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Employment sucks. But corporate profits are high. Mr. Market reacts to them.

I’m optimistic. Soaring food prices favor fertilizer and seed companies.

Friday’s disappointing employment: Economists were looking for 148,000 jobs to be added, but the number came in at 36,000. Private payrolls added 50,000, also a disappointment and definitely not the robust employment figures that we would expect at this point in the economic recovery. The unemployment rate fell from 9.4% to 9.0%. This doesn’t really equate with the small increase in payrolls, and is actually a result of changes in the calculation in the prevailing population estimates. This is the kind of stuff that leads people to believe that the numbers are being fudged by Washington (would anyone really be that surprised?).

Two stories on Egypt worth reading:

+ An encounter with Egypt’s secret police at the height of the crisis. “We can be treating you a lot worse,” said one. We knew. We heard the screams.

“CAIRO — We had been detained by Egyptian authorities, handed over to the country’s dreaded Mukhabarat, the secret police, and interrogated. They left us all night in a cold room, on hard orange plastic stools, under fluorescent lights.

But our discomfort paled in comparison to the dull whacks and the screams of pain by Egyptian people that broke the stillness of the night. In one instance, between the cries of suffering, an officer said in Arabic, “You are talking to journalists? You are talking badly about your country?”

A voice, also in Arabic, answered: “You are committing a sin. You are committing a sin.”

For the full article, click here.

+ America’s journeys with strongmen have a rhythm. Focus first on the benefits. The costs are paid later.

WASHINGTON — If the United States is, as so many presidents have said in so many speeches, the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy, then why does the drama unfolding in Cairo seem so familiar?

A Washington-friendly dictator, propped up for decades by lavish American aid as he oversees a regime noted for brutality, corruption and stagnation, finally faces the wrath of his people. An American administration struggles over what to say, what to do and what to expect if the strongman is toppled.

The agony of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt raises again the question of whether such a pattern can ever be broken. More than mere misjudgment or duplicity is behind it; the embrace of dictators has been so frequent over the last half-century that it obviously results from hard-headed calculation.

Every country has both values and interests. Sometimes they coincide — for example, promoting human rights can help combat terrorism — and sometimes they conflict. What makes the United States stand out, perhaps, is how frequently American officials proclaim their values to the world, setting themselves up for charges of hypocrisy when a policy is expedient rather than idealistic.

For the full article, click here.

Weekend reading.

+ Don’t use WebMD for medical advice. Use The New York Times Magazine says of WebMD as “not only a waste of time, but it’s also a disorder in and of itself — one that preys on the fear and vulnerability of of its users to sell them half-truths and, eventually, pills. Where WebMD is  a coproration that started as an ad-supported health-alarmism site with revenues of $504 million in 2010, the Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit medical-practice-and-research group that started as a clinic. … The integrity of the whole institution is on the line with this site, and the Mayo Clinic has every motivation to keep its information authoritative and up to date. Mayo’s storied past as the country’s premier research hospital, in Rochester, Minn., and its storied present as one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” surface in the integrity of the site itself, which — though not ad-free — is spare and neatly organized, with the measured, learned voice of the best doctors. The byline for most entries is “Mayo Clinic staff.” The integrity of the whole institution is on the line with this site, and the Mayo Clinic has every motivation to keep its information authoritative and up to date. Contrast this with WebMD, which — with every reason to amp up page views, impress advertisers and drive traffic to commercial sites — has the junky, attic-y look of your standard ad-chocked Web site. Amid so-called information about cancer and depression are banner ads for brands like Crest, L’Oreal, Bounce and Clorox.”

+ Get watch battieries replaced by mail. Saves schlepping to the store.

+ What’s behind skyrocketing food prices?

Droughts, Floods and Food by Paul Krugman

We’re in the midst of a global food crisis — the second in three years. World food prices hit a record in January, driven by huge increases in the prices of wheat, corn, sugar and oils. These soaring prices have had only a modest effect on U.S. inflation, which is still low by historical standards, but they’re having a brutal impact on the world’s poor, who spend much if not most of their income on basic foodstuffs.

The consequences of this food crisis go far beyond economics. After all, the big question about uprisings against corrupt and oppressive regimes in the Middle East isn’t so much why they’re happening as why they’re happening now. And there’s little question that sky-high food prices have been an important trigger for popular rage.

So what’s behind the price spike? American right-wingers (and the Chinese) blame easy-money policies at the Federal Reserve, with at least one commentator declaring that there is “blood on Bernanke’s hands.” Meanwhile, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France blames speculators, accusing them of “extortion and pillaging.”

But the evidence tells a different, much more ominous story. While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.

Now, to some extent soaring food prices are part of a general commodity boom: the prices of many raw materials, running the gamut from aluminum to zinc, have been rising rapidly since early 2009, mainly thanks to rapid industrial growth in emerging markets.

But the link between industrial growth and demand is a lot clearer for, say, copper than it is for food. Except in very poor countries, rising incomes don’t have much effect on how much people eat.

It’s true that growth in emerging nations like China leads to rising meat consumption, and hence rising demand for animal feed. It’s also true that agricultural raw materials, especially cotton, compete for land and other resources with food crops — as does the subsidized production of ethanol, which consumes a lot of corn. So both economic growth and bad energy policy have played some role in the food price surge.

Still, food prices lagged behind the prices of other commodities until last summer. Then the weather struck.

Consider the case of wheat, whose price has almost doubled since the summer. The immediate cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world production is down sharply. The bulk of that production decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in the former Soviet Union. And we know what that’s about: a record heat wave and drought, which pushed Moscow temperatures above 100 degrees for the first time ever.
The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent extreme weather events, from dry weather in Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in Australia, that have damaged world food production.

The question then becomes, what’s behind all this extreme weather?

To some extent we’re seeing the results of a natural phenomenon, La Niña — a periodic event in which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal. And La Niña events have historically been associated with global food crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.

But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La Niña was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.

As always, you can’t attribute any one weather event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we’re seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in general becoming much more common, is just what you’d expect from climate change.

The usual suspects will, of course, go wild over suggestions that global warming has something to do with the food crisis; those who insist that Ben Bernanke has blood on his hands tend to be more or less the same people who insist that the scientific consensus on climate reflects a vast leftist conspiracy.

But the evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.

+ Sleeping pills don’t work. Click here for the article from Men’s Journal.  Click here.

+ How to live forever, or at least until 2065. From Mens Health magazine:

10 Things to Avoid if You Want to Be Glad You Lived until 2065

1. Bad knees
Cause: too many decades carrying too much weight. Prevention: Lose excess weight. It’s much better to be mobile, especially when you’re old.

2. Bad back
Losing a few pounds will spare your spine as well as your knees. Runners: Anything you can do to reduce impact shock will pay off here.

3. Bad eyes
Farsightedness happens; not all cataracts should. Buy sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays, especially if you spend a lot of time on the water, on snow, or at high elevations.

4. Bad ears
Hearing deteriorates with age, so don’t hurry the process. Your MP3 player can reach 115 decibels; hearing loss starts at 85. I know very few satisfied users of hearing aids.

5. Bad bladder
As many as one in four men over age 75 have some form of incontinence at some time, much of it from a lifetime of putting off trips to the bathroom. Over decades, the strain reduces our bladders to nervous wrecks. So stop laughing and go pee. What happens if you don’t? Depends.

6. Bad bones
Osteoporosis occurs in men too. If you don’t consume a lot of dairy, ask your doctor if you should start taking 1,200 milligrams a day of calcium carbonate (calcium citrate if you’re on drugs for acid reflux). Have your vitamin D levels checked, too.

7. Bad gut
Constipation is another one of those funny-when-it-happens-to-other-people things, but I have seen people die of constipation, and it wasn’t funny at all. Eat roughage. Stay hydrated. Exercise. And don’t use laxatives without talking to your doctor.

8. Bad skin
Your skin is the organ that makes you look old; it’s also the site of most cancers. So buy yourself a hat for when you work outside. Read the label on your sunscreen. (You probably haven’t been using it correctly.) And try not to worry. It causes lines.

9. Bad brain
This is another funny one, until the next time you can’t find your car. Remind yourself (if you can) that Alzheimer’s disease may begin well before the age of 30: Start accumulating excess brain capacity now. Also avoid anything causing your brain to slam against the inside of your skull, from roller coasters to football. A helmet won’t save you from dementia.

10. Bad mood
Seek treatment for an episode of depression and you’ll reduce your risk of a relapse later in life. If you can’t sleep at night, if your appetite, energy, or motivation is gone, or if you feel worthless, discouraged, or overwhelmed, seek help today. Depression is one of the most treatable of illnesses. Take care of it now so people won’t have to take care of you later.

Favorite Barron’s cartoon:

Harry Newton who is most appreciative of all the help on hearing aid readers have contributed. See here. I’m still wearing my $6,000 trial Oticon Agil miniRites. Veridct (so far): Great amplification of everything, including background noise. At a restaurant breakfast on Friday, they did a great job of amplifying the moron bartender who kept pouring ice into metal containers. The noise was high without hearing aids — irksome with. I don’t believe hearing aids can materially reduce background noise. That’s part of their sales pitch.  Look at their design. One mike. One speaker. Illogical. I’ll keep trying. I suspect my hearing loss is small. Hearing aids are probably not for me.

I am obviously obsessed with Egypt. I loved the country when I visited. The Egyptian people have been screwed by Mubarak and his friends and family for 30 years. Construction costs are high because Mubarak’s friend controls the steel industry. You want to invest in Egypt? Go talk to the Mubarak family, etc. 40% of Egypt lives on $2 a day. and many spend 80% of that food, and rising. You can see the pressures. In Mubarak’s reign, the poor have become much poorer; the rich much richer. And then there’s Mubarak’s ugly secret police. their torture keeps the populace in check. Sad.

  • Pwagnerj

    Harry, I think that if you religiously wear those hearing aids for a year or so, you would find that the background noise no longer is an issue. I assume that you have been tested by a professional for whether or not you need assisted hearing. I have been wearing my “all in the canal” hearing aids for about 10 years now and they have served me well. Sure, its never as good as normal hearing, but its the best choice available for bad hearing.

    Recognizing that your hearing needs assistance and you will adapt to the short comings, background noise, etc., will give you a product that you will not regret purchasing.

    So give up some of your hard earned cash for an investment that will pay dividends for many years ahead.


  • Rudy the Juel

    Harry you write…”I am obviously obsessed with Egypt. I loved the country when I visited. The Egyptian people have been screwed by Mubarak and his friends and family for 30 years. Construction costs are high because Mubarak’s friend controls the steel industry. You want to invest in Egypt? Go talk to the Mubarak family, etc. 40% of Egypt lives on $2 a day. and many spend 80% of that food, and rising. You can see the pressures. In Mubarak’s reign, the poor have become much poorer; the rich much richer. And then there’s Mubarak’s ugly secret police. their torture keeps the populace in check. Sad.”

    Question: Do you still steadfastly believe that Pres. Bush should not have removed Saddam Hussein from Iraq? Who would you have rather lived under Sadam or Mubarak? I that a wiff of hypocrisy I'm smelling?

  • Happy_100BD_Ronnie

    So Paul Krugman clearly doesn't believe that the U.S. is experiencing any significant inflation but global warming is causing the worlds farmers problems with their wheat crops. And by the way—“don't pay any attention to that snow”……..Krugman is a sick little droll. Harry you should be ashamed of yourself for posting such bullshit.

    • Harry Newton

      I thought it was a reasonable attempt to logic out where the higher food prices are coming from. Just because I post it, doesn't mean I believe in everything the author writes. In today's world you have to figure it all for yourself and figure what it means to your investment strategy. I care less about the politics and what it all means to my bottom line. In the case of Egypt, my heart goes out to those downtrodden people. I pray their revolution will bring them a better life, and perhaps improve our own foreign policy. It seems the American taxpayer has personally given Mubarak and his family billions of dollars. They won't suffer in their retirement in Saudi Arabia, that's were they flee to.

  • Rafdool… is corrected link address for the second Egypt story above.

    • Harry Newton

      Thanks. Fixed on the site up above.

  • Krazyrph

    It's common in the middle east for the rulers to act like mafia, no one can get a permit to build a job creating business without the mafia getting share of the business.

    • Harry Newton

      It's very sad.

      • Sammy the Bull

        I think it's save to say that here in the United States the mafia is unequivocally linked to the Democrat party. I wonder if Mubarak is a Democrat?…….probably…….yes Harry, it's very sad.