You get more than what you pay for

Posted in Liberty at 17:59 by RjZ

Value conscious Americans are always trying to get more for their dollar. Turns out we might be getting much more for our dollar than we bargain for.

Let’s face it, it may be difficult today for a family of four to make ends meet but what are they getting in the bargain? While obviously not for every case, making ends meet frequently means TV with cable, cell phones, cars, and dinners at McDonalds. It’s possible because these things are cheap. Cheaper, in many cases than they ought to be.

The real cost of many of the goods we buy is hidden in environmental impact or economic exploitation. Gas has been cheap for many years in the U.S. in part because businesses haven’t invested in refineries to maintain capacity. They haven’t been interested in expanding capacity because building refineries is an expensive endeavor and a steeple chase of regulations, laws and NIMBYs (not in my backyards) As long as gas was under $2/gallon, there was little motivation to build new refineries. Now that demand is high and prices are high too, there is an impetus for development and we can expect plans to be laid out on the tables of city councils around the nation. We don’t, as President Bush would have us believe, have to reduce restrictions on environmental consequences to encourage building refineries; we just have to pay $4/gallon so that it’s worth it for energy companies to produce clean fuel. If we choose not to pay $4/gallon now and instead let companies build without restraint, we’ll just pay later in environmental impact and rebuilding from disasters, like, say, increased hurricane damage through loss of wetlands.

Hamburgers are cheap too. The FDA appears to have buckled under pressure from the meat industry on guidance for improving the feed quality for beef cattle. Instead of sticking to proposals from scientists to keep the beef supply safe, the FDA’s “new proposal would still allow animals to be fed material that some scientists consider potentially infectious, including the brains and spinal cords of young animals; the eyes, tonsils, intestines and nerves of old animals; chicken food and chicken dung swept up from the floors of poultry farms; scrapings from restaurant plates; and calf milk made from cow blood and fat.” from the New York Times

Aside: doesn’t that sound delicious? How is it OK for cows to have eat this stuff?

Meat producers want to keep feeding cow brains and chicken shit to vegetarian ruminants for one obvious reason: it saves money. As long as people demand cheap beef, the meat industry has no reason not to do what it takes to give it to them. The old adage, ‘you get what you pay for’ seems to fit here pretty well. Meat producers don’t pay for the insurance costs of vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, mad cow for people) or for damage to the water supply that run-off from feedlots causes either, but you and I will. It’s quite likely that our taxes will pay the clean-up.

When we pump our cars full of artificially cheap gas or our stomachs full of artificially cheap burgers, we’re not really saving any money. It catches up to us later. But what’s wrong with this sort of system is that those who buy smaller cars or ride their bicycles to work subsidize those who drive SUVs. Those who choose not to eat meat, pay to clean up the messes of those who do.

We may think that gas companies are gouging now (and they may well be) but we shouldn’t be surprised. At least hamburgers and cell phones are still cheap; it’s just unfortunate that consumers haven’t got the time to educate themselves about the real costs. Just a few cents on every hamburger might be enough to let meat packers produce meat that isn’t fed with eyeballs and intestines. A few more cents might be enough to enable works at packing plants and fast food restaurants to earn a reasonable wage. A few cents more for tiny cellphones might cover an extra meal for the thousands of near slave laborers who manufacture them. If we don’t learn to pay for the real cost of what we consume, the government will take the money from us to cover these expenses we incur later.

We can solve this problem without extra taxes and without increased regulations on the companies themselves. We can solve this problem with education. If you’re reading this, you’ve got access to the internet which is a fantastic resource for that education. By learning about the real costs and choosing products as wisely as we can, we keep the choices out of the hands of the authorities and corporations, instead we keep the choice to ourselves.

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Why ma and pa stores don’t have to disappear

Posted in Travel at 22:33 by RjZ

I first started hearing about the death of the Ma and Pa store in Germany. Independent businesses in Germany are called Tante Emma Läden, “Aunty Emma stores.” Just like the U.S., these are the tiny grocers, hardware stores and restaurants free of franchising and chains and the homogenization we see so much of the world over.

There was a Tante Emma Laden not far from my home in Munich, Germany. Conveniently located in the neighborhood just a few blocks from hundreds of suburban homes was this tiny grocer run by an elderly woman. Inside one could find a wide range of products all neatly arranged behind the counter. The shopper comes in and selects items Aunty Emma would gather them up from behind the counter and place them in a bag for you. Just charming.

About the same distance from my home there was also a chain grocery called Preisfux “Price Fox.” The Price Fox carried all the same things as the Aunty Emma in a typical brightly lit store, much smaller than the same kind in the U.S., but otherwise similar. Shoppers walk up and down aisles and select what they want; place them in a cart and bring them up to the check out on their own. In Germany, checkers are allowed to remain seated while they slide your items over the red laser scanner and shoppers are expected to bag their own groceries in their own bags. Not so charming.

Except that Price Fox was open more hours, had a larger selection by far, cost a little less and the checkers were usually pleasant enough seeing as all they had to do was sit there. Meanwhile, Aunty Emma seems to have grown tired of bagging groceries for so long for all those reserved Germans. She long since gave up being friendly. For customers it’s easier to choose one Bavarian knödel from another in her store because there is only the one to choose from, but that didn’t stop Aunty Emma from becoming irritated at you if you asked about another brand.

It was common in Germany to lament the disappearance of such stores but I was hardly surprised when this one closed. The fact is, Germans could be disappointed about these stores closing, but even they weren’t willing to put up with all the inconveniences associated with actually supporting them.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Folks who live in Boulder, Colorado are only rarely the hippies that the rest of the world thinks they are. Instead, they’re frequently highly educated and earn good salaries. Boulderites still pride themselves on their reputation for individuality and while there are many chain stores here, just like everywhere else, they are clearly frowned upon by those who long to keep the liberal reputation Boulder has earned. It’s easy for the people of Boulder to be so picky though. Here, independent stores lead the way for how good stores should be run, chain or not.

Take McGuckin Hardware for example. This huge hardware store near downtown Boulder has everything. Their selection is simply huge. So huge that each aisle has a clerk who manages it. He or she is responsible for everything down the aisle and can help you find just what you’re looking for, make sure it’s in stock or tell you when it will come in. They carry items that other hardware stores don’t and they actually know what that little gadget you’re looking for does. Sometimes McGuckin’s costs a bit more. Sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time, I’m glad to pay a little extra as thanks for all the trips they’ve saved me by avoiding having to look around. I save gas that way too.

The Video Station is another standout. This large video store carries all the latest movies just like the chains do. In addition to those you can find classic art films and old black and white movies. Out of print videos and hard to find documentaries each have their own section. They have instructional cooking videos, foreign films in Yiddish and even climbing videos. Sure there is a market for climbing videos in Boulder, Colorado but no other video store has noticed it.

One of my favorite independents is Mt. Sun Brewery (sorry, they don’t seem to have a website!) Now practically a chain with two restaurants, both in Boulder, the Mt. Sun is staffed by quirky dressed servers who represent Boulder traditions well. They serve dozens of excellent beers fresh from the tap, and delicious pub food, all at a remarkably reasonable price. Mt. Sun responds to the local market with a wide variety of vegetarian choices and liberal system of service where the staff is required to have worked in the kitchen before becoming a server, everyone shares tips and service is terrible for three minutes every night at 10 pm when they gather for their nightly beer. Diners and drinkers cheer them on.

Why are these independents so successful when others are failing? Because they get it. It isn’t being independent that makes them successful. It’s being good. McDonald’s is good at offering the exact same thing the world over and (for some reason) people value that. Customers will pay for what they value, whether it’s service, variety, quality or even consistency. Good independent stores like McGuckin’s, The Video Station and Mt. Sun are successful in spite of the chains with which they compete because they offer something better. The only thing Aunty Emma was offering outside of poor selection and a bitter frown was nostalgia. Unfortunately, shoppers in Munich found nostalgia alone hard to swallow.

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Remote posting!

Posted in at 8:17 by RjZ

It’s pretty amazing that I can blog from my phone, anywhere. Imagine the kind of in field reporting someone could do.

Today I will visit a 500mW power plant near Ft. Collins, Colorado. We’ll see if I have something to report. Chances are good because the power industry is absolutely fascinating.

Meanwhile, ignore this post, it’s really just a test.

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Prediction: Goodbye to a women’s right to choose

Posted in , Liberty at 15:51 by RjZ

This morning President George W. Bush announced Harriet Miers as his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. We know little of her views on important issues, but we can safely assume that this Texan and close friend of Bush is a conservative who, “during [her] tenure as head of the Texas Bar Association… was a leader in the campaign to reverse the American Bar Association’s pro-choice position on the right to choose,” will not likely uphold a woman’s right to choose.

We may know even less about latest Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, but he too is part of Bush’s network or friends and it isn’t a stretch to assume he shares Mr. Bush’s feelings on the matter.

So, I predict that, with all due speed, this issue will be brought before the court and Roe v. Wade will be overturned.

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Return to New Orleans?

Posted in , Liberty at 15:38 by RjZ

This from CNN.com

The federal government should not encourage people to return to a city that is mostly below sea level (and slowly sinking lower) and that is vulnerable to flooding every hurricane season. The government should remain neutral. People can live at the bottom of the ocean if they want, but the rest of us should not be forced to subsidize them. If a shrunken New Orleans, consisting of the French Quarter, the downtown and a few residential areas is all that remains after nature and market forces have taken their course, so be it. Change is normal and natural; the world is not a museum.
Bill Schroeder, Carbondale, Illinois

I don’t know that I would say anything much different.

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