Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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    Wednesday, March 29, 2006

    Cathy Young Rules

    I love the fact that she's a feminist who is just as concerned about men's rights as women's. Her latest entry regarding the practical realities (for men) of adoption/abortion laws is a keeper. She's a tremendous ally for men in the fight against the prejudiced family law system that pervades America, and she does so without compromising her own principles about the proper treatment of women in the legal system. If more women who scream for "equality" had the kind of integrity she displays, we wouldn't have so much trouble with gender issues.

    Posted by Tom, 3/29/2006 7:22:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, March 28, 2006

    On Activism

    A friend of mine once related his reaction to an episode of one of those afternoon talk shows (Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich, etc.). This particular episode had some white supremacists on it, and I'm fuzzy on the details as to whether the black participants were guests or audience members, but it's not important. My friend noted that the white supremacists wore suits and ties, remained calm, and explained their positions clearly and politely. The black counterpoint was made largely by people going into apoplectic fits over the very existence of the white supremacists and the gall they had to show their faces in public. There was yelling, screaming, cursing, name-calling, hysteria, you name it on the black side, which was met with calm, rational behavior (if not necessarily sound logic) on the other.

    When asked by a fellow viewer who won the "debate", my friend said it was pretty clear the white supremacists did. They were the only ones actually making an argument.

    So why do I bring this up? It's not because I think white supremacists are ideal role models. Far from it. But when we endeavor to change the hearts and minds of others, especially the public at large, the press, and the government, we would do well to learn from this example of their strategy and tactics.

    In my own history as a gun rights activist, the lesson was driven home repeatedly. When we fought our war of words on the editorial page, the opposition was always ready to jump on a hysterical-sounding statement, an expression of paranoia, or even a harsh sentiment towards another person. There were plenty on the pro-gun side who provided fodder for the opposition, as they screamed about government conspiracies against the constitution, treasonous behavior among elected officials, and the like. They dressed, acted, and sounded like total nutjobs, and the opposition tore them to pieces in the court of public opinion.

    The same thing happened in the legislature. Every time a pro-gunner showed up wearing camouflage or a "Sniper: Vote from the Rooftops" T-Shirt, the opposition's work was done for them. All they had to do was point and say "is this the sort of person whose opinion should really be directing policy?" Of course, it's a subtle attack on democracy, if you think about it, but it certainly got the legislators voting the other way.

    I came onto the scene as a new pro-gun group was rising to power in the debate. This group had one central mission: to pass "shall-issue" concealed carry legislation in my state. Their primary instruction to the activists was "remain calm". Above all else, we were to avoid losing our tempers, raising our voices, calling names, or any of the other juvenile behaviors people display when they get worked into a frenzy. We stayed calm, stayed rational, and made our points as clearly as possible. We gathered our statistics, learned how the other side was cooking theirs, and thoroughly educated ourselves on the issue. We tried to stay on-topic, and resisted the efforts of both the opposition and our allies to pull the debate away from the central point we were trying to make. We were polite to a fault, even when being accused of racism, sexism, getting paid by the "gun industry", and so forth. We endeavored to not show contempt or anger, even for those who said such things as "all gun owners should be dragged out and shot" (and yes, there were quite a few of them). We weren't perfect, and of course we were only human, but the effort was certainly visible.

    And you know what? It worked. Legislators started listening to us. Public opinion started to shift. It was slow and agonizing, and some days we were beside ourselves with impatience. Some of us wanted to grab certain legislators by the collar and just shake some sense into them. But we didn't. We remained calm, stated our case, and kept plugging away.

    Eventually, the board of directors of this organization (which included myself by that point) were invited to have dinner with the Speaker of the House of our state, and over some halfway decent Italian food we hammered out the final details of "shall-issue" concealed carry legislation for the state of Michigan. The bill passed shortly thereafter.

    There's an old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But you don't even need honey. You just need to be polite and respectful, and make a reasonable argument as many times as it takes. So when I see other activists of one stripe or another pushing their goals, the first thing I'm interested in is their attitude and approach. See, I don't believe in the idea that "if it makes people think, it's worth it". Because if your stunt is disturbing enough, what they may be thinking is that you're a nutcase. If your letter is caustic enough, what they may be thinking is that you're a jerk. And it's easier to agree with a polite, respectful person than it is to agree with a jerk.

    If an activist insists on calling people vile names, impugning their character for no reason other than to "make a point", or attacking a person's family whether verbally or physically, that person is not going to join the cause. More to the point, many neutral observers are going to be turned off as well, and pushed to the side of the opposition. Every time a pro-gunner in my situation publicly called a member of the legislature or opposition a Nazi, we lost support. Somebody, who hadn't made up their minds yet, was pushed to the other side just because our side was now perceived as being "full of jerks".

    And frankly, this is the problem that many activists in America (and around the world) have right now. Watch video of leftist anti-war protestors. Watch video of Christian fundamentalist anti-abortion protestors. It's out there, and Google will find it for you. Watch the spitting and cursing and name-calling and hysteria. These are not people whose opinion should be driving public policy. They're irrational. They've let their emotions do the thinking for them. They've decided that their opponents are subhuman, and want you to come to the same decision. They need to go back to kindergarten and learn to work and play well with others. And they make up the vast majority of "activists", which is why I'm not one anymore. I have a bad temper, and I've used it inappropriately on occasion, but I realize that every time I've done so I lost the argument. I just wish the legions of activists in America, no matter their cause, could see how they're losing as well.

    Why won't I march in front of an abortion clinic, as some of my friends want me to do? Why won't I participate in protests against the Canadian seal hunt, or help bring action against Wal-Mart for its "multitude" of offenses? Because nobody has convinced me that it's the right thing to do. Worse, nobody's even bothered to try. Gross pictures, conspiracy theories, and emotional outbursts are not arguments, they're propaganda. It's high time activists of all stripes learned the difference.

    Posted by Tom, 3/28/2006 5:33:00 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    I hate when this happens...

    So I'm reading this story about the nutjob who killed a bunch of people in Seattle over the weekend. All very sad and tragic, and I can't imagine the horror of losing one's child in such a fashion. But then this just leaps out at me:

    Kyle and Kelley Moore said they allowed their 14-year-old daughter, Melissa, to go to raves as long she came home by her 3 a.m. curfew. Saturday morning, the ninth-grader never made it back.

    I really do hate to bash someone when they're in the middle of grieving, but holy crap people... since when is 3 AM an appropriate curfew for a 14-year-old? Did you eat a big bowl of stupid for breakfast?

    What. The. Hell.

    Granted, my parents were on the opposite end of crazy, continuing to impose 10 PM on me the summer AFTER my freshman year in college, but still... shouldn't it be somewhere in the middle? No 14-year-old has any business being out past midnight at the very latest on a weekend night. Seriously.

    Posted by Tom, 3/28/2006 7:18:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, March 27, 2006

    The Sound of Suck

    Despite my earlier profession of affection for Meat Loaf's music, the music I listen to most is contemporary Christian. I'm a fan of Third Day in particular, with various other bands/artists contributing to my list of favorites. I find a lot of the music personally moving, especially that which deals with loss, like Third Day's "Cry Out to Jesus", or hope, like FFH's "Fly Away", or a more complex emotional expression, like Rich Mullins' "If I Stand". However, there is a sort of sub-trend in Christian music that I absolutely despise.

    Every few months or so, a song comes out that gets a lot of play, but was clearly designed from the ground up to be a "tear-jerker". It's not that there's a genuine emotion being communicated, it's just written to get the weepy-eyed bawling and the moon calves mooing. A year or so ago, it was the disgustingly bittersweet "Christmas Shoes", a ballad about a little poor boy trying to buy nice shoes for his mom, dying of cancer, to be buried in. I really do try to minimize my cynicism, but come on. The song itself is cynical, wringing every last bit of agonizing torture out of the scene for the sole purpose of getting that lump growing in the listener's throat.

    Then there's that Mark Schultz song, "He's My Son". Ugh. And the Bob Carlisle tune "Butterfly Kisses". Bleh.

    Right now it's this new thing by Mark Harris called "Find Your Wings". Yes, I realize it's the prayer of a father over his child. Yes, I realize it expresses his hopes and dreams for that child, and it's all very sweet. The problem is it's too sweet. I can feel the diabetes developing when I listen to it.

    Now, I'm willing to grant that a lot of my reaction could be due to the fact that I don't have children. I just might not have the emotional reference point to connect with these sickeningly sweet songs. But these songs make me feel manipulated above all else, so when they come on, the radio goes off. Because... dude... seriously... *YICK*

    Posted by Tom, 3/27/2006 10:59:00 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Man vs. Dog

    I have the most destructive dog I have ever known, and he continually finds ways to escape from our fenced yard. We have 4' chain link fence, and he has bad knees, so even if it had occurred to him to simply jump over it, at this point he probably wouldn't be able to. He's also not much of a digger. What he is, however, is strong as an ox and stubborn as a mule. His solution is to go through the fence. Yes, you read that right. A dog has been tearing chain link fence apart -- completely off the posts and rails -- and heading out to visit the neighborhood. I've had to completely rebuild 2 sets of gates because of this dog.

    Granted, he's an 80-pound wolf hybrid, but still...

    I've spent countless dollars trying to fight this battle with him, and the price is about to go up. We're moving, and it gives me the opportunity to start anew. So here's the plan for the new house: 6' chain link (yeah, I know I said he's not a jumper, but I believe in overkill) PLUS one of those "invisible fence" doohickeys buried just outside it, and Zeus gets one of those nifty shock collars. Cruel? I don't think so. He'll have a visual reference for where he's not supposed to go, and frankly NOTHING else has worked. Bitter Apple (tm) is his favorite seasoning, chain link fence doesn't really fight back, and I can't be around all the time to yell at him if he starts tearing apart the fence. This strategy should overcome the weakness of both systems, by using them to reinforce each other. He can't get close enough to the chain link to tear it apart, and he can't just run through the transmitter field because the fence is in the way. For as much as it's going to cost, I hope it works.

    Posted by Tom, 3/27/2006 5:50:00 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sidebar updated

    I was reminded over the weekend that I hadn't updated my sidebar in a while. So now I've done so. Among the various changes, I wanted to mention one in particular, a new blog under "Blogs of Note".

    Post Secret is a blog where people send in their deep dark personal secrets on homemade postcards. It's updated weekly, and I make it a point to go look at it every week. Most of the secrets have no effect on me, but every week there's at least one, if not two or three, that really reach deep inside me and give me a sense of connection with other people. Sometimes they remind me of someone I know whose secret is or must be very close to the secret being revealed. Sometimes it's one of my secrets, although I've never sent a postcard. It's therapeutic at the very least, though some people who've posted there have called it life-saving.

    USA Today has done a good article on it, and I won't waste time repeating all the things they've said. It's sufficient to say that I highly recommend checking out both the article and the blog. Be warned that some of the entries are shocking or disturbing -- Post Secret seems to be a magnet for those who were molested as children, and those having crises related to sexuality and sexual issues. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the site is simultaneously haunting and beautiful. But please -- if you're one of those people who regard cynicism as the highest virtue, skip it.

    Posted by Tom, 3/27/2006 6:54:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, March 25, 2006

    Gloom, despair, and agony on me...

    Buck Owens dies at 76

    Posted by Tom, 3/25/2006 11:18:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, March 24, 2006

    The State of Concealed Carry

    As a followup to the previous post about Kansas, here's the scoreboard:

    2nd AmendmentShall-IssueMay-IssueNo-Issue
    New Hampshire
    New Mexico
    North Carolina
    North Dakota
    South Carolina
    South Dakota
    West Virginia
    New Jersey
    New York
    Rhode Island

    Put another way:

    Now all we need to do is start moving states into that first column and that lovely bright green color and out of the others.

    See Packing.Org for detailed info on the various laws, including reciprocity.

    Posted by Tom, 3/24/2006 7:17:00 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Standing up to the (wo)Man

    What's this? A legislative body slapped down its chief executive? And on the subject gun rights no less? Hoody-frickin-hoo!!!

    Kansas goes shall-issue! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

    Posted by Tom, 3/24/2006 7:03:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    For all you Microsoft fans...

    ...again, I defended this company for 15 years, just like you are. This is what I was (and you are) defending. Crash after crash in high-profile public demos. A psychotic nutjob (Steve Ballmer) inexplicably leaping around stage screaming like a banshee. A rich wimp with grand ideas but no readily apparent personality, sense of taste, or technical skill. It should be enough to turn your stomach.

    Posted by Tom, 3/24/2006 6:58:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, March 22, 2006

    More Bad Ideas

    These twits are on exactly the wrong track.

    Governments, not private companies, should take the lead in improving public access to safe drinking water, representatives of 148 countries said Wednesday at the end of a forum on how to tackle the world's water crisis.

    The seven-day forum focused much of its attention on the developing world's growing reliance on bottled water bought from private companies. Worldwide, the industry is now worth about $100 billion per year. Anti-corporate forces and other critics say governments should instead be improving tap water supplies.


    But private companies have vastly increased their sales of bottled water in the developing world in recent years, in what some see as a sort of "stealth" privatization of water services in countries where the tap water is unsafe.

    Stealth privatization? How about the market providing for a need that government cannot? How about the market marshalling resources, serving customers, and using the self-regulating nature of the price mechanism for conservation purposes? How about all this being done without the "help" of a bunch of idiot bureaucrats who couldn't central-plan their way out of a paper bag?

    What the heck is wrong with people? It's obvious who's serving the public interest, and it ain't government.

    Posted by Tom, 3/22/2006 5:56:00 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    I'm Tired

    I've been really exhausted lately, and have taken a break from my usual internet haunts (message boards) to focus on some immediate things that need doing. It's been about a week and a half I think. Today I got a few minutes and ran by these places for a quick look-see at what the denizens are up to, and I think I see the problem.

    Y'see, the two boards (other than my own) are full of a particular kind of person. The kind who sees a conspiracy in every facet of life. The kind who lives their lives in a panic over this or that -- Republicans, Democrats, guns, drugs, porn, animal rights, you name it. The fear is so pervasive it's almost palpable. And to quell these fears, do these people take responsibility for themselves? Face their fears? Deal with what they're afraid of? No. They turn to government. For every problem, they've got an idea for what government could do to make them feel safer, more loved, more cared for, and less afraid.

    If someone smokes near you in an area where smoking's allowed, the proper response isn't to simply move away -- oh no, that would be reasonable. The proper response is to turn to Big Daddy Government and find ways to make that sort of thing illegal. After all, nobody should be able to legally do anything that anyone else finds unpleasant.

    At the vegan board, the histrionics over the Canadian seal hunt, second hand smoking, and relatively innocuous business deals are wildly out of control. At the Christian board, the same goes for whatever the moral panic of the day is -- the difference is that, for a change, the Christians are being largely reasonable and the vegans are the ones coming across like fundamentalist whackos. Of course, the Christian board in question is peopled largely by anti-theocracy types, so one might expect them to be more reasonable, while the vegan board in question is chock-full of what might be termed "vegocrats".

    On the sidelines of all this is me. The more I see from the deck, the less I want to jump back into the pool. My libertarianism stems largely from a desire to be left alone -- to be responsible for and to myself, to help others whenever and however I am moved to, and to let others go about their business in the same fashion. In the words of the inimitable P.J. O'Rourke, I am a proud participant in

    a kind of anti-matter protest -- an unpolitical undemonstration by deeply uncommitted inactivists. We are part of a huge invisible picket line that circles the White House twenty-four hours a day. We are participants in an enormous non-march on Washington -- millions and millions of Americans not descending upon the nation's capital in order to demand nothing from the United States government. To demand nothing, that is, except the one thing which no government in history has been able to do -- leave us alone.

    There are just two rules of governance in a free society:

    Mind your own business.
    Keep your hands to yourself.

    The problem is that the world is full of busybodies who can't seem to do either. And not only can't they mind their own business and keep their hands to themselves, but they also can't seem to conceive of any other way to deal with the world than to ask one group (the government) to force -- at gunpoint if necessary -- another group (those causing the problem they're currently on a tear about) to do things their way. Solving problems for yourself is apparently passe. If you work in a restaurant that allows smoking, it's apparently unthinkable to get another job if you don't like it. No -- apparently the right way to do things is to get the government to make it illegal for anyone to smoke anywhere.

    Government solutions are the refuge of the stupid, the lazy, and the cowardly. If any of these people had the courage of their convictions as regards what is right or wrong, they'd take personal action instead of demanding someone else take it for them. Here's a thought: if you honestly believe that smoking is equivalent to assault, then shoot the next person who lights up in front of you. If you refuse to do that, then maybe you ought to rethink having government do the shooting for you. Political power flows from the barrel of a gun. Maybe instead of requiring gun safety classes in various places before you can own a gun, we should require government safety classes before you can vote or write a letter or sign a damned petition. As P.J. said, "Government is a health hazard. Governments have killed many more people than cigarettes or unbuckled seat belts ever have." And yet there are so few of us who actually realize that.

    Anyway... I've hung out in these haunts long enough. I've typed until I'm blue in the face, trying to explain why a "live and let live" approach ought to be seen as the way to go. Occasionally someone seems to "get it", but almost invariably the conversion is short-lived. I no sooner get someone agreeing to chill out, and they're back in the fray, signing petitions and writing congressmen and protesting and so forth. I don't think I can take many more discussions with these pro-tyranny hellspawn. Like the title says, I'm tired. I just want to be left alone. Is that so much to ask?

    Posted by Tom, 3/22/2006 5:51:00 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Proud to be an Oklahoman...

    ...where the good guys win and the bad guys need medical assistance.

    Two men walked into the Homeland at 89th and Memorial. They walked up to the cashier, and one of them pulled out a gun, demanding money. That's when a customer pulled out a gun and shot one of the robbers. The robber then began to crawl towards the door. Both men were able to get away in a white four-door Oldsmobile. No word yet how badly the suspect was hurt. The customer who shot the suspect did have a concealed weapons permit.

    Good guys 1, bad guys 0.

    Posted by Tom, 3/22/2006 7:12:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, March 21, 2006

    Somebody tell me...

    Bush: Troops to Stay in Iraq for Years

    How is this different from a "quagmire"? Just asking...

    Posted by Tom, 3/21/2006 11:10:00 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, March 20, 2006

    Best. Album. Ever.

    My favorite album of all time, I think, is Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, circa 1977. There are a few that challenge it, like Prince's Purple Rain and Rush's 2112, but Bat Out of Hell has had something new for me every time I've listened to it.

    It's also the only album I've owned 3 times. I had it once on audio cassette, lost it. Had it again on CD. Lost it. Now I've got it again courtesy of Apple's iTunes Music Store.

    Bat Out of Hell, this time around, is coming across as an expression of the male emotional response to love and relationships. When I listen to Bat Out of Hell, this is what I hear:

    Bat Out of Hell expresses the freedom that a single guy experiences as he's casually dating, his love of that freedom, and the sneak attack that love brings to kill that freedom. Early in the song there's a hint that the guy is becoming accustomed to dating one particular girl, as he insists on reclaiming his freedom after every date in the lines "like a bat out of hell I'll be gone when the morning comes", but then his heart is revealed "when the day is done and the sun goes down and the moonlight's shining through, then like a sinner before the gates of heaven I'll come crawling on back to you". In the end, love launches a surprise attack on the freedom of his heart, when he sings "I never saw the sudden curve till it was way too late". The song closes as the free man dies in a motorcycle accident, but "the last thing I see is my heart, still beating, breaking out of my body and flying away like a bat out of hell", presumably to go chase the girl.

    You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth talks about the guy's first conscious grappling with his new emotions. It begins with a little spoken-word exchange between a guy and a girl, where he tries to come off as the confident, wolfish initiator of their relationship, but the last line of the exchange, "I'll bet you say that to all the boys", to my mind belies a bit of hesitation -- of worry that perhaps he's really nothing special, and she's not interested in him for who and what he is. The song goes on to talk about a date where they kiss, and she surprises him by declaring her love, hence the line "you took the words right out of my mouth; it must have been while you were kissing me; you took the words right out of my mouth; and I swear it's true, I was just about to say I love you". He's not actually ready to declare his love, but he doesn't want to come up short in the exchange.

    Heaven Can Wait is the guy's song about the euphoria of being in love, and how it makes nothing, even heaven, seem important by comparison. All he wants to do is hold on to the relationship and of course the girl. He still probably doesn't know to call it love, but just knows that he prefers the present state of affairs to anything else.

    All Revved Up with No Place to Go introduces the uncomfortable specter of hormones and physical need. The guy, as he's trying to sort out all this stuff swirling around in his head, now has to deal with this new thing that is driving him crazy. Her presence awakens the physical, and it's invading his dreams and thoughts, consuming him, and all he knows is that there is something she can do to bring him relief from it. This song is a little embarassing, but it's an essential part of the male experience, and for that it needs no apology. It's simply honest and forthright about this aspect of the male response.

    Two Out of Three Ain't Bad seems kind of jarring because it sort of leaves the narrative, but I still think it fits. The guy is trying to sort everything out, and I think in a weaker moment he's decided that he's going to try and get the girl to have sex with him, but doesn't want it to turn into a relationship where she "owns" him. I think he's hearkening back to his days of freedom, and is afraid to fully commit himself, though he's still driven on by the physical and emotional urges warring in his self.

    Paradise by the Dashboard Light, as everyone knows, is about the consummation of the relationship. However, there's a moment where we see with brutal honesty the conflict between the participants. He is insane with hormonal urge, his only thought being to quench the fire in his soul (and loins), while she is wanting to be reassured that she will be loved and protected and cared for if she gives in to him. This song has the highest humor factor, as it surely must, because if we strip away the lies and manipulations that provide a pretty veneer that we can call "civilized manners", almost all of human behavior is patently hilarious. But even at the end, the guy shows the honesty and integrity in his soul, when he declares "I'll never break my promise or forget my vow, But God only knows that I could die right now". Even though the relationship has turned away from the euphoria, and he's miserable, he remains committed to his promise to her, and is sticking with her despite a desire to be free of his commitment.

    In a bittersweet ending to the narrative, For Crying Out Loud expresses the man's final conscious acceptance of the fact that he is actually in love with the girl. The relationship has gone sour, and now she's thinking of leaving him, but he realizes that he can't live without her. They've fought and had rough patches, but he still wants her to be a part of his life, and can't stand the thought of being apart. He's bewildered by the course of events, and doesn't even understand how his own emotions have betrayed him throughout the entire experience, as he wails "And don't you hear me crying, 'Oh Babe, don't go'; And don't you hear me screaming, 'How was I to know?'" He begs for just one more chance to prove his devotion to her, tries to make himself understood, but in the end can only say "For crying out loud, you know I love you".

    And that's why I relate to this album; why I like it so much. It's the story of the average man in love -- making mistakes, fumbling in the dark, unsure of himself, trying in vain to understand his emotions and responses, etc. Ultimately he just wants to know that there's someone on the other end who knows he loves them, appreciates that for what it is, and reciprocates, without it needing to be more complicated than that. I think it expresses how a man's love is simple, like a dog's love, and like dogs, we're really not prepared for the complexity that seems to go with the interplay of emotions between two people, at least not like women seem to be prepared for it. The album has a humorous edge throughout, but what it expresses is so raw and personal and vulnerable that sometimes it's hard to find it funny. The temptation to mock or ridicule must be incredible for women who listen to it. It would be easy to be contemptuous of the emotional journey, but that would be missing a heartbreakingly honest look into a man's soul.

    Posted by Tom, 3/20/2006 7:36:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, March 10, 2006

    More on Coffee

    So now Starbuck's is buying Rwandan coffee -- which is good right at the outset because Africa in general needs exports and trade relations to lift its people out of the mud. And what's this? An update on Starbucks' purchasing habits?

    Dub Hay, Starbucks' senior vice president of coffee, would not disclose how much Rwandan farmers were paid for their Starbucks beans, but said the company pays a global average of $1.28 per pound to its producers, and follows green coffee purchasing guidelines that reward performance in several environmental and social categories.

    So now they average 2 cents a pound MORE than the Fair Traders? That's pretty cool. And what about those Fair Traders... surely they're interested in helping out the Rwandan coffee growers too:

    [Starbucks] said the coffee it's buying is grown by small farmers who have about 175 trees per farm.

    Hmm, guess not. Fair Traders don't want coffee that's not grown by large cooperatives, because small-time farmers don't deserve the business.

    Posted by Tom, 3/10/2006 7:13:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, March 9, 2006

    Fair Trade Fraud

    Reason has an excellent article about the reality of so-called "Fair Trade". It turns out that all is not what it seems when it comes to the conscience-soothing label.

    Gregorio Martinez grows coffee on 30 hectares of land in Lepaera, Honduras, where he lives with his wife and four children. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch destroyed his crop, leaving him deep in debt; by 2004 he was set to lose his farm to foreclosure for lack of $800. That same year, he sent a bag of beans to the Princess Hotel in San Pedro Sula, where a U.S. nonprofit was hosting a contest known as Cup of Excellence. Martinez took top honors, attracted attention from buyers, and auctioned off his crop for $19,500. In his acceptance speech, he expressed relief that he would be able to pass his farm on to his family rather than the bank.

    Martinez owns a small family farm and produces a high-quality coffee, but none of his beans carry the Fair Trade label. His farm isn’t part of a cooperative, a Fair Trade non-negotiable that disqualifies small, independent farmers, larger family farms, and for that matter any multinational that treats its workers well. “It’s like outlawing private enterprise,” says former SCAA chair Cox, who now serves as president of a coffee consulting company. “What about a medium-sized family-owned farm that’s doing great, treats their employees great? Sorry, they don’t qualify.” In Africa, many coffee farms are organized along tribal, not democratic lines. They’re not eligible either, a problem that has prompted some roasters to charge cultural imperialism.

    So wait a minute... you can't be certified unless you fit a specific profile?

    Farms cannot be “structurally dependent on hired labor,” which means that hiring even one laborer year-round makes a farm ineligible for certification. Even more controversial is the cooperative requirement. Rather than deal with individual farms, the FLO exclusively certifies large cooperatives composed of hundreds of small land-owning farmers, each with a single vote on how to best spend the Fair Trade profits.

    I think I'm going to be sick. "Fair Trade", in other words, is a promoter of unemployment. The poor laborers in these countries, who might desperately need a job from someone wealthy enough to own a coffee bean farm, are being shut out of the job market by wealthy American liberals who apparently think it's better for them to be out of work. And given this restriction, Fair Trade logically promotes child labor because if a farm owner needs workers but can't hire any, they've got to come from within the family. This of course prevents further economic advancement for new generations, since they're not going to be able to go to school and get an education if they're working in the fields all day. So much for liberal claims of "looking out for the little guy" and doing things "for the children".

    And what's this nonsense about needing to be part of a cooperative? Something about that suggests to me that quality will suffer.

    “Fair Trade does not incentivize quality,” explains Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee, who has spent the last nine years training coffee farmers in Africa and Central America. Fair Trade co-ops are composed of hundreds of farmers producing vastly different qualities of coffee. Often their output is blended together for sale to roasters, masking any quality improvements one farmer may have felt motivated to implement. Money then flows back to the co-op, not the individual farmer, and is distributed equally among the members. “There is no reward for the guy who works harder than his neighbor,” says Watts. Nor is there much motivation for individual farmers to learn better farming techniques, experiment with new types of coffee, or seek new markets.

    The system thus breeds anonymity and mediocrity in a business that desperately needs to focus on branding and identity. Ironically, this mimics the problems brought on by multinationals: Treating coffee as a single commodity, in large undifferentiated lots, prevents any single farmer from excelling and advancing.

    Ah, OK. Not only are the non-landed laborers being held down, but also the families whose farms are party to this cooperative model, but who might be able to excel were they not duped into the "Fair Trade" fraud. And farmers with less quality consciousness are being propped up at the expense of those with more.

    And where's Starbuck's in all this mess?

    Specialty coffee roasters have always paid above-average prices, but that hasn’t stopped activists from launching smear campaigns against high-end retailers who resist the Fair Trade model. In 2000, activist groups including Global Exchange launched an attack on Starbucks that has left the company stained with a reputation for mistreating farmers. Yet given its size, Starbucks likely has done far more than the Fair Trade movement to improve the lot of coffee growers in the 25 countries from which it purchases coffee. Starbucks buys 2.2 percent of the world’s coffee production, and its infamous growth fuels demand for high-priced specialty coffees. In 2004 it bought that coffee at an average price of $1.20 a pound, slightly below the $1.26 Fair Trade pays but more than twice the average price for beans on the global commodity market.

    The difference is, the $1.20 Starbuck's pays doesn't get filtered through a co-op before it reaches the individual grower, and Starbuck's lets them hire workers who might need the work. Makes me wonder who's really doing something good for the coffee growers.

    Posted by Tom, 3/9/2006 7:27:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, March 7, 2006

    Dana Reeve dies, becomes political football

    In a recent forum topic, discussion of Dana Reeve's death turned instantly to agenda. The first response to the thread:

    I think I'm in shock. I know that they never said that her cancer was caused by cigarettes/ second hand smoke ( she was NON-SMOKER ) but if this doesnt open peoples eye's to what that crap could do to them, just a little, then I don't know what to think.

    Why is it that every time someone dies, the rest of us are supposed to learn some great lesson, or convert to some new point of view, or suddenly fall into lockstep with the hand-wringers of the world? Sometimes people die, and it just sucks. There is no greater point. There is no grand lesson to be learned. A woman, by all accounts a good person, got cancer and died. It's sad. It's tragic. But it doesn't prove the second-hand smoke theory. Note that our poster even says "they never said that her cancer was caused by cigarettes/ second hand smoke ( she was NON-SMOKER )", but then goes right into the assumption that second-hand smoke is the ONLY thing that could possibly have caused her to have lung cancer.

    Y'know what? Sometimes people just get cancer. I've previously mentioned a little 13-year-old girl I knew who got brain cancer. And guess what -- she'd never even seen a cell phone, because this was back in the late 1980's. What great spiritual/political lesson was I supposed to learn from that? NONE, that's what. It just sucked.

    People get cancer. People die. It sucks. Get used to it. Maybe if we all spent more time trying to deal honestly with grief and death and dying, and less time trying to turn every death into support for an agenda, we'd be a little more emotionally healthy as a society, and have less need to push each other around in vain attempts to "prevent it from happening ever again". It's going to happen again, your fear of it happening to you and yours will not change that fact, and neither will your insistence that I buy into your desperate belief that something can be done about it.

    Posted by Tom, 3/7/2006 7:03:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, March 3, 2006

    I hate to say I told you so, but...

    We're getting some solid reports of what's happened in the wake of Katrina, and how well the government's aid efforts are going:

    Not only was FEMA unable to cater to people's needs when they needed trailers, but now just the opposite is happening. Homeowners who have repaired their houses are having difficulty returning the trailers to FEMA. The agency, overwhelmed, is unable to inspect the trailers and assign them to other families. But the story does not end there. Homeowners cannot legally move the trailer off their property. They require a towing license. So while there are people still waiting for a trailer, others have a perfectly good available trailer that they are unable to get rid of. Even with a budget of billions of dollars, government agencies simply cannot do things efficiently; FEMA is not matching demand with supply.

    Because it can't. No centrally planned effort can.

    The truth is that the entire system of government aid continually fails to efficiently provide goods and services. Lacking a market test where gains and losses are used as guides, the government cannot possibly determine either the amount or the quality of goods and services to produce. All that can be done is a botched attempt, something like driving blind and drunk on an icy road at night with a flat tire and very strong winds.

    And the beat goes on...

    Posted by Tom, 3/3/2006 7:18:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Harry Browne, R.I.P.

    Harry was the first libertarian candidate for president I ever voted for. Lew Rockwell has some kind words to say about this great friend of liberty. We'll miss you, Harry.

    Posted by Tom, 3/3/2006 6:42:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, March 2, 2006

    Compare & Contrast: Moralizing Twits

    Reason has an excellent article about moral panic-mongers on both the right and left. We're treated to a rational dissection of the claims, fears, and hyperbole of the anti-fast-food crusaders on the left and the anti-porn crusaders on the right. It also gives us a brief history of the moral panic. See how many of these you recognize:

    The term moral panic was popularized by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Cohen described the phenomenon as the process by which prejudice or prudery isolates for scorn a subset, trend, or habit in the broader culture. The scorned tend to be “deviant,” or at least to display characteristics unsettling to established cultural norms. Scorn soon sours to contempt, activists emerge, and the panic is on. Truth, perspective, and context give way to urban legends, hyperbole, and hysteria. A well-executed panic leaves vigilantism, ill-considered legislation, and eroded civil liberties in its wake.

    American history teems with such episodes, from the Salem witch trials to reefer madness to the ongoing methamphetamine scare. Other panics include the 1950s hubbub over horror-themed comic books; 1980s fusses over heavy metal, Satanism, and Dungeons & Dragons; and more recent furors over violent video games and the Goth subculture.

    But what's the harm of these guys spouting off on their respective soapboxes? They're not trying to hurt anyone, right? Wrong.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with advocating personal restraint or self-denial, be it in food or in flesh. The problem with Shapiro and Spurlock is that neither stops at mere advocacy. Completing Cohen’s pattern, both call for government intervention. Neither is satisfied simply to urge better choices. Both seem genuinely perturbed that “bad” choices are available in the first place, and they are ready to use laws to take them away.

    And that's the danger. I'm fine with anyone advocating anything. But when it comes to forcing others to live according to their wishes, we've got problems.

    Given the intellectual vacuity of their books, it’s tempting to dismiss Spurlock and Shapiro as too shallow to be taken seriously. But they are taken seriously—or, at least, many of their arguments are. Moral panics come and go. The panics that leave laws behind are the ones that do lasting damage—and that tend to return.

    The debate over vice is often framed as a conflict between the rights of individuals and the collective good. But that gives alarmists like Spurlock and Shapiro too much credit. More often than not, the actual collective good is plugging along just fine, whatever the Chicken Littles may say. The real debate is usually between the right of individuals to live their lives as they please and the desires of others to control them. As H. L. Mencken put it, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”

    And that's why Spurlock and Shapiro need to be resisted at all costs.

    Posted by Tom, 3/2/2006 7:26:00 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...