Saturday, March 28, 2009

Conversation With A Bank-Owned Property Salesman

This afternoon as I was coming home from the store, I noticed that the foreclosed house at the corner of my block was open. Outside were large signs advertising the auction of this “bank-owned” property. I had never been inside the house before and was curious to see who the selling agent was, so I stopped by.

The agent is a nice, personable guy who specializes in selling repossessed properties for banks and other creditors. He let me poke around the place, a rather small Korean War-vintage house with three small bedrooms, one bathroom and a garage that had been converted into a bonus room. While the front yard is decently sized, the backyard is vestigial at best.

I asked him what the price range of the auction would be. He told me that the seller would probably set a floor price of around $140,000, and that he expected it to sell for around $160,000. When I asked him what would happen if all the offers came in below the floor price, he said that the seller would simply pull the house off the market and wait a bit longer before advertising it again. But my question had aroused his curiosity, so he asked me what I thought the house would sell for (a dangerous question, if he wanted to get a good night's sleep tonight). I told him that I thought the seller would probably not get even $100,000. His eyes widened perceptibly at that answer, as he protested that he thought the economy might just pick up and that things might get better. But then he added a caveat about how no one really knew how things would turn out (although he was interested in hearing what I thought).

I told him, “I believe I know.”

“Really?” he said in a voice both curious and unsettled, his full attention focused on me. I proceeded to tell him about how an expanding economy requires an expanding resource base, and that when that resource base begins to contract, so must the economy it supplies. I told him about how the production of one key resource – oil – had peaked in 2005, declining afterward and causing spikes in prices for food and energy. I told him also about how these price spikes destroyed the ability of many Americans to maintain their large debts, and how this contributed to the present worldwide economic collapse.

This news, though distrubing, was partly familiar to him. He began telling me that yes, he had heard about the role of bad loans in causing the present economic crisis. But he asserted that the downturn had not affected Oregon to the extent that many other parts of the country had been affected. Oregon, he claimed, was more “resilient” because of its diversified manufacturing base and because its houses had maintained their value to a much greater extent than houses in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Florida and Michigan. He called Detroit in particular a “black hole” as far as house prices and resale value.

I told him that I thought Detroit had hidden potential. “Really?” he asked, startled again. I explained that economically depressed areas of the country have potential, not as places for “investment” properties, but as places to live for people who want to decouple themselves from the faltering “official” global economy. These places are ideal because since ownership is cheap in such places, those who choose to live there don't have to take on a large debt. Therefore they don't have to enslave themselves to the official economy, and they have time and resources for learning how to live frugally and sustainably.

I could tell by the look on his face that he still didn't quite get what I was talking about. So I said, “The term that best sums up what I'm describing is 'urban ecovillage.'”

“Whoa, you're talking about a social revolution!” he replied. “Are you sure that most Americans are even ready for that?” I told him that the times now upon us would force Americans to make new arrangements, and that we were nowhere near the bottom yet as far as economic collapse. I casually dropped the names of a few authors, such as Dmitri Orlov and James Howard Kunstler, and mentioned that he might be interested in reading what these authors have to say.

In an attempt to change the subject, he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him that I am an engineer, he began to praise the value of the house we were in, and its potential as a rental property. I laughed a little and told him that I live just down the street, and am not interested in buying another house or going into debt. I explained my fear of indebtness in view of our present economic troubles.

He said again that he thought the local economy was relatively robust. I told him about the slowdowns and layoffs at my company's local office, and mentioned that the official unemployment rate in Oregon is over ten percent. This was news to him. “If all the things you tell me are true, I'm really worried about my children,” he said. I can sympathize with such a worry.

“Well, listen,” he said, trying to end on a less worrisome note. “Let's get together in a couple of years and see who's guesses were right about the future.” “Sounds great,” I replied, “although I don't think we'll have to wait more than a few months.”

By the way, for those who want a broader picture of how our state is doing, here are two recent news articles:, and The New York Times article is interesting because it mentions the fall-off in shipping traffic at the Port of Portland. I often ride my bike over the Steel Bridge on the way to work. While I still see bulkers loading or unloading at the dock next to the bridge, I think they may not be coming as frequently as usual.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ayn Rand Is Not My Girlfriend!

Now that I've got your attention, let me tell you why (and why I even bring up this subject in the first place). It's not just that she was born long before my grandparents started dating, nor that she's been deceased for over two decades. But it's that even if we were contemporaries, I, with my present views and convictions, could not possibly be a husband, soulmate or lover of a person with her views and convictions – at least as they are represented by sources like Wikipedia or the Ayn Rand Institute and its magazine, The Objective Standard. (Check out their magazine's article on why usury is supposedly “good” –

According to Wikipedia, Rand's political views emphasized individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and the the constitutional protection of the right to life, liberty and property. She was also a fierce opponent of all forms of collectivism. These convictions are neatly summed up in a quote from John Galt, the fictional hero in Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.” I have not yet read Atlas Shrugged, but it appears from the summaries I've read that her novel was an elevation of the rich early 20th-century industrialists to hero status, and an attack on all those who would place limits on the power and reach of such industrialists. At her funeral (attended by Alan Greenspan among others), a six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket. This seems only fitting, as her convictions seemed to condone the massive aggregation of capital into the hands of a select few, by any means including influencing governments to legalize any strategies used by this select few in their pursuit of capital.

Ayn Rand's writings are a living embodiment of selfishness. Anyone who has been reading my blog for any time knows that I believe that selfishness – among the rich and powerful first, and among the rest of us to whom they taught it – is at the root of the problems we now face in our modern global society. The practice of that selfishness has brought our society to the brink of collapse. I believe that this selfishness lies, in some Freudian/subconscious way, at the root of the present opposition voiced by many on the political and religious Right to real and effective solutions to global climate change, habitat destruction, Peak Oil and economic collapse. Or then again, maybe those who oppose real solutions know full well why they oppose them, yet they suppress the full realization or stating of their reasons, so that they never have to face them. I'll deal with the Religious Right in an upcoming post on my other blog, From SoC to Points North. But for now, I'd like to make a few observations about the right wing in general.

The right wing is full of people who preach that government should be as small as possible, that any government regulation of business is unjust and “socialist,” and that the way to economic prosperity for nations is an utterly “free” market. Some of these people may have read my recent post titled, “Knee-Capping the Peasants,” and may have found that this post resonated with them. They may think that they have found a true brother-in-arms in me, a true ideological soul-mate who thinks that all government is evil. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A society of unrestrained freedom, where government either has no power or exists solely to protect property rights, can work only as long as its citizens are sinlessly perfect. Sinlessly perfect people don't violate each other's rights intentionally, nor do they live for greed. They may make mistakes through inexperience, yet once they are educated in the proper way to relate to their neighbors, they need no coercion to walk in that proper way.

The problem is that ours is a world full of sinners. It's not that what we do makes us sinners; it's that what we do proves that we are sinners. “Everyone is crooked deep down,” as a songwriter once wrote. That means that every one of us is capable of being deliberately hurtful to others. Many of the laws of human societies are not an expression of our virtue, but an admission of our disease – they are enacted and enforced out of self-interest, in order to protect us from each other when we are at our worst moments, so that we can live, breathe and sleep in some semblance of peace.

Merely educating people in responsible behavior is thus not enough to keep us from hurting each other, especially as technology has placed tools of increasing power and danger in the hands of larger and larger numbers of people. Here are a few examples: I went to a concert once where kids were shining laser pointers into the eyes of the musicians onstage. This was even though the laser pointers had clearly marked warnings about retinal damage and the danger of laser light. Another example: most states require drivers to stop at crosswalks to allow pedestrians to cross. This is especially true if one is making a right turn through a crosswalk and a pedestrian has the “Walk” signal. Yet recently I have seen murderously impatient idiots with Oregon license plates (who thus must have passed an Oregon driving test) blowing through clearly-marked crosswalks with “Yield to Pedestrians” signs while pedestrians were trying to cross. Also, I don't know of any state where motorists are allowed to cross the double yellow lines on a two-lane road, yet I saw a lady today who veered across the double yellow lines to cut in front of a garbage truck. (If she was that late for work, I think she should have left her house sooner!)

I am therefore not opposed to government, which according to the Good Book is “the servant of God” for the public good (Romans 13). But I am opposed to the hijacking of government to serve the rich. That was the main point of “Knee-Capping the Peasants,” the fact that the few who are rich and powerful have created a system known as the “official” global economy which has turned the many poor into the prey of the rich. Now that the poor are realizing this and now that the system is breaking, the rich masters of the system are actively trying to hinder anyone who tries to create alternative systems. One of their tools is the use of corrupt governments to criminalize or marginalize these alternative systems.

I am totally in favor of legislation that mandates safe durable goods or children's toys or food. I am against legislation that pretends to mandate these things, yet whose actual effect is to drive small businesses and small farms out of business. But this was the aim, goal and desired effect of much of the legislation proposed by right-wing Republican congressmen and signed into law by George W. Bush over the last eight years. This was also true of some key pieces of legislation enacted during the Clinton administration. Indeed, one could view the Bush presidency as a huge amplification of policies favorable to big business that were first enacted during the Democratic Clinton years.

These policies had the effect of concentrating ever more political and economic power in the hands of an ever-smaller group of private individuals while destroying any alternatives raised up by small, relatively powerless individuals. Time would fail me if I listed all the examples, from the early restrictions on Internet radio stations to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to the National Animal Identification System to the Patriot Act, and so on. It was partly to escape and reverse such policies that many people latched onto Barack Obama's promise of “Change!” and voted for him.

Now it is clear that the Democrats are just as much servants of corporatists as the Republicans, and are just as beholden to the rich interests who actually run our country. When Democrats are caught supporting legislation that increases the power of the rich while removing self-sufficiency from the poor, this provides a huge opening for people on the Right to say, “See there? This proves that all big government is bad, and that all government restrictions should be done away with!” The spokesmen for the Right say these things, not in honesty, but in order to support their agenda of removing all government restrictions from the rich so that they may have full freedom to amass more riches without regard for the effect of their actions on others.

This hypocrisy of the Right highlights a present danger to the Obama administration. For while there's very little difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, they fight hard against each other during elections. I think it's because they both “like ice cream cones.” The two parties are like two children who both love the ice cream cone” of political office, yet who are locked in a fight to the death because there's only one ice cream cone and they won't share. The Presidency of the United States is a three-scooper, with mint 'n' chip, rocky road and pecan fudge – and topped by a cherry! Now the Right in this country is very upset, not only because they lost the election, but even more because the tongue of a black man is licking a cone that they had wanted kept for lighter-skinned mouths.

This explains the fierceness of the rhetoric of the Right against Obama. Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress supported the deregulation of the banking and real estate sectors which contributed to our present collapse. Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress voted to pass the series of bailouts that began in 2008. A Republican president insisted that the nation had to enact these bailouts in order to “save the economy.” Yet there are right-wing pundits and news outlets who seek to point all public outrage over these things and over the economic collapse to Obama. (See this for instance: and

The corporate masters who control the Republican party use this rhetoric and blaming by the Republicans to continue to legitimize their agenda of removing all government restrictions to their actions, while they characterize the Democrats as the party of “big government.” But both sides pursue the same basic policies. Unfortunately, their actions have the effect of encouraging the ideology of selfishness promoted by Ayn Rand – at a time when we need to embrace community-based, collective, cooperative solutions to the problems we now face, solutions which in many cases will require government involvement in order to be most effective. When Democrats or Republicans push corporatist policies that benefit the rich while causing pain to ordinary people, they convince ordinary people that all government is bad, weakening the case for government intervention to deal with our present mess.

(P.S. If you want to see another example of right-wing selfishness and wackiness, see page 8 of the mid-March 2009 Fullerton Observer. You can get it here:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Report From The Front Lines - 3-20-09

This blog is supposed to be, among other things, a “diary of life on the downside of Hubbert's Peak.” Here's a bit of a diary entry.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a co-worker who has many of the same perspectives that I do about our present world and its prospects, and the impending demise of materialistic culture in the United States. He is Catholic, whereas I am Protestant. We both decided that it would be fun and helpful to host a “brown-bag lunch” at our office to discuss neighborhood and community resilience. We came up with a tentative agenda of topics to discuss:


  1. Definition: What is a resilient community? (or neighborhood)

  2. The systems of a neighborhood

  3. Threats to those systems

    1. Foreclosure

    2. Job loss

    3. Sudden supply disruptions

    4. Bedroom community

    5. Loss of a loved one

  4. Resilience Strategies

    1. Getting to know neighbors

      1. Creating Understanding

      2. Sharing skills

      3. Developing common ground

      4. “Being present”

    2. Mutual aid

      1. Ride share

      2. Baby sitting

      3. Helping out with building projects

      4. Neighborhood pet

      5. “Belonging”

    3. Bartering networks

      1. Skills/services

      2. Material goods (homemade crafts, etc)

      3. Garage sales

    4. Creating “Lending Libraries”

      1. Hand tools/power tools

      2. Kitchen appliances

      3. Garden starts

    5. Investing in oneself

      1. Learning self-reliance skills (canning, sewing, knitting)

      2. Gardening (vegetable, flower, composting, water conservation, organic pest control, )

      3. Keeping urban livestock

      4. (Ending petlessness)

    6. Improving common spaces

      1. Planting fruit trees/perennial vegetables in common areas like easements

      2. Organizing front yard edible plants

      3. Utilizing the “front porch” attitude

Looks ambitious, doesn't it? We've also got another engineer who is handy with woodworking as a hobby, who also would like to contribute to our talk. It could be a very useful and informative presentation if it gets off the ground.

And that's the rub right now – that this talk may not get off the ground. For our office, whose workload had been slowing for at least nine months, has suddenly gotten a lot slower. Many people are staying home now on company leave (or are out looking for work). My own department's workload has dried up significantly. We have a few “prospects” out there that may materialize in the next few weeks; if they don't, many lives will be disrupted. Showing up to work without a charge number is a sure way to get the “Grim Reaper” after you.

Some of my co-workers have had a running joke about me over the last few months, going as far as calling me a “prophet” and saying that they get dark circles under their eyes and lose sleep whenever they hear me give my economic prognosis for American society. I guess I do sound a bit doomful, but then again it must be the prognostications I've been reading over the last two years – prognostications which have been quite doomful and very accurate. (I'm no prophet; I just know how to steal good material!) During one of the Dow's more recent dives, we were all joking about hiding money under matresses.

Nowadays, I tend to be more careful about who I share my opinions with in the office. I think of one co-worker in particular, an engineer with extensive experience, who denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change and Peak Oil, and who seems to blame all our present problems on liberals and Democrats. I am an evangelical Christian, and he claims to be one also, but we are as different as day and night, since I believe that God is a God of personal responsibility who doesn't spare us from difficult lessons, and who commands His people not to be materialists. My associate, on the other hand, is a Charismatic who seems to believe that material prosperity is our Divine right and a sign of Divine blessing, and that the American standard of living is inviolable. I get nothing but agitated trying to talk to this gentleman, so I tend to avoid philosophical or political discussions with him – though he seems to enjoy trying to start such discussions with me.

The commute to work has grown somewhat eerie. The MAX trains, so full of commuters a few months ago, have recently become much emptier. Some might think that it's because cheap gasoline has finally lured people back into cars, but I think it's because a lot of my former fellow passengers have been laid off, or their hours have been cut. The official unemployment rate in Oregon is now over ten percent, though the actual rate may be far higher. It may well be that one out of every five people I meet on the street is out of a job.

The Circuit City store a couple of blocks from my house closed a few weeks ago. Now the parking lot is vacant, and there is an iron grate across the store entrance. In the building where my office is located, there are a number of new vacancies caused by people going out of business, as well as a number of new business vacancies in downtown Portland. There is also a foreclosed house in my neighborhood which has sat vacant for half a year, and is now finally going up for auction. Some of my neighbors have been trying to sell their houses for about the same amount of time, and have had no success.

Speaking of houses, I wrote in an earlier post about how people could buy foreclosed or abandoned houses cheaply in certain parts of the U.S., and that they could use these houses as a base for establishing resilient communities with local economies suited to an energy-constrained future. Evidently, there were many who seized on the availability of cheap housing (whether because of my blog or not, I don't know), and now people are buying up dozens of houses apiece in places like Detroit, Michigan. These people, however, are not buying the houses in order to start resilient communities or to prepare for energy descent, but in order to get rich from speculative “investment.” (You can read about some of these “investors” here:

These people are vultures stumbling fortuitously across a seemingly lucky bit of road kill, but I believe that they are greatly mistaken if they think they will get much of a return on their “investments.” They bought their properties based on the belief that economic activity in Detroit will pick up enough to provide sufficient incomes to prospective tenants to cover the rents which these people, in their greed, will demand. Most of these newly-minted “landlords” have dreams of making a more-than-comfortable living from their “properties” without having to work very hard at all – a sort of something-for-nothing semi-retirement, if you will. But the truth is that our contracting economy, whose contraction is driven by a contracting base of energy and natural resources, will not be able to support a large rentier class. These people are about to find out that a house has value only as a place to live and to do the hard work of making a living, and not as a get-rich “investment” vehicle. It will be a hard lesson, but as Gandalf said in the Lord of the Rings, “The burned hand teaches best.”

Yet these people are symptomatic of a society which has been trained to try to get something for nothing, a society trained by TV shows such as “Mad Money” and “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Now the something-for-nothing dream is going up in smoke, and I wonder how my fellow citizens will respond.

As for me, I am reviewing my options, making preparations to do without, planting my garden (oats yesterday, brussels sprouts, favas and flax earlier in the week), and getting to know my neighbors. I'll probably pick up a load of compost tomorrow. Thanks be to God that my house is paid off. Stay well, everyone, and live wisely, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Big And Small Business - The Muscular Widget-Sellers

Imagine, if you will, a group of widget-makers and widget merchants in a particular country. Let's say that some of these widget-makers are actually large firms that employ over a thousand people, whereas some of them are very small outfits run by a husband and wife and a couple of children. Let's also say that most people in the widget business in your country believe that it is imperative to grow as large as possible, and to capture as much market share as possible. Those who believe thus might also believe that it is acceptable to use any means available to achieve growth and to wipe out competition.

Now let's say that the making of widgets requires great physical strength for the purpose of assembling heavy parts that are hard to handle. Let's also say that some of the biggest names in the widget business are outsourcing their production to countries whose labor costs are extremely low, in order to boost production per dollar spent and to increase company profits. The only problem is that the workers in these countries are not very strong, since they only get a dollar a day and often go hungry. Thus some widgets sold in your country begin to fail prematurely, causing widget users to stub their toes and smash their thumbs.

Now stubbed toes and smashed thumbs hurt (and make their sufferers mad), so these victims start complaining to the government. But the biggest names in the widget business have bought off most of the legislators and officials in the government, so when public pressure forces these officials to do something about the problem of widgets that break, they naturally don't attack the source of the problem. Instead, they draft a law which states that "in view of the danger to citizens from breaking widgets (and more importantly, in view of the danger to the widget business from the perception of danger posed by defective widgets), our Government will now require all businesses engaged in widget-making to demonstrate that the personnel in their firms have the necessary physical strength to make widgets. We do therefore establish a Widget Physical Fitness Administrator with full authority to test each widget firm's physical fitness."

The Administrator then issues a decree that each firm collectively or each sole proprietor must do a thousand push-ups every time they ship a certain number of widgets (say, a thousand push-ups for every hundred widgets). Moreover, each batch of a thousand push-ups must be completed within five minutes. For the personnel of Circle D Widgets and General Widgets, this is easy, since there are at least five hundred project managers, deputy vice presidents, marketing directors, project engineers, and lawyers at each firm. As soon as the Administrator visits their firm, they all drop down and knock out one push-up each. But the proprietors of Little Widget On A Hill have a much harder time, since this firm is comprised of a middle-aged hobbyist (who goes to the gym religiously every day), her couch-potato husband (who handles the paperwork), a couple of grade-school grandkids (whom the hobbyist takes along when she goes to the gym), and a ten-year-old calico cat. How long do you think Little Widget On A Hill will be able to stay in business?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Knee-Capping The Peasants - Three Examples

I have written on several occasions that we are all increasingly dependent on the global system known as the “official” economy, and that this official system is now breaking. I have also repeatedly mentioned that the masters of this present global system are waging an active war against anyone who tries to create a safety net of alternative systems. One of their means is the use of governments to pass laws that make various acts of self-sufficiency illegal, or that impose a penalty on people who use alternatives to the official system. Here are three beautifully evil examples:

Oregon State House Bill 3008. Are you an Oregonian who recently chose to save money by bicycle commuting instead of driving? Four members of the Oregon legislature want to take that money away from you. They are Republican Representative Wayne Krieger, Republican Representative Sal Esquivel, Republican Representative Bill Garrard and Democratic Representative Michael Scaufler. They have introduced House Bill 3008 (, a measure that, if passed, would require all bicycles ridden in Oregon to be registered by their owners via a $54 biannual fee. Failure to register would result in a traffic fine of up to $90. This is the same amount charged for registering cars!

Ostensibly, the bill is designed to raise funds for improvement and expansion of bikeways and bike paths, but in actuality, the bill may be yet another attempt to discourage people from using bikes as transport, and to force them back into cars. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Wayne Krieger, had opposed the Oregon Vulnerable Roadway Users bill in 2007. He has also stated his belief that bikes don't belong on the road. (Source: The other thing is that only two thirds of the registration funds collected would go toward bikeway/bike path projects. The remaining third would be kept by the registering agency (who could be a private contractor hired by the State).

Is this the way to protect the budgets of struggling families, or to combat global warming? Is this how to address impending energy shortages? And what about the many, many homeless people one sees on bikes nowadays, people for whom a bicycle is a vital piece of equipment? Is the state going to try to shake them down, or will they try to confiscate their bikes? House Bill 3008 is just plain stupid.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. This is the law which is causing consternation among thrift shop owners, small home-based makers of childrens clothes and toys, and sellers of children's books. This law, sponsored by Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush and signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush, requires that any toys, apparel or other “children's products” (products made for children 12 years old or younger) must be subjected to third-party testing for lead and phthalates before being sold. Enforcement of this law was intended to apply even to items made before the law was passed. Moreover, the law was intended for any product consisting of a completed assembly of various parts – even if those parts did not contain lead or phthalates themselves.

These requirements mean the effectual destruction of thrift shops and garage sales, as well as other sellers of used children's books, toys and clothing. Moreover, they mean testing for things that clearly could not possibly contain lead, such as rag dolls made from cloth, cotton stuffing and thread. And the third-party testing requirements threaten the very existence of small-scale, home or cottage-based industries and sellers, since they can't afford the third-party testing fees. (See,,,, and

But the requirements of this law are good for Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and the really big children's product manufacturers, who are the only ones with enough cash flow to afford compliance with this law – yet whose products, made outside the United States in countries with lax regulations, were responsible for causing the very problems that this law is supposed to fix. Were you trying to become self-sufficient by starting a home-based children's craft business? Has this law just wiped you out? You could always try to get a job at Wal-Mart or McDonald's. How effective are laws to protect chickens when they are written by foxes? Look, there goes a ten-year-old right now, chewing on his bicycle chain! Was that kid's bicycle subjected to third-party testing before it was sold??!

Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. This bill, also known as House Resolution 875, was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro and 39 co-sponsors, all Democrats. This bill has many bloggers upset because of the perceived threat the bill poses to our ability to be self-sufficient in providing our own food without having to rely on the present global system of industrial food production. The fuss over the bill made me curious, so I downloaded a copy of it (you can get yours here: and read the whole thing this afternoon.

This bill is our government's response to recent food safety scandals such as melamine residues in baby formula and pet food shipped to the U.S., as well as outbreaks of samonella in peanut butter, eggs, meat, poultry, pet food and vegetables. The introductory paragraphs of the bill make it clear that the bill's purpose goes beyond merely protecting consumer health: “Congress finds that the safety of the food supply of the United States is vital to...public confidence in the food supply and to the success of the food sector of the Nation's economy...” and “...loss of public confidence in food safety [is] damaging to consumers and the food industry, and place[s] a burden on interstate commerce and international trade...” (emphasis added). In other words, one of the primary purposes of this bill is to repair the damage to the global food industry due to loss of consumer confidence on account of recent food safety scandals.

The bill proposes to set up a far-reaching bureaucracy responsible for enforcing uniform standards for all “food establishments,” as defined by the bill. “Food establishments” are defined as facilities that slaughter animals, that process raw seafood or other raw animal products, that process cooked, pasteurized, or otherwise ready-to-eat animal products or that processes raw, ready-to-eat fresh produce, or any establishment that process all other categories of food products not described in the aforementioned definitions. The bill also has requirements for “food production facilities,” defined as farms, ranches, orchards, vineyards, or feedlots.

For “food establishments,” the bill sets up requirements for mandatory inspections, quality control processes, testing and documentation of records. It also requires all “food establishments” to register with the Federal government. For “food production facilities” such as farms, the bill requires the operators to follow the National Animal Identification System, as well as “minimum standards” related to “growing, harvesting, sorting, and storage operations” for “fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment and water...”

The concern over the safety of our nation's food supply is commendable. Some of the provisions of this bill seem to address that concern in a reasonable manner, including testing requirements for food imported to the United States. However, as I read this bill, I got the impression that too many of its provisions are poorly defined, and could lead to draconian, hugely invasive government interference in small, family-owned farms, driving them out of business. The requirement to follow the National Animal Identification System is a sure-fire small farm killer, written expressly to drive small meat farmers out of business due to the huge cost of compliance. This bill seems to be yet another attempt at knee-capping the peasants.

One thing about the peasants: Since I am a peasant who wants to escape from reliance on our breaking system, I care a great deal about the attempts by the corporate masters of our present system to force me into continued dependence on their system. In fact, I get mad. There seems to be a shortage of anger about these things nowadays. When that anger is expressed, it's usually in the form of calls to “write your congressman!” Should chickens appeal to foxes for protection? But if chickens figure out a way to make predatory behavior hard on foxes, they're apt to get more satisfying results. Write your congressman if you like, but don't stop there.

Therefore I'll just inform you that H.R. 875 sponsor Representative DeLauro is married to Stanley Greenberg, principal of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a political campaign company ( Among his company's recent clients is Monsanto, a large-scale manufacturer of pesticides and other farm “inputs,” as well as genetically-modified seeds. As a huge agribusiness player, Monsanto is a company that would have a great deal to gain from driving small farms out of business, and has actively campaigned against organic agriculture. (Source:

Monsanto also makes products such as Roundup Herbicides and Fielder's Choice Seeds, and is a partner with the Scotts Miracle-Gro company in distributing lawn care products. You can find their products in any Home Depot or Lowe's or Tru-Value hardware store. Or then again, maybe you can't. At least I can't anymore. My anger toward Scotts and Monsanto has induced a selective blindness in my eyes – I can't see their products anymore, no matter what store I visit. Oh, well. I guess I can't buy what I can't see. As I find out more about other corporate sponsors of this sort of foolishness, I may stop seeing their products also.

Oh, and if you want to find out more about the National Animal Identification System, read this: I guess I won't ever again be eating at McDonald's either.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Repairing Neighborhoods - Rototilling Versus Sheet-Mulching

(A confession: I am not entirely satisfied with the piece I am writing this week, since some of the things I suggest here may require government intervention, and I think the government on all levels is probably not the wisest or most reliable partner in doing good at present. If anyone has any suggestions for how some of the suggestions in this post could be implemented without government help, feel free to share them.)

There are two concepts of neighborhood resilience nowadays, arising from two almost mutually exclusive views of our present and future economic, ecological and energy prospects. One concept defines resilience as the ability of a neighborhood to retain its property values and desirability as a real estate market amidst changing economic conditions in the larger world. An example of this concept is seen in a paper, “Foreclosure and Neighborhood Resiliency”(, written by Michael Schubert of Community Development Strategies, a real estate development consulting firm. Another example of the same concept is an article, “The Bronx is Up” (, published in the February 2009 newsletter of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development.

According to the view of these articles, a resilient neighborhood is able to attract a high percentage of qualified owner-occupant buyers, and is able to quickly recover from foreclosures that happen in its midst, due to the general desirability of its housing and the attractiveness of other features, such as schools, restaurants, retail centers such as shopping malls, and other amenities. Such a neighborhood also makes a strong contribution to a city's tax base, and is an integral player in the official global economy.

Strategies for maintaining high property values include neighborhood associations and neighborhood involvement to maintain housing according to certain standards of appearance which have historically been associated with an image of prosperity, including things like well-kept lawns, ornamental shrubs, “acceptable” styling and color of housing exterior finish, and the absence of things considered to be “unsightly,” such as clotheslines. When foreclosures begin to happen in such neighborhoods, “resilience strategies” are suggested which include such things as neighbors maintaining adjacent abandoned properties and the aggressive marketing of the neighborhood and its vacant houses to new, highly qualified owner-occupant homebuyers. (Mr. Schubert's paper seems to imply that counseling families in trouble is less important than aggressive “recycling” of foreclosed or vacant properties to new, well-qualified buyers.)

But from time to time, even the best neighborhoods “fail” – the number of vacancies and foreclosures continues to increase, houses fall into disrepair, and property values and tax revenues decline. For those who view neighborhood resilience as the ability of a place to retain high property values, the proper approach to a failed neighborhood is redevelopment – either the expensive renovation of existing housing stock, or the demolition of existing stock to make way for new construction, which often consists of upscale condo's, townhomes, high-rises, or other high-density housing, along with nearby, conveniently-located new shopping and retail hubs, restaurants, health clubs and other “value-enhancing” amenities. The goal of this new construction is to restore the property values and tax revenues of a place to high levels.

It's easy to see why high property values are so important to many people nowadays, since for the last several years the American economy has been driven by an expanding bubble of debt backed by the use of real estate as collateral. This use of real estate required a corresponding real estate bubble, with housing prices that seemingly appreciated forever. Both bubbles are now collapsing, due to the discovery that America as a whole can no longer pay its debts, and that many Americans can no longer pay even the interest on their debts, let alone interest and principal. Our inability to pay is due to the collapse of our resource base (Peak Oil, peak minerals, water shortages, “peak everything”), as well as the fact that we no longer make enough material things of value in this country to finance our debts.

This means that the foreclosures that ravaged almost all neighborhoods in America are starting to ravage even the most upscale neighborhoods. Every day on the way to work I still pass by the same “Bank Owned” house I first saw two months ago in Lake Oswego. Lake Oswego, of all places! Another ritzy house near where I work has been vacant for nearly a year. There are also news reports of “rich” people in upscale neighborhoods who are now relying on pawnshops for emergency loans. In short, almost everyone is hurting and property values are collapsing. And there is almost no likelihood that anyone will be able to reinflate property values to their bubble heights ever again. There will soon be a lot of “failed” neighborhoods.

We therefore need a different concept of neighborhood resilience. Let's define resilience as the ability of the people of a neighborhood to take care of themselves and meet their needs without fear of displacement, in spite of stresses such as disasters or adverse economic conditions. According to that definition, most neighborhoods in America are not resilient. (In fact, not many middle-class or working-class households are resilient either.) The residents of most neighborhoods rely on a steady stream of income from the official economy in order to stay where they are (because they have to pay rent or a mortgage), and to buy their daily necessities. The threats to income posed by the present collapse are threatening the livelihood of these people.

Since the expense of housing is usually the biggest expense incurred by the people in a neighborhood, one way to increase neighborhood resilience is to reduce the cost of housing for families in a neighborhood. To this end, there are various governmental and non-profit groups working in the U.S. to provide affordable housing to low-income buyers, usually by building new, low-cost housing units for these buyers. I'd like to suggest a somewhat different approach, however, one which I touched on in my post, “A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems – Places To Live.”

There are three steps to this approach. First, there are now many abandoned houses in the U.S. Many of these houses are located in long-term “failed” neighborhoods in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago and other cities listed in a recent Forbes Magazine “America's Emptiest Cities” article. The beginning of establishing resilient neighborhoods would consist of re-inhabiting these houses, since most of them are very cheap. Non-profit groups such as Habitat for Humanity could partner with city governments to buy these houses and repair them to a basic level, then sell (or give) them at a low price to low-income families.

Secondly, the non-profit groups could conduct “self-sufficiency” education programs for the new residents of these reclaimed properties. The goal of these education programs would be to teach residents how to be self-sufficient as individual households and how to set up local, low-energy economies heavily reliant on home-based industries, as well as systems of governance that met neighborhood needs. Such education might be patterned after the free classes offered during the neighborhood Portland Fix-It Fairs hosted by the city of Portland, Oregon's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Third, the city governments could grant extremely reduced property tax rates to neighborhoods that achieved a certain level of self-sufficiency.

There are also neighborhoods which until recently had been strong, yet are now starting to fail due to the collapsing economy. Foreclosures are starting to multiply in these places. For these neighborhoods there is a solution as well. First, city governments should “persuade” banks to forfeit to the city any bank-owned properties which remain abandoned or uninhabited for longer than a certain set time, such as nine months to one year. Such “persuasion” could be accomplished by continually raising taxes on these properties to cover such expenses as extra policing required to prevent vandalism, City resources required for upkeep of abandoned properties, and so forth. Once the city government owned these properties, it could donate them to non-profit groups with the goal of basic refurbishment of these properties in order to house low-income families. Large bank-owned properties such as McMansions could be turned into multi-tenant properties. The new residents would again be encouraged to enroll in neighborhood self-sufficiency education programs. Such an approach to foreclosure would also educate the banks to the realization that there's no longer a mathematical chance that they will ever get the payment they demanded, on the terms they once hoped for, for the properties they have repossessed, and it might make them far more willing to work with homebuyers who are now in trouble, though not yet in foreclosure. This would reduce the number of people being thrown out onto the street.

Trying to fix failing neighborhoods through redevelopment in order to “stimulate” the present official economy is like trying to start a garden by spraying and rototilling an existing grassy field. Much of the existing, beneficial life of the soil is killed in the process, and what's left usually needs lots of chemical additives in order to provide the fertility needed to grow useful crops. But building neighborhood resilience by making existing resources more affordable and educating residents in self-sufficiency is like starting a garden through the sheet-mulching method – where existing grass and weeds are turned into compost that enriches the soil and the existing life in the soil, so that the soil becomes naturally more fertile. We no longer have the resources to rototill our way to economic health. It's time instead for some sheet-mulching.