Monday, March 10, 2008

The Renascent Victory Garden

Our garden covers approximately 500 square feet of the back yard, and will soon grow to about 700. Crops include beans, peppers, onions, tomatoes, radishes, collards and Chinese kale. This is a first pass at what should ultimately account for half of our vegetables. That's not easy, in that we have become accustomed to eating whatever we want, whenever we want, thanks to the "global trough". We probably won't be growing coconuts, but in South Houston, it’s possible to grow papayas, limes and pomegranates. Total cost was about $500, but we’ll recoup the cost easily, and in the fall it will cost about $100 for seeds and lime (to correct the pH). At the heart of the garden are two compost piles that are 5’ in diameter.
Why bother? The impetus for gardening is two-fold: improving what our family eats and the real concern that I need to ensure that we'll have sufficient food to eat. Without going into the details, consumers of food (like humans) are competing with biofuels, automobiles and bad weather to get enough to eat. We're at the front end of a prolonged food crisis that is unlike what we've seen before- and has no easy solutions.
A little history. Actually, the coming food crisis is a bit like what happened in the 1930's-but different. In the 1930's there was plenty of land, water, fertilizer and labor. What was lacking was a functioning method of exchange; few people had the cash to buy the food grown by farmers. This time we've sacrificed our farmland on pointless suburban development, pumped the water wells into depletion and our farmers can't afford the fertilizer and fuel to keep our massively inefficient agricultural system running. Farmers are competing for scarce resources with commuters, residential heating, and all of the other excesses of our society. From the consumer's point of view, the coming food crisis will differ from the time of the "Great Depression" in that food prices will continue to rise despite falling real wages, and alongside climbing prices for fuel, rent and consumer goods. Another eye opener is the nation’s migration from the farm to the city. In 1930, 21.2% of Americans lived on the farm, and perhaps another 20% lived near farms, in rural towns. By contrast, in 1990, the percentage had fallen to a mere 1.7%. We’re not very well positioned to weather a prolonged food shortage.
Enter the Victory Garden. During the Second World War the nation’s food supply changed from oversupply to high demand as vegetables were canned to feed the troops. The US, UK and Canada encouraged their citizens to support the war effort by planting household gardens. At the height of the effort in 1944, nearly 20 million Americans produced up to 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Few of my Favorite Charts

The website has a chart library that presents a compelling slide show of our nations financial shape. It's a good eye-opener for those who are still bullish on the equity markets- and life in general.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Y2K in Perspective

My family thought that I was an alarmist during the months that led up the century change. I had been involved in several Year 2000 projects and had done public speaking at conferences dedicated to the subject. I was an alarmist because I suggested to relatives and friends that they take stock of the situation, store some food and pull their money out of the stock market- at least for a few months.
There were two aspects of the year 2000 problem: programming deficiencies and disastrous secondary effects. In 1998, it didn’t look like the programming deficiencies would be fixed in time. But in the end, they were—to everyone’s amazement. So I had good reason to be concerned in 1998 but as the new century rolled in, I was proved wrong overall. The various teams of programmers pulled it together and we slipped into 2000 unscathed.
The second aspect of the year 2000 problem still vexes me. The potential secondary effects were enormous. The problem wasn’t a programming glitch that could be fixed—it was a world that had become convoluted beyond all imagination. The Y2K scare was that our overly-interdependent world would unravel if a few key functions failed.
A decade later, I’m still an alarmist. Thinking of the prospect of the post petroleum wind-down and the disturbing weather that threatens our agricultural base, I want to scream, “beware!” Particularly alarming is the fragility of America’s agriculture system. It goes beyond the “3000-mile Caesar salad”. As a society, we are several degrees removed from the production of the food we eat. In 1999, the US census showed that a mere 1.7% of the US workforce works on farms. Compare that to the last great financial collapse, in 1930, where 21% of the workforce was on the farm. We weathered the first few years of the Great Depression largely by feeding ourselves from the nation's gardens and small farms. If it happens in 2008 ... we'd starve.

For those who are reluctant to move their savings from stocks to “cash”, take heart. If you had pulled out on July 1 1999 and reinvested on July3 2000, the S&P 500 would have moved up a mere 6% (Of course it was on a downward slide through mid-2002.). In retrospect, given what we knew, it was prudent to face the risk directly and take precautions. Unfortunately, our soft landing in 2000 has made it easy for many to slough off the storm clouds that are gathering in 2008.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Fool Speaks

In a December 15th article on the "Motley Fool" website, the brothers take on the issue of whether or not we should pull out of the equities markets in a post entitled, "Is It Time to Sell". Their answer is no, which is very predictable for these guys, as they have consistently touted a "steady as she goes" philosophy of investing. Steady as she goes works well in a working economy. In crisis, it is the surest path to disaster. To use an overused metaphor, "I'm headed towards New York in a brand new steamship pulling 24 knots. There was talk about icebergs earlier- should I slow this ship down?" Motley Fool: "Full speed ahead".