Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fair Trade, United Methodist Style

The following was sent to the folks at the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the Methodist church. Am I over-reacting?

Dear folks,
I and my family attend the Severna Park United Methodist Church. My wife is quite active and I help out when I can. Over the years I have gradually refrained from attending services because I can't help but detect and write about the political leaning, associations and preaching of our church groups and clergy.

This morning I was introduced to one such organization, UMCOR, and one of its fundraising activities: The 100-ton Challenge. According to it's promotional materials the Challenge is a way to raise funds by selling coffee, tea and chocolate. Supposedly the coffee, tea and chocolate is produced by "small farmers" in Latin and South America and the Challenge would, "help farmers earn fair prices for their crops." Whenever I see "fair" used to describe trade and prices, I think politics. Failed politics.

"Profit-driven corporations have created a food system that threatens our health, the planet's health and the livelihoods of small farming families around the world," goes the introduction of one Equal Exchange brochures available next to the UMCOR Challenge poster Such sloganeering is directed at the those lack the knowledge of recent history or the will to challenge them when promoted by church officials.

But of course it's the evil, profit-driven corporations that have made it possible for Equal Exchange (or anyone for that matter) to travel to Latin and South American farms, purchase produce (at whatever price is agreed to as a "fair price"), arrange for shipping, Customs clearance and direct marketing.

Profit-driven corporations (Microsoft, Google, etc.) make it possible for anyone to produce slick marketing materials such as the websites and brochures that I am using to discourage this fundraising activity.

Why am I trying to discourage a church fundraising activity that is "obviously" going to help the poor, small family farmers? Because there is only one way to "Pay producers a guaranteed minimum price... ," and that is at the point of a gun, literally. There are only a few places on earth where prices can be guaranteed at any level. The former Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Korea, Cuba leap to mind. These places are full of happy farmers, yes?

What is a fair price? All the marketing material says the farmers earn a fair price for their products. They don't say how. The truth is the only fair price is one arrived at when a buyer and a seller get together and negotiate a price. Whether the buyers go to individual sellers (you know, the small family farms) and negotiate a potentially different prices for the same produce (unless Farmer A calls Farmer B and tells him what he got for his coffee). Or the buyer goes to a Cooperative, a single point of sale where the farmers collude on a single price. Either way, a price is set. This is what is known as a free market.

Unfortunately, it appears that Equal Exchange wants to be the ONLY buyer from these cooperatives. Where's the economic justice in that? According to their brochure diagram purporting to show the difference between evil profit-driven corporations and the "Equal Exchange" system, the farmer sells to the cooperative (or consigns to the cooperative) and Equal Exchange buys, because they are guaranteed a minimum price.

EE then sells to cafes and stores (note: profit-driven corporations). Now let's visit the other end of the equation. EE comes to the market with prices that are higher than the profit-driven coffee companies. I assume they are higher because they are fair and therefore better. Better prices are higher prices if you are a seller. The profit driven cafe\store will buy from the seller that offers the best combination of price and quality.

OOps. Too bad EE can't be the only seller, too, eh? But wait...unless EE can bring a little pressure on the local supermarket. Maybe with a big enough "save the planet, save the poor family farmer," guilt trip, the cafe\store will buy enough to stock a small section of the "natural foods" aisle only to throw it all away because no one knows what it is or what the quality is and no one will buy it. The cafe\market owners know this in advance.

They willingly take a loss on the stuff just to keep the goodwill of the locals. There is a photo-op for the local church press and funds are raised. Everyone is happy. UMCOR keeps this fair price, evil big food company road show going town to town, like the old snake-oil salesmen, counting on plain old ignorance.

I've got a better idea. Instead of pushing the political fair trade, poisonous profits, exploited farmer malarkey why don't you raise money for church missions by counting on good old-fashioned Christian charity? I think you'll find that it goes down easier than implying that the hardworking, Christians among your congregations are somehow cheating the dirt poor farmers of Latin and South America by negotiating dishonest and unfair deals.

Mike Netherland
Severna Park

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pat Toomey for Senate

Regarding your 2010 endorsements survey:

"Here is the list of Senate seats that are up this election cycle. Please email us at and let us know which incumbents or potential challengers you believe are true conservatives and deserve our support"
I am asking you to endorse Pat Toomey in his bid to unseat the incumbent senior senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter. We conservative Republicans came so close in 2004 to having a solid conservative senator in Mr. Toomey. With your help and with the help of others in the conservative movement, we can finally be rid of the two-faced, backstabbing, ear-marking political opportunist who shamelessly clings to power.

And, in case Mr. Specter should prevail in the primary, I am asking you to endorse the Democrat who has won the chance to challenge him in the general election. I certainly will. I don't care if it is Michael Moore.

Finally, I am asking those few but faithful readers of my blog to visit your site and make a small donation. I also invite them to visit the Club For Growth and donate to their PAC which will be supporting Pat Toomey's campaign. Links to these websites are found on my blog

Mike Netherland
Severna Park, MD

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mo' Money Maxwell

The following is a letter I sent to the County School Board after reading in today's Kapital that the superintendent wants to raise taxes, again.

Honorable School Board members,

I write in response to Superintendent Maxwell's novel approach to funding the ever increasing demands of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County (TAAAC). In his letter to you, according to the "local press," Mr. Maxwell begins by insulting the good people of this county as greedy misers who insist on electing leaders who will resist the expansion of government. Then he calls on the County Council to raise
income and property taxes.

If he believes that raising taxes would actually raise revenue while all other variables (shrinking economy, falling real estate market, etc) remained the same (shrinking and falling), then he is not qualified to lead anything.

"Clearly the county [taxpayers] has the ability to do [pay] more [money], but has chosen [elected leaders who share their belief] not to provide the effort [pay more taxes] to fund education [pay off the TAAAC] at the level of many of our sister jurisdictions," Mr. Maxwell is quoted, with my translation, as writing to you.

Now the county is facing $153 million deficit or a potential deficit. The way I see it the Superintendent wants to spend $977 million (which is probably an increase over last year's budget) next year out of a total County budget of $1.2 billion. That leaves, what, $230 million for the rest of the county? And the Teachers Union wants an even bigger share? If the County can run the police, fire, water, sanitation, library and other services on $230 million, I am sure Mr. Maxwell can come up with a measly $153 million in things to put off til next year.

Raise taxes? No. The O'Malley administration and the Democratic Party just increased taxes last fall, and foisted a ridiculous slots amendment on a gullible electorate. When the economy recovers the state and county will have more money to waste than ever before. They don't need any more.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Slots: Give the People What They Want

A friend of mine this week implored the folks in his considerable address book to contact the Anne Arundel County Council and urge them to vote against a request to allow, in effect, a company to build a slot machine casino near Arundel Mills Mall.
"If concerned citizens don’t speak up, Anne Arundel County is about to change for the worse. At 7 PM on Thursday evening, the Anne Arundel County Council is holding a hearing to determine whether to change zoning laws to allow for the construction of a 200,000 square foot Casino at Arundel Mills."
He went on at length about how county residents do not approve of the casino, that the newly amended state constitution, which county voters did approve of, allows local jurisdictions to deny zoning for casinos, etc. This was my reply:
Ordinarily, I would be a part of any and every protest against the establishment of slots. I opposed it during Ehrlich's campaign and administration and I opposed the recent amendment to the state constitution.

My arguments, as you will note, are devoid of any moralizing about the frailties of the human spirit when it comes to gambling away paychecks, welfare checks, food stamps, etc. Instead I focused on the plain fact that gambling as it was promoted as a state and local revenue stream, as a way to forestall confiscatory taxation, as a means towards a better education for the kids, was disingenuous and flawed public policy. Bad governance. Lazy governance. Sheer stupidity.

Why? Because it was based on flawed assumptions of the revenue stream and ignored very real expenses associated with a government-run enterprise.

But the people of Maryland have spoken. They have overwhelmingly approved, endorsed and I assume welcome the return of gambling to the state. Now they should get what they asked for. They should be held accountable to themselves for whatever crime and traffic they were willing to foist upon the poor venues of the floundering thoroughbred racing industry in Baltimore and Laurel and upon the peaceful denizens of Cumberland and Garrett Counties.

The people of Maryland includes the people of Anne Arundel County, who also approved of the slots amendment. Why should we be insulated from the garish, neon-light-bathed casino fates to which we have consigned the rest of the state?

No. If we expect our elected leaders to suffer or benefit politically for the policies they make, we should expect no less for ourselves when we make policy through ballot questions.

He replied that county residents voted for the amendment that specified slots parlours at the race track, in Ocean City, and at Rocky Gap. Why should they expect to have them in Arundel Mills?

I knew this was the argument you'd make. The folks willingly bought the over-hyped snake-oil that the slots amendment was shown to be over and over again. If 3/4 of county voters voted against slots, I would have more sympathy. But that is not the case. I don't know what the margin was in Anne Arundel but I do believe it was a majority.

The folks were told that the slots amendment was only the camel's nose under the tent, that the zoning issue will be brought up again and again until Cordish or some other casino operator can buy a sufficient number of Council votes.

But I would be just as happy to see the casino go up and county residents who voted for slots suffer. Maybe the next time they won't be as easily persuaded.

And maybe, John, they will turn their regret into action against those who sold them this bill of goods, starting with the MD Chamber of Commerce.

They should name it the Kathleen T. Snyder Education Pot O' Gold after the President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce who came to the county and warned voters of the dire consequences they faced if they failed to approve the slots amendment.