Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Cost of Food: Why?

Food Prices have increased dramatically world wide in less than a year. Why? The world is a big place and the systems involved are complex, so one should beware of "simple" answers. Three root causes are often referred to:

1. Biofuels
2. Meat consumption in China
3. Oil prices

I think all of these causes may have contributed to increased food prices. However, increasing meat consumption (and the related increase in grain consumption) is a relatively gradual phenomena. Oil prices have risen suddenly, but a great deal of the food in circulation right now was grown before oil prices changed the most. Also the change in food prices does not track very well against the change in oil prices.

The biggest single change appears to be subsidies for biofuels. The global warming scare, increasing oil prices, and a fear of dependence on foreign oil all contributed to rich countries deciding to offer large monetary incentives to the producers of biofuels. In effect, our tax dollars are being spent to turn food into fuel. The tax dollars were required because for the most part it is still more expensive to grow food and turn it into fuel than it is to pump oil out of the ground (or use coal, nuclear, and other options). There is a hope that at a large enough scale, food to fuel conversion will stand on its own in a competitive market for fuel. But that is certainly not the case right now, particularly for ethanol.

Last year the price of corn jumped dramatically in direct response to ethanol subsidies. Corn is by far the largest crop in the world. The U.S. is by far the largest grower and exporter of corn.
I believe that this sent a ripple of price increases through the overall world market for grains. Once the ripple began, new factors began to dominate grain prices: fear and greed. People who buy grain to eat became increasingly concerned about the prices going up. Many people respond by "storing up" some food before prices get higher. Of course very poor people cannot "store up", they can barely afford enough food each day to keep them alive. People who sell grains are tempted to hold back some of their grain until prices go even higher. The storing up by consumers and holding back by suppliers create shortages that are really an artifice of the supply chain as opposed to a fundamental lack of production. Once shortages are perceived to exist, prices go even higher and vicious cycle continues.

So what will happen next? God only knows. However, we may anticipate a lot of turmoil as countries and their citizens take action in response to the high prices. Political unrest. Trade embargoes. Food riots. Those are all happening right now.

The sad thing is that in a year or two, this will all suddenly vanish. In fact, it is likely that grain prices may suffer lows in future years as the grain that has been stored up or held back is released for consumption.

The people who will be hurt the most are those who live day to day or week to week. The poorest among us all. Helping them will be much more expensive because buying grain at current prices has become more expensive.

I am not a bumper sticker sort of guy. However, if I were I would most certainly buy a bumper sticker that says My Car Burns Gas Not Food.

I already opposed subsidies for biofuels for other reasons. Now I will be an implacable foe of such schemes. Perhaps we meant well with our efforts to promote "growing" our fuel. The result however is hunger for millions upon millions. It has been referred to as the "silent tsunami".

Friday, April 25, 2008

Searching Kent Schnake

When I was a kid, and on into my early adult hood, I thought it was something of a burden to have weird name like Schnake. For a few decades I used to travel on business a lot. Often, after checking into a motel, I would look in the phone book to see if there were any other Schnake's in the town. I never found any.

The World Wide Web sure changed things. Through Google, Facebook, MySpace and other avenues, I have found lots of Schnakes. But when I say lots, I mean dozens, not thousands :-)
Because I have been a busy little bee writing posts for this blog for the past several years, I can now offer a new feature. Simply Google the words: Kent Schnake Peace or Kent Schnake Drugs or Kent Schnake Mother. For many words, a post from my blog will appear at or near the top of the list of web sites found with those words. Plus, if you click on that link and then use the "search blog " feature in Blogger (look up at the top of this page to find it), you can see every time I have used that word in my blog. I just tried it on a bunch of words. It works surprisingly well. Probably nobody will care, except for me and a few relatives who may want to see how often I have used words like drugs or butt or mental. But I think it is kind of cool. It does mean, however, that I would be the worst possible candidate for any public office. Talk about leaving a trail! However, I came to grips with that a while back. I decided that my actions: good and bad, have been seen by anyone in the world who happened to be standing near me at any given time.
I think I should feel a lot more chagrined about that than I am about the fact that a few folks will use the a search to see what I have written on the WWW! I've done a lot of really rotten things, and I can't erase them off a hard drive, even if I bribed Google a billion dollars. May God have mercy on my soul (and thankfully, he does).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How to Make a Good Choice

My last post went on and on about liberty: our freedom to choose. In fact, it is likely that many of my posts have touched on the theme of choice. A Google search using the words: how to make a good choice, pops up with a blog post that I made about 9 months ago: Make One Good Choice, Repeat as Necessary . Over the months I have noticed that searches have been done all over the world using the phrase: How to make a good choice. I have had blog hits from Togo, Australia, India, Europe, and the U.S. to name a few.

Today I watched the movie Expelled No Intelligence Allowed . I was intrigued by the fact that some of the atheists interviewed were quite adamant that evolution dictated by chance is incompatible with the idea of free choice. Are there really humans who believe in their heart of hearts that they have never had a free choice? I hope not, for their sake. Many of us wrestle with the question "How to make a good choice". If we had no choice, no wrestling would be necessary. We would be pinned in a deterministic universe with no choices. That sounds far too much like Hell to me. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I pray that no one wishes it on themselves.

Liberty: The Power of Choice

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Quoted from the United States Declaration of Independence

I volunteered to pray for our nation at my church today. I did so without knowing ahead of time what I would say. I started by considering what defines a nation. In the case of the United States, a group of people wrote, signed, and issued a proclamation: The Declaration of Independence. A group of people can become a nation if they say so and they are able to get a significant group of folks to agree with them. There are other ways to form a nation, but this way is not unusual at all.

Once I had considered U.S. citizens as a nation, I thought about whether I agreed with the document that first proclaimed us to be one. This all had to happen pretty fast, I was supposed to start praying off the cuff in just a few moments. I confess I didn't listen much to the person who prayed for our city or the next one who prayed for the church. I was madly trying to remember what the Declaration of Independence actually said. Gradually I retrieved from memory a fairly accurate version of the sentence quoted above. That is surely a victory for those who sought to educate me in my tender years. It is a document I have had no occasion to read in recent decades, much less memorize. However, when I did recall it, I realized that it was pretty much a group of people declaring that they were a nation and were free because God made it so.

At first, it made it pretty easy to pray. After all, I was praying for a group of people who said they should be recognized as free because God gave them the right to do so and that conditions warranted such a forceful proclamation. Then I began to consider the irony. The author of the document was Thomas Jefferson. Yet it is also Thomas Jefferson's much less public writings, his letters, that are referred to by those who would like to limit our freedom to declare God's sovereignty in governmental forums, including public schools. Here is a quote most often referred to in those situations:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

quoted from Jefferson's 1802 letter to a committee of the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist association

Of course, the part in quotes was written into the new nation's constitution. The wall is only mentioned in the letter. It would seem that many folks see that wall as something like the wall between East and West Berlin: A wall that was erected to prevent any communication between the communist and democratic parts of the city. Such folks want a wall between religion and government that allows no communication whatsoever. I see it as far more likely that the wall is like a low stone wall between farms. It identifies the proper area for each farmer's labors, but allows for free and easy communication between the farms.

Exactly such a wall is described in Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall . Read it and you will see that the merits of the wall are questioned. The farmer speaking in the poem repeats this phrase: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall". He questions its usefulness. However, I will not go so far. A demarcation is frequently important. The line or wall between church and state serves just such a purpose. However, just as the two farmers in the poem cooperate and chat while they repair the wall, so might church and state refine the demarcation between their respective provinces while communicating freely.

I will go a step further. Consider The inalienable right to liberty given to us by God, as described by Jefferson. Liberty is most readily defined as freedom. But freedom to do what? I say freedom to choose. We have been endowed by our Creator with an inalienable right to choose.

I cannot stop there. What good is the right to choose if there is no choice? In his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity , B.F. Skinner lays out his case that we do not have a choice: We do what we do because we have been conditioned to do so. Nurture.
Carl Sagan's Cosmos seems rather to argue that we do what we do because we evolved that way, where evolution is used in the sense that it is a process in which the whole universe is a progression of interrelated phenomena . Nature? Neither Skinner nor Sagan seems to leave much room for choice, also known as free will. I think I do not speak out of turn when I say that neither Skinner nor Sagan believed that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.

There are most certainly scientists who do believe that God granted us choice. Perhaps a scientific paper is not the best place to express that belief. But I cannot see that there is anything incompatible between Science and God. Neither can I see anything incompatible between Government and God. God can inform both Science and Government if we choose (oh that pesky word!) to let him do so.

God himself told us so. Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John Chapter 8 TNIV

I opt for freedom. I hope you will also.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Managing Your Brain

I have discussed what it is like to have mental illness in a previous post . I remind my readers that there is often a biochemical contribution to mental illness, just as there often is to physical illness. Sometimes a treatment for mental illness and for physical illness is to mess with your body's biochemistry.

A good friend of mine has diabetes. He injects insulin several times a day. In our modern culture, very few of his acquaintances would suggest that he quit the insulin and restrict himself to one of the following (pray, exercise, trust God, control his diet, etc.). Now certainly, every one of those actions would be an excellent thing for my friend to do. But only a very few people would think that that is the only thing he should do. We now know that for various reasons, our body (specifically our pancreas) sometimes does not produce adequate insulin for good health. Some diabetics are able to balance things with exercise, weight loss, diet change. Some aren't. I also think that it is valid to encourage my friend to do all those other things (pray, exercise, trust God, control his diet, etc.) It is valid to encourage anyone to do those types of things.

Our brain is considerably more complex than our pancreas (and the pancreas is quite complex itself). For various reasons, our brain may not produce adequate neurotransmitters for good health. The complications from a brain run amok can be every bit as nasty as the complications from other health issues: pain, lethargy, sadness, trouble sleeping, and a host of other complaints. Prayer, exercise, trusting God, and controlling our diet are absolutely valid ways to manage the imbalance in our brain. Sometimes, those things are adequate. Sometimes they are not. I thank God that we have learned to give people insulin when their pancreas craps out. I thank God that we have learned to give people drugs that promote neurochemical balance in the brain to help them with mental illness. I am pretty sure that scientific research has given us a much better understanding of the body's need for insulin than it has for the brain's need to have certain neurotransmitters augmented. We do the best we can to manage our brains, sometimes the results are disappointing, but many times there is a dramatic improvement in health.

I have experienced a dramatic improvement in my health through the use of Prozac which affects the flow of serotonin in my brain. I have taken it for more than four years. However, during the past three months I experienced a seemingly inexorable decline: pain, sadness, lethargy, trouble sleeping, and a host of other complaints. I summoned my will to continue in prayer, exercise, trusting God, and controlling my diet, etc. Nonetheless, my condition continued to deteriorate. Two weeks ago I added Wellbutrin to my brain management regime. It affects norepinephrine and dopamine . About a week later, I improved dramatically.

Up to this point in the post, I have been cavalier in listing take drugs, pray, exercise, trust God, control your diet, etc. as though these were of equal importance. They are not. Praying and trusting God easily trumps all else. I am very glad that is true, because there will be times when no drug is available, exercise is impossible, your diet cannot be controlled, etc. However, even a quadriplegic during a famine can still pray and trust God. A severely injured prisoner in a concentration camp, can still pray and trust God. A severely depressed person who does not respond to drugs, or any other therapy, can still pray and trust God. We will have trouble in this world, but take heart, Jesus has overcome the world. Perhaps sooner than we can imagine, this world will pass away and God will create a new heaven and a new earth. No more sickness. No more crying and pain. Meanwhile: pray and trust God.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pharmaclout and My Google Reality

During a recent bout of correspondence, I thought for a moment that I had invented the word "pharmaclout" as a handy way of indicating the sort of influence that the pharmaceutical industry has on the medical profession. Then I thought to do a Google search on the word. There were a total of seven hits, but they were all from the same blog: Hah! I thought. It already exists and has existed since the post was written in 2004. Then I realized that was my Google reality. It doesn't exist unless it shows up in a Google search. The word pharmaclout may have been uttered countless times in recent decades. It may have been written and printed on millions of pages. But if a Google search didn't find it, I would have happily claimed it as my own invention.

As more and more information is scanned and searchable, it will be more and more tempting to ascribe to a Google reality. Forthwith I declare my intention to resist that temptation. In order to fortify myself, I shall cling to the memory of my first child's first step. I very much doubt that text, photo, or video evidence of that step can be found or ever will be found in a Google search. Yet it is one of my fondest memories, and yes indeed it really happened. There is a reality greater than Google reality. There is a reality greater than any reality I can imagine, although for some reason I have trouble imagining it.

That leads me to the day that God told me that he was not my concept, I am his concept. For me, God is the awesome name of that reality beyond imagining. God is the reality with tripersonality that loves me. Cool.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I am unique, just like everyone else.

I spotted the phrase "you are unique, just like everyone else" somewhere. Bumper sticker? Advertisement? Country western lyrics :-) It was new to me and it stopped me dead in my cognitive tracks. In fact I think I derailed. Having uniqueness in common with every human being was something I had never really internalized. It would seem that most things I have seen tend to emphasize the fact that I am unique, and ignore the fact that everyone else is too.

So what? Well, deep down I believe that every person is interesting as you learn more about them. Layer by layer you peel away the stereotypes, typecasting, superficial judgments. The more you expose the real person, the more interesting they get. I admit that it is very hard work with some folks. I certainly can't invest the time in learning to appreciate the uniqueness of every person I encounter. Life is too short. Other things must be done as well.

The epiphany for me was this: I should start by assuming that each person I meet is indeed unique. Of course I will immediately start to categorize, label, and otherwise toss them into little mental bins. But I want to avoid the illusion that I have completely described anyone with the labels. I want to retain the wonder of knowing that they are more rare than any jewel could ever be.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Why I've Never Become Comfortably Numb

"Hello, hello, hello --- is there anybody in there?" That is the opening verse to "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd. I have listened to "Comfortably Numb" at least hundreds of times, maybe a thousand or more. It may be my all time favorite. Sadly, I know why. I've spent much of my life wanting to be numbed to all the pain there is in this sin cursed world. I tried to eliminate as much pain as I could. All too often that involved doing things that muted the pain for a while, but any pain I skipped seemed to be stored and amplified for consumption later. Still I longed for an end to pain.

Now I know that the end is near. Life is hard, then you die: Praise God! In this world we will have much trouble ,but take heart. This world and this life will soon pass away. We are promised a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more crying and no more pain. I long to be there, who wouldn't? But for now, I am here. God put me here. He knows that I hurt. He knows that some days seem interminable. He also knows what is best for me. He gives me what I need, and it often is not what I want.

It is easy to thank God for every moment of pleasure I have known. It is difficult to thank him for a single moment of pain. Yet my time on this earth is a gift. I can serve him and grow in him in ways that, apparently, are only possible here. Forgive me Lord. May your will be done.