Friday, December 31, 2010

When will China become Number One? And Funny Prognostications

By Tom Kando

The question as to when China will overtake the US has intrigued me for a long time. Maybe it’s because I am still an American chauvinist, who has always been proud to be a citizen of the “Number One” country. Maybe it’s just intellectual curiosity.

So I did two quick series on my calculator:

1. I assumed that the US economy will grow at an average rate of 2.8% per year, and that the Chinese economy will grow by 10% a year. In this scenario, China will surpass the US in 2028 - 18 years from now.

2. Assume that the US economy will grow at an average rate of 2.8% per year, and that the Chinese economy will grow by 10% per year for another 6 years, but only 5% from 2017 on. In this case, China will overtake the US in 2053 - 42 years from now.

But forecasts are often wrong. “Futurologists” like Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt and Jeremy Rifkin have been more often wrong than right. For example, the Soviet Union went “poof” and no one saw it coming...

Extrapolations from current conditions can be really funny. Here are some which I hope you enjoy:

! In the 1870s, someone predicted that by 1930 the streets of all US cities would be covered with a 35-foot thick layer of horse manure due to the exponential increase in horse carriages.

! Someone also predicted that there would be a sharp increase in the number of heart attacks in the 20th century, as the human heart would not be able to withstand train speeds over 30 mph.

! And here is another good one: If the world’s population kept growing at 2% or 3% per year, as it has over the past century, guess what the earth would look like in the year 5000?
Well, it would be covered by a solid mass of flesh, which would be expanding out into space at the speed of light.

So my bet is that all predictions about when China will overtake the US are wrong, including my own. China could become Number One earlier, later, or never. Unforeseen things could (and will!) happen in both countries. Good things and bad things. Political changes, etc.

I am just tossing this your way as food for thought.

P.S. If you know of funny prognostications, send them to us.leave comment here

Who is in Charge?

by Madeleine Kando

I wish I was like my daughter Aniko. She still believes that everything in life can be'fixed', if you only put in the effort. It is a wonderful way to look at the world. Armed with her rock solid belief in the power of the rational mind, she goes through life like Athena, the Goddess of war. There is this slight feeling of cold toughness about her view of life, but war goddesses, after all, need a hard, metal armor to be efficient.

Yes, she is convinced that in the boxing ring of life her intellect is ample protection against the punches that come her way. With her strong, graceful and humorous personality, she approaches problems as if they were pets with behavior problems.

Granted, some breeds are tougher than others, but a rational approach will surmount any obstacle. You just need to observe, analyze, break apart if necessary and put pets back together the 'right' way.

What's the mystery about that!? Why would you have to put up with unhappiness, torment, ambivalence, uncertainty, contradiction, doubt, indecision or vacillation? Those words do not mean anything to my daughter. She swats them away like bothersome flies when the need arises.

You see, part of me takes pleasure in conflict. It gives the web of my life some tension. I don't really enjoy smooth sailing ALL the time. I would'nt want to have chronic stress, but a healthy daily dose of trouble gives spice to my days. Besides, I have had enough time to graduate from the school of hard knocks to know that my daughter's enviable illusion is far off the mark.

Someone up there must have been paying attention when they assembled her. She was handed a straight flush, right from birth. She is charming, balanced, pretty, considerate and oh so sociable. The envy of neurotic individuals like myself.

But what's going to happen to her when the shit hits the fan? Is she going to be prepared? How is she going to react when one of the millions of bad things that can happen to good people is going to come her way?

Or is it true that bad things only happen to people who 'attract' bad luck? Does she have built-in anti-shit protection? Up to now (she is already in her thirties) facts bear out this hypothesis. Shit, in any significant amount, has not come her way yet.

It's not like she leads a protected life: she takes risks. She travels around the world with just a backpack and her confidence and charm as her only weapons. But she also has an extremely sharp sense of self-preservation. When she has to choose between what's good for her and not so good for someone else, there is no hesitation. That's what leaves me breathless: her ability to remove this oh so familiar feeling of being pulled in two directions from her list of options.

Is there such a thing as 'self fulfilling prophecy'? Some people, who don't like to take risks, who do not travel, do not meet new people for fear of rejection, always find themselves holding the short end of the stick. Bad things come their way all the time. Their attempts at insulation does not prevent trouble from piling up on them.

When my oldest visits from far away California, I prepare myself. I don my rational coat and tell myself: 'Ok, Madeleine, for the next few days, put all that sentimental crap on the backburner, Aniko is coming. You better behave yourself.'

Here I am, writing about her, wondering how she will react when she reads this post. I am conflicted, ambivalent, not sure if I should remove her from my list of recipients. You see? There it is: insecurity! That's another word that doesn't fit in my daughter's world view.

Soon she will be gone. I will look back on her visit and our conversations about how to 'fix' the problems that have piled up in my life. But how do you 'fix' an overwhelming feeling of helplessness when you watch someone you deeply love self-destruct? How do you 'fix' the paralyzing feeling you get when you discover that injustice is hardwired in the fabric of life? How do you 'fix' loosing someone to war, to accidents, to neglect?

I learned a long time ago that I am not in the driver's seat of many aspects of my own life. Yes, in small things, like deciding what to eat for breakfast or what color shirt to wear, but even that is doubtful. leave comment here

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Fracking America

by Madeleine Kando

If you are as naive as I am about where the heat in your house comes from, then the expression 'ignorance is bliss' applies to you. I, too, was blissfully ignorant until I spoke to my friend Jan. She has a little thirty acre farm right on Cayuga Lake in upstate New York, where she tries to make ends meet with her new husband Michael. I visit her sometimes and the ride from Boston is long enough to remind me, once again, how BIG this country is. Big and beautiful. Read more...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Upping The Antlers

by Madeleine Kando

From a very early age I was taught that money cannot buy you happiness, In fact, in my family we categorically looked down on money and the pursuit of it. We were ‘artistes’ with a disdain for anything that reeked of materialism.

In hindsight, I realize that much of this indoctrination was an attempt to justify our extreme poverty. Even with this view of the world under my belt, I still felt ashamed of my salvation army issued shoes held together with staples. The wooden soles made me walk with a spastic gait, like Forest Gump.

Our low opinion of monetary matters fit our bohemian lifestyle quite well. Our friends called us colorful and free, the opposite of ‘bourgeois’. My twin sister has never betrayed this world view: to this day she is an avid supporter of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of life.

I, on the other hand, had a painful awareness that others always had more and we had less, colorful and free as we were. Children see what’s important: all that matters to them is the pecking order and my wooden-soled shoes did not exactly help me rank very high.

I wasn't too unhappy however. Most of our friends were poor ‘artistes’ and we liked to make fun of the establishment together, feeling very superior. It wasn’t until I moved to the States that I realized that my views were based on an illusion and they burst like soap bubbles in the turbulence of the new ‘dog eat dog’ world that I found myself in.

Even so, it took many decades to undo the brainwashing that I had undergone. But I was a good mother, and a good citizen: I followed the rules, I moved my family from town to town, trying to find a good school, going from renting to buying a house, working hard to keep up with the Joneses.

Yes, America is a lot more honest about the Darwinian struggle for survival. There is a very interesting analogy put forward by Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell University, who says that Darwin, rather than Adam Smith as the real father of economic theory. Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ applies directly to economic principles in a free-market economy.

There is a catch, though: in the animal kingdom, the ‘fittest’ applies to the fittest individual, not the group. Frank, in his article 'The Invisible Hand, Trumped by Darwin?' gives the example of bull elephant seals who grow so big and fat that they are very good at fighting each other, but very bad at escaping predators. Or the elk with antlers that are so large that they can kill another male but get tangled in the forest when they try to run from a pack of wolves. In other words, what is good for an individual is not always good for the group. What is good for one millionaire is not always good for society. The trickle down effect, in this case, works to the detriment of the group.

Growing more fat blubber or growing bigger antlers forces other seals and other elks to do the same, so who is gaining by that? Not only is the individual seal loosing out by having to lug himself around and the elk becoming so top heavy that he looses his balance, but everyone else in the group has now inherited those traits. It’s like everyone standing up in a movie theatre to see better. The movie theatre, as a group, is worse off with this one action, they just get cramps in their legs from standing.

But to get back to my own story: My original attitude towards (too much) money also has to do with the fact that I grew up in Europe. You might disagree with me, but I personally think that Europeans have a better quality of life. Could it be because their governments have made rules that prevents individuals from going overboard in trying to up the ante?

The antlers on the individuals are a lot smaller over there, but since everyone’s antlers are smaller they don’t feel deprived. Their tax code discourages an individual from becoming so rich, from their antlers becoming so big, that everyone else in society benefits. The ‘norm’ is smaller antlers, less work to lug those around, more vacation time, more money for health care and better schools. Yes, all that energy that now goes into creating fat and antlers, could be siphoned off into creating happier seals without orthopedic problems, faster, happier elks who could avoid being devoured by wolves. Instead of spending the wealth of this nation on bigger yachts, bigger mansions and bigger garages to store Oprah’s dollar bills, we could spend it on creating a system of high speed trains and fixing our infrastructure.

So, maybe my mother was right after all, by inculcating in her children the notion that money is relative. I, for one, am all for smaller antlers. Maybe my twin sister has known the secret to fixing our economy all along: less IS more. leave comment here

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Private or Public?

By Tom Kando

At the risk is saying the obvious, I want to talk about private versus public - again.

There is so much bs going on in politics about the alleged evils of “socialism.” There is a total consensus, at least in America, that the only way to make economic progress is to CUT taxes, to unleash the productivity of the free enterprise system, to stifle government, which is wasteful and inefficient, etc, etc. On these things, everyone agrees. Republicans, Democrats, President Obama, governor-elect Jerry Brown, everyone. “Private” reigns supreme. “Public” is an evil word.

Back when I went to college, most reasonable people knew that some of society’s functions properly belong in the private sphere, and some not.

Except for Communists, most of us agreed that the means of production should not be nationalized, i.e. owned and run by the government. We agreed that Capitalism was the right way, as far as industry was concerned.

However, we also knew that society requires many essential services which could not and should not be provided for profit. These include public safety, education, health care, retirement benefits, unemployment compensation, arts and recreation, defense, infrastructure, among others.

Now, there is a push to privatize nearly everything.

Since the 1980s, private prisons and juvenile facilities have multiplied in California, Arizona and other states. This is an abomination.

In education, public schools and universities are being starved for funds. Obviously there should be a place for both private and public schools. But what is developing is an incredibly unfair two-tier system. Those who can afford to send their children to elite, private schools (the two words are synonymous) perpetuate their privilege, while public schools are descending into mediocrity. In Higher Education, even public colleges are becoming prohibitively expensive for many, and increasingly subject to the vagaries of the marketplace, as state funding declines year after year.

Health care: Don’t even get me going on this. The superiority of single-payer, public health care which exists in every other Western country, from Canada to Europe, is a fact.

Old age: When America passed Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, it joined the ranks of the civilized world. Now, Republicans are clamoring for its privatization. Everywhere defined benefits plans are being replaced by defined contributions. Now the retired and the elderly can gamble with their meager old-age safety net!

Arts and Recreation: During the last election, Californians didn’t even have the foresight to vote for an ANNUAL $17.00 (!) fee to save the state park system. What sort of a nation are we becoming? Shall we let Yellowstone, Yosemite and all our other great national treasures perish? Today the budget of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. 1.5% (!) of National Public Radio’s budget is public money, yet the know-nothing Right is clamoring to “defund” it.

Even defense is becoming privatized: There are MORE private DOD contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq than troops! Our wars are becoming mercenary affairs.

Transportation: To what extent transportation should be for-profit is debatable. We have all learned to live with the airline companies, Greyhound, Amtrak, etc. I personally favor public train systems such as the magnificent French SNCF. But one thing we should all agree on is that the INFRASTRUCTURE is a governmental responsibility. Surely roads, bridges, railroads and airports should be built and maintained at the taxpayer’s expense, no? They are part of the commonweal. Or do you want Interstate 80 and US 50 to become private roads, only accessible for fees?

I suppose this is the culture. We have always been a business culture. And now, with a vengeance. leave comment here

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

The meaning of ‘mismatch is when two objects or people do not go together. A “mismatch” is when something fits like ‘a square peg in a round hole’. In French you say ‘like a fish out of water’ (comme un poisson hors de l’eau). The Spanish say: ‘to feel like a chicken in a strange farmyard’ (sentirse como gallina en corral ajeno).

This applies to many aspects of my own life. Take my physical body for instance. I live in New England where temperatures go way down in the winter. My brain fits right into this cold, harsh climate: I think better when it’s cold. But my body is the one that protests. Trying to keep my fingers from turning blue is a daily struggle, not to mention the amount of time it takes to get dressed in the morning. I lived in Spain for a while where the climate is like a gift from God. The olives, tomatoes and avocadoes like living there too: they just taste so much better there. But in Spain my brain cells slowed down to a crawl. It was as if they had lost the need to try to keep warm and just mulled along, doing the least amount of work possible.

Yes, I am lucky to live in a cold climate. The price I pay are purple lips and frozen toes.

The ‘Anglo-Saxon culture’ I both grew up in and have emigrated to also fits my temperament. My hands and feet yearn for more circulation and they would be happier in a mediterranean environment, but being surrounded by happy-go-lucky, warm-hearted people, singing and dancing all the time, not to mention wasting the most important part of the day by taking a siesta, did not appeal to my brain.

Mismatches can take on many forms, you know. I am quite tall for a woman, but my dog is a midget, even in dog terms. During our daily walk in the local forest, I always feel self-conscious, realizing that we do not quite fit, me and my miniature dog. Especially when she wears her fur coat (it being New England and all). She, looking like Zaza Gabor, me looking like a lumberjack.

A guaranteed way to invite ‘mismatch trouble’ is to move away from the place where you were born. Luckily I was small enough to fit practically anywhere when we left Hungary. So onwards I hurled, from France to Holland, from Holland to England via Spain, eventually landing in the United States. By then I had grown big enough to withstand the inevitable bounces one experiences every time one lands on foreign soil.

Sometime I fantasize living in another era. I look at the faded photographs of my grandmother, her hair all done up like an elaborate puff pastry, her dress accentuating the bosom and the derriere and I think to myself: ‘Am I living in the wrong century? I could have been her, a suffragette, fighting for a clear, self-evident cause.’

Marriage is another area where mismatches are often more the rule than the exception. It is not surprising, because marrying the right person is like trying to fit a multi-dimensional square in a multi-dimensional hole. After all, humans are incredibly complex and if one of their dimensions fits, another one is sure to be mismatched.

What about being mismatched as a species? Would I be happier as a fish? Or a horse? I look at my miniature dog, blissfully sleeping on my couch most of the day; the birds outside my window, and wonder if maybe I missed the boat at birth. Who decided that I would become a human? Not me.

Should I have become a Republican? Would I be happier if not even a hundred ton tank could dislodge my conviction that my political views are right?

What about countries? Most of them evolve organically and have no choice in where they are located. But every once in a while a nation is created and decides where it will settle. Did the Zionist founding fathers make a mistake by choosing to settle Israel in the Middle East? It sure feels like Israel fits in its environment like a square peg in a round hole.

What about the way I look? Maybe I should have been a better match looking like Tom Brokaw or Bruce Springsteen. I wouldn't be a woman then, but hey, not everyone is perfect. leave comment here

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is America in Danger of Becoming like Europe, God Forbid?

By Tom Kando

No day goes by without some article quoting an asinine politician who says something like this: “America is in danger of becoming a socialized welfare state, like those awful European countries such as Sweden, France, Germany or the Netherlands. ”

Shouldn’t informed opinions about Europe be based on having been there, and having been there fairly recently, and having done more than just a cruise down the Mediterranean? Most of these statements come from people who don’t know what they are talking about.

It reminds me of an old World War Two veteran who told me once that Europe was just one big slum. He knew, because he had been stationed there in the late 1940s. Or Rush Limbaugh who announced that the American lower class enjoys a higher standard of living than the European middle class.
The truth is that Sweden, the rest of Scandinavia, The Benelux, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the UK and other parts of Western Europe which American conservatives demonize, are doing BETTER than we are.

Granted, comparing the US and Europe is hazardous. Europe’s Southern underbelly (the P.I.G. countries - Portugal, Italy, Greece, etc.) and now Ireland, are in trouble. Not to mention the former Communist countries (where I grew up). Countries like Rumania are economic basket cases.

BUT: American conservatives are specifically telling us to never, ever emulate countries such as Sweden, France, Germany or the Netherlands. This is absurd. Economically, these countries could teach us a thing or two, to put it mildly!

They are doing better in every conceivable way. Their public health is better, they live longer, there is less poverty, their schools are better, their diet is better, their infrastructure is better, their transportation system is better.

Why? Because they enjoy a hybrid system which combines the benefits of the free market with those of “socialism.”

On the other hand, America is ruled by “marketism,” unfettered Capitalism. As a result, we are falling further and further behind. See what Thomas Friedman has to say about that in his New York Times syndicated column on December 2. We can’t even build a bullet train, something which Japan, France, Germany, China and even Poland already have.

So when someone warns me that “America is in danger of becoming a socialized welfare state, just like those awful European countries such as Sweden...”, I guffaw and say, sarcastically, “oh, not that!”

Dozens of millions of Americans have been brainwashed into believing that pure capitalism works better than a mixed economy. As a result, we have the worst rates of poverty and economic disparity in the Western World. What this country needs is PRECISELY a strong dose of the social and economic policies that still prevail in much of Western Europe. We should be so LUCKY as to become more like Sweden - or Canada, for that matter.

Go check it out. Without facts, opinion is meaningless.

Americans who read this might say, “okay, you treacherous immigrant. America has given you everything, and now you criticize it, every chance you get. Go back to your beloved Europe, you ingrate!”

My European friends and relatives might also ask me why I don’t return. Their reasoning would be somewhat different: Many of them believe that I am living in a hellish country, which is also a mistake.

But things aren’t that simple. My life is here. My family, friends, career are here. I am an American. I love American culture, the American people, American freedom and space. I cry for America, but I don’t abandon America. leave comment here

Friday, December 3, 2010

Democracy is Not Dead (yet)

by Madeleline Kando

My husband and I are typical of many millions of American families whom we used to call ‘middle class’. Not rich, not poor, just in the middle. We have a small house in the suburbs, two cars, two kids and two tv sets.

If I didn’t have all these years to look back on and a natural tendency to compare the present with the past, I would call myself fortunate and blessed.

Have we progressed as a family from, let’s say, twenty years ago? We already had a house then. We already had two kids, two cars and two tv sets. It’s just that they were newer then.

The difference is that we didn’t have two computers, we didn’t have ipods, cell phones, blueray dvd players, electronic devices to open the skylights, the refrigerator or flush the toilet remotely.

I did a tour of our house to count how many ‘gadgets’ we have. I stopped at thirty-two, because I realized how obscene it is to have your house filled with ‘things’, most of them substitutes for what you can do with a pair of reasonably well-functioning hands.

The other thing we didn’t have twenty years ago, was the need to choose between countless companies that basically offer identical services or products. Installing a phone or internet service is a major source of stress, at least for me – what if I don’t choose the best deal?

Our local supermarket has expanded in those twenty years. During construction I was envisioning an abundant cornucopia of fresh, colorful, aromatic products. But the only thing that has changed is that there are now four junk food isles instead of one. Selecting a soft drink, breakfast cereal or a bag of cookies has now become a major undertaking.

So, are we better off as a family than twenty years ago? The answer is: well, it depends what you mean by ‘better off’.

I wouldn’t be able to live without my computer, my cell phone or my ipod. But would I be better off with a little less ‘choice’? Let’s take the cell phone, for example. There are over a thousand different cell phone models on the market. Are we better off than if there were, let’s say, just fifty?

What about soft drinks? Pepsi, for example, makes Pepsi, Caffeine-Free Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi, Wild Cherry Pepsi, Pepsi Lime, Pepsi Max, Pepsi Twist, Pepsi ONE, Mountain Dew, Crush, Mug Root Beer, Sierra Mist, Tropicana Twister Soda and7 Up. WHY?!

‘There must be a demand for it’ you might argue, ‘or they wouldn’t invest in making these products’. But some of these products make no money at all. They are offered so people won’t switch brands.

The truth is, we have become the victims of a mad competitive race. Would the world be a lot worse off without an automatic toilet flusher? Probably not. But it makes a big difference for the bottom line of company x if only THEY provide it, and not their competition.

Lost in this wrestling match, this elbowing for attention, this fighting for more consumers, is the real question: are we leading a happier life? Are our parks and our roads better, our air cleaner?

Who has brainwashed us into thinking that what matters is being able to choose which cell phone we buy? Wouldn’t we be better off focusing on improving our schools, our bridges? It doesn’t really matter which cell phone you use while your car plunges into the river as you happily chat away.

This obsession with consumerism has left us without defenses when something really bad happens, like an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Why should we be at the mercy of an oil company’s ‘good will’ to clean up the mess? If we had voted for stricter laws and penalties for causing environmental damage you can be damned sure oil companies would be a lot more careful.

We have turned into model consumers. We are very good at finding the perfect soft drink, the perfect cell phone, the perfect remote controlled toilet flusher. But we have forgotten how to be good citizens. We have voluntarily surrendered our voting power which would get us what we REALLY need: clean air, an environment that we can enjoy, safe food and good health care. leave comment here