Thursday, November 30, 2006

Equity in Obesity

While incomes and living standards between rich and poor countries are constantly diverging, the Third World is catching up with the West in one area - obesity. I was shocked to read that obesity is a HUGE issue in Africa. Consider this:
More than one-third of African women and a quarter of African men are estimated to be overweight, and the World Health Organization predicts that will rise to 41 percent and 30 percent respectively in the next 10 years... Some 56 percent of South African women are now either obese or overweight, compared to fewer than 10 percent who are underweight. More than 17 percent of adolescents here are overweight _ for teenage girls, it's 25 percent, according to the Medical Research Council.

Already, diabetes is the fourth largest disease in most developed countries, with an estimated 194 million sufferers. This number is expected to skyrocket as the incidence of diabetes in the developing world increases, as is expected. Just how much is evident when you check out the Diabetes Atlas put out by the Internation Diabetes Foundation. Switch the year from 2003 to 2025, and bam!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Iraq Moves Towards Civil War

Today's carnage in Iraq, when Shiite mobs torched and killed more than 200 Sunnis in the deadliest day in that country, is a grim preview of what might become all too commonplace if US troops leave. Yes, many Americans want their men and women back; yes, intellectuals argue that the American presence might be inflammatory; yes, Iraq might already be in the midst of a civil war ... but are we really ready to see a large-scale genocide where tens of thousands of Shiites and Sunnis are butchered? And on whose hands would the blood be, given we deposed that crazy tyrant who kept the factions from killing each other. Well, yes, it was the Bush administration and the neocons who pushed for the case, but the US as a nation has a collective responsibility ... and indeed would have an ethical responsibility to prevent genocide if it were to happen.

Much has been talked about Darfur and the crisis there ... some Americans even support the idea of American boots on the ground to prevent the rape and massacre of the local people at the hands of Janjiweed militia. And yet, here in Iraq, we have boots on the ground, and the minute the boots leave, the killing will begin!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Young at Heart

I had a very distressing conversation with one of our janitors today, a wonderful woman whose 26-year old neice just passed because of a heart attack. While all deaths are tragic, the loss of a young single mother in the prime of her life of a disease considered an older-person's disease is truly shocking. So I looked on WebMD to see how common heart attacks among younger people are. The study they cite was quite shocking:
The investigators examined young people aged 15 to 34 who had died in a car accident, homicide, or suicide and found that even in men as young as 15, over 2% of them had advanced cholesterol plaques in the arteries of their heart. More than 20% of men aged 30 to 34 had these advanced plaques. Such plaques can turn into atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. That can lead to complete blockages, heart attacks, and strokes.

They recommend that everyone over 20 check their cholestrol levels every five years. But in the end, for most people, there are the same familiar words: diet, exercise, lifestyle choices. So think about your mom weeping over your hospital bed or casket the next time you decide that fries are a vegetable or switching channels on a remote is exercise!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thoughts from Our Nation's Capital

I just returned from spending the weekend with a visiting aunt in Washington, DC. A very enjoyable trip indeed, it also gave me some pause for reflection. Two images in particular stand out in my memory .. and my phone memory too (ha, I did use my phone's camera after all!)

The first image is from the Korean War Veteran's Memorial. I loved the words "defend a country they never knew and a people they never met". People draw comparisons between the present war in Iraq with the failed war in Vietnam, but never consider that American "adventurism" is the reason the South Korean nation is strong and her people enjoy freedoms, unlike their starving brethen across the border. (Just to use per-capita GDP as a comparison, the Southerns' produce about $22,600 versus $1,700 for their communist compatriots)

American adventurism was often ridiculed, and sometimes justifiably, but we should never forget the ethical obligation we have to act to defeat dictators.

The other image that struck me was an exhibit from the Smithsonian Castle. (sorry for the poor image) These are samples of US currency notes (fiat currency as it is called). Why did it strike me? It reminds us that there is nothing sacrosant about the dollar. Indeed, the shells to the bottom right were valid currency at one time, just that they weren't backed by the famous "full faith of the US Treasury". Keep that in mind the next time you hear this nonsense of how the Chinese are fixing their currency, or what the underlying value of the US dollar is. A currency is a promissory note, that's it, nothing more, nothing less (which is why there's a school of thought which believes that money is gold and nothing else, which is interesting until you realize that if the value of a gold coin can fluctuate as significantly as has been the case, the whole store of value argument in a truckload of BS!)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fast Food Nation: The Movie

I'm looking forward to the release of the movie version of Eric Schlosser's 'Fast Food Nation '. I loved the book, about the various facets of our fast food chains, from their meat handling practices to their pursuit of a temporary workforce, to what the implications of this culture are on our landscape. I am especially curious about the movie because it's fiction rather than a documentary. The International Herald Tribune gave it a pretty positive review, and I think so did NPR. This movie is currently playing in a theater near you.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A New Values Revolution

I was talking yesterday with an acquaintance who is experiencing some difficulty with the father of her child with child support payments. Her quest to avoid the legal system for an amicable (and seeming more than reasonable) settlement has met with little besides resistance from the father. Add in the fact that the father has not visited his son once in 15 months, including for a period when they were within a 3-hour drive of each other, and let's just say that the gentleman in question isn't likely to win 'Father of the Year' any time soon.

That got me thinking about all the talk of values in this nation of ours. Social conservatives seem to think gay marriage, abortion and school prayer define the values debate, while liberals have tried to twist the issue into one of throwing money into social programs, success be damned. But there is a large swatch of societal morality that has nothing to do with sex or poverty that is left out.

There is an epidemic of deadbeat dads in this nation. In historic times, men fought and sometimes risked their lives to protect their kin. Thankfully, modern times have made the life of the father or husband somewhat simpler. And yet, among us live men (and yes, women) who abandon their responsibility to the children - a responsibility that should be upheld even with one's own life!

We love to talk about gay marriage, be us for or against it, but what about that institution of marriage that groups chose either to protect or diversify. With record divorce rates, it's worth pondering over whether we as a society have protected this institution at all. Without prejudging individuals, it is certainly a damning indictment on our society's ability to implant a spirit of compromise on its constituents.

I could go on, but it's obvious that we have clearly failed to address the values that truly matter. Because there's no point clinging to Jesus when you forsake the principles he stood for, and it's shallow to be croning about minimum wages when you fail to show that compassion for those around you.

More Troops for Iraq?

The British newspaper, the Guardian reported that the Bush administration planned to increase the troop levels in Iraq, rather than the withdrawal that Democrats and indeed many Americans have been calling for. This truly stunned me, and would probably be about the gutsiest thing Bush has ever done. Would it work? Tough to say. Sen. McCain has been pushing this viewpoint for a while now, but Gen. Abizaid publicly disagreed with the utility of this strategy a few days ago. The best guess is noone knows - just like everything else that has happened in Iraq. It's a strategy even Republicans will be uncomfortable with, and could alternately viewed as an out-of-touch presidency, or a president who doesn't rule by opinion polls like his predecessor.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The World May Be Warming ...

Amazingly for a tree-hugging conservative (how's that for an oxymoron!), this will be my first post on global warming! That's because I've been cautious about popular scientific predictions - be it the global warming warnings or the claims that the world is running out of oil. I simply do not know enough about the science of these subjects to make an intelligent argument one way or the other. I have watched 'An Inconvenient Truth', but still remain far from convinced that the science definitively states that the world is warming due to human activity. I'm impressed by the massive consensus in peer-reviewed literature that the world is warming due to human activity, but also know that sometimes the peer-review process forces consensus when none should exist. Add in the fact that scientists do not acquire grants for postulating the absence of a problem, and you have reasons to be skeptical of the scientific community.

So why have I chosen to break my silence on the topic? Simply because I've become convinced in the wisdom of one man. Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co. (or GMO) , an investment firm, pointed out in a recent newsletter that in reality, the need to act due to global warming despite the uncertainties is not unique to this topic. In fact, it is the underpinning of the insurance business. And therein lies the paradigm the policymakers need to embrace - dollars invested in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions need not require certainty in the facts, but rathet simply that the consequences of a reasonably possible outcome far exceed the incremental costs to alleviate such an outcome.

Really the costs are not likely to be significant if an adequate trading system is implemented. Emissions in China (which contributes to 15% of global greenhouse gases) and other third-world countries is actually rather cheap to fix given adequate investments, which could be achieved in the form of purchase of carbon credits by firms in the developed world, which would have a much tougher challenge squeezing efficiencies from their already advanced systems. (There are other issues, including local air pollution that would have to be worked out)

The reality then is that while not simple, the global warming crisis (or threat) can be handled by approaches not unlike other threats. That the world's dominant economic superpower has not shown more leadership on this issue is then a travesty!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Let's Do Something - Even If It Does Nothing Good

So it now looks like all the minimum wage initiatives have or will pass - in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. And voters in these states can pat themselves on their backs, deluding themselves that they have moved millions into a better life. Too bad it isn't true.

The whole argument in favor of raising the minimum wage has been something like this - an employee who earns $5.15 an hour and works full-time earns only $10,712 a year, which is too little. There is then this image that somehow huge swathes of people make do on $10,712 a year, often a guy supporting a wife and a few kids - truly a tragedy!

Unfortunately, it's a big hoax! According to the BLS (yes, I spend my spare time digging around in these places!), only 1.4% of all full-time workers make at or below the minimum wage. 71.9% of those workers are in the leisure and hospitality industry, where tip income, not wages, dominates take-home pay. That alone means that the targeted group is about 0.4% of employees. But wait, there's more:

6.3% of minimum wage earners are below the age of 25, a good number of whom are possibly high school or college students.

62% of minimum wage earners have never been married, while only 24% are currently married.

Ok, and save the best for last. You know all the hoopla of how the minimum wage adjusted for inflation is the lowest since 1955. I don't know if that's true, but here's what BLS data tells us ...

The percentage of hourly paid wage earners earning at or below the minimum wage has fallen from 13.4% in 1979 (and 15.1% in 1980) to a mere 2.7% in 2004!

Even more worrying than merely the increase in minimum wage is that the minimum wages are tied to inflation, with no upper cielings (except in Nevada, where the increase is capped at 3%). That means if, say oil prices surge, we could have a cost push inflation spiral that could result in stagflation!

Washed Away...

Whoa, the Republicans just got washed away by the Democratic storm! What a drubbing indeed! Bush and the others have a lot of thinking to do.

You know who else has a lot of thinking to do ... Democrats. This is their chance to define who they are, besides being anti-Republican. A big battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic party should ensue, between tax-loving big government leftists and the new centrists they attracted. And that could influence how potential voters like me exercise their rights in the future. (Ok, that was just rheotorical - I'm a foreigner and don't get to vote)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Wow for American Democracy!

I have recently been somewhat cynical about democracy, but one poll worker has restored my faith in the American democratic system. This lady refused to allow Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) from voting without his voter registration card. To his credit, he was quite a good sport about it, not throwing his weight around, and appreciating the woman's conscientious nature.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Stupid in Kerryland

My brother e-mailed me recently to question why I hadn't blogged about the botched Kerry joke about troops in Iraq, and more specifically, the Republican attack on what was obviously a botched joke. Well, quite frankly, because I don't expect anything else. Neither side can afford to pass on any opportunity at this stage in the game, and will use any weapon it can to try to eke an edge out.

Frankly, I'm at a stage in the campaign where I'm mostly filled with disgust! You'd think I'd be used to having to endure attack ads rather than a discussion of the issues, but I'm weakhearted enough to keep expecting politics to be about the issues that matter to the people.

So who will I be rooting for tomorrow? Well, this will shock the frequent readers to my blog, but I don't know. Part of me would like to see the Republicans pay for their arrogance, but that would imply the Democrats would win, and I don't know which Democratic party would take control of the House or Senate. If it is the wing that is pro-business, for fiscal discipline and in favor of tax cuts - the constituency Harold Ford seems to be shooting for - I say yay! But if it is the left-leaning tax-the-rich business-is-bad liberals like Nancy Pelosi, then we have something to be gloomy about.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Tyranny of the Majority

I have been contemplating on the nature of democracy recently, and it strikes me that there's a fine line seperating democracy from its less desirable peers. In all forms of government, abuse of power is a concern. In democracy, we often worry about our elected officials abusing their office, but we seldom fret about we, the people, doing the same.

What do I mean by that? We love to crone about the influence of money on politics, yet as a polity, we vote on issues where you have an equal say independent of how much the action will cost you. I have ranted previously that contrary to the rheoteric, the rich in America pay a disproportionate share of our taxes. The top 5% that Democrats love to crone about pay 30% of their income in taxes, while the lowest 25% wage-earners pay less than 5%. Why should politicians get to pander to that larger voting block promising freebies, paid for by the smaller voting block? To borrow an analogy from a columnist I can't remember, that would be like you going to a bar and offering to buy a homeless man a drink, and asking the bartender to put it on the tab of the guy across from you.

But the tyranny of the majority stretches past taxes. Think of our medicare system. In a free society, we each should be allowed to make choices, and part of me really dislikes restrictions on smoking or other behavior. If you want to kill yourself, you go right ahead.

But hold on a minute! Unfortunately, it isn't quite as simple as that. Medicare (ok, humanity too, but I'm trying to be economic here!) means I do care about your actions. There was a woman on the news who wasn't thrilled about KFC's recent decision to eliminate trans-fats, worried it might compromise the flavor of the dishes she loves. Good for you, woman... unless you are on a medical assistance program. Overweight and obesity problems cost over $75 billion a year, and over half of it is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid (source) Given that under 10% of the population uses this benefit (in insurance terms) paid for by the entire taxbase, one could argue there's some justifiable outrage at the frequent visitors to your neighborhood artery-clogging fast food joint. The same holds for smoking, which it has been estimated costs Medicare over $20 billion.

By the way, I'm not suggesting that fat people are always guilty for their fate. However, it does help to pause and think about the issues in this light. Democrats would do well to consider the fairness of their proposals on spending and taxes. Republicans may want to consider that their policy avoiding restrictions on businesses that kill, while consistent with a society where individuals make decisions for themselves, fails to take into account that we as taxpayers are having one major decision made for us - the decision to fund other people's behavior.