August 3, 2009
The controversy of the federal government’s “cash-for-clunkers” program dramatizes the odd position we Americans have put ourselves in as victims of our own success.
The program provides a $4,500 subsidy for a qualified buyer who wants to trade in an old inefficient vehicle for a new and “greener” one. Everybody wins in this program: the buyer can afford a new car, the auto dealer and — by extension — the manufacturer gets rid of inventory, the environment is subject to one less outrage, and the junk yard gets another heap to turn back into cash. The program is so beneficial, and consequently so popular, that it went broke in a hurry, and the question of whether to re-fund it is now being debated in Congress.
One of those opposed to more funding for this program is U.S. Sen. John McCain — Sarah Palin’s former running mate. McCain thinks this program is an unfair subsidy of the auto industry, as distinct from other classes of business that are at risk in this economic downturn. But the auto industry is getting this attention because it has become such a pervasive part of the overall economy; if it goes down, according to conventional wisdom, everything else goes with it.
At the root of this phenomenon is the American obsession with cars and with new cars in particular. This has been out of control for a long time, but we were too giddy to notice. The industry produces too many cars, and whole sectors of the economy have grown around that practice like barnacles. This has happened in a country that has failed miserably at building an efficient mass-transit system, though it talks endlessly, and without blushing, about the need to get travelers off the roads and onto trains and buses and monorails and — while we’re daydreaming — into teletransporters. I don’t know if this is what McCain means by his opposition to this latest proposal to expand the federal deficit, but despite the rhetoric about reforming the auto industry, the game plan really seems to be to help it continue overproduction. And what do we think will happen in the long run if we win at that game? I admit to a prejudice here, because I drive a car until it has well over 150,000 miles on the clock, but if we continue the same behavior and expect a different outcome, aren’t we all — by definition — crazy?
April 24, 2009
The Associated Press is reporting on an unanticipated effect of the “housing crisis.” Mosquitoes. According to the AP, the pests are breeding like crazy in swimming pools that have been left unattended in the back yards of houses that are in foreclosure. In Phoenix, for instance, the number of unattended pools increased from around 6,000 in 2007 to 9,100 last year. If the trend continues, the number could exceed 14,000 this year. One approach to this problem is to seed the pools with “mosquito fish,” a guppy-like minnow that can thrive and reproduce in a pool while devouring the eggs and larvae of the mosquitoes.
I don’t have any sympathy for the mosquitoes. I have an allergic reaction to their stings and really can’t tolerate them. Some wags like to imply that these insects are peculiar to New Jersey, but the worst mosquito conditions I ever encountered were on Key Largo and in northern Alberta. In Alberta, we didn’t have to wait ’til sundown to be assaulted; the little buggers were active all day. We were up there in mid-summer, and we had to walk around all day with our shirts buttoned up to the neck and the sleeves pulled down over our hands. Still, mosquitoes were among the factors that drove us out of our house in Fairfield in northern New Jersey where we lived between two swamps known as the Big Piece and the Little Piece – names I’d rather not explore any further in a public forum.
One of the current brouhahas in San Francisco has to do with the annoying custom – or business practice – known as tipping. The city wants the restaurants in town to either provide health-care coverage for their employees or pay a fee to the city so that the employees can be covered by the universal health-care program. The restaurant owners are suing the city over that issue, but they have a counter proposal: A “tip credit” that would reduce the minumum wage paid to wait staff by the amount they earn in tips. Don’t you love it? The minumum wage in San Francisco is $9.79 an hour, by the way – a far cry from the federal requirement, but hardly the stuff of which fortunes are made.
Tipping is one of my pet peeves. One of the reasons I like visiting Iceland is that tipping isn’t practiced there. Restaurants charge what they need to in order to pay the staff a living wage and still make a profit, and customers don’t follow up a meal by analyzing the quality of the service and the personality and repartee of the server. Civilized people, those Icelanders – although, there is the whole whaling thing.
”Whaddya think? Fifteen percent? Well, he did bring more coffee. OK, what? Eighteen? Twenty?” Just the thing to encourage digestion.