Why and what does one read, assuming that one still does read, given the digital/video/image culture in which most of us live most if not all of the time? In my own case three responses come immediately to mind. I read for escape; I read thrillers. Then I read for information about what’s happening about me in the world; I read the news.
But most important, and I would like to think it so, I read for new knowledge. I read to learn, to expand my own intellectual horizons. And to that end I read articles and books by those, without number, who know more than I do about a subject, and by whom I’m able to expand my own consciousness, awareness, recognition, and appreciation of the world in which I live.
The thrillers I read are by such as Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and James Lee Burke. I just finished the latter’s Swan Peak almost without stopping, a 10-12 hour page-turner. For news, mostly I go to the NYTimes, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and less often Le Monde et le Figaro, whose front page articles, by the way, are surprisingly often similar to those of the Times and the Journal
For new knowledge, for expanding my awareness of the world, most days there’s some of both to be had in articles from the newspapers I mention above, but more substantially in any number of reviews and journals that I subscribe to online, and in the one or more of the several books that I seem always to be reading (right now Dan Dennett’s, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).
In today’s Times Bharati Chaturvedi writes about the urban recyclers — “the trash pickers, sorters, traders and reprocessors who extricate paper, cardboard and plastics from garbage heaps and prepare them for reuse.”
World wide, the writer tells us, there are some 15 million of these people who recycle waste much more cheaply and efficiently than government programs, and at the moment are hurting, as, along with housing values and the cost of oil and other commodities, the price of scrap metal, paper and plastic has fallen sharply.
“In Delhi,” Chaturvedi says, “some 80 percent of families in the informal recycling business surveyed by my organization said they had cut back on ‘luxury foods,’ which they defined as fruit, milk and meat. About 41 percent had stopped buying milk for their children. By this summer, most of these children, already malnourished, hadn’t had a glass of milk in nine months. Many of these children have also cut down on hours spent in school to work alongside their parents.”
The answer to the drop in prices and lowered incomes for the recyclers? Prime the pump. Not too different from our boosting auto sales with the highly popular cash for clunkers program. Governments need to subsidy the scrap industry. “Pay a small subsidy to waste dealers so they can purchase scrap from trash pickers at about 20 percent above the current price.”
The interesting question arising from this article, as well as our own cash for clunkers program, is how does one choose those pumps that should be primed with government cash contributions, ultimately paid for, of course, by our taxes?
I suppose that one can argue convincingly that the automobile industry, and in particular General Motors was too important to be allowed to fail, and hence needed priming. In any case that argument was made and that’s what was done.
Why couldn’t we at an earlier point in our history have primed or protected, say, mass transportation, and in particular the railroad industry, prevented it from succumbing as it mostly has to unfair competition from the building of the Interstate, specifically for trucks and cars, and not for trains and trolleys.
We didn’t protect and defend mass transportation and it failed us, or at least went into life support mode where it has been for 50 years or more. That, by the way, may have been one of our biggest mistakes regarding the development of our country’s economy, not to mention the look of our cities and towns.
If one had to make a list of industries that governments could not allow to fail which ones would be at the top? Well we’ve already come up with one answer — banks, car companies, hospitals, and public schools. No I take the last one back. Public schools have always been on life support. Subsidies have always been their principal, in fact, their only means of support.
Not on the list, so far anyway, are airplane companies, consumer goods stores and chains, restaurants, and landscaping businesses (although a crack-down on illegal immigrants may still devastate the latter).
In our country trash collecting, recycling, litter clean-up, all that sort of thing is already a government responsibility, and like the subsidized public schools will probably not, even now in the current down-turn of scrap prices, be affected.
The idea I take away from all this is that there has to be a line between what the government subsidizes and what it stays away from. Government subsidies have to be limited, limited first of all to the amount that people are willing to be taxed, limited therefore to the not unlimited revenues available. Governments, our government, do not always seem to have understood this.
What idea, ideas might one come away with from three articles, an op-ed piece by Stephen Carter in the Washington Post, Profits We Should Cheer, A Wall Street Journal editorial, The 100 Million Dollar Banker, and opinion pieces from that same newspaper, Blue Dogs or Corporate Shills by Thomas Frank, and How to Fix the Health-Care ‘Wedge’ by Arthur Laffer?
Stop bad-mouthing capitalism, and in particular profits. Stephen Carter reminds us that record profits mean record taxes paid. And that when profits are high, firms are able to reinvest, expand and hire. Furthermore, profits accrue to the benefit of those who own stocks — overwhelmingly, pension funds and mutual funds, high profits today signaling more retirement income tomorrow.
It’s ironic that in its editorial the Wall Street comes down on the side of correcting free market failures. And by a kind of regulation of the banks. In the case of Citigroup trader Thomas Hall’s 100 million dollar salary, that we’ve read so much about lately in the news and on the talk shows, according to the Journal this is fine as long as the individual (Thomas Hall) or company (Citigroup) taking the risk does not have a government guarantee against loss if things don’t work out as planned.
“Citi employees and those of other banks should be free to make what the market will pay them—as long as it’s really the market paying them.” The clear implication being that in the present case of Andrew Hall it is not the market that is paying him but the market operating with government guarantees.
And according to Thomas Frank what is it that motivates the Blue Dogs? Why, it’s profits. Frank makes little of their high mindedness, their reasonable centrism, their fiscal conservatism. Instead, he says, that the Blue Dogs are most of all champion fund raisers.
In fact, the individual Dogs do far better than garden-variety Democrats when it comes to bringing in contributions from those lobbying Congress, like the insurance and medical industries. The Blue Dog political action committee is the only Democratic PAC to rival the big Republican dogs, and in 2009 was bested only by Mitt Romney’s gang.
Finally, Arthur Laffer, of Supply Side Economics fame, and scorned by so many on the Left for his economic ideas, has an excellent piece on health care. “The bottom line,” in all this controversy he says, ‘is that when the government spends money on health care, the patient does not.” In fact costs are no longer the patient’s concern. Not good! For when the patient doesn’t care about costs, only those who want higher costs—like doctors and drug companies—will be listened to.
In other words if you want to control costs make the beneficiaries of health care/health insurance policies important players (the most important?) in the determination of how these costs should be met. One’s choices of treatments should always have a “what’s it going to cost me?” component. Otherwise patients will never refuse this or that medicine, treatment, or other procedure. Why would they when it’s of no cost to them?
To quote Laffer, “The health-care wedge is an economic term that reflects the difference between what health-care costs the specific provider and what the patient actually pays. When health care is subsidized, no one should be surprised that people demand more of it and that the costs to produce it increase. Mr. Obama’s health-care plan does nothing to address the gap between the price paid and the price received. Instead, it’s like a negative tax: Costs rise and people demand more than they need.
“To pay for the subsidy that the administration and Congress propose, revenues have to come from somewhere. The Obama team has come to the conclusion that we should tax small businesses, large employers and the rich. That won’t work because the health-care recipients will lose their jobs as businesses can no longer afford their employees and the wealthy flee.”
Finally, just a comment. I read in Le Monde that, “deux sous-marins nucléaires russes patrouillent au large des côtes américaines.” And also in Le Monde I read from a reader, P. Damien (or Damien P.) in response to the news item about the Russian subs:
“Pas de soucis. L’immense URSS a jadis consacré 40% de son PIB à son armée, ruinant son économie et faisant le malheur de son peuple. Au pire moment, les USA deux fois plus peuplés et bien plus riches ont plafonné à 6,8%, depuis revenues à 3,8%. La Russie est au même niveau, très affaiblie. Pas de soucis. Espérons seulement que ces sous marins ne coulent pas.” (He is referring to the Kursk disaster of 2000, when the sub with all its men aboard sank in the Barents Sea.)
“Pas de soucis,” that should have been for a long time our mantra regarding the Soviet Union. And it should be our attitude now toward Iran, and even North Korea, as neither of these countries represent a realistic threat to anyone, other than themselves. We give them undeserved importance, and they take it and with it blow themselves up large and come on the world as our number one enemy. And don’t they love that!