Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mother Winter is bearing down...

Well, it snowed today! Not enough to pile up on the ground or anything, but enough for Michigan to issue an icy warning of things to come. I think I might start a "Save the Atkins" campaign... missionaries often show how their support raising is going by showing a thermometer representing the funds that have been pledged - but for us it will work the other way, we'll pray for our support to be raised so we can leave in time to keep the thermometer from killing us, haha... I can't believe my body can't take the winter anymore after only being gone two years! I'm holding on to sandals as long as I can though, it seems like you take the punishment early in the winter and then don't notice the cold the rest of the winter, or you bundle up to early in the season and are cold the whole winter - does anyone else notice that or is my body weird?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Where am I?

Emily and I had an interesting conversation with a class of Guinean students while we were in Bissau this last time. The subject was elections and we were commenting on how the candidates in Bissau tend to promise to fix 100 years worth of problems in their proposed term despite not having any money to do so. We asked the students why they thought the candidates did that, and their answer was interesting. They said that if most Guineans were given the choice between a candidate who promised to fix everything and would inevitably do nothing and another who said "Look, we have tons of problems but this one area is one I know I can fix and that's what I'm going to do" - that almost all voters would choose the guy who promised the moon. Interestingly, the rationale was that the guy who promised everything had vision, and they would rather have a leader who has vision, even knowing the odds are heavily against him actually accomplishing everything (or anything). We laughed to ourselves and I think secretly thought "that's a pretty silly electorate."

So, fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I'm listening to a BBC interview with a U.S. Congressman talking about Obama's campaign. I really wish I could find a link to the interview to listen to it, but since I can't find it and don't remember the name of the Congressman being interviewed, I'll have to paraphrase. The interviewer asked the Congressman about Sen. Obama's agenda and whether the Congressman thought that, in light of the current economic situation, Obama would be able to implement all of the new programs he's promising. The Congressman (who supports Obama) said that it was pretty unlikely because of the slowdown in the economy. The interviewer then asked him if he thought that it would be a good idea for Obama to revise his platform so he wasn't promising things he couldn't deliver. The Congressman paused for a few moments and then said (again, paraphrased), "No, I don't think that people would vote for him." The interviewer replied something to the effect of "doesn't that seem like a lie? Couldn't he just explain that the money isn't there and a few things will have to be taken off the table?" The Congressman said "No, I don't think he could get elected that way. We know our way is better than the other guys, so Obama should say whatever he needs to in order to get elected and then once he's in office he will just have to do the best he can and implement as many of his ideas as money allows. But of course he won't be able to do everything he's saying." The interveiwer didn't really know where to go with that so the interview ended shortly after. And I thought to myself, "Did I just hear someone advocating the 'promise even if you know you can't deliver to sound more visionary-ish' strategy in American politics??"

I don't want this to sound like I'm Obama bashing, because I'm sure both campaigns are thinking the same way and overpromising. For the purpose of the blog, it doesn't even really matter which candidate the Congressman was talking about. The alarming thing here isn't that one candidate is thinking this way, but that our political system as a whole is composed of either a) politicians who view the electorate as being so dumb they "won't remember or care what we said we were going to do once we get elected" or b) an electorate that really is that dumb. I can't get on board with the idea that the people around me really are so shallow they don't have the mental capacity to analyze an election based on sound bites longer than 20 seconds. Our political process needs to be a little more intelligent than that. So to both campaigns I say "give us the truth, we can handle it, we have brains!"

I want a candidate who understands his strengths as well as his weaknesses and isn't afraid to admit that he (or she) isn't perfect. Weaknesses can be compensated for by cabinet appointments and the like if a president knows he has weaknesses - but the candidate who says they're the best on every issue might really believe that, and an unseen weakness is a dangerous one. The next candidate to give an honest answer to an interviewer asking "What is your biggest weakness as a potential president?" is going to earn my respect. And, "I work too hard and care too much" isn't going to cut it. I want to hear "I realize that I'm not an expert in the area of ____, but Mr. _____ who has been working at ______ for 20 years has agreed to be in my cabinet to help inform my decisions in that area."

Are we really so dumb that each candidate has to paint themselves as perfect and the other guy as the devil in a suit? I think we're smart enough to see through that. I say, be upfront about strengths, plans, weaknesses, etc. and let us weigh the choices. If there were some real information to analyze and think about, maybe the electorate would take the time to think about it!

That's enough of politics for now, but whichever way you're voting I hope we can all agree on the fact that America would be better off if elections were about deep discussions of serious issues rather than trading 10 second sound bites and accusations back and forth for 16 months.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What have I done??

Well, this morning I woke up to go to work and walked out to my car in the long sleeve under a short sleeve shirt configuration I'm using to try to gently get used to the weather turning gradually cooler only to find... ICE ON MY WINDSHIELD ALREADY!! It wasn't much, but that stuff shouldn't be happening for another month or two! My blood is still thin from Africa, can't Michigan give me a couple of weeks to adjust? Holy monkeys! I'm starting to wonder if staying in the States for Christmas was such a good idea - we might not survive until January. :)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Way to grow a spine!

Well, props today are deserved by the House which voted the take-the-money-from-everyone-to-keep-a-company-that-should-be-allowed-to-die-alive bill down! I'm not sure whether they did it because the bill was a bad idea, or just that they were left out of the loop in it's creation, or they got so many phone calls from people saying "don't raise my taxes", but either way - it's dead for today. I'm going to choose to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they knew it was bad economic policy and then all of the calls allowed them to vote they way they already knew they should.

Monday, September 29, 2008

If You Can't Take The Recession, Get Out Of Capitalism!

I generally make a habit of not posting about things that are very political because I know I tend to hold my views very strongly and that can be offensive to some people. I'm always open to someone debating my point (that's how good opinions are formed), but generally find that people end up feeling hurt after such a discussion, so in order to be nice I tend away from such conversations. However...

I am incensed that politicians are even considering this whole bailout idea. Taking taxpayer dollars (either directly through taxes or by printing more money which devalues all of the other money taxpayers have) in order to support a business is ridiculous. There are several issues here, including, even if you decide it's a good idea to artificially prop up a company with public money, who named the government "god" and gave them the right to pick and choose who lives and who dies? Or put differently, which stockholders' (read: taxpaying citizens') money will be lost when one company goes under and which will be spared at the expense of everyone else? It is completely unfair and inappropriate for the government to put itself in that position.

As with many economic occurrences, the real story isn't obvious on the surface here, you have to dig one layer deeper, or as Henry Hazlitt puts it in the great book Economics In One Lesson: "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."

So what is the longer-term, unseen effect of saving AIG or some other large financial institution? Business is about the balance between risk and reward. Armed with the knowledge that they are too precious to be allowed to fail, the risk-reward equation is now suddenly skewed to making risk have no cost. So, there is no future incentive not to make risky investments, leading to an ever less efficient business which should be out of business but won't be allowed to go away - like a new branch of the government: slow, inefficient, and permanant.

The broader point and the most troubling part of this "bailout" idea is this: the free market economy needs to have recessions. Recessions and companies going out of business are required for the free market system to work. Like a tree with dead branches, those failed enterprises have to be allowed to fall off and die or they will eventually make the whole body so inefficient that the whole tree will die. Now of course, it isn't any fun when you happen to work for or own stock in that company, I don't deny this. But the system requires this birth/death cycle to be allowed to happen.

So the troubling part is this: it seems to me that the bailout is thought to be necessary by politicians because no politician (especially president) wants to have a major recession on his watch. This is understandable as a method of legacy-preservation, but this has always been and will always be the case. So, if we now accept that it is acceptible for politicians to artificially prevent or lessen recessions because they don't want to be the bearers of bad news, then we have removed a part of the cycle necessary for free markets to function.

So politicians will always want to prevent recessions, but if the modus operandi is now that we deem it acceptible for them to do so using artificial means (such as this bailout), then I start to think that capitalism and democracy (with economic manipulation) are fundamentally incompatible. Capitalism needs recessions, and politicians need to get re-elected so they won't allow them. Self-preservation is necessary in politics, recession is necessary in the free market, but if self-preservation demands the lack of recessions, then the two systems are mutually exclusive and can't co-exist together. That's a problem for us.

Now, I don't think all of the blame can be placed at the feet of the politicians. The reason that they are so worried about recessions is because the population is so worried about recessions. If we understood that recessions are necessary parts of the economic cycle of a free market and weren't out to lynch whatever politican happens to be presiding over them, then they wouldn't have to be so fearful of them.

I certainly understand that recessions are difficult and create some genuinely difficult situations for familes. I'm not meaning to downplay that fact and I empathize with those situations. However, before you start thinking that we should switch to a system that doesn't have these valleys and is more steady, I'd encourage you to consider the fact that those systems, while stable, are also less beneficial for their participants than capitalism when you average together the highs and lows of a system like ours.

So capitalism does demand more from us: more patience and more creativity in getting through the tougher times, but in the end we're still better off.

The only problem with all of this theory is that it's correct up until the point where the government is artificially pushing the wealth one direction or another through earmarks and the like - which it is also doing.

The main point though is this: a free market economy dies when companies aren't allowed to.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Blog Home

As a quick logistical note, I just switched my blog from myspace to here at blogspot. The posts older than this one in the blog might not be formatted quite right because they were written for myspace's layout.

I am really happy to be done with myspace - today, as I was trying to transfer my blog from myspace to blogger, I found another reason I don't like myspace - no ability to export the blog! So, as a final act of defiance so that I could completely leave myspace behind, I laboriously copied every single blog entry one at a time and pasted/reformatted them here. Good to know that blogspot supports import and export so if I ever need to switch again, it will be a simple process.

Also, for people who have been following our blog through emails, we have a new webiste that you might not have gotten the word about yet, jasonandemilyatkins.com! It's not finished yet, but looking pretty good so far if I do say so myself!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I have gas (but not much)

Myspace Mood: Aggravated

We've heard that fuel prices have been going up in the States since we left. I think I can top just about any "fish story" about prices (albeit on a much smaller scale) that any of you might have. Gas hasn't been available for a couple of weeks in Bissau (who knows why, sometimes when stuff like this happens they don't even bother making up an excuse to explain it). We'd been hoping that we could finish our time on the gallon of gas that we had left in the little five gallon container we keep for the bike. A day before we left we ran out of gas on the way home and when I switched the bike to reserve found out that apparently it already was on reserve, so we were really out. I've seen lots of strange things in the back of a taxi but I don't think they would have been happy about us trying to take our bike home in a taxi, so we either had to break down and buy some "black market" gas or walk the bike home. We didn't have time that day since we were trying to get all of our stuff done before we left, so we had little choice.

I walked over to the service station to ask the workers where I could go to buy the black market gas, knowing that there wasn't any at the stations but figuring they'd know where, and one of the workers had a five gallon container of his own gas (purchased just before that station ran out at the normal price, I'm sure) to sell. The price was 2500 xof / liter. If I remember right, there are 3.78 liters in a gallon and 422 xof to $1, so even though I only bought one liter that works out to $22.39 / gallon. (In case anyone is curious a gallon's normal price at the current exchange rate is about $6.20.)

Good thing we have a fuel efficient bike, eh?

So that's what a $5.92 liter of gas looks like.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood!

Myspace Mood: Full

We made doughnut holes today too... mmmmmm!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

You tell me...

Myspace Mood: Indignant

So today we were on our way home on the bike. A lot of times at twilight you get bugs smacking you in the face - some nights it's a little difficult to see - but tonight something smacked my lip and felt like it splattered! I got home with a crusty face and sticky hand from wiping away whatever it was. I'm wondering what the odds are that one might drive into a falling piece of bat poop? Anyway, judge for yourself!