Thursday, November 6, 2008

on the biddable dissenters

Still sparkle-eyed and giddy after my country "made history" on Tuesday, I felt it might be healthy to balance the scales. Yes, I am stupid happy that Obama won. Which is why I felt compelled to offer up something sobering for consideration today. Enjoy.

Packaging Dissent (aka "The Biddable Dissenters")

One of the truly remarkable abilities of media wizards and advertising masterminds is the dazzling way in which they strip-mine the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual zeitgeist, pervert and homogenize it into fashionable faux identities, and then package and sell it back to the demographic from which it had originally been usurped. Within an all-too-brief span of time, the distinct contributors to the original movement or subculture are assimilated, their own ability to imagine a self apart from or outside of the identity that is now hocked in ads and referred to in editorials extinguished forever.

If we were only up against the psychotropic opiates of the media and advertising giants within this beloved oligarchy, we might have at least a snowball’s chance in hell of still cobbling together a genuine notion of an independently existing self – one that wrestles with God. Alas, pushers are merely rivulets off of a river which is itself fed by an ocean. The juggernaut of our own creation, like a Frankenstein’s monster with Superman’s powers, that will, in all likelihood be our undoing, is this damned free-market-consumerist-infinite-gravity-crushing-socio-economic-undead-thing that obsesses our family and friends, while scaring the rest of the world into sub-to-supra conscious contingency plans. So, you see, it is not just a matter of contriving some crafty way of keeping a distinct line between you and the retro-fitted metro-sexual that looks just like you in the Volkswagon commercial. In this gamut, nothing is sacred. Which means that, no matter your interests or disposition, the carnival barkers have something for you. If there is a niche, there will be products and services designed especially for that niche. This is an especially juicy bit of irony if your niche is anti-consumerism or some other type of lefty-liberal dissent. Thanks to the active participation of dissenters of all shades and stripes who have no choice but to whore themselves out if they want to continue to participate in the consumer-carnival (and they do, they all do), dissent, too, has been processed and packaged for easy consumption. Now we can all feel conscientious and holier-than-thou whilst still buying as much crap as the next guy!

Do you have any idea how many magazines, books, DVD’s, CD’s, T-shirts, posters, cigarettes, coffee, gas, and mountains of specialty products are all designed especially for and sold in volumes to self-designated anti-consumer dissenters? Oh, and not just anti-consumerism. Not by a long-shot. You name the type of dissent and I can name 12 magazines, 20 pay-services, 20 publishing companies, 16 cell phone companies, 10 brands of clothing, 4 pop-icons, 13 fuel companies, 2 video rental chains, and 1000 restaurants that are all heavily funded by consumer dollars from said group of dissenters.

After all, the grotesque festival of humiliation is open to all. And so far everyone seems amply eager to line up and debase themselves through a never-ending series of demeaning acts, so long as their particular brand of gluttony is allowed to continue unabated. Dissent? I don’t know what such a thing looks like. As far as I can tell, this particular form of social action has been virtually M.I.A. since the days of the Vietnam War.

In other words, we have sold our souls, Wal-mart has a “no refunds” policy on souls, and we are freaking other countries out because we have hired their leaders to cut the ribbon on their very own neighborhood soul-sucking Wal-mart.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Letter to the Next President

Farmer in Chief

Dear Mr. President-Elect,

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration — the last time high food prices presented a serious political peril. Since then, federal policies to promote maximum production of the commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat and rice) from which most of our supermarket foods are derived have succeeded impressively in keeping prices low and food more or less off the national political agenda. But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.

Complicating matters is the fact that the price and abundance of food are not the only problems we face; if they were, you could simply follow Nixon’s example, appoint a latter-day Earl Butz as your secretary of agriculture and instruct him or her to do whatever it takes to boost production. But there are reasons to think that the old approach won’t work this time around; for one thing, it depends on cheap energy that we can no longer count on. For another, expanding production of industrial agriculture today would require you to sacrifice important values on which you did campaign. Which brings me to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them. Let me explain.

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.

In addition to the problems of climate change and America’s oil addiction, you have spoken at length on the campaign trail of the health care crisis. Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy. The goal of ensuring the health of all Americans depends on getting those costs under control. There are several reasons health care has gotten so expensive, but one of the biggest, and perhaps most tractable, is the cost to the system of preventable chronic diseases. Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.

The impact of the American food system on the rest of the world will have implications for your foreign and trade policies as well. In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. Nations that opened their markets to the global flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in Washington (like your predecessor’s precipitous embrace of biofuels) and on Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Expect to hear the phrases “food sovereignty” and “food security” on the lips of every foreign leader you meet. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade in agriculture is probably dead, the casualty of a cheap food policy that a scant two years ago seemed like a boon for everyone. It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third. But it turns out that too much food can be nearly as big a problem as too little — a lesson we should keep in mind as we set about designing a new approach to food policy.

Rich or poor, countries struggling with soaring food prices are being forcibly reminded that food is a national-security issue. When a nation loses the ability to substantially feed itself, it is not only at the mercy of global commodity markets but of other governments as well. At issue is not only the availability of food, which may be held hostage by a hostile state, but its safety: as recent scandals in China demonstrate, we have little control over the safety of imported foods. The deliberate contamination of our food presents another national-security threat. At his valedictory press conference in 2004, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, offered a chilling warning, saying, “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”

This, in brief, is the bad news: the food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute. The good news is that the twinned crises in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a generation. The American people are paying more attention to food today than they have in decades, worrying not only about its price but about its safety, its provenance and its healthfulness. There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken. Markets for alternative kinds of food — organic, local, pasture-based, humane — are thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices have also been raised in support of reform. Writing of the movement back to local food economies, traditional foods (and family meals) and more sustainable farming, The American Conservative magazine editorialized last summer that “this is a conservative cause if ever there was one.”

There are many moving parts to the new food agenda I’m urging you to adopt, but the core idea could not be simpler: we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. True, this is easier said than done — fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.

How We Got Here

Before setting out an agenda for reforming the food system, it’s important to understand how that system came to be — and also to appreciate what, for all its many problems, it has accomplished. What our food system does well is precisely what it was designed to do, which is to produce cheap calories in great abundance. It is no small thing for an American to be able to go into a fast-food restaurant and to buy a double cheeseburger, fries and a large Coke for a price equal to less than an hour of labor at the minimum wage — indeed, in the long sweep of history, this represents a remarkable achievement.

It must be recognized that the current food system — characterized by monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat on the table — is not simply the product of the free market. Rather, it is the product of a specific set of government policies that sponsored a shift from solar (and human) energy on the farm to fossil-fuel energy.

Did you notice when you flew over Iowa during the campaign how the land was completely bare — black — from October to April? What you were seeing is the agricultural landscape created by cheap oil. In years past, except in the dead of winter, you would have seen in those fields a checkerboard of different greens: pastures and hayfields for animals, cover crops, perhaps a block of fruit trees. Before the application of oil and natural gas to agriculture, farmers relied on crop diversity (and photosynthesis) both to replenish their soil and to combat pests, as well as to feed themselves and their neighbors. Cheap energy, however, enabled the creation of monocultures, and monocultures in turn vastly increased the productivity both of the American land and the American farmer; today the typical corn-belt farmer is single-handedly feeding 140 people.

This did not occur by happenstance. After World War II, the government encouraged the conversion of the munitions industry to fertilizer — ammonium nitrate being the main ingredient of both bombs and chemical fertilizer — and the conversion of nerve-gas research to pesticides. The government also began subsidizing commodity crops, paying farmers by the bushel for all the corn, soybeans, wheat and rice they could produce. One secretary of agriculture after another implored them to plant “fence row to fence row” and to “get big or get out.”

The chief result, especially after the Earl Butz years, was a flood of cheap grain that could be sold for substantially less than it cost farmers to grow because a government check helped make up the difference. As this artificially cheap grain worked its way up the food chain, it drove down the price of all the calories derived from that grain: the high-fructose corn syrup in the Coke, the soy oil in which the potatoes were fried, the meat and cheese in the burger.

Subsidized monocultures of grain also led directly to monocultures of animals: since factory farms could buy grain for less than it cost farmers to grow it, they could now fatten animals more cheaply than farmers could. So America’s meat and dairy animals migrated from farm to feedlot, driving down the price of animal protein to the point where an American can enjoy eating, on average, 190 pounds of meat a year — a half pound every day.

But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution. As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.

What was once a regional food economy is now national and increasingly global in scope — thanks again to fossil fuel. Cheap energy — for trucking food as well as pumping water — is the reason New York City now gets its produce from California rather than from the “Garden State” next door, as it did before the advent of Interstate highways and national trucking networks. More recently, cheap energy has underwritten a globalized food economy in which it makes (or rather, made) economic sense to catch salmon in Alaska, ship it to China to be filleted and then ship the fillets back to California to be eaten; or one in which California and Mexico can profitably swap tomatoes back and forth across the border; or Denmark and the United States can trade sugar cookies across the Atlantic. About that particular swap the economist Herman Daly once quipped, “Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.”

Whatever we may have liked about the era of cheap, oil-based food, it is drawing to a close. Even if we were willing to continue paying the environmental or public-health price, we’re not going to have the cheap energy (or the water) needed to keep the system going, much less expand production. But as is so often the case, a crisis provides opportunity for reform, and the current food crisis presents opportunities that must be seized.

In drafting these proposals, I’ve adhered to a few simple principles of what a 21st-century food system needs to do. First, your administration’s food policy must strive to provide a healthful diet for all our people; this means focusing on the quality and diversity (and not merely the quantity) of the calories that American agriculture produces and American eaters consume. Second, your policies should aim to improve the resilience, safety and security of our food supply. Among other things, this means promoting regional food economies both in America and around the world. And lastly, your policies need to reconceive agriculture as part of the solution to environmental problems like climate change.

These goals are admittedly ambitious, yet they will not be difficult to align or advance as long as we keep in mind this One Big Idea: most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.

I. Resolarizing the American Farm

What happens in the field influences every other link of the food chain on up to our meals — if we grow monocultures of corn and soy, we will find the products of processed corn and soy on our plates. Fortunately for your initiative, the federal government has enormous leverage in determining exactly what happens on the 830 million acres of American crop and pasture land.

Today most government farm and food programs are designed to prop up the old system of maximizing production from a handful of subsidized commodity crops grown in monocultures. Even food-assistance programs like WIC and school lunch focus on maximizing quantity rather than quality, typically specifying a minimum number of calories (rather than maximums) and seldom paying more than lip service to nutritional quality. This focus on quantity may have made sense in a time of food scarcity, but today it gives us a school-lunch program that feeds chicken nuggets and Tater Tots to overweight and diabetic children.

Your challenge is to take control of this vast federal machinery and use it to drive a transition to a new solar-food economy, starting on the farm. Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. (This rule was the price exacted by California and Florida produce growers in exchange for going along with subsidies for commodity crops.) Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

The power of cleverly designed polycultures to produce large amounts of food from little more than soil, water and sunlight has been proved, not only by small-scale “alternative” farmers in the United States but also by large rice-and-fish farmers in China and giant-scale operations (up to 15,000 acres) in places like Argentina. There, in a geography roughly comparable to that of the American farm belt, farmers have traditionally employed an ingenious eight-year rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after five years grazing cattle on pasture (and producing the world’s best beef), farmers can then grow three years of grain without applying any fossil-fuel fertilizer. Or, for that matter, many pesticides: the weeds that afflict pasture can’t survive the years of tillage, and the weeds of row crops don’t survive the years of grazing, making herbicides all but unnecessary. There is no reason — save current policy and custom — that American farmers couldn’t grow both high-quality grain and grass-fed beef under such a regime through much of the Midwest. (It should be noted that today’s sky-high grain prices are causing many Argentine farmers to abandon their rotation to grow grain and soybeans exclusively, an environmental disaster in the making.)

Federal policies could do much to encourage this sort of diversified sun farming. Begin with the subsidies: payment levels should reflect the number of different crops farmers grow or the number of days of the year their fields are green — that is, taking advantage of photosynthesis, whether to grow food, replenish the soil or control erosion. If Midwestern farmers simply planted a cover crop after the fall harvest, they would significantly reduce their need for fertilizer, while cutting down on soil erosion. Why don’t farmers do this routinely? Because in recent years fossil-fuel-based fertility has been so much cheaper and easier to use than sun-based fertility.

In addition to rewarding farmers for planting cover crops, we should make it easier for them to apply compost to their fields — a practice that improves not only the fertility of the soil but also its ability to hold water and therefore withstand drought. (There is mounting evidence that it also boosts the nutritional quality of the food grown in it.) The U.S.D.A. estimates that Americans throw out 14 percent of the food they buy; much more is wasted by retailers, wholesalers and institutions. A program to make municipal composting of food and yard waste mandatory and then distributing the compost free to area farmers would shrink America’s garbage heap, cut the need for irrigation and fossil-fuel fertilizers in agriculture and improve the nutritional quality of the American diet.

Right now, most of the conservation programs run by the U.S.D.A. are designed on the zero-sum principle: land is either locked up in “conservation” or it is farmed intensively. This either-or approach reflects an outdated belief that modern farming and ranching are inherently destructive, so that the best thing for the environment is to leave land untouched. But we now know how to grow crops and graze animals in systems that will support biodiversity, soil health, clean water and carbon sequestration. The Conservation Stewardship Program, championed by Senator Tom Harkin and included in the 2008 Farm Bill, takes an important step toward rewarding these kinds of practices, but we need to move this approach from the periphery of our farm policy to the very center. Longer term, the government should back ambitious research now under way (at the Land Institute in Kansas and a handful of other places) to “perennialize” commodity agriculture: to breed varieties of wheat, rice and other staple grains that can be grown like prairie grasses — without having to till the soil every year. These perennial grains hold the promise of slashing the fossil fuel now needed to fertilize and till the soil, while protecting farmland from erosion and sequestering significant amounts of carbon.

But that is probably a 50-year project. For today’s agriculture to wean itself from fossil fuel and make optimal use of sunlight, crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant “solution.” Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel.

If this system is so sensible, you might ask, why did it succumb to Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs? In fact there is nothing inherently efficient or economical about raising vast cities of animals in confinement. Three struts, each put into place by federal policy, support the modern CAFO, and the most important of these — the ability to buy grain for less than it costs to grow it — has just been kicked away. The second strut is F.D.A. approval for the routine use of antibiotics in feed, without which the animals in these places could not survive their crowded, filthy and miserable existence. And the third is that the government does not require CAFOs to treat their wastes as it would require human cities of comparable size to do. The F.D.A. should ban the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed on public-health grounds, now that we have evidence that the practice is leading to the evolution of drug-resistant bacterial diseases and to outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning. CAFOs should also be regulated like the factories they are, required to clean up their waste like any other industry or municipality.

It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat. It probably will — as it should. You will need to make the case that paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals. Meat and milk production represent the food industry’s greatest burden on the environment; a recent U.N. study estimated that the world’s livestock alone account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than all forms of transportation combined. (According to one study, a pound of feedlot beef also takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce.) And while animals living on farms will still emit their share of greenhouse gases, grazing them on grass and returning their waste to the soil will substantially offset their carbon hoof prints, as will getting ruminant animals off grain. A bushel of grain takes approximately a half gallon of oil to produce; grass can be grown with little more than sunshine.

It will be argued that sun-food agriculture will generally yield less food than fossil-fuel agriculture. This is debatable. The key question you must be prepared to answer is simply this: Can the sort of sustainable agriculture you’re proposing feed the world?

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The simplest and most honest answer is that we don’t know, because we haven’t tried. But in the same way we now need to learn how to run an industrial economy without cheap fossil fuel, we have no choice but to find out whether sustainable agriculture can produce enough food. The fact is, during the past century, our agricultural research has been directed toward the goal of maximizing production with the help of fossil fuel. There is no reason to think that bringing the same sort of resources to the development of more complex, sun-based agricultural systems wouldn’t produce comparable yields. Today’s organic farmers, operating for the most part without benefit of public investment in research, routinely achieve 80 to 100 percent of conventional yields in grain and, in drought years, frequently exceed conventional yields. (This is because organic soils better retain moisture.) Assuming no further improvement, could the world — with a population expected to peak at 10 billion — survive on these yields?

First, bear in mind that the average yield of world agriculture today is substantially lower than that of modern sustainable farming. According to a recent University of Michigan study, merely bringing international yields up to today’s organic levels could increase the world’s food supply by 50 percent.

The second point to bear in mind is that yield isn’t everything — and growing high-yield commodities is not quite the same thing as growing food. Much of what we’re growing today is not directly eaten as food but processed into low-quality calories of fat and sugar. As the world epidemic of diet-related chronic disease has demonstrated, the sheer quantity of calories that a food system produces improves health only up to a point, but after that, quality and diversity are probably more important. We can expect that a food system that produces somewhat less food but of a higher quality will produce healthier populations.

The final point to consider is that 40 percent of the world’s grain output today is fed to animals; 11 percent of the world’s corn and soybean crop is fed to cars and trucks, in the form of biofuels. Provided the developed world can cut its consumption of grain-based animal protein and ethanol, there should be plenty of food for everyone — however we choose to grow it.

In fact, well-designed polyculture systems, incorporating not just grains but vegetables and animals, can produce more food per acre than conventional monocultures, and food of a much higher nutritional value. But this kind of farming is complicated and needs many more hands on the land to make it work. Farming without fossil fuels — performing complex rotations of plants and animals and managing pests without petrochemicals — is labor intensive and takes more skill than merely “driving and spraying,” which is how corn-belt farmers describe what they do for a living.

To grow sufficient amounts of food using sunlight will require more people growing food — millions more. This suggests that sustainable agriculture will be easier to implement in the developing world, where large rural populations remain, than in the West, where they don’t. But what about here in America, where we have only about two million farmers left to feed a population of 300 million? And where farmland is being lost to development at the rate of 2,880 acres a day? Post-oil agriculture will need a lot more people engaged in food production — as farmers and probably also as gardeners.

The sun-food agenda must include programs to train a new generation of farmers and then help put them on the land. The average American farmer today is 55 years old; we shouldn’t expect these farmers to embrace the sort of complex ecological approach to agriculture that is called for. Our focus should be on teaching ecological farming systems to students entering land-grant colleges today. For decades now, it has been federal policy to shrink the number of farmers in America by promoting capital-intensive monoculture and consolidation. As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.

National security also argues for preserving every acre of farmland we can and then making it available to new farmers. We simply will not be able to depend on distant sources of food, and therefore need to preserve every acre of good farmland within a day’s drive of our cities. In the same way that when we came to recognize the supreme ecological value of wetlands we erected high bars to their development, we need to recognize the value of farmland to our national security and require real-estate developers to do “food-system impact statements” before development begins. We should also create tax and zoning incentives for developers to incorporate farmland (as they now do “open space”) in their subdivision plans; all those subdivisions now ringing golf courses could someday have diversified farms at their center.

The revival of farming in America, which of course draws on the abiding cultural power of our agrarian heritage, will pay many political and economic dividends. It will lead to robust economic renewal in the countryside. And it will generate tens of millions of new “green jobs,” which is precisely how we need to begin thinking of skilled solar farming: as a vital sector of the 21st-century post-fossil-fuel economy.

II. Reregionalizing the Food System

For your sun-food agenda to succeed, it will have to do a lot more than alter what happens on the farm. The government could help seed a thousand new polyculture farmers in every county in Iowa, but they would promptly fail if the grain elevator remained the only buyer in town and corn and beans were the only crops it would take. Resolarizing the food system means building the infrastructure for a regional food economy — one that can support diversified farming and, by shortening the food chain, reduce the amount of fossil fuel in the American diet.

A decentralized food system offers a great many other benefits as well. Food eaten closer to where it is grown will be fresher and require less processing, making it more nutritious. Whatever may be lost in efficiency by localizing food production is gained in resilience: regional food systems can better withstand all kinds of shocks. When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions. Such a system is equally susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is to catastrophe. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is obvious: decentralize it.

Today in America there is soaring demand for local and regional food; farmers’ markets, of which the U.S.D.A. estimates there are now 4,700, have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market. Community-supported agriculture is booming as well: there are now nearly 1,500 community-supported farms, to which consumers pay an annual fee in exchange for a weekly box of produce through the season. The local-food movement will continue to grow with no help from the government, especially as high fuel prices make distant and out-of-season food, as well as feedlot meat, more expensive. Yet there are several steps the government can take to nurture this market and make local foods more affordable. Here are a few:

Four-Season Farmers’ Markets. Provide grants to towns and cities to build year-round indoor farmers’ markets, on the model of Pike Place in Seattle or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. To supply these markets, the U.S.D.A. should make grants to rebuild local distribution networks in order to minimize the amount of energy used to move produce within local food sheds.

Agricultural Enterprise Zones. Today the revival of local food economies is being hobbled by a tangle of regulations originally designed to check abuses by the very largest food producers. Farmers should be able to smoke a ham and sell it to their neighbors without making a huge investment in federally approved facilities. Food-safety regulations must be made sensitive to scale and marketplace, so that a small producer selling direct off the farm or at a farmers’ market is not regulated as onerously as a multinational food manufacturer. This is not because local food won’t ever have food-safety problems — it will — only that its problems will be less catastrophic and easier to manage because local food is inherently more traceable and accountable.

Local Meat-Inspection Corps. Perhaps the single greatest impediment to the return of livestock to the land and the revival of local, grass-based meat production is the disappearance of regional slaughter facilities. The big meat processors have been buying up local abattoirs only to close them down as they consolidate, and the U.S.D.A. does little to support the ones that remain. From the department’s perspective, it is a better use of shrinking resources to dispatch its inspectors to a plant slaughtering 400 head an hour than to a regional abattoir slaughtering a dozen. The U.S.D.A. should establish a Local Meat-Inspectors Corps to serve these processors. Expanding on its successful pilot program on Lopez Island in Puget Sound, the U.S.D.A. should also introduce a fleet of mobile abattoirs that would go from farm to farm, processing animals humanely and inexpensively. Nothing would do more to make regional, grass-fed meat fully competitive in the market with feedlot meat.

Establish a Strategic Grain Reserve. In the same way the shift to alternative energy depends on keeping oil prices relatively stable, the sun-food agenda — as well as the food security of billions of people around the world — will benefit from government action to prevent huge swings in commodity prices. A strategic grain reserve, modeled on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, would help achieve this objective and at the same time provide some cushion for world food stocks, which today stand at perilously low levels. Governments should buy and store grain when it is cheap and sell when it is dear, thereby moderating price swings in both directions and discouraging speculation.

Regionalize Federal Food Procurement. In the same way that federal procurement is often used to advance important social goals (like promoting minority-owned businesses), we should require that some minimum percentage of government food purchases — whether for school-lunch programs, military bases or federal prisons — go to producers located within 100 miles of institutions buying the food. We should create incentives for hospitals and universities receiving federal funds to buy fresh local produce. To channel even a small portion of institutional food purchasing to local food would vastly expand regional agriculture and improve the diet of the millions of people these institutions feed.

Create a Federal Definition of “Food.” It makes no sense for government food-assistance dollars, intended to improve the nutritional health of at-risk Americans, to support the consumption of products we know to be unhealthful. Yes, some people will object that for the government to specify what food stamps can and cannot buy smacks of paternalism. Yet we already prohibit the purchase of tobacco and alcohol with food stamps. So why not prohibit something like soda, which is arguably less nutritious than red wine? Because it is, nominally, a food, albeit a “junk food.” We need to stop flattering nutritionally worthless foodlike substances by calling them “junk food” — and instead make clear that such products are not in fact food of any kind. Defining what constitutes real food worthy of federal support will no doubt be controversial (you’ll recall President Reagan’s ketchup imbroglio), but defining food upward may be more politically palatable than defining it down, as Reagan sought to do. One approach would be to rule that, in order to be regarded as a food by the government, an edible substance must contain a certain minimum ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy. At a stroke, such a definition would improve the quality of school lunch and discourage sales of unhealthful products, since typically only “food” is exempt from local sales tax.

A few other ideas: Food-stamp debit cards should double in value whenever swiped at a farmers’ markets — all of which, by the way, need to be equipped with the Electronic Benefit Transfer card readers that supermarkets already have. We should expand the WIC program that gives farmers’-market vouchers to low-income women with children; such programs help attract farmers’ markets to urban neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is often nonexistent. (We should also offer tax incentives to grocery chains willing to build supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods.) Federal food assistance for the elderly should build on a successful program pioneered by the state of Maine that buys low-income seniors a membership in a community-supported farm. All these initiatives have the virtue of advancing two objectives at once: supporting the health of at-risk Americans and the revival of local food economies.

III. Rebuilding America’s Food Culture

In the end, shifting the American diet from a foundation of imported fossil fuel to local sunshine will require changes in our daily lives, which by now are deeply implicated in the economy and culture of fast, cheap and easy food. Making available more healthful and more sustainable food does not guarantee it will be eaten, much less appreciated or enjoyed. We need to use all the tools at our disposal — not just federal policy and public education but the president’s bully pulpit and the example of the first family’s own dinner table — to promote a new culture of food that can undergird your sun-food agenda.

Changing the food culture must begin with our children, and it must begin in the schools. Nearly a half-century ago, President Kennedy announced a national initiative to improve the physical fitness of American children. He did it by elevating the importance of physical education, pressing states to make it a requirement in public schools. We need to bring the same commitment to “edible education” — in Alice Waters’s phrase — by making lunch, in all its dimensions, a mandatory part of the curriculum. On the premise that eating well is a critically important life skill, we need to teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals.

To change our children’s food culture, we’ll need to plant gardens in every primary school, build fully equipped kitchens, train a new generation of lunchroom ladies (and gentlemen) who can once again cook and teach cooking to children. We should introduce a School Lunch Corps program that forgives federal student loans to culinary-school graduates in exchange for two years of service in the public-school lunch program. And we should immediately increase school-lunch spending per pupil by $1 a day — the minimum amount food-service experts believe it will take to underwrite a shift from fast food in the cafeteria to real food freshly prepared.

But it is not only our children who stand to benefit from public education about food. Today most federal messages about food, from nutrition labeling to the food pyramid, are negotiated with the food industry. The surgeon general should take over from the Department of Agriculture the job of communicating with Americans about their diet. That way we might begin to construct a less equivocal and more effective public-health message about nutrition. Indeed, there is no reason that public-health campaigns about the dangers of obesity and Type 2 diabetes shouldn’t be as tough and as effective as public-health campaigns about the dangers of smoking. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in three American children born in 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes. The public needs to know and see precisely what that sentence means: blindness; amputation; early death. All of which can be avoided by a change in diet and lifestyle. A public-health crisis of this magnitude calls for a blunt public-health message, even at the expense of offending the food industry. Judging by the success of recent antismoking campaigns, the savings to the health care system could be substantial.

There are other kinds of information about food that the government can supply or demand. In general we should push for as much transparency in the food system as possible — the other sense in which “sunlight” should be the watchword of our agenda. The F.D.A. should require that every packaged-food product include a second calorie count, indicating how many calories of fossil fuel went into its production. Oil is one of the most important ingredients in our food, and people ought to know just how much of it they’re eating. The government should also throw its support behind putting a second bar code on all food products that, when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), brings up on a screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced: in the case of crops, images of the farm and lists of agrochemicals used in its production; in the case of meat and dairy, descriptions of the animals’ diet and drug regimen, as well as live video feeds of the CAFO where they live and, yes, the slaughterhouse where they die. The very length and complexity of the modern food chain breeds a culture of ignorance and indifference among eaters. Shortening the food chain is one way to create more conscious consumers, but deploying technology to pierce the veil is another.

Finally, there is the power of the example you set in the White House. If what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food, then how America’s first household organizes its eating will set the national tone, focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.

The choice of White House chef is always closely watched, and you would be wise to appoint a figure who is identified with the food movement and committed to cooking simply from fresh local ingredients. Besides feeding you and your family exceptionally well, such a chef would demonstrate how it is possible even in Washington to eat locally for much of the year, and that good food needn’t be fussy or complicated but does depend on good farming. You should make a point of the fact that every night you’re in town, you join your family for dinner in the Executive Residence — at a table. (Surely you remember the Reagans’ TV trays.) And you should also let it be known that the White House observes one meatless day a week — a step that, if all Americans followed suit, would be the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year. Let the White House chef post daily menus on the Web, listing the farmers who supplied the food, as well as recipes.

Since enhancing the prestige of farming as an occupation is critical to developing the sun-based regional agriculture we need, the White House should appoint, in addition to a White House chef, a White House farmer. This new post would be charged with implementing what could turn out to be your most symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture. And that is this: tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.

When Eleanor Roosevelt did something similar in 1943, she helped start a Victory Garden movement that ended up making a substantial contribution to feeding the nation in wartime. (Less well known is the fact that Roosevelt planted this garden over the objections of the U.S.D.A., which feared home gardening would hurt the American food industry.) By the end of the war, more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of the produce consumed in America. The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population. Eating from this, the shortest food chain of all, offers anyone with a patch of land a way to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and help fight climate change. (We should offer grants to cities to build allotment gardens for people without access to land.) Just as important, Victory Gardens offer a way to enlist Americans, in body as well as mind, in the work of feeding themselves and changing the food system — something more ennobling, surely, than merely asking them to shop a little differently.

I don’t need to tell you that ripping out even a section of the White House lawn will be controversial: Americans love their lawns, and the South Lawn is one of the most beautiful in the country. But imagine all the energy, water and petrochemicals it takes to make it that way. (Even for the purposes of this memo, the White House would not disclose its lawn-care regimen.) Yet as deeply as Americans feel about their lawns, the agrarian ideal runs deeper still, and making this particular plot of American land productive, especially if the First Family gets out there and pulls weeds now and again, will provide an image even more stirring than that of a pretty lawn: the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community. The fact that surplus produce from the South Lawn Victory Garden (and there will be literally tons of it) will be offered to regional food banks will make its own eloquent statement.

You’re probably thinking that growing and eating organic food in the White House carries a certain political risk. It is true you might want to plant iceberg lettuce rather than arugula, at least to start. (Or simply call arugula by its proper American name, as generations of Midwesterners have done: “rocket.”) But it should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry — the culinary equivalent of home schooling. You should support hunting as a particularly sustainable way to eat meat — meat grown without any fossil fuels whatsoever. There is also a strong libertarian component to the sun-food agenda, which seeks to free small producers from the burden of government regulation in order to stoke rural innovation. And what is a higher “family value,” after all, than making time to sit down every night to a shared meal?

Our agenda puts the interests of America’s farmers, families and communities ahead of the fast-food industry’s. For that industry and its apologists to imply that it is somehow more “populist” or egalitarian to hand our food dollars to Burger King or General Mills than to support a struggling local farmer is absurd. Yes, sun food costs more, but the reasons why it does only undercut the charge of elitism: cheap food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence (both of which we will end), not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive.

Your sun-food agenda promises to win support across the aisle. It builds on America’s agrarian past, but turns it toward a more sustainable, sophisticated future. It honors the work of American farmers and enlists them in three of the 21st century’s most urgent errands: to move into the post-oil era, to improve the health of the American people and to mitigate climate change. Indeed, it enlists all of us in this great cause by turning food consumers into part-time producers, reconnecting the American people with the American land and demonstrating that we need not choose between the welfare of our families and the health of the environment — that eating less oil and more sunlight will redound to the benefit of both.

***Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manife

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The best part is... this photo isn't even doctored. Yessiree Bob, this is an actual photo taken when the final debate ended.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

for your consideration...

I have here posted a few videos that some friends and loved ones have shared with me. I intend to balance this entry with one more "FOX-friendly". Look for it soon!

Oh yes indeed, it's a time fer some camp-pain-in'!

He Doesn't sound Like a Politician...

Palin's International Affairs "Experience"

Matt Damon's Biggest Fear

Friday, August 1, 2008

Why is Afghanistan suddenly in the news again?

Don't Panic! ... Your war questions answered


I try not to watch TV news, but sometimes it's on in stores or other people's houses and I get sucked in. Whether it's Fox or CNN, it inevitably pisses me off.

More than anything, the thing that gets my goat is that there are still people getting paid to sound smart on TV who insist Bush's leadership of the War On Terror™ has been a great success.

In recent weeks, these people keep crediting Bush for reducing violence in Iraq via the so-called troop surge in Iraq. They play up the U.S. Army's tactical successes while ignoring other important factors like Sunni Arab Iraqis turning against al-Qaeda, or the cease-fire by Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite militia leader.

Believing the surge has been successful does not make someone a hack, a rube or a liar. Honest people can debate the relative importance of the numerous factors that have led to the reduction of violence in Iraq.

There are two traits, however, that set Bush Or Bust fantasists apart from respectable humans:

1) The failure to acknowledge the magnitude of the horror that preceded the recent reduction in violence.

Bush's act-first, think-later invasion of Iraq unleashed a civil war that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and wounded while triggering a sectarian cleansing campaign that forced millions more out of their homes and into slums around Iraq, as well as neighboring Syria and Jordan. Violence is down in Iraq in large part because the sectarian cleansing campaign was successful. That's not victory. It's criminal negligence.

2) The failure to acknowledge that the growing disaster in Afghanistan is largely the result of Bush's foolish invasion of Iraq.

The War On Terror™ was supposed to be a battle against the people and the political conditions responsible for 9/11.

That attack happened the way it did because al-Qaeda terrorists were able to operate largely unmolested in the Pashtun tribal areas straddling the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda was given critical assistance by the Taliban – a militant, fundamentalist movement that ruled Afghanistan with the help of the government in Pakistan.

In late 2001, the U.S. military helped Afghan rebels sweep the Taliban from power. Instead of following up the initial military gains in Afghanistan and consolidating our victory, we turned our backs.

The bulk of the United States' military and intelligence resources were devoted to Iraq while the United States relied on regional warlords, backed by a threadbare international force, to keep the peace in Afghanistan.

Our neglect allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda to regroup. Funded by the heroin trade (Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's opium) the number and the deadliness of Taliban attacks have increased every year since 2002.

Meanwhile, nearly seven years since we put him in power, Afghan President Hamid Karzai still has little real authority outside the country's capital, Kabul.

The Bush administration has been unwilling to acknowledge this, and frankly, unable to do anything about it. With the bulk of our military capability tied down in Iraq, the United States is stuck begging NATO countries to send their troops. Not surprisingly, they don't want to any more than they absolutely have to.

Bush's cowboy diplomacy, combined with his ineptitude as commander-in-chief, have made it politically difficult for NATO countries to step in. Jumping off cliffs with arrogant losers is no one's idea of a good time. Few leaders of advanced democracies want to risk political suicide to help Bush.

This spring, the war in Afghanistan passed a grim milestone. For the first time, the number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan exceeded the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq. Egged on by the Democratic nominee, the president and the Republican candidate trying to succeed him are finally acknowledging that Afghanistan needs more U.S. troops if the Taliban is to be redefeated.

But neither Republican acknowledges that the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned the War On Terror™ into a game of whack-a-mole. By overextending U.S. forces in Iraq, Bush has allowed the Taliban to keep popping up in Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is the United States going to attack Iran after all?

Don't Panic...your war questions answered


I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong.

In 2000, I thought there was no way American voters would let someone as obviously unintelligent and callow as George W. Bush anywhere near the White House. D'oh!

Though I was opposed to the Iraq war, I still assumed Saddam Hussein had WMD. D'oh!

In November 2004, I looked at a bunch of state polls, did what I thought was sound Electoral College math, and predicted a comfortable win for Sen. John Kerry. D'oh!

In 2007, I thought "Cavemen," the ABC sitcom based on characters that first appeared in GEICO car insurance ads, was so funny it was sure to catch on with viewers. D-d'oh-d-d'oh-d'oh!

And late last year, in this newspaper column, I wrote the following sentence:

"By saying that U.S. intelligence does not think Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, this NIE kicks the legs out from underneath White House officials and allies who've spent the last year marching in the direction of war with Iran."

I wasn't just wrong.

I was wrongtastically wrongitty-wrong-wrong. About something important.

My bogus analysis, quoted above, refers to last December's National Intelligence Estimate about Iran's nuclear program. It concluded Iran once had a nuclear weapons program, but halted it way back in 2003.

If the United States' own intelligence collective did not see a nuclear weapons threat from Iran, I didn't see how the Bush administration could convincingly argue to the public that Iran is a threat worthy of inspiring another pre-emptive American war.

NIEs are authored by a committee consisting of a high-level representative from each of the United States' 16 intelligence agencies. Because several competing bureaucracies sign an NIE, its conclusions are considered more meaningful and authoritative than any single report by any single agency. An NIE's conclusion holds sway in the government.

That's not to say NIEs are always correct. On the contrary, they've sometimes been spectacularly wrong.

The most famous recent example of NIE wrongness was September 2002's NIE report that claimed Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, an active nuclear weapons program, and was developing robotic aircraft for germ warfare. In fact, Saddam had neither WMD nor robots. A Roomba with a can of Lysol duct-taped to it is higher-tech germ warfare than anything Saddam Hussein's regime could have mustered.

What I failed to understand last December was that the Bush administration is too lusty for war with Iran to let anyone or anything cock-block it. NIE-be-damned, the Bush White House is going to do its darndest to foment war with Iran.

A new article by Seymour Hersh published in the New Yorker reveals that the Bush administration got $400 million from Congress last year to escalate covert military operations inside Iran.

Note the final four words of the previous sentence – "military operations inside Iran."

The Bush administration is already at war with Iran.

U.S special ops teams are apparently in Iran gathering information about the country's nuclear facilities. Many of these facilities are concrete bunkers, built deep underground, and surrounded by hidden anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries. Destroying them would require more precise intelligence than U.S. spy satellites can provide.

The United States is stepping up funding numerous violent dissident groups within Iran, including a group called the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. Known in the Western press as the MEK, the group has been on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations for years.

In other words, we hate Iran because we say they're in league with terrorists. So we're paying terrorists to attack Iran.

In recent months, political violence in Iran has spiked. There's no way of knowing how much of that violence is funded and/or encouraged by U.S. operations, but Iranians have every right at this point to assume the Bush administration's war on them is already happening. Remember – the only secular, democratic government Iran ever had was overthrown in 1953 by a covert CIA operation.

The sad irony is that U.S. operations in Iran will only weaken the position of Iranian democrats eager to toss out the idiot theocrats who run the country. As we've experienced in the United States, outside attacks tend to increase the political influence of right-wing religious nuts.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Is the Surge in Iraq Working?

After Barak Obama met with Gen. Petraeus a couple of days ago in Iraq he stated that, despite what the General had to say about the success of "the surge", he would (given the chance to do it again) still vote against it. He has (of course) been attacked relentlessly in the conservative press about this statement. I'd like to offer this tidbit from Andishes Nouraee as to the "success" of the surge.


Don't Panic...your war questions answered


Since the War On Terror™'s start in late 2001, there's been a metaphorical ping-pong match in the press about mainstream media coverage of the war.

One side says the press is overly critical of the war, downplaying and often ignoring its successes. The other side is critical of the press for eschewing serious analysis of the war in favor of White House spin and/or mindless fluff that takes the public's focus away from the war.

I'm sympathetic to both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, TV news coverage is indeed biased toward dazzling visual content. Explosions are more likely to get on TV than not-explosions. That's why you never hear anything about Canada on TV news. "Nothing burning here in Ottawa, Katie. Back to you in New York."

On the other hand, I've seen more in-depth, thoughtful analysis of Miley Cyrus' bare right shoulder on TV news programs than I have of any political news in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran or Pakistan.

For the first half of the year, the ping-pong match was displaced in the public consciousness by the presidential primaries. With campaign coverage now in its traditional summer lull, the ping-pong match is back.

The loudest paddle-whackers for the pro-war team this time are Jason Campbell, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times.

With the help of graphic designer Amy Unikewicz, Campbell and O'Hanlon published a chart and short essay in the June 22 New York Times showing an overall improvement of conditions in Iraq.

There were 550 civilian deaths from violence in Iraq in May 2008, according to the chart, down from 2,600 in May 2007, and 2,700 in May 2006. The chart also noted a sharp decline in U.S. troop deaths, daily attacks by insurgents, and the number of civilians displaced by violence.

The reduction in violence, the essay says, gives "reason for hope that the major improvement in security resulting from the surge of American forces may endure even as the surge itself ends."

Two days later, also on the Times' op-ed page, columnist Brooks suggested that people who deny the surge's success are in a state of "intellectual denial" and that President Bush was "courageous and astute" for initiating the troop escalation, which began in spring 2007.

That's the pro-war ping. Here's the pong.

Violence is indeed down in Iraq and the U.S. troop escalation, as led by Gen. David "Don't Call Him Betray Us" Petraeus, undoubtedly contributes greatly to the reduction of violence.

But to describe the situation in Iraq as hopeful bends the definition of the word beyond recognition.

The pro-war crowd will have you believe that Iraq is like a ship. For a while it was headed in the wrong direction. Now it's headed in the right direction.

A more apt metaphor is that Iraq is like a big apartment building. The U.S. set it on fire in 2003 and regularly dumped gasoline on the fire for four years. The fire's less intense today because it's running out of fuel.

Several hundred thousand, possibly up to a million, Iraqis have already died. Another 4.7 million are now refugees. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country. Another 2.4 million were forced from their homes to other, less immediately dangerous parts of Iraq.

To call the partial reversal of Bush's Iraq war policies "courageous and astute" is a bit like calling someone a hero for shooting you in the chest, then driving you to the hospital. Fewer people are dying in Iraq in large part because there are fewer people around to die.

Less violence is better than more violence, no doubt, but the U.S. has no viable end strategy. The U.S. lacks the money, manpower, and will to stay forever. When it goes, it will leave behind religious sects that have not reconciled. And thanks to the U.S.'s simultaneous arming of Shi'ite-controlled government forces and Sunni tribal militias in the past 18 months, the sects will be more capable than ever of killing one another.

Unless you define success to mean that Bush's successor will be left to deal with a catastrophic catch-22, the surge is not a success.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Food Facts (pt. I)

Percentage of corn grown in United States eaten by human beings = 20%, livestock = 80%

Percentage of oats grown in United States eaten by human beings = 5%, livestock = 95%

Percentage of protein wasted by cycling grain through livestock: 90%

Percentage of carbohydrate wasted by cycling grain through livestock: 99%

Percentage of dietary fibre wasted by cycling grain through livestock: 100%

Pounds of potatoes that can be grown on 1 acre of land: 20,000

Pounds of beef that can be produced on 1 acre of land: 165

Percentage of U.S. agricultural land used to produce beef: 56%

Human population of United States in 1987: 243,000,000

Number of human beings who could be fed by the grain and soybeans eaten by U.S. livestock in 1987: 1,300,000,000

Number of people who starved to death in 1987: appx. 60,000,000

Number of people who could have been adequately fed by the grain saved if Americans had reduced their intake of meat by 10% in 1987: 60,000,000

(all facts listed are from John Robbin's Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

An Appeal to the Chinese People

from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Today, I extend heartfelt greetings to my Chinese brothers and sisters round the world, particularly to those in the People's Republic of China. In the light of the recent developments in Tibet, I would like to share with you my thoughts concerning relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples, and to make a personal appeal to you all.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of life in the recent tragic events in Tibet. I am aware that some Chinese have also died. I feel for the victims and their families and pray for them. The recent unrest has clearly demonstrated the gravity of the situation in Tibet and the urgent need to seek a peaceful and mutually beneficial solution through dialogue. Even at this juncture I have expressed my willingness to the Chinese authorities to work together to bring about peace and stability.

Chinese brothers and sisters, I assure you I have no desire to seek Tibet's separation. Nor do I have any wish to drive a wedge between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples. On the contrary my commitment has always been to find a genuine solution to the problem of Tibet that ensures the long-term interests of both Chinese and Tibetans. My primary concern, as I have repeated time and again, is to ensure the survival of the Tibetan people's distinctive culture, language and identity. As a simple monk who strives to live his daily life according to Buddhist precepts, I assure you of the sincerity of my motivation.

I have appealed to the leadership of the PRC to clearly understand my position and work to resolve these problems by "seeking truth from facts." I urge the Chinese leadership to exercise wisdom and to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the Tibetan people. I also appeal to them to make sincere efforts to contribute to the stability and harmony of the PRC and avoid creating rifts between the nationalities. The state media's portrayal of the recent events in Tibet, using deceit and distorted images, could sow the seeds of racial tension with unpredictable long-–term consequences. This is of grave concern to me. Similarly, despite my repeated support for the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities, with the intention of creating rift between the Chinese people and myself, assert that I am trying to sabotage the games. I am encouraged, however, that several Chinese intellectuals and scholars have also expressed their strong concern about the Chinese leadership's actions and the potential for adverse long-term consequences, particularly on relations among different nationalities.
Since ancient times, Tibetan and Chinese peoples have lived as neighbors. In the two thousand year-old recorded history of our peoples, we have at times developed friendly relations, even entering into matrimonial alliances, while at other times we fought each other. However, since Buddhism flourished in China first before it arrived in Tibet from India, we Tibetans have historically accorded the Chinese people the respect and affection due to elder Dharma brothers and sisters. This is something well known to members of the Chinese community living outside China, some of whom have attended my Buddhist lectures, as well as pilgrims from mainland China, whom I have had the privilege to meet. I take heart from these meetings and feel they may contribute to a better understanding between our two peoples.

The twentieth century witnessed enormous changes in many parts of the world and Tibet, too, was caught up in this turbulence. Soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the People's Liberation Army entered Tibet finally resulting in the 17-Point Agreement concluded between China and Tibet in May 1951. When I was in Beijing in 1954-55, attending the National People's Congress, I had the opportunity to meet and develop a personal friendship with many senior leaders, including Chairman Mao himself. In fact, Chairman Mao gave me advice on numerous issues, as well as personal assurances with regard to the future of Tibet. Encouraged by these assurances, and inspired by the dedication of many of China's revolutionary leaders of the time, I returned to Tibet full of confidence and optimism. Some Tibetan members of the Communist Party also had such a hope. After my return to Lhasa, I made every possible effort to seek genuine autonomy for Tibet within the family of the People's Republic of China (PRC). I believed that this would best serve the long-term interests of both the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

Unfortunately, tensions, which began to escalate in Tibet from around 1956, eventually led to the peaceful uprising of March 10, 1959, in Lhasa and my eventual escape into exile. Although many positive developments have taken place in Tibet under the PRC's rule, these developments, as the previous Panchen Lama pointed out in January 1989, were overshadowed by immense suffering and extensive destruction. Tibetans were compelled to live in a state of constant fear, while the Chinese government remained suspicious of them. However, instead of cultivating enmity towards the Chinese leaders responsible for the ruthless suppression of the Tibetan people, I prayed for them to become friends, which I expressed in the following lines in a prayer I composed in 1960, a year after I arrived in India: "May they attain the wisdom eye discerning right and wrong, And may they abide in the glory of friendship and love." Many Tibetans, school children among them, recite these lines in their daily prayers.

In 1974, following serious discussions with my Kashag (cabinet), as well as the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker of the then Assembly of the Tibetan People's Deputies, we decided to find a Middle Way that would seek not to separate Tibet from China, but would facilitate the peaceful development of Tibet. Although we had no contact at the time with the PRC - which was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution - we had already recognized that sooner or later, we would have to resolve the question of Tibet through negotiations. We also acknowledged that, at least with regard to modernization and economic development, it would greatly benefit Tibet if it remained within the PRC. Although Tibet has a rich and ancient cultural heritage, it is materially undeveloped.

Situated on the roof of the world, Tibet is the source of many of Asia's major rivers, therefore, protection of the environment on the Tibetan plateau is of supreme importance. Since our utmost concern is to safeguard Tibetan Buddhist culture - rooted as it is in the values of universal compassion - as well as the Tibetan language and the unique Tibetan identity, we have worked whole-heartedly towards achieving meaningful self-rule for all Tibetans. The PRC's constitution provides the right for nationalities such as the Tibetans to do this.

In 1979, the then Chinese paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping assured my personal emissary that "except for the independence of Tibet, all other questions can be negotiated." Since we had already formulated our approach to seeking a solution to the Tibetan issue within the constitution of the PRC, we found ourselves well placed to respond to this new opportunity. My representatives met many times with officials of the PRC. Since renewing our contacts in 2002, we have had six rounds of talks. However, on the fundamental issue, there has been no concrete result at all. Nevertheless, as I have declared many times, I remain firmly committed to the Middle Way approach and reiterate here my willingness to continue to pursue the process of dialogue.

This year the Chinese people are proudly and eagerly awaiting the opening of the Olympic Games. I have, from the start, supported Beijing's being awarded the opportunity to host the Games. My position remains unchanged. China has the world's largest population, a long history and an extremely rich civilization. Today, due to her impressive economic progress, she is emerging as a great power. This is certainly to be welcomed. But China also needs to earn the respect and esteem of the global community through the establishment of an open and harmonious society based on the principles of transparency, freedom, and the rule of law. For example, to this day victims of the Tiananmen Square tragedy that adversely affected the lives of so many Chinese citizens have received neither just redress nor any official response. Similarly, when thousands of ordinary Chinese in rural areas suffer injustice at the hands of exploitative and corrupt local officials, their legitimate complaints are either ignored or met with aggression. I express these concerns both as a fellow human being and as someone who is prepared to consider himself a member of the large family that is the People's Republic of China. In this respect, I appreciate and support President Hu Jintao's policy of creating a "harmonious society", but this can only arise on the basis of mutual trust and an atmosphere of freedom, including freedom of speech and the rule of law. I strongly believe that if these values are embraced, many important problems relating to minority nationalities can be resolved, such as the issue of Tibet, as well as Eastern Turkistan, and Inner Mongolia, where the native people now constitute only 20% of a total population of 24 million.

I had hoped President Hu Jintao's recent statement that the stability and safety of Tibet concerns the stability and safety of the country might herald the dawning of a new era for the resolution of the problem of Tibet. It is unfortunate that despite my sincere efforts not to separate Tibet from China, the leaders of the PRC continue to accuse me of being a "separatist". Similarly, when Tibetans in Lhasa and many other areas spontaneously protested to express their deep-rooted resentment, the Chinese authorities immediately accused me of having orchestrated their demonstrations. I have called for a thorough investigation by a respected body to look into this allegation.

Chinese brothers and sisters - wherever you may be - with deep concern I appeal to you to help dispel the misunderstandings between our two communities. Moreover, I appeal to you to help us find a peaceful, lasting solution to the problem of Tibet through dialogue in the spirit of understanding and accommodation.

With my prayers,

Dalai Lama
March 28, 2008

Note: translated from the Tibetan original

Sangey Tashi Gomar
Mng. Editor (Sc. Journal)
Library of Tibetan Works & Archives
Gangchen Kyishong
H.P India
Phone: +91-9816782272 &

Sunday, March 16, 2008

a letter from feminists on the election

This is from "Morning in America" on the website for THE NATION

the author was listed as "None" but the author names herself in the piece. Enjoy.

Two days after the Texas debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a group of old friends broke out the good china for a light breakfast of strong coffee, blueberry muffins and fresh-squeezed orange juice. We were there to hash out a split that threatened our friendship and the various movements with which we are affiliated. In some ways it was a kaffeeklatch like a million others across America early on a Saturday morning--but for the fact that this particular group included Gloria Steinem, a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College; Johnnetta Cole, chair of the board of the JBC Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute; British-born radio journalist Laura Flanders; Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia and UCLA; Carol Jenkins, head of the Women's Media Center; Farah Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia; Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority; author Mab Segrest; Kenyan anthropologist Achola Pala Okeyo; management consultant and policy strategist Janet Dewart Bell; and Patricia Williams, Columbia law professor and Nation columnist.

It was a casual gathering, but one that settled down to business quickly. We were all progressives but diverse nonetheless. We differed in our opinions of whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama--our goal was not an endorsement. Rather, the concern that united us all was the "race-gender split" playing out nationally, in which the one is relentlessly pitted against the other. We did not want to see a repeat of the ugly history of the nineteenth century, when the failure of the women's movement to bring about universal adult suffrage metastasized into racial resentment and rift that weakened feminism throughout much of the twentieth century.

How, we wondered, did a historic breakthrough moment for which we have all longed and worked hard, suddenly risk becoming marred by having to choose between "race cards" and "gender cards"? By petty competitiveness about who endures more slings and arrows? By media depictions of white women as the sole inheritors of the feminist movement and black men as the sole beneficiaries of the civil rights movement? By renderings of black women as having to split themselves right down the center with Solomon's sword in order to vote for either candidate? What happened, we wondered, to the last four decades of discussion about tokenism and multiple identities and the complex intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class?

We all worried that the feminist movement's real message is not being heard, and we thought about how to redirect attention to those coalitions that form the bedrock of feminist concern: that wide range of civil rights groups dedicated to fighting discrimination, domestic violence, the disruptions of war, international sex and labor trafficking, child poverty and a tattered economy that threatens to increase the number of homeless families significantly.

We thought of all that has happened in just seven short but disastrous years of the Bush Administration, and we asked: how might we position ourselves so we're not fighting one another? Our issues are greater than any disagreement about either candidate. We all know that there is simply too much at stake.

On the one hand, we celebrate the unprecedented moment in which a black person and a female person have risen to the lead in the Democratic race for President of the United States. On the other hand, both of them are constantly pressed to deny their race or gender, to "transcend" it, to prove by their very existence that misogyny and racism no longer exist. This, even as both are popularly and reductively caricatured in perniciously stereotypical ways. Clinton as a woman with balls, Obama as "unqualified" and "grandiose," Chelsea Clinton being "pimped" by her mother while Bill O'Reilly declares that Michelle Obama should be "lynched."

How do we resist such a toxic Punch and Judy show of embattled identity, to the degree that many women feel that a vote for Obama "cheats" Clinton of her chance to break the glass ceiling, and many blacks feel that a vote for Clinton is a betrayal of the chance to break the race barrier?

We agreed that everyone needs to refocus on the big picture. All of us know that another Republican presidency would effectively bury the gains of both the civil rights and the feminist movements of the past fifty years. Judicial nominations alone could upend decades of hard work.

How, therefore, to reclaim a common purpose, a truly democratic "we": we women of all races, we blacks of all genders, we Americans of all languages, we immigrants of all classes, we Latinas of all colors, we Southerners of all regions, we families of all ages, we parents working three jobs without healthcare, we poor who sleep on the streets, we single mothers whose homes are being repossessed, we displaced New Orleanians whose neo-Arcadian epic of displacement has yet to be resolved.

"Can't we all just get along?" could have been the mantra of this power breakfast--though certainly not forever, nor for all purposes. Just long enough to roust the Republican rascals: the oil barons and Enron fraudsters and pre-emptive warmongers and sadistic torture-masters and trigger-happy antiabortionists and Blackwater mercenaries and the tribal extremists of various religious stripes who seem to look forward to Armageddon finally segregating humanity into true believers and recalcitrant, disposable trash.

In the confusion of this triumphalist but precarious moment, therefore, it is important that the alliance between a now global feminism and a now global civil rights movement not be turned against itself and ultimately defeated. Obama and Clinton, each a complexly archetypal "role model," represent, at their best, a new kind of American possibility. If we could get over our fixation on a fantasy that many of us hoped to see realized in our lifetimes, maybe we could finally turn to the issues that each of them brings to the table. We cannot remain tangled by stereotypes that demean with their sweeping divisiveness and historical cliché.

As we gathered up the empty plates, we recommitted ourselves to further joint discussions about how to attain that collective better future, however many early mornings, late nights and urns of coffee into the future that may take. We hope women across America will choose to do the same.

by "None"

Sunday, February 24, 2008

U.S politics (summarized)

A little boy goes to his dad and asks, "What are Politics?"
Dad says, "Well son, let me try to explain it this way:

1. I'm head of the family, so call me the President.

2. Your mother is the administrator of the money, so we call her
the Government.

3. We're here to take care of your needs, so we'll call you the

4. The nanny, we'll consider her the Working Class.

5. And your baby brother, we'll call him the Future. Now, think
about that and see if it makes sense."

So, the little boy goes off to bed thinking about what Dad has
said. Later that night, he hears his baby brother crying, so he gets up to
check on him. He finds that the baby has severely soiled his diaper. So, the
little boy goes to his parent's room and finds his mother asleep. Not
wanting to wake her, he goes to the nanny's room. Finding the door locked,
he looks in the peephole and finds his father in bed with the Nanny. He
gives up and goes back to bed.

The next morning, the little boy says to the father, "Dad, I think
I understand the concept of politics now."

The father says, "Good, son, tell me in your own words what you
think politics is all about."

The little boy replies, "The President is screwing the Working
Class, while the Government is sound asleep. The People are being ignored
and the Future is in deep shit."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tibetan refugees walking home

Yet again a remarkable email came to me through the digital ether. This time from a man whose life is marked by dedication and principles. I had the great fortune of meeting Tenzin Tsundue in 2006 while I was in India. His unwavering commitment, his enthusiasm, and his striking sense of humor all stand out vividly in my memory.

Tenzin Tsundue la has sent me information about a significant historical event in the making. Instead of summarizing it for you, I have pasted the letter below. Please follow the links to inform yourself more and be sure and tell others.

Tenzin Tsundue's Letter

Dear Friend,

The time has come for me to go to Tibet again. Last time when I went to Tibet in 1997 - after my graduation - I was arrested by the Chinese authorities, beaten up, interrogated, starved and finally thrown out of Tibet after keeping me in their jails for three months in Lhasa and Ngari. I walked to Tibet, on my own, alone, across the Himalayan Mountains from the Ladakh.

Eleven years later, I am walking to Tibet again; this time too, without permission. I am returning home; why should I bother about papers from Chinese colonial regime who have not only occupied Tibet, but also is running a military rule there; making our people in Tibet live in tyranny and brutal suppression day after day, everyday for fifty years.

The Year 2008 is a huge opportunity for the Tibet movement to present the injustices the Tibetans have been subjected to, when China is going to attract international media attention. I am taking part in the return march from Dharamsala to Tibet, that is being organized as a part of the "Tibetan People's Uprising Movement", a united effort put together by five major Tibetan NGOs: Tibetan Youth Congress, Tibetan Women's Association, Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet (an association of former political prisoners), National Democratic Party of Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet, India.

The march will start on 10 March 2008, from Dharamsala, the capital of Tibetan exiles and will pass through Delhi and then head towards Tibet. Walking for six months, we might reach the Tibet border around the time China opens the Beijing 2008 Olympics (August 14-25). Presently it's too early to approximate at which border point we would be crossing; Tibet and India share a border that runs 4,075 Km along the length of the Himalayas. We might choose any point, or even multiple points. We'll see the situation.

I know there had been similar attempts in the past, but this is 2008, and I have seen the organizers working extra hard with strategic planning, taking care of every minute detail, and the best thing is that we have all the NGOs working unitedly for the common goal. This unity is our strength! I do not know where we would end up, that's why I am giving away the little collection of books (my only possession in life) to a library at is being setup in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. My friends: Lobsang and Nyingje (who served in the Indian army as part of the Tibetan battalion) are also giving away their personal belongings; committing themselves for the march.

Of course the Indian police will do their duty; the Chinese army at the Tibet border would be overtly enthusiastic. Since we are leading a peaceful march, with absolute commitment to non-violence, I do not think anyone - either from Indian authority or Chinese - would impose themselves on us. Inspired by Gandhi's Salt March, even if they did try to stop us, we are not stopping. For how many days can they jail us for just walking peacefully? And why should the Indian government stop Tibetan refugees voluntarily returning home on foot?

In the past I have climbed buildings to shout for freedom, thrown myself at the Chinese embassy gate in New Delhi, spent months in jails, got beaten up police, fought court cases, but I never lost the dignity of the struggle: my believe in Non-violence. The March to Tibet will be non-violent; it is a sadhana, a spiritual tribute to the truth and justice that we are fighting for. This is our Long March to freedom.

And on our journey home, we will cook and camp in tents on the roadside, there will be the marchers and the support marchers, the kitchen team, logistics, media and the medical team. There will be dancing and singing, and theatre and film shows on the road as we take this long journey home.

Here is an opportunity to join a historic non-violent freedom struggle, a people's effort to win freedom for a country that remains subjugated even in 2008. I request you to join us, support us in whatever ways possible. We need people to know about it, so spread the word. You can walk with us, as we walk for six months, maybe you can join us for a day along the path, even one hour, or for a week, months as a supporter. Schools, colleges and even whole town can walk with us. We need volunteers, media people, writers, photographers, bloggers can help us. We need nurses, cooks, technicians and your prayers.

Ever since the march was announced on 4th January 2008, Tibetans have been talking about it; it's a major discussion in the refugee camps. Recently the organizers launched the entry form. And I heard people are slowly getting themselves registered. You too can register your volunteer online. For more information please visit:

For enquiries email the coordinators: Lobsang yeshi or sherab woser

Join us.

Tenzin Tsundue

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

a letter from Obama

I received an interesting email from a friend the other day. The state of the press being what it is in this country, the "key issues" for any given election are fed to us instead of decided by us. Below is the email explaining how my friend wanted to know about candidates' positions on something that the press has deemed unworthy of attention. Following that is a letter he received from Barack Obama's campaign offices. Enjoy!

email from Michael

Hi, I know some people have made up there minds on who's who for the final race. But a month ago I was looking at the U.S primaries and thought, "Yes, the War is a very important issue with thousands on all sides dying. Yes, the fact so many Americans are without health insurance is embarrassing and a human right. Yes the economy is bad, the middle class is disappearing, homelessness is higher than ever, etc. But just out of curiosity, what are the Democratic candidates' positions on the arts and culture?"

A creative culture is a competitive culture which means it is a economically strong culture. I thought about JFK's speech talking about Robert Frost. I went on to think, "Hey, a culture that is supportive of its artists is a healthy society, not just based on consumption, but on re-investing in its society. Being in the EU I see this all the time first hand."

So I wrote the Democratic candidates: no one responded. So I sent it again. Then this email arrived today. So, I am sending it along below. Often we think about just one issue. However a society is multifaceted; everything is intertwined. Here's some info for the curious. Admittedly no candidate is perfect. But hey, here's something regarding our fields. Some of its vague. But funding the NEA? Thats just crazy talk! Health care for artists, that's also crazy! : )

Please pass it onto anyone that's in the creative areas of production. Well, have to go paint. Friendly Greetings, Michael

Letter from Senator Barack Obama's Campaign Headquarters

Dear Friend,

Thank you for contacting us in support of the arts. Senator Obama is a champion for arts and culture. He knows that our nation's creativity has filled the world's libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books - Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope - Barack Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.

That's why he will reinvest in Arts Education. To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children's creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. Unfortunately, many school districts are cutting instructional time for art and music education.

Barack believes that the arts should be a central part of effective teaching and learning. The Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts recently said, "The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society." To support greater arts education, Obama will:

Expand Public/Private Partnerships Between Schools and Arts Organizations: Barack Obama will increase resources for the U.S. Department of Education's Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination Grants, which develop public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations. Obama will also engage the foundation and corporate community to increase support for public/private partnerships.

Create an Artist Corps: Barack Obama supports the creation of an "Artists Corps" of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities. Studies in Chicago have demonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs.

Publicly Champion the Importance of Arts Education: As president, Barack Obama will use the bully pulpit and the example he will set in the White House to promote the importance of arts and arts education in America. Not only is arts education indispensable for success in a rapidly changing, high skill, information economy, but studies show that arts education raises test scores in other subject areas as well.

Support Increased Funding for the NEA: Over the last 15 years, government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been slashed from $175 million annually in 1992 to $125 million today. Barack Obama supports increased funding for the NEA, the support of which enriches schools and neighborhoods all across the nation and helps to promote the economic development of countless communities.

Promote Cultural Diplomacy: American artists, performers and thinkers representing our values and ideals can inspire people both at home and all over the world. Through efforts like that of the United States Information Agency, America's cultural leaders were deployed around the world during the Cold War as artistic ambassadors and helped win the war of ideas by demonstrating to the world the promise of America. Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, our resources for cultural diplomacy are at their lowest level in a decade. Barack Obama will work to reverse this trend and improve and expand public-private partnerships to expand cultural and arts exchanges throughout the world.

Attract Foreign Talent: The flipside to promoting American arts and culture abroad is welcoming members of the foreign arts community to America. Opening America's doors to students and professional artists provides the kind of two-way cultural understanding that can break down the barriers that feed hatred and fear. As America tightened visa restrictions after 9/11, the world's most talented students and artists, who used to come here, went elsewhere. Barack Obama will streamline the visa process to return America to its rightful place as the world's top destination for artists and art students.

Provide Health Care to Artists: Finding affordable health coverage has often been one of the most vexing obstacles for artists and those in the creative community. Since many artists work independently or have nontraditional employment relationships, employer-based coverage is unavailable and individual policies are financially out of reach. Barack Obama's plan will provide all Americans with quality, affordable health care.

His plan includes the creation of a new public program that will allow individuals and small businesses to buy affordable health care similar to that available to federal employees. His plan also creates a National Health Insurance Exchange to reform the private insurance market and allow Americans to enroll in participating private plans, which would have to provide comprehensive benefits, issue every applicant a policy, and charge fair and stable premiums. For those who still cannot afford coverage, the government will provide a subsidy. His health plan will lower costs for the typical American family by up to $2,500 per year.

Ensure Tax Fairness for Artists: Barack Obama supports the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The Act amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow artists to deduct the fair market value of their work, rather than just the costs of the materials, when they make charitable contributions.

Thank you again for contacting us. We appreciate hearing from you.