Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ingenious Old Windmills

Ingenious Old Windmills
            Whenever I am driving across western Iowa on I-80, I try to time my trip so that I am near Elkhorn, Iowa at lunch time.  After taking advantage of the delicious and reasonably priced Danish buffet at the Danish Inn,  I always make time to take another look at the old windmill next door.   This mill was built in the early 19th century in Denmark.   Then, in the 1970s,  A group of Americans of Danish descent from Elkhorn, Iowa bought it and carefully dismantled it, numbering every piece.   They took it back to Iowa  and re-assembled it and lovingly restored it.   It stands as a museum, and it works perfectly.   For a nominal fee, you can tour the entire structure.
            If you do tour this mill, walk through the upper floors and see all of the working parts.  At  first everything looks crude, but after you think about it a while, you come to appreciate the ingenuity of the whole design.   All of the huge gears have the following arrangement:  one solid cast iron gear turning against a larger gear with wooden teeth fitted into a cast iron wheel.  The teeth have conical shanks driven into conical sockets, about like a human incisor.  They can be installed with a blow from a hammer.  If they had used two solid iron gears, sooner or later the teeth would be worn and the whole gear set would have to be replaced.  Since the larger gear would weigh several hundred pounds and be several feet in diameter,  this operation would involve tearing the top off the mill and using a huge crane.  But with hardwood teeth wearing against iron, the iron part will never wear away---all the wear would be on the wooden parts.   Any wooden tooth can replaced in a few minutes, and the miller himself can carve as many new teeth as he needs.
            Another ingenious design element is the tail wheel.  This small turbine wheel sits behind the main turbine blades and perpendicular to them. It can turn in either direction, but will not turn at all when the main blades are facing directly into the wind.   Through a deep reduction gear, (probably  with a ratio of several hundred to one )  the little tail wheel spins and slowly rotates the mill to face the into wind.  The whole top of the mill can rotate, being mounted on iron rollers and a huge bull gear.  Whenever the wind changes, the tail wheel starts spinning in whatever direction is needed to reposition the mill.   Couldn't they have just made a huge tailfin to position  the mill turret, as we do on old farm windmills?  Yes, they could have.  But if they did, then on a day with gusty crosswinds, the mill would be slamming back and forth, shaking it to pieces,  and never being pointed toward the average wind direction.    
            Another word about the Danish buffet at the Danish Inn:  I have lived in Iowa most of my life, and the traditional Danish food served at this buffet is some of the best food in Iowa,  and is reasonably priced.  For about the price of a jumbo sized fast food hamburger, fries,  and a malt, you can have the whole smorgasbord.  It's only 7 miles off the interstate.  If you are ever traveling across western Iowa,  don't pass up the chance to pig out on this buffet, or tour this fascinating old mill. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Real Purpose of the Shutdown

The Wall Street puppet masters who invented the Tea Party and who control it are even more evil than we thought.   Consider this item in the October 11 Wall Street Journal, page 1:
"The Dow soared 323.09 points 15126.07, the biggest one-day point gain of the year, as lawmakers showed signs of breaking their impasse,"  
       How much money was made on a price spike of that magnitude for those who knew in advance it would happen, because they caused it to happen?   We have always known that the Tea Party was invented by Wall Street billionaires for their own purposes, but until now, it was not clear just what those purposes might be. By the way, we can assume that they probably shorted a broad array of stocks before beginning this scare game, so they made money on both ends.  This is a dangerous game, and things could go very wrong.  What if the puppets (who probably do not know that they are puppets) were to cut their strings?  It may be easier to start chaos than to stop it.  And it's also an unbelievably immoral thing, even by Wall Street standards,  to throw the world's largest economy into chaos just to make a quick buck on stock trades.   It's like throwing a thousand grannies under the train to win a bet that the train would be late.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


 by Walter Benn Michaels;  a book review.
            I just finished reading this book, copywrited in 2006. I wish I had discovered it sooner.  It is an important book, and every American liberal should read it.  And I think every conservative should read it too.  Professor Michaels' position is that in our obsessive concern to stamp out racial and cultural bigotry of all kinds, we have turned our back on economic inequality, which may be the more urgent problem.  Whether you are poor and black or poor and white, if you are poor you're still poor, and no amount of cheerful interracial or intercultural acceptance gets you any money. And if the reason that you have no money in spite of working two jobs is that the kinds of jobs you do are systematically underpaid jobs (jobs such as farm worker, child care worker, food service work, etc) then you are not  the victim of a race war or a gender war, you are the victim of a class war. But nowadays, we don't want to talk about that.   And while it is true that blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities are statistically more likely to be impoverished than whites, about  50% of American families living in poverty are white, and most have at least one full time job in the family. Totally ridding the country of bigotry will in no way help them, since they are not victims of bigotry; they are the victims of economic exploitation, stuck in lousy jobs that pay an unfair wage. Getting rid of intolerance will not raise their wages-- nor will it raise the wages of any Blacks or Hispanics stuck in the same lousy jobs, even if  some of them may in fact have been discriminated against.  Racial sensitivity programs may make you feel better about yourself, but they don't get anybody a living wage.
            Michaels seems to be saying that we liberals may know that anti-bigotry efforts serve mainly to turn our attention away from economic inequality and injustice, and perhaps that's why we are so attracted to them. Perhaps we really want to be distracted from the fight against inequality, because it's an exhausting, depressing, and nearly unwinnable fight.  To force or cajole a major corporation to install a "cultural sensitivity"  program is not that difficult,  and everybody comes away thinking they have gained something. The corporate moguls get to feel like good guys, and get to advertise that they are the  good guys, and the social activists pushing the campaign get to feel as though they  have accomplished something--and it doesn't cost the company a damn thing.   But if you try getting them to pay a living wage, provide health care, or recognize a union, then you have taken on a  long, hard  fight that you are probably going to lose.   They will smear you in the press (they own the press),  they will fight you in Congress (they own Congress too), and they will fight you in court; and if all that fails, they might hire thugs to beat you up or kill you  (At least, that's what they did in the 30s).  Why?  Because you have ventured into the one area which they hold sacred---money.   They are like the Ferengis of Star Trek.  Their first "rule of acquisition"  is "Once you get their money--you never give it back."
            But the problem of poverty isn't about being Black or Hispanic, it's about being poor.  And the cure isn't more respect---it's more money.   But both liberals and conservatives have tacitly colluded to obscure this fact.  Liberals say, "It's all about bigotry, and we are going to put an end to bigotry."   And conservatives say, "It was all about bigotry, and we have already put an end to bigotry."  But they are both lying.  There is such a thing as bigotry, but it's mostly about money.
            Michaels points out that our elite universities have undertaken programs to ensure racial and cultural and gender diversity,  but have taken great care to avoid any action that would produce any economic diversity.  Some of those admitted are Black, some are Hispanic, and some are Asian, but all of those accepted seem to come from the upper middle class or higher.  This not only cuts off the bottom of the economic pyramid, it cuts off the bottom 80%.  With tuition and fees of over $40,000 per year,  no one except upper middle class families can afford to attend even if accepted.
             Don't these universities claim to have a "resource blind" admissions  policy?  Won't they provide financial assistance for those whose resources are insufficient to pay the tuition and fees?  Michaels claims that Harvard no longer expects families with incomes under $60,000 to pay any part of their children's college expense.  If this is true, then things have certainly changed since 20 years ago when we were trying to find an undergraduate placement for our daughter.  She had graduated from a small rural high school with very high SAT and ACT scores.  The Farm Crisis of the 80s had left us totally devastated, yet we still we applied to a number of colleges, including expensive private ones. They all made vague claims that family financial condition was no obstacle to admission, and boasted that a wide variety of financial aid schemes were available.  As they went through the motions of pretending to have a resource -blind program, they all offered some combination of partial scholarships or loans that looked generous, but still left a price tag way beyond our family's reach at that moment.  It was like watching someone trying to sell a dead cat for $500.  They go on cheerfully explaining that it is really a $1,500 dead cat, but just because they like you,  they'll knock off a thousand bucks.   Barbara Ehrenreich mentions this game in one of her essays written when she was trying to find a college for her own kids.   She describes negotiating with a hypothetical university which she called "Fleece U."  
            Michaels mentions that there is even some discussion of Harvard eliminating tuition altogether.   He doubts that this will happen, but claims that it would be of no avail to poor students anyway, since if you are poor or working class, you could never have the kind of high test scores required for admission.   This situation would probably be true in "Chicagoland"  or in the area surrounding any American metropolis.  And since Michaels sees the world from Chicago, it would seem natural for him to assume that what applies to Chicago applies to America in general:  Elite gated communities and elite suburbs where a house costs 2 million bucks, where children attend beautiful, elaborate schools that offer every advantage, and then later attend $30,000 per year prep schools---all  contrasted with dysfunctional inner city ghetto schools, and  overworked, impoverished parents and dysfunctional families.   In short, it is the economic segregation in all of our cities that destines one student to success--another to failure. 
            But not everyone lives in or near a large city.  If you were to take a night flight over the Northern Midwest, that vast area that New Yorkers and Californians call "fly-over country,"  you would notice a gazillion points of light below,  and each one is a small town.  And each town contains a school and the people, mostly working class people,  who use that school.  And in any given town, these people will not all have the same economic resources.   Suppose that you lived in Jesup, Iowa, population 2000.   If you were one of the wealthiest men in town, (say, the banker or the owner of one of the larger and more successful businesses) where would your daughter attend high school?    The answer is Jesup High School. Now suppose that you had one of the lowest incomes (perhaps you are a single mom working as a fry cook at the nearby truck stop).  Would your daughter would also attend Jesup High School?  Yes,  because  there is only one high school.
            A typical graduating class has about 50 students, and they have all spent 12 years sitting side by side in the same classrooms.  And there is also only one Girl Scout Troop, one 4-H chapter, one softball team, etc.  While Jesup may not have the best school in the state, a fair amount of teaching and learning goes on there.  The year that my daughter graduated there with an SAT of about 1500, there were half a dozen others in her class, mostly working class kids, who had scores between 1150 and 1250.   And yet for her entire time at that school,  Jesup school had the distinction of spending the lowest amount per pupil of any of the 438 school systems in Iowa.  So if Jesup can occasionally turn out a few graduates with test scores comparable to what Harvard usually demands,  it's likely that most small towns across the rural Midwest can also do so.
             So what happens to all these hardworking  kids with high test scores?   In the unlikely event that they can afford it, they attend a prestigious private collage. If not, they try for a state university.  And if they can't afford that, then they end up at a community college if they can get a Pell Grant.  If not, they end up working at a furniture factory, a slaughterhouse,  or some other low-wage, dead end job, and never see the inside of a college classroom at all.  And if Harvard and other elite universities ever open their doors tuition free, and if this opening is widely known, they will get not merely  a few smart, working class kids, they will be swamped with them.  And I think they know that.
            But they don't want 80% of their students to come from the bottom 80% of the wage ladder----they don't want any of their students to come from that bracket.  In fact, I suspect that they have an unwritten understanding  with affluent parents that no proletarian will ever enter their doors, except as servants. Why? Because when people go away to college, they sometimes meet the people they will marry.  And sometimes that's the whole idea. Send your daughter to college so that she can get an "Mrs." degree.   So how are these affluent parents going to feel if, after they have shelled out 200,000 bucks in tuition, fees, and other expenses, their daughter comes back married to some kid whose dad drives a bus or works in a factory?  Keep in mind, these parents have not only prevented their offspring from experiencing poverty, they have, through careful deception,  taken great pains to prevent them from even seeing it.   And they expect the colleges to continue this deception.  So I think that Michaels' hypothetical vision of Harvard throwing open their doors and still getting only affluent kids would not always apply.   It would apply with a vengeance to any area in or near any large American city---but at least 100 million Americans don't live in or near large cities.
            One theme throughout Michaels' book is the idea that we have started trying to explain all differences as cultural differences.  The advantage in doing this is that we now accept all cultures as equal.  There have been times, throughout history, that people killed each other over purely cultural differences, but we are moving beyond that.  Most people would agree that if I break my eggs at the large end and you break them at the small end, that's no reason we should be killing each other. In recent years, we have had good results in convincing people to not only tolerate other people's cultural differences, but to accept them and celebrate them. As an example, The Unitarian Church was originally just another Christian denomination, but today, we celebrate Jewish as well as Christian holidays.  And we teach our children enough basic comparative religion so that they are familiar with some of the beliefs and practices of other religions.  We try to teach them to respect the beliefs and practices of others, even if we do not share them.
            Many  American Progressives, being impressed with the success they have had in persuading each other to accept cultural differences,  have now begun trying to see all differences as cultural.  So we don't have black and white races anymore, we just have Black Culture and White Culture.   Well, if this works, and if it seems to be a way to trick people into getting along---great!  I'm for anything that works, and so is Michaels.  But Michaels claims that the young Black, Whites, and Asians he has in his classes all dress about the same, listen to the same music, eat the same food, and all speak English---so where is all that cultural difference? Michaels feels that it's mostly hogwash.  But getting people to see their differences as culture may serve a purpose, because we now accept that no culture is inherently better or worse than any other.
            But now we are even trying to deal with economic differences as though they were cultural.  So being poor isn't really any worse than being rich, it's just different.  And being rich isn't really any better, it's just different.   So if we could all just accept, embrace, and even celebrate our differences, then we could all get along.   But if I am poor,  I don't want you to celebrate my poverty--I want to end it.  And if you think that being poor is just as good as being rich, then try trading places for a while.  By defining  economic inequality as a cultural difference, that lets us say that the problem is not that some people are poor, the problem is that poor people are treated disrespectfully.  So if we could all just respect each other--then no one has to do anything about inequality.
             Yet once you recognize the growing economic inequality in our society for the outrageous injustice that it is, then you have to explain why you are not doing anything about it.  And many progressives simply don't have the stomach to fight anymore.   So they buy off their conscience cheaply by pretending that the economic inequality we see is simply a cultural difference.
            Michaels says that another area where defining every difference as cultural may not work is in the debate on abortion.  He observes that in the case of a 3rd trimester abortion, one need not have any religious belief whatsoever to come to a conclusion that what is being aborted is a human being.  And if the conclusion is not religious, then it can't be cultural.  So it is not likely that we will ever accept and tolerate each other's difference of opinion here, which we might if it were really just a difference in culture.
            Well, in the case of a late term abortion, I would agree and so did the Supreme Court.  With no deference to religion at all, the court ruled that in the 3rd trimester, states could regulate abortion any way they chose, to include banning it outright, except where the life of the mother was at risk.   They ruled that in the 3rd trimester, a fetus is obviously a human being---and in the first trimester it is obviously not.   
            But 3rd trimester abortions are quite rare.  Most abortions are 1st trimester, and yet vast and angry legions are mustered against the clinics who offer them.  No logic or science can lead you to conclude that a tiny speck of tissue is a human being.  That comes only from religion.  To believe that aborting a tiny speck of tissue is the same as murdering a baby, you have to have a number of beliefs, all of which are purely religious.   If you ask the protester in front of an abortion clinic why he thinks a speck of tissue is a baby, he will tell you that it has an immortal soul, which was infused at conception, and the soul is what make us all human.  But does everyone believe we have souls? Atheists certainly don't, and there are several religious sects that do not require any belief in either a soul or an afterlife.  Even among those sects that agree that we have souls, not all agree that this soul is infused at conception;  some think it happens much later, at the quickening.  So to believe that 1st trimester abortion is murder, you not only need a religious belief---but a very specific kind of religious belief. So the difference in beliefs between a doctor who runs a 1st trimester abortion clinic and the angry hoard that  routinely pickets him are purely cultural differences.  But that doesn't mean they won't try to kill him.
            I have a few differences with Mr. Michaels,  which I have noted above, but his main thesis is correct:  The problem is economic inequality, and we are not doing anything about it.  And our efforts to achieve more diversity may simply obscure the fact that we are not doing anything about it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The New American Farm Crisis

           I recently read that farm commodity prices are now sharply lower than they have been for the previous seven years. For the next several years, corn prices are likely to remain in the $4.00 to $5.00 range, down from the $7.00 prices farmers have become accustomed to.   This will push farmers into a multi-year pattern of low profit or no profit whatsoever, which will cause farmland values to drop. But the crisis, the economic dislocation which this will cause, will be much less severe than the disaster of the 1980s.  The reason is that is the 80s were a different situation.
            In the 80s, and in the hundred years leading up to the 80s, few farmers owned their own land free and clear. Nearly all land was always heavily mortgaged.  In a good year, the mortgage would be paid down a bit, and in an unprofitable year, more would be borrowed.  A farmer's wealth was determined by his equity position--his debt to asset ratio.  But throughout the 70s, commodity prices were so low that most farms had had little or no profit for several years, and had losses for some of those years.  Yet land prices had continued to climb because of aggressive investment by wealthy speculators who, faced with high inflation, needed  a place to park their money. They needed an asset that would hold its real value as the Dollar dropped.  And Iowa farm land was their top choice.
            So although a farmer might lose money every year and need to borrow to cover his annual losses, his net worth might continue to climb because of the increased value of the fraction of his land that he actually owned.  In one decade, Iowa land went from $400 per acre to over $2,400,  with some parcels selling for as high as $4,000.  A farmer might also borrow to obtain capital to buy out his neighbor, and many of them did, since it had become obvious that "any farmer who didn't get bigger would have to get out."  But this left the average farmer highly leveraged, and when land prices started to drop in the early 80s,  many farms were "underwater,"  as the land dropped to less than $1,200 per acre.   They now owed more than the farms were then worth, and they owed this money on "demand notes."   The banks could demand full repayment at any time, and did so as soon as they realized that the money owed to them was not secured by assets worth as much as was owed.  So farmers went bankrupt and farms that had been in the same family for a hundred years were sold at a sheriff sale.   And it would be another 15 years before land values recovered to their 1981 highs.
              But that won't happen this time. This time, commodities have been at record highs for seven years, and farming has been very profitable.   Land has gone up, to nearly $10,000 per acre in some areas, but it's the farmers themselves who have bid it up to that figure, and they have done so mostly with their own money, not with borrowed money.  And though farms have continued to expand in size,  most operators have expanded their operation by renting land, not by buying it. Mostly, farmers have used the windfall profits of these high prices to pay off the mortgage.  Seventy-eight percent of Iowa land is now held free and clear, and even the other twenty-two percent is not very heavily leveraged. At no point in Iowa history has this situation occurred.  They have also used the money to make long term investments in the largest and best tractors and combines and grain storage equipment.  That's why Deere & Co has had record profits for the last 13 quarters.  So most farmers are actually well positioned to weather any storm, even if it lasts a decade. And, having made record profits for 13 quarters,  the downturn won't really hurt Deere & Co, or other implement makers.
            The real casualties will be the workers employed to build farm equipment.  Even if farm income did not drop, every farmer now already has a brand new model of everything he could possibly use, so sales cannot continue at present levels, and layoffs may be unavoidable.  Yet such layoffs, should they occur, will not cause the disaster that they did in the 80s.  To use Waterloo, Iowa as an example, in 1980, tractor manufacturing was Waterloo's main industry, and almost only industry.  The John Deere plant employed 16,000 workers in the bargaining unit, 4,000 salaried workers, and at least 4,000 employed indirectly through contractors.  And all of these workers were well paid.  When the big layoff came in 1982, they laid off  workers back to 21 years of seniority--down to less than 4,000 workers.  But today, the plant has only about 2,400 in the bargaining unit, and since the union agreed to a two tier wage some years ago, they are not as well paid, in real dollars, as workers were in the 80s. Instead of earning a total package worth $30 per hour, it's more like $15.  One  high-wage job can support as many as four other local jobs as the money is spent and re-spent across the community. But lower wage jobs support few if any other jobs.  So if reduced demand for tractors causes layoffs at Deere, it may still be a tragedy for the workers involved, but it will not paralyze the whole county for 10 years--like it did in the  80s.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Unfortunate Vole

While mowing the weeds in my field today,
An unfortunate vole got himself in the way.
I'm sure that he winced, before he was minced.
But where do voles go when they die, anyway?
Is it Valhalla, or is it vole holer?
(Sorry 'bout that. I could have been droller.)