Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Everything's going to pot...pie

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As I munched an apple and guzzled some Silk Light Soy Milk Wednesday morning, I listened to a story on NPR's "Marketplace" about a rise in the number of people buying food at Dollar stores. One man raved about the tasty Dollar Store pot pies he now regularly scarfed for lunch. He said they were just as good but so much cheaper than the New York City street food he could no longer afford.

"Well, so much for trying to eat healthy," I said aloud.

His stumping for the $1 pot pie made me think about the chain reaction that rising gas and food prices could be setting off. The chain goes something like this: gas prices rise, food prices rise (both already done), people sustain life on cheap packaged food, health begins a toilet-swirl decline, health insurance skyrockets even more, diet industry prospers even more, life expectancy goes down...

Maybe that's a little fatalistic. But when middle class folks are forced to do more with less,
pre-packaged pot-pie goodness from the Dollar Store - preservatives, corn syrup, fat and all - makes a whole lot of economical sense, despite the obvious health faux pas.

And that presents some problems. For those of us who'd like to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles (which is pretty much just about everyone), microwavable meals that cost 99 cents simply aren't the best food choices, no matter how tasty. As much as I don't like to admit it, one of the cardinal rules of healthy living is the following: If man made it, don't eat it.

But when Aunt Jemima sells her stuff cheaper than Mother Nature, who can blame people for skipping the produce section?

In an attempt to help people get their daily servings of fruits and veggies without having to put them on a credit card, here are some possible options:

"The 99-cent evangelist." Author Christiane Jory wrote a book about how to make gourmet food using items that mainly cost $1 or less. No endorsement from me on the health factor, but at least this book will show you how to make that canned chicken look pretty.

Shop at Aldi. They sell healthy stuff at a rock-bottom price. A friend of mine who's a personal trainer says he began shopping here to help lower his monthly grocery bills while still buying super-healthy items such as almonds and low-fat yogurt.

Grow your own food. Don't have a green thumb? Food prices these days might force you to get one. I don't have my own backyard yet, otherwise I just might try to grow my own food. I'm starting small with a hanging herb planter.

Stock up on healthy food coupons. A number of sites offer universal coupons for healthy items made by organic food brands , as well as simple savings on everyday healthy foods.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A down cycle of corporate conscience

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Executives from America's top five oil companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, taking a huge guilt weight off my shoulders by revealing that yes, it is possible to be a millionaire and a victim.

In between Senator Patrick
Leahy's scathing sarcasm, these rich, white, well-dressed middle-aged men attempted to explain why, in the span of a three-month quarter, their companies managed to ratchet up profits more than 620,000 times the country's average annual salary - in the midst of a so-called oil crisis, no less.

For instance, last quarter their companies - Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp.,
BP America Inc., ConocoPhillips Co. and Shell Oil Co. - collectively reported $36 billion in profits, according to MSNBC. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called that a lack of "corporate conscience." The oil executives called it an "up cycle."

Tomato,
tomahto.

Their profits in the double-billions are justified, the oil men said, because they need that money to hunt down, tap and refine new oil supplies to then prevent the probability of an all-out end-of-the-world scenario during what I'm assuming they'd call a "down cycle."
What's more, their profits come down to simple supply and demand - there's more demand, but not a lot of supply, and therefore, prices go up. They've been trying to tell people this would happen for some time, they said, but no one seemed interested enough to listen.

While I read their explanations in the news, off in the distance of my psyche, I heard the squeaky voice of the Three Stooges' Curly: "I'm a victim a'
soycumstance! I'm a victim a soycumstance!"

Sure, any member of the middle class or working poor (and, it seems, Sen.
Leahy) is bound scoff at such ridiculous claptrap being passed off as a legitimate reasoning for why many of us can't afford a week's worth of gas. Morally, it's an abomination.

But economically, it's capitalism.

These men got into the business, presumably worked hard, and with tenacity and luck, assumed their posts at the top. Sounds a little like a dream I have frequently...an American dream...

From a capitalist perspective, these men deserve their just reward. And now, they make so much money that some of them, when pressed by Sen.
Leahy, apparently couldn't even venture a guess as to what their salaries actually might be.

(That, by the way, is complete hooey. Anyone who makes that much money knows just how much is coming in and where it's going. I'd wager it's going to $6,00 shower curtains.)

For these men, capitalism proved to be a good deal. As for the rest of us, we continue to buy $4 gallons of gas, scramble on top of each other, assume a kneeling position, and form the pyramid of aching, dollar-scraped backs that enables these men to easily climb aloft and survey their vast empires.

I truly applaud Sen.
Durbin for asking: “Is there anybody here that has any concerns about what you’re doing to this country with the prices that you’re charging and the profits that you’re taking?”

The answer: "We have a lot of concern about that."

Here's hoping the collective conscience of these very lucky men could be on the verge of an up cycle.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The party, or the people?

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Barack Obama stands within inches of clenching the Democratic presidential nomination thanks to his victory in the Oregon primaries on Tuesday. Nipping at his heels is, and will continue to be, Hillary Clinton, until perhaps the June 3 primaries - or the Democratic Party's superdelegates - finally settle the score.

While many believe Clinton should just accept defeat and step aside, Clinton presses on, vowing to ensure democracy has its day over impatience and worries of polarization within the Democratic party.

And I agree with her.

I am one citizen who, despite my Democratic leanings, still doesn't know who I'd vote for. And I believe Hillary should be allowed to run for as long as it makes sense. And right now, it does make sense. The race is razor-close, and she continues to win primaries. The people are speaking.

The only downfall: without a clear winner, the fate of the nomination could inevitably lie in the hands of "superdelegates," comprised of elected Democratic officials and other party big-wigs. Despite the fact they have just as much right to vote as the rest of us, their "
superdelegate" moniker suggests one of their votes counts more than one of yours or mine.

And that's where the taste in my mouth starts to go sour.

I'd never heard of
superdelegates until this year. It sounds like a miniature version of the electoral college suited to Democratic needs. Why do the votes of these select party elite potentially trump the people's choice?

In Colonial times, the electoral college formed because our nation's founding fathers felt America's citizens were too ill-informed and under-educated to make competent decisions about the country's leadership. While we could still argue the same holds true today, there's a stark difference: those who are too ill-informed or under-educated to make such decisions chose to be that way.

We don't get our mail by horseback anymore. We don't have to wait days to receive word - in fact, these days we get miffed if "word" arrives in minutes rather than seconds.

So why is the system used to select party nominees and president-elects still designed for horse-and-
buggie times?

It makes me think of an episode from the HBO miniseries "John Adams," in which Adams receives the second-largest amount of votes for president, and thus becomes Vice President behind George Washington. It made me long for those simpler times.

Just tally up the popular vote from the primaries, and give the nomination to whoever receives the most votes. A
superdelegate's vote shouldn't hold any more weight than your next door neighbor's. The same should apply to the presidential election.

Furthermore, while those who hold the same core political beliefs will inevitably align and conspire, I fear John Adams had it right when he said the formation of political parties scared him. He feared party members would forget the interests of the people, and instead focus on the interests of their party.

In that respect, I applaud Hillary Clinton for her tenacious choice to continue in the race despite all who say she should gracefully bow out for the good of her party. Her actions suggest she just might have the interests of the people, not the party, at heart.

Monday, May 19, 2008

How do we solve the gas crisis? Flintstone it

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The major online news sites all screamed the same headline today: Gas prices could reach the $5 mark by the summer.

I'm part of the collective whine from the masses over this, because if you're making a decent but by no means extravagant salary like me, that $5 per gallon is going to hurt. Gosh, just when the stings of $3, $3.50, and $3.75 had just begun to numb...

Forget summer vacations. I'm going to think twice about going anywhere I can't easily walk to.

If you're like me, the whole damn thing makes you mad, and you're looking for someone to blame. My list went something like this: George W. Bush, Saudi Arabia, Exxon Mobil, terrorists torching oil fields. But then I realized that I, like a lot of people, forgot someone:

Me.

I know you don't want to hear it, and frankly, I don't want to either, but after doing just a little research, I realized the only person I can blame for these ridiculous prices is myself. Sure, I engage in a good bitch-fest with the guy next to me every time I fill up, but the fact remains that I went to a gas station and paid upwards of $4 per gallon for gas. And that money will go on to line the pockets of mysterious fat-cat people in the world whose identities I'll likely never learn.

Hybrid hijinx

Usually, if I don't like the price of something, I don't buy it. I wish it were that simple when it came to gas. So, I decided to be like those folks on TV with proverbial green plants growing out of their heads and buy a hybrid vehicle. But when I looked into it, I realized it was just as much of a rip-off as the gas prices themselves.

I did a side-by-side comparison of the nicely equipped base model Honda Civic DX sedan, versus its Hybrid counterpart. I discovered the Hybrid cost $6,790 more than the regular old DX. But I'd make that back in my gas savings, right? WRONG. Turns out that based on a gas price of $4 per gallon and an average travelling distance of 20,000 miles per year, I'd only save $740.19, or about 185 gallons of gas each year.

To make matters worse, just about all of the one-time tax breaks offered on these hybrid vehicles have expired. And even if they did still exist, they wouldn't cover the additional cost to purchase the hybrid over a fully gas-powered model anyway.

Sure, having to fill up less is having to fill up less, which means less money in the pockets of those mysterious fat-cats, which is good. But by buying a hybrid, I'm also giving a good $6,000 more to a car company that as a result might be able to fund the presence of more lobbyists pushing for less stringent mileage and emissions requirements on Capitol Hill. And that is not
good. Sure, I could be wrong about that, but that's what I worry about. Car companies, feel free to prove I'm wrong.

So, I started plugging in other numbers, and here's what I learned: assuming the car prices stay the same (won't happen), and the gas prices stay the same (definitely won't happen), the Honda Civic Hybrid, at its current fuel capacity, would have to get way more than 500 miles to the gallon to cash in any real savings for its owner.

Don't worry - here comes a ray of sunshine. Assuming our dollars aren't going to fund special interest lobbyists for the stagnation of the automobile industry, it's safe to assume the more hybrid vehicles produced, the lower the price becomes. And one of the ways to boost production is to keep buying. I believe hybrid vehicles represent the start of some truly smart, common-sense innovations so sorely needed in the automobile industry. Now if only we could get our government to kick in the funding for some R&D...

Sorry, buying a hybrid doesn't fulfill your obligation

Look, I want convenience and comfort as much as the next SUV-driving suburbanite. But that very desire is one of the single largest reasons why gas prices are so high.

Breaking our dependence on oil requires major lifestyle changes: working within walking or biking distance of where we live, powering our homes using sources that do not run on fossil fuels, using public transportation, NOT owning a Hummer or Toyota FJ Cruiser. And let's be honest - most of us would balk at the prospect of doing any of the above.

But if you wouldn't, good for you. I admire folks who are willing to Flintstone it as a proverbial middle finger to the oil companies. Because the best way to solve the gas crisis is simple: stop using gas.