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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rand Paul Is No Libertarian–He’s a Right Wing Conservative

I have been a Libertarian for years, a member of the Cato Institute, and a follower of Libertarian thought.  I, like many Americans, am completely dissatisfied with both Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, and have sought a middle ground – not a waffly place of compromise and vacillation, but one in which reasonable positions are espoused regardless of their political tilt. Libertarianism appeals because it is very conservative on economic and fiscal policy; very liberal on international and social issues.

Big government is a threat to individual liberty, say Libertarians, and there is nothing more amoeba-like than its creep and assimilative qualities.  No matter who the President – Ronald Reagan, George Bush, or Lyndon Johnson, government has continued to grow, with more and more invasive policies whether NSA surveillance, profligate subsidies, unrealistic and idealistic regulations, or wasteful social programs.

Libertarians have stood steadfastly for freedom of speech, and have defended Manning and Snowden. They are for a liberal immigration policy, driven primarily by a belief in free trade and open markets.  Immigrants have always added to the nation’s economy and provided waves of new energy and entrepreneurial spirit. They are adamantly pro-choice, understanding that abortion is not a matter for government, but the individual.  At the same time they rightly question Roe vs. Wade for its judicial activism and overreaching, understanding that such a religious, philosophical, and moral issue rightly belongs in the public domain and out of insular institutions.

Libertarians have always been suspicious of foreign interventionism and have sharply criticized the adventurism of George Bush and Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their hero is Dwight D. Eisenhower who loudly warned of the military-industrial complex and how it threatened American democracy.  Libertarians have said only that Ike should have added Congress to military-industrial, for this unholy triad is truly a dangerous alliance.

Libertarians have been harshly critical of government social action from affirmative action to the social engineering programs of ‘inclusivity’,diversity’ and theories of ‘multiple intelligences’. Special programs have been long skewed against the talented, intelligent, and entrepreneurial students; and ‘progressive’ programs simply ignore the truth – America is a land of equal opportunity, not equal ability.

Libertarians have been conservative on fiscal and financial issues.  Tax rates should be kept low to encourage private savings and individual decision-making; Fed intervention is not necessarily bad (some Libertarians do call for the abolition of the Fed and Ron Paul raised the debunked issue of the Gold Standard), but risks the same arrogance and overreaching as the Supreme Court.

Libertarians are often characterized as the party that wants to abolish all government.  This is a gross distortion.  Libertarian principle is based on the bedrock American principle of “Show Me”.  Rather than start with the assumption that government is always right, they demand that for each proposed intervention, government must prove that a) its investment is sound, based on solid quantitative evidence; and b) that only it – not the private or voluntary sectors – can do the job.  This is a very reasonable approach, for Congress is a sinkhole of venal interests, and laws, regulations, and policies are churned out more because of parochial electoral interests than sound reasoning.  Show us that government intervention works and this the only or best way, and we will support it.

The problem with Libertarianism is not its philosophy or principles, but the distortion of them that is inevitable in electoral politics.  Ron Paul adhered to most Libertarian principles but for some reason caved on abortion rights and immigration.  He got greedy, and like most politicians, when he saw a whiff of success at the polls, moved away from his base. Nevertheless his relatively pure brand of Libertarianism was successful at the polls, with as high as 40 percent primary votes in the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2012 (RonPaulForums.com). Other regions clustered around 25 percent.

His son, Rand, more politically ambitious than his father, openly disavows most of Libertarianism, but as a sop to the millions who voted with his father, still includes the term in his resume.

As Rachel Alexander writes in The Guardian (7.30.13):

Rand Paul is not as libertarian as his father Ron. In May, he told an evangelical gathering in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

I'm not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot. I'm not a libertarian. I'm a libertarian Republican. I'm a constitutional conservative.

That is, he is a rock-ribbed Conservative.  The red-meat Rush Limbaugh crazies are his constituents, not the well-heeled Washington intellectuals who go to seminars at Cato in Washington. 

To get elected, Rand Paul has to choose one side or the other; and he has chosen the Far Right. This is sensible electoral politics, for there are simply not enough true Libertarians who espouse both abortion rights and fiscal conservatism.  More importantly, an anti-military stance will lose politicians votes every time; and although Americans are now sick of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most will be solidly for maintaining a strong military.  Although Eisenhower was right in his warning, enough Conservative politicians have been manifestly militarist that his words have been lost.

The battle between two prime Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential election – Rand Paul and Chris Christie is already heating up. Christie, still worried about Paul’s libertarian followers and seeing ‘creeping libertarianism’ everywhere, has gone on the attack.

New Jersey Republican Mayor Chris Christie took a harsh swipe at Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky last week, declaring Paul's criticism of the National Security Administration as "dangerous". Appearing on a panel with other Republican governors, Christie said:

This strain of libertarianism that's going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought.

Asked if he was referring to Rand Paul, Christie responded, "You can name any number of people and he's one of them."

Christie's remarks were part of a strategy for his possible presidential run in 2016. He is trying to write off fears about NSA snooping as "libertarian", and drive a wedge between neoconservatives, who are hawkish on foreign policy, and Paul. Christie wants to portray himself as further to the right on foreign policy than Paul, since many of Christie's other positions are relatively liberal.

This is good news and bad news.  On the one hand, Christie is acknowledging that Libertarianism is rapidly moving out of the intellectual corners of Washington into the mainstream.  Many Americans are unhappy with both traditional parties and wish that there were someone who spoke for them – complex, multi-dimensional, very objective and rational voters.  On the other hand, Libertarianism is now in Conservative cross-hairs; and they are very vulnerable on the issues of NSA, the military, and social rights; and there could be a lot of disparagement not only of Paul – who deserves a harsh spotlight – but Libertarianism itself.

Nevertheless, Libertarians have a friend in the Supreme Court whose recent decisions, although confusing to both liberals and conservatives, are quite understandable:

In other words, the Supreme Court is increasingly embracing the Constitution’s structural and rights-based protections for individual freedom and self-governance. Not in every case, not always with one voice, and not without fits and starts, but as a whole the justices are moving in a libertarian direction.

It’s therefore no coincidence that the Cato Institute is the only organization to have filed briefs supporting the winning side in each of the three big cases (or that we went 15-3 on the year). Even beyond racial preferences and gay rights, this Court is coming to be defined by what Justice Kennedy has called “equal liberty.” (www.cato.org)

The next election will be very important, for Libertarianism will finally be given a national stage.  Unfortunately Rand Paul is its current spokesman, and as mentioned above, he is a very waffly and predictably venal politicians and unlikely to hold the flame high.

Libertarians are caught between principle and electoral politics, and given the worst kind of prevarication and distortion shown by Mitt Romney and most of his predecessors Left and Right, principle will certainly lose out.  I am very happy for the national debate, but I don’t think that Libertarians are yet up to the electoral fight.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Addressing Obesity–Another Bad Regulatory Idea

Gyorgy Scrinis writing in The Guardian (7.30.13) has taken up the cudgel to hammer the food industry for playing the calorie game.  McDonald’s and other fast food chains have not balked at federal requirements to provide nutrition labeling for all their products, he says, because a) consumers can’t figure the charts out anyway; and, more importantly b) such focus on calories diverts attention away from the other pernicious aspects of their products:

An alternative to this nutrient-focused approach is to regulate food and beverage products and labeling based on production and processing quality. The composition, proportion, and quality of foods and ingredients should be made more clearly visible on food labels, rather than just drawing attention to the quantity of calories or nutrients.

One cause of concern for Scrinis is approach taken by fast food – shared responsibility between producer and consumer for obesity.  Yes, the industry says, our food contains calories; but you, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, have the responsibility to eat within your dietary needs.

This is exactly right; but I would go one step further.  The real onus is on the consumer who should be able to figure out that a Big Mac, large fries, and a strawberry shake, amounting to over 1500 calories, pushes up to his recommended total daily recommended adult limit.

What does it take? The existing food labels are exhaustive and detailed.  What is so difficult about looking at the recommended daily caloric intake, checking the values for the fast food and saying, “Oops, better pass on the bacon”.

The key but simple calculation is to estimate caloric intake for the entire day.  Only if a consumer knows what his energy intake is for breakfast and dinner can he make an informed decision about lunch.  The 550 calories of a Big Mac in itself means nothing except within the context of total consumption.  If one is used to having only coffee for breakfast and fish and vegetables for dinner, than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is well within daily limits.

This is not advanced calculus, and it is a one-shot deal.  Once a consumer has estimated values for breakfast, lunch and dinner (people tend to eat the same things every day), he then has an approximate nutritional context within which to make food choices.

Which is to say that industry and government have done their jobs, and it is now up to the consumer. If most consumers are uninterested in losing weight, are too dumb to master the third-grade math, or too ‘busy’ to be bothered, that is their problem; and laying the blame on the ‘exploitive, greedy, and manipulative’ food companies is plain wrong.

Scrinis, rather than pursuing other ways to address obesity (other than deporting fat people as New Zealand intends to do (http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/29/man-may-be-deported-from-new-zealand-for-being-overweight/), Scrinis chooses to keep the food industry on the anvil and keep hammering away.  Not enough attention, he says, is paid to the even more insidious aspect of fast food – its yucky products. A calorie is not just a calorie, he intones.  A calorie in a Chicken McNugget, he says, is not the same as one in a carrot.  In other words, if you have a limited number of calories in your day, you should be choosing carrots, not a Family Meal.

What would Scrinis tell consumers on the FDA label?  “This Big Mac contains the equivalent of 20 carrots”? Or “By eating this Big Mac you are not eating the 20 carrots you should”?

Once ‘comprehensive labeling’ gets a toehold who knows where it might lead? A label might have to inform the customer what actually goes into a Big Mac.  Conspiracy theorists have suggested everything from monkey livers to pesticide-laced millet from Chad, and no way that is going on the label. Other activists want all food products to be labeled with information about how the food was processed – i.e. no sweatshop labor, humane treatment of animals, and eco-friendly farming.

If consumers don’t pay much attention to nutrition labeling now, can you imagine how indifferent they would become if information were provided on the well-being of the chicken, the care and nurturing of the cow, the living wage of chicken processors, how much the food has been irradiated or genetically modified, and the percentage of non-meat products in a hamburger?

What is missing from all of this, is that for many poor people a dinner out at MacDonald’s is one of the few lighter moments of a two-job, two-earner family with four kids.  It is tasty, cheap, and quick. You can be sure that Big Daddy will toss the food wrappers and their labeling into the trash without reading a thing; and the family will enjoy the meal.

This working poor family, by the way, eats shit food most of the time anyway.  Corn meal, fatback, fried catfish, bacon, and lard-cooked greens is a nice break from canned corn, frozen fish fingers, and Chef Boyardee.  It’s not they wouldn’t like something better, but they can’t afford it.  In other words, many if not most Americans have enough to worry about other than the mental health of the chickens chopped up for McNuggets.

It is only the well-educated consumer who might be interested in calorie counts, trans-fats, proportions of sugar and salt, and the organic nature of ingredients.  Most others want a tasty, filling, and cheap meal.

The pressure on fast food chains to offer lower calorie meals means little to them, for they know that consumers will simply eat more and spend more.  It is a little like the specious ‘Fleet Average’ that was imposed on car manufacturers.  GM could offered one car with reasonable gas mileage while tempting customers to go with the gas guzzler. Here is our new, nutritious, low-calorie burger; but if you want a really tasty meal, go for the double cheeseburger with bacon. Before Mayor Bloomberg was laughed at for his Nanny State proposals to limit the size of soft drinks, movie theatres and Seven Elevens were already figuring how to end run the possible restrictions. Two-for-ones have always been good revenue producers.  Or have a small Coke and a big popcorn for only $3.00.

Obesity is all about the consumers; and until they shape up, learn some arithmetic, and have the time, inclination, and economic possibility to do something about their weight, America will continue to be a nation of fatties.  Stop blaming industry.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Keep Your Hands Off My Light Bulbs, Ceiling Fans, and Twinkies

Martha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) has finally spoken out for all of us who love our soft 100w incandescent light bulbs and resent anyone telling us to use those pale, colorless, cold, and unappealing LED versions. Sitting in a living room lit with them is like being in a black-and-white movie.  In the movie Pleasantville two teenagers from the present are transported back in time and live in a 50s sitcom:

Finally color starts to appear as they manipulate the past.  Ahhhh….the incandescent lights have been turned on!

As Vikas Bajaj quotes in the New York Times (7.28.13):
“First, they came for our health care, then they took away our light bulbs, and raided our nation’s most iconic guitar company — now they are coming after our ceiling fans. Nothing is safe from the Obama administration’s excessive regulatory tentacles.”
A number of precocious observers, having heard that this unwarranted intrusion by government on individual freedoms might be coming, stockpiled a closetful of old-fashioned light bulbs.  After all, light bulbs and fans are far easier for Congress to deal with than Syria or the national debt.  For Democratic proponents of the LED bulb it is a win-wind situation.  By banning traditional light bulbs and promoting an energy-saving version, they can be seen to be both environmentally friendly and pandering to business, for the same bulb companies stand to make billions from the deal.

But the Tea Party and the likes of Congresswoman Blackburn have stepped to the fore.  Enough of this unwarranted and untoward assault on individual liberty, the marketplace, and consumer capitalism, she hollered in the halls of the House, and her voice held sway. The House passed a law that said to then-President Obama, “Keep your hands off of our bulbs!”.

The possibility of banning ceiling fans hit home almost more than the light bulbs.  The sound of a whirring ceiling fan in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the teak window blinds canted to deflect the bright sunlight off the water and let in the tropical breeze, the padding of the bare feet of liveried servants in the creaky wooden corridor, the clink of a silver tea service, and the warm light of afternoon are all part of warm and vivid memories. It is the sound of a ceiling fan which brings back all of that colonial elegance, the era of teak and mahogany, polished brass, and impeccable service. 

Bajaj ceiling fans, cranked on high, thudding like helicopter blades, were the only salvation in the un-air conditioned hotels of the Deccan in the late 60s.  The temperature in Nagpur reached 120F during the day, and the stone and brick walls of the hotels kept in the heat at night.  Only the blast of the ceiling fan offered some respite. The air was no cooler, but the powerful wind that flapped everything in the room not battened down at least moved the hot, still air.

Every government office in India during the summer was filled with the roar of ceiling fans.  Babus moved paperweights around like pieces in speed chess, pulling one dog-eared document from a pile, slamming the colored glass weight down before the papers could fly.  The noise from the fans in these cavernous Delhi offices was so loud that I caught only snatches of conversation.  The First Secretary, his cheek bulging with pan, red betel juice dripping from the corners of his mouth spoke as loud as he could without losing his chaw, but that was never enough.  The noise was greater than the old DC-3s yawing down the runway on the flight to Aurangabad.

Most modern homes today have at least one ceiling fan, usually in the kitchen.  Yet, not a time goes by when turning on that kitchen fan does not remind me of romantic days in the Grand Hotel of Calcutta, and the thump and thud of ceiling fans which were part of my early life.

In the most outlandish display of government arrogance, Mayor Bloomberg of NYC has gone right to the heart of America and tried to ban soft drinks, buttered popcorn, Mars Bars, and Twinkies. 

Not content to turn the clock back a few years, he wants to return to the days of Hester Prynne.

Most Americans resent government meddling, but tolerate it; OK with traffic lights and stop-and-frisk.  Yet for each there is a line in the sand - for many an absolute refusal to have living rooms and cupboards invaded.

Enough is enough.

Flab, Sag, And Pumping Iron–A Day At The Gym

I was not sure what to expect when I joined a Washington sports club a few years ago. I had not been inside a gym or locker room for over 20 years, and I knew that in that time the culture of physical fitness had been born and had matured. Sure, I knew about the hamster wheels, racks and Torquemada machines; but I couldn’t imagine what it actually would be like inside. I knew it had to be different from my sweaty jockstrap days, but the question was how different.

I joined because my arthritic hip needed daily lubrication, stretching, and strengthening, and I was told that swimming and the stationary bikes would be particularly good for all of that. I had a bad image of the bikes – I grew up on the real thing, a Schwinn with pedal blocks and later an English bike which I rode up and down the Connecticut hills near my home. No helmet, three gears, lots of dogs and potholes. Until recently I could never even imagine speed-pumping in a phalanx of sawed-off half-bikes.

My gym-locker room experience had been limited. There was summer camp where the only thing that mattered was the Holy Grail of communal showers – taking a piece of flesh out of the fat boy’s ass with a wet towel. Not just any wet towel, but one just wet enough – not too heavy, not too light and with the proper furl at the tip – one flick of the wrist and a cast as accurate as a fly fisherman’s.

Then came the college gym where I had to go because I failed the freshman physical fitness test and where I stayed on to work on my love handles (“Them’s the first to come and the last to go, boy” said the gym instructor). There never were many people at the gym. Other than the dweebs who failed the physical who would choose working out over squash, tennis, intramural football? This was Yale, after all; a Yale that had not yet been invaded by urban nerds; a Yale where everyone was still bronzed and sculpted after summering on the Vineyard and played games, rowed, and fenced .

Finally there were two stints in public facilities: the Newark YMCA where hoops were serious; and where locker rooms, facilities, amenities were not part of the action; and later the pool at the local DC high school not far from my neighborhood. You really had to want a free swim to go there. All the locker door latches had been jacked, crowbar-ed and bent from break-ins. The floors were slimy from mold, the urinals stank of piss, and the toilets were always jammed with shit and toilet paper.

Since those days I had been playing tennis almost every day, swimming outdoors and taking long runs and walks on the Canal. “Go outside and play” had been my mother’s rule, repeated by my boarding school whose masters marched us out to play on the frozen tundra. At summer camp only on seriously rainy days would we make lanyards in the crafts room. Otherwise we were run ragged, swam until we puckered and played softball until it got dark.

So what were these young people doing in the sweat shop? How could dry humping on stationary bikes be satisfying? Glimpses into the windows of storefront gyms reminded me of my days in the industrial Northeast. Every day as I walked to school I passed the grated basement windows of the factory and saw the workers at their stations – in rows of different machines, cranking pulleys, hoisting iron, curling dead weights, punching metal, stamping, banging.

Not only did I have this heavy-duty history behind me, but joining a fitness center was the first concession to decrepitude. I was not joining to look good but to keep from falling apart.

The pre-sign up run-through at the Sports Club was encouraging. The club had a lobby with leather armchairs, carpets, coffee tables, and a view of the squash courts. It was air-conditioned and didn’t stink. It had pukka lockers and bathrooms, whirlpool and sauna, the works. This was definitely a club, not a gym. It had cachet. If I had to give up tennis and the outdoors, why not here? There were plenty of stationary bikes, but in two rooms, ample space between them, and maybe a third occupied. Very genteel.

The locker rooms were a return to my roots. They reminded me of those at the Country Club where I played golf and tennis as a teenager. Separate shower stalls, stacks of crisp, clean towels, carpeted floors, and polished wood benches. All they lacked was an attendant to hold a towel as you came out of the shower.

Still, I was a little apprehensive. What was the etiquette? Where to look, when to avert the eyes? I was sure the rules of decorum were very different from earlier times; and besides, this was a sports club, not a gym. There had to be many additional layers of social rules.

I chose one of the back corner lockers, speed-changed my clothes, and headed for the machines. There was no need for modesty as it turned out. The habitués were not only uncovered, but unhurried. No towels, no scurrying for shelter, no hiding the bulging overhangs and misshapen bits. It was all so normal and routine. This was a definitely a power club – even in my first minutes I had recognized a member of a former cabinet and overheard a discussion about a Supreme Court case – but I was unprepared for the nudist camp quality of it all. Mortgages, St. Albans, and vacations in Tuscany were all discussed as if the buck naked speakers were in suits.

How could anyone possibly ignore the moles and swollen tits, the spindly little legs, the purple and grey splotches, the chicken chests and bird wings? How could you concentrate on mortgage rates, immigration law, or homeland security in the face of staple marks, scars, welts, bruises, fiery pimples, and crack hair? How could you discuss spinnakers, fetch, or SATs staring at heavy, slack, and sagging bags? How could anything be taken seriously when confronted by such an array of blunt-nosed, bottle-, and prow-shaped whangs; especially those so compressed by gut and thigh fat they retracted inside themselves like turtle’s heads.

After joining the Washington club I had the chance to use a gym in my home town. It was the local YMCA where I went on rainy Saturdays as a kid, it had been billed on the Internet as “fully modernized and fully equipped to the highest standards of physical fitness”, and it was offering a special one-week $25 trial membership. It was OK, basically the same set-up: machines, weights, and pool; but no Pilates or belly-dancing, no personal trainers, and nobody to clean up after you. By the side of every exercycle, treadmill, and machine was a spray bottle of disinfectant and a towel wipe.

What I noticed most was the locker room modesty. Not only was there no power talk (New Britain was Rust Belt and fading fast) but no casual nudity either. Could there be, I thought, a correlation between immodesty and class? The confidence of the empowered, the reticence of the poor? Washington-speak. The YMCA could not afford to provide towels, so you had to bring your own. And unless you brought them with you from locker to shower they would be gone when you got back.

So where were the beautiful bodies at the Washington Club? The more I went, the more I was convinced that people were either trying to regain the beautiful body they thought they had or extend its pull-by date. Neither effort was very successful. The pull-by women were stringy and bony and had mummy skin; and yet they thought they were hot shit, and quacked loudly about abs and reps so the fatties could hear, making them feel small and squeaky.

For the rest, even if they ever had a hard body, it was only a distant memory; but they still puffed and wheezed on the treadmills, worked all the equipment until they looked popeyed, and hopped and jumped in the aerobics classes. The rolls of flubber just kept expanding, and every week more and more squeezed out of the top of Spandex shorts and sports bras. The meat locker thighs never slimmed, but stayed thick, mottled, and pocked, deep blue and purple bruises on the abutments, skanky blue highway varicose veins tracking down the sides. The fat ankles would never be slim no matter how often they were stuffed into little white kidskin tennies. The great cow-udder tits would only increase in size. Fat lines and caesarian scars tattooed on sagging stomachs spread like a fungus.

There was a group of middle-aged women who never had any intention of doing anything at all about their bodies. They thought they looked plenty good as is and just took up space on the equipment. They wore make-up, dyed their hair, favored black leotards, and made a few perfunctory pulls at the machines while chatting with the neighbors. Where did they come from? Brighton Beach? Were they foreigners? They had a certain breathless grace when they pulled or pushed. No exertion was without dramatic effort.

I have been a member of the Club now for two years. I come at all times of the day and have yet to see one sexy, lithe, unblemished, pouting beauty. Not even for a light retouche. I’m not picky, and these days even used merchandise looks pretty good, but nothing has even come close.

There was one group that passed a basic training kind of muster – serious thirties who cranked new chrome, flashy, lowdown slipstream cycles to Eighties disco. No pounds to be shed here, only buffing up fit and tanned bodies. Great clothes - twat-huggers and wife-beaters showing off all the right bits; but the spiky hairdos and anklet butterfly tattoos suggested an early return to smoking and heavy eyeliner.

Before my sports club was built, the high school pool was the only indoor place to go if you wanted to swim; and in its heyday before it got nasty and scummy everyone from the neighborhood from power lawyers to retired government workers went there. There were three lanes – Fast, Medium, and Slow. The Fast lane had the sleek bodies in Speedos who shivered and shook their arms to limber up before getting in, who did powerful somersault turns and who churned back and forth with ease and grace. The Slow lane had the old rollers who bobbed up and down the pool like dead fish on the tide. The Medium lane was problematic: what, exactly, was “medium” anyway?

There were a lot of bad decisions in that lane. I was a Medium-laner and I was constantly poked on the heels by a sleek body coming up hard astern; or caught in a queue of swimmers behind a bobber. At least one always tried to pass the bobber but crashed into a sleek body steaming south. Both lanes became blocked while the bobber oblivious, stuffed with earplugs and blind behind fogged goggles, rolled his way north.

This would never happen at my sports club. First, it has more carrying capacity. Second, only two people are allowed in each lane; and the etiquette is impeccable. “May I join you?” is the proper introduction before joining a lane. Touching is a no-no, although it is hard to avoid. Particularly bad are the backstrokers who tend to flail; but things never seem to escalate beyond petty playground stuff. Only once did I see two guys face off in the shallow end. A minute or two of rooster struts and it was over.

Every weekday between 10 and 11 there is a water aerobics class. It is for the truly fat whose knees and hips have collapsed under the pressure of hundreds of pounds of excess weight. The pool is the only environment in which they can do normal activity – walk, run, even dance. On one of my first days at the club and before I knew the pool schedule, I decided to swim at ten o’clock. Since the aerobics class takes up two full lanes, there was only one half-lane left for lap swimmers – the one right next to the class – so I had no choice. On each stroke of the crawl as I dipped my head underwater then lifted it to breathe, I got a view of bobbing flowered bathing caps on top of the water, jetés, and croisement de pieds underneath – ballet steps that the dancers hadn’t performed in 50 years. A hundred prancing, fluttering girlish feet. Fifty women lightened magically by the water, dancing in flowered hats and frilly tutus.

There may be no beauties at my club, but there are no Greek gods either. The overstuffed and misshapen men are less noticeable because they don’t do anything in groups. There are no fatty classes for men, no salsa lessons, no Pilates; but the real head-turners – gorilla back hair, factory boiler bellies – are there. It’s just harder to spot them. Jabba the Hut, for example, a 500 lb. cashiered government clerk can always be found in the whirlpool. He displaced half the water in it before his gut operation and a quarter after. Bronco Billy has legs so bowed he can’t fit on all the equipment so he’s always doing crunches and curls; and Ratty, a pointy-faced no-neck little guy with twitchy nose hairs is always scurrying on the treadmill sucking a water from a hamster bottle.

The club was turning out to be far more than I ever expected.

The rules of political correctness prohibit ogling and discourage lingering looks. Smiles are rare and acceptable only within pre-formed groups or pre-club friends. Despite the Wahabi moral code – and maybe because of it - sex at the club is hot. Really hot. Picture this: a tall, muscled, young black trainer straddling his middle-aged client, pushing gently but firmly on her legs until they go up and back, leaning into her the farther they stretch, until she protests “I’m so tight, I’m so tight”, and he calming says “Just relax” and she looks up at him pleadingly “Is this better? Am I doing it right?”

When it’s over, flushed and happy she hugs him and demurely asks him about her next “appointment”. She gives him a breezy good-bye and a last, meaningful over-the-shoulder glance.

These trainers have a great job. When they’re not fantasy fucking, they are shooting the shit with male clients or yammering on about dogs, kids, and appliances. No more than half the patrons of the Club come for a serious workout. The remaining half is there to gossip or socialize. Union rules on the machines: 2 minutes work, 5 minutes blather. No sweat, lots of bonding. “Once these women get on the equipment” a trainer confided, “they never get off.”

“Did you hear about Bob?” (push, release) “He got fired and they’re going to have to move” (flex, relax) “How awful” (legs straight, tighten thighs) “Where will they go?” (release).

Most middle-aged women have been so whipped by car mechanics that they don’t even dare to try to figure out the fitness equipment, and new chains of user-friendly clubs have been designed especially for them. They are more expensive than ordinary clubs because instead of asking women to adjust the variable weights on one machine, they simply put in more single weight machines. I have seen more than one woman pass up a free machine at my club just because the weight was wrong.

Most women get around this dilemma by paying for a personal trainer. They not only get the fantasy fuck but can have someone deal with the machines for them.

Men waste time just as shamelessly, and few have any intention of busting their balls getting into shape. As far as I can tell most are just groupies. They like to hang around the trainers, talk sports and cars and be – maybe for the first time in their life – one of the guys. Most men with trainers make absolutely no progress. They remain stuck on the baby weights, gain no visible contour or definition, no endurance or strength; and at $120 an hour three times a week, spend a lot of money on jock talk.

Maybe I am being too hard on everyone. Maybe I am just an obsessive-compulsive crypto body addict Type A that has to get in and out in under an hour, can’t miss a machine in the series (if I don’t finish up with leg splits I feel like I’ve left the stove on), and still fall somewhere between the neurasthenic and the slightly tubby. Well, OK, suppose I am. At least I use the machines as they were meant to be used.

There are a lot of facilities at the club. In addition to the exercise equipment and the pool, there are tanning rooms, saunas, and steam rooms. I had never been in a steam room before and only once in a sauna. After years in India and West Africa, I avoided any excess heat. In Ouagadougou the summertime temperatures rose to 125F in the shade, much more in the sun, and probably near 180F in a car left exposed. I learned to park in the shade, walk on the shady side of the street, sit in the flickering shadows of tree leaves. A sauna was illogical and crazy. I had a much better image of steam rooms. There was something exotic about Turkish baths. I visited one in Tbilisi that had been built in the 8th century. It was hot and slimy and smelled of sulfur but it was old and everyone from medieval crusaders to Soviet apparatchiks had shvitzed there. The Baths of Caracalla were my favorite ruins in Rome. I could imagine the languor and elegance of Roman aristocrats shedding their togas and bathing in the hot springs.

Once again, I was concerned about etiquette – what did one do, exactly, in a steam room? What did one wear? Was a towel preferred? Again, I needn’t have worried or confused shvitz with Rome. It was like a hot bus. You opened the door, took a vacant seat, and got out at your stop. Nobody cared or looked. The only remark I ever heard in the steam room was: “I presume everyone likes it hot”, and I have heard it many times since. The speaker is invariably an ex-jock, early forties, a macho-man for whom jacking up the temp to max is a statement. When a steam room is really hot the air sears your throat and lungs, the sweat and condensation pours off your face and arms, visibility is reduced to zero. It cannot be good for you; but who could object? And what? Admit to being a weenie, a wuss?

The big thing among guys, although they won’t admit it, is that they compare lift weights with other guys. The scenario is the same: two men of the same age checking each other out. One doing the curls, the other on the pulleys. One finishes, gets up and walks around nonchalantly in front of the other, and does a quick eye-flash on the weights. Depending on the information, he moves on to the next machine either smirking or trying to hide what he now knows are his chicken wings.

I read where there is a new chain of male ego-sensitive gyms that disguises the weights – puts them in intaglio with no paint so that they cannot be seen from a distance. It’ll never work. Guys are used to counting the number of weights stacked up on the pulleys and can easily eyeball the difference between a 25 and 35 lb barbell.

My club is not big on pumping iron. There are no serious lifters – the ones with leather cinches, gloves, and talc. Very different from my hometown YMCA where the weight room is the biggest of the lot, and belts, do-rags and eye-popping muscles are the rule. In DC there are lifters, of course. Old guys with their little 10-pounders; zit-faced teenagers who hope to put some bulk on dorky bodies; and fortyish guys trying to get some definition on the upper body – put some good looks between the bald head and the sagging paunch.

There is something about men, weights, and mirrors that can quickly change reality into fantasy. Once you have pumped iron, no matter how sickly the weight, you can see the difference when you look into the mirror. Muscles have more form and definition. Veins are barely contained by newly-hardened forearms and pop out from elbow to wrist. A patina of sweat gives a burnished veneer to the upper body; thighs bulge and strain like a 100 yd. dash Olympian. There is a muscle-bound swagger to even the hollow-chested. How can you possibly walk normally when your iron thighs, drum-tight gluteus, and sledgehammer calves force your gait into powerful strides?

I am not sure how much longer I will keep going to the gym – or rather, how much longer I will put off a hip replacement. I want to get back to a normal life. Running up and down imaginary hills and cycling through virtual meadows is not holding up like it used to, no matter how interesting the circus around me. I need fresh air and sunshine. Two years of an underground body factory has taken its psychic toll.

At the same time a hip replacement scares me. I can’t help but picture myself lying on the operating table being sliced up like a piece of meat, plugged with saline drips, a breathing tube jammed down my windpipe, my bones and joints sawed up like osso buco. Hip replacements, by the way, are the discussion topic among men over sixty in the locker room, beating out – maybe for the first time ever – sports, cars, and women. Well, that may not be exactly true. The major stated reason for a new hip is to get back on the tennis court, ski trail, or golf course. So there’s the sports angle. The discussion about new hips is as technical as automotive mechanics – ceramics vs. space-age titanium, p.s.i. factors, torque and resistance equations, etc., etc.

However, the real reason for getting a new hip – the reason that trumps all others - is to be made whole again, to recover youthful fitness and strength, to stop gimping along like Peg-leg Pete, creaking in and out of cars, and one-stepping up stairs. It is time to be men again before it really is too late. No more dreaming about wet, creamy, young pussy. It’s time for us to have it. Before long we and our wheelchairs will be shoveled into vans for the trip to the Senior Center. The only lift we will be on will be the one installed on the stairs by our children so that we won’t wipe out while they’re away.

My days at the gym are numbered, I guess. I will either suck it up and try to disguise my starboard list or go under the knife. Either way is OK. Fatalism seems to be as inevitable as grinding joints. Whatever I decide, it has been a good ride, even though much of it has been on sawed-off half bikes.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Foreign Aid -Giving For Guilt, Giving For Gain, Whatever The Reason It Is A Failure

Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, writing in the New York Times (7.27.13) criticizes his father’s brand of ‘conscience washing’ – giving more to assuage the guilt of having accumulated so much wealth by giving it away, than investing seriously in economic development:
[Foundation giving] just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
 Image result for images warren buffett

This may be true, but it is probably unfair to single out private foundations.  The Gates Foundation long ago decided to invest in finding vaccines for AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and did so by issuing a challenge to private pharmaceutical companies.  “Develop a vaccine”, Gates said, “and we will buy it all up”.  This made perfect sense, for Gates knew that none of the ‘participatory, community-based, and culturally-sensitive’ did not work.  The ‘development’ battlefield was littered with the detritus of failed projects which never had a chance given host government corruption, venality, and indifference; and donor governments beholden to national, parochial, political interests.

Few of the programs intended to improve health and nutrition, for example, ever have a chance because of poor design, limited oversight and evaluation, and hidden agendas.  Most importantly, projects fail because government leaders know that they are on the receiving end of entitlements – donors really didn’t care about results, only the geopolitical advantages to be gained by pouring money down the sluice for leaders they hoped to influence – and they simply took the money and sent it to Switzerland.

Image result for image switzerland

Gates’ original intention was to bypass all the PC nonsense and get to hard, scientific facts.  Vaccines save lives, and the historical evidence is clear – polio has been almost eradicated, and measles is on the run.  In vaccination campaigns there are no fluffy intermediaries as interested in the cultural sensitivity or inclusion as they are results.  A needle in the arm equals a life saved.

The Clinton Foundation, like many others, also supported George W. Bush’s campaign to address AIDS, TB, and Malaria and the Global Fund which was set up to administer multi-lateral donor money.  President Bush focused primarily on treatment (e.g. anti-retroviral drugs to prevent full-blown AIDS) but ignored the equally important prevention aspect of the disease.  He smartly wanted to avoid the political minefield of condoms, sex education, and prostitutes and still make a difference.  His programs did indeed save thousands of lives.

In other words, both foundation- and government-sponsored programs can be effective if they act like businesses – and certainly Gates, Warren Buffett, and Clinton all know about investment and rate-of-return.  Investments in products (drugs, vaccines, insecticide-treated bed nets) are easier to control, supervise, and measure.  They have a known input, and a quantifiable output – decreased morbidity and mortality.  There is nothing waffly about the proposition.

Therefore it is hard to find fault with this businesslike approach to health – invest in a sure thing that is guaranteed results.  Vaccines and anti-retrovirals work. While it may feel good to give away millions to these reality-based programs, it still is a good business decision.

The problem comes with giving away money for anything other than proven interventions with a high cost-benefit ratio. Programs which focus on behavior change – more antenatal checkups, more green leafy vegetables, more responsible sex – have always been iffy because of their highly subjective nature.  If programs to change deeply-rooted socio-economic and cultural behavior are designed by Americans from Peoria, what can one expect? Nevertheless, the belief that the means are as important as the ends – i.e., the process of participatory, inclusive, community-based decision-making is as important as reducing illness and death – persists.  The projects are as fanciful as any concocted by Puck or Oberon.

Image result for images midsummer night's dream

Unfortunately the foundations, once solidly business-oriented, have been co-opted by this philosophy.  As they expanded, they staffed up with former USAID employees who did not think in this bottom-line, cost-benefit, rate-of-return way but in the idealistic ways of the past.  Not long a major private foundation funded an NGO in the form of a genius grant – no 100 page Request for Proposals, no 100 page grant submissions, no bureaucracy, meddling, or second-guessing, only $50 million to reduce infant and child mortality however it saw fit.

Instead of taking the Gates approach – flood East Africa with the new artemisinin-based malaria drugs and reduce infant mortality rapidly and significantly; or mount national campaigns to vaccinate women against tetanus (neonatal tetanus is responsible for many infant deaths), the NGO refused.
These programs were too ‘top down’, to exclusive and non-participatory.  In other words, reducing mortality and morbidity were fine and dandy IF you did it in the right way.

Rather than push his father back to the original sound business model, Peter Buffett hammers it:
With more business-minded folks getting into the act, business principles are trumpeted as an important element to add to the philanthropic sector. I now hear people ask, “what’s the R.O.I.?” when it comes to alleviating human suffering, as if return on investment were the only measure of success.
This is way off the mark.  It is just the ROI mentality of the early Gates that initiated the product-based, fluff-less vaccine, drug, and bed net programs that held so much promise and have yielded results.  It gets worse.  Peter Buffett suffers from the sins of the fathers, and has a guilt far more profound than beloved pater; and like many before him, want to take out his resentment on the American Capitalist System:
Micro-lending and financial literacy (now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends) — what is this really about? People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?
Hernando de Soto, a well-known economist, has promoted a very simple idea – land titling – to help the poor. If a man owns and has legal right to the land he works, he has capital; and with that capital can secure bank loans to enable him to be more productive and to generate more wealth.  Property rights are at the very heart of capitalism and democracy, says de Soto, so why should the Third World poor be disenfranchised?

Image result for hernando de soto economist images

Land titling leads to bank loans which lead to more accessible banks which leads to competition among banks, etc., all of which leads the poor farmer into the 21st century.  Yes, he may eventually purchase American goods and services, but he will make money first – money that will enable him to demand better health care and education and allow him to escape the patronizing cycle of foreign and government assistance.

My view, expressed many times on this blog, is that the whole enterprise of foreign assistance – whether private (foundation) or public (government) should be dismantled. Countries should be forced to borrow on the open market for only those projects which will produce, you guessed it, a good ROI.  In order to have access to international capital markets, these countries would have to shape up, reform their corrupt governments and show some progress.  Most of the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars throughout the donor world of the US and Western Europe have been wasted through idealistic or politically-motivated projects, so why not ditch them now and stop the hemorrhage?

In any case, foreign aid will not end soon; but Peter Buffett is a bit too hard on his father and friends.  f only they got back to their business roots, they might do some good.