Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reality Famine

If I need something to make dinner and don't have it in the house, I go to the store and buy some. If I've misplanned totally and the store is closed, sometimes I just order a pizza. If I don't have any cash on me when the pizza arrives, I use my credit card. If that fails, I just bang on the neighbour's door till he gets up and lends me some cash and curses me, and I apologise and tell him I'll make it up to him next day. If my whole life went pear-shaped and I had no food and no money and no friends and neighbours, I could, if I had to, stand on the street with drug addicts and get a bowl of soup from the church people. I'm happy to say I am not in that kind of position. But I have been. And worse, I've been in countries that are in that position: they have no money, no credit, no friends, no neighbours, and no food. I am a crazy guy when it comes to food security. Anyone who has experienced famine is scarred by it. Seeing it on television is one thing, though I'm not sure what kind of thing it is; and seeing because there is no food-- anywhere-- is a deep wound and a terror. Food, food, food everywhere, and not a bite to eat. It drives a man mad.

I spend a lot of time, effort and money on making my kitchen "just so." For being just a guy I can make a pretty impressive dinner for guests. For myself, I'm indifferent. I have eaten things that make people hearing about it gag. I've eaten things that have made me gag. I have great respect for food and for those who, across the spectrum, provide it for us. When I'm not obsessing over toilets and sewers I obsess over food. I do this, weighing on average 200 pounds, because as an adult I once weighed 129 pounds. At my height this is a bad thing. I wouldn't wish starvation on my enemies.

How do people come to the point of starving en masse in the world today? It takes a lot of people a lot of effort to fuck up a place so badly that there is starvation. But it can be done.

Even in the midst of a famine there is food available. Except that it's not available. Those who have it either won't or cannot give it up. "Why?" is the point. If there is food and people are starving for want of it, why can't they get it? Snipers. I have a very amusing anecdote about finding two fat girls in a city under siege and how I managed to get food while avoiding being shot to death. Or another highly amusing anecdote about how I nearly choked to death trying to eat hair. You might even laugh loudly should I ever tell about eating ants and tree bark. Starvation itself is not so funny. It mostly results from people doing their best to ensure that others die because they have no food. It takes work to starve people to death, and that work appeals to many. Those who don't grasp market economies are often those who don't grasp starvation as a man-made phenomenon. Market keep people alive by providing food. Destroy a market and one destroys the food supply. It ain't just snipers keeping people hidden indoors. Sometimes it's more insidious. Sometimes it's so sneaky that many people don't get it at all. Take for example the idea of free food. You want people to starve to death, make food free for all.

Spengler writes about Egypt and food. I've written about this many times, here and elsewhere. Spengler puts it well.

Spengler, "The hunger to come in Egypt."
Egypt is running out of food, and, more gradually, running out of money with which to buy it. The most populous country in the Arab world shows all the symptoms of national bankruptcy - the kind that produced hyperinflation in several Latin American countries during the 1970s and 1980s - with a deadly difference: Egypt imports half its wheat, and the collapse of its external credit means starvation.

The civil violence we have seen over the past few days foreshadows far worse to come.

The Arab uprisings began against a background of food insecurity, as rising demand from Asia priced the Arab poor out of the grain market. The chaotic political response, though, threatens to disrupt food supplies in the relative near term. Street violence will become the norm rather than the exception in Egyptian politics. All the discussion about Egypt's future political model and its prospective relations with Israel will be overshadowed by the country's inability to feed itself.

Egypt's political problems - violence against Coptic Christians, the resurgence of Islamism, and saber-rattling at Israel, for example - are not symptoms of economic failure. They have a life of their own. But even Islamists have to eat, and whatever political scenarios that the radical wing of Egyptian politic might envision will be aborted by hunger.

The Ministry of Solidarity and Social Justice is already forming "revolutionary committees" to mete out street justice to bakeries, propane dealers and street vendors who "charge more than the price prescribed by law", the Federation of Egyptian Radio and Television reported on May 3.

According to the ministry, "Thugs are in control of bread and butane prices" and "people's committees" are required to stop them. Posters on Egyptian news sites report sharp increases in bread prices, far in excess of the 11.5% inflation reported for April by the country's central bank. And increases in the price of bottled propane have made the cost of the most widely used cooking fuel prohibitive.

The collapse of Egypt's credit standing, meanwhile, has shut down trade financing for food imports, according to the chairman of the country's Food Industry Holding Company, Dr Ahmed al-Rakaibi, chairman of the Holding Company for Food Industries. Rakaibi warned of "an acute shortage in the production of food commodities manufactured locally, as well as a decline in imports of many goods, especially poultry, meats and oils". According to the country's statistics agency, only a month's supply of rice is on hand, and four months' supply of wheat.

The country's foreign exchange reserves have fallen by US$13 billion, or roughly a third during the first three months of the year, Reuters reported on May 5. The country lost $6 billion of official and $7 billion of unofficial reserves, and had only $24.5 billion on hand at the end of April. Capital flight probably explains most of the rapid decline. Egypt's currency has declined by only about 6% since January, despite substantial capital flight, due to market intervention by the central bank, but the rapid drawdown of reserves is unsustainable.

At this rate Egypt will be broke by September.

Egypt imported $55 billion worth of goods in 2009, but exported only $29 billion of goods. With the jump in food and energy prices, the same volume of imports would cost considerably more. Egypt closed the 2009 trade gap with about $15 billion in tourist revenues, and about $8 billion of remittances from Egyptian workers abroad. But tourism today is running at a fraction of last year's levels, and remittances are down by around half due to expulsion of Egyptian workers from Libya. Even without capital flight, Egypt is short perhaps $25 billion a year.

Price controls and currency depreciation have made it more profitable for wholesalers - including some employees of state companies - to export rice and cooking oil illegally. According to the daily al-Ahram, hoarding of rice by wholesalers has pushed up the price of the grain by 35% this year, while 200 containers per day are sold to Turkey and Syria.

"What is happening," the newspaper claims, is that that traders are storing basic items such as rice and barley, hoarded in barns and in large quantities, and are reluctant to send it to the rice mills in order to raise the price of this strategic commodity". The al-Ahram report, headlined, "Conspiracy to Monopolize Rice," demands physical inspection of containers leaving Egyptian ports.

The rest of the story is predictable. Once the government relies on young men with guns to police its merchants, hoarding will only get worse. The Egyptian revolution has cracked down on the commercial elite that ran the country's economy for the past 60 years, and the elite will find ways to transfer as much of its wealth to safety as it can. The normal chain of distribution will break down and "revolutionary committees" will take control of increasingly scarce supplies. Farmers won't get fuel and fertilizer, and domestic supplies will fail.

The Egyptian government will go to the International Monetary Fund and other aid agencies for loans - the government reportedly will ask for $7 billion to tide things over - and foreign money at best will buy a few months' respite. The currency will collapse; the government will print IOUs to tide things over; and the Egyptian street will reject the IOUs as the country reverts to barter.

It will look like the Latin American banana republics, but without the bananas. That is not meant in jest: few people actually starved to death in the Latin inflations. Egypt, which imports half its wheat and a great deal of the rest of its food, will actually starve.

Revolutions don't only kill their children. They kill a great many ordinary people. The 1921 famine after the Russian civil war killed an estimated five million people, and casualties on the same scale are quite possible in Egypt as well. Half of Egyptians live on $2 a day, and that $2 is about to collapse along with the national currency, and the result will be a catastrophe of, well, biblical proportions.

I lived in an African country once long ago in which the central government was able to steal so much foreign aid that they were happy to leave the peasants alone. The markets thrived and there was an abundance of food, what I even think of as good food. I have no problems eating dog brains and maggots and whatever else is there if there's nothing else. In this case, I had my pick, as did the locals, of the best of the continent. All I had to do was pay for it. Because people could make money in the market they could afford to spend money on hiring me so I could buy their food and so on. Everyone was happy, more or less.

In the neighbouring nation, people were starving to death because the market was ruled by men with guns who set prices decided by bureaucrats. There was food available, but no one would sell it at the ordered price. One had to go to the black market, the price going up far too high because the price/profit included the risk of death. I refused to work at the wage offered, and no one could have afforded to hire me anyway because they didn't have a way to make a living. It makes for malice.

When I was a young boy I went to a school that had a gang of bullies who went round at lunch time stealing dessert from other kids. Kids, therefore, ate their dessert first off, and then, if they didn't get beaten and robbed of lunch itself, they ate what was left. I have a terrilbe temper. We can skip that part. The follow-up is that once we sorted out the problem there was much swapping of desserts for other things, and most of us had a fair good deal out of it. It's the playground reality that escapes too many among our intelligentsia. Frankly, I think we should eat them. We could eat them raw, for all I care. We don't even have to eat them, we can just chop them up and make them look like something we could eat if we wanted to cook. We wouldn't have to eat the thugs: there would be food enough without it. But, and here I show my true colours, I fear, you must sometimes break some eggs to make an omelet. You get hungry enough and that is not a problem.

If Spengler is right about a coming famine in Egypt, then it will sort itself out if the people understand that food providers are the same as anyone else making a living. If they don't get it, and if they interfere with the market, they they might just starve. They'd really have to work hard at that, but it can be done. People cannot eat phantasies. If they try to, they will starve to death.


Daily Rasp. Closed.

Emily Dickinson sat at a portal to the universal. For those who know the grief of loss, of the closing of ones own life in the closing of others, here is Dickinson putting it, our wonder, for us simply and beautifully.


My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Friday, May 13, 2011


This is one of those iconic images that an age is known by:
Thanks to CGW for sending the graphic.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's all about not all about Obama

It's not all about Obama, it's all about Obama.

You see, it's a matter of how you look at it.

It could be that killing bin Laden was all about Obama.

But it's not, really.

It's all about Obama.

I hope these press release images clear it up.

It's about not about Obama.

Not about Obama.

It's about Obama, not Obama.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Rosie O’Donnell declared a couple of things related to the war on terrorism. One, she whined that we had robbed terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed of his humanity and declared that KSM wasn’t the “be all end all of terrorism....”

It would be a simple matter to find out about Rosie O'Donnell, but I don't care. I understand that she's a common fool who talks about anti-Americanism, though she seems to be fundamentally stupid and incapable of grasping the fine points of such perverse arguments. When confronted by such a fool like O'Donnell the best thing is to walk away. The problem is the lingering after-image burnt into the mind.