The world’s bread basket no more

The recent controversy over dairy trade policies between the Trump Administration and Canada is only the tip of the iceberg. While Trump is selectively picking on one particular product, the truth is that the United States is losing its competitive advantage in many areas of agriculture. Government subsidies to the agriculture industry worldwide have always been a thorn in the American side. That’s not to say that our farmers have gone without. We too subsidize our farmers. Taxpayers are expected to pay at least $87 billion to help farmers over the next dozen years. And for decades, we have been spending billions each year to protect them from lost income and crop failures. The difference between then and now is that, despite other countries’ farm subsidies, we were still number one worldwide in a great variety of food stuffs. So we didn’t care as much. Today this nation’s market share for commodity such as wheat, soy beans and corn are shrinking rapidly. Exports of wheat, for example, have declined by over 50% since the 1970s, while countries like Russia have expanded wheat production by over 60% in just the last ten years. As a result, Russia now dominates global wheat production. And Russia is not alone. Countries in South America, specifically Brazil and Argentina, traditional agriculture countries, have also increased production, thanks to investment, technology, year-round growing seasons, and new planting methods. Four years ago, Brazil overtook the U.S in soybean exports (now the world’s largest exporter) and will be the second-largest corn exporter after the U.S. this year. How did Brazil accomplish it? Brazil embarked on its agricultural...

Tense times in Trump land

The geo-political landscape is heating up. U.S. relations with Syria, North Korea, China and Russia are in turmoil as the Trump administration flexes its military muscle. None of it bodes well for the stock market. War cries and wealth are like water and oil. They don’t mix well. For investors, there are far too many unknowns, especially when U.S. warships are steaming toward the Korean Peninsula. In Syria, American troops were spotted alongside Jordanian Special Forces troops along the border, despite our president’s assurances that boots on the ground are out of the question. Actually, that isn’t quite true, since U.S. Special Forces have been operating alongside our Syrian allies for some time. Then there is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. This diplomatic venture is a follow-up to last week’s U.S. surprise tomahawking of one of Syria’s airbases. Tillerson will be using America’s new-found, willingness to use military might in order to further our diplomatic ends. In this case, to convince Putin to sever ties with Syrian dictator Bashar-al-Assad. In hindsight, all that media speculation about President Trump’s cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin seems somewhat far-fetched, given that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who was also thought to be buddies with Vlad) is reported to be pursuing a hardline against Putin’s failure to reign in its client state. On yet another front, it appears President Trump has had enough grief from the “Fat-Boy”– Chubby Kim Jong-un, grandson of the nation’s founder, Kim II-sung, In a duel of tweets, the dictator warned of “catastrophic consequences” from any U.S. military action, while “The Donald” warned that “North Korea...

Don’t worry, be happy

It is official: the happiest country in the world is Norway, with Denmark the runner-up, according to the World Happiness Report. What lessons can we learn from this survey and what, if anything, should we do as a nation to join their ranks? Where, you might ask, do we here in the U.S. rank? The answer would be number 14, down from number 3 in 2007. The least happy inhabitants on earth appear to be in Africa while the average Chinese person is no happier than he was 25 years ago, despite the country’s much-lauded economic miracle. How do a pair of tiny countries stay so happy for so long? It sure isn’t the weather, where it is so cold that summers require overcoats and the days can last so long that they keep tourists complaining about lack of sleep. Or is it? Clearly, the people there have a lot of money. Norway, for example, is the sixth wealthiest country in the world. They can thank the North Sea’s oil discoveries 40 years ago for that. Denmark also has a high GDP per capita, but so do we, and yet we placed far lower. One answer is what these people actually do with their money. These countries make it a priority to give their citizens economic security. Take health care, for example. While our government is in the throes of reducing the number of Americans who will be insured through health-care, in Norwegian society citizens pay a maximum of $300/years for doctors, hospitals, and other medical services. After that, the government pays for everything for that year. In addition,...

Trump’s budget

It was late, “skinny,” and guaranteed to send Washington lawmakers up a wall. President Trump’s first crack at a budget, released on Thursday, makes drastic cuts to many sacrosanct departments and programs while boosting spending in others. If you haven’t strapped in quite yet, now is the time to do so. The president’s 53-page budget (less than half of his predecessor’s lean, 134 pages) makes dramatic cuts to departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency (-31%) and the State Department (-28%), while increasing defense spending by $54 billion. Areas that would also be hit hard were foreign aid, grants to multilateral development agencies such as the World Bank and United Nation’s climate change initiatives. Clearly, “America First” was front and center in making these decisions. Here at home, renewable energy research and carbon dioxide emissions reductions would also be jettisoned, if the President gets his way. The Agricultural Department, a bastion of American protectionism, was cut by 21%. It would see loans and grants for wastewater slashed, headcount reduced, and a program that gives U.S. farmers tax credits by donating crops for overseas food aid would disappear. Nineteen organizations that count on federal funds for support such as public broadcasting and the arts would cease completely. Home heating subsidies,  clean-water projects and some job training would also go by the wayside. The Housing Department’s community development grants, along with 20 Education Department programs, including some funding programs for before and after school programs, felt the axe. Anti-poverty programs were targeted as well. In contrast, defense spending will be boosted by $54 billion, money for Vets would increase six percent...

America’s road toward universal healthcare

The GOP’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was introduced this week. As one might expect, the Republican Party’s long-awaited plan was met with a firestorm of protests from just about every conceivable lobbying group. That’s exactly what one should expect, given that there is so much at stake. Headlines throughout the week warned that if the plan were passed in its present form, healthcare premiums could rise by 30% or more. Seniors could pay far more for coverage under the new plan, while between 6 million and 10 million people would lose their health insurance coverage altogether. The poor would get short shrift, while the wealthy would benefit most. The new plan dubbed “The American Health Care Act,” (if all goes as planned) will be rolled out in three phases under a budgetary process that would allow Republicans to pass the bill through a simple majority in the Senate. The problem is that although Republicans are unanimous on the need to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the party is divided in how to replace it. Readers might recall that after the landslide Republican victory in the general election, many Americans were worried that Obamacare would be abolished altogether. The doomsday crowd is convinced that the country’s health care insurance coverage will go back to the way things were prior to the ACA. I argue that it is too late for that. Regardless of what you may think of President Obama, he and the Democratic Party set this nation on a new course. It will, in my opinion, result in universal health care coverage for...

A circus by any other name is still a circus

By now you may have heard that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are set to close in May of this year. That’s the third circus in as many years to close their doors. You might say the announcement marks the end of an era stretching back for almost 150 years. I disagree. The circus will never die. It’s been around since the Romans were sticking each other with swords. It is a venue that is constantly changing that I believe will simply continue to evolve. Society has moved on from the need to see blood and guts on the sandy floor of the arena. For the last century and a half, we have been entertained instead by death-defying feats, acrobatics, wild animals and loud music. In today’s digital age, where kids (and adults) would rather sit at home and watch television or play internet games, the smell of peanuts and popcorn, intermingled with elephant feces and three rings of lion tamers, human cannonballs and clowns just doesn’t cut it. Over the years, dwindling audiences, rising expenses, competition from other sources, the lack of marketing savvy by owners, and the increasing efforts by animal rights activists have contributed to the dwindling supply of old-time circuses that at one time crisscrossed the country. The rising cost of attending the circus may have also been an issue. Middle-class families, whose numbers are also shrinking, had long been the bread-and-butter of the industry. In some cities, tickets for a Ringling show could be as high as $125. The cheapest seats, at $25, were still almost twice the price of a movie...