"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mail Order Chickens

When I was a little kid, we always used to have little, dyed chicks for Easter.  There they were, brought by the Easter Bunny and left in a box in the basement.  My sister and I raced down the stairs, almost as excited as we were on Christmas morning, and pulled out the sweet, furry, warm and cuddly little babies.  We loved the way they pecked and poked around on the floor under the wet bar, under the stored patio furniture, and over by the furnace.  We played with them all day, laughing at the little squirts they made on the floor, pecking at it like little dummies, eating their own shit, but so cute and adorable.  We put them back in their box at night, and returned in the morning to play with them.

A few days later, they were gone.  My sister and I never asked where they went, who took them, or what would become of them.  They were just gone, like Easter.  Gone like the Easter dinner at Auntie Ona’s who made lasagna and corn fritters and Italian ham pie. Gone like the elaborately-painted Easter eggs, hand-crafted by the Sister of the Sacred Heart, gifted to my father after he made his rounds at the convalescent home.

For two summers in Tuscany, we borrowed a rabbit from the Vannis who ran the local grocery store in Chianacce, a rent-a-pet for our five-week summer idyll. At the end of our stay when we returned the rabbit, my daughter asked, “Daddy, what’s going to happen to Buns?”

I replied that of course he was going back to the wonderful home that the Vannis had made for him.  He would be happy with his brothers and sisters and he would be loved,.

“Are you sure?”, she said.  A few days before we had gone to one of the fabulous open markets in the area – blocks and blocks of fruits and vegetables, wheels of Parmesan cheese, stands of fresh pasta, fish, chicken and…..you guessed it, rabbit.  Before I could turn the little ones’ heads, they got a full frontal view of a dressed and trussed Buns, all glistening, reddish meat with the head on and, for some reason, fur still on his little paws. 

So, my sister and I had the same intuition as my children – the cute little chicks were going to meet their maker somewhere other than in the protective confines of our basement.

In my adult years, I have wondered what exactly did happen to those chicks.  Did my father simply let them loose in the woods behind our house? Drive them out to Mrs. Rozicki’s farm in Southington? She was our cleaning lady and I overheard her saying to my mother, “I take baby chickens, Mrs. Parlato.  They grow up quick and I eat them”.  I think that’s what might have happened to them, but at the time I couldn’t believe that my parents would do that, give them to ugly, wart-faced Mrs. Rozicki and let her fatten them up for the slaughter. 

More than likely they came from Mr. Geraci, the same chicken man that sold us freshly-killed chickens – Ben Geraci, a small, dark, hairy Italian whose chickens he guaranteed were beheaded the very morning of delivery.  I can still remember the smell of singed chicken stubble and my mother complaining that the birds might be fresh, but Mr. Geraci could have shaved them a little closer to the skin.  Mr. Geraci raised, slaughtered, and sold chickens, so he must have raised a bumper crop that would grow from egg to chick before Easter, dyed them red, blue, green, and yellow, and sold them to the good customers who bought his ready-to-eat-except-for-the-stubble birds.

Now comes this article about mail-order chickens.  Millions of them shipped from Perdue-style industrial chicken farms, dyed and boxed, to homes like mine fifty years ago. The problem is that now they carry salmonella, a disease we never even heard about in the old days when chickens were local, Mr. Geraci wielded the cleaver that chopped off their heads, and they were prepared and eaten before any bacteria could get to them.  An article in today’s (5.31.12)  Washington Post recounts the story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/hundreds-of-us-salmonella-cases-tied-to-live-mail-order-chicks-backyard-farming-blamed/2012/05/30/gJQAZlfV2U_story.html

Those cute mail-order chicks that wind up in children’s Easter baskets and backyard farms have been linked to more than 300 cases of salmonella in the U.S. — mostly in youngsters — since 2004.

Parents in 2012 do not go down to Ben Geraci’s to buy a box of dyed chicks, but the pet store where hundreds of them are peeping, squirting, and pecking in cages.  The experience must be very different.  Today’s Easter Bunny, a father more preoccupied with mergers and acquisitions than the spirit of Springtime renewal, rebirth, and resurrection, has to put up with the rank, ammonia-smelling, nastiness of mini-chickens, mailed to the retailer.  Some mail order businesses have worked around US Postal Service regulations and manage to mail the chicks directly to the home – by Easter if you order early enough.

The problem is that although the dyed chicks-for-Easter business is still good, the urban chicken business is even better.  Thousands of Americans taking the idea of ‘locovore’ to its logical extreme, are growing chickens in their own backyards.  There have been many articles (some references found on this blog) about urban chicken farming which, given the confluence of locavore eating and animal rights, is far from the barnyard peckers of fifty years ago.  Same principle – chickens bobbing and weaving out back, culled, chopped, plucked, dressed and eaten – but with more love, caring, and attention to their right to grow up happy before being beheaded.

The problem is that before the chickens have a chance to be given the love, attention, and respect their owners believe they deserve, they have been infected with salmonella:

An estimated 50 million live poultry are sold through the mail each year in the United States in a business that has been booming because of the growing popularity of backyard chicken farming as a hobby among people who like the idea of raising their own food.

Which proves the old adage: “For every solution, there is a problem”.  Urban poultry-raising is a way to provide humane treatment to animals, assure a hormone- and antibiotic-free diet, and a kosher-style execution.  Yet, because few busy urbanites want to spend the extra time getting from egg to chick, they have to rely on mega-breeders a la Perdue, and hence the salmonella.

Uncle Guido is not very worried about salmonella.  The cases linked to mail-order chicks are few and far between and as usual the concern is more a function of media-hype and over-mommying than anything else.  Perverse relative that he is, Uncle Guido is thinking of the strategic, military applications of infected mail-order chickens. Instead of using Stuxnet and Flame computer viruses which take months of highly paid geek hacker time to perfect, why not just send unsolicited mail-order, salmonella-loaded Easter chicks to the Iranians?  Have you ever eaten morgh polou or khorak morgh? Delicious, especially with that toasted, browned, crunchy rice that goes with them.  The demand is there, and who in Teheran would suspect a shipment of chicks for fesenjan, the special Iranian holiday chicken dish?

I wish that there had been mail order Easter chicks back in the day.  As excited as we were to run down the basement stairs to find our little dyed chicks on Easter morning, we would have loved even more to greet the mailman who would have brought us a box full of live, peeping, adorable birds.

In any case, Uncle Guido thinks that this love-thy-chicken locavore, urban chicken phenomenon is totally nuts.  Whole Foods has great organic, free range chickens which roam around large barnyards out in the countryside and do not have to breathe urban bus exhaust, particulate matter from coal-fired power plants, and aerosol spray infected with all kinds of rhinoviruses sneezed by twenty-something condo-dwellers.  They could grow little organic chicks, sell them as coddled, loved, babies, and take them back to be disinfected and sent back to the gulags of Southern Maryland.  A win-win situation for all.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Failure of Foreign Aid - Pakistan 'in extremis'

The Washington Post (5.28.12) has reported on another example of the total dysfunction of Pakistan.  Power outages are responsible for 20 hours of blackouts per day, threaten the few fragments of stability which remain.:

This month, Pakistan tumbled into sovereign default for the first time in its history because the government failed to reimburse millions to independent power providers — more proof that, after years of mismanagement and neglect, the nation’s energy sector is in extremis.

A long-running Islamist insurgency has carved 2 percent from the nation’s GDP  whereas rotating daily blackouts — referred to here as “load shedding” — have resulted in a 4 percent loss.

The shutdowns paralyze commerce, stoke inflation and unemployment, and further enrage a restive populace. Load shedding averages five to 10 hours a day in some urban areas and more than double that in rural ones.

The energy crisis, however, is only one very visible symptom of an inefficient, corrupt, and venal government.  Pakistan is an increasingly lawless, anarchic, failed state, and has progressively deteriorated since Partition in 1947.  Why has Pakistan become one of the world’s scariest states, close behind North Korea and Iran – a state with no political stability, no ability or will to govern, a rapidly deteriorating economy, and a nuclear capacity?

The Brookings Institution has written a Working Paper on Patterns of Conflict in Pakistan (2011) and in its Executive Summary, cites some of the principal reasons:

Pakistan’s political instability today is in large measure due to the struggle between three major actors—the civilian wing of the state, the military, and the Islamists. Partition from British India and the migration that followed led to mobilization based on identity, a power structure that was eventually dominated by the military, and the weakening of democratic institutions and principles. Partition also led to an imbalance of power between Pakistan and India, which continues to shape internal Pakistani politics. Other regional developments, such as the Kashmir dispute with India, further partitioning of the state in 1971, the wars in Afghanistan, and the recent U.S.-led war on terror, have also affected Pakistan’s internal dynamics.

The military constrained the authority of the constitutional state by assuming an informal but substantive role as the supreme political agent and influencing state policies and strategy. The state’s authority has also been threatened by the Islamic establishment which has, since the founding of the state, pressured the state to establish sharia, or Islamic law. Islamic militant discourse and strategy emerged during the wars in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s and has since intensified.

While it is true that Jinnah’s Pakistan was a country largely ruled by tribal factions and ethnic loyalties, India was a country equally divided by language, ethnic identity, and religion.  However the British administration of India, ruling by proxy in the former princely states, was able to establish a rule of law, a government bureaucracy, and civic institutions which provided the basic infrastructure for democratic self rule.  Although the famous Mutiny of 1857 is often recalled as a national revolt against the British, it was nothing like the resistance in Pakistan:

As the British sought to expand their empire into the northwest frontier, they clashed with the Pashtun tribes that held lands extending from the western boundary of the Punjab plains into the kingdom of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns strongly resisted British invasions into their territories. After suffering many casualties, the British finally admitted they could not conquer the Pashtuns and in 1893 negotiated an agreement with the king of Afghanistan to delineate a border. . However, the Pashtuns refused to be subjugated under British colonial rule. The British compromised by creating the North-West Frontier Province, as a loosely administered territory where the Pashtuns would not be subject to colonial laws.

This localized resistance became more consolidated when the idea of Islamic nationalism gained currency.  Resistance to British rule was not only a matter of national sovereignty, it was a question of religion and religious values:

In the 1880s the British initiated political reforms that allowed the formation of political parties and local government. The Indian National Congress was created in 1885 to advocate for Indian autonomy from British rule. Many Muslims believed the organization focused on Hindu interests, however, and in 1906 Muslims formed the Muslim League to represent their interests. Muslims demanded, and were granted, separate electorates in the Government of India Act of 1909. This guaranteed Muslims representation in the national and provincial legislative councils, although the authority of these legislative councils was severely limited under the British colonial government.

The concept of an autonomous Muslim state was publicly proposed during the Allahabad session of the Muslim League in 1930 by the leading Muslim poet-philosopher in South Asia, Mohammad Iqbal. He envisioned a system in which areas that had Muslim majorities would constitute an autonomous state within India. During the next decade, this concept evolved into the demand for the partition of India into separate Muslim and Hindu nations, known as the Two Nations Theory.

The British were more easily able to establish a modern secular rule in India than in Pakistan, and to build a productive economy.  The textile industry begun under the British was a valuable resource to supplement the industrial capacities of England in the processing of American cotton, and it has thrived to this day.  The physical infrastructure to provide the foundation for industry, exploitation of natural resources, and proxy rule was more easily established in India because of a more forgiving geography than that of Pakistan where large areas of what are now the Northwest Frontier Province, Baluchistan, the Northern Areas and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – accounting for almost half of Pakistan’s territory - were difficult to access. 

In short, while India under the British gradually developed the physical, civic, legal, and administrative structures and processes to enable it to become a functional democratic nation in 1947; Pakistan remained largely inchoate, divided, separatist, and religiously fundamental.

It is not surprising that military rule has dominated Pakistan since independence.  As in Latin America after Bolivar, the military was the only truly developed, efficient, and strong institution.  It was conservative and intolerant of any instability which could threaten the country’s – and its own – existence.  Nevertheless, through successive military governments, the civic institutions long a feature of the Indian landscape never developed.

The Pakistani military, like many such establishments in the world, used its competition with India as an excuse to expand its capacity and capabilities at the expense of civil society.  Funds which could have been used for development were diverted to arms and ammunition.

As the second half of the Twentieth Century wore on, each of these Pakistani institutions became more prominent and more developed, especially Islamic fundamentalism and the military.  Because Pakistan had been created as a religious state, ruling elites had everything to gain by encouraging this national identity and did nothing to stop its radicalization.  During the Cold War, Pakistan was the principal client state of the United States which had an open-spigot policy to foreign aid.  Dollars poured into the country with no accountability required.  Pakistan became powerful militarily and poor economically, and the United States didn’t cared as long as it sided with the West.

Recent events are not surprising given the sorry history of the country.  The competition with India is a major cause of the turmoil in Afghanistan, with Pakistan still so afraid of Indian hegemony that it will back the Taliban if they will keep India out.  Not surprisingly, increasing religious fundamentalism and secular dysfunction has led to the familiar inter-sect conflicts between Sunni, Shia, and their own sub-divisions. 

What is so incredible is that the United States government still pours billions of dollars of ‘aid’ into Pakistan.  Only now, after Pakistan has shown itself to be – not surprisingly – an unfaithful and unreliable ally, is Congress beginning to take a closer look at the money spent:

“Pakistan is like a black hole for American aid,” Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said during a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing this month. “Our tax dollars go in. Our diplomats go in, sometimes. Our aid professionals go in, sometimes. Our hopes go in. Our prayers go in. Nothing good ever comes out.”

During the past decade, he added, “we have sunk $24 billion in foreign assistance into Pakistan. It’s hard to fathom how so much money can buy so little.”

Returning to the issue of the article, energy, US investment has been large, but with no discernible results:

Even with U.S. and other donor money, the problem is monumental. Pakistani power stations are running at 20 to 25 percent capacity, experts say; transmission lines are rickety and failing.

The government’s energy-sector debt, caused by subsidies and uncollected bills, is estimated at $4.4 billion. Pakistan defaulted on obligations of nearly $500 million to a group of nine independent utility companies that are supposed to be guaranteed payments. The default, which stems from a complex arrangement involving energy producers and distributors and the state oil company, could lead to a downgrade in the country’s credit rating.

Always ready for a no-strings-attached handout, Pakistan has the audacity to claim that what is needed is more US largesse:

USAID’s $112 million contribution this year for energy does not impress Yusuf [head of an energy consortium in Pakistan]. “In relation to the quantum of the problem, it is actually peanuts,” he said. “If you want to see positive results, there has to be a bigger commitment.”

Once again, US foreign policy is mired in an outdated concept – that foreign assistance can buy influence and have an impact on economic development.  The case of Pakistan has shown that after billions of dollars in foreign assistance, the country is not only not a friend of America, it is inimical to it and its objectives.  The US will never realize the corrupting nature of its dollars, and that aid in many, if not most cases, not only never works but often produces just the opposite result to that for which it was planned.

Secondly, the US foreign policy establishment seems to categorically refuse to look at the lessons of history.  It should be clear to anyone with even a cursory understanding of Pakistan’s dismal trajectory since 1947 and before, that it was a failed state in the making.  Everything the US has done since 1947 has contributed to this failure and dysfunction.

This is not to deny by any means the persistent venality and corruption of Pakistani governments; and the tendency of most governments, particularly relatively new ones, is to consolidate power, to rule selfishly and not well.  However there were many times when Pakistan could have taken another turn, but it has determinedly refused, starting with the recalcitrance and obdurate pigheadedness of Jinnah.  Mountbatten and Nehru pleaded incessantly with him and warned him of the perils of an Islamic state and the savagery of the Partition to come.  He was as deaf and dumb as a stone to these pleas.

Pakistan is a worst-case scenario for foreign assistance.  Everything that is wrong with foreign aid is exaggerated 1000 times in Pakistan.  Everything bad that could happen did happen; and yet we stay.

The lesson of Pakistan in 2012 is for all dysfunctional and failing states to develop a nuclear capacity, for it is the only thing that keeps the dollar spigot open and flowing.  Whether the US will give the finger to Pakistan and take its chances with a  Cold War-type nuclear standoff in the region; or continue to slavishly and ignorantly pad the bank accounts of the generals is still an open question. 

Pakistan is our worst nightmare.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why Do Poor White Voters Reject Democrats?

In an interesting article today (5.27.12) in the Manchester Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/may/25/poor-white-voters-reject-democratsthe author wonders if poor white voters are being duped by the Republicans; or whether they know exactly what they are doing and are being patronized by the Left in their assumption that they do not and worse, could not?

This liberal sentiment has been around for a long time.  Democrats were stunned when Ronald Reagan for the first time in US electoral history recruited Northern working class whites.  It just didn’t seem logical, cried the Left, since Reagan was advocating for smaller government and for the dismantling of many of the entitlement programs which for so long were the staple of the Democratic Party.

Failing to sense the liberation the Democrats have in store for them, they have been seized by a collective bout of false consciousness and are once again set to vote against their own interests. Having thus infantilized them as ostensible adults in need of protection against themselves, progressives will then wonder why this particular group of people do not flock to them at the polls.

A recent Washington Post poll has found that these white voters overwhelmingly prefer Mitt Romney – not for his views on social issues, but on economic ones:

Asked which candidate would do more to advance their families' economic interests, middle-class white voters who said they were struggling to maintain their financial positions chose Mitt Romney. And not by a small margin. In this category he beats Barack Obama by 58% to 32%.

The article suggests that in fact poor white voters know precisely what they are doing.  However, the author gets some points right, many wrong, and ignores others.

First, he claims that people often vote against their immediate self-interest:

As a well-paid journalist, I vote against my economic interests when I support parties that favor wealth redistribution. That's because my own economic interests are not the only things that interest me when I vote. I have a vision of a society that I'd like to live in that goes beyond my own bank account.

This is disingenuous to say the least.  Those who are well-off can afford to vote more widely and less parochially.  If  they vote for tax increases, their net losses will be insignificant relative to income.  Secondly, although they may be voting against their immediate self-interest, they are also voting for their long-term gains.  A balanced budget achieved by higher taxes will decrease the national deficit and debt, and will result in higher stock prices, thus enriching them further. Their wealth comes disproportionately from unearned income, and they very definitely want to support those policies that they perceive as protective of it.

People on the margins, those relying only on earned income, would stand to gain from Republican lower tax policies if they paid a lot of taxes.   Forty-six million Americans (15 percent) are at or under the poverty threshold of $22,000.  If they have two children and take the standard deductions for dependents and personal exemptions, they would pay no taxes.  Those who are working poor – that is above poverty level but still badly off, would pay very few.  Approximately 10 percent of whites are poor compared with 26 percent black, but there are many more whites than blacks in the population, and therefore the number of whites who are poor and pay no or few taxes is significantly high.

Why, then, would poor whites vote Republican on economic grounds?  They get no breaks from lower taxes, and they are unlikely to see any benefit coming from loosened regulations on Wall Street? The author suggests another reason:

With unemployment still about 8%, many of the benefits of healthcare reform still to kick in and bankers still running amok, it's not like Democrats are offering much that would support the economic interests of the poor, regardless of their race. It was Bill Clinton who cut welfare, introduced the North American Free Trade Agreement and repealed the Glass-Steagall Act [removing the firewall between commercial banking and investment banking] – which helped make the recent crisis possible.

This argument is closer to the truth, but does little to explain this disaffection of poor white voters.  The employment rate and the financial crisis are not Obama creations.  They have their origins in the Bush Administration and before.  The low employment rate is a result, among other factors, of the tanked housing market.  When housing starts and total home sales go down, there is a serious ripple effect throughout the economy, eventually affecting employment.  Improving the employment picture is only partially in the hands of Obama, and while the stimulus package did not have as many of the benefits intended (many critics said that it was too small, not ill-advised at all), he deserves credit for employing an age-old economic vehicle successfully used in the Depression.

The financial crisis was certainly not Obama’s doing, and had he not taken the quick and relatively decisive measures to recapitalize banks and the auto industry, we would surely have slipped far further into recession.

Poor white voters, then, are not voting rationally for their best interests.  In fact, a more laissez-faire Republican administration runs the risk of more disruptions on Wall Street and continued unemployment since supply-side, trickle-down economics have long since been discredited.  These disaffected voters, then, are not voting rationally for their economic self-interest but are voting emotionally and irrationally.  The arguments of the liberal left, therefore, are correct.  Poor white voters are being pandered to by a conservative Republican establishment that appeals to a larger philosophical and emotionally resonant and simple issue – the very pillars of American capitalism are being eroded by Obama, and we are on the road to socialism. 

How did Reagan win in 1980?  He said it was ‘Morning in America’ again, and that the miserable, feckless, and wooly policies of Jimmy (Malaise) Carter were over.  In fact poverty rates in the US increased over the Reagan years.  GDP growth during the Reagan years was only fractionally better than that during Jimmy Carter who governed during an oil crisis which caused serious disruptions in supply and thus raising prices.

As far as voting Republican because of Obamacare?  Again a red herring.  Health reform even in its most trimmed-down form will be beneficial to the poor if for no other reason than it will eliminate the prior condition restriction of private insurers.  Again, poor white voters are being sold a bill of Republican goods.  Repeating a mantra heard from Republican mouthpieces since the 50s, ‘Obamacare is socialized medicine’.  That is all an emotionally vulnerable and poorly-educated electorate needs to hear.

The author admits that there is something to this pandering theory:

One of the appeals for some whites of voting Republican is a desire to maintain whatever limited racial privileges they have acquired over the years combined with a fear that what little they have will be taken away by feckless non-whites and undocumented migrants. While in Nevada in 2010 I asked a white Republican without health insurance why she wouldn't support a candidate who might give it to her. "I never really got into that Obamacare insurance stuff," she said. "My mind is focusing 250% on this illegal immigration."

Finally, there is one issue that the Guardian article does not address, and that is the religious fundamentalism of many poor white voters.  There is a simple absolutism to many fundamentalist arguments.  ‘If the Bible says it, it has to be right’; or ‘God’s law always trumps Man’s law’.  Homosexuality, abortion, same-sex marriage are wrong.  Period.  By extension, any candidate who states his opposition to these moral issues, cannot possibly be wrong on other, similar, personal/emotional issues like patriotism and capitalism.  If Mitt Romney says that a vote for Obama is a vote for socialism, rampant homosexuality, fetus murder, white decline, and living in sin, how can he be wrong?

Agreeing with the liberal assessment that poor white voters are not voting in their own interests is not the patronizing, elitist argument suggested by the author.  There should be a collective shame in having so many Americans not only in poverty, but without the educational resources to provide them the logical discipline to sort out political fact from fiction. There is no shame in religion, and American is one of the most religious nations in the world; but there is cause for concern when religion is the only safe haven for so many; and that the safety and security of an all-answering faith can crowd out important secular reasoning.

Why do poor white voters reject Democrats?  For all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Larry Marchese, the Mafia, and Julius Caesar

Larry Marchese was born on the Ides of March, and ever since his retirement he had become fascinated with the Roman Empire and how the Mafia was so much like it. On his first trip to Rome, he saw the large bronze map on the Coliseum which showed the extent of the Empire at its height.  It covered most of the known world.  Of course the Mafia could make no such claims, but it had serious operations in every major city of the United States and Italy, had a controlling share in under-the-radar businesses all over Europe, and had negotiated profitable deals with all the major Latin American drug cartels, Middle Eastern human trafficking rings, Liberian and Congolese blood diamond dealers. 

In its heyday, the Mafia administered its empire just like the Romans – it provided the conquered citizens organization and stability through intimidation, violence, and an indirect takeover of all public institutions.  It could rule from afar, just like the Romans or the British many centuries later.  Local chieftains could rule and profit if they stayed in line, and the underworld city-state was an American reality.

No one officially retires from the Mafia. There are no IRAs, 401Ks, mutual funds, or pension plans.  If you worked for the Santangelo Family, where Larry Luchese had been the Chief Financial Officer, your money was safe, growing, and liquid.  Larry was the only Family member with a college degree – he majored in finance at Rutgers – and it turned out that not only did he understand investment portfolios better than anyone else, he was a genius at hiding money from the feds, but still turning significant profits.  Gone were the days of suitcases of cash carried to Cayman banks.  Luchese buried money in Bahamian hedge funds which were then securitized and wrapped in Aruban gold futures, reconverted into credit default swaps in Barbados, and finally scattered through the West Indies in small private banks from which he – or the small Family investor – could withdraw with no federal scrutiny. 

“I could have saved Lehman Bros.”, he said after they went under in the first days of the recent financial crisis, “and I could have cut a better deal with Wall Street than Paulson ever did”.  It was a pipe dream, however, for he was a phantom financial adviser.  The only books he could show were cooked, juggled, or false, and his resume would be one long blank.  Still, like any good cook who secretly fancied himself a restaurateur, Larry had occasional visions of himself in a plush office on Park Avenue, riding in a stretch limo, and coolly trading billions a day.

When Larry retired, he moved to Tucson, and built a large house at the foothills of the mountains outside of town.  He loved the cactuses, rattlers, bone-dry climate, and brilliant sky of the desert – a welcome and long-desired change from the oppressive heat and humidity of Newark.   He lived there with his wife of 50 years, ‘a saint’ his mother had called her because she quietly put up with his years of hound-dogging; but he was a good provider,managed to stay alive and out of prison, and loved her.

He had always read Roman history, especially the ancient sources – Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus – but especially Plutarch; but as he got older, he found that factual accounts seemed dry and remote.  More than anything else, he became less and less surprised at historical events. Every Republic or Empire was predictably self-protective, expansionist, and hungry for wealth, power, territory, and status.  Theatre might better provide insights into the nature of history, and what better playwright than Shakespeare?  He read Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus over and over again.  He was taken by the Romans’ sense of honor and nobility, qualities he recognized in his Family.  Brutus and Cassius fell on their swords instead of suffering a dishonorable life, just like Frankie Garaffa who was given a choice – to honorably slit his wrists, or to be dishonorably blasted, disfigured, and left in a dumpster.  He was only given a choice because he was married to the don’s niece.  Otherwise treason – like in Elizabethan times – was punished by torture, public humiliation, and disgrace.  It wasn’t enough for English kings to cut off the heads of traitors like other more common enemies.  They had to be disemboweled, eviscerated, and then burned alive.

The greatest dishonor of all was to mess up your own suicide.  Shakespeare understood this, and many of his characters, through cowardice or moral failing, don’t get it right.  Cassius relied on a lowly slave to help push the blade in; Antony, although proclaiming honor, couldn’t do the deed himself.  Frankie Garaffa died an honorable death – in warm water in a bathtub, properly dressed, veins opened with two swift cuts, honorably calm expression on his face.

Every Ides of March – March 15th – Larry read Julius Caesar and read one of the character’s lines out loud.  One year it was Brutus, the next Cassius, the next Antony and then Caesar.  He even liked to read Portia’s and Calphurnia’s lines because they reminded him of some of the Family wives.  They loved their husbands – unusual in Shakespeare – and did their duty to warn them without meddling in their business affairs. Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, is distraught because her husband ignores the evil omens that are everywhere, especially those in her dreams.  She almost convinces him not to go to the Senate, but to suck in his male ego, and stay home; but Cassius, a conspirator, plays to his vanity.  He goes, and is cut down. 

Portia, Brutus’ wife, attuned to his changes in mood, sees that there is something wrong – he, like Hamlet, cannot make up his mind to kill the King – and she insistently, but not intrusively asks what is wrong.  Later she commits suicide because she anticipates Brutus’ death and either out of love for him – a kind of Roman suttee – or more likely because she does not want to be humiliated and dragged through the streets by the victors.  She commits one of the more inventive and horrible suicides in literature – she swallows hot coals.

When he looked at his wife, nodding off in front of the TV, Larry often reflected on what a difficult life it must have been for her, always worried about him and the survival of their well-appointed life together.  It was one thing for wives of real investment bankers to be concerned about profits and losses, bank accounts, and portfolios that could be wiped out in a minute; entirely another to worry about whether the next time you saw your husband was behind bars or worse as a worm-eaten corpse dug up out of the Meadowlands. 

Larry loved the scene where the conspirators are plotting.  Who can they rely on?  Who is completely trustworthy?  Who will snitch?  Cassius knows that Brutus is essential to the assassination because he has status, trust, and standing in Rome.  The people will believe him when he speaks.  Cassius has a silver tongue and uses it masterfully, as he tempts and cajoles Brutus, appealing to his honor, his trust, and his reputation.  Cassius understands Brutus for the vacillating, and indecisive, but principled Roman he is, and knows just how to convince him. 

No different in family conspiracies.  How can one Family bring down another?.  Who within it wants the opposing don dead and deposed?  Who of one Family does the rival don trust as an honest interlocutor? Who is with us and who is against us? Although as time went on and the FBI made serious inroads into the Mafia, business became only power and money.  In the old days, there were matters of respect, honor, duty, and responsibility.  Although people remember him because of Mark Antony’s sarcastic speech, Brutus was indeed an honorable man.  He believed that Caesar had to be killed for the preservation of the Republic, and he would kill his friend for this higher good.

Larry also liked the scene where Brutus and Cassius are bitching at each other over little things.  These are good and close friends who whale away at each other with powder-puff gloves, threatening swords and death, but friends to the end.  It was not even a question of power or authority, just close friends under pressure, cracking at the slightest fissure.

Because of The Godfather movies people think that Family business was cut and dry – order given, passed along the line from capos to lieutenants to workers with efficiency and discipline, all within the context of onore, omerta, and Sicilian nobility. What people don’t understand is that it is hard to maintain both discipline and management and a moral order.  Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra were all about running an empire and managing intense emotions of desire, self-preservation, and greed.  Coriolanus did not understand that he needed the people to rule.  Guns and butter were necessary at the same time.  The Families understood that.  Although they made their money through protection schemes and intimidation, they knew that most people were for them.  They would always help out a family in need, get the brother-in-law a job, give money, or beat up an abusive husband.  There was a trust and quid-pro-quo arrangement between them and their plebeians, and it was a matter of honor to live up to them.

The Romans were able to maintain their empire for so long and with so few enforcers in place because of this model.  People do not mind being ruled or losing their say if they get something in return.  The pax romana existed for so long because of a system of administration, management, and honorable agreements.  Both systems – the Families' and the Romans – understood that the people are docile, malleable, and eminently swayed.

Life in the Family had been good to Larry Marchese.  He had been fortunate to have had a skill which kept him out of the front lines but which also made him invaluable.  As part of his deft manipulation of international financial markets, his hedges within hedges were very profitable.  He and his wife would never have to worry.  He had a convenient moral and psychological firewall which protected him from the reality of the blood and guts of the business. Hits, murders, assassinations, and the modern-day equivalent of burning at the stake were part and parcel of the job – no different from the Romans administering their far-flung North African provinces.  In another one of Shakespeare’s ‘governance plays’, Measure for Measure, Lord Angelo rules with an iron hand, but defends his unequivocally harsh policies as humane because, he says, a society with discipline and control will not become unruly and uncivil.  It is better to burn someone alive today to save many innocent lives tomorrow.

Life in the Mafia was all about order and honor, no matter what people say.  The rest was no different than the rest of American civilian life.  People from Wall Street to Podunk behave in the same predatory, immoral ways.  The difference was the Mafia had moral structure and authority. 

Larry lived a good and long retirement.  He expanded his study of Shakespeare well beyond the Roman plays, and found that the playwright’s insights into human nature and behavior were uncanny.  He was given a pass by his old Family buddies who stopped by to visit on their way to Las Vegas – Larry had always been a weirdo – but his financial advice was and had always been invaluable.  After a few years of this informal helping out friends, Larry started taking commissions on profits.  This fell well within the code of the the Families.  Giving Larry some money if he made you some was like giving an envelope of cash to the bride on her wedding day.  He didn’t need the money after all he made from the West Indies; but it was the principle of the thing, the right thing to do to maintain the respectful relationship between friends and former partners.

“More people should read Shakespeare”, said Larry.  “He knew a lot”. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Are You An Asbo–Guilty of Anti-Social Behavior?

An Anti-Social Behaviour Order or ASBO is a civil order made against a person who has been shown, on the balance of evidence, to have engaged in anti-social behaviour in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

OK, a person can’t be an Asbo – it’s a civil order that attempts to regulate antisocial behavior – but the article in the Manchester Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/22/asbo-facelift-vulnerable-antisocial-behaviour  refers to “the guest who arrives late, hogs the conversation, becomes drunk and obnoxious, makes a pass at his hostess and punches his host”, and an assortment of other boorish louts who just don’t get it when it comes to acceptable behavior. The British call them ‘yobs’, and since they exist in America too, I will call them Asbos.

The article states that legal attempts to curb antisocial behavior, such as the ASBO, were never a good idea in the first place, and have gone badly wrong since.

'Antisocial behaviour" – was ever a phrase so pervasive? Umpteen home secretaries pledged to solve this terrible blight – to protect the "decent" and punish the "yobs". From begging, barking dogs and noisy neighbours to drug dealing, vandalism and violence, this euphemism posing as law covered everything from the irritating to the fatal. Section 1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 encompasses behaviour "likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress". In our everyday dealings, we have long been used to broad and evolving concepts of what is socially welcome, acceptable, inept and unpleasant. But does such vague breadth make just or strong law?

Of course it’s a bad law, although if it were in force here, I know hundreds of workers who would haul their bosses before a magistrate for causing ‘harassment, alarm, and distress’.  I had a boss once who so intimidated her underlings that they became cowed, trembling, stuttering, and stumbling wrecks whenever they were called in to her office.  There was no really appropriate word for her.  Succubus, harridan, vixen were only incomplete descriptions.  She was almost ghoulish in her delight in seeing these beaten and mute employees grovel before her, leave the room with head bowed and shoulders stooped, humiliated, savaged, and destroyed.

But, we don’t have such a law, and just use social opprobrium, good old fashioned issues lobbyists, and a Mommy Culture intent on expunging anything noxious, potentially harmful to body and soul from the environment. Everything from kitchen microbes to playground bullies are fair game.  Forget about age old rules such as ‘you’ll get sick and die of something, so get used to it’, or ‘there’re more bullies around than nice people so the sooner you learn how to deal with them the better’.  This is America: identify the problem and fix it.

In [Britain] in 2010 a man appeared in court for breaching an order prohibiting him from laughing, staring or slow-clapping. In 2005 a repeatedly suicidal woman was given an asbo banning her from going near railway lines, bridges and rivers.

The British soon figured out that the ASBO wasn’t working.  In fact the number of people who had disregarded the civil orders placed on them skyrocketed.  Rather than jettison a bad idea, however, the authorities gave it new life:

It's true that the system will be "streamlined" – 19 measures will be replaced by just six powers. The new criminal behaviour order will be used to ban individuals from particular activities or places and crime prevention injunctions (CPIs) will give agencies an immediate power to "stop bad behaviour before it escalates" – the lower standard of proof for civil orders, meaning CPIs, can be put in place in hours. This means that the authority would have to demonstrate only "on the balance of probabilities" and not "beyond reasonable doubt" that the individual was engaging, had engaged or was likely to engage in antisocial behaviour.

As bad as this is as a whole, the final injunction – that you can be locked up if you are deemed ‘likely to engage in antisocial behavior’ – is absurd, although a great movie, The Minority Report was made about ‘pre-crime’.  Tom Cruise using psychic mediums as his foresight, caught criminals before they committed a crime. 

We all have probably thought about pre-crime sometime or other.  Why not corral suspicious-looking people, shake them down to see if they really were up to no good; and if not, let them go, no harm done.  What about that middle-aged white guy in a raincoat leaning over the playground fence at the neighborhood school? Haul him in, pervert for sure, probably wearing nothing under the Burberry.  Or the black teenager walking in a white neighborhood at night?  Pre-crime activities, while still under intense scrutiny in the real world, are de rigeur in Customs halls.  Before a suspicious foreigner can enter America, he can be interrogated, frisked, body-searched, and harassed as long as the Border Patrol cares to.  We are tempted to apply that to civil society in the name of stopping (preventing) crime.

The British law, however, has little to do with crime.  It is about antisocial behavior, and an attempt to rid society of boors, louts, insensitive macho-men, pigs, gluttons, and pushy, never-a-sorry-or-a-please luddites.  What were they thinking?

But the reality is little but a facelift for old thinking. Criminal behaviour orders, crime prevention injunctions, community triggers – a brace of souped-up new jargon won't protect the vulnerable. The problem was never about bad manners at the dinner table. It remains about threats, harassment, violence and inequality before the law.

Disingenuous to say the least.  The way the law was written, and given the social mores of the times, it is indeed about bad manners.  Although I am sure that the spirit of the law was good – to protect the vulnerable by deciphering real threats and preventing individual and family abuse – the law itself only invites trouble.

In an attempted shortcut to policing and justice, Asbos dangerously blurred moral and legal distinctions between serious criminal activity and nuisance. They created "personalised penal codes" that set the young, vulnerable or mentally ill up to fail – fast-tracking offenders into, rather than away from, custody. Asbos were doled out preventing people begging, swearing, speaking sarcastically, wearing certain types of clothing or not enough of it.

Once you go down the path of anticipating bad behavior, it becomes ever wider and longer.  Anything you – or society – doesn’t like becomes a crime, and a perverted PC police state emerges.

The old rules should always apply – deal with it, get over it, move on.  We do not want to live in a Mommy State where government decides what behavior is good and bad and then intervenes to stop it.  This is worse than dirigiste central planning.  A well-timed barb can unman the most insistent office pest.  Male egos are notoriously fragile.  A kick in the cojones of the playground bully may not stop him this time, but he will think twice next recess.  Ethnic taunts and slurs were part of every kid’s life in earlier multi-cultural neighborhoods in the United States.  We gave as good as we got.

There is a big difference between surveillance and pre-crime lock-ups.  When you are under surveillance because of suspicious criminal activity, or if you fit the profile of a ne’er-do-well, you still have the full protection of the law.  If you are under surveillance for suspected anti-social behavior, the surveillance itself is a crime.

Once again, it is time to rein in our reformer instincts – society will always have its boorish miscreants.  Identify, follow, and arrest real criminals.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cubicles–A Failed Attempt At Forced Collaboration

Office cubicles have never been a good idea – except for the businesses and government agencies which saved money by creating rat mazes without windows, doors, or ceilings.  The Ronald Reagan building in Washington, DC has always been considered the office worker’s worst nightmare, for it is floor upon floor of dimly-lit, crowded, airless, and hopeless spaces that confine, depress, and demotivate workers.

The irony of all this is that there actually is a rationale cooked up to justify this purgatory – that an ‘open office’ where workers can more easily communicate, will contribute more to teamwork, group associations, and productivity.  This thinly-veiled excuse to save owners money, has, of course, not worked.  Employees are dissatisfied with the noise, the lack of privacy, and the animal clustering; and have begun to speak up.  What is most amazing was that senior management either bought into this perverse scheme or promoted it vigorously and dishonestly.  I remember the Directors meeting at my firm where a move to a new building with the new configuration was soon to take place.  The Senior Vice President’s job was to explain the theory behind cubicles, and to enlist our support in convincing the lower-level staff – the ones who would be placed in the dark maze – that it was a good thing; and that both they, our Department, and the company would be better off. 

There were two survivors from the Ronald Reagan building in the group. After hearing the SVP’s pitch and the silence that followed, he stood up and said, “With all due respect, the Ronald Reagan building was sheer hell, and anyone who thinks that reconfiguring an office to mimic that soulless animal warren, is misguided”.

John Tierney has written an ‘expose’ of the cubicle culture in the New York Times (5.20.12), although anyone who has worked in an office in the last ten years needs no new revelations.  In any case, Tierney addresses the unhappiness, the issues that cause it, and the technological covers that have been increasingly put in place to keep workers happy and under control http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/science/when-buzz-at-your-cubicle-is-too-loud-for-work.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

The walls have come tumbling down in offices everywhere, but the cubicle dwellers keep putting up new ones. They barricade themselves behind file cabinets. They fortify their partitions with towers of books and papers. Or they follow an “evolving law of technology etiquette,” as articulated by Raj Udeshi at the open office he shares with fellow software entrepreneurs in downtown Manhattan.

Headphones are the new wall,” he said, pointing to the covered ears of his neighbors. Cubicle culture is already something of a punch line — how many ways can we find to annoy one another all day?

‘Speech privacy’ was the major element cited in a recent survey as the most irritating and unacceptable consequence of the open office.  Both the loud jabber of ‘noisemakers’ and the impossibility of having any more than a perfunctory conversation without nosy eavesdroppers hearing every word were cited:

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of “speech privacy,” making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

“In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices,” said John Goins, the leader of the survey conducted by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. “The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy”

While the barriers of file cabinets, coatracks, tropical plants, and knickknacks – obvious psycho-social cries for privacy and individual space – were never heeded, noise levels got management’s attentions.  Noise meant interruption of the work process, lower per-worker productivity, and lowered corporate performance.  The answer, of course, was not to address the underlying issue – the failed concept of the open office – but to retrofit it to take care of the noise.

Lately the complaints are being heard by the right people, including managers and social scientists. Companies are redesigning offices, piping in special background noise to improve the acoustics and bringing in engineers to solve volume issues. “Sound masking” has become a buzz phrase.

When Autodesk, a software company, moved into a an open-plan building in Waltham, Mass., three years ago, it installed what is known as a pink-noise system: a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voice.

A truly American solution.  Technology again saves the day, mollifies restive employees, makes them forget the Workers Hell devised for them by greedy capitalists, and allows them to get back to work.   What millions of snore sufferers have sought for decades – a sound suppressor that really works – is now deployed in offices.

The more debilitating effect of open offices is the issue of privacy.  Whereas most people get used to noise and deal with it more or less effectively, few can do without the social intimacy required for most human relationships.  The issue is not being overheard when you coo with your lover over the phone; but when you discuss issues of corporate management, the seditious but critically important exchange of ideas which contribute to real improvement

Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices. “Everyone is still experimenting with ways to balance the need for collaboration and the need for privacy.”

One could argue that the cubicle was designed by management-oriented architects exactly to prevent that kind of seditious speech:

[Management] says they sometimes get useful ideas from overheard conversations (italics mine); but also find themselves retreating to a bathroom or a broom closet for private chats. When they have to discuss a delicate matter with someone sitting next to them, they often use e-mail or instant messaging.

‘Useful ideas’ are not all they are listening for, to be sure.  Open offices also make it easier for a discipline-minded boss to cruise through the warren to find out who is screwing off and who is actually working.

Despite complaints like this around the world, the open-plan design remains the norm, partly because it is cheaper and partly because many managers believe the plusses outweigh the minuses. It is especially popular in workplaces that require continual informal collaboration, like newsrooms, trading floors and political campaign offices (Italics mine).

This is a disingenuous statement if I have ever heard one.  How many ‘newsrooms, trading floors, and political campaign offices’ are there in the United States.  And how many dry, impersonal, 19th century assembly-line cubicle offices?  And of course cubicles are cheaper, and of course managers feel that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Now, in the convoluted logic of those perpetuating a bad idea, this nugget of insight has been found:

Paradoxically, a bustling office can be less distracting than a subdued office.  Many offices are now pin-drop quiet, thanks to silent ventilation systems, the demise of clattering typewriters and the victory of e-mail over the telephone. With so little background noise, cubicle dwellers cannot help overhearing anyone who does dare to start a conversation.

So, the logician/theorist argues, cubicles are good for you because they generate the ambient noise that will keep you from isolating individual conversations, compulsively listen to them, and be less productive.

Another solution has been ‘The Little Room’:

Office designers are experimenting with layouts that give workers quiet places to retreat. One common tactic is to set aside a small room for conversations and phone calls. But sometimes the room is monopolized by one person who seizes it to work in all day, and other times the room is barely used at all.   

However, one consultant commented, “People feel self-conscious, as if they’re retreating to the room to hide something or to talk about some problem.”

This is not the paranoia that the expert suggests.  Employees in those little rooms are in fact talking about issue they don’t want anyone else to overhear.  Of course some more civic-minded employees use them for legitimate purposes and do not wish to annoy people in the cubes, but the need to retreat, collectivize, conspire, and share gripes is very real.  The truly mutinous meetings are not held in little rooms but reserved for noisy bars (in Washington especially where avoiding being heard is an obsession), but the seeds of dissent often arise in innocent meetings. 

I often had my team meetings in these retreats and although we were only discussing the progress of a project on which we all were working, the subject of poor senior management, corporate organization, or personnel issues almost always came up. Whether we convened for professional reasons or not, important gossipy tidbits and observations were a part of the discussion, and never would have occurred in the cubes.

Management, at least in my office, was savvy enough not to make these little rooms and our Directors’ offices – larger spaces on the front of the building with big windows which let in the only light available to the cubes – soundproof.  Since the walls to the cubes were glass, anyone who walked by and saw the team huddled a bit more closely than usual, knew that we were conspiring.

And as a final insult to the hard-working minions who labor at professional sweatshop proposal mills for twelve hours a day and dirt wages, consider this:

Another example of that in-between space is the booth, which office designers have recently appropriated from restaurants. At the East Village office of What If, a consulting firm, people who want to chat can retreat to diner-style booths at the edge of the communal open space.

“There’s something very satisfying about a booth,” said Barrie Berg, the chief executive of the firm’s American operations. “You can see what’s going around you, and people can see you, but you can still have a private conversation without disturbing anyone around you. We’re a culture of people who work better with a buzz around us, but that buzz needs to be manageable.”

Are you kidding?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Recipes: Beet Green Salad with Garlic Tuna and Shrimp

This is a delicious salad with unusual ingredients which work perfectly together.  Beet greens are often cut off and thrown away at the market, but these days at farmers’ markets or at Whole Foods, they come with the the beets.  They are not high-flavor like collards (my favorite green), and much more like Swiss chard or fresh spinach.  In fact you can substitute chard or spinach in this recipe.

The other important ingredient is garlic tuna.  I used to buy small jars of tuna which had been packed and marinated in olive oil and garlic with a taste of lemon; then realized that I could use inexpensive commercial tuna and add the ingredients and end up with the same excellent taste.  The garlic and lemon add incredible flavor to the tuna, and when the mixture is combined with the greens, the result is very high flavor indeed. 

The shrimp are optional, and I added them because I had some left over from the night before.  I marinate the shrimp all day in Cajun and Bay spices (with a little olive oil), then sear them in a super-hot iron skillet.  Cold and put in a salad, especially with the spices on them, they add an addition interesting and complementary flavor. Canned octopus (pulpo), Vigo brand, are delicious with a high fish flavor which is perfect for the medium flavor greens. 

You can be as simple or as varied as you want with all the ingredients except the greens and the tuna.  Shrimp or octopus go extremely well with the tuna and greens.  Adding fresh beets and avocado also adds color, flavor, and texture.

Beet Green Salad with Garlic Tuna and Shrimp

* 1 lg. can solid white albacore tuna, marinated (overnight or 4-5 hours) in olive oil, two cloves garlic, sliced; and three strips lemon peel

* 6 jumbo shrimp marinated in Cajun and Bay spice (overnight or 4-5 hours)with 1 Tbsp. olive oil, then pan-seared in a very hot iron skillet, peeled, cooled, and cut into 1/2” pieces (optional)

* 1/2 can Vigo octopus (optional)

* 1 bunch beet tops steamed and chopped.  Use one bunch if the leaves are plentiful.  Farmers’ market beets usually have full, long, rich greens, while supermarkets tend to have shorter and fewer leaves.  If you buy beets with fewer leaves, you will need at least two or three rounds


* 1 lb. fresh spinach or Swiss chard, steamed and chopped


* 2 beets, boiled low for about 45 minutes or until done, then cut into 1” pieces (optional)

* 1/2 ripe avocado, cut into large pieces (optional)

* 2-3 Tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil

* 3-4 medium winter tomatoes (these come packaged and are found in supermarkets.  They have a lot of taste; but be sure NOT to buy the non-packed, stem-on, good-looking but tasteless tomatoes from Holland or hothouses in California), cut into quarters

* 1/2 red onion chopped

* salt, ground pepper to taste

- Steam the beet tops or spinach, drain, chop, then press the remaining liquid out and reserve

- Prepare the marinated tuna

- Prepare the shrimp (optional)

- Slice the tomatoes and chop the onion

- Plate the greens and place the tuna, shrimp or octopus, tomatoes, beets, avocado, and onion on top (use your imagination to create an attractive-looking arrangement)

- Drizzle with the olive oil, add salt and pepper, and serve

Friday, May 18, 2012

Changing Dietary Habits - Poverty, Corporate Interests, And Congress Make It Difficult

Programs of 'Behavior Change Communications' have been common in the developing world for over 40 years, addressing contraception, Oral Rehydration, AIDS prevention, malaria control, sanitation, and nutrition.  By far the most difficult and intractable was dietary change – getting people to eat a better and more balanced diet.

Because of poverty, families eat the basics – rice and dal in India, rice and beans in Central America, or their cultural equivalents in other parts of the world.  Meat and dairy products are available and known, but out of the reach of poor families.  Vegetables are out of the question because they are expensive and provide none of the essential calories and proteins linked to economic productivity and survival, let alone psychological satisfaction.  Not only does a protein- and calorie-rich diet provide the nutrients needed to perform hard work, they leave the eater satisfied with a full stomach.  No matter how much one preaches about the importance of green, leafy vegetables, there are always few takers. 

Image result for rural indian family eating images

People on the margins cannot afford to take risks, and therefore the wisdom of spending every available cent on calories and proteins – especially for the men in the family who provide income and some semblance of economic stability – is unassailable.

As soon as families rise out of poverty, they need no education or information to improve their diet.  They imitate the middle class and begin to introduce meat, dairy products, vegetables, and fruits into their diets. 

About five years after the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania, behavior change specialists, noting the high levels of smoking, alcohol consumption, and bad nutrition, offered to help design various 'lifestyle change' campaigns.

Image result for images ceausescu

When they suggested that dietary reform might be the logical place to start, the Minister of Health replied that this was the wrong time and place.  Romanians for so long had suffered food shortages and unvaried, unpalatable products, that eating an excessively rich diet was normal, logical, and in fact very understandable.  Good nutrition was definitely not a simple matter.

Good nutrition in America is no simple matter either. True, America's problems have more to do with overeating than under-eating, but the behavioral factors – economics, information, energy output, etc. – are the same.  Yet while the factors affecting nutrition may be similar in all countries, the enabling environment for dietary change is quite different; and in the case of the United States particularly complex. For example suggesting that consumers reduce fat consumption from meat by eating smaller portions, leaner cuts, or moving to fish as an alternative conflicts with the interests of the Cattlemen’s Beef Association.  Reducing fat consumption by decreasing the amount of dairy products runs afoul of the National Cheese Institute, the National Dairy Foundation, and the Milk Industry Foundation.


Reducing fat and salt consumption by eating fewer processed and junk foods and saturated fat French fries runs into the buzz saw of various lobby groups. The familiar argument over whether ketchup is a vegetable – an argument which arose out of interest groups trying to improve school nutrition is an illustrative example of how the diet in America is determined largely by food interest groups.

The government is complicit in this phenomenon.  There are no direct subsidies for vegetables, but potatoes receive generous US dollars. Potato subsidies in Maine alone totaled $535,858 from 1995-2010.  Idaho, Washington, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Minnesota, California, and Michigan are also recipients.  Cheap potatoes allow McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants to offer huge portions for relatively nothing.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, for obesity is the result of many other factors.  The first is poverty.  A map of the poorest districts in the United States is perfectly congruent with a map of obesity; and the worst affected are in the Delta region of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.  Poor families who used to eat a home-cooked unhealthy diet of cornmeal, fatback, and fried everything, now complement it with the cheap, equally unhealthy foods from the millions of fast food restaurants in the area.  On the commercial strip outside of Columbus, MS with a population of 25,000 and a per-capita income at $16,700, there are over 25 fast-food restaurants and all the major chains are represented.

Image result for poverty map usa

People eat fast food because even though for a family of four, the cheapest meals are not cheap, time constraints for a two-earner household often with more than two jobs do not permit eating at home.  The poorest families will still cook traditional Southern-style meals laden with fat and calories and with little healthy diversification. 

Fast food has an additional payoff, similar to that for poor Indians, Guatemalans, or Haitians – it is psychologically satisfying.  A father who takes his children to McDonald's and all leave sated after eating the calorie-rich supersized portions can feel responsible and the children never grumble.
Poverty limits exercise.  Most people who work at one or sometimes two tedious jobs are tired at the end of the day, and leisure does not include running, cycling, or swimming – even if they had access to the clubs, pools, and cycles of the more well-to-do.

It is difficult enough for wealthy, educated parents to supervise their children; and even harder for poor families who lack the experience, the training, and the will (given their often desperate situations) to exercise the parental guidance and restraint necessary to improve their children’s diets.  Moreover, if the parents are overweight because of an improper diet, they are unlikely to demand better of their children.                  

All of the recent flurry of studies on obesity have shown that there are two principal culprits other than poverty – snack foods and sweetened drinks.  Hundreds of non-nutritional calories are ingested every week by most adults and children, and the foods that provide them are ubiquitous.  Not only are they available in stores and supermarkets but in vending machines in offices, schools, and public facilities.  Airlines, having eliminated proper meals, now give salty snacks like pretzels or chips.  Media advertising is relentless.

When asked why they snack, the responses are varied but consistent.  Boredom is most often cited.  People who work at boring, repetitive jobs with few rest breaks are likely to snack to relieve the monotony.  People snack while driving for the same reasons.  Others cite associations such as watching TV and snacking.

David Kessler, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wondered why people were so addicted to snack foods:
Kessler was on a mission to understand a problem that has vexed him since childhood: why he can't resist certain foods.  His resulting theory, described in his new book, "The End of Overeating," is startling. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain's chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat. "Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology -- what's going on in our body," he said. "The real question is what's going on in our brain."  (Washington Post 2009)
The Dorito is the perfect storm of a bad food – the corn gives it sweetness; it is cooked in fat giving calories; and it is loaded with salt.  Many snack foods provide this tempting and addictive combination.  Not only do we reach for snack foods because of psycho-social reasons, once we start in on them we cannot quit.

There is a genetic predisposition to obesity.  This does not mean that a predisposed individual must be fat; but that additional weight is likely if he/she does not take care and watch what they eat.  In addition to individual genetic profiles, human beings are programmed to store fat.  In caveman days this was important.  Hunters who had to run for miles to find, track, and haul game needed sufficient energy; and if there were drought, scarcity of game, or famine, the stored fat kept them alive. 

Image result for images dna

Women in particular put on weight to assure that if they became pregnant during lean times they would be able to have the resources to bring the baby to term and to breastfeed it.  We are no longer under those severe constraints; but not only have we stopped caveman exertion, we have stopped most exertion.  Our sedentary lives are perfect complements to the fat genes which are there for survival. 

Recent studies have shown that truly sedentary activities – i.e. sitting – have a peculiarly odd effect: 
Studies suggest that sitting results in rapid and dramatic changes in skeletal muscle. For example, in rat models, it has been shown that just 1 day of complete rest results in dramatic reductions in muscle triglyceride uptake, as well as reductions in HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). And in healthy human subjects, just 5 days of bed rest has been shown to result in increased plasma triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, as well as increased insulin resistance – all very bad things. And these weren’t small changes – triglyceride levels increased by 35%, and insulin resistance by 50%! (Plos Blogs, Obesity Panacea)
It is notoriously difficult to lose weight once it is put on, largely because of the same genetic programming that enabled us to survive the Stone Age.  When we severely restrict our diet, our bodies rebel, and noting the decrease in calories, slow down the metabolism, thus consuming fewer calories, making weight loss even more difficult.  There has also been considerable research done on ‘set points’ although much of the theory is still being debated.
According to the set-point theory, there is a control system built into every person dictating how much fat he or she should carry – a kind of thermostat for body fat. Some individuals have a high setting, others have a low one. According to this theory, body fat percentage and body weight are matters of internal controls that are set differently in different people (MIT Medical)
Since it is impossible to determine one’s own set-point, it is impossible to know exactly what your ideal weight would be. Furthermore:
The set-point theory was originally developed in 1982 by Bennett and Gurin to explain why repeated dieting is unsuccessful in producing long-term change in body weight or shape. Going on a weight-loss diet is an attempt to overpower the set point, and the set point is a seemingly tireless opponent to the dieter.
It is easy to see, therefore, why it is difficult for people to maintain a normal weight and even more difficult to lose it.  The psycho-social, economic, and political factors affecting weight is so complex, that policy-makers don’t know where to begin.  Poverty-reduction, for example, is not only a goal for nutritionists but for the country at large; and it has itself been resistant to change.

The political polarity in today’s Congress prevents aggressive action.  Republicans refuse more government intervention on principle, citing an aversion to the ‘Mommy State’ where individual responsibility is superseded by government intervention.  Democrats refuse to admit that in the end, food choices are individual choices.

Technology, usually the best and brightest American solution to problems, has failed on the question of obesity.  There is no magic bullet – no pill to take to reduce appetite or to melt away fat.  No diet has succeeded longer than a few months; and few people, apparently, are willing to exert the self-discipline and will necessary to carefully monitor calories in – calories out.

The attempts to improve nutrition in institutional settings have been overly simplistic and academic; and even the most innovative programs to make school meals more attractive and 'relevant', plate waste is still significant.  Just as it takes thought, planning, ingredients, and execution to make a good vegetarian dish, so it takes serious consideration to come up with cost-effective, tasty, nutritious and especially appealing meals for children.

Simple information about good nutrition or the consequences of obesity is not enough – even if public finances and political compromise permit honest media spots.  Decades of preaching about The Four Basic Food Groups has resulted in little.  The explanatory charts on the sides of food packaging – The Food Pyramid and now The Food Plate – are largely ignored and hard to decipher.  No matter what, even if you look at these charts, you still have to do some nimble calculations to determine what you should eat.


The anti-smoking campaign is a good reminder of how hard it is to change behavior.  The Surgeon General’s first warning about smoking and health was issued in 1964, so it has been nearly 50 years of efforts to reduce the nation’s smoking habits.  Little happened in the Sixties and Seventies, and only in the Eighties were informational and regulatory interventions begun.  Despite the significant decline in smoking, the latest CDC statistics show that nearly 20 percent of adult Americans over the age of 18 smoke to which must be added an unfortunately high number of those under 18.

Decline in smoking had to do with a number of factors.  Cigarette purchase is sensitive to the price per pack – the higher the price, the lower the demand.  Local legislation has outlawed smoking in most public places, and the lack of availability of smoking areas has contributed to the decline.  Public information, while not loud and highly visible, has been persistent and has drummed the message about smoking and health into most people’s minds.  Successful lawsuits against Big Tobacco have put notable pressure on tobacco companies to act more responsibly in terms of sale and advertising.  Slowly but surely, social norms have changed, and after 50 years it most definitely not cool to smoke.

So, obesity will be with us for a long while.  As I have suggested in this post it seems to be a more complex problem than smoking; and to address it let alone solve it will require vast energy and resources for each of the many causative factors. Cd