Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn

Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by the connected farmsteads of New England.        Recently, I found a book about them, the title of which is the title of this post.

After my return to New England following many years in New York City, I discovered there were very few farms left and began to wonder why small farms like those with the connected buildings, had a  business model that seemed broken, making local food scarce and expensive or, more metaphorically, boutique food.

Connected New England Farm Buildings

big house etcBig House, Little House, Back House, Barn” is actually an architectural study of 18th and 19th century New England farmsteads and includes insights into why many developed into the four, named in the title, connected entities.

The big house, often pretty small, was usually the first thing built as a place for the farm family to live. The barn followed and was often not connected.

Then the little house was added to the big house. It was a more capable cooking location for the growing family and worker corps, a necessity on a small farm.

The final piece was the back house, often connected to the little house for convenience, weather, style, and other reasons that the book will tell you. At this point, a disconnected barn was often moved to link up to the rest of the buildings.

The back house was where the farmer and the production from his work in the fields, pastures, and barn connected with other members of the family who made the value added products like cheese, jams and jellies, put up vegetables, pickles, and on and on.

The result was a very tidy, efficient, and nice looking farm products facility.

Connected Farmsteads to CAFO’s and Big Ag

Remember the time frame for these wonderful and productive little farms. It was the late 18th and early 19th century. Then… the industrial revolution began to influence agriculture.

mono culture farmAll these years later we have lost most of these small farms and replaced them with the factory farms and CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) that utilize industrial efficiency to produce huge amounts of food, well, huge amounts of corn, soybeans, and questionable meat.

These industrial farming practices destroy the soil and require the persistent application of chemical fertilizers to create soil fertility. The fertilizers pollute the land, water ways, and ground water with run off.

A CAFO only has to be seen to create a terrifying response in the observer and has converted many of those observers to vegetarianism.

There is a link between the collapsed small farm business model and these industrial farms. At first, it seems like it is merely a question of scale. Small farms don’t scale well vs. big fields, big tractors, and big farming science. But it isn’t that simple.

FDAThe link is the government and the crony capitalism that arises from big companies having large amounts of political leverage.

As big ag grew and consolidated we ended up with what we have in so many industries, an oligopoly. These companies have enormous lobbying power, can buy candidates, and consequently can shape the industry to their will through regulations developed by their functionaries in government.

While the image here refers to the federal government, state and local governments are in the game as well. Their effect can be less severe and sometimes even positive for small farms because they, as the founding fathers realized, are closer to the people and are more apt to actually represent them.

Health

These industrial food facilities have brought us the “food” that is killing us. Two thirds of us are overweight or obese and heart disease kills more of us than any other medical cause.

But, it’s healthy food says the FDA. However, with all of the additives that make its taste tolerable, its appearance exciting, its skin thick for transport, and its growth accelerated, our bodies are constantly challenged as they try to deal with all of these unnatural elements.

The Revolving Door

The huge oligopoly companies including Con Agra, Cargill, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland and the FDA swap executives back and forth forming the true essence of crony capitalism. Together they support the cronyism with lobbying efforts made possible by their huge size and deep pockets.

There are other parties at this dance, the Land Grant Colleges, but that must be a topic for another day.

A single example of the revolving door, is the FDA’s approval of the genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH from Monsanto, which failed to gain approval in either Europe or Canada. Genetically modified food is largely banned by the countries of the European Union and other countries like Canada and Russia. This at a time when almost ALL of the corn, soybean, cotton, and sweet beets in the United States are cultivated from plants that have been genetically modified.

rBGH was approved, and the labeling guidelines were written by, Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy. For seven years Mr Taylor was a lawyer for the Monsanto Corporation.

Regulations… Again…

The cronyism results in thousands of regulations, favoring the companies but not consumers or small agriculture practitioners interested in the creation of pure, natural, nutritious, and healthy food.

As beef, pork, chicken, and other meat sources were taken into the industrializing food system, factory like processing became the norm. This led to troubles with contamination and regulations were required.

After all, you couldn’t just go over to the farm and confront the farmer. The farm was now this huge, faceless thing, thousands of miles away. In addition, you would need a team of lawyers to confront them and guess what, we little, local folks don’t have those. Bigness took away our ability to care for ourselves. It replaced personal responsibility with state responsibility.

SalatinRegulation in the food industry is at the heart of another book, “Everything I Want to do is Illegal” by Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia. Polyface farm is likely the most sustainable farm in the country.

To look at how the government’s involvement and crony capitalism has turned our food system into an unsustainable mess that disrespects nature while presumptuously thinking it can fix it’s problems with new technologies, let’s look at a simple story from Joel Salatin’s childhood. It’s a story about milk.

When Joel was in high school in the seventies, he, amazingly, considering what his peers were up to, wanted to farm. He figured that he could make a decent living starting off with ten cows. He would milk them by hand and sell the raw milk to his neighbors. He calculated that this tiny endeavor would produce enough profitability to enable him to get a foothold in the farm business and begin to make a living.milk0313

Unfortunately, he found out that his state, Virginia, did not allow this.

Raw milk from grass fed cows is rich with nutrients. It can be assured to be safe because you can visit the farm and look the producer in the eye and see how they handle the milk.

Under the pretext of preserving health, the government is actually controlling who gets to be in the market and who does not. They also forced the product’s nutritional downgrading through pasteurization.

As usual with government intervention, less for more is the result.

Process vs. Farm

Butchering was often done in the connected farmstead. Remember, that this all started with folks raising animals and other food for their own family.

The industrialization of farming brought specialization and regulations were developed that declared that a farm is a farm and not a processing facility. So the back house of the connected New England farm is now completely illegal.

Bacon

Have you ever tried to find bacon at a local farm? Bacon is the belly of the hog. It is about fifteen by fifteen by one inch and needs to be cured to create bacon.

First the hog has to be butchered and we have the federal inspector/slaughter house (abattoir) problem. You can’t slaughter on the farm. On a somewhat positive note, there has been a modest amount of decentralization that allows local farms access to federally inspected abattoirs. While this is good for small farmers, it adds cost as the animal has to be transported to and from the abattoir.

The creation of bacon requires a curing process which happens after the butchering and is something many abattoirs don’t want to do. FlatBaconOnWhiteIn true industrial terminology, it isn’t core to their business.

Why not cure it on the farm when the meat gets back from the abattoir?

You can guess that answer by now but here is some more insight. Even if you could beat the farm is a farm not a processing facility problem, you would now need a curing facility.

Regulations define this facility. It must have certain characteristics like a bathroom, separate rooms for different steps of the process, an office, an employee locker/changing facility, etc. It does not matter that the employees are family members who live just yards from where they want to cure the bacon, where there are bathrooms, changing rooms, clean clothes, etc.

The absurdity should be obvious.

There are countless more examples in Joel’s book that will drive a local food person nuts by the time they finish reading it.

Beware Good Intentions

The odd thing is that most local food folks are often politically aligned with the more and bigger government folks. This often finds its basis in the passionate desire of these kind and caring folks to do good for everyone. They need funds to do this and those often come in the form of government programs and their grants.

At the farmer’s market a few weeks ago, I met a young woman who was taking notes on a clipboard with great intensity. “What are you doing?”, I inquired. She was collecting information about the vendors to facilitate her non profit organization’s program that doubled what the amount from an EBT (electronic benefits transfer, i.e. food stamps) card would be worth when the bearer used it at the farmer’s market.

It’s great, she said, the farmers sell more and the less fortunate can now afford the food. Sounds good, right?

In spite of her passionate kindness, she is part of the problem not part of the solution.

What she is doing continues to assure the boutique nature of local food by artificially keeping the prices high.Good-Intentions It keeps the prices high with money taken from all of us in taxes.

Taxing destroys productive capacity by taking capital away from folks like farmers or local investors. It feeds the bureaucracy and supports cronyism (picking winners and losers) that contributes to our problems as noted above. How can we get these wonderful, compassionate young folks to understand this?

What To Do?

We need to be able to easily create and buy local food products. The market needs to be freed up for these folks to get them out of the boutique food business and into the main stream. We need an awareness of how devastating to health, to the environment, and to energy consumption the big ag/big government approach really is.

To make healthy, local food more available requires more local producers, local and regional distribution systems, balanced retail and wholesale business models, and available local capital, that has not been taxed away, for aspiring and existing farmers.

For an order of magnitude of the problem in New Hampshire, consider that, with the few remaining connected farmsteads and other small farms, the state is only capable of producing less than ten percent of the food it consumes.

The chasm is broad and the required solutions are almost revolutionary but until these challenges are addressed, local food will remain boutique food, general health problems will prevail, environmental destruction will continue, and a sustainable food system will not be achieved.

So what can WE, the little guys, do? This is a question that keeps me awake nights, makes my sweetie nuts as I rant and rave about it, and seems not to be even remotely understood by the general population and even by many of the folks working on it.

In a small state like New Hampshire it does seem that we might start at the local and state government level following the path of federalism the founders outlined.

This brings another book on the scene, “Slow Democracy”, again, a topic for another time.

Authentic sustainability requires slow democracy, slow money, and slow food. Start reading and start reorienting your mind. Then try to figure out ways to move these ideas into the mainstream. Today we are mired in boutique thinking and boutique initiatives. This needs to change if we ever hope to achieve authentic sustainability in the food system.

for-sale-banner-capitol-hill

 

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Canaries

mine_canaryHow many canaries have to die?

Everyone is familiar with the canary in the coal mine. The poor little creature is used as a miner’s early warning system for toxic gases in the mine.

When the canary drops dead, the miners get outta Dodge.

Having recently moved, I am in the process of redirecting everything to my new address. It’s amazing how complicated that can get. A key document that needs to change because of its general use as an official identity card is the driver’s license.

Yes, that means a trip to the DMV. The other day, I did just that. Now, I won’t belabor the story, we all have our DMV stories. Suffice it to say there was a huge line and three clerks. One only did registrations and the other two did licenses. When break time hit, two of them just walked out in spite of the large queue.

It became clear that there were hardly any folks there for registrations but when that tiny line was gone, the woman just stood there. Then she became a distraction to the other two women by chatting with them. I could go on but won’t.

A government bureaucracy in action.

Illegal book

I am reading this wonderful book about local food written by Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia. I haven’t finished it but already a question that has been on my mind since my return to New Hampshire from New York City, has been pretty much been answered.

After my return, I became aware of local food and its health and quality benefits. Many of my posts have referenced this. I worried, though, about the large decline in local farms and wondered if some flaw in their business model was behind the decline.

The answer is in the title of the book shown here. Everything Joel wants to do to make money on his farm is illegal. As the food system in this country became industrialized, the government and the big agriculture companies constructed a world where only the big folks doing high volume production would benefit. This has gone to some really terrifying extremes. Monsanto, creates seeds that are infertile. They will produce one crop, but you then have to go back to Monsanto for more seed next year.

This is one of the most egregious anti nature and natural systems behavior that I have ever discovered. It’s OK though, because it’s all approved by the FDA. The FDA, as we all have been brainwashed to believe, is protecting us, right?

The government bureaucracy has only one way to solve problems and that is by creating rules. Needless to say, the rules favor the big guys because they can afford to lobby for them and destroy the little guys. Are small farmers the food canaries?

The government and big ag have been hugely successful, though, food is so affordable and available.

We are all getting obese, dying of heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. but NOT from raw milk, they won’t let us drink that! The really tragic thing is that raw milk has done statistically insignificant damage while out of control government mandated systems have killed quite a few folks.

Social Security was to be a government facilitated savings plan to supplement a person’s retirement. As we all know, the “rules” allowed the government to spend the money and not save it. So while many are owed their savings plus some return, there is no “Trust Fund” from which to pay them.

Are the struggling elderly the social security canaries?

For years, our politicians have been building a ginormous government that is there to help us. They have created something close to 200,000 rules. Those rules have amazing complexity and are not just thou shalt not kinda things. They attempt to cover every conceivable condition, which anyone should be able to reason, is just not possible.

Then, a short while ago, the politicians crammed through Obama Care. There are a ton of dead canaries already starting to show up in that one.

The politicians essentially took over the mortgage business or at least structured it so they and their pals in the financial services industry could safely get rich as we canaries all lost our shirts.

They took over the student loan business, made it easy for students to get loans, and then doubled the interest rates. We canaries used to call that bait and switch and, I thought, it was illegal. Remember who is writing the rules; it’s not illegal.

They are taking over and moving toward federalizing all of our police forces. Check out this earlier post, The Developing USSS.

Dead canary in cage

How many canaries have to die before we the sheeples wake up and stop all of this nonsense?

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A Letter

March 7, 2013

To my elected representatives,

All,

I recently read an article by the Englishman, Charles C. W. Cooke titled, “The Right to Bear Arms and Popular Sovereignty”. The following quote is from the article:

“It makes little philosophical sense for the elected representatives of a government that is subordinate to the people to be able to disarm those people. An enlightened state may not remove from the people the basic rights that are recognized in the very document to which it owes its existence.” (Emphasis mine.)

As I focus on the emphasized phrases above a number of things come to mind:

  1. Starting a letter to a constituent with an empathetic reference to a tragedy is a ploy to enable the positioning of that constituent in the future as someone who does not feel the same way.
  2. Starting a letter to a constituent with an empathetic reference to a tragedy, puts the topic of the discussion in a place of crisis. This “Chicago” technique has dominated politics in our country for the last four years. It is abhorrent and antagonistic to our founding principles as it squelches the views of many of the represented.
  3. Using the now created crisis to gain advantage on an issue you favor even when confronted with startlingly large historic resistance among the represented to your position is vilely opportunistic.
  4. Focusing on your issue while actually avoiding any focus on the root cause of the actual issue is duplicitous.
  5. Creating inflammatory and meaningless terms like “Assault Rifle” similarly attempts to bias discussion and represents, to me, the bias of the user of the term.
  6. Using words like “reasonable” and “common sense” to place yourselves on the side of goodness and light is also very manipulative.
  7. Counting the number of bullets in my magazines and not in the magazines of the criminals is criminal.
  8. Continuing the big government approach of solving all problems with band aids that only create many unfortunate and unintended consequences is directly opposed to the founding principles of this country.

How did the elected officials of this country become so out of touch with the reasons the country exits and is (was?) such an amazing place?

Peter

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Mom

It has been a very long time since I posted anything. This relates directly to my post of November 9, 2012 and the consequences of that fateful election that are becoming more and more apparent every day. The last line of that post, “So, where to go from here? I still am not sure…”, sadly, still remains true for me.

The lunacy in Washington DC continues unabated in fact it seems worse when any rational person would think it could get no worse. In New Hampshire, the “restore the funding crowd” is working to do just that. How will they twist the balanced budget rule this time?

My mom said to me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I suspect many moms told their kids that.

Well, Mom (Pictured below in a photo taken in 1929. Isn’t she beautiful?), I didn’t have anything nice to say. So, there have been no posts.

Rebecca Marceile Benner - 1929

Rebecca Marceile Benner – 1929

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The Four Freedoms

How did I get to be this old and creaky without knowing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four freedoms speech?

Oh sure, I wasn’t paying attention in all of those history courses.

Remember when we actually called it history and not social studies? What happened there? There’s a topic for another day. Today, the four freedoms.

Thanksgiving has been a family holiday for me for years but with the complexities of marriage and engagement, the boys have gone to their expanding families. All good. We will get together for Christmas.

So, Gwen and I decided that cooking was not a good idea and hanging around Keene, NH was also not a great idea. Hence, here we are at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA. It’s a wonderful Inn that has been in almost continuous operation since 1773. Please put it on your bucket list. It’s one of the six amazing, original historic inns of New England. Put ALL of them on your bucket list.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell spent his final years in Stockbridge and there is a wonderful museum here containing his works, including a collection of every one of his Saturday Evening Post covers. They are displayed in a single gallery. The covers are not prints but actual copies of the magazines complete with address labels. It took some time to complete that collection, I suspect.

In another gallery are four paintings which were actually four covers for the Saturday Evening Post that accompanied essays by prominent thinkers of the time. These paintings represented a Four Freedoms theme Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of in the State of the Union Address delivered to the 77th congress of the United States on January 6, 1941 eleven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war against Japan.

What was FDR’s intent? I’m not sure and don’t really want to go at that here. Suffice it to say that this famous progressive had two freedoms covered by the Constitution and two of his own.

What are the freedoms?

  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Worship
  • Freedom from Want
  • Freedom from Fear

Looking at that list your reaction is probably, uh huh. But, lets look at Rockwell’s images.

As I walked through the gallery of Saturday Evening Post covers, I realized that the covers that had the most impact for me were those from times I knew. Rockwell did his first cover for the magazine in 1916. I began to relate more strongly to the covers starting in the forties. These were images that seemed more familiar, either from a memory of actually doing what the cover depicted or from seeing the actual magazine at the time. These were images of folks I felt I might have known.

Why do I mention this here? Because depending on your age, you will most likely react differently to these warm, gentle images of every day folks in the forties trying to live full, involved lives based on belief systems passed down for generations.

Fast forward to today. That’s what we do today. Fast everything. Fast food. Fast forward past the commercials. Fast travel on super highways and planes traveling near the speed of sound. Fast communication(?) with Twitter, Facebook, email, texts, mobile phones, etc.

All good? Maybe not so much…

Freedom of speech

The government just locked up some fellow who supposedly created a video that presented Muslims in a poor light. The McCain – Feingold, bi-partisan, campaign finance reform act restricted certain political speech. The first amendment problem seemed obvious to me… and… subsequently, to the Supreme Court (why wasn’t it obvious to the lawmakers?).

Certain folks are looking to shut down Fox News and talk radio because they don’t like what the folks there are saying. This activity is ironically called the Fairness Doctrine.

The President of Fordham University, Joseph McShane, recently put great pressure on the Fordham College Republicans to disinvite Ann Coulter, a conservative opinionator from a speaking engagement there. It’s tough enough to be a Young Republican on any campus these days but isn’t that an interesting interpretation of Freedom of Speech especially from a Jesuit organization?

Look at the kind faces in the picture reacting as a regular guy speaks his piece at a town meeting. It was a different time, wasn’t it? How did we get from there to where we are today?

Freedom of Worship

Atheists, somewhere between one and five percent of folks in the United States, have pretty much squashed any public representations of Christmas, a christian (around 73% of the population) holiday. We are told we should respect the beliefs of Muslims by the same folks who sneeringly call certain devout Christians theocrats and zealots.

Rockwell’s image represents my upbringing. Dad was a Christian Scientist; Mom, a Catholic. The lesson I was taught? Freedom of Worship. We accepted anyone, no matter their beliefs. How have we come so far from that world?

Freedom from Want

Over 40 million United States residents are on food stamps. Local farmers can barely make ends meet if they are even still in business. Agriculture is owned by a handful of companies. Sure there is easy access to food but the poor quality of the food is killing us. Obesity rates are at all time highs. Poor quality food is heaped on our plates in gigantic portions.

Food stamps are “freedom from want” are they not? Look at the picture. Does it depict folks in a line at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service office? No, it looks like some very nice, plain folks of very modest means sharing food which I suspect came from mostly local providers and some they might even have grown themselves (remember it’s 1941, the food system had not yet been industrialized and globalized).

If the global food system breaks down either by collapsing under its own weight or by becoming economically impractical as oil becomes ever more expensive, to whom will we turn, the USDA or the FDA or FEMA or… a local farmer? There seems to be plenty of the former and not much of the latter.

Freedom from Fear

What did that young boy being tucked in in the picture have to fear? Well, he probably had a spare view of it but the world had entered into the second world wide conflict in just over twenty years. Pretty scary. His Dad, like mine, seems a bit too old to be drafted. That’s good.

Today, we are a decade past the most deadly attack on United States home soil, September 11, 2001. More were lost than in the war of 1812 and the Mexican War. This was the worst death toll in US history on US soil from a foreign aggressor. These same aggressors are doing similar horrible acts all over the globe on an almost daily basis.

The government is generating trillion dollar deficits annually. The visible debt is heading towards $20 trillion. I say visible because there are a bunch of liabilities that the government just does not report. We are consuming natural resources at a frightening rate with no sense of moderation. Do we just do so until their gone?

I could go on, but, I am getting fearful.

Reflection

As I completed the walk around the grounds of this amazing museum. My mind was filled with a longing for the times represented in all of Rockwell’s images. Was it because I am an aging guy who needs the memories to feel good? A little bit I suspect, but it primarily was because I see so much every day that runs counter to all of the goodness and wonder represented in those pictures.

Given all that I have said above, I am concerned that some might observe the white, christian nature of Rockwell’s subjects in the Four Freedoms images. Let me leave you with another of Norman’s pictures.

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Courage

After an absolutely ugly political campaign season, the electorate have weighed in and the result is stunning to me.

So stunning, that I have been more or less comatose for two days. I will allow myself one snarky comment, “Being comatose seems to put me right in the main stream of the electorate.”

Confronting the kinds of issues that face this country and the world at large takes enormous courage. Confronting my reaction to this election is taking a great deal of courage.

In 2002, I started teaching at Fordham University thanks to the good graces of a friend and colleague who was a Department Chair. At that time in my life, I was struggling to deal with a divorce, a failing company that I had started and that the bursting Internet bubble had taken out, the arrival of coronary artery disease, and my recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery.

My perception was that the world was done with me. My services were no longer needed. Just go away. I was looking for work but being 59 years of age and seriously sick made me a less than super candidate. At a professional society lunch one day, a friend from Fordham and I discussed me teaching the core Information Technology course in their MBA program.

I did and it saved my life. It took courage to do but it also gave me courage.

All these years later, my teaching has expanded to include many institutions and many business topics. I love my relationship with my students and the opportunity to continue to learn. If you can’t learn; you can’t teach. I have focused on these business topics in the larger context of sustainability.

This passion for sustainability has woven itself in and around numerous posts in this blog. It has also woven itself around my being.

Seeing so many tax and spend politicians elected this cycle, has left me completely without air. These behaviors are not sustainable. Less is the key, not more.  We need Prosperity Without Growth as Tim Jackson discusses in his book, titled the same.

The nation is now on a path to four more trillion dollar plus deficits. Driving the debt to near $20 trillion dollars. Now, just how is that sustainable? Everyone wants their goodies from free birth control to high speed trains. Both seem eminently silly to me and not on the path to sustainability.

Thinking that moving government closer to the people which necessitates the moving of much  governance to the state and local level is critical to sustainability, I am simultaneously distressed by my state, New Hampshire’s,  pendulum swing from fiscally prudent folks to the “we must restore those funds” folks. The prudent ones brought the state budget back to a truly balanced budget as required by state law after their predecessors, now back in power, had done their “balancing” with budgetary tricks and borrowing.

This is not sustainable.

Unsustainable spending will not address the many complex problems that need to be addressed. To address them takes courage that is not present in this immediate gratification crowd. The problems are big, complex, and many. For just one angle see, the Tax the Rich post that precedes this one.

For many years in my big company business experience I met more and more “bad” people, as I climbed the corporate ladder. I was a small town New Englander blessed with a set of basic values. Thanks Mom and Dad.

In the intense pressure of big corporate life, those values were often challenged and I did not win all of those internal struggles. The challenges often came at the hands of the “bad” folks. Those who would say and do anything to advance themselves. The company was only important to them as a vehicle for their own success, not the company’s, not the customers, not their co workers, not the shareholders, not the planet. This was completely antithetical to what my Dad had taught me.

As I look out over the great sea of politicians who have now secured power, I see many who have the same characteristics as these “bad” people. This has made all of this very personal for me. Now, I am not naive and I get that there will always be people like this, but guess what… It is not sustainable.

A colleague speaks of sustainability as flourishing. This requires all to flourish, not just the few. There are those that would say that taking from the few for the benefit of the many is meeting the flourishing goal. If the unkempt crowd of young folks gathered in our local park with their babies, free cell phones, cigarettes, drugs and booze paid for with their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card, is flourishing, we have done something terribly wrong.

We now seem to be solidly on the path of repeating that mistake many times over. At the same time, we will teach great dependence. We will subjugate.

I just overheard a conversation between a young man and a college professor sitting near me at the coffee shop. The young man is interested in doing “something” in sustainability. He just said, “You don’t get any money for doing that, I want to do… where there is funding.” What happened to earning a living?

So, where to go from here? I still am not sure…

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Tax the Rich

Tragically the current election cycle has looked much more like a TV reality show than a comparison of ideas.

One side attempts to heat up the masses by creating Robin Hood notions. Rich folks have too much, so we must take from them and give to the poor. In a country where around 50% of the folks get some form of government check; this actually has a chance of making an impression. I have even heard some of my students repeat the sound bite about tax cuts that are only for the rich.

The other side argues that in a free, capitalist society the rich have every right to the wealth that they have accumulated. They cite the founders notions of small government and point out that of course tax reductions mostly impact the rich since around 70% of income tax is paid by the highest 10% of income earners. They point out that these folks invest their wealth creating more opportunity and jobs for those making less.

What troubles me is that both sides and their observers are only practicing sound bite politics and sound bite journalism or perhaps reality show politics and reality show journalism.

What’s Really Up?

It seems to me that the issue is much more complicated and by blathering on the way both sides do they will prevent real problems, if any exist, from being resolved. I have spoken before about root cause analysis. If you don’t get to the root of a problem before engineering your fix, you won’t fix any problems and most likely cause a ton of additional problems.

I won’t presume to suggest that I am going to get to a root cause of this issue in this post but I do want to look at the topic from a few other angles.

History

After the great recession of the thirties, income gains during the, very long, recovery were shared by 90% of the population.

In the current, very long, recovery the opposite is true. The majority are loosing ground.

From 1933 to 1934 average income went up by 8.8% for 90% of the population while the top 0.01% went down by 3.4%.

In contrast, from 2009 to 2010 the 90% group incomes went down by 0.4% and the top 0.01% went up by 21.5%. Just to put a stake in the ground, the 1% percent of income earners salary range started at $380,000 in 2011.

15,600 households pocketed 37% of the income gains and effectively ALL of the gains were concentrated in the top 10%.

Do you want to get really depressed? Average income in 2010 was just a tiny bit more than the, inflation adjusted, $29,448 average of 1966!

What happened over those forty plus years?

Government Policy

As FDR worked to get the country out of the great depression, he paid folks to work through the WPA, Works Progress Administration, and the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. He did not just just hand out money as the current and previous administrations were/are so fond of doing. The idea was to have out of work folks go to an employment office not an unemployment office. Along the way many were learning skills that would allow them to continue working after their stint in either the WPA or the CCC was done.

The current administration seems intent on creating constituencies by handing out money rather than helping folks get back to work. Working helps your self esteem and feelings of independence. They don’t want you to feel good. They want you to be dependent and beholden… on them.

Best pals, the unions and the administration, join up to keep you from working on jobs the unions feel are their sole province, like those that were presented by the WPA and the CCC. The unions also want to protect that great income stream that comes to them from Washington.

Corporate Cronyism

Another flavor of government fiddling, involves all that is done to make things smoother for the people and corporations amassing wealth. The tax code if printed, double sided on 20 pound bond paper, is over ten feet high. Buried in there are tons of twisty lawyer language codicils that benefit sometimes only one person, sometimes a class of companies, sometimes a class of investors, i.e. folks who already have amassed wealth.

If these advantages could be applied to all savers, it would not be so bad. As indicated above, there is a lot happening to prevent those “on the average” from making any gains at all.

Bi-partisan? It sure is. During the Clinton era, the top one percent garnered 45 percent of income growth, with Bush it was 65 per- cent, and knocking the ball out of the park is Obama with 93 percent of income growth going to the top one percent.

A Service Economy

For years, I have been hearing about the great movement of our economy from a manufacturing, product based economy to a service economy. One of the largest segments of this service economy is financial services. The jobs in this sector and jobs in general in the service economy are not typically filled with average Joe’s. The folks in the financial sector receive amazing consideration from our government. The bank bailouts and the Fed’s Quantitative Easing  being some of the grossest recent examples.

While the current administration often speaks ill of the “Wall Street fat cats”, even going so far as to endorse the confused and disorderly Occupy Wall Street movement, they have surrounded themselves with financial insiders. The result? The administration has not prosecuted the “Wall Street fat cats who were prime movers in our current economic distress.

A more recent example, Jon Corzine ex CEO of Goldman Sachs, ex Senator of the United States, ex Governor of New Jersey, misplaced over three billion dollars of customer funds in his last job as CEO of MF Global, and still is walking around the East End of Long Island and going to posh parties.

Income vs. Wealth

In the numbers above we are looking at income. Let’s look at wealth for a moment. Someone can make a “decent” income but if they spend it all, they will have no wealth. Now there are lots of reasons for spending it all. One of the major ones is the almost zero growth in income for the average person since 1966 noted above.

All we really need to be wealthy is what a Vermont farmer recently indicated at a conference I attended. She had her land, passed down through the generations for over 100 years, she earned enough through her labors to maintain her family and property, she was healthy and strong; she felt she was wealthy.

In spite of that wonderful farmer’s perspective, the reality is that wealth needs to be accumulated. One of the classic ways lower income folks have done this is through home ownership. It often represents almost all of their wealth. The recent bursting real estate bubble, created substantially by government insistence that pretty much everybody should have their own home, without respect for their ability to pay, has reduced that “wealth” for the lower income folks by over forty percent. Those government policies were enabled by the financial services sector in a wild risk ignoring ride.

Real estate is a small component of the very well to do person’s wealth and not the huge percent it is for those in the lower income categories. Thus the wealthy have been less impacted by the current bursting bubble. If 10% of your wealth is in real estate, then you are down 4% vs. the 40% of your poorer cousins.

The Oligopoly Economy

Over the years starting with the Industrial Revolution, we have studied and practiced management techniques and strategic initiatives that have left us with our major industries dominated by just a few companies. Food Production, Energy, Media, Retail, Fast Food Restaurants, and Financial Services are all dominated by the few.

When I was a kid, in my small New England town, businesses like the woolen mill, the toy factory, the precision optical company, the furniture factory, and others were owned by local folks. These folks were the “well to do” folks in the town. In the next tier, there were smaller business folks like the owners of gas stations, car dealerships, restaurants, news stands, and neighborhood groceries. Then there were the folks who worked at all of these places.

Today, if we need groceries, the choices are large chain groceries, restaurants are dominated by the major fast food chains, Cumberland Farms has a place on Main Street in downtown that most likely took out four or five local businesses (see “Air”), the bank at the head of the square? Bank of America, the organic food on the big grocer’s shelves came from companies 85% owned by a half dozen big food companies. It goes on.

The wealth has left our small town and the jobs available here are waitperson, sales clerk, stock and checkout, bank teller, and so on. Small jobs with little opportunity for wealth accumulation.

Where is the wealth? It is in the executive suites of these big, oligopoly companies. As bailout money flowed towards the TBTF (too big to fail) oligopoly banks, executive bonuses came back right away. While the Feds pump up the banks with Quantitative Easing the created money does not get loaned out to small business but it feeds the trading and other schemes that build up the bonus potential for the bank execs while they burden the rest of us with never ending fees and usurious interest rates on money borrowed from the Fed at zero percent.

Retirement Plan Shifts

Many years ago corporations began to realize that defined benefit retirement plans were going to eat them alive over time (an awareness that municipalities are now beginning to appreciate, but school boards, not so much).

Working with their pals in government, they came up with a pretty good plan, the 401k plan. Instead of contributing to your defined benefit plan you put money into the 401k, good companies had generous matching agreements. The fly in the ointment came when you tried to invest the money. First of all, you weren’t an investor so you depended on, yup, you guessed it, the Wall Street hot shots.

Guess what they did for you. In the last two down cycles (a euphemism) you probably lost close to 40%, clawed it back and then lost it again. Now some of my friends will tsk, tsk here because they have investing skills. Not the point, the 401k is for everyman, everyman is NOT an investor. Oh yeah, the Wall Street hot shots did just fine. They make it on the upside and downside because their money comes from action not value production.

The Turning Point

All of this didn’t happen all at once. It has been eating away at us for fifty years or more. No matter the outcome of the election. It won’t get fixed. It will look differently under each of the candidates but it won’t get fixed.

How WILL it get fixed? The only thing I have been able to come up with is it can be fixed by all of us little people, the 99%.

If we take our money out of the Bank of America and move it to a local bank and insist that they invest it only locally not with Wall Street. If we no longer eat the toxic food presented by the fast food chains and insist on buying from local farmers. If we give up our seemingly insatiable desire for junk consumption and buy only quality, needed goods from regional producers. If we pay in cash and not by credit card. If we only use credit cards from a local credit union and then only for convenience not for credit. If we insist that our legislators get our 401k plans out of the clutches of Wall Street ($15 trillion dollars or so).

These are tough and very difficult things. How do you buy local food if there are no local farmers? How can there be local farmers when the regulations that effect them are designed by the oligopoly food companies?

The Buy Local movement in town says to spend 10% of your holiday shopping budget with local providers. Why is the goal so low? Perhaps because the options are so few.

This is tough stuff. It requires a change from feeling like your government should take care of you to a strong sense of taking responsibility for yourself.

It requires more intelligent discourse, not just “Tax the Rich” sound bites.

Start somewhere, but start.

Posted in Political, sort of... | 2 Comments

An Original, Not a Reproduction

Often, as a history buff, I have watched a craftsman use tools just like those used in the old days to make a reproduction of a product just like the product made in the old days.

Wonderful stuff.

Today I witnessed a product from the mid nineteenth century being made, with the original nineteenth century tools, machinery, and power supply. It is an original product.

How can this be, you ask.

Gwen and I revisited Frye’s Measure Mill today. It’s located in Wilton, NH and has been in continuous operation since 1858. I say revisited, because we had been to their gift shop on a previous occasion but never took a tour of the mill.

New England is a part of the country where old mills abound. At the beginning of the industrial revolution the region’s economy was driven by its fabric mills, grist mills, saw mills, and others.

As a kid in the fifties, I remember driving by the Faulkner and Colony Mill in Keene, NH and hearing the clickety clack of the carding and weaving machines. The mill windows were tilted open in an attempt to let some of the cool evening air in and allowing the broadcast of those great sounds.

Today, thanks to efforts of a few concerned folks, the Faulkner and Colony Mill remains a useful part of the community remade as a beautiful retail and restaurant location. As great as it is to be able to go into the old mill and see remnants of an earlier workplace, that experience is very different from what I experienced today.

Today, I walked into the 19th century. Inside the Frye’s Measure Mill looks as if the workers had just set down their tools in 1898 or so and gone home. The mill still makes commercially available products. It still runs on water using the original water turbine. Power from the water flow still drives the machinery through leather belts, iron and wood pulleys, and iron gears. Some bits have been repaired and maintained over the last 154 years, but those fixes were all done as they had always been done. No modern materials or conveniences have been substituted for what was there all those years ago.

Why is it called a Measure Mill? Before the system of weighing product came about things like flour, seed, and other dry products were measured out and sold by dry measure. Round wooden measures were made at this mill. They were sold in nested sets of five sizes, quart, two quart, four quart, single peck, and one-half bushel. Some had long, elegant handles and were called piggins.

When the national standard for measure switched over to weights, demand fell and the mill made more and more round and oval “pantry” boxes and curry and wool cards (for combing animals and wool respectively).

They designed and built a beautiful ice cream maker but were driven out of the market by a much larger manufacturer in the region who dropped their price dramatically so the Frye’s could not gain a foothold in the market. No rules against predatory pricing were in place, perhaps a good thing as it resulted in behavior more synchronous with natural systems. The Fryes adapted.

Some quick research tells me that there are other, original, water powered mills operating in the country but I doubt you would need more than your fingers and toes to count them all.

As I tour historic mills around New England, I have seen remnants of the old power systems of water wheels and turbines, belts and pulleys. I have read about their construction and operation and tried to imagine what it would be like to be present 100 years ago as these amazing systems drove the activities of these great mills. Never did I think that it would be possible to actually experience it… to hear the soft, more human sounds of those systems.

Harland Savage Jr. (Harley) is the current owner of Frye’s Measure Mill. Economic downturns related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the latest, seemingly endless depression have combined with health issues to cause his business to decline dramatically.

I suspect if you could see and hear the old belts, pulleys, and gears whirring in unison and see the “elephant’s foot” press the bottom into a beautiful pantry box, you too might feel transported back in time. A simpler, more basic time with pure products manufactured from natural materials that are actually useful and not just some neat new unnecessary thing.

We completed this trip back in time by staying at an Inn that has been in continuous operation since 1789. These two amazing historic treasures have left my mind in a tizzy about how important it is to preserve them and places like them. Maybe it’s some retro thing in my brain, maybe, as a friend once said, I had a life in the nineteenth century and that has caused me to be drawn to anything left from that period like the 160 year old brownstone I lived in in Brooklyn or the 106 year old converted factory I now live in.

I would make this mill a bullet item on your bucket list or for the younger, your to do list. If you have the big bucks, call Harley and discuss with him how you might help him save this amazing treasure.

Posted in The Art of the Possible | 2 Comments

Lost

Without a good map, you will get lost.

Since I got my first iPhone a number of years ago, I have become more and more dependent on the maps app. I drive an older car without a GPS system and the phone/app has saved me on numerous occasions from being hopelessly lost. Of course, being saved depended on a decent cellular phone signal. This was easier when I lived in New York City than it is today in the wilds of New Hampshire.

When Apple came out with iOS 6, the new iPhone operating system, I eagerly downloaded it to get all of the wonderful new stuff. Much to my chagrin that great maps app had been replaced with some crude, inaccurate thing.

Turns out, my beloved maps app was a Google app. Apple and Google  are “rivals” in the software industry, say the trade papers. The new maps app was Apple’s version. Google had been banished.

Apple had been on the acquisition trail bringing companies into the fold with map expertise so they could bump Google off their iPhone platform. Students in any of my strategy classes will tell you that growth through acquisition is a dodgy strategy at best. So many things get in the way: inconsistent technology, different cultures, divergent visions, too much leverage, and numbers that just don’t work no matter how they are juiced (right Time Warner?)

Now for my prediction. Apple is becoming lost.

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, predominantly written while Steve was still alive and suffering terribly from the damned disease that finally took him, Steve is often quoted, in response to something that he felt was not just right, “This is a piece of shit, it sucks.” (I could have this misquoted. Gwen packed up the book to lessen some of the crowding in our tiny apartment. It is close, however, and makes the point.)

Now to dump an app that is so amazingly useful to me and other customers seems a true violation of good practice. How out of touch with their customers can Apple be?

Was Steve so much in touch with us when he made his nasty proclamations? Well, not really. It was not that he spent every waking hour focused on the customers. The amazing thing is that he somehow had us already built into his brain. This was part of his genius.

The genius is gone and Apple must now behave more like all of the other companies. They have to stay in close touch with their customers.

Another recent example, is Apple’s new computer operating system, Mountain Lion. When I installed that, again excited about all the cool new stuff, what happened? Apple had taken access to RSS feeds (neat little automatic news feed kinda things) out of their mail system MacMail and their browser, Safari. No warning, no information on how you could replace the function was offered. Just, poof, they were gone.

I discovered that most tech competent folks had other ways of capturing RSS feeds. Troglodytes like me, who found easy access to RSS through these two Apple approaches were just wiped out. I have tried to figure out how the “smart” folks do it but I still don’t have as simple an approach as having MacMail do it for me.

Don’t bother to ask customers. Apple engineers must just ask the engineer at the next desk or cube or core balance ball chair.

Absent genius, companies have to depend on regular people behaving according to learned management practices that have been proven successful for others. This unfortunately, begins the inevitable drift of Apple to normalcy and even mediocrity.

The drift has begun. Apple is becoming lost and they have crappy maps so they will probably stay lost.

Posted in Business | Leave a comment

Response to Z

A couple of dear friends commented on my previous post (Is This Reasonable, August 17th) with concerns about ever achieving peace in a world full of weapons and the experience in the United Kingdom with their handgun ban.

The following is a response I wrote and then thought I would include as a new post.

 

Z,

Historically, the UK has been a very non violent country. Starting in 1954, things began to change for the worse as violent crime began to climb. Fast forward to 1997, the year the complete ban of handguns took effect:

  • 1997 to 1999 – Handgun crime rises 40%
  • 1997 – 2001 – Violent crime doubles
  • 2002 – Probability of being mugged in London is six times that of NYC
  • 2002 – 53% of burglaries in UK occur while occupants are home vs. 13% in US (Burglars acknowledge that they are concerned about guns in US homes)

Other numbers:

  • Around 2.5 million incidences occur each year in the US where handguns are used defensively, preventing crime. This is thought to be a conservative number.
  • In only a small percentage of these, around 8%, was a shot fired.

Enough of his numbers, her numbers.

My writing was trying to address the amazingly awful way government deals with gun control. Even the “Assault” weapons ban of the Clinton era was measured by the CDC and FBI to have been completely ineffective if the desired result was less gun crime. Yet, some are clamoring for its reinstatement.

What it seems to come down to is no guns or guns. No guns does not seem to work if we look at the UK example. No guns also, very sadly, calls to mind:

  • In 1911 Turkey established gun control. Subsequently, from 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, deprived of the means to defend themselves, were rounded up and killed.
  • In 1929 the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, approximately 20 million dissidents were arrested and executed.
  • In 1938 Germany established gun control. From 1939 to 1945 over 13 million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally ill, union leaders, Catholics and others, unable to fire a shot in protest, were killed by the state.
  • In 1935 China established gun control. Between 1948 and 1952, over 20 million dissidents were rounded up and murdered by the Communists.
  • In 1956 Cambodia enshrined gun control. In just two years (1975-1977) over one million “educated” people (about 1/3 of the entire population!) were executed.
  • In 1964 Guatemala locked in gun control. From 1964 to 1981 over 100,000 Mayan Indians were rounded up and killed, unable to defend themselves.
  • In 1970 the Ugandan dictator decreed gun control. During the next nine years over 300,000 Christians were murdered.
  • Over 56 million people have died, unable to defend themselves, because of gun control in the last century alone.

I believe the founders, when authoring the Bill of Rights and the second amendment wanted to assure that American Citizens would never suffer the above. Wiggling and twisting of those words by contemporary “legal scholars” is just that, wiggling and twisting.

This little series of my writings was intended to place emphasis on how difficult this issue is and how bad government is at fixing it. My position is very simple and it is what I practice. An intense focus on education and training for skills and safety. Treat those who commit gun crimes appropriately not as I described in Reasonable… Again.

My dear friend Don in his comment above writes of Peace and Love. He and you both know that I live that way but that I do it with a 45 on my hip because of all the above.

Peace out,

Peter

 

If the world were filled with Z’s and Don’s, we would not have ANY of the difficulties that are being experienced on so many fronts each and every day. These are people born of love and living with love in all that they do. God bless you both.

Posted in Personal | Leave a comment