Monthly Archives: August 2012

Government to Welfare Recipients: Get Lost

One of my favorite activities when I’m traveling is to go for a long jog through a foreign city. It’s a safe, pleasant way to cover a lot of ground and still maintain spectator status.

Every time I’m in a new city, I plan a 10k route on the hotel map, marking lefts and rights and trying to see as many parks as possible in 45 minutes.

And every time I implement my route, I get hopelessly lost.

I’ve unintentionally jogged between domino highrises in Prague and through a strangely silent bazaar in South Beirut. I once accidentally ran a half marathon in London because I ran west for 45 minutes thinking it was north.

These accidental detours usually end with me giving up on my sweaty map and just asking a pedestrian for directions. I know the name of a train station or some other landmark near my hotel, and I ask people which way I need to go to get there. Every time I have this conversation, it goes pretty much like this:

Me: Excuse me, I’m trying to get to [landmark]
Resident: Oh, you’re miles away.
Me: I know, it’s pretty far. Can you tell me what direction it is, so I can start heading back?
Resident: It’s terribly far away. It’s not smart to be jogging without knowing where you are.
Me: I agree. Can you tell me what direction it is?
Resident: It’s really very far. You should have brought a map with you.

I invariably have to go through three or four cycles of ‘you shouldn’t be here’ before I get to ‘here’s how you get where you need to go.’

I’ve been thinking about this as a metaphor for the way we think about social policy. Every person in need of welfare payments, unemployment benefits, old-age pension, disability, etc, are basically people in places they shouldn’t be. Every unemployed autoworker should have seen the hollowing-out of their profession coming, and begun developing other skills. Retiring workers should have spent their productive years saving money. Single moms should have known about birth control, had an abortion, whatever.

It’s easy to look at people receiving social welfare and think ‘they should have considered the consequences before they got pregnant, dropped out of high school, didn’t get a vocational degree,’ etc. It’s easy to be the person saying ‘why are you here in the first place?’

This is understandable on an individual level, but at the scale of a population, governments need to be utterly unconcerned with why people are in the situation they’re in. You’re 21 years old and pregnant with your third child? … How can we help?

Obviously government has a legitimate interest in reducing the number of unemployed autoworkers, teen moms, poor pensioners and so on. But those are systemic interventions, not individual ones.

Governments make systemic efforts to reduce rates of smoking, for example, through taxes, education and age limits. Governments don’t withhold treatment of lung cancer, however, on the grounds that patients knew the risks, and should have acted differently when they could. Yet that’s the guiding principle behind much of our social policy.

I’m not saying this to be ideological, or bleeding heart about reducing suffering. I think there’s an economic case to be made for this. Retributive social policy (you shouldn’t be pregnant again, therefore you’re not entitled to child benefits) just perpetuates the systemic problems that end up costing taxpayers more in the end.

It’s inarguably a bad economic decision for that 21 year old to go through with her third pregnancy. She shouldn’t be here. But wouldn’t the economically intelligent policy be to support her children to the extent possible, so they don’t make the same mistake? Doing otherwise places the principle of retribution above the practical benefits of trying to get the most societal gain from her children possible.

It’s the same thing with the unemployed autoworker. Yes, they should have developed job skills beyond low-grade manufacturing. But what makes more economic sense? Punishing them through barely-scraping-by unemployment benefits? Or enough assistance to help them transition to a new profession and, if necessary, a new city, where they can be economically productive?

I know the counterargument to this is that generous social policy just encourages people to have that third child, to drop out of high school, to retire early. But surely there are ways to discourage those beyond perpetuating the factors that drive them in the first place. Government should be in the business of getting you where you need to go, not  telling you why you shouldn’t be lost.

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Is Coca-Cola as Immoral as Phillip Morris?

At my old job we used to always have arguments about which companies we were comfortable working with. If Halliburton came to us and said they wanted to be better on human rights (and we believed them), would we work with them? What about Lockheed Martin? Or Philip Morris?

What about Pepsi?

Weapon and tobacco companies are probably the only American industries we conceive of as inherently immoral. The products they manufacture and sell are so damaging that it doesn’t matter how just or unjust their operations are. They’re so morally compromised by what they’re making that how they make it is irrelevant.

This is appealing as a principle, but its edges are more blurred than we acknowledge. Once you identify AK-47s and Lucky Strikes as products the world would be better without, you can’t just stop there.

Take soft drinks. Like tobacco, soft drinks deliver short-term pleasure and are hazardous if overconsumed. The soft drinks industry, also like tobacco, has specifically designed their product to encourage overuse (increasing portion sizes), addiction (caffeine) and consumption by youth.

Obesity kills more people than lung disease every year. Companies whose products are basically obesity-in-a-can bear a significant amount of responsibility for this. The line isn’t as direct as that between tobacco and lung cancer, but is that really the only distinction?

In my time in human rights, I did some work with mining companies. Would the world really be that much worse off if every diamond company threw up its hands and said, ‘From now on, the shiny rocks stay in the ground.’ With all the human rights violations linked to diamonds, fuck it, let’s find something else to decorate our fingers and our ears.

But while we’re at it, why stop at diamonds? Other than some industrial purposes, we could probably do without gold, too. All of our handheld electronics use a mineral called coltan, which is basically only minable from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it fuels conflict and feudalism. We can do without that too, right?

OK, so there’s obviously a line between uzis and iPods. I’m not saying that we should start classifying industries into categories of moral acceptability. I just think that it’s more complicated than the products themselves.

If a tobacco company paid all of its workers a living wage and genuinely contributed to agricultural development in its supplier countries, would it be as morally acceptable as Wal-Mart, which has basically done the opposite everywhere it’s operated?

One of the great moral shifts of the last 15 years has been the growing acceptance of the moral implications of our consumer choices. From our Nikes to our oil, we accept that everything we buy is the end of a thread linking companies to governments to workers to suppliers to communities. No one gets to ignore that anymore.

But I don’t think we’ve worked out the full implications of it either. Pull on the It’s what you make thread long enough, and you disqualify every product other than bottled water and baby clothes. Pull on the it’s how you make it thread and you can buy a ballistics missile as long as the factory pays its workers and pays its taxes.

After working on human rights and business for the past five years, I’m no closer to weaving this together into a moral standard than I was when I boycotted Shell in the fifth grade. All I know is that certainty obscures more than it illuminates. And you should probably drink less soda.

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Two Other Things I Learned From ‘The Taste of War’

One: The shark-lamprey relationship between the US government and Big Food goes all the way back to World War II

The War Advertising Council was attended by representatives from advertising agencies, corporate advisers, the media and officials from various interested government departments such as the Office of War Information. Together they agreed on the outlines of public information campaigns. In this way the government co-opted the food industry to do the work of spreading healthy-eating propaganda while still allowing them to make money, or at least keep their brands in the public eye, guaranteeing them future–if not always present–sales.

The problem was that the food industry tended to use the language of the new science of nutrition to sell its products, regardless of their real health benefits. Thus, the American public were urged to eat grapefruit because it was rich in ‘Victory Vitamin C’, but they were also told that Nestle’s cocoa was a ‘concentrated energizing food’, and children’s love of sweets was encouraged by campaigns which promoted the benefits of sugar by pointing out that it was an essential part of a combat soldier’s diet.

Doesn’t Winston Churchill have some quote about how in a just economy, the government must be a referee, not a player? Well he should.

Two: Your grandma is a fucking liar.

In May 1943 an opinion poll found that rationing and wartime food shortages had barely made any impact on American meals. Two-thirds of the women surveyed asserted that their diet had changed very little since the introduction of rationing, and three-quarters of the women acknowledged that the size of their meals had stayed the same. The minimal impact that ration had on American eating habits is revealed by the passing comment of a woman from New York, who noted that coffee rationing, which cut consumption from three cups to one a day, was ‘the wartime measure to have affected one the most.’

Collingham reports that food rationing actually improved the diets of a significant number of Americans, since farmers increased production and the surplus inspired free school meals and other in-kind social programs. The Greatest Generation truly made sacrifices during World War II, but less or worse food doesn’t appear to be one of them.

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Fast Nude Nation

This weekend I went to Warnemunde, on the Baltic coast.

It’s a typical German beach town:

Rent a towel, buy an ice cream, repeat until melanoma appears.

The only thing that surprised me was how many nude beaches there were.

Naked, restful Germans from one horizon to the other.

My friend who grew up around this area says nakedness was a big deal in East Germany. Given the frustration and unfulfillment of daily life, nudity was a way for people to feel free.

My other friend, who grew up in West Germany, was more succinct: ‘There was nothing else to do, so everyone just practiced fucking each other all the time. They got really good at it.’

Regardless of whether it’s a means or an end, ubiquitous nakedness is mostly fascinating.

It’s rare to see naked people who aren’t Hollywood toned, porn-star trimmed or reality-show tanned.

The human body, as it turns out, does all kinds of interesting things when left to its own devices. Somewhere between their clothes and their character, people are amazing just to look at. 

If they look back, it’s because that’s the only thing to do on a German beach for free.

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Does Organic Food Taste Better?

The other day I decided to try an experiment. I bought identical chicken breasts. Two organic, two normal. I wanted to see if I could tell the difference between them after they were cooked.

The normal ones didn’t list ingredients, so I don’t know if they add saltwater or preservatives or whatever. This is socialist Germany, so I’m assuming this package would have to have a little red siren on it if they did.

Given the generally high meat quality on this continent, I feel like the organic breasts sort of need to ‘splain why they’re almost three times more expensive.

Maybe it’s just the lighting, but I must admit, the organic breasts looked nicer raw. They have clearly been bred to conform to the golden ratio, whereas the non-organics are shaped like Bolivia.

I kept the cooking method simple: Dried on paper towels, salted and peppered, fried in butter.

Verdict: The organic breasts tasted noticeably better. More juice, more chickeney flavor, less athletic little sinew to get stuck in your teeth.

But the real question is whether the slightly superior taste is worth the significantly higher price. And the answer, obviously, is fuck no. On the basis of this experiment, I’m definitely gonna keep eating non-organic chicken. Sorry planet, I tried.

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I Was A Teenage Narc

If the past is a foreign country, the person you were when you lived there is a stranger.

It’s been more than 10 years since I was a teenager, and the older I get, the more incomprehensible I find my younger self. I look back on the period between puberty and legal drinking age not nostalgic or remorseful, but baffled. Who is this guy? What the fuck is he doing?

The most arcane episode in my teenage years is the two off-and-on years I spent as a ‘liquor operative’ for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Starting at 16, I was employed to go into convenience stores and try to buy cigarettes or booze. If I was successful, I handed the contraband over to a cop, who would re-enter the convenience store and issue a fine.

Basically, I was a narc.

If you were writing this up as fiction, you’d devise some sort of backstory for why I took this job. Maybe my dad was an alcoholic, or I had an uncle who died in a drunk-driving accident. Maybe I was driven by a religious or moral crusade, a Mormon or something. Or maybe I was simply a pedantic teetotaler, eager to inflict abstinence on teenagers I suspected were poisoning themselves.

No, no and no. My mom and dad were a preacher and a dentist, respectively, and their alcohol consumption consisted of a biannual glass of wine. At 16 I was a militant atheist (which might as well be a synonym for ‘preacher’s kid’), avid shoplifter (soon to be arrested—twice!) and former pothead (I loved being stoned, but got a weeklong hangover afterward) who disliked authority all the way from parental to municipal.

Perhaps more relevantly, I was sharing Kool-Aid made with $7 gin instead of water with my friends a few weekends a month. I was the only one among us who had the moral vacuousness to stand outside liquor stores, asking college students and young couples if they would buy us booze. We called this ‘bootlegging’, which made us feel rustic and badass, neither of which we were.

Which is why now, almost 15 years later, the following events make no sense to me:

  1. Shortly after my 16th birthday, I participate in a conversation (or possibly overhear one) in which I’m informed by fellow students that the cops use teenagers to bust stores selling to the underage.
  2. The next day, I call the Seattle Police Department to ask if this is true.
  3. A few please holds later, I tell the director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board the following things:
    • I am a teenager (true),
    • I look older than I am (true), and
    • I have a dedication to preventing underage drinking (lie)
  4. I am invited to an interview. I arrive wearing a button-up shirt, Dockers and dress shoes borrowed from the Sunday end of my dad’s closet.
  5. I am hired on the spot, and told to come back a week later for my first shift.

If you edited these memories into a movie and showed it to me, I would walk out. Where is this character’s motivation? What actions foreshadow this phone call to the police? What gain does he see in this illicit, possibly socially ruinous employment?

Yet there I was. My first day at the WSLCB I met Kelly, the agent with whom I would work the most over the next two years. Other than the receptionist, she was the only woman in the office and my arrival rendered her the second youngest, second shortest and second newest.

Kelly always wore a suit jacket, usually with jeans and a flannel shirt, her long, frizzy hair pulled reluctantly into a ponytail. Before she was an enforcement officer, she was a teacher at a public middle school. She quit, she said, because she couldn’t handle the kids.

‘I just wasn’t strong enough’, she later told me.

Now Kelly was in charge of tobacco enforcement for the entire city of Seattle. Across the street from the WSLCB’s squat, stucco office, she bought me a coffee and told me how this would work.

First, we pick a neighbourhood. Then, starting at one end and working our way to the other, we ‘inspect’ every convenience store that sells cigarettes. This means Kelly parks in a Chevy Caprice 100 yards away and sends me into the store to ask for a pack of cigarettes.

‘Does it matter which brand?’ I asked.
‘No, just act like you’ve done this before,’ she said.

If asked for my ID, I should say these exact words: ‘I don’t have it with me.’

‘Don’t tell them you’re 18, or say anything like ‘C’mon, just this once’ or ‘Give me a break’ in there,’ Kelly told me. ‘Then they can claim entrapment if the case goes to court.’

If I was turned down, we logged the inspection as ‘compliant’.

If the buy was successful, I should come back to the Caprice, give Kelly the pack, the receipt and a description of the clerk, then wait while she went inside and issued a $500 fine to the clerk, plus another $500 to the owner of the store.

Like all jobs I’ve had since, I was bad at it when I started. The first time a clerk asked ‘hard or soft pack?’ I didn’t know what those were. My first successful buy, I couldn’t give Kelly a description of the clerk beyond ‘the guy behind the counter’.

Eventually, though, Kelly and I developed a sweet science. At each store, I made a confident entrance, walked straight to the counter and requested a Marlboro soft pack. I said my stock phrase and exited immediately if turned down. When successful, I thanked the clerk, went back to the Caprice and said ‘got one’ as I handed Kelly the pack and the receipt.

I often waited over an hour for Kelly to return. I like to think her teacherly instincts made her stay with the clerks until she could form some kind of connection. Sometimes she came back flustered: ‘Boy, that guy was animated,’ she’d say, or ‘He started crying as soon as I showed my badge.’

In one day we could check more than 50 stores, and I think our record was 75. We started early, usually around 7am. We spent eight hours driving, then another four filling out paperwork.

‘Why don’t we just do this tomorrow?’ I asked Kelly at 10pm once, filling in bubbles on an inspection form.
‘If we do this now, we get overtime,’ she said.

I may not have any idea why I started the job, but once I started, I know why I stayed. The pay was $8.50 an hour, with time and a half for any shifts past eight hours. I was being paid more than my lifeguarding and baristing friends to essentially sit in a car all day. After my first summer working with Kelly, I bought new speakers for my Civic and, among other things, the Chemical Brothers CD that would blow them out two years later.

The job changed when I turned 17. I couldn’t do cigarette inspections anymore because I was too close to legal age, so I shifted to alcohol checks.

Liquor inspections were the same procedure as cigarette inspections: Enter store, buy age-restricted substance, fill out paperwork. The only change in the actual job was the higher compliance rate. Buying cigarettes, I had successful buys about 40 percent of the time, but with liquor it was more like 10 to 20 percent, depending on the bourgieness of the neighborhood.

The other difference was that I would be working with all the WSLCB agents, not just Kelly.

Most of the agents were in their 40s, and had worked in various other departments before landing in liquor. Robert, for example, used to be a sniper, and spoke guiltlessly and frequently about the four people he had killed.

Steve used to work in vice, and considered it his duty to teach me how to identify prostitutes. ‘Her!’ … ‘Her!’ … he would say as we drove up Stone Way. ‘You gotta watch the bus stops, they’re always at the bus stops.’

Tom was such an embodiment cop clichés (brown suit, moustache, two packs a day) that he was practically in black and white. The first day we worked together, both windows down in March, he gave me his card.

‘If you ever get pulled over for anything. Speeding, DUI, doesn’t matter. You show him that card, and tell him you know me. I guarantee you’ll get off with a warning.’

I kept that card in my wallet until I was 23.

The liquor agent I worked with the most was Raj. I don’t know what Raj did before the WSLCB, but he worked liquor enforcement with a reluctance bordering on neglect. Agents were obligated to work 160 hours per month, but were allowed to distribute those hours however they wanted. Raj worked his full 160 in the first 15 days of the month, then flew to India for three weeks, then came back and worked the next month’s 160, all year round.

Raj disliked me immediately. I don’t know if it was my suggestion of overtime-reducing productivity enhancements (‘Why don’t I start filling out the paperwork while we drive?’) or my lack of enthusiasm for the cacophonous, humid Indian restaurants Raj chose for lunch. Small talk tapered off after the first hour of each 16-hour shift, and between inspections I sat in the back seat and read graphic novels or did homework.

One night, 12 hours into one of our endless workdays, we checked a Safeway. Inspecting big stores was the same as inspecting little stores: I walked in, got a beer, carried it to the counter and tried to buy it. The only difference was that supermarkets had more than one checkout lane, so it was up to me to decide which clerk I would inspect.

In supermarkets I usually went to the clerk who looked the least likely to sell. Someone older, better at gauging my age, more likely to expel me for not having an ID. Compliant checks meant less paperwork and, on Raj days, the potential of getting home before midnight.

I chose the line of a woman in her mid-30s, plump and tired-looking. She seemed like the kind of working-her-way-up-to-manager type who wouldn’t sell to me.

But she did. She barely looked at me, just rung up the beer and turned to the next customer. I almost said ‘Are you sure?’ when she gave me the receipt.

I walked to the far end of the parking lot and handed the beer and receipt to Raj. I told him her name and what she looked like. He got out of the Caprice with a long breath. It was our first noncompliant check in hours.

He came back more than 45 minutes later.

‘Oh man, you really fucked up in there,’ Raj said. ‘That woman had kids.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Her manager fired her on the spot. She said without this job, she can’t take care of them. It’s going to be impossible for her to find another job with this on her record.’

I didn’t know what to say.

‘She said she doesn’t have the money to pay this fine,’ Raj said.
I was still silent.
‘If the state takes away her kids, that’s your fault.’

I looked at him, expecting this to be the part where he said ‘just kidding’.

‘What do you mean, if the state takes away her kids?’ I finally said.
‘If she can’t pay the fine, she could go to jail, and those kids will be up for adoption. Will you step up and take care of her kids if that happens? Will you take responsibility for that?’

In the 18 months I had been doing this job, I hadn’t told any of my friends about it. They knew I had a job at the WSLCB, but I told them I was answering the phone, making coffee, doing intern stuff. The best thing about having a secret is that you never have to defend it.

The next day I finally told my friends about my job, starting with the Safeway incident. They said all the things I wish I’d said to Raj.

‘If it’s such a fucking tragedy, why did he give her the fine instead of a warning?’
‘Why is it suddenly your responsibility to look after her kids?’
‘He just feels guilty, and he’s putting that on you.’
‘What a dick.’

After that, I started applying prosecutorial discretion. If a clerk looked friendly, well-meaning, or in any way maternal, I just walked back to the Caprice and told the agent ‘compliant’.

A few times, a clerk was nice enough that, mid-purchase, I asked for my money back. ‘Oops, wrong brand,’ I said, grabbed my $10 bill and left.

Only a bubble-wrapped suburban teenager could come up with an approach this morally incoherent. I was still performing a task that was costing people their jobs, but now I was only applying it to clerks who ‘deserved it’ because they hadn’t smiled at me or asked me how my day was going.

The day of the death threat was my last time working with Kelly. She didn’t do much alcohol enforcement, so it was like a reunion from our cigarette days.

The convenience store was on a suburban street in West Seattle. Kelly parked in the front, in view of the counter, instead of around the corner like she usually did. I went inside, where a clerk who didn’t look much older than I was sold me a Bud Light. I walked back to the car, gave it to Kelly and waited in the car for her to return.

I could see her through the window, showing the clerk her badge. As they spoke, a man in his mid-40s came out of the store’s back room, walked past Kelly and came, furious, toward the car.

I checked to make sure the windows were rolled up and the doors were locked. He clawed at the door handle.

‘Get out of the car!’ he shouted.
I froze.
‘I said, get the fuck out of the car!’ He kicked the window. I scrambled for the driver’s seat.

‘If I ever see you again I’ll fucking kill you!’ he shouted, finally loud enough for Kelly to hear. ‘You better never come here again!’

I don’t remember exactly what happened next, whether Kelly radioed for backup or if the guy just calmed down and walked away. I remember that he owned the convenience store, and was pissed that the clerk, his son, would have the fine on his record.

Kelly and I drove back downtown. I was still shaking.

‘My briefcase is in the back seat, with my gun in it,’ she said. ‘Sorry, I should have told you that before.’
‘You think I should have shot that guy?’ I said.
‘Well, you could have waved it in his face.’

In the end, it wasn’t the moral qualms or the attempted assault that pushed me out of the job. I was literally made redundant. Just after I turned 18, the WSLCB found some kid named Tiger. He was black and only 15 years old.

‘That means no one sells to this kid,’ Tom told me. ‘I’m never gonna do paperwork again.’

Two years after my shifts dried up and I moved to Bellingham for college, I got a subpoena. One of the clerks I busted had appealed his fine, and I had to appear in court to testify against him. I was hoping it would be one of the busts I made with Kelly, so we could catch up, but it was Robert, the former sniper. He told me Kelly had left the agency just after I had.

‘She filed a sexual harassment suit. Apparently we called her ‘baby’ too much’, he said. ‘She transferred down to Olympia.’

The courtroom wasn’t anything like on TV. There was no wood panelling, no jury, no robes. It looked like a high school debate.

Testifying, however, was pure theatre:

‘So you were 17 at the time you purchased alcohol from the defendant, is that correct?’
‘Yes.’
‘Just one more question: Do you, sir, possess the ability to travel forward in time, become 21, then travel back in time in order to purchase this alcohol?’
‘No I do not.’
‘No further questions, your honor.’

The prosecutor gave me a sort of ‘booya!’ face, like he had really twisted the knife in the defendant. The judge called the defendant’s lawyer for cross-examination. He stayed seated, like this was a job interview.

‘How long were you a liquor operative?’
‘Two years.’
‘’Were you performing this role to gain any kind of immunity from prosecution or as part of a plea agreement?
‘No.’
‘So you weren’t in any way being forced or coerced into performing this role, is that correct?’
‘Yes.’

He looked down at his papers.

‘… So why were you doing it?’

I don’t even remember what I answered.

Looking back now, I see a stranger leaving the stand. He looks a little like me, this college student walking out of the courtroom, getting in his car, driving north. If he could look forward like I’m looking back, I’d be as foreign to him as he is to me. Neither of us, however, recognize the teenager sitting in the Caprice.

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Stuff That Happens When You Go to London For the Olympics

You are struck at the emptiness of London’s rotisserie attractions

You are bored by modern art, and the indoors generally.

You marvel up close at the brontosaurus legs and tyrannosaur arms of Olympic cyclists.

You remark that London is more pleasant when all its rich have left.

You watch lady weightlifting in Hyde Park, and fail to make any out-loud comment that doesn’t come off sexist, classist, racist or looksist.

You are simultaneously consoled and unnerved by the ubiquity of Britain’s security apparatus.

You make normal-sized chairs appear larger.

You appreciate that, between colonialism and the 2012 Olympic Games, there were about 50 years there where British patriotism wasn’t OK.

You join the throng, expecting elbowing multitudes

But find London’s temporary epicenter strangely serene.

You display your own nation’s flag incorrectly.

You wait for fucking ages to get this shot, and it doesn’t even turn out that great.

You conclude from limited experience that Olympic athletes are small, gregarious and bewildered in person.

You notice that the Olympic park planners got the flag proportions all wrong.

You didn’t know they played basketball in Tunisia. After seeing them play the USA, you’re not sure they want to anymore.

Leaving the park, you speculate what this this area was once, and what it will become.

You never find out. And for a minute, you don’t even wonder.

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Slave to Ration

I just finished Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. It perfectly combines my two current obsessions: 1) Food and 2) Everything I Know About WWII is Wrong.

The book follows the food policies of all the major combatants in WWII: Axis, Allies and colonies alike. Each chapter demonstrates, in its own microcosmic way, how recent a phenomenon our current abundance of food is. Nixon famously told his secretary of agriculture that he didn’t want food to be an election issue ever again, and after reading The Taste of War, you kind of sympathize with him.

Food shortages were a common occurrence before WWII, and even more so during and immediately after. People in countries rich (Britain) and poor (China) faced empty shelves, malnutrition and, in extreme cases (Russia) resorted to boiling leather shoes because they yielded a few calories of gelatin.

This anecdote from Japan is illustrative of how food shortages trickle down through all corners of the economy:

Arakawa Hiroyo and her husband owned a bakery shop in Tokyo. They made katsutera, a sort of sponge cake made with flour, eggs and sugar. The decline of their business reflected the dwindling food supply in Japan. At first, as a food business, they were supplied with flour and sugar, and customers would bring them vegetables in exchange for katsutera.

Eventually the supply of their ingredients declined and they were only able to bake every two or three days. Then the police would drop by. 

‘Oh, today you’re baking?’ they would comment innocently. ‘This house sure smells good.’And then Arakawa would have to give them some cakes.The grocers in her street suffered from the same problem. Police and soldiers would simply pocket the food and refuse to pay.

Eggs were the first of their ingredients to disappear altogether. For a while they had a supply of powdered egg from Shanghai but eventually this became unavailable, as did sugar. Arakawa changed the business to making sandwiches, but even those they had to fill with whale ham because there was no pork to be had.

Then bread and whale ham became unavailable. Undaunted, they changed to making ‘cut bread’ for the army, which meant that supplies of the necessary ingredients were guaranteed. […]

Then the military laid claim to their bread-making machine for the iron and they had to close their business.

The sheer foreignness of this experience demonstrates both the novelty of food shortages as a non-issue, and how unprepared we are for our current infinity of food products.

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