BELOW THE LINE . . .

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HOW TO LOSE WEIGHT, SAVE MONEY AND LIVE LONGER

“The doctor’s news is not good.  Americans are in poorer health and are dying sooner than the rest of the industrialized world.  Call it the ‘mortality gap’.  The facts are disquieting.  A 2011 study of 17 industrialized countries – 13 in western Europe, plus the US, Australia, Japan and Canada – found that American men, whose life expectancy is 75.6 years, ranked last, and US women, at 80.7 years, ranked 16th.  Worse, this gap has been widening for the past three decades” (“Facing the mortality gap,” AARP Bulletin, March 2013).

The study found that this was the case in all socio-economic groupings.

What’s the problem?

“Although the United States spends nearly twice as much on health care as other countries, Americans eat too much, rely on cars too much and get medical care that is often inaccessible and unaffordable….while Americans drink and smoke less than their peers, they eat more  calories per person, use seat belts less, are more prone to gun violence and have higher rates of drug abuse.”

Thanks to AARP for pointing all this out!

Everybody has to decide what they can do to improve their own situation, to increase their own life expectancy.  But there are two things we can all do – we can eat less and use the car less.  I’ve been trying to do both.  You can save money, too.

We are fortunate in that many stores are within a mile and a half from our house, so I can walk to them all.  I do this with our 16-month-old grandson, who just loves going out with Grandpa.  His stroller has room underneath for a just a few grocery items, so I have to limit purchases.  There’s only room for the essentials, which saves money and improves health right there.  It’s also impossible to buy ice cream as it will melt before I get home.

Aubren weighs about 27 pounds, so pushing him (and groceries after shopping), adds to the exercise value of the walk itself.  He will not let me slow down, so I keep up a fairly vigorous pace.

This also saves me gas.

If you don’t live near a store or don’t have a grandchild to take with you, you could get the same effect by driving to a central point, parking the car and then walking to other stores from there.  The fact that you can only carry so much is also good – it cuts down on how much you spend and encourages you to go out and walk more often!  You might also consider cycling to stores, using a backpack for purchases.  Again, it will limit purchases, save money on gas and give you exercise.

As you feel the benefit of walking with the resultant weight loss, you will be less inclined to eat too much.  Yesterday, I decided to join our two local granddaughters at their school for lunch.  I asked their Dad what I could take other than fast food, which is quite expensive.  He suggested M&M’s, so I stopped at a dollar store to get some.  While there, I looked for something I could eat while they ate their school lunch.  The only healthy item they had in the store was a small packet of dried fruit, which I bought for a dollar.  That was my lunch.

Until recently, I would have been inclined to stop at McDonald’s and buy the girls chicken nuggets and fries, and a burger for myself!  That’s about $10.  I spent a quarter of that at the $ Store.  Not being able to go through a drive-thru also helps cut down on those calories.

There are many things each of us can do to eat less and walk more.  One of the biggest differences between the US and England, where I grew up, is that we walked everywhere, whereas most Americans seem to walk nowhere.

I remember listening to Alastair Cooke, the famed British broadcaster and late presenter of “Masterpiece Theatre.”  He was talking about when he first came to America, back in 1929.  He was invited over to an apartment for a social evening.  After dinner, he stood up and asked the others to go for an evening walk, which had been his family’s habit in England.  The reaction was amusing, with others at the dinner party offering to call him a cab or wondering if he was unwell and needed some air, or maybe needed to go to the store to buy some cigarettes.  Concern was also expressed that if he went for a walk, the police might arrest him for suspicious behavior.

But the idea of walking was totally alien to them all.

I’m pleased to say that has changed.  I do see people walking.  In some cases, this is to save gas.  But it’s catching on.  It’s now socially acceptable to walk.  More and more people are doing it.

Who knows?  If we all walk more and eat less, maybe we will come out on top the next time a comparison is made of life expectancy in western countries.  When we spend more than twice as much on healthcare as any other western nation, we really ought to come out on top every time!

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CHANGING OF THE GUARD IN HOLLAND

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At first glance, the fact that Holland’s Queen Beatrix has abdicated in favor of her son, Prince (now King) Willem-Alexander, may seem insignificant.  After all, the Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy where political power rests with the elected government, while the Head of State is purely a figurehead, with no real power.

History shows it’s not as simple as that.

The constitutional monarchies of NW Europe have been the most stable countries in the world since the middle of the 19th century.

These nations are:  the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom.  The latter has had a stable political system since 1689.

They are as democratic as the United States but avoided the upheavals of neighboring republics, particularly Germany and France.  Both of these countries have had checkered histories.  In the middle of the nineteenth century Germany was many countries, which were finally united under a Prussian monarch following wars with Austria and then France.  Just over 40 years later, World War I led to the demise of the German Empire, to the instability and economic disasters of the Weimar Republic, to Hitler and then division between East and West.

France was even more unstable historically.  Following the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in 1789, the country had 25 years of turmoil and war, including a brief period as a republic.  After Napoleon’s Empire, the Bourbons were restored in 1815 but overthrown again fifteen years later.  There then followed another monarchy until 1848, the year of revolution across Europe.  A second republic followed for four years, then a second Napoleonic Empire, then war with Prussia in 1870-71, the fall of Napoleon III, who was replaced by the Third Republic, which lasted from 1871-1940, almost seventy years.  Hitler’s invasion of France led to the establishment of Vichy France (a part of France whose leader cooperated with the Germans); after which came the Fourth Republic.  In 1958, that was replaced by the Fifth Republic, which is still in operation, though there has been talk of its imminent collapse.

If you found that list rather exhausting, realize that all this happened during the same period the United States has been a republic.   Though it has to be said that the American republic did have one big upheaval, the Civil War of 1861-65.  Since then, the US has enjoyed a stable political system, rare for a republican form of government.

Clearly, when you consider Germany and France, you can see real advantages in the system of constitutional monarchy, which has enabled so many countries to have political stability, except when invaded by Germany in the world wars.

Constitutional monarchy also makes dictatorship far less likely.  When the office of head of state is by birth alone, nobody else can have it.  This is just as well as elected prime ministers under a parliamentary system are very powerful – they can do anything they want if they have the backing of a majority in parliament.  A prime minister is more powerful within his own country than the US president.  The monarchy acts as an effective buffer against prime ministerial power.

Constitutional monarchy is also cheap.  The annual cost to the British taxpayer is $87 million, compared to a $1.4 billion tag that goes with the American presidency.   Even the $87 million cost in the UK is deceptive.  The cost is more than offset by entrance fees to the royal palaces, money that goes straight to the Treasury.  Additionally, money the queen receives for her constitutional role is actually revenue the government receives from the Crown Estates.  The government, in effect, is giving her back her own money – and they only give back 15%!

Other nations that remain loyal to the crown, notably Canada, Australia and New Zealand, benefit even more as there is no cost to them except when the monarch visits.

An additional benefit to all the countries named is that the monarch is a unifying figure who remains above politics.  Any monarch (or family member) who expresses a political opinion risks dividing the country over which they preside.  It would be very unwise and could prove fatal, leading to revolution or civil war.

Meanwhile, the monarchs are kept extremely busy in their respective roles.  The 87-year-old British monarch takes on more engagements each year than the US president.   So do other members of her family.  The other monarchs play a similar role.

Holland is unusual in that it has become tradition for an elderly monarch to retire.  This is not the case in other European nations.

Finally, a sovereign is a guarantor of sovereignty.  As long as The Netherlands has a monarch, a European super state under one federal authority remains problematic.  At a time of strengthening European unity, these monarchs are the greatest guarantee of their country’s continued existence.

The grand hand-over ceremony and celebrations marking Queen Beatrix’s abdication and her son’s swearing in may not seem very important but Holland is one country that is so stable the rest of the world doesn’t have to worry about it.

BELOW THE LINE – II

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Now that the weather has improved, I’ve been taking Aubren out for walks in his stroller.   Some days we go to the park, other days I will go to different stores that are within walking distance.  Meijer, Target, and Aldi are 15 or 20 minutes away.

Today, we went to the post office and then to Aldi.  Aldi is a German-owned grocery chain which operates in many countries – I’ve seen them in my home-town in England, across Germany, around the US and elsewhere.  They claim to save people up to 50% on their grocery bill.  They offer “no frills” – they do not bag your groceries and they do not pay anybody to periodically go outside and round up shopping carts.  At Aldi, you have to use a quarter to free a cart from a chain and then use it.  When you return it, you can get your 25 cents back.  I’ve seen this at other stores – in England, Asda (Walmart) charges one pound, which is roughly six quarters.

Aldi attracts a lot of poorer people, people who have to be careful with their money.   Many customers use food stamps (which are not literally stamps – it’s now a credit card provided by the government for people, which is topped up each month).  There are also more affluent customers, judging by their clothes and the vehicles they pull up in.  Maybe they choose to economize on food while splurging on the other two items.

During the seven years we’ve lived in this neighborhood, I’ve noticed their business boom.  The Wall St Journal a couple of years ago said they were the fastest growing chain in the US.  They keep their prices down by not selling brand names, but guarantee their products are as good as any brand.

Today, for the first time, I met an elderly gentleman who pointed out that my grandson’s shoe had come off.  I thanked him and picked the shoe up.  He then noticed I did not have a shopping cart (trolley), the reason being that I could not push a cart and a stroller.  But he assumed it was because I didn’t have 25 cents.

He also told me that he hangs around a lot offering to return carts just to get the 25cents.

I told him that, at the park, I often see people carrying black trash bags collecting discarded cans, for which they can get ten cents each.  He commented on how times are hard and getting harder.  For many people, this is true.

Yet at the same time, we are being told the economy is improving.  Even locally this is the case.  Lansing is the fastest growing area in Michigan when it comes to high tech jobs; the sixth fastest in the United States.  Other areas of the economy are also improving.

It would appear that while some people are doing well, others are struggling more than ever before.

The minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour.  After taxes, that means somebody working forty hours takes home about $250 a week.  If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would now be $16.50 per hour, over twice as much.  I saw a number of “Situation Vacant” ads this morning, all offering work at about $10 per hour.

If anything, wages will go down further.  The proposed amnesty for undocumented workers could add 11 million, mostly unskilled people to the labor pool thereby driving wages down further.  Also, in spite of high unemployment, the numbers of immigrants allowed into the country each year has not changed.

The unemployment figure continues to be inaccurate.  I know a number of people who are unemployed but not classed as such because they do not qualify for unemployment benefit.

So how do people manage?  The biggest single answer to that question must be “food stamps.”  Over 47 million are now on food stamps, a government program that gives free food to poor people.  What will happen if the US government has to cut back on the program?

The people I know who are on food stamps also receive free medical care under a government program called Medicaid, not to be confused with Medicare which is for people over 65.  Medicaid is for the poor.  In Michigan, it is reserved for those below the poverty line, currently $15,132 per year per couple.  A family of four that earns less than twice that is below the poverty line and will also qualify.

It’s not just jobs that are needed – it’s good jobs that pay well.  These are in short supply.  There is no sign of a return of good paying jobs in any significant number.  This bodes ill for the future of the American economy and Americans.

WHY THE TSARNAEVS HATED US SO

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“The Mouse that Roared” is an old black and white movie made in England in 1959.    The late Peter Sellers played a number of roles in the film, which is a real classic.

It tells the story of an impoverished fictional country called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, somewhere in Europe, ruled over by the Grand Duchess and with a prime minister, both played by Sellers.

The Grand Dukedom is broke and somebody proposes the country declare war on the United States because the US always lavishes vast amounts of money on its defeated enemies.  The unforeseen problem is that the US doesn’t even notice the declaration of war!

The United States and its allies are in a similar position today – with no awareness of the fact that much of the world considers itself at war with us.  We’re too busy having fun to take any notice!

North Korea is a classic example of a nation in a constant state of war, with the US and South Korea.  Every time the power goes off in Pyongyang, people think it’s because of some dastardly act by Uncle Sam, who is trying to take over the world.

This misperception is not confined to the paranoid dictatorship of North Korea.  When I was in Ghana shortly after 9/11 I saw pictures of Osama bin Laden for sale at the side of the road.  I asked a former Muslim why and his response was that “people think that America is trying to take over the world and that Osama bin Laden will stop them!”   Ghana is only 14% Muslim.

Across the Islamic world, people believe the “Christian” West is at war with Islam.  Leaving aside the issue of whether the West is Christian or not, let’s take some time to see where this common misperception leaves us.

Because we refuse to recognize this fact, we agonize over how two young men who we so kindly took in, can possibly turn against us.  How many hours of TV time have been devoted to discussion of why they turned against us?  There’s a naïve incredulity on the part of television commentators who cannot come to terms with the fact that so many people hate us, particularly those who adhere to the tenets of Islam.

After all, America has been taking in immigrants for four centuries and no immigrants have turned against us before.

They overlook the fact that there were few Muslims in the US prior to changes in the immigration law in 1965.  That’s one reason why this is a new phenomenon.

Well, not so new – 9/11 was also perpetrated by Muslim immigrants.  And the Tsarnaevs are not the first second-generation terrorists – Nidal Malik Hasan was a second-generation Muslim immigrant from Jordan.  He’s the man who killed thirteen at Fort Hood on November 5th, 2009.  In July 2005 second generation British Muslims blew up trains and a bus in London.  Like the nineteen terrorists on September 11th and Hasan, they came from affluent backgrounds.   Poverty was not a factor.

And it’s not just Muslims.  Seung-Hui Cho was an immigrant from South Korea.  He killed 32 at Virginia Tech six years ago.

When the US allowed these people into the country and generously gave them the same opportunities as other Americans, why did they violently turn against their fellow Americans?

America is a free country.  It’s also a very permissive country where anything goes when it comes to morality.  For people brought up with a strict moral code (Muslims, for example), it must be very difficult to reconcile their religion with what they see around them.  Is it any wonder that some turn to stricter interpretations of Islam out of contempt for the immorality and licentiousness they witness?  They naturally feel contempt for the people around them who do not share their moral code.  This explains some of the comments made by the older Tsarnaev brother on Twitter.

Cho, the South Korean immigrant, was different.  He was not Muslim.  He had previously been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder.  Could this be related to his coming to America?

America is a very fast-paced, stressful nation.  It’s not easy moving here from anywhere else.  I know this from personal experience.  We moved here in 1990 from Africa, from the slowest and most relaxed part of the world.  We felt like we suddenly got on a treadmill that was out of control.  Our children were starting their teenage years and seemed to be going everywhere for school activities and get-togethers with friends, giving the sense the family was falling apart.  The Tsarnaev’s mother made a similar observation about life in the US.

My family adjusted.  But, clearly, not all do.  And, I would think, Muslims have a greater problem than others.  After all, Islam means “submission” which is the exact opposite of freedom!

None of this excuses what any of these people did.  The taking of innocent lives can never be justified.

But, it’s not surprising these two young men reacted the way they did.  The real surprise is that more haven’t done so.  Maybe they will in the years to come.

HIGHER PAY FOR MSU FACULTY

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A few days ago I posted a blog about student loans and the bubble that will soon burst.   In the article, I showed how government backed student loans have been a major factor in the high cost of education.

Today’s Lansing State Journal’s front page reports on a development at Michigan State University, which is only a few miles away from our home.  “MSU top faculty see higher pay raises” is the headline of the article, written by Matthew Miller.

The article reports that four Cincinnati researchers were lured to MSU in 2009 and 2010.  Their starting salaries then were between $175,000 and $210,000.   As their salaries have been determined to be on the low side, they are now going to receive substantial raises.  One justification for this is that they have brought in more than $8 million in grants.

A table accompanying the article shows that MSU typically pays professors $131,200 per annum, while Associate professors receive $90,900 and Assistant professors have to make do on a mere $71,000.

I have no doubt that these salaries are justified in order to attract top people from other institutions of higher learning that pay more.

It is also no wonder that so many university professors are liberal and support big government.  After all, they have done very well out of government.  They likely assume that if the government controlled everything, we would all be better off.

But these salaries contribute to the student loan bubble.  Last week, it was announced that neighboring former Lansing Community College students are defaulting on their loans at a rate of 17.2%.  A few days later, MSU increases the pay of some of its top employees.

Do we see the connection here?  Rising costs are simply passed on to students.   Students can pay because they can borrow excessively from government.  Most students, being young and inexperienced, don’t realize there will come a day when they have to pay it all back.  Almost impossible in the present job market, unless, of course, they end up employed by a government-funded university!

It’s time for a level playing field.  Only true free enterprise will give us that.

Abolish government backed student loans and demand for education will drop.  That will bring the price of education down to a realistic level.  Simple “supply and demand” will always work – it’s a law of economics, sometimes distorted by governments to try to get votes.

"Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened." — Sir Winston Churchill