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Capital Confederacy Confusion in Charleston

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In the wake of the Charleston shootings, the imagery of the Confederate flag has stirred passions because of its alleged influence on the motives of the shooter. Of particular interest for some rabble rousers is the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the SC State House. I have been perplexed as to how something that has been flying at the state capital since 1962 (when the flag was first raised at the behest of the Democrat governor and his allies in the legislature) would come to be associated with the Charleston shooting. What does a shooting in Charleston have to do with a flag flying 120 miles away in Columbia (the city, not the country – confusing, I know)?

This is Charleston. Where the shooting happened.

This is Charleston. Where the shooting happened.

But then it dawned on me! The reason people are so upset about the flag at the State House and believe that it had some influence on the shooter is because they think the State House is in Charleston. Of course, anyone even vaguely familiar with the history and geography of South Carolina knows that the state capital is in Columbia and that Charleston hasn’t been the capital since colonial times (1786 to be exact). So, I would posit that the reason everyone is all in a hullabaloo about the Confederate flag is because they think that it’s flying over the State House, which they erroneously assume to be in Charleston. It’s a simple case of mistaken identity.

It’s understandable how such confusion could arise. After all, I suppose Albany frequently experiences the same problem. Between Charleston and Columbia, Charleston is the better known city, with all the fancy restaurants and beaches that everyone’s heard of, the cool history sites, etc. Columbia has more of a diamond-in-the-rough quality to it. Though, as a certified former Columbia resident, I can attest to the quality of the Columbia food scene.

This is Columbia. Where the evil Confederate Flag is.

This is Columbia. Where the evil Confederate Flag is.

But this confusion is really the only logical explanation for the recent uproar. Because it’s simply ridiculous to suggest that a flag 120 miles away from the scene of the shooting (and that doesn’t sit atop the actual building or even the Confederate memorial itself – it actually stands next to it) would have anything to do with that shooting. Sure, maybe some people find it offensive. But such a display is hardly unique, nor is it likely to be even the most offensive thing sitting on the grounds of the State House. I would think that the memorials to Strom Thurmond or John C. Calhoun would provoke more ire from these people then a dinky little flag that is (literally) overshadowed by a giant memorial to the Confederate dead.

Though, given leading politicians’ apparent inclination to appease the mob, perhaps it’s best, lest anyone be offended, to simply bulldoze all of the monuments at the state house (including the memorial to Black South Carolinians, since that was clearly intended to be ironic) and rename all the streets in Columbia. Even the palmetto should go, because, you know. Slaves.

This is the memorial to Black South Carolinians. Which you literally have to walk by every time you enter the State House.

This is the memorial to Black South Carolinians. Which you literally have to walk by every time you enter the State House.

Then we can have a giant flag burning on the grounds of the state house, genuflect before the likes of William Barber, and maybe write a big check (courtesy of the local taxpayers of course) to the liberal grievance group of your choice. Of course that strategy will only work until the great, unwashed masses decide to get offended again. So, perhaps it’s better from a long-run perspective to simply ignore them and let them burn themselves out. Because these people will never be appeased, they will never be happy, and they will continue to look for ways to embarrass and humiliate you. So, don’t engage with them. Pretty simple.

But in the meantime, please try to remember that the state capital is in Columbia, not Charleston.

Just Making Do

Today, the Federal Reserve announced that they would continue their open-ended bond-buying program (to the tune of $85 billion per month) in an effort to stimulate economic growth. Since we are well into the third iteration of “quantitative easing” (read: money printing), it’s worth taking a look at the track record so far. It’s not pretty. Today’s ADP Employment Report estimates that the private sector created a mere 119,000 jobs last month, which was below expectations of 150,000 jobs created (which would be only slightly less disappointing). Meanwhile, with GDP growth averaging less than 1.5% over the last two quarters and a real unemployment rate of 13.8%, the government is preparing to change the way it calculates GDP to boost its numbers (adding such things as the capital value of books and movies and counting Research and Development as a “service”). Last quarter, only 38% of S&P 500 companies topped revenue forecasts.

There have also been some interesting price movements of late. If you listen to ol’ Ben, you’ll hear that there’s currently very little in the way of inflation and that the FED is currently doing is best to stimulate some inflation (for reasons known only to Bernanke). However, if you look at the data, you get a slightly different story. If you look at prices from the beginning of the recession to the present, a very interesting pattern emerges. The CPI (minus food and energy prices, as measured by the government) is moving relatively consistently (ever upward, it should be noted), but food and energy are behaving a little differently. Gas prices are all over the map, but they do seem to have settled into a relatively stable pattern, with prices never rising and falling between 110-140% of their 2007 levels. For anyone with a car, that is a fairly significant price increase (at 10% or more), particularly if you’ve had your wages cut. Food prices are following a more consistent upward trajectory, with prices currently about 15% higher than their 2007 levels and rising a good deal faster than the overall CPI (which is about 10% higher than its 2007 level).

This is all very curious. From 2007 to the present, wages and compensation (non-farm) have basically been flat. During the same time period, prices have risen 10%, while food and gas prices have risen much faster. The movement in food and gas prices is particularly significant since such expenses (along with things like housing) are non-optional in the typical family’s budget. So, if gas and food prices (in addition to the prices captured by the CPI) rise faster than wages, the average person is going to see his discretionary income drop every year. This means he has less money for things like vacations, or a new car, or gifts for his friends/family, etc. This all calls into the question the wisdom of the FED’s current policy of relatively significant price increases and its intended policy of really significant price increases. It would explain why GDP growth has been so muted. Essentially, once people are finished paying for groceries, rent, and gas to get to work, they don’t have much money left over for anything else. So, they and the broader economy just amble along.

A Tale of Two Mountains

This is at the bottom of the first mountain

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To get to and from Anyang we used China’s famed train system. Going into Anyang, we took one of the T-class trains, which is a sort of mid-level, moderately fast train. It took about 5.5 hours and cost something in the neighborhood of $10 to ride. Apparently, when they sell tickets for the train, they sell tickets for individual seats as well as tickets for the empty space in the middle aisle. So, what you end up with is a very packed train car, with all of the seats filled and lots of people crammed (usually standing) into the aisle. There was even one guy sleeping underneath my seat. Aside from the discomfort that results from being crammed into a train car like a bunch of sardines, this makes it very difficult to navigate the car. So, every time the food cart goes down the train or someone needs to use the bathroom, there’s a rather frequent, uncomfortable shifting that takes place. It was probably as close to hell as I’ve ever been, and I could probably die happy if I never have to do that again. Though, from what I understand, during the Chinese New Year, when all of the urban workers return to their home villages, the T-trains are twice as packed (there’s actually a fairly decent movie-with English subtitles- about this, Last Train Home). I think I’d rather die.

However, the living hell that was our train ride down was partially offset by our accommodations for the weekend at the Anyang Hotel. It has a four-star rating, but that’s relative to the other hotels in the area. It was still quite nice, though. On the level of a nice Holiday Inn or Best Western (though with considerably more marble).

Our first day started rather early, 6:30am, but this was necessary as our drive out to the Peach Blossom Gorge (in Taihang Canyon) was about 2-3 hours outside of Anyang proper. The first half or so of the pictures posted above are from this gorge. The description of the gorge is relevant here:

Peach Blossom Gorge is very easy to hike. Actually, it can barely be called hiking, and is more like walking around a beautiful garden along a paved road.

While the area was quite pretty, the hike was a little more involved than we were led to believe. We actually ended up hiking up part of a mountain, along a rather adventurous trail. While fairly tiring, it was quite enjoyable. About halfway up, there were a couple of people selling cucumbers, which apparently you eat whole. I kind of felt like a rabbit, munching on my cucumber, but it was quite tasty.

At the end of our first hike, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. It was a typical communal-style Chinese meal, but one of the dishes was carp. I’m not entirely sure how they cooked it, but the fish was left whole and intact when it was placed on our table. The fact that it was right in front of me didn’t really help either, as I couldn’t really bring myself to eat it with it sitting there smiling at me.

After lunch, we hiked up Wang Xiangyan Mountain, the “difficult” hike. This hike was quite arduous, as it involved walking up the side of a very tall mountain. There were a few flat spots, but the trail was very vertical. At one point (there’s a picture above), we had to climb up this tall, green tower with a winding staircase in order to continue up the mountain. However, at the top, the views were quite nice. It was a little cloudy, which was a little unfortunate, but it was otherwise quite nice. There was even a little shrine at the top, which a couple of monks kept trying to persuade us to enter (with an accompanying donation of course).

Once we hiked down, we were pretty much done for the day, being too tired to do much of anything else. In the interest of keeping this post of reasonable length, I’ll post the photos and whatnot of our second day in another post.

 

Of Penguins and Pandas

Penguins, doing their penguin thing

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I went to the Beijing Zoo today, which was quite interesting. You can flip through the pictures I took in the album above. It was a fairly large zoo and took several hours to cover. However, beforehand, I lunched at KFC, where I enjoyed a Shrimp Burger. While unexpected, the burger was quite tasty.

The zoo has an unbeatable 20 RMB (about $3) admission fee, which includes the 5 RMB (for reference, Ren Min Bi, aka the yuan or, more informally, the kuai) add-on for the pandas. There was also a 10 RMB add-on for the penguins, which now that I think about it, is quite odd. You’d think that with pandas being a national treasure and all that, they’d be worth more than the penguins and, the zoo would charge more to see the pandas than the penguins. Or maybe this is some sort of government program to ensure that all the masses can see the pandas and thus revel in their great proletarian revolutionary past. I will have to give this some thought.

Anyway, I sent most of the day wandering around gawking at all the cool animals they had in the zoo. There were penguins, really cool goldfish, pandas, deer, donkeys, monkeys, birds, lions, and bears. Oh my! The Beijing Aquarium (the largest inland aquarium in the world) is also located within the grounds of the zoo, but I did not have time to stop by. The exhibits were all quite interesting, and the zoo generally allowed you to get quite close to the animals (especially when compared to the standards of most American zoos). In fact, there were hordes of excited children running around the zoo with bags of lettuce that they would take and feed to the animals, both for the excitement of feeding zebras and such, but also as a way to set-up a better photo-op with the animal in question. I actually saw one guy banging on one of the lions’ cages with a stick so that they would be situated directly behind his son when he snapped a picture. It didn’t really strike me as the smartest idea in the world, but it worked.

I hit the pandas last, mostly because they were on the other side of the zoo, but also because one of the better souvenir shops was located in the Olympic Panda House. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the prices at this place were quite reasonable. I was able to pick up a couple of pandas (one at the behest of Molly, the other one I bought for myself), some rather decent postcards, and a rather cool-looking piece of panda art for about $25. Even the sodas weren’t that pricey. I bought a 20-oz. bottle of Coke for about $0.75. The Chinese have obviously not learned the art of extortion that typically characterizes gift shops.

On an unrelated topic, I also went to go see a Chinese acrobatic performance at the Heaven and Earth Theater on Friday night. Unfortunately, they had a rather strict no cameras policy, so I couldn’t snap any shots. However, the performance was quite interesting, with the acrobats doing all kinds of wild twists and turns (so of which I didn’t think were even possible) and balancing acts with glasses and balls and whatnot. It was quite cool.

Singing in the Rain

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Yesterday it rained… a lot. I’m not sure if this is typical or not, but it was fairly impressive nonetheless. Throughout the city, there are several underground pedestrian walkways, which allow you to walk under an intersection rather than through it (which considering the state of traffic in Beijing, it’s definitely a good idea). Apparently several of them don’t have drains. So, when it rains, they fill up with water. I actually saw one that was filled with about 6 or 7 feet worth of water (and completely impassable as a result). The wonderful people of the Beijing Municipal Government did manage to have the whole thing completely drained (and cleaned) by this afternoon, though. I’m not exactly sure how they did it, but I’m definitely giving them a star in that column. Of course, the whole thing could have been resolved had someone had the presence of mind to put drains in the thing. I guess they’re able to make it work. I’ve posted a few pictures of the view outside my room as the storm started to roll in (at about 4pm).

Last night, I also realized that I had forgotten to bring an umbrella with me. The magnitude of this error was compounded by the fact that when dinner rolled around, I had no food and no umbrella. I got to be quite wet. Apparently, it’s not so easy to buy an umbrella here either, as the department store I went to didn’t have any that weren’t flamboyantly pink and less than $30. It was quite disappointing. I did manage to console myself somewhat by buying a 2L of Coke, but I was still very wet.