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Thursday, August 6

Wèishéme?

Learning the Mandarin for "Why?" can take you a long way in The Story of Yanxi Palace. Wèishéme (为什么), pronounced way-shema, might be the most repeated phrase in the series. "Why?" cried in anguish, in despair, in fury, in confusion, as one character after another in the story falls victim to circumstances he can neither control nor understand. 

So much is going on, so many crises, it's only toward the end it comes clear that The Story of Yanxi Palace is one long morality play. There is always a choice, and how the victim of circumstance decides will determine whether he takes up with evil. What is not necessarily evident in the short life span of a human but graphically illustrated over the course of Yanxi Palace is that the inexorable fate of evildoers is to meet with justice in exact measure.  Why? Their own character has the answer. 

That, and the fact that evil, as with goodness, is personal; it has to do with an individual's decisions. There is no such thing as collectivist evil, just as there is no group Karma.  To believe otherwise is to thunder at the heavens, "Why?"

**********  

Sunday, August 2

The Turkish general who learned too much

So much corruption, so much ruthlessness in the service of corruption; one becomes hardened to it after a time. But this got to me.  

General Semih Terzi     
Ismaeel Naar, Al Arabiya English
Friday 31 July 2020
Al Arabiya

The report further alleged that Terzi was aware of public officials involved in oil-smuggling operations with ISIS from Syria.

The Turkish army executed a senior general within its ranks after he had discovered the embezzlement of illicit Qatari funding for extremists in Syria by public officials, according to a 2019 court testimony unveiled in a report by the Nordic Monitor.

Semih Terzi, a general within the Turkish army, was executed on the night of the 2016 Turkish coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The new allegations unveiled in court testimonies from a hearing March 20, 2019at Ankara 17th High Criminal Court were made by Col. Fırat Alakuş, an army officer working within Turkey’s Special Forces Command’s intelligence section.

According to the Nordic Monitor, Terzi is said to have been executed after discovering that Lt. Gen. Zekai Aksakallı, in charge of the Special Forces Command at the time, was working covertly with Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) “in running illegal and clandestine operations in Syria for personal gain while dragging Turkey deeper into the Syrian civil war.”

“[Terzi] knew how much of the funding delivered [to Turkey] by Qatar for the purpose of purchasing weapons and ammunition for the opposition was actually used for that and how much of it was actually used by public officials, how much was embezzled,” Col. Alakuş was quoted as saying by the Nordic Monitor via his court testimony.

The Nordic Monitor said in its report published on Friday that Alakuş testified that Aksakallı had run a gang outside of the chain of command within the Turkish intelligence that was involved in illicit activities.

The report further alleged that Terzi was aware of public officials involved in oil-smuggling operations with ISIS from Syria.

“[Terzi] was aware of who in the government was involved in an oil-smuggling operation from Syria, how the profits were shared, and what activities they were involved in,” Alakuş said in his testimony.

[END REPORT]

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Wednesday, July 22

Is it because the British became nihilists and the Russians didn't?

Something a little eerie happened last night as I pondered the British hatred for the Russians. This after I read Spying, election hacks, assassinations: British report details scale of Russian subversion campaigns, published yesterday  in the American mainstream national newspaper, USA Today. The accusations have the earmark of a Shaggy Dog Tale, a type of joke which goes on and on while the listener waits in vain to learn the point of the story, the only point being the doomed wait for the point.  

There is no evidence that the accusations have a basis in facts, which the USA Today report eventually gets around to explaining. But the British are sure that if only they'd worked harder and earlier to investigate, they would have had the evidence. 

I am so sick of British Shaggy Dog tales about the Russians but I told myself wearily I had to keep track of the nonsense because it kept unleashing horrors on the Syrians. Yet the British government's hatred for the Russians was not caused by Russian actions in Syria; it was an obsessive hatred. Why? 

The standard explanations, plausible on their own, didn't stack for me; when there are so many explanations this is not about specific incidents or people. Instead the Russians had come to symbolize something for many British,  something they hated. What did they symbolize?   

I was so intent on my ruminations I didn't notice I'd been unseeingly clicking through YouTube videos after I'd watched a movie 'trailer' about the Brexit political campaign.

That was how the more mysterious of the YouTube bots took charge of my question. And that was how I watched scenes from a 1980s BBC TV comedy series called "Blackadder," which I'd never seen before and knew nothing about, and all the while asking myself, 'Why am I watching this?'

I had to go to Wikipedia to learn about the series. But I'll do to you what the bots did to me: with no introduction beyond that the scenes are set at the British front lines in the Great War (WWI), I'll throw you into the madhouse.

Ready? Start at the 19:11 mark, then watch until the end, which is about eight minutes later.


If you tell me after watching that there was actually nothing funny about it -- right.

I've heard that fatalism is part of the Russian character; whether or not such a generality applies, there is a big difference between fatalism and nihilism. So here I'm going to take a flying leap.

It could be that the Russians symbolize to the British upper class a people who avoided nihilism when by all rights they should have become nihilistic. Whereas many British lost faith in themselves over the course of two world wars and the breakup of their empire, and so fell into the trap of nihilism.

If I am in the ballpark, I venture the British need to be a little kinder to themselves before they can forgive Russians for being too dense to realize they have nothing to be proud of.  That might be a hard to do if the British upper class and intellectuals take their sense of identity from a set of values that places great emphasis on adherence to high ideals.

In short, the British would need to acknowledge to themselves that the penalty for acting all too human should not be nihilism.

That's the best I can do with the Blackadder scenes YouTube wanted me to see.  Ah well, the brilliant reasoning of those mystery bots is wasted on me. 

*********

Tuesday, July 21

Chief conduit for U.S. meddling argues U.S. should stop meddling. Pundita faints from shock.

Get the smelling salts away from me; I'm alright, just a little discombobulated. [fanning herself]  

The argument has been made by many others including this blogger, but the shocker is that it has now appeared in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine.  Although you won't read this in Wikipedia's article about the magazine it can be argued, it has been argued and even bluntly stated by informed observers, that FP is a creation of the U.S. Department of State to serve as a conduit for State views, which have always reflected the U.S. policy of interventionism.  

So for the magazine to allow an opinion piece titled, "Countries Should Mind Their Own Business" would be something like Bernie Sanders suddenly extolling the virtues of capitalism or William Ayers announcing that White Privilege is a myth.  

The article's author, Stephen Walt, a neorealist and professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, hedges a bit -- as if he had a choice if he wanted FP to publish his argument -- in that he only gives "two" cheers for the idea that governments should respect the sovereignty of other nations and directs his criticism to all meddling governments, not only the American one. But in context of his entire article I am nit-picking. The lid was already loose. Stephen Walt, with help from Foreign Policy, has blown it sky-high.

What now?  Now we prepare for counterarguments from the incredibly powerful forces that have profited most from interventionism. Prepare, and pray. 

I'll add that the lede I provided is not the one supplied by the editor. The original lede reads, "Two cheers for a classic idea that’s been out of fashion for too long: state sovereignty." The sentence I used is actually the title given the article for its url.  FP hedging.  [smiling] 
         
By Stephen M. Walt
July 17, 2020
Foreign Policy magazine

From the United States to China every country should respect national sovereignty.  

What’s the dumbest idea affecting the foreign policy of major powers? There are plenty of candidates—the domino theory; the myth of the short, cheap war; the belief that a particular deity is “on the side” of one nation and will guarantee its success; etc. But right up there with those worthy contenders is a country’s belief that it has found the magic formula for political, economic, social, and international success and that it has the right, the responsibility, and the ability to spread this gospel far and wide.

In some cases, this impulse arises from (mostly) benevolent aims: The leaders of some country genuinely believe that spreading (through force, if necessary) their ideals and institutions to others will genuinely benefit the recipients. Defensive motives may also be operating: A state may believe that it cannot be reliably secure unless other countries have similar if not identical institutions. U.S. leaders once worried that America could not survive alone in a world dominated by fascism, and Joseph Stalin believed the Soviet Union needed “friendly” countries on its borders, by which he meant countries governed by Leninist parties patterned after the Soviet model.

Of course, such claims may simply be a reassuring story that ruling elites propagate to justify aggressive actions undertaken for more selfish reasons. Whatever the motivation, if their efforts were successful the world would gradually converge on a single model for political, economic, and social life. Individual national variations would be modest and declining in importance, limited to purely local concerns (such as national holidays, cuisine, preferred musical styles, etc.). In theory, even some of these features might begin to lose their individual features over time.

This hasn’t happened, however, due to an intriguing paradox. Thus far, the only political form that has commanded nearly universal global acceptance is the territorial state itself, along with the closely related idea of nationalism. As Hendrik Spruyt, Stephen Krasner, Dan Nexon, and others have explored, the territorial state was only one of several political forms coexisting in early modern Europe, and its eventual emergence as the dominant political form was a contentious process that might have turned out differently. Many factors contributed to its ultimate success, and one of them was the idea of sovereignty: the principle that every government got to run its own affairs as its rulers (or, eventually, its citizens) saw fit. And once that principle took firm hold, individual local variations were reinforced and entrenched.

Add to this notion the emerging idea of nationalism—the belief that different groups of people have distinct identities based on language, culture, shared history, etc. and that such self-aware groups are entitled to govern themselves—and you have a couple of powerful and mutually reinforcing ideals. As John Mearsheimer argues in The Great Delusion, nations want their own state so that they can protect themselves in an insecure world, and states often encourage nationalism in order to unify the population and enhance state power.

The gradual spread of these twin ideas—nationalism and sovereignty—has had far-reaching if uneven effects. Nationalism undermined and eventually destroyed the Spanish, Portugeuse, British, French, Belgian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires, and decolonization eventually swelled the United Nations from its original 50-odd members to nearly 200 states today. In this way, the territorial state became the dominant political form in the contemporary world, but the specific content within each state still varied enormously. Democracies, monarchies, oligarchies, one-party authoritarians, military dictators, religious regimes, etc. all coexisted within the basic framework of the sovereign state, along with a number of different economic systems.

Throughout this process, a number of countries have at one time or another seen themselves as models for the rest, and they have tried in various ways to convince others to adopt their formula. The leaders of revolutionary France sought to topple foreign monarchs and spread liberty to Europe and beyond, and Napoleon subsequently tried to impose his own order on the countries he had conquered. Soviet Russia was explicitly committed to spreading its particular form of socialism, and pan-Arabists, Nasserites, and assorted Islamic fundamentalists have sought to convince or coerce others into adopting their preferred model within the Arab and Islamic world.

Although Americans were initially ambivalent about whether their newfangled republic could be a model for others, confidence that other states would benefit if they become more like the United States grew as the country rose to great-power status and became the world’s strongest power. 

The impulse to remake the world in America’s image kicked into overdrive when the so-called unipolar moment arrived: The tides of history seemed to be running America’s way, liberal democratic capitalism was said to be the inevitable end point of political and social development, and there were no rival great powers who could prevent the United States from wielding its vast economic and military power in the service of liberal ideals.

Not surprisingly, in the unipolar era the United States increasingly favored a one-size-fits-all approach to other countries. Foreign countries may still have been regarded as formally sovereign, but the United States increasingly sought to influence (if not dictate) some of their national policy decisions.

In the military realm, states that sought weapons of mass destruction were sanctioned, ostracized, attacked, or overthrown, even as U.S. leaders declared that America’s own nuclear arsenal was still essential for its security. Rising powers such as China were advised to forgo “advanced military capabilities” on the grounds that this was “an outdated path” that would “hamper its own pursuit of national greatness.” (For some strange reason, Beijing chose to ignore this friendly advice.) Where possible, the United States sought to recruit new states into security institutions that it already led, thereby obtaining more influence over other states’ security policies.

In politics, Washington sought to promote democracy where and when it could, whether by providing money and advice to nascent civil society groups, supporting human rights more generally, or acting to topple regimes that were unlucky or unwise enough to attract Washington’s particular ire. The goal, as President George W. Bush put it, was “a generation of democratic peace,” and U.S. power could be used to speed up the timetable and get the globe there as quickly as possible.

Lastly, as my colleague Dani Rodrik argues convincingly, U.S. efforts to promote what he calls “hyperglobalization” led other states to alter their domestic arrangements in ways that would attract foreign capital, expand trade opportunities, and bring them into greater conformity with U.S. preferences. Whether in the form of the 1990s Washington Consensus or trade agreements like the stillborn Trans-Pacific Partnership, a world with fewer barriers to the movement of goods, people, or capital left national governments less able to chart their own course or insulate their populations from global market forces. As practiced, globalization meant states either had to put on what Tom Friedman dubbed the Golden Straightjacket” or fall by the wayside.

The past 15 years has not been kind to this ambitious vision of a world increasingly united by shared values and similar institutions. Efforts to prevent adversaries from acquiring WMD were only partly successful (and at considerable cost). Key states such as China did not liberalize as expected yet continued to prosper. The spread of democracy slowed, stalled, and then went into reverse, and the state of America’s own democracy become deeply troubling.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a broad backlash against globalization was underway, whether in the form of Brexit, Trumpism, the growing segmentation of the internet, and the partial decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. As I’ve written elsewhere, the pandemic has accelerated and deepened these tendencies, and raised the walls that the United States and others had been trying to lower before the arrival of Donald Trump.

The common taproot to these various trends is simple. It is the desire of leaders or peoples in different states to have a greater say in how they live, even if it means somewhat less material prosperity. The leaders of the Brexit campaign may have been supremely cynical in the many false claims they made to sell their scheme, but the supporters who voted to “take back control” were utterly sincere. They wanted to defend a particular way of life against changes they saw as disruptive and as threats to a cherished “way of life.” Much the same instinct lies behind efforts to curb immigration in many countries, or the every-state-for-itself impulse that is leading many nations to seek a COVID-19 vaccine for themselves first and others later.

What we are seeing, in short, is a reassertion of sovereign independence on the part of great and small powers alike. The Westphalian model of sovereignty has never been absolute or uncontested, but the idea that individual nations should be (mostly) free to chart their own course at home remains deeply embedded in the present world order. The territorial state remains the basic building block of world politics, and, with some exceptions, states today are doing more to reinforce that idea than to dilute it.

Although there are clearly areas where our future depends on states agreeing to limit their own freedom of action and conform to global norms and institutions, greater respect for sovereignty and national autonomy has some obvious benefits. First, states that interfere in foreign countries rarely understand what they are doing, and even well-intentioned efforts often fail due to ignorance, unintended consequences, or local resentment and resistance. A stronger norm of noninterference could make some protracted conflicts less likely or prolonged.

Second, trying to impose a single model on other countries inevitably raises threat perceptions and increases the risk of serious great-power conflict. The Westphalian idea of sovereignty was created in part to address this problem: Instead of continuing to fight over which version of Christianity would hold sway in different countries (one of the key drivers of the wars that preceded the Westphalian peace), European states agreed to let each ruler determine the religious orientation of their realm. 

Similarly, a powerful state’s efforts to shape the domestic arrangements of another country will inevitably be seen as threatening by the target: Just look at how Americans now react to the possibility of Russian interference in our political system.

Third, creating a more stable international economic order while preserving most of the benefits of trade and comparative advantage will require fashioning trade and economic arrangements that permit great national autonomy, even at the price of slightly lower global growth rates. Not only might this reduce the risk of global financial panics, but allowing individual states greater freedom to set the terms of their international economic engagement could also reduce the anti-free trade backlash that is currently fueling costly trade wars.

Finally, a world in which a single political and economic model prevails is probably impossible anyway, at least for the foreseeable future. To believe that one size could fit all ignores the enormous diversity that still exists in the world and the powerful tendency for ideas and institutions to morph and evolve as they travel from their point of origins.

Take pop music: Elvis Presley creates a new amalgam of rhythm and blues, gospel, and rockabilly (with a jolt of testosterone), his influence arrives in England and helps inspire the Beatles, who lead the “British invasion” of America in the 1960s, which then combines with Bob Dylan and the folk music movement to create the sound of groups like The Byrds. Or look at how Lin-Manuel Miranda combined hip-hop with his deep appreciation of traditional Broadway styles to create something new like Hamilton. These examples just scratch the surface of how music changes when different cultural streams begin to interact; I could just as easily have cited examples from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or the Silk Road.

Because humans are boundlessly creative social beings who resist conformity, and because no social or political arrangements are ever perfect, dissidents will always arise and contending visions will emerge no matter how fiercely they are repressed. Institutions created in one place may travel to other locations, but they will mutate and evolve in the process and exhibit different forms wherever they take root.

And that’s why I’ll raise two cheers for the (partly) sovereign state. A world made up of contending nationalisms is hardly a utopia, with the ever-present possibility of conflict and war and many obstacles to mutual cooperation. But trying to fit a diverse humanity into a uniform box is doomed to fail—and no small source of trouble as well. Even if we hold certain values to be sacred and are tempted to act when other states violate them, continued respect for boundaries and sovereignty is also a norm that can keep simmering rivalries in check. Libya would not have multiple powers interfering in it today had Britain, France, and the United States not decided to meddle there back in 2011.

As A.J.P. Taylor once archly observed, leaders in the 19th century “fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands; the idealists of the 20th century fought ‘just’ wars and killed millions.” 

Looking ahead, greater respect for national sovereignty and fewer efforts to force the whole world into one way of living will help emerging rivalries stay within bounds and help countries with very different values cooperate on those critical issues where their interests overlap.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University
.

[END]

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Sunday, July 19

Chilling Out in the Dog Days of Summer


Then there's always Yoga 


But what do dogs and cats know


I'll be back the first day the temperature here in Washington, DC is below 90 degrees. Won't be any day this week, that's for sure.  Let's see: 98, 96, 96, ah a cold snap on Thursday; only 92! 93, 93, 96, 95 -- and on and on.       

I think we're nearing a record, if it hasn't already been reached, for most days in a row at 90 or above. 

Have fun, stay safe, stay cool. Hasta luego!  

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In America, a flight from the cities


1968
"Nathan La Franeer" by Joni Mitchell

I hired a coach to take me
from confusion to the plane
And though we shared a common space
I know I'll never meet again
The driver with his eyebrows furrowed in the rear-view mirror
I read his name and it was plainly written 

Nathan La Franeer
I asked him would he hurry
But we crawled the canyons slowly
Thru the buyers and the sellers
Thru the burglar bells and the wishing wells
With gangs and girly shows
The ghostly garden grows

The cars and buses bustled thru the bedlam of the day
I looked thru window-glass at streets
and Nathan grumbled at the grey
I saw an aging cripple selling Superman balloons
The city grated thru chrome-plate
The clock struck slowly half-past-noon
Thru the tunnel tiled and turning
Into daylight once again I am escaping
Once again goodbye
To symphonies and dirty trees
With parks and plastic clothes
The ghostly garden grows

He asked me for a dollar more
He cursed me to my face
He hated everyone who paid to ride
And share his common space
I picked my bags up from the curb
And stumbled to the door
Another man reached out his hand
Another hand reached out for more
And I filled it full of silver
And I left the fingers counting
And the sky goes on forever
Without meter maids and peace parades
You feed it all your woes
The ghostly garden grows


2020
Americans leave large cities for suburban areas and rural towns
A combination of the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest is prompting waves of Americans to move from large cities and permanently relocate to more sparsely populated areas. The trend has been accelerated by technology and shifting attitudes that make it easier than ever to work remotely. Residents of all ages and incomes are moving in record numbers to suburban areas and small towns.
A perfect storm of factors makes the decision to leave major cities like New York very obvious. The dense nature of urban living and the lack of proper local government planning led to the coronavirus spreading five times faster in New York than the rest of the country. The city that never sleeps now resembles a ghost town in many areas after thousands of its wealthy and middle-class residents fled early in the pandemic.
[...]
The flight began much earlier than the pandemic; Covid only accelerated it. A half century ago Canadian Joni Mitchell's haunting song expressed the feelings of urbanites who felt trapped in a way of life they had begun to see as dehumanizing, alienating.  But it was Australia's Gregory Copley who echoed Plato to explain the worst aspect of life in the big cities. From a review of his 2012 book, UnCivilization:
... Copley remarks that urbanization entails distortions in epistemology and ethics. The apocalypse of the megalopolis, its apparent (but false) independence, its triumphant concentration of power and wealth, provokes the urbanite into “disregard… of respect for hierarchy,” which, while it “has not yet reached the status of anomie,” has nevertheless become “that which Plato feared most about democracy,” namely “ochlocracy (mob rule), and the demands for gratification which are the hallmark of all mobs.”
Why yes. The megacity, which should be the crowning glory of democracy, is actually the agent of its doom. I doubt the majority of Americans now fleeing cities have thought about the matter as deeply as Copley -- or Plato, for that matter. But they know, as Joni knew a lifetime ago, they are fleeing something that is terribly wrong for the life of the individual. 

Today, large swaths of residential buildings in New York City stand empty -- not because they're abandoned but because they've been bought or rented by wealthy foreigners, who use the domiciles as boltholes in case they have to flee their country -- and as safe deposit boxes to house their valuables. It's the same in London, England.  

But you can't expect a viable democratic political climate to flourish in a ghost city.

*********

Monday, July 13

Covid Era: U.S. Food companies scramble to ramp up depleted inventories

"Flour has remained particularly hard to come by, as a surge in home baking caught the sleepy industry off guard. Sales of baking ingredients had been sluggish for years, making it difficult to ramp up to meet the sudden demand."

"Soup is particularly hard to source ... 'There’s no plethora of manufacturers available.' "

****
Half the story of how Covid has affected the food supply in the USA was already told in a Wall Street Journal report published March 23, headlined, Grocers Stopped Stockpiling Food. Then Came Coronavirus. 

But the other half is the companies that supply grocers.  Food processing companies, even the big boys, were also blindsided. So by today, “We are running flat out,”Conagra’s Chief Executive told the Wall Street Journal.  Across the board, food makers are doing everything they can think of to build up wiped-out inventories. 

So while there is plenty of food in its raw form in the United States, getting it processed and distributed to the grocery shelves is the challenge in the Covid Era, which could last much longer than the pandemic.
It's too soon to estimate how many Americans will keep up the food shopping/consumption habits they formed during the pandemic, once the lockdowns finally end. But I've seen signs that many Americans won't return to the pre-Covid Era, at least not at the same level. They learned during the lockdowns they could save a lot of money buying in bulk and doing their own cooking and baking. This trend, if it continues, will cause big changes in food industries of all types.  

If the pandemic continues for two years, as some observers have estimated, will this eventually create true food shortages at the level of the global supply chain? The pandemic has always been very uneven in when it strikes at countries, and there have been differing rates of recovery across societies. This has given foodstuff importers the ability to switch their suppliers from one country to another, and so the global food supply chain hasn't collapsed because of Covid.   
One thing can said with a fair amount of certainty at this point. The possibility that a pandemic can cause widespread food shortages has scared the tar out of all sensible governments around the world, not to mention the people who dominate agribusiness. Vast changes in both domestic and international food supply chains can and most probably will evolve from the scare. How, exactly, the changes will shake out, by country, is something to watch for.

Covid has awakened many sleeping companies, not just the American flour makers, as the following report underscores:                  
Food makers work to meet rising demand after initial lockdowns ate through inventories
By Annie Gasparro and Jaewon Kang 
Photographs by Katie Currid for The Wall Street Journal
July 12, 2020 - 5:30 am ET
The Wall Street Journal

Grocers are having trouble staying stocked with goods from flour to soups as climbing coronavirus case numbers and continued lockdowns pressure production and bolster customer demand.

Manufacturers including General Mills Inc., Campbell Soup Co. and Conagra Brands Inc. say they are pumping out food as fast as they can, but can’t replenish inventories. Popular items such as flour, canned soup, pasta and rice remain in short supply.

As of July 5, 10% of packaged foods, beverages and household goods were out of stock, up from 5% to 7% before the pandemic, according to market-research firm IRI.


Restocked
Many key items have returned to supermarket shelves since the height of the lockdown

[GRAPHIC: Percentage of items out of stock at U.S. supermarkets]

“We are running flat out,” said Conagra’s Chief Executive Sean Connolly. He said Conagra won’t be able to build up inventory of certain brands, such as Chef Boyardee and Healthy Choice, unless demand slows or it further increases manufacturing capacity.

Food makers and grocers expect prolonged shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on restaurants, as well as the battered economy, to result in a longer stretch of eating at home. Added safety measures at plants are slowing operations, too. There is enough food in the U.S. to keep people fed, executives say, but every product might not be available everywhere while inventories are strained.

Many retailers in states where cases are surging, including Texas-based H-E-B LP, are reinstating rationing on high-demand items including paper products. They say their distributors are still capping the amount of fast-selling products that can be ordered at one time.

Shelf Stable Stock levels at supermarkets are approaching the industry’s historical average

[GRAPHIC: Percentage of U.S. supermarket items listed as out of stock]

Mark Griffin, president of Nebraska-based B&R Stores Inc., said the chain would be in worse shape if cases rise again in the Midwest because it lacks the inventory it had in March. B&R has been stockpiling bottled water and other products at its warehouses, he said. The grocer has also tried to secure new suppliers for canned products, baking items and ramen noodles. So far, that has only yielded a truckload here and there, Mr. Griffin said.

Soup is particularly hard to source, he said: “There’s no plethora of manufacturers available.”

Campbell’s CEO Mark Clouse said the company ran through reserves of its namesake soup and snacks such as Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers during the initial rush of orders in the spring. That demand was a shock to a supply chain that had been largely recalibrated to handle flat or falling demand over the past decade, he said: “We’re racing to try to rebuild some inventory.”

General Mills, which owns Gold Medal flour and Betty Crocker dessert mixes, said it hasn’t built up normal levels of inventory of baking ingredients or its Progresso soup.

McCormick & Co. is also struggling to rebuild inventory of its spices and other items. It is adding the equivalent of another U.S. factory by using more third-party manufacturers and increasing production at its own plants.

Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV, owner of the Giant and Food Lion supermarket chains, said it is trying to build up inventory by finding new suppliers and adding shifts at distribution centers. The company found a new toilet paper supplier that primarily sold to college bookstores before the pandemic, said Andre Shaw, a senior vice president of supply chain at Ahold’s services business. Ahold Delhaize also found new pasta suppliers in Italy.

Wisconsin-based grocer Festival Foods is receiving about 80% of the goods it orders and is removing some products from shelves to make room for roughly double the toilet paper it normally stocks, said Chief Executive Mark Skogen.

Availability for some products has improved, Mr. Skogen said, including meat, which ran short this spring when some meatpacking plants temporarily closed after they became hot spots for coronavirus transmission.

Flour has remained particularly hard to come by, as a surge in home baking caught the sleepy industry off guard. Sales of baking ingredients had been sluggish for years, making it difficult to ramp up to meet the sudden demand.

Flour Power
Mills can't keep up with the rise in baking.

[GRAPHIC: Change in U.S. flour sales from a year earlier]

In mid-March, U.S. flour sales soared 233% from a year earlier, according to market-research firm Nielsen and remained 25% higher in June than the prior year.

“The orders are still there even though we are producing double to triple the normal volume,” said Bill Tine, head of marketing at King Arthur Flour Co.

Mills that never caught up with that demand are now trying to build surpluses to prepare for the holiday baking season and the potential for higher orders if the rise in Covid-19 cases causes more areas to slow reopening plans and weigh a return to shelter-in-place status.

King Arthur has added a fulfillment center in Kansas and booked more time on manufacturing lines at the mills that make its flour.

“There is enough wheat. There are a lot of mills. The packaging lines at the mills are the limiting factor,” Mr. Tine said.

Home bakers such as Beth Boyington, an athletic trainer near Boston, have had difficulty securing flour. Ms. Boyington splurged on a 25-pound bag of her favorite King Arthur flour when she finally found it.

“Stores seem to continue to be low on specific brands and types of flour, which is annoying,” she said. “Baking is my stress relief.”

Farmer Direct Foods Inc., a Kansas mill and supplier for King Arthur, is filling about 35 trucks a month with flour, up from 18 typically.

The mill has run out of packaging at times, said CEO Bob Morando, and equipment has broken down because he added a shift and hasn’t had time to do preventive maintenance.

“We’re going to run like crazy from now to Christmas,” he said.

[END REPORT]

RELATED READING WSJ REPORTS:

Sunday, July 12

From the ashes of failure, a world-changing triumph

"Reij, Garrity and other scientists working on the ground knew what Wade and other political leaders did not: that farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso, in particular, had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms."

Years ago on this blog I argued in defense of Earth's huge human population; I observed that given looming threats to living things and Earth itself, humans needed all the brain power we could get. And I pointed out that there was no telling where great solutions would emerge; they could come from the least likely places and the least among us -- the poorest, the unschooled, those living in 'underdeveloped' regions.  

I remembered my words when I read The Smithsonian Magazine's August 2016 The “Great Green Wall” Didn’t Stop Desertification, but it Evolved Into Something That Might. The title gives no indication of the amazing turnaround wrought by many African small farmers but while the report details their successes, the story seems to have landed in a news media Black Hole. This, despite the fact that it got attention at the United Nations and African Union and of course the World Bank. 

At any rate Jim Morrison's report for the venerable Smithsonian Magazine does the story justice. I invite you to read the whole thing in case you have doubts about the human ability to adapt.  

But is it too little, too late, in this case? 

Well, one should also not doubt the World Bank's ability to muck up a great idea. The farmers' success at land reclamation in the early part of this century happened under the radar (see the report). This meant the Bank didn't know was going on for years.

However, in this era so many specialists outside the Bank are aware of its penchant for overkill that with any luck they will be effective at running interference for the farmers while helping them make the best use of Bank loans.

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Now more than ever, "Take it easy policy"


A.R. Rahman's remake of Urvasi Urvasi, which uses crowdsourced lyrics, is still as relevant today as when it was released in 2017.  Never mind that the lyrics about Hillary Clinton and India's demonetization are a little dated, which might be why Rahman balked at first at including such topical themes. But there is nothing dated about the song's message: learn to practice a "take it easy policy" when met with upsetting situations, and don't blindly follow the crowd.

I see MTV Unplugged is still refusing to the release the video of the recording to YouTube. Maybe Vimeo paid for a copy but one is embedded in the Hindustan Times report on the remake, published in January 2017, which includes English translations of some lyrics -- all of which surely have been translated to English by now and posted at various sites on the internet.  

As to the rest of the song, goes to show what can happen when a musical genius merges the old and new, 'East' and West. When an Indian bowed instrument that's thousands of years old can hold its own with violins and cellos -- that's saying something. I think it works out to the essence of hipness.

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