Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Price Gouging?

It's all over the television news, both local and national coverage, especially over the past week or two: the rising cost of gasoline. Every politician wants his or her constituents to know that it is something they're concerned about and if it takes an investigation into price gouging or a cap on "windfall profits", then by God, that's what they'll do to fix this problem.

But is it really that big of a problem? Now don't get me wrong. I'm no different than anybody else. I don't enjoy paying higher prices for gasoline, but I don't enjoy paying higher prices for any other commodity either.

In the past year gasoline prices have risen about thirty percent, from $2.25/gallon to about $2.91/gallon. That's highway robbery, right? Well, just to illustrate why it isn't, let's look at a few other commodities. Now, you can check out any of the oil industry sites to see their take on this increase as it relates to the rise in costs of other commodities (I would suggest Conoco-Phillips), but this will help to put it into perspective a little simpler. In the same period, April, 2005 to April, 2006 Aluminum rose over 45%, Copper over 107% and Gold over 49%. I don't remember hearing anyone calling for a cap on profits from these sectors. These commodities are also very essential to our economy and our everyday lives but no hearings on capitol hill over the copper industry, right?

I know what I'm getting when I buy a gallon of gas. It's a substance that will propel my vehicle a few miles down the road. It's largely tied into the cost of a barrel of oil in the current commodities market. During that same period mentioned above, the cost of a barrel of oil went from $54.81 to $74, a 35% increase. That tells me that the cost of a gallon of gas is pretty closely tied into this increase of the material needed to make gasoline. I can't complain when the cost of making gasoline has risen thirty-five percent and the cost of the gasoline itself has risen only thirty percent, can I?

When I graduated from high school in 1975, the cost of tuition at a state university was around $300 for a full semester of classes. That cost has now risen tenfold or more. Has the product been improved? I think not. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) asked high-school level questions of college seniors in a February 2000 survey of historical literacy and found that 81 percent would have received a D or F (American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Restoring America's Legacy, September 2002, at http://www.goacta.org/publications/Reports/america%27s_legacy.pdf.). The increase in the cost of higher education has exceeded the increase in the consumer price index by several percentage points each year for most of the past twenty years. Meanwhile the value of that education has become entirely suspect (this is to say that the product has diminished in qualilty, not necessarily that the product is not as valuable in getting a better job).

The wisdom of setting price caps or attaching windfall profits taxes to any industry is weak at best. Such a strategy was tried by Nixon in the Seventies and resulted in product shortages and an economic decline for the entire country (I remember seeing long lines for gas and getting to the pump only to find a sign saying, "OUT OF GAS"). Consumers will bear the brunt of these approaches to price control, as no industry will make a product to lose money. Either they make money or they will not produce, it's that simple. On average the oil companies make about 9 cents/gallon on the gasoline they sell. Government taxation nets (in some states) over sixty cents on that same gallon! What do we get for our money from these exorbitant government taxes? That's a rant for another day (if you've been here before, you know it's a rant for just about every other day!).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

It's the Economy, Stupid!

"It's the economy, stupid," in American politics was a phrase widely (but usually imprecisely) quoted after Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign. It was coined by Democratic Party strategist James Carville. In order to keep the campaign on message, Carville hung a sign in Bill Clinton's Little Rock campaign headquarters with the following three points, roughly in haiku form:
1. Change vs. more of the same
2. The economy, stupid
3. Don't forget health care.
(from Wikipedia)

I would like to, Ragin' Kajun-like, offer my own haiku to President Bush:
Lead by example
Ban earmarks and use veto
Weed out bad apples

Of course the surrent crop of politicians is corrupt. Both sides of the aisle are suspect. Politics has become a business that encourages graft and corruption and even in today's media spotlight, they get away with it most of the time. Ask yourself why anyone would raise and spend millions of dollars to win a job that pays a hundred thousand a year. It's obviously because there's some money and power that comes with the job, but doesn't show up in the tax returns.

Example: Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia is under investigation for steering $178 million in federal money to nonprofits in his district run by people who are regular contributors to his political campaigns. In addition to this, The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Mollohan's income and assets grew from the mundane (no more than $565,000 in 2000) to the magnificent (about $6 million, give or take a couple hundred thou in 2004). I guess all that campaign money was well-spent after all!

Make no mistake, this is not the exception in today's political arena. Many famous examples could be brought up, such as Hillary's incredible luck in the futures markets. These people are corrupt and they will fight tooth and nail to remain that way. They keep their constituents in line by adding on earmarks that seem to benefit the local populations (though, think about it-that's your money your politicians are awarding you!), by prostituting the public's fears and hatreds and by keeping the people separated by class and race divisions. All the while, lining their pockets and leading the country down the primrose path. Our children and grandchildren will pay the price.

Bush came out early in his campaign to say that Social Security was broken and needed to be fixed. Any idjit knows that statement is true, but throw a little class and racial division at the people and they'll believe the sky is green. Voila! Shot down.

Now we have a little immigration problem. It isn't Bush's problem, it's been there for years, quietly ignored. People are fed up with the idea that illegal aliens can come and go across our borders with impunity, all the while reaping the fruits of our social services at taxpayers expense. Now, what Bush should do is shoot straight and say it out loud: Illegal immigration is against the law. Can't do it, though. Might upset a poll somewhere.

Here's an example of what is going on right now in congress, regarding the spending of your money:

"President George W. Bush requested an emergency appropriation of $92 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and another round of hurricane recovery. The House approved the request, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has loaded the measure with $14 billion in new spending, most unrelated to national security or hurricane recovery.

"Senators are now readying floor amendments to add as much as $10 billion more in spending. The Senate should reject all additional spending proposals, strip all items not part of the President's request, and go one step further by identifying offsets to pay for the bill's new spending. The President should draw a line in the sand by promising to veto any supplemental that is either beyond the scope of his request or above its total funding."

- Brian Riedl and Alison Acosta Fraser of the Heritage Foundation

Now I'll bet you much waste could be trimmed from that orginal $92 billion, but instead of doing that your representatives and senators will tack on another unnecessary twenty plus billion, just for good measure. And then during the upcoming elections, they'll blame George W. Bush for the entire amount, saying he is a spendthrift! If you don't believe me, I've got a $700 million dollar railway in Mississippi I'd like to sell you...(Yeah, two Republican Senators want to destroy a railway recently rebuilt after Katrina at a cost of nearly $300 million, to build a new $700 million dollar highway! REPUBLICANS!)

I for one, believe that people would find it refreshing for a politician to tell it like it is, just once! Stand up and do the right thing, and for God's sake USE THE VETO!

Oh, and in keeping with my beer theme this year, I like beer! Bet you didn't know that, did ya'?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Short History of Beer

I like beer. I like to think of beer as a culturing agent much as many people think of wine. The consumption of beer, its enjoyment and the critiquing of the many varieties lends mankind a substance for comraderie, critical evaluation and cultural pride. Of course beer can be a social lubricant, but it can also be an attractive accompaniment to food. It is one of my goals to introduce the finer varieties of beer to the American public so that they can understand that a fine meal does not need a fine wine to accompany it; a fine beer can do the job quite nicely. In this effort I'd like to introduce a very short history of beer, one of my favorite subjects.

The earliest mention of beer in historical writings dates back to the Sumerian civilization about 6000 years ago. The "beer" the Sumerians drank was undoubtedly very different than what modern beer has become. In the third millenium B.C., beer is prominently mentioned in the epic poem, Gilgamesh. The poem describes the journey of a man (or mankind) from a savage, unkempt beast to a civilized, and cultured person. It is interesting that this tranformation was wrought upon the man by a harlot, sent to him by the demi-god, Gilgamesh, to learn his weaknesses:

"They placed food in front of him,
they placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
and of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
he drank the beer-seven jugs!-- and became expansive and sang with joy!
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human."

In ancient Babylonia, one of Hammurabi's famous laws, was one which decreed a standard measure of beer for it's citizens. Of course, this early form of entitlement was doled out in differing measure, depending upon the class of the citizen.

In the Middle Ages, brewing became very popular in the many European monasteries. This was the time when brewing began to be entrusted to men, as previously it had been, along with cooking and breadmaking, the job of women. Monks brewed beer because they needed a nutritious drink to serve with their meals, which were few and frugal at best. Since beer was not considered food, it could be consumed while fasting. European monks developed quite the appetite for beer. This turned into a commercial enterprise for them, as they produced more than they could consume, and the monastic pubs were enormously popular. Monks introduced scientific improvements to the brewer's art. It is no surprise that Belgian monasteries have produced some of the most celebrated beer in the world.

During this time, the science of brewing was poorly understood. When beers didn't turn out properly (probably because of sanitation problems as germs were not known to exist, yet), superstition took over. Brew witches or beer witches were blamed for many a bad brewday, and burnings were common. The last known burning of a beer witch occurred in 1591. It was around this time that the use of hops became near standard in the brewing of beer in Europe. Before this the flavoring, spicing and bittering agents used included many herbs and spices; some of them actually poisonous or hallucenogenic in nature. The famous German Beer Purity Law of 1516 helped to ensure that beer was produced according to accepted safe standards. Known in Germany as the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law decreed that beer could be made only with Barley, water and hops (the unacknowledged ingredient, yeast, being an unknown entity at the time). This law, still in effect today, is the oldest food purity law in existence. The EU looked upon this law as counter-competitive, though, and insisted that beer imports into Germany be allowed, even if they do not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, as long as they are so labeled.

Until the nineteenth century, technology required brewers to produce ales when the weather was warm and lagers only when the weather was cold enough to allow the low-temperature fermentation required by lager yeasts. As cooling technologies were developed (fittingly, the first refrigerating technology was tested in a Munich brewery), brewers were freed from these natural constraints and lager beers began to be produced all year round. The lager beers began to be prized as the "new beer", as any technological innovation seems to become the popular fad, and they nearly fazed out the older ale styles in the late nineteenth century. The knowledge of microbes was introduced to the world, finally absolving the poor beer witches of yore,, and sanitation improved considerably. Pasteur himself learned much about the germ world through his studies of beer, published in 1876. Yeast was "discovered" and isolated to allow brewers to use the many different strains to produce markedly different flavor profiles, and machinery such as steam engines allowed the brewing process, as well as the transportation of beer, to become mechanized.

Beer styles often arose as a result of historical and political occurrences. The enormous panoply of varied beer styles in Belgium resulted from the isolation of the monks in the different monasteries, the competition between these monasteries for customers, and the competition with wineries in the beverage market. In England, during it's colonial heyday, beer was produced and transported to England's many far-away colonies. In order for a beer to make the trip, in the days before modern pasteurization was possible, beer needed to be over-hopped and higher in alcohol than normal to make the beer more resistant to spoilage. The development of an entirely new style of beer was the solution and the Imperial Pale Ale (IPA)was born. In the 1800's many English brewers saw a geat market in Imperial Russia. The Baltic Porter style was long popular in the area, and English brewers wanted to outdo the favored style of the Russians to win over the czar's favor: the Russian Imperial Stout was the result. Baltic Porters are dark, malty beers with a strong alcohol content(7% +), again to aid in retarding spoilage during the trip from England to Russia and beyond. The Russian Imperial Stout is the development of a truly high octane stout, sometimes reaching over 10% in alcohol content. These are the kings of stout beers, boasting a pronounced malt profile, with roasted, toasted and chocolatey malt flavors as well as fruity hints and higher alcoholic notes. My favorite beer of this style is made right here in Michigan by The Kalamazoo Brewing Company. It is called Bell's Expedition Stout. Give it a try!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Coyote Jihad

Shocking images are being received detailing the level of horrific torture conducted on "Hal" the coyote tracked down recently in New York City's Central Park. Though, officials indicate the coyote died during attempts to "re-locate" him to a rural environment, these new photos just now emerging, paint an entirely different picture.

The ACLU has filed suit with a New York court to have published all of the photos of the detention of Hal and his subsequent demise. "The American people, as well as the American coyote community, deserve to know the truth about these horrific detention centers", an unnamed ACLU spokesman said earlier today.

The rumors surrounding the scandal under the surface of this seemingly innocent relocation effort were first uncovered by intrepid blogger, Scott Ott early this morning.

Riots may erupt in the coyote streets which are, as Ott reminds us, very sensitive to any perceived abuses. The probability that many coyotes have gained access to ingenious weapons through their close ties to the ACME corporation (A Company that Makes Everything)makes this situation a great danger for the entire world. Already, the US has imposed strict embargoes on any corporation selling anvils or rocket skates to any quadruped. A State Department official indicated that restricting sales of such items to coyotes only would be seen as profiling.

The situation is made only more precarious by the threats of many cartoonists and animation artists to depict the coyote "prophet", Wily E. Coyote, in various unflattering ways, for entertainment purpopses. A spokesman for the activist cartoonist group, Cartoonists Offer You Only Terrific Entertainment, stated, "We're not going to let any four-legged furry critters keep us from entertaining the public with our work. Free speech is still important to cartoonists, even if it isn't popular with coyotes.

The fact that coyotes now occupy nearly every state and county in the US, makes this an extremely dangerous situation. The world awaits the resolution of this conflict.