What You Might Not Know About China

With trade politics thickening the air like an April snowstorm, you might be intrigued to know a bit about China’s past history with exports and imports. As in, we should be very careful.

We all know China’s civilization is one of the world’s oldest with historical records dating back at least to 2000 BCE when the Xia dynasty began. Legendary emperors introduced natural medicines including ephedrine, cannabis, and tea—the latter being the crux of a trade matter that would come back to haunt Westerners today.

Over 3000 years passed as the country went through various changes in leadership and cultural developments but here’s the important thing—they stayed within their borders. With all their advancements, they seemed content for all those centuries to keep to themselves.

Just because the Chinese did not use their advancing sophistication in efforts at world conquest did not meant they didn’t trade. Bits of Chinese silk have been found in Egypt from around 1000 BCE. The famous Silk Road, established around 200 BCE, accommodated the trade of Chinese silks, herbs and spices, and cultural ideas ranging from Buddhism to use of horses. Only with the Mongol invasions in the early 13th century were the Chinese forced to deal with outside forces.

The Chinese bounced back with the founding of the Song dynasty, considered the high point of classical Chinese civilization.

Empress Zheng (1079–1131)

The Song economy, facilitated by technology advancement, had reached a level of sophistication probably unseen in world history before its time. The population soared to over 100 million and the living standards of common people improved tremendously due to improvements in rice cultivation and the wide availability of coal for production. The capital cities of Kaifeng and subsequently Hangzhou were both the most populous cities in the world for their time, and encouraged vibrant civil societies unmatched by previous Chinese dynasties. Although land trading routes to the far west were blocked by nomadic empires, there were extensive maritime trade with neighboring states, which facilitated the use of Song coinage as the de facto currency of exchange. Giant wooden vessels equipped with compasses traveled throughout the China Seas and northern Indian Ocean. The concept of insurance was practiced by merchants to hedge the risks of such long-haul maritime shipments. With prosperous economic activities, the historically first use of paper currency emerged in the western city of Chengdu, as a supplement to the existing copper coins.

The Song dynasty was considered to be the golden age of great advancements in science and technology of China …Inventions such as the hydro-mechanical astronomical clock, the first continuous and endless power-transmitting chain, woodblock printing and paper money were all invented during the Song dynasty.

China’s military and imperial ambitions did eventually lead to imperialistic ambition. By the 1400s, Chinese colonialization in foreign lands extended to Japan and Vietnam. That was small potatoes compared to the Europeans who had begun far-flung expeditions to virtually every corner of the earth. In fact, by 1500 a strong isolationist fervor developed in China. When contacted by Western powers such as Portugal in 1520 and the Dutch in 1622, the Chinese vigorously repelled any and all attempts at collaboration.

Meanwhile, the West had begun to thirst for all things exotic including spices from Indonesia and India and especially tea, silk, and porcelain from China. Despite rich colonial profits from Caribbean sugar and tobacco to American cotton, African ivory, and Mexican silver, imperial appetites were insatiable. Just like today, the West—especially the fanatical tea-drinking British—suffered a terrible trade imbalance with China. China didn’t have much interest in the woolens and other commodities offered in trade by Britain and insisted on silver payment for its tea. By the late 17th and early 18th century, Britain faced a monetary crisis over its trade with China.

And here’s where it becomes very instructive as to our current trade situation with China, “we” meaning Americans, that peculiar offshoot of the British Empire who fired its first shot over the king’s helm by dumping, yes, you’ve heard this before, crates of tea overboard in Boston Harbor. British efforts to shore up its finances meant hiking taxes on tea, and the colonists weren’t having it.

Meanwhile, among its other conquests of empire around the world, British invasion of India brought them local merchants dealing an ancient and powerful substance known as opium. Clever Brits thought to import opium to China in the belief that it could balance its trade debts from tea. It didn’t take long for Chinese authorities to recognize the threat to their social order posed by widespread opium use. In 1780, the Qing government issued an edict against opium and other restrictions soon followed.

… Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor wrote to King George III in response to the MaCartney Mission’s request for trade in 1793: “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Tea also had to be paid in silver bullion, and critics of the tea trade at this time would point to the damage caused to Britain’s wealth by this loss of bullion. As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for tea, Britain began exporting opium from the traditional growing regions of British India (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. Although opium use in China had a long history, the British importation of opium, which began in the late 18th century, increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837, and usage of the drug became more widespread across Chinese society. The Qing government attitude towards opium, which was often ambivalent, hardened due to the social problems created by drug use, and took serious measures to curtail importation of opium in 1838–39. Tea by now had become an important source of tax revenue for the British Empire and the banning of the opium trade and thus the creation of funding issues for tea importers was one of the main causes of the First Opium War.

Delicate business, trade. By the early 1800s, Americans also began importing opium to China as a blend of opium and Turkish tobacco. The resulting competition between America and Britain brought opium prices down resulting in easier access for the average Chinese resident. By 1838, Britain alone imported more than 1,400 tons of opium to China. It was estimated that 27% of adult male Chinese were addicted.

China’s emperor wrote an impassioned letter to Queen Victoria, explaining the harms of opium use and questioning Britain’s “moral judgement.” Sources say the queen never received the missive, but it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The economics of trade meant that the nation’s leaders bowed to commercial interests.

Under the new law in 1839, Chinese began boarding British ships and confiscating opium. In one raid alone, authorities destroyed over 1,200 tons of opium on a public beach. Outraged, British importers demanded the assistance of British military. Matters devolved as Chinese banned British ships from taking supplies or water at Chinese ports and various skirmishes ensued, leading to debate in British parliament. The House of Lords (which included owners of most of the ships and trading companies) wanted war with China. The House of Commons, more sympathetic to the problems caused by opium, wanted the opium trade to stop.

No extra points for guessing who won. In a military buildup of British ships and personnel beginning mid-1840 and supplemented by Indian dragoons by 1841, Western powers with their heavily armed gunships and superior technology sailed up the Pearl River and destroyed less-well-armed Chinese vessels and troops. The British blockaded Chinese ports up and down the coast. In July 1842, British warships steamed up the Yangtze River to Canton where they destroyed Chinese forts protecting the city. Ultimately, China had no choice but to surrender and accept terms including stiff fines payable in silver and British control over Hong Kong and Singapore, initiating what the Chinese called “The Century of Humiliation.”

Meanwhile, the East India Trading Company [British] sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to sneak into China to steal tea plants and a few Chinese men who knew how to grow it. Vast tea plantations in India were the result. Under British control until 1947, India’s tea crops bypassed China’s, thus ending the need to trade with China for the tea supply.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point. It seems the Chinese have learned their lessons well.

~~~

Quoted passages pulled from Wikipedia articles:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_China#Xia_dynasty_(2070%E2%80%931600_BC)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Opium_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tea

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Fortune

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U.S. Budget — Military and Social Security

Deceptive and Counterproductive.

Discussion ebbs and flows on the topic of U.S. spending. Of particular interest to several of my liberal friends is military spending. Frequent Facebook posts on this subject claim that military spending consumes over half the budget.

I agree that the military is not an ideal place to invest so many billions of dollars. I also agree that the U.S. has a history of blowing money on weapons and aggression. Further, I question whether the U.S. uses military means when a better, longer-lasting path to peace and stability in troubled parts of the world would be investments in education, infrastructure, agriculture, and commercial development.

All that said, I have to protest the continuing use of incorrect data in arguing against military spending. The cause for less military spending is not enhanced by presenting incorrect information. Just the opposite.

The accurate 2017 budget breakdown:

Please note that the portion designated military spending occurs in the lower left  of this pie chart and as such does not constitute half of the U.S. budget. It’s important to discriminate between a breakdown of discretionary spending and overall spending. Discretionary spending is one category of overall spending. It’s within the slice of pie of discretionary spending where we see the big bite that goes to the military:So yes, military spending within its slice of pie of discretionary spending, is over half the budget. And there’s no limit to the close examination this distribution of funds deserves. But please, let’s make our arguments based on the actual facts.

A second realm of considerable error by liberals calls for a shift in U.S. spending to better honor social programs like Social Security. A popular mantra on social media these days mistakenly claims that we ‘own’ our retirement funds because we paid into them. The following discussion spells out the facts:

“It’s My Money” [WRONG!]

* A common perception about Social Security benefits is: I am entitled to the money. It’s my money. I’ve saved it.

* Social Security is mainly a “pay-as-you-go” program. This means that it pays most of its benefits by taxing people who are currently working.

* Per the Social Security Administration: The money you pay in taxes is not held in a personal account for you to use when you get benefits. Your taxes are being used right now to pay people who now are getting benefits. Any unused money goes to the Social Security trust funds, not a personal account with your name on it.

* From the start of the Social Security program in 1937 through the end of 2016:

  • 94% of all Social Security payroll taxes were spent in the same year they were collected.

  • 13% of Social Security’s total income (including payroll taxes, taxes on Social Security benefits, transfers from the general fund of the Treasury, and interest on the Social Security Trust Fund) has accumulated in the Social Security Trust Fund.

* Per the Social Security Administration: Since the Social Security system has not accumulated assets equal to the liability of promised future benefits, the social security wealth that individuals hold represents a claim against the earnings of future generations rather than a claim against existing real assets.

* After the federal government pays back with interest all of the money it has borrowed from Social Security, the program’s current claim against the earnings of future generations is $30.8 trillion. This amounts to an average of $132,914 for every person now receiving Social Security benefits or paying Social Security payroll taxes.

* Per the Social Security Administration: There has been a temptation throughout the program’s history for some people to suppose that their FICA payroll taxes entitle them to a benefit in a legal, contractual sense. … Congress clearly had no such limitation in mind when crafting the law. … Benefits which are granted at one time can be withdrawn.…

* In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5 to 4) that entitlement to Social Security benefits is not a contractual right. [emphasis added]

[For more discussion of Social Security taxes, allocations, and projections, visit the Just Facts page.]

So let’s get our heads screwed on straight, fellow progressives. While a large chunk of U.S. tax dollars go to military expenditures, it is NOT consuming over half of our tax dollars. Our Social Security and Medicare funds are NOT held for our future use like individual savings accounts, but rather are spent immediately in payouts to persons currently receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits.

If we expect to prevail in directing our nation toward a more equitable and socially conscientious future, we need to be well informed and make our arguments for social justice in ways that make sense and align with the facts.

That is all. For now.

A Presidential Stain

Just like in every other aspect of his privileged yet miserable life, Donald Trump can see only the surface. His “shithole” description of nations like Haiti or those in Africa is apt if you only see the poverty and political chaos. A thoughtful educated person would see beyond that surface to the culpability for all that of white Europeans.

African tribes lived fruitful happy lives in their native state, just as did the natives of the Americas. But their natural progress was interrupted by those from more developed cultures who took them as slaves and exploited the resources indigenous to their lands. Since emerging from the dark ages, European countries have sailed around the world trying to enforce their religious beliefs while at the same time seeking slaves and resources to enrich their nations.

That’s how Haiti became a predominantly black society. When Spanish explorers arrived in 1492, they found a widespread population of the Taino people, a Native American tribe. Disease and genocide pretty well eradicated the Taino by 1625 when Spain’s grip on the island loosened in the face of French, English, and Dutch incursions. France seized control of Haiti and by 1700, France had established plantations for tobacco and cotton and imported African slaves to work the fields. Within the next century, the agricultural focus turned to sugar cane.[1]

Intimidating slaves with unimaginable brutalities didn’t require many whites. Accounts of horrific tortures are preserved in Haitian histories. The island’s populations suffered not only the brutalities of enslavement but also the irregular devastation of earthquakes and tidal waves. The current status of Haiti resulted from the most recent earthquake eight years ago with “a death toll estimated by the Haitian government at over 300,000, and by non-Haitian sources from 50,000 to 220,000.” The quake destroyed the country’s capital city and in the intervening years, hundreds of thousands have died of starvation.

Clone this story of Haiti into a long list of other “shithole” countries referenced by our Moron-in-Chief, with a few tweaks and details thrown in. No one in Africa asked for Europeans to come into their midst to enslave their people and steal their natural resources. Just as Native American tribes had enjoyed a sustainable lifestyle in the lands now called the United States,  African tribes maintained long-held religious practices and lived in stable communities.

Facts about the exploitation of places now referred to as “Third World” are available to anyone with a modicum of curiosity and reason. In a world before Trump, knowledge of these facts by a person elected president would have been taken for granted. Such knowledge would inform attitudes as well as foreign policy, most especially our immigration policies as, allegedly, the most advanced nation on earth.

Slavery became common within much of Europe during the Dark Ages and it continued into the Middle Ages. The Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Arabs and a number of West African kingdoms played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade, especially after 1600. David P. Forsythe wrote: “The fact remained that at the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will either in some form of slavery or serfdom.”[2]

The conquest of African nations occurred for two reasons: Christian zealotry convinced of its supremacy and the acquisition of wealth. Christian and Muslim missionaries still plague Africa, preaching sin and redemption to people who originally possessed sophisticated spiritual beliefs that had served them well for millennia. Social disruption and war resulted—my religion is the true one and infidels must die. Much of the warfare in Africa today is based on conflicts between Christians, Muslims, and tribal traditions. This serves several objectives—it keeps the local people at a disadvantage so they’re more easily exploited and it sells weapons of war, fattening the wallets of First World industrialists.

As for the direct acquisition of wealth, in the ages before modern machinery, slaves were the machines who tilled, planted, cultivated, and harvested the crops. Crops for food, crops for textiles like cotton, and crops for rope and other industrial materials enriched farmers. More slaves equaled more money. If advancing social conscience hadn’t eliminated slavery, likely the advance of the machines would have accomplished much of the same thing. (Or, arguably, the elimination of slavery helped push the development of machines.)

But slaves weren’t the only wealth captured from these “shithole” countries and exploited by European conquerors.[3] “Africa has a large quantity of natural resources, including diamonds, salt, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, petroleum and cocoa beans, but also woods and tropical fruits.”[4] Once European nations discovered these resources, they couldn’t keep their hands off. Using primarily enslaved indigenous people to perform the labor in mining these resources, European nations built their wealth on the backs of African people and their native wealth.

This smash-and-grab mentality continues today. Much of the chaos of Central and South American countries is a result of American agricultural interests controlling the vast majority of suitable cropland. Here in these winter-free zones, crops can grow year round and keep the supermarket shelves full even in January. The story of American exploitation and criminal interference among our neighbors to the south portends a timebomb waiting to go off in our faces.

Under previous presidents and as the United States has tried to become more than an imperialist power in the world, programs to help improve conditions in “shithole” countries have been an important objective. Unlike our current president, previous holders of that formerly-prestigious office have supported programs to help improve conditions for native peoples. Education, health care, and social reforms have been part of an outreach that included a proportioned immigration quota.

The denigration of nations and even an entire continent by racist labeling shows nothing about those places or their people compared to what it shows about the person uttering the denigration. What Trump’s profanity reveals is a man totally bereft of curiosity, respect, and knowledge about the world around him, a man whose only goal in life is self-aggrandizement. That his petulant narrow vision should spread such shame over our entire nation is a horror that can end none too soon.

~~~

This post is dedicated to Martin Luther King, a man who rose to the pinnacle of human achievement, unlike the man current soiling the White House.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Haiti

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exploitation_colonialism

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_resources_of_Africa

The Health of Arkansas

Yesterday, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson beamed as he announced a drop in the number of state residents receiving health insurance through Medicaid.

Today there are fewer Arkansans on Medicaid than when I took office in January 2015, while our state’s population continues to increase. In the last year alone, the rolls have decreased by 117,000 (10%). Because of the reduction in Medicaid enrollment, DHS is now projecting that it will spend roughly half a billion dollars LESS (taxpayer money) on Medicaid in SFY’19 than anticipated in the biennial budget.

Perhaps to some, this is great news. We’re saving money! Woopee! All those freeloaders out there sucking on the government teat are now out in the cold where they belong.

But wait. We’re talking about medical care here, people who are sick or disabled or otherwise unable to obtain health care because they can’t afford to buy insurance. By his own numbers, our governor just celebrated the fact that 117,000 people of Arkansas are no longer able to obtain health care.

Now maybe that’s not exactly true. Maybe some of those folks got well from cancer or liver failure or whatever caused them to qualify for Medicaid. Maybe some of them got great jobs and have insurance now through their employers. Maybe some of them became the sudden beneficiary of their Aunt Tilley’s fabulous estate. Or won the lottery.

Or maybe not.

The reduction might have something to do with the federal government’s deep cut in advertising about how to sign up for health care. Or the federal government’s reduction in the sign-up time period. Or the state’s questionable method of deciding who to remove from the program—the electronic data system currently in use automatically deletes anyone who doesn’t respond to a request for income information. As in, one lost piece of mail. One overlooked letter amid a pile of unpaid bills. One person’s inability to comprehend what is being asked of him as he undergoes chemotherapy.

Last year, the governor looked for all the ways he could reduce the amount of money Arkansas pays for health coverage. As reported in the Arkansas Times in the May 2, 2017, edition, the governor’s goal was to lower the income limits.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, Arkansas expanded Medicaid via a unique policy known as the private option, which uses Medicaid funds to purchase private health insurance plans for low-income Arkansans. The concept was later re-branded as “Arkansas Works” by the governor. The expansion covers adults who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — that’s $16,400 for an individual or $33,600 for a family of four.

The governor’s proposed changes to eligibility remove anyone who makes more than the federal poverty line (that’s $11,880 for an individual or $24,300 for a family of four) from the Arkansas Works program. Only people who make less than the poverty line would qualify going forward. That includes not just the beneficiaries who are covered by private option plans but also those who were deemed medically frail under Arkansas Works (the 10 percent of beneficiaries with the greatest medical needs, who are currently routed to the traditional Medicaid program rather than private option plans).[1]

So just to be clear, any single person earning more than $990 per month or head of household with spouse and two children earning more than $506 per person would no longer qualify for government assistance in gaining health insurance. This hasn’t yet been implemented because the federal government has not yet responded to Gov. Hutchinson’s request for the change. But really, governor?

Even the 138% of poverty level leaves lots of people without access to care. In 2013, 21% of Arkansas adults went without health care because of the cost. Do bragging rights automatically come to Gov. Hutchinson because that number dropped to 15% by 2016? What is 15% anyway, besides a seemingly small number?

The state’s estimated population is 3,004,279. Take away 23.6% of that for people below 18 years of age (non-adults). That leaves 2,295,270 adults. Fifteen percent of that equals 344,290 adults in this state without health care. That’s a lot of friends and neighbors.

In a November 2017 report, the Arkansas Times explained another proposed part of Hutchinson’s Medicaid ‘reform.’

Those between the ages of 18-49 would be required to work 80 hours per month; if they were not working, they would have to participate in job training programs or certain approved volunteer activities. Beneficiaries must be in compliance for nine months out of the year or they would be removed from the program for the duration of the year. Beneficiaries 50 or older would not be subject to the work requirement; exemptions would be available for others who met certain criteria, such as caring for dependent children.[2]

Studies have examined the realities of financial need in the United States and have come up with a set of numbers that reveal just exactly how morally bankrupt is the governor’s reasoning (along with the increasingly evident moral bankruptcy of the entire Republican party).

For a family with two adults and two children, the average cost of living in the United States hovered around $65,000 per year in 2015. The figure excludes discretionary spending on nonessential goods and services, such as leisure, entertainment and luxury items.[3]

To be fair, another source gathering economic data specific to locations gives credit to a lower-than-average cost of living in Arkansas. For a family of four in Little Rock, the average monthly cost is $2876.46. For an individual not paying rent, the monthly cost is estimated at $819.24.[4] However, in the governor’s proposed lower income limit, in neither case is there any ‘leftover’ income adequate to buy health insurance. In case you didn’t notice, the estimated average cost of living for Little Rock is $400 MORE than the cutoff income level for those seeking Medicaid coverage under the governor’s preferred income guidelines.

It’s no secret that Arkansas is one of the unhealthiest states in the nation. We rank 48th. We have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and general poor health both physically and mentally. In particular, according to a January 1, 2018, report published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, from 2013 to 2016, “the percentage [of Arkansans] who reported that their mental health had not been good in 14 of the past 30 days rose from 14.7 to 16.4 [percent.]”

The report I’d like to hear from Gov. Hutchinson would show data about the number of marginally-employed people who have gained better-paying jobs. It would show how many of those suffering mental or physical illness have gained any improvement in their health. I’d like to hear that Arkansas is spending more, not less, on health care not only in direct services but in education—I’m talking about nutrition education, cooking lessons, and everything else humanly possible to teach people how to eat healthy—which, tragically, probably doesn’t include toaster pastries for breakfast.

I’d like to hear the governor talk about how vouchers and private schools won’t be allowed to siphon money away from public schools. I’d like to hear his analysis of how inadequate education leads to poor self-esteem and how a positive self-image is key to a person’s ability to pay attention to diet and exercise. I’d like to hear him talk about how a person who doesn’t feel good either mentally or physically is a prime candidate for substance abuse.

I’d like to hear the governor discuss the abysmal status of substance abuse treatment options in the state, a crushing health care issue that gets short shrift in public discussion. More on that in another blog.

The governor needs to say that fundamentals like good health and proper education make all the difference in how a person participates as a vital member of society or how he/she gains and maintains sufficient employment. He needs to say, again and again, that a person who is well, who has learned how to reason, and who recognizes the responsibility of self-care and citizenship is the kind of person we absolutely must gain a lot more of in this state.

At any cost.

~~~

[1] https://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2017/05/02/governors-proposed-cuts-to-medicaid-eligibility-will-increase-costs-for-working-poor-likely-to-increase-uninsured-rate

[2] https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/state-still-awaiting-federal-approval-on-medicaid-expansion-changes/Content?oid=11322951

[3] Cost of Living https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/cost-of-living.asp#ixzz53JNGsNLI

[4] https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/in/Little-Rock

America’s New Greatness

It’s been a crushing year. One after another, hard-won social advancements have been blocked or dismantled in the rush to “Make American Great Again.” But what does that even mean?

Exactly when was America greater? When everyone used outdoor toilets? When women couldn’t work outside the home? When skin color decided who could marry whom, or vote, or eat at a lunch counter?

Is ‘great again’ a worthy goal, the best we should expect? Is the conservative mantra right, that free enterprise and individual liberty “under limited government” was and forever will be the pinnacle of human achievement? If only we could rid ourselves of this ‘big government’ and free ourselves of onerous taxation, would the U.S. of A. become the shining star of the days of yore?

No, no, and no.

Let me explain. At the time of the Founding Fathers, ‘free enterprise’ applied to white male landowners. The constitution ignored the rights of women and non-landowners. Voting rights for Natives or slaves never entered the discussion. The founders conceived of a nation of educated, well-to-do white men who used women, natives, and slaves to meet self-serving goals in creating heirs, seizing ever greater slabs of the continent, and forcing labor from non-whites in order to sustain and increase their wealth.

They weren’t evil men. That’s just how things had always been. No wonder certain white males today would see those as the glory days.

But there’s no lack of free enterprise. Men and women of any class or color routinely open their own businesses. Three out of ten workers in the U. S. are self-employed or are hired by self-employed persons.[1] The ‘small business’ community provides the majority of American jobs.

…large businesses only employ about 38 percent of the private sector workforce while small businesses employ 53 percent of the workforce. In fact, over 99 percent of employing organizations are small businesses and more than 95 percent of these businesses have fewer than 10 employees. The reality is that most Americans are employed by a very small business that has little in common with the tiny sliver of the business demographic represented by corporate America.[2]

The complaint of conservatives is that free enterprise is hindered by big government. They rail against requirements that employers pay into insurance policies that provide medical care for workers injured on the job or that provide health care that meets the employees’ needs. Employers also must pay into Social Security and Medicare funds on a 50-50 basis with the employee’s withheld funds. Employers are required to deduct the appropriate amount of state and federal income tax from employee wages and to deposit this tax into government accounts. Employers also must provide a wage statement at the end of each year (W-2, 1099, etc.).

These requirements annoy the hell out of employers. When I operated my own café, I spent hours working on payroll. I resented spending money on workman’s compensation insurance – I never had an injured employee and all that I paid was money down a hole. But I understood the reason for it. If an employee had become injured, should I expect the government to pay for medical care? Should I personally pay for it? Should the employee be abandoned to pay himself?

These are old problems solved incrementally over a long period of American history back when a majority of legislators worked for the people instead of themselves. We stopped sending disabled or aged persons to poor farms where a pitiful stipend from the state supported them along with the random generosity of wealthy donors who might drop a few crumbs from their tables. We stopped allowing employees to be injured or killed in unsafe workplaces. We required people and their employers to set aside funds for retirement.

Like the Affordable Care Act, social support systems developed by our elected representatives to better provide for the ‘general welfare’ are an evolved safety net for all of us. The simplistic idea that these systems should be dismantled in pursuit of some long-vanished ideal of “free enterprise” fails to recognize all the reasons these systems came into being in the first place. We need them. They serve an important purpose.

‘Individual liberty’ is another often-touted phrase by deconstructionist conservatives. What that concept meant to the founders no longer applies in our current reality. The founders lived on the edge of an unexplored country with such a vast reserve of lands that no one could imagine a time when there weren’t new horizons where young men could ‘go West’ to make their fortunes. Individual liberty was possible only because men gained forty acres or more by simply staking a claim or, in many cases, serving in the military after which they received land grants.[3]

What land is free now? None.

What we took from the Natives was a virgin continent full of natural resources. The lands of Europe had been exploited for over two thousand years and here was a whole new start. Individually and collectively, we harvested those resources while patting ourselves on the back about how smart and industrious we were in building a fabulous new nation. We never considered that sooner or later, the last farmland would be plowed, the last gold nugget would be found, and we would run smack up against the end of the bonanza. We did the same thing here that our forefathers had done in Europe.

Conservatives, enraptured with these myths of a glorious past, believe we can return to times when anyone who wanted to work hard could simply plow his way to success with a mule and a compliant wife. Women, keen for their own ‘individual liberty,’ aren’t so compliant anymore. Farming is no longer a viable path to sufficient livelihood.

Obviously our living standards have changed. No more outdoor toilets or working the fields from dawn to dusk. We’re dependent on electricity and modern medical care and automobiles, all things that as recently as a hundred years ago simply did not factor into the picture for a majority of Americans.

Ever in pursuit of their bankrupt myth, the conservatives’ last gasp is the current grab of political power, attained by selling the myth to those who don’t understand. The conservatives are busy ending food and medical care for the aged, the homeless, and other needy segments of the population. The entire social net crafted over decades is being dismantled in a futile grab for a long-lost past.

The descendants of European colonialism want the glory back. They don’t agree that taking from the rich and giving to the poor is the right approach for modern societies. European nations have already grasped this concept. America today and in the future can never be the America of 1800 or 1900 or even 1950.

Making profit off of sick people or school children is immoral. Just as government regulates utilities, so it must regulate other services required by everyone, including health care and the internet. This is not an appropriate arena for capitalism. Government, not profit-driven capitalists, serves as the most efficient provider for the common welfare –healthcare, affordable housing, education, public transportation, infrastructure like bridges and railways, and a vast network of social services.

Reducing the tax burden for the wealthiest among us accomplishes nothing but the impoverishment of our entire nation. The current imbalance of wealth is clear evidence that the rich should be taxed even more. Expanded social programs should ensure that those at the lowest income levels are brought into counseling, health care, education, and training programs in order to improve their economic status.

We’re a largely urban, multicultural society now, completely different from what the Founding Fathers knew. Just as the founders were right to declare the rights of personal liberty, so were progressives right to end discrimination against minorities, women, and the handicapped and to provide mechanisms by which the damages of such long-term discrimination could be healed. It’s the progressives who have understood that the safety net must be available equally from state to state, a service that only the federal government can ensure.

The personal bankruptcy of a small number of men like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon cannot be allowed to dictate the future of our country. Such men long for a culture where white maleness guarantees ascendancy. Without a white male-dominated social structure, they cannot gain the power they so desperately crave. These are weak men dependent on the subjugation of others for emotional and economic support. They will die off just as the Neanderthal died off.

It’s called failure to evolve.

Here’s a toast to 2018 and the continuing evolution of our great nation.

 

~~~

 

[1] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/10/22/three-in-ten-u-s-jobs-are-held-by-the-self-employed-and-the-workers-they-hire/

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristie-arslan/five-big-myths-about-amer_b_866118.html

[3] Bounties of up to 1,100 acres were granted for Revolutionary War service between 1775 and 1783 and up to 320 acres for the War of 1812 through 1815. Additional free lands went to men fighting in the Mexican War 1846-1848 and in Indian Wars from the 1780s through the 1890s. While outright land grants ended in 1855, Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War received homestead rights along with others meeting certain criteria. Much more on land grants and homestead rights at Wikipedia.

 

What About Cherry Pie?

I love cherry pie. Baking cherry pie as a must-have part of family tradition goes back at least as far as my maternal grandmother and the early 20th century. For the last few years, I’ve skipped the cherry pie not out of intent but out of convenience. With the kids grown and my waistline growing, baking for the holidays has become a questionable activity.

This year I really wanted a cherry pie. So I looked for cherries. Not the fat sweet fruit that can be found canned, frozen, or in the fresh fruit department, but those tart cherries that produce such a fabulous flavor when paired with delicate pastry crust. Yum!

After searching my regular grocery stores, I realized there must be a cherry Grinch out there. Not only were there no tart cherries frozen, canned, or otherwise, there weren’t any empty places on the shelves where they might have been. What is going on?

[For the record, canned cherry ‘pie filling’ is so far off the mark that I refuse to take it into consideration. Mostly sugar and cornstarch, these fillings are no substitute for the real thing.]

I searched online and discovered that for a mere $76.60, I can order five pounds of frozen tart cherries. That’s right—a staggering $15.32 per pound. Plus shipping. Other sources offered slightly better deals. Organic tart cherries, 4.5 pounds for $69.89. Three 24-ounce jars of cherries for $51.95. Or my old standby brand of canned tart cherries, Oregon, only $4.31 per 14.5 ounce can. Plus $8 shipping.

That brings a nine-inch pie, which requires a minimum of two cans, coming in at a cost of $16.60 for the cherries alone.

I’m priced out of my pie!

More research starts to reveal some basic truths. A few years ago, some genius discovered that tart cherries offer all kinds of health benefits including the big headliner, antioxidant effects. A plethora of publications heralded the news, such as an article in Men’s Health citing a study published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In the study, mice with Alzheimer’s symptoms were fed cherry extract, fish oil, and emu oil. Mice running on tart cherry extract performed better on cognitive tests like object recognition than did the control group.[1]

The kicker bit of that study revealed that tart cherry juice performed better in reducing high blood pressure than expensive medications!

No wonder the price of cherries has gone through the roof. They’re in demand as a juice (32 ounces of organic juice for $18.99 from one source) as well as a nutritional supplement (200 capsules of tart cherry 4:1 extract from 300 milligrams and mixed with rice powder—for $11.21).

What is the curious tree at the center of this health versus culinary pleasures conflict?

Prunus cerasus (sour cherry, tart cherry, or dwarf cherry) is a species of Prunus in the subgenus Cerasus (cherries), native to much of Europe and southwest Asia. It is closely related to the sweet cherry (Prunus avium), but has a fruit that is more acidic.

The tree is smaller than the sweet cherry (growing to a height of 4–10 m), has twiggy branches, and its crimson-to-near-black cherries are borne upon shorter stalks. There are several varieties of the sour cherry: the dark-red morello cherry and the lighter-red varieties including the amarelle cherry, and the popular Montmorency cherry. The Montmorency cherry is the most popular type of sour cherry. The reason for its popularity is its use in baking and recipe creation including cherry pies, cherry desserts and other cherry-based recipes.

Well, maybe not so much anymore, now that the harvest is almost entirely devoted to diversions like cherry juice and cherry nutritional supplements.

The fruit’s discovery and popularity dates back to the Romans:

The history of the ‘Montmorency’ tart cherry extends back to ancient Rome. The Romans are credited with discovering this tiny red fruit along the Black Sea in Asia Minor. After Roman legionnaires discovered the tart cherries, they carried them with them and introduced them to the rest of Roman territory. They planted cherry trees alongside Roman roads and soldiers used the fruit for food and the wood to build weapons and repair equipment.[2]

Seems the Romans knew a good thing when they saw it.

The problem isn’t just that newly discovered health benefits have cornered the cherry market. The sour cherry tree likes cooler climates, so much of the domestic crop in the United States grows across the upper regions of the country. And that, according to one farmer’s account as stated in a 2017 report on National Public Radio, is key to my lack of a cherry pie.

The tree is “very cold hardy” in the dead of winter, he says, and grows well in the state. But it is susceptible to damage from spring frost, making it very sensitive to the extreme weather shifts made more likely by climate change… In 2002 and 2012, freezing spring temperatures wiped out almost the entire tart cherry crop here [in Michigan].[3]

Farmers faced with this problem point to efforts underway since the 1980s to produce a new strain of sour cherry tree that would be more forgiving of weather anomalies, but such developments take a long term of trial and error. The farmer quoted in this article questions whether the Montmorency will still be around in fifty years.

Also suffering the effects of climate change, bee populations needed for cherry tree pollination have plunged, forcing many cherry farmers to make extreme efforts to sustain their own bee colonies.

Sadly, many farmers refuse to consider climate change as a factor in their troubles with sour cherry production and thus a potentially powerful lobbying voice is not yet making enough noise for the government to pay attention.

Even if the government turned massive attention and resources to this issue, it’s questionable whether anything can be done. At best estimates, the current rate of climate change won’t be changed any time soon. But there is hope, although I wonder if it will come in time for sour cherries.

We emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide when we burn fossil fuels like coal—or when the cattle that get turned into burgers fart. When those emissions enter the atmosphere, they trap the sun’s heat, warming the planet. It’s basic physics. The increased heat can become catastrophic by melting the polar ice caps, raising sea levels, and creating weather patterns that are less predictable, more volatile, and more dangerous. Because we’ve been warming the planet this way since the early days of the industrial revolution, we can’t completely avoid the effects of climate change. But by lowering our emissions now, we can avoid the worst effects.[4]

The article goes on to describe a few key changes individuals can make in life choices that will strongly impact climate change including having fewer children and cutting way back on meat consumption. Uh huh.

At my age, I won’t live long enough to see the worst of climate change or the ultimate fate of my beloved tart cherries. That’s just one of many regrets facing me and everyone else as we grow older. But I may experiment with dried cherries to see if rehydrating produces a decent pie. The least expensive source I’ve found offers a one-pound bag for $11.99.[5]

Here’s a recipe I’m going to try, assuming I can afford the shipping:

  • 3 c. dried cherries
  • 3 c. boiling water – some recipes suggest cherry juice instead of water
  • ¼ c. cornstarch
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. almond extract or ⅛ tsp. lemon juice (alternatively, try brandy or Amaretto)

Cover cherries with boiling water, cover and let soak for 30 minutes. Turn burner on medium, simmer and add sugar and flour to thicken. Remove from heat, add almond extract. Pour into prepared pie crust and add top crust. Bake at 400 degrees for about 35 minutes.[6]

I’ll let you know if it’s worth the effort.

~~~

[1] https://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-eat/5-health-benefits-tart-cherries

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montmorency_cherry

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/04/07/523004370/michigans-tart-cherry-orchards-struggle-to-cope-with-erratic-spring-weather

[4] Excellent article “How You Can Actually Help Stop Climate Change” by Kendra Pierre-Louis, published July 12, 2017, in Popular Science magazine. https://www.popsci.com/how-to-stop-climate-change

[5] https://nuts.com/driedfruit/cherries/sour-tart.html

[6] Adapted from https://www.justapinch.com/recipes/dessert/pie/homemade-cherry-pie-filling.html

Is Rock and Roll Dying?

As soon as the caller identified himself, my heart sank. Not another one. I let him explain—barely making it, bandmate working three jobs, time to cut back.

This truth hit them suddenly. No time for thirty days’ notice. He’d moved all their stuff out early that day—amps, speakers, drums, guitars, miscellany only musicians know. All of it now crammed into corners of already cramped living space, it won’t see use. It will sit there until their finances improve or until, on some forlorn day, they decide to sell it.

My vacancy rate now hovers at twenty-five percent – four studios out of sixteen. It’s actually worse than that. I’m down to three actual bands plus one unit occupied by a drummer who needs a place to practice when his band isn’t on the road and one unit occupied by a retiree who used to be a big time guitarist. He and his wife live in an RV, no place for him to play.

Then there are the hip-hop and rap guys, three studios without a drum or instrument, nothing but a computer set up, comfortable furniture, and microphones.

The other rented studios are occupied by an accountant, a masseuse, a writer, and an artist. I’m actively advertising the units as office space, work space, a place to store things if someone needs a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. There are two bathrooms including one with a shower for rinsing off that after-gig smoke-and-booze film that mixes with sweat and sticks to hair, skin, and clothing. There’s a break area with microwave, bar sink, and coffee maker.

There’s a loading dock leading to an entry with a keypad lock, steel doors set in steel frames set in concrete block walls. Another key code is required for each tenant to enter his individual studio. Surveillance cameras further enhance security for tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear acquired over time—keyboards, sophisticated mixing boards, smoke machines plus t-shirts, CDs, and other promotional items. Most of all, the studios provide sound control. Heavy metal played at two a.m. does not leak outside because the walls and ceilings are double-layered, offset with sound clips.

It’s a niche business, something I got into by accident. Back in 1989, I gained ownership of an old railroad property where my dad and I had operated our piano repair business since 1981. The ramshackle buildings stretched along a block of spur track once served as warehouses, a 1940s Quonset hut among them. We used only half of one building, leaving room for multiple renters. As it turned out, the greatest demand for space was rock and roll bands who needed rehearsal space.

Many repairs and changes in those old buildings over the coming years created eleven rehearsal units. Even at that, I usually had a waiting list. Nothing about those old buildings worked well for bands—except the price, ranging from $200 to $300 per month. Sound leaked out so badly that police forced rehearsal shut-downs on a regular basis. Keyed doors meant a continuous drama over lost keys or the need for new locks because the drummer lost his mind and they wanted him locked out. No humidity control, no central heat or AC.

Around 2003 when retirement rolled around and we shut down the piano business, real estate development was exploding all around me. I caught the fever. Perfectly positioned between the university, downtown, and the entertainment district, the property could be the home of a profitable development of apartments or condos alongside commercial space. One of the questions that came up during that two-year frenzy of architects, engineers, city planners, and financial shenanigans was: What about the bands?

The bands. By now hundreds of bands had sojourned there, some famous, most of them not. Some lasting a few months, some for years. I continued to have a waiting list.

So I spent considerable time looking at affordable properties where I could create the best possible rehearsal studio space. I borrowed money for a down payment and contracted with various trades for a remodel of an existing building. I went into debt for a quarter million dollars.

On opening day, April 2006, the studios filled up. Except for a few dark months at the bottom of the recession in 2008-9, they stayed filled. At some points, bands shared space in the larger units and still there was a waiting list.

Then, inexplicably in spring 2016, all that changed. Rent was paid late or in partial amounts along with fervent promises—soon as we get this recording deal done, soon as we get back from tour. Vacancies didn’t get filled. By the end of the year, four vacancies existed from month to month. By mid-2017, there were five.

I’ve talked about this with some of the musicians who have rented from me for years. The sad truth is that the local scene has changed dramatically over the past twenty years, especially in the last ten. Back in the day, a person out for a night of revelry could stand on the sidewalk on Dickson Street and hear rock and roll leaking out into the night from clubs up and down the street. Live music brought in the customers, eager to support their favorite bands with a small cover charge. The money added up for the bands, and the club owners made money off the drinks.

People thronged the dance floor, shouting and laughing as the heavy beat and guitar riffs joined them together in a primal celebration of life. These were songs of the soul in the glorious tradition of rock and roll, an expression too heavy for mere words. This was the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, and all the greats and not so greats who tapped into the zeitgeist of the times in protest of war, of social injustice, of human angst in the unspeakable onslaught of life itself. We needed the music to get us through.

Do we not need it anymore?

One club owner explained to me that the whole scene changed as more people got iPhones. Patrons wanted to be free to circulate up and down the street, meet friends at one place, go to another. It was about seeing and being seen. Texting ruled. No one wanted to pay a cover or cared whether there was live music. Now on any given night, a person standing on the sidewalk finds the street mostly silent. Two or three clubs still invite live performance and there are occasional music fests. But the bread and butter money has dried up.

More than the loss of local venues is the lingering impact of economic downturn. Prices for food, rent, and everything else has gone up but wages haven’t. For young men and women hoping to move forward in the music industry, there simply isn’t enough to go around and still cover a modest $250 to $300 per month studio rent even when shared among three or four bandmates.

And why should they? Since music went digital, the scaffolding holding up the music industry has mostly collapsed. People routinely steal downloads. Whatever tiny increments of profit someone’s CD might generate are siphoned off by the recording studio and the promoters leaving the band with barely enough to cover the costs of touring.

People take music for granted. It’s ubiquitous. In every office and marketplace, every movie and television show, every waking moment, music undergirds our voice-overs. If someone suddenly pulled the plug and music disappeared, we would stand aghast at the disconcerting silence. The musical background spans awkward moments in conversation, social unease as we crowd together as strangers in increasingly jammed spaces, and in long private moments when we don’t want to face whatever is going on in our own minds.

We rely on music in ways we hardly realize. But we’re mostly not willing to pay for it. It’s not only that musicians are often forced to play for free, it’s that the economy places little value on it.

Four vacancies is my break even point. Fewer means I gain a slim profit to bring home to supplement my meager Social Security. More means the operation isn’t meeting its expenses. A continuation of the status quo means I have to think seriously about selling the property, and I’m not sure that the property will bring what I still owe.

At the time I jumped into the new building, spent weeks learning about acoustics and building materials and security systems, I diligently wrote out my business plan. In the part where I needed to describe my exit plan, I described how the spaces could be used for offices or work spaces or even living quarters. But, I added, rock and roll will never die.

Maybe it won’t. Maybe this is just a weird bubble on the local scene that has little relevance to the future of this art form. Maybe in the near future, local talent will again seek out space to create musical statements about the emotions and challenges we face. The big concerts still draw tens of thousands of fans, and a handful of stars still earn their fortunes in the trade, so there’s still the hope of fame and fortune for those intrepid few who gut out the hardship and keep playing.

I hope I can hold out and do my part to keep the dream alive.