Category Archives: The Economist

Citizen activists

I’m so glad I decided to take the bus home today.

This was a departure from my usual trip by subway.  As I left the hospital, I noticed a bus that stops a mere fifty feet from my building’s front door.  Hopping on, I knew that the trip would take a little longer, but it seemed a nice change of pace to ride above ground.  That, and I avoided the awful elevators at the subway station.

I quietly read this week’s edition of The Economist at the back of the bus for the majority of the trip.  I was startled out of an article about Robert Mugabe, however, by a surprisingly stern and assertive woman’s voice.

“Sir. Sir! You shouldn’t throw your trash on the floor.”

I looked up and saw a middle-aged woman holding a copy of the New Yorker and dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and linen blouse, gesturing to a small paper carton lying at the feet of a nearby man who was sitting with his wife and child.

He mildly explained, “It wasn’t mine.  It was sitting on that seat.”

More than slightly irritated, she responded, “Well, who’s going to pick it up down there?”

I was surprised when he leaned over, picked up the paper carton, and set it back in the seat, evidently the same place he’d brushed it from just moments earlier.  And I was even more surprised when, a few stops later, he picked it up when departing the bus, presumably to throw it away in one of New York City’s many public litter baskets.

I half-wondered what this aggressive citizen would have done when confronted with the brazen olive oil double-dipper I described last year.

The best part is that I was able to surreptitiously snap a photo of her with my cell phone camera, while pretending to listen to messages.  I applaud you, Woman With A Wide Brimmed Hat Who Reads The New Yorker.

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Filed under Around town, The Economist

A harvest of disgrace: Congress at its worst

Such was the title and subtitle of an article in the May 24th 2008 edition of The Economist.  The author lambasted the recent passage of the 2007 farm bill sent to George Bush’s desk.  “Through a complicated and overlapping system of government-sponsored insurance, counter-cyclical assistance, disater aid and legacy payments tied to nothing, the five-year, $307 billion bill lavishes cash on wealthy farm households…”

The bill also linked future subsidies to current commodity prices which are at record highs.  This means that “if and when prices dip again,” the government will be coughing up billion of dollars to farmers.

The article continues, “Most legislators probably know the farm bill is a disgrace, but they voted for it overwhelmingly anyway, revealing the cynical genius of the farm lobby.”  Thankfully, it was vetoed by George Bush, but the projection is that there are enough votes in Congress (both Democrats and Republicans alike) to override the veto.  The Economist makes note that John McCain voted against the bill; Obama did not.

Senator Obama, if this is what you mean when you say that John McCain would continue for four more years Bush’s economic policies, then I’m thankful McCain is in the running.  I suspect, however, that your assertion is not so much a precise and nuanced commentary as a vague attack that employs the current strong anti-Bush sentiment.  But that’s okay.  That’s how politics works, right?

I will grant that my perspective on economic policy is greatly influenced by the editors of The Economist.  However, at a visceral level, I agree with the atrocity of the farm bill.  Using simple logic, why should today’s record-high prices for foodstuffs be guaranteed to farmers in the future at the taxpayer’s expense?

On the political level, why are there farm subsidies anyway?  I can understand their use when farming was a small, generally family-owned venture, and small-farmers could easily be wiped out by a poor harvest.  But given the massive power and influence of today’s farmers, one would think that part of the industry of farming is learning to deal with some good years, some poor years.  Nobody forces a person to become a farmer. 

At an economic level, how can subsidies be good?  By guaranteeing future prices and subsidies to farmers, the government is in effect raising the price of food for everyone.  The common taxpayer will be supplementing the income of farmers on a bad year, whereas the farmers will make a killing on a good year.  This is akin to taxpayers’ taking on the risk when a private financial institution (like Northern Rock) collapses and is bailed out by the government.  Private investors (or farmers) benefiit when things go well, but the taxpayer BearS the burden when things sour.

Futhermore, subsidies are like throwing a handful of nuts and bolts into a well-greased machine.  What used to operate smoothly and efficiently now gets choked up and distorted.  I hate to say it, but this is the beauty of rising oil prices.  People feel the pinch, and it changes behaviors.  (See accompanying chart from The Economist showing the sales of light trucks this year compared to a year ago.  This warms my heart.)  Money is a wonderful motivator, but if the government began subsidizing oil and offered rebates for truck-buyers, this would amputate the invisible hand, so to speak.  Nobody wants a creepy, severed hand unless it grants wishes.  Even then, it’s probably not a good idea.  But I digress.

This leads to the final perspective: the moral one.  Rising food prices are obviously related to non-free-market policies endorsed by the United States government and clung to by farmers.  They are paid extra to grow corn for ethanol, which takes a lot of water to produce and distorts the price of corn.  My readers will know I’m not a bleeding heart liberal when I say that I’m frankly not as worried about poor Americans.  To cope with rising food prices, many have several options:

  1. Stop eating at McDonalds
  2. Make food at home
  3. Cancel the cable television and cell-phone subscription services
  4. Stop going to the movies; rent a video instead

In reality, I’m suggesting that we all may just have to adjust to a slightly lower standard of living.  Ouch.  But mainly I’m worried about the billion people or so who live on $1.25 per day.  A thirty percent increase in food prices doesn’t mean fewer Happy Meals and fewer “anytime minutes”; it mean more malnutrition, disease, and death.  By doing away with farm subsidies, we can save lives.

For these reasons, come November I may prefer another four years of George Bush’s economic policies to change.  I welcome comments that challenge me, or ones that help me to see the broader benefit that farm subsidies offer.

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Filed under Economics, The Economist

How "on the go" changes us

The April 12 issue of The Economist had an outstanding special report called “Nomads at last.” It examined the sociological implications of mobile technology like cellular phones, BlackBerrys, Wi-Fi hotspots, the ubiquity of the internet, etc.

While there is much to say regarding the technology itself, the report focused on how these devices change where and how we work, how we construct buildings, how we build cities, how we drive, how we relate to family and strangers, and how we use language.

The free online version can be found here. The webpage that comes up is merely the first article in the special report. Click on “next article” at the bottom for continued reading.

Read it. You will be a better person for it.

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Filed under Jonathan recommends, The Economist

A near flub…

…appears in the February 23 edition of The Economist, in an article that addresses the split in Hamas’ leadership:

“Yet even the pragmatists, currently seeking a deal with Israel that would comprise a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners and a formula for opening the border crossing to Egypt, shy from the kind of concessions–such as recognising Israel–that might convince the world to grant them legitimacy.”

I had to read this sentence several times when I first came upon it. The sentence is best understood by realizing that the word comprise is followed by a list of three things. There is no comma between the second and third things in the list (i.e., the Oxford comma is missing), an act I don’t approve of but will not condemn.

Hence, the subject of the sentence, pragmatists, is paired with the verb, shy.

Notice also the correct use of the word comprise. Individual parts compose a whole. A whole is composed of its parts. More eloquently, a whole comprises its parts. The Economist knows that the verb to comprise should be used in the active voice.

This post is sponsored by Hamas and the verbs to comprise and to shy.

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Filed under Grammar & language, The Economist

Three delightful findings

Every day, no matter how much I’d like to forget it, has its bright spots, like getting to enjoy the snow flurries through the window this morning for about 5 seconds. Here are a few more from today:

  • In the September 22 edition of The Economist I ran across a review of Alan Greenspan’s new book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. Evidently, not everyone would naturally look forward to encountering this 530-page tome: …nobody ever accused Mr Greenspan of being a lively speaker, let alone a born storyteller, and no reviewer could approach this volume with anything but a heavy heart and a sense of duty.
  • From the same review, Who would have guessed that 500 pages in Mr Greenspan’s company could slip by so easily?
  • And finally, reading in amNewYork I ran across an article about possible subway fare hikes by the MTA. Obviously, most riders are opposed, and there were public hearings provided for them as a forum heard by the MTA board. Some, however, doubted the efficacy of their testimony in convincing the board and yet chose to testify: “I told my co-workers about it [the public hearing], and they said it was like spitting in the wind,” said Sahre Davis, a receptionist and community college student from Greenpoint who also testified at a hearing. “I’d rather spit, because I know it will land somewhere.”

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A Little Pizzazz

The art of capturing the audience with the title and subtitle

I’ve never heard formal teaching on this topic, but I’ve noticed how newspapers and magazines often make use of both a title and a subtitle. As a result, I’ve developed an intuitive sense of how most writers use these features. It seems that a title is used to catch the eye. (In the case of this entry: “A Little Pizzazz.”) Anything to spark the reader’s interest. Commonly, the subtitle goes on to clarify, especially when the title scintillates to the degree of obscuring what the article is really about. An example of title/subtitle from a recent issue of The Economist:

Taming Leviathan: These are both the best of times and the worst of times for the American-Jewish lobby.

The article is accompanied by a dapper illustration of a sea monster tossing about rowboats filled with men in dark suits. This fits the paradigm nicely: the subtitle should not bore the reader, but rather encourage her* to read on.

Perhaps better to have no subtitle, however, when the subtitle in mind is about as sexy as oatmeal. Case in point, from the same issue of The Economist:

What price carbon?: Britain and the EU have learnt from some green-policy mistakes, but not from others.

Tantalize, this subtitle does not. It reeks of balance and fairness. It bores in its stated attempt to see both sides of the issue. And whereas the title should at least provide a little spice for the eyes, the question form serves only to confuse the reader. Thumbs down.

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* Usually I’d revert to classic English rules and use “him” when referring to a person whose gender is unknown. “The doctor said to his patient…”; “The pilot made his announcement…”; “The principal asked the student to step into his office.” However, I thought I’d mix it up sometimes and try “her” on for size. “The nurse picked up her uniform from the cleaners.”; “The flight attendant enjoys her job.” Feedback in this area would be appreciated.

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Filed under Grammar & language, The Economist

This is good to know

I knew that ever since beginning to read a British news source which I will not name here, I’ve become increasingly confused about placing my periods and commas with relationship to the quotation marks. It used to seem black and white (The comma always goes inside), but more and more these days, logic tells me to place it outside.

For clarification, see this article, apparently written by a teacher of grammar. Grammartips.com has to be reputable! Apparently the British and Americans differ with respect to the placement. The American convention has interesting historical roots, but you’ll have to read the article to find out more!

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Filed under Grammar & language, The Economist