Saturday, December 27, 2008

Is Wal-Mart Good for America

This question keeps creeping up in the news and op-ed articles. People often vehemently argue for or against wal-mart and it is becoming difficult for the average American to understand the economic complexities underpinning this debate. I will therefore share with you here my take on this according to my understanding of the matter.

The Union argument, to put it succinctly, is that Wal-Mart takes away jobs from Americans and shifts them overseas to China and it is therefore bad for America. This is a short-sighted and flawed argument for several reasons.

1 - The very same low-income group of people who are most negatively affected by such job loss also constitute the largest group of the overall Wal-Mart consumer market. In other words, they may be losing jobs but in return they are getting cheap, affordable products, (albeit of somewhat lower quality). How do we determine which is of greater importance, the job loss or the affordable goods gain?

2 - Wal-Mart does hurt the lower working class but how does that equate with what is "bad for America"? Clearly, there are people who make large profits from running a Wal-mart operation and some of those profits are ultimately redistributed to many other people via taxes, legal settlements and such and so what is "good" or "bad" for America is not simply what creates the most jobs; it's more complicated than this. Some American national interests seem to be served better by the mass marketing of cheap Chinese goods despite the cost to American blue-collar workers.

3 - Why are "jobs" so important? If the government were to force many lower-working-class people out of their job but continue to pay them an equivalent wage for doing nothing (as the federal "welfare" program does) wouldn't that be great for those people? They would no doubt be elated! Do nothing and still make money?! Well, that's too good to be true; so let's revise that. How about the government make them do something slightly less tedious and pay them the same amount? Or, how about the government put them to work on a different, but equally tedious job and pay them more? Certainly, such a proposition is sensible, realistic and an offer they can't refuse.

4 - A job's value is not measured by the mere level of work to be done. Rather, the definition of "job" is "purchasing power". By producing something essential to society, one is entitled to a reciprocal right to something of equal value from society. If a company puts people to work continuosly building structures and destroying them without accomplishing any end result, then this company is not providing "work" to those people. Even if it could artificially afford to pay them somehow in the short-term, in ther long run such a business model and such "work" is unsustainable. Thus, the loss of a job is only regrettable if there's a corresponding loss of "accomplishment", a loss of purchasing power.

In the case of Wal-Mart, there certainly would be a loss of purchasing power to Wal-Mart employees if they were to be laid off and did nothing else. But the real reason they are being laid off is to make room for higher-paying jobs in more sophisticated industries. In other words, in the long run we're not taking away their purchasing power. On the contrary, we're increasing it by elevating those employees to a higher employment level.

We should never lose sight of the fact that the reason we prefer Wal-Mart over the Mom and Pop shops is that Wal-Mart has the better business model. It can afford to provide better prices, better selection and better service. It is more efficient, more robust and more sensible. Opposing Wal-Mart is like taking a circuitous route to a destination when a shorter and cheaper route is available. It makes absolutely no sense to pay more and waste more time on the road by taking the circuitous route; even if that would result in profits for a friend of the traveler whereas the shorter route won't. A better alternative would --no doubt-- be to take the cheaper, shorter and more efficient route and then to forward some of the savings to the friend who operates the other route. Heck, if that route really is so circuitous and inefficient for so many people, why don't we pay our good friend to close shop and retrain to do something that society would better appreciate.

In our case, the right solution to the Wal-Mart problem is NOT to prevent Wal-Mart from creating a more efficient retail operation than the mom-and-pop shops. The right solution is also NOT to sit idly by and watch all those jobs being lost and do nothing (as the Bush administration has done for the past 8 years). The correct solution is simple: Forward the savings to our friend and/or pay our friend to close shop. We need to take aside these mom-and-pop people who are losing their business to Wal-Mart and have a talk with them. First and foremost we must assure them that the government won't let them starve. They are and will continue to be fully elligible for unemployment compensation. Secondly, we invest in a better education for them so that they can move on to the next level. We have them do something that society appreciates more and therefore pays more for. Granted, it does take a huge investment of funds to provide for such a retraining program but I don't see any reason why Wal-Mart (or the government coffers that are being stuffed with taxes from Wal-Mart) would be unwilling to invest the huge profits that would result from unfettered operation of Wal-Mart stores, in the task of retraining lower-working-class people. Also, consumers should be willing to foot the retraining bill as well. After all, they are the ones saving so much by shopping at Wal-Mart as opposed to the local, dingy, inefficient mom-and-pop shop.

A practical solution would be for the government to grant Wal-mart the license to set up shop in New York and elsewhere and levy a special "education" tax on them which will be earmarked for the express purpose of providing free or subsidized vocational training for anyone who is either laid off from a retail job, is in the market for a retail job or would have been in the market for a retail job (a criteria which is of course hard to define, but I'll let legislators and attorneys work out the rest). Other sources for the education fund could be a higher sales tax or a redirection of some of the sales tax proceeds towards the education fund. In summary, all the beneficiaries of the Wal-Mart system should participate in allaying the pain of mom-and-pop job losses: Government (higher taxes), Wal-Mart (higher corporate profits) and Consumer (higher savings and better service).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to Diet

A successful weight-loss diet is complex. A holistic approach is necessary --in my opinion-- in order to be successful. Let's take a look at some of the components of a successful diet:

Gradual change. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this admonition. Change must be gradual in order to be successful. The human body naturally rejects drastic changes. If it is suddenly denied much of the food it is used to, the body will protest. This will be manifested by a strong feeling of hunger, frailness and a general inability to carry it its daily routines effectively. This is why none of commercial diets that promise quick weight loss are successful in the long run. The body puts up with sudden denial of food for some time but it's only a matter of time until it revolts and snaps back into its old habit with violent and drastic effect. Now, the body is scared that the "famine" from which it is rebounding will repeat and so it shores up some reserves to protect itself; hence the regain of all initial weight, plus some.

The Solution is to make weight loss (if warranted) a way of life. Unless you are seriously overweight, you shouldn't be losing more than 2 pounds per week. Preferably you will lose even less. Unfortunately, most people who feel the motivation to lose weight are encouraged by veritable drastic immediate results. They fell let down by a slow-moving process If they see no effect in the diet and they are much less motivated to continue with it. You must have faith. Believe that the diet works and that over a year or two of correct eating and living habits your excess weight will melt off almost effortlessly. You need not --and should not-- be conscious about the diet; try to make it a permanent way of life. Following are some small steps you can take in the right direction of proper eating:

* cut down on the animal fat in your diet. This includes foodstuff that contains oil, cholesterol, partially hydrogenated oils, milk, fatty meats, butter. The body does have a natural desire for some source of fat but this can and should be satisfied in the form of peanut butter, tahini, nuts etc... Start out by gradually replacing animal fat, which is saturated, with plant fat, which is unsaturated. This step is is extremely effective even if you don't reduce your caloric intake. Your body metabolizes plant matter better than animal matter and so even if the caloric intake is not reduced, you've made encouraging progress. Don't think about quantity; think about the quality of your food. Eat as much as your body desires!

* increase your consumption of fruits vegetables. these are very important components of a healthy well-balanced diet. Many Americans are so used to a diet devoid of fruits and veggies that their bodies stop "asking" for the right nutrition. It feels normal to go on for days and weeks without taking in even a single fresh fruit or vegetable... until they suddenly become extremely ill in the form of heart attack, stroke or the like. My friend, 95% of diseases are directly or indirectly related to nutrition. They are avoidable by eating right. If you slowly but surely train your body to sense the "taste" in fruits and veggies it will start asking for them again and your body will then become re-calibrated and in turn will also start asking for other more nutritious food and it will also better be able to satisfy your appetite so that you don't overeat.

* Cut down on soft drinks. The problem with soft drinks isn't so much that they are inherently bad for you. There's nothing wrong with sugar; sugar is vital to your body. In fact all carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is a simple sugar, before being used by the body. The problem is that sugar with nothing else is an empty calorie. To put it a bit different: The body prefers to "work" in order to extract energy from the food it consumes. Think about sexual foreplay as a way to heighten the pleasure of the main activity. You prefer "chasing" your sexual partner and struggling in your attempt to get through. Ready availability is never good for a healthy sexual relationship. Same with food: your body likes to work on the task of extracting energy from food. Sugar is too easy to digest; it has a "high glycemic index". Avoid foods with a high glycemic index. Having said this, I will admit that the body will at times demandingly request a quick fix of sweets and that's okay but it shouldn't generally be more than one or two "sweet" eating sessions per day. If you find yourself noshing too much, your body is probably out of tune (due to other bad eating habits) and/or you are tempting it by presenting it with the pretentious, backstabbing luster of sweets too often. You must "tune" your body and train it to take a liking towards wholesome foods; again this does not change overnight. You need a strong long-term commitment to do this and this is accomplished with small gradual steps.

* drink plenty of water. Water carries nutrients to all parts of your body. By drinking more water your body is able to deliver better nutrition to your cells and carry off cell waste in turn more efficiently. If you don't drink enough, the body erroneously feels the need for more food because the nutrition is not being effectively extracted from already-consumed food. Another way to put it: water "fills you up". But don't think of this as simply a gimmick to "fool" your body into thinking it does not need any more food. Often times you truly do not need any more food. Your body is merely substituting thirst with hunger due to an improper diagnosis. If you try drinking several glasses of water (in those instances) the hunger will suddenly disappear. So whenever you feel hungry, ask yourself: will my hunger vanish after a glass or two of water? If yes, by all means drink! Your boy is probably mistaking thirst for hunger.

* Eat breakfast. Skipping breakfast or skimping on it in an attempt to lose weight is a "huge" mistake. (the only exception is if you overate the day before and you just are slow to regain your appetite the next day -- then you should heed your body's call for a recess and skip a meal). You body will remember your morning abuse for the remainder of the day and punish you severely for it. What may very well wind up happening is that you will make up for the lost breakfast by eating bigger, less healthier and more caloric-laden meals later in the day. You will not only not gain anything but you will wind up having consumed more calories at day's end by skipping breakfast than by eating a "generous" breakfast. Yes, you heard me! Breakfast should be your "most generous meal". If there's any meal in which you must let your appetite rage untamed it should be your first meal after waking up. This allows your body to ascertain that there is no famine and there's no need to stock up on calories. Later in the day the body will naturally not crave for excess food and you will be energetic throughout the day. In contrast, skipping breakfast "kills" your body in its tracks ushering in a sluggish, lethargic day at your "prime time". A person's "prime time" when their physical and mental abilities are strongest is the morning hours, NOT the evening hours as with TV. Cut down (or eliminate) on your meal or snack closest to bed time instead. Trust me, your body does not have that good a memory; it will forgive and forget the following day.

* exercise. Exercise is essential not only in order to use up calories but in order to fine tune your body's strings. Think of it as a musical instrument. If the strings are not tuned properly the notes will be "off-tune". Exercise uses up energy and so the body "knows" that it needs to replenished. If you don't exercise sufficiently, your brain will start wondering why the energy it is supplying to your cells is "backed up". It will erroneously think "oh well, maybe the body needs more food but there's a communication problem and so the request-for-food and receipt-acknowledgement are not coming through". It will stir up an appetite in you just to be on the safe side. (remember that we are living on the heels of millions of evolutionary years during which famine was very common within the human species).