the attraction is quality — not just in products (although they get that, too) but also in the experience of being involved in free enterprise.

This is a consumer desire every bit as legitimate as the desire for convenience or disposability, and arguably more common than any demand for impersonality. It’s a desire that is satisfied by resourceful, hard-working, innovative tradespeople. America is still America, after all — even, or perhaps especially, in “flyover” places.

The people at the Garlic Festival are examples of the larger meanings of free enterprise, and they are helping to change it, visibly and enjoyably, back into what it should be.

“You can tell how successful a festival is by whether the other vendors come by to buy T-shirts,” said Mary Beth Heine, another of my cousins and a festival stalwart since the beginning. Her small but growing company sells antiques and apparel, including hand-knitted items, online and at venues like the Garlic Festival. Each year she sells the event’s official T-shirts, and this summer, the summer of recessions for all and depression for many, everybody seemed to want a souvenir of the happy occasion. Last year, she reports, very few of her fellow vendors had been in the happy-souvenir-buying mood. Now, apparently, they’re reviving. They’ve got their hope back, because they make their hope themselves.

Should libertarians laugh at lefties coming full circle to meet the capitalists? Should we ask them, “What took you so long?” and twist their arms till we get them to admit that they do believe in free enterprise, after all?

I don’t care about making them say “uncle.” If they prefer to call what they’re doing “reconnecting with the community,” “reviving small independents,” or “regaining local control over commerce,” instead of helping free enterprise continue to evolve, then I say more power to them. Again, a rose is a rose. One may smell sweet, another pungent and savory — like garlic.

The people at the Garlic Festival enjoy making money. They also enjoy doing creative, healthful things, things of their own choosing. And who wouldn’t? They are examples of the larger meanings of free enterprise, and they are helping to change it, visibly and enjoyably, back into what it should be.

They are not asking for a handout from anybody. They are not asking for any help from government. They are only asking it to stay out of their way and let them enjoy the fruits of their labors. They’re always brimming with new ideas — things that the big boys would never think of trying, but that, if they prove successful, will someday be imitated. They’ve found some needs, and they are meeting them brilliantly. If that’s not capitalism at its best, then I don’t know what is.

If we are to save business in this country, these are exactly the sort of people who must be persuaded that free enterprise is a noble thing. But we aren’t persuading them; they’re persuading themselves. We don’t all want the same things out of life (and one of the great things about the real America is that we don’t have to), but as long as enough of us want the liberty to pursue our varied visions — to savor our rose, or our garlic clove, if we prefer — then this grand festival we call America will live on and on.




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Two Big Surprises

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Well, now, you can knock me over with a feather! Two stories just out are amazing in their a priori improbability. They tell us a lot about the growing awareness of our looming national financial crisis.

The first is the news that the U.S. Senate has voted to end federal subsidies for ethanol, which this year hit a high of $6 billion from taxpayer dollars.

This is surprising for a number of reasons. The ethanol lobby (i.e., the group of rentseekers who derive much of their income from this screwy subsidy) is powerful, consisting of many players in key political states. Moreover, it has been around for more than 30 years — an unhappy product of the Carter presidency. Also, it has been a darling of the environmentalist movement, which has consistently opposed fossil fuel and nuclear power, favoring instead so-called “renewable” sources of power (biofuels, wind power, and solar power).

Even more surprising is that the vote was bipartisan and wasn’t even close: 73 for, and only 27 against, with Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) joining Tom Coburn (R-OK) in sponsoring the bill. In the end, 33 Republicans and 40 Democrats joined to kill the subsidy program.

I suspect that a number of facts helped the Senate reach this epiphany. One is that despite over 30 years (and untold billions of taxpayer dollars) invested in research and development, the energy output that you get for the required input still keeps the fuel from being economically attractive — a point that even Mr. Green himself, Al Gore, mentioned when he came out against corn-based ethanol earlier this year. In part, the problem is that we are making ethanol out of corn, which is far less efficient than making it out of sugarcane — and this is why, besides giving the domestic producers of the stuff a hefty tax credit of 45 cents per gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline, the feds have had to impose a whopping 54 cents per gallon tax on ethanol imported from abroad (mainly Brazil).

Another senatorial eye-opener may have been the recent, massive discoveries in domestic sources for oil and natural gas that can be produced by new technology such as fracking. These discoveries make the case for subsidizing domestic ethanol even more dubious.

Besides, politicians are finally beginning to see the obvious, deleterious impact that diverting 40% of our corn crop to make ethanol (which, again, we could buy more cheaply from Brazil) has on food prices both here and abroad. The rapid inflation of food prices has caused riots abroad and is beginning to cause real discomfort here.

Finally, there is the sense that this subsidy program has just gone on too long. As Senator McCain put it, “Enough is enough. The industry has been collecting corporate welfare for far, far too long.” Exactly so. There is demand for ethanol, but the industry needs to supply it in the free market.

The ethanol industry has been angling to replace tariffs and subsidies with federal spending for special pumps and tanks to hold higher concentrations of ethanol. But the House just voted against that by a margin of 283-128.

So it may be that the governmental subsidies for ethanol will end soon.

Now, the second surprising story is that the AARP, the liberal advocacy group that purports to represent the elderly, and was so crucial in helping President Obama ram through Obamacare, has changed its position on reducing benefits for Social Security. John Rother, the AARP’s policy head, has said that the AARP now views change in Social Security’s benefits structure as inevitable, and wants to have an influence on the process. This is a big change from AARP’s earlier stance, which was that all we needed to do was increase payroll taxes to cover the deficits. As Rother put it, “The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens.” Of course, the question is, why would we want this toad and his leftist organization — who did all they could to block reform and increase the depth of the problem — to be “at the wheel” of reform?

It is all so richly ironic. The AARP was viciously instrumental in killing President Bush’s attempt to reform Social Security. It claimed that Bush was going to shortchange the elderly. Now the AARP itself will face the same charges.

Indeed, the AARP immediately aroused the antipathy of a coalition of leftist groups calling itself (in pure Alinsky style) “Strengthen Social Security.” It has already accused AARP of becoming elitists disconnected from their base.

The AARP is approaching this cautiously. It lost about 300,000 members by helping push through Obamacare. To cover its tail, it wants to make sure that the Social Security revision process is bipartisan. Its own polls match public polls that show the elderly deeply oppose changes to the program. One recent poll shows that 84% of all Americans 65 and older oppose any and all cuts in benefits.

But the AARP and members of Congress are finally coming to see the iceberg of fiscal insolvency toward which the economy is headed. Visions of Greece, currently in the throes of riots by dependents of the state and facing the prospect of defaulting on its debts, are concentrating minds wonderfully.

In fact, it is all rather like watching a Greek tragedy. The blind AARP finally has to face its fatal flaw — the mess it helped create and maintain.




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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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