Saturday, February 28, 2009

Corn

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This video segment, originally broadcast January 28, 2009 on PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, tells only a portion of the story of corn - the tip of the iceberg if you will.

America produces a lot of corn. It is America's number one cash crop; forget the amber waves of grain - in 2007, the U.S. produced 12.32 billion bushels of corn, far more than wheat (2.17 billion bushels) and soybeans (2.88 billion bushels) combined. But the history of corn in America is one of "unintended consequences" presenting themselves time and time again since colonial days, and the pattern of unintended consequences continues into the present.

The corn plant clearly dominates the American landscape. Today 125,000 square miles of American soil are devoted to corn production, with the "corn belt" states of Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota producing over 50% of our corn. Production of corn has always been an essential component of the American economy (such as it is), and markets have to be continuously identified, created, and exploited to accommodate this bounty.

Even before the Revolution, a glut of corn was created by an expansion of the corn belt into Kentucky and Ohio. Since there were no roads in this region and most transportation was by packhorse, it cost more to transport corn than it could bring on the Eastern markets. But 10 bushels of corn could be reduced to 1 gallon of whiskey. So farmers distilled the corn into "liquid assets" that could easily be shipped or bartered. Practically every farmer made whiskey and it became a medium of exchange. It didn't take long for the new government to realize that it could tax that whiskey.

Backwoods farmers in western Pennsylvania eventually revolted over the stiff excise tax placed on their whiskey, and in 1794, George Washington needed 13,000 troops to put down what came to be called the "Whiskey Rebellion." With more men than he had led during the Revolution, Washington put down the uprising with his Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, by his side.

But by this time, the young nation was awash in a flood of cheap, corn-produced liquor. By 1810, there were at least 2,000 distillers producing more than two million gallons of whiskey. By the 1820s, whiskey sold for twenty-five cents a gallon, making it cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk. As a result, America became a nation of drunks. Government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over 15 years of age amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine. Actual consumption may have been as high as ten gallons of whiskey per person, over four times the current rate.

Instead of a morning coffee break, Americans stopped work at 11:00 a.m. to drink. A lot of work went undone, but this apparently was not a problem in this slow-paced, preindustrial age. And a drunken stage coach driver posed little threat, since the horses knew the route and made their own way home.

Writing at the time, Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that the sudden disappearance of traditional boundaries had left people bereft and disoriented, with negative consequences for social control. The rootless individual, seeking his fortune, living by his own wits, and answerable to no social superior, became celebrated as the national character ideal. The stable, self-policing community was demolished, and the forms of behavior that grew out of an inherited concept of reciprocal rights and obligations became obsolete. But it was also the availability of cheap liquor made from the abundant corn that led to the problem.

During this period, the drinking of hard liquor increased in settings that no longer even offered the pretense of other activities. The tavern or inn, where food and lodging were provided in addition to drink, gave way almost exclusively to the grogshop, essentially an early version of the saloon. Solitary drinking, unencumbered by social control, also increased during this time, as a sizable number of Americans began to drink to excess by themselves for the first time. The solo binge was a new pattern of drinking in which periods of abstinence were interspersed every week, month, or season with one to three-day periods of solitary inebriation. When people did drink, they were more likely to go on binges where they drank all out.

All of this in time led to the Temperance Movement of the 19th Century and ultimately to Prohibition. In the years after the Civil War, the Temperance Movement was most active in the corn-producing Midwestern and western states, where the problem likely was the most visible. Of course, Prohibition itself was a singular failure. Mark Twain remarked that Prohibition drove "drunkenness behind doors and into dark places, and [did] not cure it or even diminish it." The associated rise in bootlegging and organized crime is the poster child for unintended consequences.

But soon after the 18th Amendment was passed in 1919 banning alcohol, farmers had found new ways to increase corn production even more. In 1930, a hybrid corn was developed whose sturdier stalks allowed the plants to stand crowded side by side and resist blowing over. Then in 1947, munitions plants found themselves with a surplus of ammonium nitrate - the key ingredient in making explosives, but no longer needed since the Second World War had ended. A way was found to convert ammonium nitrate into a chemical fertilizer that boosted soil nitrogen levels and made it possible to plant more corn year after year without soil exhaustion.

But the biggest advancement came in the late 60s, when a Japanese chemist discovered the enzyme glucose isomerase. Ten years later, this discovery was used to develop the perfect low-cost sweetness substitute - high-fructose corn syrup.

Then in 1973, a new policy allowed direct subsidy payments to farmers. Before the 1970s, farm policy supported corn prices through loans, government purchases and land rest. The new policy encouraged farmers to grow and sell their corn at any price. And grow it, they did, and the rest is history.

Over the following three decades, corn syrup and corn byproducts found their way into nearly every processed food and drink. Coca Cola replaced sugar with corn syrup in 1980 to save a few pennies and Pepsi followed suit in 1984. At lower cost, drinks and meals then went super-sized, because marketers quickly discovered that Americans would consume 30% larger portions and pay a few more cents for “value meals.”

According to a chemical analysis of dishes served at McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, American fast food is almost entirely produced from corn. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used a stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to determine the origin of molecules present in hamburgers, chicken, and fries. The researchers found corn to be the almost exclusive food source of the beef and chicken served in fast food restaurants. The researchers also uncovered evidence to suggest that fast food restaurants are misleading consumers as to the oils used in preparing french fries and that animals slaughtered for production are kept in confined quarters, rather than outdoors.

On average, we each consume 200 calories more per day than we did 30 years ago – mostly in the form of hidden corn calories. We consistently eat corn and wash it down with more corn. And if you’re poor, it’s even worse. Foods made with corn, aided by government subsidies, are often the cheapest and contain the most calories. By subsidizing corn, we have pointed those at the greatest risk to foods that are certain to make them sick.

So after creating an epidemic of alcoholism, which led to epidemic crime during the resulting Prohibition, corn is now creating an epidemic of obesity. But the marketing of this bountiful crop still continues with the latest use of corn as a source of ethanol bio-fuel.

It takes a lot of fossil-fuel energy to grow and harvest corn and to convert it into ethanol. If you take that into account, only about 20% of each gallon of corn ethanol represents new energy. Further, the boom in corn for ethanol has also led farmers to convert more land into cropland. That releases carbon that was stored in shrubs and trees and in the soil, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The result, surprisingly, is that corn ethanol may actually be worse for the climate than gasoline.

The federal Renewable Fuel Standard, enacted in 2005 and updated in 2007, dictates that by 2015 the nation must produce 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol, compared with only about 2 billion in 2000. Government subsidies for ethanol is making sure this happens. As a result, about a third of the nation’s corn is already being turned into ethanol.

This has led to a major expansion in production of corn. Some land that was once used for soybean production is now devoted to corn — and land that had been set aside under the federal Conservation Reserve Program has been plowed up to grow even more corn. Conservation Reserve Program land serves both as a buffer to keep pesticides and fertilizers from leaching into waterways and as a rich habitat for wildlife. Such areas can also accumulate topsoil over time. Turning them into cropland essentially eliminates all of these benefits.

The switch away from soybeans, meanwhile, may be leading indirectly to the destruction of rainforests in Brazil and other nations. With less soy being grown in the U.S., the price of soybeans is rising, pushing other countries to cut down trees in order to make way for a cash crop. The felling of forests is a major contributor to climate change: trees that are burned or chopped down and left to rot add heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

A better source of ethanol may be crop wastes such as corn cobs and stalks because they don’t increase the demand for agricultural land. Neither would another candidate source, native perennial grasses like switchgrass, if grown on marginal lands. These ingredients are not as easy as corn kernels to convert into ethanol, but there are a number of companies attempting to commercialize what is know as the production of “cellulosic ethanol.” If it can be done economically and in a way that keeps greenhouse gas emissions low, farmers may be able to profit from the ethanol boom in a way that’s easier on the climate.

The Native Americans first gave maize, field corn, to the arriving European settlers in the early 16th Century, and we've been killing ourselves with it ever since.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The War Is Over [?]

"Let me say this as plainly as I can: By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," President Obama announced today at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. "The United States will pursue a new strategy to end the war in Iraq through a transition to full Iraqi responsibility."

Obama promised that he would withdraw the approximately 142,000 combat forces now in Iraq by August 2010 and 35,000 to 50,000 remaining troops by December 2011, beginning the end of one of the longest and most divisive wars in American history.

[At least 50,000 residual troops will remain in Iraq until December 2011.]

"America's men and women in uniform have fought block by block, province by province, year after year, to give the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future. Now, we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it," he said, triggering applause from the Marines. The president called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and former president George W. Bush from Air Force 1 enroute to the speech to brief them on what he would say.

[U.S. Predators attack a Pakistani Taliban compound in South Waziristan.]

Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Baghdad, believed the plan presented moderate risk, but still supported the 50,000 residual troops figure.

[A build-up of 17,000 troops have been ordered to Afghanistan.]

Obama has also won crucial backing for his Iraq military withdrawal plan from leading Congressional Republicans, including Senator John McCain. Republicans emerged from a meeting Thursday evening more supportive than several leading Democrats, who complained earlier in the day that the president was still leaving behind too many American forces.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Disgusta

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Same mission, different city: today, I'm in Augusta, Georgia, trying to win back the work of yet another former client, a chemical manufacturer for whom I worked from 1993 through 2003. Same van as yesterday, but a smaller crew, just me and Joe from Memphis.

Augusta is a city of about a half million located on the Savannah River, near the Fall Line, the boundary between the crystalline rock of the rolling Piedmont and the unconsolidated sediments of the flat Coastal Plain. Many stream characteristics change as they cross the Fall Line: rapids and shoals are common near the geologic contact, floodplains are considerably wider on the younger sediments, and the frequency of stream meanders increases.

Augusta is best known for hosting The Masters golf tournament each spring, and for being the hometown of James Brown, the godfather of soul. But in addition to Brown, Augusta's also the home of actor Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus from The Matrix) and Hulk Hogan, artist Jasper Johns, former president Woodrow Wilson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and opera singer Jessye Norman.

However, a certain elitist element in Atlanta refers to Augusta as "Disgusta." According to the Urban Dictionary, "Disgusta" is a "shitty little city in east central Georgia. . . A place so humid your underwear becomes permanently plastered to your ass. Devoid of Culture and Refinement. Lacking any redeemable qualities. Full of fat, white trash rednecks who think Applebee's is fine dining and go to Wal-Mart as entertainment. Populated by a plethora of fat women driving SUVs and Dodge Ram Pickups." I do not share this sentiment.

After we returned from Augusta, Joe had to return the van at the airport and catch a flight home to Memphis. From the airport, I took MARTA home. While taking public transit from the airport is not an extraordinary event in most other cities, a certain, mostly suburban element is so afraid to ride MARTA, with it's multi-cultural passengers and stops in less affluent neighborhoods, that they insist of carrying concealed weapons. Frankly, I'm more afraid of paranoid, pistol-packing, white suburban males on the train than I am of exhausted airport workers coming home from a long day at work.

Fortunately I saw none of the former and more of the latter. I took the MARTA light rail train from the airport to Arts Station, and then the bus from Arts Station to Piedmont Hospital, and walked the last mile home. No one tried to rob me, rape me, or register me to vote, and I actually got a little fresh air and exercise during the walk.

No big deal.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

This Is Spartanburg

By the way, did I mention that I was in Spartanburg, South Carolina today?

Spartanburg is located in the Piedmont Province, the rolling foothills of the Southern Appalachians, and comprises the eastern end of the Greenville-Spartanburg district. It's a pleasant enough town, but in 2002, Spartanburg County ranked among the worst 10% of all counties in the U.S. in terms of releases of air toxins, primarily toluene and styrene.

But that's not why I'm here. It's also the corporate headquarters of a former client of mine, a company for whom I consulted from 1984 through 1986, and again from about 1998 through 2003. I've switched firms twice since then, but always wanted the chance to represent them again. These are hard economic times, and I've been aggressively trying to re-capture as much of my former market share as I possibly can.

With its pleasant climate and low cost of living, Spartanburg is blessed with several corporate headquarters. This includes Extended Stay Hotels, Denny's restaurants, and textile giant Miliken. BMW opened a plant here in 1996 for manufacture of luxury SUVs, part of the migration of automobile manufacturing in the United States from American firms in the Detroit area to foreign firms with plants in the mostly non-unionized South. Yet despite all of this, South Carolina still has the third highest unemployment rate in the country. As I said, these are hard economic times.

Spartanburg is also the home of southern rockers The Marshall Tucker Band and of blues musician Pink Anderson (1900-1974). Pink Floyd came up their band's name by juxtaposing the first names of Anderson and North Carolina bluesman Floyd Council. According to legend, founder Syd Barrett noticed the names in the liner notes of a 1962 Blind Boy Fuller album, which read, "Pink Anderson or Floyd Council - these were a few amongst the many blues singers that were to be heard in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, or meandering with the streams through the wooded valleys."

I had no time to meander through the wooded valleys of the Piedmont today, however, as I was out here with several of my colleagues to try to win back the work from our former client (many of my present co-workers also used to be at my previous firm, and also consulted with our Spartanburg client). Yesterday's four-hour conference call was part of the planning process for today's meeting. We left the office in a rented van this morning, drove the three hours up I-85 from Atlanta, and headed back to Georgia after the meeting.

Despite the state's economic hardships, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, whose name was widely floated as a potential VP prospect for John McCain last year and is considered a possible prospect for president in 2012, has warned that the new stimulus package recently passed to help turn the economy around risks taking the U.S. from a free-market economy to a "savior-based economy," where businesses rise or fall depending on whether they are in the good graces of Washington, D.C. He and a few other Republican governors have voiced concern that the stimulus program will deepen the national debt without dramatically improving the economy. Last week, Sanford said, “I think the problem that was created with too much debt will never be solved by adding yet more debt. I think there are a number of wrinkles that have caused a number of us to say ‘Wait a minute, let’s take a look — a long look — at whether or not this really makes sense for our state.’”

But on further questioning, he said he still might accept at least some of the funds. “Being against it doesn’t preclude taking the money,” Sanford explained.

"You say you're against it but you still might take the money. Do you realize how some people might think that you're putting ideology ahead of the interests of your constituents?" he was asked. "If you're so against it, why take the money?"

Sanford replied, "Because ultimately I represent more than, um, almost 5 million people in South Carolina."

So Gov. Sanford appears to know that the funds are actually good for his state's economy, but is still taking a partisan stand against it, just like the Republicans did during the creation of the bill. This is disappointing, because governors are typically more pragmatic and less partisan then Congressmen, and it should be noted that some Republican governors, like California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist, have been outspoken in their support of the stimulus.

But Alaska's Sarah Palin has said she may turn down stimulus money and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal announced Friday that he would only use a portion of the stimulus funds directed toward his state. The possible 2012 presidential candidate said that while he would accept money to increase unemployment benefits, he would not accept another part of the stimulus which he said would result in an unemployment insurance tax increase on Louisiana businesses. What with Louisiana's inadequate levees and New Orleans' vulnerability to floods, it would be particularly outrageous if Jindal were to also turn down funding to repair and upgrade his state's infrastructure. And if another Hurricane Katrina were to come along, wouldn't the resulting loss of life then be on Jindal's conscience?

Mississippi's Haley Barbour said, "There is some (stimulus money) we will not take in Mississippi. If we were to take the unemployment insurance reform package that they have, it would cause us to raise taxes on employment when the money runs out, and the money will run out in a couple of years. Then we'll have to raise the unemployment insurance tax, which is literally a tax on employment. I mean, we want more jobs. You don't get more jobs by putting an extra tax on creating jobs."

What this means, in all practically, is that Mississippi is trying to lure jobs to their state and incentivize industry to move there by creating a low tax structure. Fair enough, but their cuts in taxes come at the expense of those who need the new jobs the most - the unemployed and the poor. In essence, what they're saying is "Come to Mississippi, where you don't have to worry about paying benefits for the workers you toss away." Federal environmental standards were set to keep states from competing for industry by allowing more pollutants (like toluene and styrene) to be released to the air and water than their neighboring states, thereby lowering operating costs and bringing in money, although at the expense of their residents' health. Why then should they compete on the basis of lower unemployment benefits?

For this and other reasons, there's language in the 1,000-page stimulus legislation to ensure that Republican governors of states — particularly in the South — don’t hijack the funds for other purposes, or simply block the funds. This provision has even come to be called the "Sanford Amendment." One of my more reactionary co-workers, who fortunately wasn't along on today's trip, is particularly incensed about this aspect of the stimulus package. He feels that the provision is an inappropriate imposition of the Federal government on States' rights, and cites it as yet another example of what he believes to be President Obama's "contempt" for the Constitution, and further "proof" of what he thinks is Obama's ultimate goal - to transform the country into a Communist dictatorship.

Not only that, but he's predicting that the inevitable outcome of the so-called Sanford Amendment - as well as the rest of the transformation of American society into a Bolshevik state - will be an all-out civil war, ultimately leading to the dissolution of our society into chaos and anarchy and countless numbers of deaths. Based on this belief, he's buying guns and ammo as fast as he can so as to "protect" his property and family in this coming Armageddon.

All across the American South, there are a lot of bitter, white males like him who have not accepted the outcome of last year's election. Heavily armed and very angry, their hatred fanned by demagogues on AM and satellite radio, they represent an increasingly dangerous and unstable element to the current situation.

This is not a good thing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reset

Small turnout on this chilly night - two regulars and one first-timer. The first-timer was a college student "on assignment" for his religion class (we get a lot of those - four yesterday). One of the regulars regularly leaves after the first of the two periods, and he stayed true to form tonight. The other regular stayed the course, and he and the first-timer hung out for the full service and the discussion period afterwords.

It was a particularly frantic day at work today, featuring a (without fear of exaggeration) four-hour conference call. The other four hours were all playing catch-up with what I had missed during the call. So as hectic as the day was, it was refreshing to just sit one-on-one with the first-timer and explain the practice - how to sit, how to breathe, how to manage the mind, etc. - with total concentration and focus, not worrying about the crazy schedule. And to sit in zazen and just let all of those myriad things drop away (I couldn't have done anything about them at that time anyway, even if I had wanted to). A nice way to hit the "reset" button in the mind.

Small turnout but a good night.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Right Speech

In the Shobogenzo Sanjūshichihon Bodai Bumpō (On the Thirty-Seven Methods of Training for Realizing Enlightenment), Zen Master Dogen said, “Right speech is our Mute Self not being a mute. Those who are mutes among humans have never been able to express the truth. Those in the realm of the Mute are not mutes. They do not admire themselves as saints, nor do they pile something spiritual upon themselves. Right speech is mastery of the state in which the mouth is hung up on the wall. It is mastery of the state in which all mouths are hung on all walls. It is all the mouths being hung up on all the walls.”

In the Ippyakuhachi-Homyomon (108 Gates of Dharma-Illumination), Dogen further noted, "Right speech is a gate of Dharma-illumination, for with it we recognize that all names, voices, and words are simply like vibrations."

Our Mute Self is our Buddha nature, our true self that underlies all of the words and language that settle like dust upon us. But if we dwell in a state beyond words, we could never express the truth to others, we would never be able to fulfill our Bodhisattva vow to free all sentient beings. So those who have experienced the state beyond words nevertheless use words to try and at least point at the truth (since the truth itself cannot be described with words). But the words and labels don't stick to them, and they don't identify themselves by the words they use to point at the truth. They know that words are just sounds, mere vibrations in a column of air. To master the state of being beyond words is to be able to still use words, but not be limited by them. To be in the state beyond words is to directly realize an affinity with all sentient beings. When that affinity is realized, there is nothing left to realize it, there is just all sentient beings.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Forget Your Coat and Hat

Coats and hats are important - they keep us warm in the winter and dry in the rain. They protect us from the elements and keep us healthy. In some situations, it is not an exaggeration to say that they save our lives.

But once we are indoors, they are no longer necessary. So we hang them by the door and go about our business. Hanging them up and walking away does not mean they are no longer important, that we no longer value them, it just means that we do not presently need them, at least until our next trip out of doors.

So it is with words. We use them to communicate, to express the truth, to warn and advise others. But when we sit in zazen, words are no loner necessary. Nor are their internal component, thoughts. We might as well hang them by the zendo door along with our coats and hats.

So in this light, Zen Master Dogen composed the following poem to express this truth:

Natural wondrous wisdom itself is true suchness.
Why should we employ Confucian discourse or Buddhist texts?
Rely on sitting at ease at your place,
and hang your mouth on the wall.
Friends arrive here and are released from emptiness.
[Chapter 10 (Assorted Verses), Eihei Koruku]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Live At The White House

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Earth, Wind & Fire, the 1970s R&B band, will perform at the White House on Sunday during a dinner for the nation’s governors. Yes, that White House, the one in Washington, DC. Clinton had them perform there back in 2000, but if the Obamas really wanted to take the house to places it ain't never been before, they should have booked the Art Ensemble of Chicago instead.

Watch Lester playing the drum at 3:40. Have you ever seen five men more obviously overjoyed to be engaged in the simple act of making music?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Old Rock

Bedrock recently studied in a portion of northern Quebec has been dated at 4,280 million years, making it the oldest known rock on Earth's crust, formed when the Earth was less than 300 million years old.

Scientists are intrigued, but some are not yet entirely convinced that the rocks are quite that old. The bedrock may be younger sedimentary rocks, formed from remnants of older rock that is indeed 4,28o billion years old.

Geologists avoid using the term "billion" because in one part or another of the English-speaking world, it refers to quantities that differ by three orders of magnitude - a billion in Great Britain is a 1,000,000 million.

Currently, the oldest known rock on Earth has been found in the Canadian Northwest, dated at 4,030 million years old. Geologists have also found crystals of zircon as old as 4,360 million years old embedded within younger rocks in Western Australia. The age of the Earth is more than 4,500 million years.

Radioactive elements trapped within zircons provide precise ages, but zircons have not yet been found in the Quebec rock. Instead, the age of the rock was determined from the amounts of neodymium and samarium, two rare earth elements.

If the rocks are as old as claimed, what is significant is that they’re not dramatically different from rocks you would find today in Japan or places like that. In fact, their chemical signature looks most similar to ocean floor that has been pulled under continents. That suggests that the process of plate tectonics, reshaping and moving continents, could have already started on the very early Earth. At the very least, the existence of rock 4,280 million yeas ago would run counter to the traditional image of the young Earth as a roiling cauldron of magma, a view that is falling by the wayside among researchers as more geological data is unearthed.

Maybe the young Earth wasn't so hot after all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rude Awakening

Last week the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. According to economist Paul Krugman, the bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.

At one level this should come as no surprise. Writing in the New York Times, Krugman notes that for most of the last decade America was a nation of borrowers and spenders, not savers. The personal savings rate dropped from 9 percent in the 1980s to 5 percent in the 1990s, to just 0.6 percent from 2005 to 2007, and household debt grew much faster than personal income. Why should we have expected our net worth to go up?

Yet until very recently Americans believed they were getting richer, because they received statements saying that their houses and stock portfolios were appreciating in value faster than their debts were increasing. And if the belief of many Americans that they could count on capital gains forever sounds naïve, it’s worth remembering just how many influential voices — notably in right-leaning publications like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and National Review — promoted that belief, and ridiculed those who worried about low savings and high levels of debt.

Those same voices are now ridiculing the stimulus package, saying that all we need are more tax cuts (presumably for the wealthy) to solve all of our problems. Their theory holds that we can ignore fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy to thrive.

The current state of the economy and the status of American consumer finances is a damning referendum of the economic policies of the last eight years, the winner-takes-all policies of tax breaks for the rich and reduction in aid for the less fortunate. Why are those proposing more of the same even given serious attention?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Alamo

Oh, by the way, did I mention that I was in San Antonio today?

I didn't take this picture - my camera broke during my trip to Oregon. I downloaded the pic from Wikipedia. But even if I was able to take a picture of the Alamo today, it wouldn't have looked like this - today is rainy and foggy in San Antonio, and visibility is at a minimum.

I'll be back in Atlanta tomorrow.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Precepts Discussion

Ejo asked, “Does the term ‘violation of the precepts' refer to the crimes committed after having received the precepts? Or are the crimes committed before receiving the precepts also called ‘violation of the precepts’?”

Dogen replied, “Violation of the precepts applies only to those crimes committed after having received the precepts. Crimes committed before receiving the precepts are just called crimes or evil deeds. They should not be called ‘violation of the precepts’.”

Ejo asked, “Among the forty-eight minor precepts, there is one which states that crimes committed prior to receiving the precepts are called violations.”

Dogen replied, “That’s not true. What it means is that a person about to receive the precepts should repent of evil deeds committed in the past. According to the ten major precepts or the forty-eight minor precepts, such evil deeds are called violations. The crimes committed before are not called ‘violation of the precepts’.”

Ejo asked, “In the Precept Sutra, it says that when a person receives the precepts, he should repent of the misdeeds committed until then. The master has to teach the major and minor precepts and have the student recite them. However, in the next section of the sutra, it says that you should not preach about the precepts to people who have not yet received them. How should we resolve this contradiction?”

Dogen replied, “Receiving the precepts and reciting the precepts are different. Reciting the Precept Sutra for the sake of repentance is nothing other than reading the sutras. Therefore, a person who has not yet received the precepts also recites the Precept Sutra. It cannot be wrong to explain the Precept Sutra to him. What the latter part of the sutra says is that you should not preach the precepts to people who have not received them for the purpose of gaining profit. You should certainly teach the precepts in order to have people repent of their evil deeds.”

Ejo asked, “Although it is said that a person who has committed the seven grave crimes cannot be permitted to receive the precepts, the former part of the sutra says that the seven grave crimes should also be repented. What does this mean?”

Dogen replied, “They should certainly be repented. The meaning of the passage, ‘They are not permitted to receive the precepts’ is for the purpose of inhibiting the commission of the seven grave crimes. The former sentence means that even if one violates the precepts, he will be pure when he receives the precepts again. When he repents, he is pure. It is different from a person who has not yet received the precepts.”

Ejo asked, “If one who has committed any of the seven grave crimes is permitted to repent, can he receive the precepts again?”

Dogen replied, “Yes. The late Master Eisai himself insisted on this. Once a person who has committed one of the seven grave crimes is allowed to repent, he is also permitted to receive the precepts. The teacher should allow a person who has repented to receive the precepts, even one who has committed the seven grave crimes. Even if the teacher himself violates the precepts by doing so, as a bodhisattva, for the sake of saving that person, he has to allow him to receive them.”

(from Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1 Chapter 6)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Talk Not Spoken

Today is Nehan, the observance of the Buddha's death. "Celebration" doesn't quite sound like the right word, but his death is not exactly mourned either. Death, being the natural and inevitable outcome of birth, eventually came to the Buddha just as it comes to everyone else, and without Nehan we would have no Vesak (Buddha's birthday) and no Bodhi Day (Buddha's enlightenment).

Not necessarily in commemoration of this day, but more just because it was the date we had decided upon a month ago, I drove to Chattanooga today to participate in their Zen service, my second such trip since Arthur entrusted me with this task before leaving for Switzerland.

I had intended on giving a dharma talk on Buddha's death, but after giving a first-timer the basic orientation talk, and then going through individual practice discussions with each sangha member, I had used up all two hours (and then some) of the morning service. No time left for dharma talks. We recited the Four Bodhisattva Vows and performed Three Treasure Bows, and called it a day.

Since the topic of my planned talk was age-dated, I can't give it next week at the Atlanta Center even though I'm on schedule for next Sunday's dharma talk there, so here it is - the dharma talk that wasn't:

Most of what we know about the Buddha comes from his sermons as memorized by his disciples in the form of sutras. There are no existing first-person accounts of Buddha's life, no Matthews, Marks, Lukes, or Johns to write their own idiosyncratic gospels of his life and death. For obvious reasons, the Buddha's teachings did not include a running, detailed account of his own demise, so we do not have a death sutra, although we do have the Yuikyogyo, the Last Teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. With his last breath, the Buddha is said to have taught, "Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work out your own salvation with diligence."

Biographical accounts of his death vary from author to author. Near the end of his 2007 biography, Buddha, A Story of Enlightenment, Deepak Chopra merely states, "Buddha lived quietly for another forty-five years, traveling throughout northern India as a renowned teacher before dying at the ripe old age of eighty. The cause of death was eating a bad piece of pork, an embarrassingly humble and mundane way to depart." It is almost as if Chopra was reluctant to discuss death in detail, or underestimated his readers' willingness to hear about death.

In contrast, Karen Armstrong's excellent 2001 biography, simply titled Buddha, details his final months and ultimate death over some 14 pages. From this and other accounts, we can know the story of his last days roughly as follows.

In his eightieth year, in the village of Beluva where he had gone to spend the Rain Retreat, the Buddha was stricken by a serious illness, the nature of which is not known. His ever-present attendant, Ananda, was quite grief-stricken, although the Buddha told him that there was no reason for sorrow. But after the Rain Retreat, the Buddha prophesied that he would pass away in three months. Despite his serious illness, he spent his next three months walking slowly and painfully from village to village addressing whomever would assemble and urging them to practice the doctrines he had taught.

During these final months, the Buddha had left the rest of his followers behind and, accompanied only by the faithful Ananda, preached in ever more remote villages. Picture two old men, one very ill, surviving solely on alms, addressing uncomprehending gatherings in small, backwater towns. Ananda, knowing the end was near, begged Buddha to return to the cities, so that his last sermons could he heard by throngs of his appreciative followers. But the Buddha insisted on pressing deeper into the jungle, "in order that this religion may last long and be perpetuated for the good and happiness of the great multitudes".

When the Buddha arrived at Pava, on what was to be the last day of his life, he stayed in the mango grove of a blacksmith named Cunda, who prepared for him a meal of "hard and soft food" and a serving of sukaramaddava. Scholars have been unable to agree on the precise meaning of sukaramaddava, some believing that it means soft food from a pig, the "bad piece of pork" of Chopra, others that it means soft food given to a pig, such as mushrooms. Whatever the food may have been, it made the Buddha dreadfully ill, causing blood to flow from him and violent pains to assail him.

The Buddha, sensing that Cunda might be feeling guilt and remorse, told Ananda to inform Cunda that in a future birth he would receive a great reward, because having eaten the food he had been given - the Buddha's last alms - the Buddha was about to attain nirvana. Two gifts, he said, will be blessed above all others: the food given him by Sujata, which revived him so that he could attain Buddahood under the bodhi-tree, and the food given him by Cunda, which brought about his passing away.

Later at night, a brahmin philosopher named Suhhadda came to see the Buddha hoping that he might he able to ask him some questions about the Dhamma. Ananda tried to turn him away lest he disturb the Buddha's final moments, but the ever-compassionate Buddha told Ananda to bring Subhadda to him. At a retreat I attended at Sanshin Zen Center in Bloomington two years ago, Shohaku Okumura told us that Subhadda's question was, that among all of the spiritual teachers in India at that time, how was one to know whom to trust after the Buddha's death? Buddha replied that one should examine the teachings and ask oneself if they contain the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. If not, the teaching was not the true way to the extinction of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path were first presented in the Buddha's very first sermon, the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, and were the subject of his last lesson. Everything he had taught in the 60 or so years between these two sermons was basically expounding and commenting on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, so he stayed remarkably "on message" throughout his career. Talking to him patiently and quietly, the Buddha was able to resolve Subhadda's doubts, after which Suhhadda was admitted to the Sangha and eventually attained enlightenment.

In his last discourse, the Buddha expounded the fundamental truth – even though the physical body dies, the Dharma is eternal; in order to see the Buddha, it is necessary to see the Dharma. In this way, he taught his disciples the precepts and the way they should maintain the practice of Buddha’s Way. This sermon is called the Yuikyogyo, or the Last Teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.

It is said that at the time of his death the Buddha was sleeping on a bed that had been prepared between two sala trees; his head to the north, his face to the west, and his right hand for a pillow. At that time, white flowers bloomed on the sala trees and fell continuously.

It took death for the Buddha to achieve his final nirvana, his parinirvana. At first this sounded a little nihilistic to me, until I came to understand a little more about the great matter of what life and death are. The nirvana following death is an existance beyond the self and its blissfulness is due to the fact that it is free of ego-attachment. As Karen Armstrong explains, "Those of us who are unenlightened, and whose horizons are still constricted by egotism, cannot imagine this state. But those who had achieved the death of the ego knew that selflessness was not a void."

It is hard for me to say too much more about it, constricted as my consciousness still is by my own ego-attachment. But in zazen, in deep meditation, we can begin to directly experience an existence beyond the ego-self. And this experience of things as they actually are allows us to overcome our fear of death, and joyously experience our life in the here and now.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Return Trip

Last Thursday's drive from Portland back to Redmond turned out to be the highlight of my visit, a trip full of many surprises. The landscape often changed dramatically with the curve of the road or the crest of a hill, so that I frequently and literally had no idea of what to expect in the next mile. Here, as promised, is the detailed account of that trip.

I had a 1 p.m. flight out of Redmond, but after Wednesday's trip I wasn't sure how long it would take me to cross the Cascades again. It had stopped snowing, at least down in the Willamette Valley, but I didn't know how much snow was still packed down on the road up in the mountains. Also, I had chosen to come back not on Oregon Route 22 like before, the route that I knew, but on a new route, taking U.S. 26 past the flanks of Mount Hood. So I left my hotel early (7 a.m.) and began driving up East Burnside through the town of Gresham, stopping to top off my tank with gasoline and my stomach with breakfast before entering the mountains. And, of course, my obligatory Starbucks stop.

East Burnside slowly rises up out of Gresham and Mount Hood is plainly visible on the eastern horizon, silhouetted by the rising sun. The road eventually becomes Route 26 and soon enters the town of Sandy; all the ski and mountain sports stores in Sandy are harbingers of Mount Hood's impending presence. Past Sandy, the road continues to rise and elevation signs count off every 500 feet of elevation gained. Snow cover and depth increase with altitude. I was now up in the mountains and breath-taking vistas of the Cascades range revealed themselves to me.

When you see a mountain from the distance, it looks like a single peak, but when you're up on the mountain it looks like a range of summits and valleys. So I didn't realize that for quite some time I had been climbing the flanks of Mount Hood until coming around a curve in the road and then, suddenly, there was the peak of Hood right in front of me, closer than I had ever seen it.

It was an exhilarating surprise and I felt compelled to pull the car over for a minute and breathe in the mountain air.

From this vista, the road continued on to Government Camp, an area of ski resorts and tourist lodges. Snow bunnies were hitch-hiking on the access road to Timberline Lodge with skis strapped to their backs. I drove on along 26 and began my descent down Hood's eastern side. Although the snowbanks had gotten higher with the elevation (the road crested around 4,000 feet), the road was passable and I was making good time.

The land flattened out on the east flank of the Cascades and the road straightened out. Eventually, I began crossing over the flat terrain of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. This is ranch land, cattle country, nothing growing in the rain shadow of the mountains other than scrub and mesquite. A little anticlimactic after the drive through the mountains, but I settled back and resigned myself to just pushing on to Redmond, after snapping a picture of the countryside out the window of my car.

Approaching the town of Warm Springs, the road began to rise a little at about the 99-mile marker. As soon as I crested the rise, I suddenly found myself in a completely different terrain - the deep valley of the Deschutes River. The earth suddenly fell down from the surface of the plateau on which I had been driving, and just like that, I entered a whole new topography of steep valleys, tablerock, and towering cliffs.

Since leaving the Cascades, I had been driving over the Columbia Plateau, locally known as the Agency Plains. The Columbia Plateau is built up of vast lava flows from the late Oligocene and early Miocene eruptions of Hood and the other Cascades volcanoes, which drowned the prior landscape roughly 20 to 30 million years ago in molten rock until the lows were all filled and the highs were all covered by lava, leaving a flat, flooded terrain. The lava hardened into basalt, but over time, the Deschutes cut a deep and broad canyon into the volcanic bedrock. Columns of basaltic bedrock capped the plateaus, overlying rhyolitic ash flows of the John Day Formation. You can see a textbook example of columnar jointing of basalt at the top of the cliff in this photograph.

After crossing the Deschutes in the town of Warm Springs, the road rose up again out of the canyon and back onto the plateau that the river had bisected. This was now farm country, apparently more arable than the ranch land behind (it's a reflection on the injustice of the reservation system that the hardscrabble land was given to the Native Americans, while the white man kept the farmland), and one could still see the mountains of the Cascades off to the west, appearing to hover over the farmland below.

A view of Mount Jefferson (10,495 feet) towering over the Agency Plains near the town of Madras:

After Madras, I turned off of Route 26 onto Oregon 97, the final stretch to Redmond. But the landscape still had at least one more surprise. Just before the town of Terrebonne, the road crossed the canyon of the Crooked River, a tributary to the Deschutes. Here, the Crooked has cut a valley narrower and steeper than that of the Deschutes, a 300-foot gash into the earth. A nice little roadside park maintained by the state overlooks the canyon. From the park, you can walk across the bridge of an older segment of the highway, the construction of which must have been no small engineering feat in itself, and look down into the vertiginous depths of the canyon below.

Here is the new highway bridge, which currently carries the traffic of Route 97 over the canyon:

To the west is an older railroad trestle which, from plateau level just above the canyon, partially blocks all but the summit of Mount Jefferson.

After gawking at the Crooked River gorge for a while, I completed the drive to Redmond, arriving at the airport at noon. I turned in the rental car, a behemoth Dodge Durango SUV, a gas guzzler to be sure, but also reliable traction for crossing the snowy mountains, and boarded the flight to Salt Lake, the first leg of my trip home.

In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, Zen Master Dogen asserts that mountains both constantly abide in stillness and constantly walk. The science of geology is nothing other than the direct examination of this stillness over the vastness of geological time and the study of this walking as plate tectonics. But the relationship of all of this week's travelogue to Zen is not in this academic understanding, but in the direct experience of encountering the mountains, of discovering the canyons, of traversing the plains.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hood

I'm back home in Atlanta now, having driven back from Portland up and over the Cascades and across the Agency Plains to Redmond, Oregon, flying from Redmond to Salt Lake City, and then from SLC to ATL. Even though the time change is working on my favor, I'm too tired to post much about my trip tonight, other than to provide this one picture of Mount Hood from closer than I've ever seen it before.

More pictures of this trip to follow soon, as well as my usual Zen ramblings, pointless political diatribes, autobiographical snippets, and (very) occasional lectures on geology. My camera broke in my luggage on the way home - I was lucky to be able to download today's pictures at all and may not be able to take any more until I get the camera repaired or get a new one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Santiam Pass

The snowfall that started yesterday continued into this morning. While this would have delighted skiers ("fresh powder!"), it had me concerned because today was the day that I was to drive across the Cascade Range from Sisters, Oregon to Portland.

The Portland office said not to try it - they advised me to wait the storm out and come over some other day. The people I had met with in Sisters would have preferred that I had chains on my tires, but felt that the big Dodge Durango SUV I had rented was otherwise up to the crossing. The girl at the desk when I checked out of the lodge just said to "take it slow." My waitress at breakfast: "Good luck."

I headed out of Sisters on Route 20. The road had been plowed, but the snowfall had already covered the trail and I drove over hard-packed snow. Just as I got out of town, a sign advised, "Severe Weather Hazard: Chains Required. Traction tires allowed in place of chains on vehicles under 10,000 GVW." I guessed that my Durango was under 10,000 GVWs, and I hoped that the rental agency had equipped me with traction tires. In any event, the car seemed to hold the road well, so I pressed on.

After a few miles, I passed Black Butte Ranch, a private resort community. According to Wikipedia, Black Butte Ranch was developed starting in 1970 by a lumber company on the site of the former Black Butte cattle ranch. The ranch has its own post office and is one of the largest employers in Sisters. According to a picture on Google Earth, in the summertime the ranch looks like this:


Today, all I saw was this:

Eventually, the road started climbing toward Santiam Pass. As I climbed, the snowfall increased to near white-out conditions and the snowpack on the road grew thicker. I tried to follow in the tracks of the car in front of me. Also, as I got higher in elevation, the height of the snowbanks on the side of the road grew.

Wind gusts would knock the snow off of the boughs of the trees, creating little blizzards and avalanches of their own. Occasionally, the trees gave way to what I guess would have been vistas of the surrounding mountains, but all was lost to the snow. Again, Google Earth shows nearby Mount Jefferson as looking like this:

But all I saw was this:

Eventually, the road summitted Santiam Pass (elevation - 4817'), but the descent proved even more treacherous than the ascent since I now had to contend with gravity, which wanted to pull me down faster than prudence and good sense told me that I should go. But I drove carefully and stayed on the road.

The road eventually forked, and I followed Route 22 past Detroit Lake toward Salem. As I dropped down, 4,000 feet, 3,000 feet, 2,000 feet and so on, the temperatures rose, approaching freezing, and the snowpack got slushier. Near Detroit Lake, I fishtailed a little of the loose granular, giving me a nice little adrenaline rush, but both car and driver remained under control.

I imagine that in the summer the lake levels are a lot higher, but this is what the lake looks like in winter:

And here's the dam (note the high-water mark way up above the winter water level):

A few miles past Detroit Lake the elevation dropped below 1,000 feet and the temperatures rose up above freezing. Soon, the snow itself disappeared, and it was smooth driving all the way on to Portland.

Altogether, the trip took about 4 hours. I got to Portland in time to go to lunch with the office staff there, do a few hours of work, and then watch the sunset from Portland City Grill up on the 30th floor of the U.S. Bankcorp Building. Dinner was at a Cuban restaurant in the Laurelhurst neighborhood with the office manager.

I only have one day in Portland, which means that I get to drive up and over the Cascades again tomorrow. My flight home out of Redmond leave at 1 p.m. - I will have to start early.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009

Three Sisters




Oh, by the way, did I mention that I was back in Oregon?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Empty Mirror

As promised, I finally got around to re-reading "The Empty Mirror."

I already had a keen interest in Zen way back in the mid-1970's, but I didn't know where to look to learn more about it. I had read Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" and Pirsig's "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," and although I had found both books interesting, they didn't really tell me anything about Zen. I eventually got a copy of Alan Watts' "The Way of Zen," which told me a great deal about Zen history, philosophy and role in the arts, but the door still hadn't opened for me.

So keen was my interest that in the very first semester of my freshman year in college, I took an elective course in "Eastern Religions" to learn more about Zen. The professor was Indian and he spent most of the semester talking about the development and evolution of Hinduism, Indian art and music, and the Bhagavad Gita, but didn't get around to Buddhism until literally the last lecture of the course, and at that he only discussed Zen in the last 10 minutes of that last lecture. They were, frankly, easy credit hours, but I still hadn't found what I was looking for.

Somewhere during this period, I came across a copy of the Dutch author Janwillem van de Wetering's "The Empty Mirror - Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery." I was excited - this seemed exactly what I was looking for - a first-hand account of someone actually practicing Zen, written by a Western practitioner and not a poser (Kerouac), an abstractionist (Pirsig), or an academic (Watts). I stayed up late at night reading the book through cover to cover.

And was horrified by what I found. Zen, I learned, meant sitting in one painful posture for hours on end, getting yelled at and beaten with sticks by Japanese monks, getting up at the ghastly hours of 4 a.m., and eating pickled radishes for breakfast. Chapter Two of the book is titled "Meditating Hurts," and van de Wetering didn't hold back explaining the physical discomforts he experienced. To my horror, from all of the sitting, he eventually developed a hemorrhoid "the size of a pigeon's egg," and had to suffer the indignity of having his fellow monks and even the head Abbott point and laugh at him when the word got out about his condition. And perhaps most dismaying of all, at the end of the book, he abruptly quit the monastery without regret or explanation and went home, with no discussion of what, if anything, he had gained.

Well, that sounded absolutely dreadful to me. If that's what Zen was, I wanted no part of it. It was the mellow, laid-back 70s, and my appetite for self-induced suffering was minimal. I focused back on my collegiate studies, collecting jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, and a relentless pursuit of sexual adventure.

"The Empty Mirror" turned me off of Zen for about 25 years, as it wasn't until a time of intense introspection and personal crisis in late 2000 that my thoughts turned back to Zen again. By this time, there were more books available and, better still, the Internet to guide me, but best of all, I found that there were actually, not one, but two, Zen centers in my city where I could learn and explore the practice more.

Since first walking in through the zendo doors, I've gone through many stages of practice. Like van de Wetering, I had to go through the pains of learning to sit cross-legged for hours on end, and although it still hurts sometimes, I no longer seem to care as much. I've experienced the intensely austere quiet of sesshin and retreats, and have even come to welcome the strike of the stick. Fortunately, no pigeon's eggs have developed. After two years of active practice, I was initiated and given my Zen name, and a year after that entered into discipleship.

So last year, it was exciting for me to find a copy of "The Empty Mirror" in Powell's Bookstore in Portland. I looked forward to re-reading it, and seeing how my perception of the book had changed after eight years of practice.

I finished the book last month. Reading it again, I can't believe that I was such a coward back in my youth. Yes, van de Wetering found it painful and difficult to sit at first, and yes, he developed that unfortunate hemorrhoid, but over time he adapted and voluntarily stayed on at the monastery for month after month, ultimately spending a year and a half in the monastery. True, he never solved his koan and he did leave abruptly, but you can practically hear his fondness of the experience in his voice as he recalls his year and a half.

Overall, the book discusses the basic teachings of Zen quite well and accurately describes life in a bona fide Japanese Zen monastery, at least as I imagine it (I've not yet been there). Reading the book now, I commiserated with van de Wetering's suffering, laughed along with his self-deprecating humor, and appreciated his explanation of the teachings. It's a very good beginner's Zen book, and what a shame that I used it as a wedge between myself and practice all those years ago.

[T]he master said, "Before you leave I want to tell you a short story. Perhaps you know it". . . I didn't know the story and the master asked us to sit at ease; he lit a cigarette and allowed us to smoke as well. Peter fetched ashtrays and the head monk poured more tea and gave us each a sugar cake, from an ornamental box which an old lady from the neighborhood had presented to the master that morning.

"Some two hundred years ago a gentleman, who lived by himself in a large house not far away from here, saw a devil in a cage when he was visiting the market; a devil with a tail, yellow skin, and two long sharp fangs - he was about the size of a large dog. The devil sat quietly in a strong bamboo cage and gnawed on a bone. Next to the cage a merchant was watching the crowd and the gentleman asked him if the devil was for sale.

"'Of course,' the merchant said. 'otherwise I wouldn't be here. This is an excellent devil, strong, diligent, and able to do anything you want him to do. He knows how to do carpentry, he is a good gardener, he can cook, mend clothes, read you stories, chop wood, and what he doesn't know he can learn. And I don't ask much for him, if you give me 50,000 yen ($50) he is yours.'

"The gentleman didn't haggle and paid in cash. He wanted to take the devil home at once.

"'One moment,' the merchant said. "Because you haven't bargained with me, I want to tell you something. Look here, he is a devil of course, and devils are no good, you know that, don't you?'

"'And you said he was an excellent devil,' the gentleman said indignantly.

"'Sure, sure,' the merchant said. 'And that's true as well. He is an excellent devil, but he is no good. He will always remain a devil. You have made a good buy, but only on the condition that you keep him going all the time. Every day you'll have to give him a routine, from this time to that time you have to chop wood, and then you can start preparing the food, and after dinner you can rest for half an hour but then you really have to lie down and relax, and after that you can dig in the garden, etc. etc. If he has time to spare, if he doesn't know what to do, then he is dangerous.'

"'If that's all,' the gentleman said, and took the devil home. And everything went beautifully. Every morning the gentleman called the devil who would kneel down obediently. The gentleman would dictate a daily program and the devil would start his chores and work right through the day. If he wasn't working he rested or played, but whatever he did, he was always obeying orders.

"Then, after some months, the gentleman met an old friend in the city, and because of the sudden meeting and the thrill of seeing his old buddy again he forgot everything. He took the friend to a cafe and they started drinking sake, one little stone jar after another, and then they had a very good meal and more to drink, and they landed up in the willow quarter. The ladies kept the two friends busy and our gentleman woke up in a strange room, late the next morning. At first he didn't know where he was but gradually it all came back to him and he remembered his devil. His friend had gone and he paid the bill to the women, who looked quite different now from what he remembered the previous evening, and rushed home. When he reached his garden he smelled burning and saw smoke coming from the kitchen. He stormed into his house and saw the devil sitting of the wooden kitchen floor. He had made an open fire and was roasting the neighbor's child on a spit."

(from The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery by Janwillem van de Wetering)

Saturday, February 07, 2009



So if I'm reading the tea leaves of these Gallup polls correctly, it would seem than since I live in Georgia, religion must be very important to me and I have low consumer confidence, although not as low as the rest of the country, even though I'm in an average job market (it's interesting to note that the job market improves as one heads west from Georgia - better in Alabama and best in the petro-states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas).

But if I had successfully sold my house last summer and moved to Oregon, religion would not have been as important to me and I would have had even less consumer confidence, probably because I would have been living in a poor job market. The job market would have been better to the north in Washington and worse to the south in California, although consumer confidence is the same up and down the West Coast.

However, if I had never left Massachusetts, I would not have been any more religious than I would have been if I had moved to Oregon, but my consumer confidence would have been even lower, even though I was in the same crappy job market as Oregon.

So I guess that all other things considered, I'm doing well: spirituality active and in an average job market although with a more, but not most, negative consumer confidence. That kind of puts everything into perspective for me.

Another way to look at these results is that if you value religion, the best job markets and consumer confidence can be found in Utah if you're Mormon, the Dakotas if you're Protestant, and the western Bible Belt (Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma) if you're Evangelical. If religion isn't your thing and you prefer to live around others who feel that way, then I'm sorry to tell you that you're stuck with the poor-to-worst job markets of New England, the Pacific Northwest, and Nevada, and their associated lack of consumer confidence.

Which of course brings up the question, if New Englanders, Northwesterners and Nevadans started to meditate and grow spiritually, would their job markets and consumer confidence catch up with those of the religious parts of the country?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Meat And Other Animals

I must have missed this one: that strip club down by the airport held some sort of nude Sarah Palin look-alike contest last week. First prize was apparently a cruise to Alaska. I imagine the last-place contestant had to actually meet the Governor.

These are hard, hard economic times, and I imagine that strip clubs are hurting as much as any other business. While escapist entertainment typically does well during an economic downturn, a lap dance is probably the epitome of discretionary spending, so now the clubs are having to resort to "by-any-means-necessary" techniques to lure the customers in. And even though Gallup says that Georgia is no longer officially a "red state," I think the promoters knew exactly what they were doing in planning a nude contest in Atlanta around a Palin theme. Red libidinal meat for the neo-cons, and after all, who would want to see a nude Cindy McCain look-alike contest?

video

Oh. Okay, who except for John McCain and a couple hundred horny bikers in Sturgis, South Dakota?

Georgia may no longer be red, but my office sure ain't blue. The latest pressing concern to the reactionary wing-nuts I work with is Obama's nominee for the little-known Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein.

According to a group that calls itself the Center for Consumer Freedom, Sunstein is some sort of radical, animal-rights, vegetarian activist. As evidence, they cite a 2002 paper in which Sunstein proposed that “[T]here should be extensive regulation of the use of animals in entertainment, scientific experiments, and agriculture.”

“Extensive regulation of the use of animals,” the CCF repeated, "That's PETA-speak for using government to get everything PETA and the Humane Society of the United States can't get through gentle pressure or not-so-gentle coercion. Not exactly the kind of thing American ranchers, restaurateurs, hunters, and biomedical researchers (to say nothing of ordinary consumers) would like to hear from their next 'regulatory czar.'”

This is a classic propaganda technique - take a statement, give that statement a darker meaning, and then attack the speaker on the grounds of your new interpretation of what was said. However, according to the on-line abstract of Sunstein's article, his meaning was something quite different:
"Do animals have rights? Almost everyone believes in animal rights, at least in some minimal sense; the real question is what that phrase actually means. By exploring that question, it is possible to give a clear sense of the lay of the land - to show the range of possible positions, and to explore what issues, of theory or fact, separate reasonable people. On reflection, the spotlight should be placed squarely on the issue of suffering and well-being. This position requires rejection of some of the most radical claims by animal rights advocates, especially those that stress the autonomy of animals, or that object to any human control and use of animals. But this position has radical implications of its own. It strongly suggests, for example, that there should be extensive regulation of the use of animals in entertainment, in scientific experiments, and in agriculture. It also suggests that there is a strong argument, in principle, for bans on many current uses of animals."
That certainly does not sound like the words of a radical animal rights activist. In fact, it explicitly rejects "some of the most radical claims by animal rights advocates" and suggests that, if we are to focus on the issue of suffering and well-being of animals, that position has "radical" implications of its own, namely extensive regulation of the use of animals. And he's not even advocating that, he's just giving "a clear sense of the lay of the land" on the range of possible positions on the issues. So the CCF has taken his quote out of context, and then suggested sinister alternative meanings to his misquoted words.

The CCF also cites a 2004 book that Sunstein co-edited titled Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. In that book, CCF claims Sunstein sets out an ambitious plan to give animals the legal “right” to file lawsuits. “[A]nimals should be permitted to bring suit, with human beings as their representatives, to prevent violations of current law … Any animals that are entitled to bring suit would be represented by (human) counsel, who would owe guardian like obligations and make decisions, subject to those obligations, on their clients’ behalf.”

I have not read the book, but the quotes provided by CCF sound like a far cry from Sunstein's position a mere two years earlier in which he rejected "radical positions" that "stress the autonomy of animals." The quotes provided by CCF sound much more like theoretical, possible postilions that are once again taken out of context.

So who are the CCF? According to Wikipedia, the Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit organization whose mission is defending the "right of adults and parents to choose what they eat, drink, and how they enjoy themselves." CCF obtained its startup funding from the Philip Morris tobacco company and has been criticized for lobbying on behalf of the fast food, meat, and tobacco industries while allegedly representing consumers. Acknowledged corporate donors to CCF include Coca-Cola, Wendy's, Tyson Foods, and Pilgrim's Pride.

Some groups targeted by CCF have questioned its ethics and legitimacy. The president of the American Federation of Teachers referred to the CCF's leader as "a shameless lobbyist who has shilled for pesticide, alcohol and tobacco companies." It has also been criticized for its efforts to portray groups such as the Humane Society of the United States as "violent" and "extreme", and for its opposition to banning the use of trans fats. Some corporations, including PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, have declined to work with CCF, saying they do not agree with some of the group's arguments or its approach to advocacy.

CCF also runs a website that claims it provides the public and media with in-depth profiles of anti-consumer activist groups, along with information about the sources of what is called their exorbitant funding. The site features generally negative profiles of various groups it believes oppose consumer freedom, such as Greenpeace, PETA and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It also hosts "biographies" offering negative portrayals of key activists and celebrity supporters for various groups. The site reports what it claims are links between profiled groups and extremism, and in general argues that the groups profiled hold extreme views that are contrary to the public interest.

This is exactly what they are trying to do now to Sunstein. Lobbyists for fast food, meat, tobacco and alcohol, funded by Philip Morris and food industries, they are apparently quite alarmed by Cass Sunstein and are tarring him with the "animal-rights extremist" paintbrush.

In the rather extensive list of Sunstein's publications on Wikipedia and the list of his articles for The New Republic, titles that suggest animal rights come up very infrequently. A legal scholar, he mostly writes about constitutional law, administrative law, environmental law, and law and behavioral economics. So what is it that has the Center for Consumer Freedom and its sponsor Philip Morris so worked up? Could it be something like this, from the February 1993 issue of The New Republic?:

"Let us begin with a few numbers. On a usual day in America, thirty Americans are killed at work, fifty-six are killed at home, and 133 die in car accidents. About 4,000 Americans die each day as a result of cancer. Tobacco smoking contributes to about 30 percent of these deaths. By contrast, occupational hazards help account for about 4 percent of cancer deaths; medicines and medical procedures, for about 1 percent; pollution, for about 2 percent. . .

If we are thinking about protecting American life and health, [we are] right to focus our attention on smoking, for the risks here are far higher than for most other environmental hazards. The dangers are well documented: about 300,000 smokers die as a result of their smoking each year. On average, smokers lose ten to fifteen years of life. Smokers have a 10.8 times greater chance than non-smokers of dying from lung cancer; a 6.1 times greater chance of dying of bronchitis or emphysema; a 5.4 times greater chance of dying of cancer of the larynx; a 4.1 times greater chance of dying of oral cancer; and almost double the chance of dying of heart disease. Studies also suggest that people exposed to tobacco smoke ("passive smokers") face a 34 percent greater risk of lung cancer than do non-smokers who are not similarly exposed. This means that passive smoking produces about 2,500 fatal cancers each year--a number that exceeds the number of people killed by all airborne pollutants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (with the exception of asbestos)."

Sunstein is a proponent of using cost/benefit ratios in determining public policy (so am I). However, this approach has alarmed many environmentalists and other progressives, who feel that "the almighty dollar" should not be considered when it comes to protecting human health and the environment. Fair enough, but when you realistically consider that you only have so many dollars to go around, why not spend them where they would do the most good, for the most people; that is, where they have the highest cost/benefit ratio? This approach may not bode well for interest groups who want to, say, spend millions on environmental restoration of some remote Superfund site, but very easily justifies the small cost of banning public smoking to the benefit of millions of potentially exposed persons.

So the CCF, alarmed over someone who is alarmed about the dangers of tobacco, and who can justify taking on Big Tobacco based on cost/benefit ratios, have apparently decided to take some of Sunstein's comments about animal-rights law out of context, give those comments sinister additional meanings, and then through innuendo and distortion portray him as some sort of vegan extremist, all so they can protect their tobacco-industry sponsors.

And my co-workers are falling for it, hook, line and sinker.