Monday, July 31, 2006

The cost of subsidies

Driving down to my grandfather's funeral last week, I could hardly help noticing corn growing. That happens when you drive in Illinois and Iowa. It's not all a bad thing. I love corn (even grits) and corn-fed beef. It would be a poorer world without it.

And so I wondered what the actual cost of agricultural subsidies might be. The first round of costs is pretty straightforward: about $5 billion for ethanol and another $20 billion or so in direct subsidies to grain and dairy farmers. Also, a few billion dollars annually to tobacco farmers, and some more billions for food subsidies for the poor. So maybe we're up to about $50 billion annually, right?

Well, no. Let's not forget what you get when you subsidize corn, tobacco, and dairy. You get a lot of foods fried in corn and soybean oil, lots of foods made from the same (american "cheese", velveeta, etc..), meats fed in feedlots (chicken, pork, turkey, beef), cheap liquor made with corn syrup, cigarettes, and the like.

In other words, you make the raw materials for obesity, heart problems, diabetes, alcoholism and lung problems cheaper. In doing so, you also end up creating ideal situations for water pollution (fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, waste) and prevent those with good grazing lands from making a living.

The total cost? Subsidies can't take all the blame, of course, but the total costs associated with our bad diet choices, smoking, and drinking exceed one trillion dollars annually. Add to that the costs of subsidizing poverty, and we're talking about some serious money here.

Not to mention this; when you subsidize corn and dairy, you cannot use the land for other purposes. The farm my grandfather grew up on is a great example. 89 years ago, there were sheep, pigs, cattle, fruit trees, grazing land, and a garden there besides land for growing grains. Now it's just used for growing grain--and instead of barley, rye, oats, wheat, and corn, it's just corn and soybeans.

So it seems that subsidies are not only horrendously expensive, but they also make life boring. What a pity.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Governmental poverty subsidies

According to a Washington Times article, total federal poverty subsidies are about 400 billion dollars annually. To put things into perspective, that's a subsidy of nearly $9000 for every man, woman, and child in poverty--assuming about 15% of the population is poor. If one divided this subsidy appropriately among the poor, there would be no one left with an income below the poverty threshold. This doesn't even count state and local subsidies.

Now granted, most of that money doesn't actually reach the poor. Most of it gets eaten up by bureaucracy long before it gets to recipients. However, we should never forget that when you subsidize something, you get more of it, and the behaviors that lead to poverty are no exception.

See FratersLibertas for some more interesting statistics on "anti"-poverty efforts.


I read recently that the "Ritz-Carlton" hotel was changing their directions for employees to downplay the traditional signs of respect for customers--things like saying "good morning" instead of "hello" or "howdy", making sure that a porter carries their bags, and so on.

Also noted this morning was the difficulty one author has had in saying "good morning" to people on his way to work. In other words, there is significant data that the niceties that make life liveable are increasingly being forgotten in our society.

And we wonder why the divorce rate approaches 50%, and why people shoot at each other on LA freeways. Rudeness isn't the only reason, but I bet a bit of manners just might help.

So a hearty "good morning" to you, gentle reader.

Monday, July 24, 2006

10 good years, and 89 good years

This week marks two significant things. First, ten wonderful years with my wife. She's cuter than when I met her, I tell you.

It also marks something sad; at nearly 89 years of age, my grandfather left this earth. When I think of some of the times I spent watching TV instead of interacting with him, I wish that Elvis had been in the room with his .45 to shoot the idiot box. (he's said to have done just that in a hotel room in Vegas, I believe)

Grandpa managed to teach me a lot about love, authority, and how to drive a stick anyways. RIP, Grandpa Dixon.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Medication errors

The Institute of Medicine, chartered by Congress, has released the results of a survey which extrapolates a number of 1.5 million people harmed by medication errors each year. How badly harmed is left unsaid--though it should be noted that other studies have claimed about 100,000 deaths from medical errors annually, so we'd guess that fewer than 6% of the medication errors lead to death, at the very least.

The researchers give various tips for how people can keep track of their own medications, and also steps the FDA might take to prevent medication errors. Left unsaid, sadly, is Ken Cooper's finding that something like 50% of medical expenses are due to preventable diseases--those caused by smoking, obesity, and a lack of exercise.

In other words, if you want to avoid medication errors, reduce your need for medications. Doing this will also help you in the next 10 years or so as Medicare collapses under the weight of its entitlements.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

An interesting call

I recently wrote a letter to the editor to protest this column's misrepresentation of sources. To wit, the author used a Brady Center report, but described it as data from the BATF. Pretty big difference, I dare say. Unfortunately, my town's police chief may be the one who is misrepresenting this to the columnist. I might need to write a note to him and the city council about this. He's entitled to his views, but he's not entitled to represent political action groups as if they were reports from a governmental agency.

At any rate, one of my points was that gun traces rarely reveal any evidence because only 12% of crime guns are obtained through a gun or pawn shop, and that even most of those are obtained legally.

So I got a call from the editorial assistant asking whether I meant to write "legally" or "Illegally". Apparently the editor could not bring himself to believe that a portion of criminals actually obtained their firearms through legal channels--that is, as citizens not yet convicted of a crime.

It shows brilliantly how far we need to go to get sane dialogue on the subject of guns, I dare say.

Love the environment? Buy a Hummer?

An article (see link) claims that actual energy use by a Hummer is less than that for a Prius. I'm currently reading through the full article, and while it raises some interesting points about hybrid vehicle usage, there is a flaw; it estimates that the cost of a vehicle to society can be greater than that which the owner pays.

Obviously, such a situation doesn't exactly fit classical economics or satisfy the accountants. So while other calculations do demonstrate that hybrid vehicles are more costly to the owner than one with an internal combustion engine, this study does not demonstrate this effectively. My mistake to take this source at face value.

I'm still waiting, by the way, for a good analysis of how much toxic waste is produced to generate the batteries and composites used to make hybrids go. Anybody got a source?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Two pipe dreams

#1; that the Federal government would begin to use "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles" (the ones that the rest of us are required to use by law) and declare bankruptcy, admitting the colossal debacles that are Social Security and Medicare. None of us under 40 (at least those of us who are sane) were counting on them, anyways, so we might as well make it official.

#2; that we'd collapse the size of government by instituting a modest tariff of 10% or so (get rid of NAFTA & GATT too, no 28,000 page treaty can make sense) and incrementally reduce the size of the budget as more and more spending becomes unnecessary.

I can dream, can't I?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Something truly important

One truly wonderful thing about driving through Wisconsin is that there is always another cheese store to visit and explore. In the past couple of weeks, I've visited Humbird in Tomah and Carr Valley's retail store and factory in Mauston. Great name for a town with a cheese factory, right? (mouse-town, for those who don't know German)

My favorites; Carr Valley's cheddars are delightful. The fresh curds squeak like a mouse being run over by my pickup, and their aged cheddars remind you fully why you waited so long to eat them. I'm going to try one of their 15 year sharps one of these days--8 years is pretty strong already. The landjaeger sausages at Humbird are also not helping my weight loss program. Get a box of crackers to cleanse the palate for the next bite, and get some ice cream to finish.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Happy Bastille Day!

Things have been a little bit rough between France and the U.S.A. for a while now, but I think it's important that we recognize that France has indeed made some real contributions to the world. Some examples:

Dark roasted coffee and fine chocolates

Charlolais and Limousin beef cattle

Say and Bastiat in political economy

Hundreds of different cheeses


Multi-shipped "Gothic" churches (e.g. Notre Dame with seven "ships," or areas between support columns, or Chartres)

And no, not French Fries. They're actually Belgian. That said, however, when I look at some very real cultural accomplishments from Gaul, I must call my self a cheese eating surrender blogger today.

And one final contribution? The trebuchet, and in honor of that, I'm using that font today. What it has to do with the medieval siege engine is beyond me, but I got caught up in the spirit.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Something to contemplate

I know many graduates of the nation's premier liberal arts colleges and universities. Few of them can name the liberal arts.

I know many electrical engineers who, if pressed on any details of the lives of Maxwell, Hertz, Marconi, or Faraday, would be ill-prepared to give one--let alone recreate any of their famous experiments.

I know journalists who have no idea about the contributions of Peter Zenger, W.R. Hearst, or Ernie Pyle. I've even read a journalism law book that makes no mention of Zenger--though he and Alexander Hamilton redefined libel law in the famous case that bears his name.

Draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Cabin on the lake

I just got back from a week's vacation, and had the privilege of seeing "cabin on the lake" culture up close. More or less, it seems to me that many people go to their cabins to escape workaday lives and (probably more importantly) get away from their "stuff." Ironically, many people begin their lives more or less in a cabin, sweat to accumulate the stuff to fill a 4000 square foot house and a storage unit or five, and then proceed to spend a few hundred grand more to get back into the cabin they started out in.

John Piper once noted that the service of Christ might require us to give up dreams of a house on the lake. He's right in a way, but perhaps we might even more strongly consider staying in the cabin we started out in instead.