Grassroot Perspective – April 14, 2003-Big Fat Number; Wal-Mart Flower; Blues-Most Uninsured Can Get Coverage Already; Role of Religion in Early Business Solutions

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“Dick Rowland Image”

”Shoots (News, Views and Quotes)”


– Big Fat Number

Is there fat and then Asian fat? Do Asians get obese at lower levels of
fat than other folks do? And if that is true, might it also be true
that, say, black folks and white folks get fat differently from one
another? In short, could it be that all the hard and fast rules about
diet and obesity are hopelessly simplistic?

These questions are raised by plans to redefine the definition of
obesity downward based on information from the World Health
Organization. The WHO is notoriously flaky on such matters, but there
seems to be some evidence that Asians become at risk for diabetes at
lower levels of body fat than non-Asians. This higher risk for diabetes,
the thinking goes, should be accompanied by an official label of “obese”
for people with that level of body fat.

But public health types seem to always want to make any given “at-risk
population” numbers larger, whether or not that actually helps people
stay healthy. (That strategy helps ramp up spending for those very same
public health bureaucracies to play with.)

The official body-mass numbers already dismiss individual differences in
muscle mass and bone density, resulting in categories of “fit” natural
only for tri-athletes and runway models. The result is the body mass
index stuff is just laughed off as obviously ridiculous. Lower it still
further and the public will tune out obesity talk for years.

– Wal-Mart Flower

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) drew snickers for daring to suggest
that his state government try to run itself like Wal-Mart. Blue smocks,
greeter at the door, huge cans of cheese doodles. Ha ha. But Sanford
gets it.

Wal-Mart is alternately mocked and derided as the big-box killer of
small towns, bringer of asphalt, and fake, plastic consumer culture, and
as the temple of redneck America, all double-wides, gun racks, and
stretch pants. This plays into common prejudices against both
megamarketing and the hopelessly vulgar people who support it. But those
casual insults miss the key to Wal-Mart’s success: the tremendous effort
it puts into the back-end of its operation.

Wal-Mart was years ahead of the curve in trying to streamline and
rationalize its logistics and supply chain, squeezing profits out of
improved efficiencies that compounded over time. This is precisely the
area where state and local government (forget the feds, they’re
hopeless) could stand to make huge improvements and save tons of
taxpayer money.

Many state organizations have no idea how much they spend on a given
component of their end product, let alone how to spend less. The recent
revelation that many states have cell phone bills running out of control
is a perfect example. Since the added value of cell phones was never
defined — probably not even considered — cost literally became no

Wal-Mart, though, knows its costs down to the penny. It knows its costs
and it knows its customers. That allows Wal-Mart to hit its target more
times than not. Governments are constrained by not having as good a
feedback loop as a market to provide the same kind of info, but Sanford
is right to wonder if government couldn’t at least try to act like costs
and customers matter.

Above articles are quoted from Reason Express, Reason’s Weekly Dispatch
March 18, 2003 Vol.6 No.11

– Blues-Most Uninsured Can Get Coverage Already

By Greg Scandlen ( Consumer Choice Matters #6

Just in time, a couple of reports have come out discussing some of the nitty-gritty numbers behind the uninsured. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association has release a study of “The Uninsured in America” that finds the population more diverse than is often thought. Of the 41 million uninsured, more than 14 million already are eligible for Medicaid or SCHIP but haven’t enrolled; more than 15 million have incomes of $50,000 or more and could purchase coverage if they thought it was valuable; and 5.7 million are short-term uninsured, often people between jobs or recent college graduates. The report notes that 5.2 million of the eligible but unenrolled live in just three states — California, Texas and New York. It also points out that the greatest growth in the uninsured is in people earning $75,000+, rising 70 percent from 1999-2001. Only 8.2 million are long term uninsured, too poor to afford coverage and ineligible for public programs. The paper proposes giving tax credits to employers to enroll their low-income workers, but that idea misses the real lessons in these numbers — many people do not like to be in government programs, many others do not find value in existing private coverage, and many others are not associated with an employer. The solution to all three groups could be tax credits to individuals (not employers), so they can purchase the coverage they prefer and value.

”Roots (Food for Thought)”

– Role of Religion in Early Business Solutions

A World of Ideas

By Leonard P. Liggio

During the coming season of Passover and Easter, it is useful to examine
the relationship between religion and economics. Several think tanks,
including the Minaret of Freedom (founded by Dean Ahmad), Toward
Tradition (founded by Rabbi Daniel Lapin), and the Acton Institute for
the Study of Religion and Liberty (founded by Father Robert Sirico) are
engaged in this work. On the back cover of this Investor Report, we
share early correspondence about plans for the development of Acton, for
which Alex Chafuen and I became founding trustees.

In this column, however, I would like to focus attention on one
particular example of recent scholarship that has contributed to our
understanding of the rise of modern economic institutions. Professor
Avner Grief (Stanford University), a recipient of a prestigious
five-year fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, has identified how
the problem of agency – creating trust among unfamiliar partners – was
overcome to enable a vast expansion of international trade during the
eleventh century.

Professor Grief’s scholarship has centered upon the Geniza documents,
commercial agreements among Jewish merchants in Cairo from the 9th to
13th centuries AD. Since the name of God was stated in these agreements,
they took on sacred status and could not be destroyed. These papyri were
deposited in the storeroom (geniza in Persian, derived from the Arabic
word kanz for treasure) of the Old Synagogue of Old Cairo, then were
removed unsystematically in the late nineteenth century, and ended in
five great collections and other smaller ones.

These documents show that the Jewish merchants of the period, called
Magrabi (or western) traders, were doing business with the emirates of
Tunis and Palermo (to the west) and Baghdad, Aden and India (to the
east). In the words of Avner Grief: “The geniza contains more than one
thousand documents which reflect the eleventh-century Mediterranean
trade. These documents depict this trade as free, private, and
competitive. The authorities’ stance with respect to international trade
reflected the tolerance and liberalism that characterized the period.
Moslem rulers, especially the Fatimids (who ruled North Africa, Sicily,
Egypt, and Palestine), sought to promote trade and no official
restrictions fettered migration or the transfer of raw material,
finished goods, or money across the Mediterranean. Both transportation
and mail delivery were competitive and largely private, and shipping was
available even to a small merchant, who could rent storage space on a
ship. The trade within each trade center was free and competitive, with
many buyers and sellers interacting in bazaars and storehouses, where
they negotiated and competed over prices, using brokers, open-bid
auctions, and direct negotiations.”(1)

But how did this trade take place, given the problem of agency — the
risk that one partner in the enterprise would disappear with goods or
money? It was common at the time for an older partner to contribute 2/3
of the capital for a trading venture, with a younger partner
contributing 1/3 as well as his time and trouble to travel abroad. The
simplest solution, even today, is to limit one’s financial partners to
one’s own family.

The Geniza documents show that Maghribi traders used the common bond of
shared religious and family ties to expand the circle of agents with
whom they could trust in trading ventures. Often the younger partner
selected, was, when not a son, a nephew. Since the younger partner was
tied so closely to the capitalist by synagogue and family bonds,
defection was made very costly and permanent, as one could not ever
return to one’s community whether in Cairo or where ever Maghribi
traders resided.

There are seven thousand self-contained Geniza documents, mostly written
in Arabic with Hebrew letters. Many are partnerships or contracts made
in a formal declaration; others are rabbinical court cases adjudicating
disputes. The most accessible source of these documents is the
six-volume collection, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities
of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Cairo Geniza, edited by the late
S. D. Goitein (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967),
reissued in paperback in 1999. Goitein notes that:

“…the most common type of literature found in the Geniza, the
so-called responsa, or “answers” of authoritative scholars on questions
of religious, legal, or general character addressed to them. The
responses and their Muslim counterparts, the fatwa’s, or opinions of the
muftis, were collected in books, which, in Judaism and Islam, fulfill a
role similar to collections of cases and decisions of high courts in
English and American law …the responsa of Moses Maimonides
(1135-1204)(2) and his son Abraham (1186-1237)… [were actually] legal
decisions in the Geniza synagogue” (S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean
Society, pp. 13-14).

The enduring importance of religion in economics remains a fruitful area
for study. In medieval open society, markets flourished on the basis of
personal and family reputation. From credibility to global brands,
personal judgments determine the failure or success of an enterprise.(3)

(1) Avner Grief, “Reputations and Coalitions in Medieval Trade: Evidence
of the Maghribi Traders,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. XLIL,
no. 4 (Dec., 1989); reprinted in Daniel Klein, ed., Reputation: Studies
in the Voluntary Elicitation of Good Conduct (Series in Economics,
Cognition and Society, edited by Timur Kuran), Ann Arbor, Michigan,
University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 140.
(2) Moses Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, and spent much of his
life in Cairo where he served as physician to the Sultan, Saladin, who
replaced the Fatimids. As a renowned scholar, one who acknowledged his
philosophical debt to Aristotle yet strove to preserve and order Jewish
learning with respect to the divine law, he had a great influence on
medieval thought.
(3) For a contemporary example, regarding how rabbinical courts and
exclusion animate relations among New York’s Jewish diamond dealers, see
Lisa Bernstein, “Opting out of the Legal System: Extralegal Contractual
Relations in the Diamond Industry,” Journal of Legal Studies (vol. 21,
1992, pp. 115-57).

Above article is quoted from Atlas Economic Research Foundation, Atlas
Investor Report Spring 2003

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