Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sunday Reading

Reaching the Edge — Richard W. Stevenson in the New York Times examines the limits of government intervention the American public is willing to accept.

Looking back on it, the failure of the Social Security proposal in 2005 marked the symbolic end of more than two decades in which conservatives had pushed — successfully, more often than not — to diminish the role of government and to elevate the role of the market in the national economy and the lives of individuals.

In failing to alter the foundation of the social welfare system — transforming a guaranteed government benefit into a hybrid that would allow people to invest in 401(k)-type accounts, with all the risk and reward that can entail — the Bush White House found the outer limit of the public’s willingness to embrace the market as a force for social good.

Ever since, the ideological pendulum has swung leftward: the election of a Democratic Congress in 2006; the economic meltdown last year and the ensuing massive intervention in the private sector by Washington; President Obama’s support for tighter regulation of Wall Street and other industries.

Now the question is whether that swing is already hitting its limit in the health care fight.

The outcome will not be known for weeks or months, and it is still a matter of debate whether the opposition that flared over the last month represents a broad-based discomfort with the government’s presumed role in a new system or just noise generated by conservative interest groups.

Liberals are confident Mr. Obama will prevail because “the vast majority of Americans face increasing economic insecurity and feel the health care system isn’t working,” said Roger Hickey, a veteran progressive activist who has been in the thick of both the Social Security and health care battles.

But the spasms of anxiety and anger evident in the debate suggest that Democrats may have to scale back their ambitions. The administration has already signaled that it is wavering on its call for a government-run competitor to private health insurers, a proposal that liberals consider vital but that has helped fuel the opposition argument that Washington is moving perilously close to dictating personal health decisions. It is entirely possible that this so-called “public option” could end up as the Democratic equivalent of Social Security privatization, an ambitious effort whose failure ends up defining one of the nation’s ideological borders.

Continued below the fold.

Some Embargo — Cubans consume a lot of food from the United States.

When a Havana family sits down for pollo asado, passes pan de ajo across the kitchen table or splurges on some chocolate soy ice cream, chances are the ingredients came from U.S. farms.

Venezuela may boast of its revolutionary friendship with Cuba, and China may send its youth there to study Spanish, but the United States has emerged as the No. 1 exporter of agricultural products to Cuba.

And that’s not all that can be sent to Cuba legally. Try live primates, truffles, azalea bushes, fox furs — even cigars.

When President Obama announced plans in April to ease the embargo by lifting family-travel restrictions to the island and allowing U.S. telecommunications firms wide latitude to do business there, many analysts said the policy changes could significantly expand ties between the estranged neighbors — assuming Havana responds positively to the overture.

But fairly significant commerce has been going on since the Trade Sanctions Reform and Enhancement Act of 2000 opened the door to U.S. food and medicine exports to Cuba — despite the tense relationship between Havana and Washington and a trade embargo that has spanned nearly 50 years.

U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba hit a record $711.5 million in 2008, as prices for commodities soared. That makes the United States Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner overall.

”We are the natural provider of food and agriculture products to Cuba,” says Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm for U.S. companies aspiring to trade with Cuba. ”We’re No. 1 and could be selling a lot more, were it not for the restrictions.”

Over the past nine years, Cuba, which imports 80 percent of its food, has come to rely heavily on its nemesis to the north for wheat, corn, soy goods and scores of other key agricultural products.

American companies provide two-thirds of Cuba’s imported chicken and more than 40 percent of its pork imports. Utility poles, organic fertilizer and chewing gum also make their way in.

Not much medicine has been shipped, however, since Cuba has other options.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. on getting lost.

Back in May, I flew to Los Angeles. My cellphone did not.

I left it in the car, a fact I only discovered as I was lining up at security.

Had I found myself standing there in my underdrawers, I don’t think I’d have felt more naked. There was this panicky sense of isolation, this disconcerting feeling of being cut off. Whenever I confessed my plight, I got looks of stark pity like you’d give someone with a terminal disease.

It was a very long five days.

So I read with great interest an article in the September issue of Wired magazine. Gone by Evan Ratliff is about people who, for various reasons, tried to go off the grid, to disappear without a trace. Ratliff’s piece suggests that, in a world where we are ever more interconnected, where your whereabouts can be traced by everything from the GPS in your cellphone to the magnetic stripe on your grocery card, to the camera mounted over the ATM, a world where you can be ratted out by your e-mail account, your favorite e-merchant, your social networking site, your subway card or the sticker on your car that lets you zip through the toll plaza, it has become nearly impossible to simply vanish.

To test the thesis, Wired has embarked on an inspired stunt. Ratliff himself disappeared on Aug. 15. He’s trying to stay lost for 30 days. If some reader, using clues provided by Wired, can find him within that time, he or she wins $5,000. Me, I’m rooting for the writer, not the readers.

That’s not just professional solidarity speaking. Rather, it’s a desire to know that what he seeks to do can still be done, that, short of moving into a cave and living off the land, it is still possible to disconnect from the world.

Doonesbury — The reality conspiracy.