Monday, October 31, 2011

Food for thought

Fruit vs Candy at Walgreens on Chicago's South Side
Last week I took a trip to Chicago's South Side to report on food deserts. On Tuesday afternoon Michelle Obama was holding an event on healthy eating at a South Side Walgreens.

For someone from out of town, the biggest surprise to me was to find Englewood is so uniformlyAfrican American. It turns out that the food desert problem, at least in Chicago, is very much segregated along racial lines. Like Chicago itself.

I had to ask one taxi driver three times to take me to south 57th before he would believe that I really wanted to go there. On my way out from the Obama event a police officer said "where is your car?", I told him I'd taken a taxi and he told me that there was "no way" I'd get a taxi in this neighbourhood. When I told him I was planning to get the El (the urban train network in town), he expressed some surprise.

I'd like to write more about Chicago's racial divisions in the future. In most of the larger cities I've ever been to there is far more cultural diversity, it may be old news here but there is certainly an economic story to tell here. If anyone can tell me more about about the past, present and future of this issue in Chicago, please do get in touch.

Back to food deserts... I had expected not to be particularly impressed that Walgreens, by tradition a pharmacy, was making much more of an effort to sell fresh and healthy food. But walking around the South Side it is clear what an oasis this is. There are plenty of places selling packets of really nasty 'food' which are high in things like sugar, salt, fat, artificial colourings and every other nasty you might imagine. One of the shops I went into near 59th and S Wood was as scary and as uninviting a prospect as you might imagine. For anyone interested in food deserts, I recommend the reports by Mari Gallagher.

Not far from where Michelle Obama was talking about healthy eating, her husband  had been paired up with something called Candy Corn which has a pretty terrifying list of ingredients that begin with Sugar, Corn Syrup, Confectioner's Glaze, Salt, Honey, and Dextrose. Eeek. I will be truly glad when Halloween, the national festival of sugar, is over.

Mr Obama found nearby promoting a different kind of fare.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Balancing the books in Chicago, part 1.

Reality bites

How to slash a deficit without raising taxes

Oct 22nd 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

AT ABOUT 8.30am on Saturday October 15th, close to the city’s former meatpacking district, one of Chicago’s ancient water mains burst. As the road buckled and water gushed down alleyways, it was a timely reminder that the modern city is built on crumbling, century-old infrastructure. Fixing the problem is not easy, as the city is awash in debt as well as water. [More...]

Balancing the books in Chicago, part 2.

Rubbish competition

City and private-sector workers go bin-to-bin

Oct 22nd 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

ON A cold damp morning in Chicago’s Irving Park a rubbish truck slowly inches its way along an alley, seeking out one of the city’s 240,000 recycling bins. The workers are unruffled over the latest initiative: a competition to see whether the public or the private sector can get the job done better. “We’ll just keep doing it the way we have always done,” says one city worker. [More...]

Correction in the Economist

Correction: The ivory-billed woodpecker

Oct 20th 2011 | from the print edition

Because of a captioning error by our photographic source, our illustration supposedly depicting the ivory-billed woodpecker (Dead or alive?, October 15th) actually shows the crimson-crested woodpecker. The two birds do look very similar.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pining for the fjords...

Dead or alive?

Two groups say the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct

Oct 15th 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

WHEN Elvis Presley died in 1977, a lot of people continued to believe he remained alive but in hiding. The world of conservation has a similar phenomenon. The ivory-billed woodpecker was once found across the swampy forests of the south-eastern states. But as the big woods of the Mississippi Delta were chopped down, the woodpecker—with its distinctive tooting call and double knock—was slowly exterminated. Now, as with Elvis, sightings of the bird are hotly debated. [More...]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More protests and a guess at what it is giving it legs

So this was City Hall in Chicago yesterday.

So it seems there are a lot of seriously pissed off people in town, and across America, at the moment. Some pundits reckon its an incoherent cry of rage aimed at Wall Street. Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute reckons it is all down to a financial crisis driven by reckless mortgage lending, which in turn was driven by government policy. (So why did the financial crisis repeat itself in countries like Ireland, Spain and the UK where there was no such policy?).

The website of the 99%, the banner under which many of the protests have come, raises a lot of of different complaints, and it would be easy to dismiss them as incoherent or even as "jealous anti-capitalists" as one presidential candidate, Hermain Cain, is reported to have done. What is probably closer to the truth is that they would think of themselves as angry with capitalism--a subtle but important difference.

Toby Chow, a protester with SOUL (Southsiders Organised for Unity and Liberation) in Chicago, told me at a downtown protest on Tuesday that "class warfare" had been waged by the rich against the vast majority of Americans. This war, he said, involved the recent pushing of unsuitable mortgages, and can also be seen in the long-term stagnation of median wages, the enormous cost of education, and job insecurity through loss of manufacturing jobs abroad.

It may be the powerless cry of the unwashed masses, but they are no unruly rabble or "mob" as the protesters have been called.
Mr Chow is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Chicago. The protests are not calling for capitalism to be torn down--they simply want for it to work for them and they feel short-changed.

For them, capitalism hasn't delivered what was promised.
So its not simply about people losing their homes, or not getting jobs after paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree, or the unaffordability of healthcare. Without wanting to sound too dramatic, it seems to be about the death of the American Dream.

While the protests may have been modelled on Tahir Square they have more in common with the riots in London and the protests in Greece. They are all about the same thing. Governments, all over the world, and for good reason, were forced to rescue financial institutions and parts of industry. To not do so would have been disastrous.

But the rescue made it clear who was ultimately bearing the risks being taken by these institutions: the ordinary person on the street. The people who clean the homes, empty the rubbish carts, and take on educational debts in the hope of bettering themselves.

Rich people have been variously tolerated or venerated, depending on whether you live in Europe or America. Not only do they generate great wealth but they are supposed to take risks that other people do not, and can in theory become poor again as a result. But the narrative now is that the wealthy will be saved, and the poor will be left to flounder. Thus it seems many Americans are falling out of love with the rich.

Whomever is really "behind" the protests, you can't organise a protest movement like this. Someone might have started the fire, but there is plenty of fuel to keep it going. It seems to me, a correspondent of less than a week in America, that many of the protesters feel the American Dream was a lie, that not only did they never have a real chance to be rich (because the system is stacked against them) but that ordinary Americans have carried the can for the unwise risks taken by the rich.

The dangerous thing about this idea is that much of the social contract in America revolves around the idea that anyone could get rich if they work hard enough. So what happens if the 99% (not the protest group but the actual 99%) start not to believe this?

Interesting times.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Welcome to classless America

Wall Street meets Main Street, today in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Mortgage Banker's Association.

They are shouting "lock us up, while the thieves are watching".