Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category


Fattening America

January 9, 2011


It’s not Americans fault for being fat.

I’m in my second quarter of classes and I get the funny feeling I spend more time between the kitchen and Yoga studio than anyone else here. Plainly put, I’m not fulfilling any stereotypes of American chicks in grad school.

My friends have been going out to dinner the past couple nights and the mere thought of more than abundant portions of overly salted foods cooked in processed ingredients is less than appetizing. But, it’s my first week back and spending time with friends is important, and its far more convenient to eat out than cook given our schedules. Plus I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can dine mostly anywhere and at the sake of mildly annoying waiters & waitresses and getting puzzled onlookers, I can specifically order a Red-tip, Arugla, Butterleaf, Spinach, Swiss chard or Romaine lettuce salad, with dressing on the side, and request to hold the hormone laced tomatoes. Except at most South Asian restaurants, where “salad” more often than not means you’re getting a bread plate of sliced tomatoes, onions on a bed of …**shudder** Iceberg Lettuce, (the Snookie of all lettuces, if you will. I’m not one to hate, but Iceberg lettuce is to lettuce, what Snookie is to brunettes).

So, that’s what i did on Thursday night when I went out. I ordered a Wasabi, Seared Ahi Tuna salad, which although salty, was quite delicious. Downside: it wasn’t originally a salad! The Tuna was supposed to be covered in creamy potatoes until i said, please hold the mash and give me extra veggies. Bigger downside: I ended up paying as much as the guy next to me who ordered a 3 course dinner. Then on Friday night we went out, and I was exceptionally hungry so, I passed on the salad and ordered a saffron broth based stew of boiled calamari, artichokes, crab leg, mussels, and whitefish (request to hold the pasta). But it happened to be the priciest entree on the menu.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, the fact that eating healthy in America is far more expensive than eating junk (you’ll find the same phenomenon if you visit any grocery store). Which brings us to the second, larger problem of defining the concept of “eating healthy”.

In the 1980’s we were bombarded with advertisements for “low fat” diets that had Americans consuming highly processed packaged foods and condiments that were loaded with added sugar and starch to compensate in taste for the lacking fat. Then in the 1990’s as people realized the increased sugar intake was making them fatter, Atkins and other high protein diets re-emerged with everyone touting Dr. Atkins 1972 proclamation “The High Calorie way to Stay Thin Forever!“. Sure, until most found it’s disgusting to live on a staple diet of meat and eggs minus any grains. Not to mention such diets are almost diametrically opposed to the FDA’s Food pyramid, which is just as ridiculous as the Atkins diet (even the recently modified one).

Are you Kidding me? The FDA wants us to eat more pasta & cereal rather than fresh produce?

And in this past decade as Americans break their backs in a perpetual professional rat race and hit the gym far more than our European counterparts (who mind you work less and are far thinner than us), studies confirm Americans continue to grow fatter.

Suffice to say, most everything recommended thus far has  been counter productive. And amidst this continual trial and error, (which has apparently been a long series of errors), Americans ought to finally catch on.

There’s an article this week in the Irish Times about Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food, where a solution is put quite elegantly: “EAT FOOD. Not too much. Mostly Plants”.

Beautiful. It’s streamlined, sensible and hard to refute. Yes, it turns the entire western diet upside down on its head, but that’s exactly what’s needed as Americans are plagued by heart disease, and obesity. Pollan suggests the western diet” that arose with the industrialization of food in the 20th century is characterized by lots of processed food, meats and refined grains, lots of added sugar and fat, but few vegetables, fruits and whole grains

In fact, go to any grocery store and try to follow the FDA pyramid of loading up on “grains” and even the well informed, yet time pressed American will fall for the sham that are breads, pastas, crackers and cereal laced with additives including fructose (sometimes the infamous high fructose corn syrup), starches (namely enriched corn starch) and even sodium.

We Might as well have Cake for Breakfast

We might as well just have Cake for Breakfast

Prime case in point – Added salt and sugar in cereal clearly manufactured to appeal to children. I mean that is just diabolical.

So, I’ve come to accept the general rule of thumb that buying anything in a package at an American grocery store (including places like Whole Foods and Trade Joes) will most often come processed sugar, and salty “preservatives”. Which leaves us with an option to purchase raw foods that one prepares themselves, bringing me back to my concern with being the odd man, er, woman out here in grad school.

But at the expense of being that girl who does a lot of cooking and Yoga, I’ve found what Pollan says is true. He advises we eat fresh foods that are not processed or enriched with additives. He refers to this as “what our grandmothers would recognize as food”. That sounds about right.

In addition to the problem with highly processed foods, Pollan provides a critical look at the “Reductionist” nutrition ideology in America that has convinced us of Three myths:

  1. Food is only a carrier of nutrients, and it’s the nutrients that matter, not the food
  2. We need experts to tell us what to eat because nutrients are invisible and mysterious to everyone but scientists
  3. Entire purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health

I think he’s right and these myths are key in why Americans keep getting fatter. Let’s go back to the Federal Food and Drug Administration that recommends we get a ridiculous amount of bread, cereal, crackers and pasta in our diet, and advises we make sure at least 3 servings are “whole grain”. Take a box of Cheerios, the seemingly most healthy Cheerios: the ones in the yellow box titled “Toasted whole Grain Oat Cereal” which at the top proclaims “Whole Gain guaranteed!” and toward the bottom declares “Big G Cereals are America’s #1 Source of Whole Grain at breakfast”. It has such a wholesome image of red heart shaped bowl filled with the product and at the bottom reminds us that “3 grams of soluable fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Cgerrios cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease”.Looks great, until you actually read the nutritional label and ingredients list.

There’s modified corn starch, sugar and worst of all, sodium added to each box. And at 160 grams per serving of sodium and just 1 gram of Sugar, Cherrios are actually among the most healthy of American cereals.

This is despite the fact that The American Heart Association specifically warns against the increased risk of hypertension, subsequently heart disease and stroke that comes with added sodium in ones diet. The association ultimately recommends exactly what Pollen does: eat Fresh.

I mean, why can’t I just get a box of unsalted oats. I like oats. What’s wrong with plain oats? If i want them salty, I’ll add salt myself. Or I could opt for foods with significant amounts of naturally occurring sodium content, like beets, or chickpeas, or spinach. And if I want sugar, I can have any number of fruits. Modify Corn starch? Why, so we can mass produce thicker jelly that preserves Twinkies for years on end? Pollan is right: the western diet is so far removed from natural foods that humans have simply not been able to adapt to it. And the American food industries have rendered it too convenient to be unhealthy, bombarding us with aisle after aisle of grocery store processed excuses for fresh food. I’d really love to see some long term studies that collect data to weigh the costs of producing these foods vs the increasing obesity and heart disease rates, including the cost of prevention and treatment.

So I suppose even if cooking takes up a chunk of my time between studying, socializing and Yoga, eating fresh has helped me maintain a BMI under 20 and capacity to jog a couple miles in the Denver altitude. And the peripheral benefits of wellness are something one cannot put a price on.

I periodically indulge in a ridiculous amount of double stuffed Oreos, Cupcakes, Full Fat Milk and South Asian “mithai”.


Politicking in Pakistan

December 17, 2009

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari

It’s untimely politicking in Pakistan as the Supreme Court turned overturned the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that offered government officials Amnesty from corruption charges. Deeming the NRO unconstitutional today renders President Zardari the main target of reopening corruption cases against what will be thousands of top government officials including interior Minister Rehman Malik. Originally, the ordinance was put in effect in 2007 under Pervez Musharraf’s regime and intended to free Benazir Bhutto of corruption charges so that she could return and run for political office in Pakistan wherein power would likely have been shared with Pervez Musharraf after elections. The tragic death of Ms. Bhutto upset such endeavors, but ushered in Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari as the popular victor of elections that year.

Ironically, the National Reconciliation Ordinance that helped usher Zardari to power, might now signal his exit.

As head of state, he could cite Presidential immunity from corruption charges but the ruling still riles an increasingly discontented populace against Mr. Zardari. And however noble reopening corruption cases might seem, to a discerning eye, the Supreme Court is politicking with the overturning of NRO. The Foreign Policy Magazine astutely notes that this ruling is nothing short of an “opportunity to settle a long-standing political score with Zardari“. Plus it comes conveniently at a time when the air is ripe for a new regime, some say imminent even.

The Supreme Court eyes an opportunity to not only settle a political score, but sees an chance to construct obstacles for General Musharraff who some say eyes a very possible return as Zardari’s popularity wanes.

Having sacked the judiciary during his tenure, Mr. Musharraf is not favored for return amongst the Supreme Court, to put it lightly. So, unfortunately, justice itself might not be the main ambition in overturning NRO and reopening thousands of corruption cases at this time.

Pakistan is at a crossroads: stability and development should be of top priority. There’s no room for personal power politics between parties, and branches of government which ideally would not affect policymaking, and currently should at the least take a backseat to security issues.

Mis-focus of priorities and exploiting opportunities for political retaliation is a dishonorable excuse for governance and I hope that if political transitions transpire as a result of this ruling, they will have no adverse effect on security during such testing times in Pakistan.



Identifying Demons in Pakistan

December 9, 2009

NYTIMES does a good job of publishing weekly articles on the Af-Pak situation. And a recent piece had a very enticing title: “The Demons that Haunt Pakistan” . It conjured deep curiosity and I delved into it anticipating the “demons” referred to how terrorists have paralyzed the country since 9/11.

Instead, the writer interviews one oddball Psychiatrist who says the “Gucci suit” wearing Americans are the real terrorists and Blackwater is luring his hired help to engage in a grand U.S. conspiracy to destroy Pakistan. Based on this sole, very erratic viewpoint, she presumes that like a “teenager” Pakistan is “self-conscious, emotional, quick to blame others for its troubles” and is where conspiracy theories are “pervasive”. But the presumption that Anti-Americanism supersedes resentment of actual terrorists who have is not well founded. In fact, only at the end of the article does she acknowledge the moderate Pakistani viewpoint:

“Islam treats foreigners according to their wishes,” It’s not what these people (terrorists) say — killing them or asking others to terrorize them,” he said contemptuously of the militants. “We must treat everybody equally. Christians, Jews, Muslims”

The author refers to this as the “unlikely exception”, but on the contrary, this perspective is more likely to be found in Pakistan. The gentleman expressing this view is working class and the masses are working class. They’re not doctors or professionals whom the author erroneously cites as the norm. Further, it’s the working classes who struggle most with terrorism, not the sliver of Pakistan’s elite population who maintain comforts despite political upheaval. So the  implication that demon-esque Anti Americanism is rooted in spectacular conspiracy theories is unlikely:

The majority masses are far more skeptical of Pakistani policymakers and domestic corruption than of Blackwater and the American, or Indian government for that matter.

More accurately on India, the author cites counter productive policies in Pakistan that maintained, rather than obliterated the feudal system and attributes the profound struggles of Partition to subsequent skepticism that has been harbored by both countries for one another since. Plus, having fought three wars in just 62 years, she explains it’s “natural that Pakistan’s security concerns focus more on its eastern border with India” and “not irrational” for Pakistan to resent American calls for change in this strategy.

The piece goes on to explain resentment of American policymaking viewed  as “U.S. single-mindedly pursues it’s own interests as it did in the 80’s when it was confronting the Soviets”. And therein lies skepticism for the United States in Pakistan: it’s rooted in abandoning ship post the Soviet-Afghan war. Leaving Pakistan with one of the worlds largest refugee problems well ISI/CIA trained extremist Islamist militants in a developing country hasn’t boded well 20 years later. As a partial result, Pakistan hasn’t developed, it’s deteriorated. Cooperation in our Afghan operation in the 80’s isn’t perceived as productive. Thus,

Current skepticism of U.S. expansion in the Af-Pak war is not a matter of irrational, conspiracy theories or bitterness for all things American, it comes after prolonged, and now daily struggle against extremist Islam, and terrorists who massacre Pakistanis almost daily since 9/11.



Shaukat Aziz on Security

October 19, 2009

I’m in Arlington Virginia this weekend attending the Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs, D.C. chapter’s annual conference. This year’s theme is “Thriving in A Challenging Economy” and of particular interest was this mornings keynote address by former Pakistani Prime Minster Shaukat Aziz. Although retired from both politics and an illustrious career in international finance, now focusing on non profit work, he shared insights on global affairs ranging from the financial meltdown, terrorism, economic development and challenges facing the Muslim world, ultimately tying it together to make a simple point: international economic development can yield international security.

Aziz attributes economic downturn to sheer “greed” and “arrogance” which resulted in gross regulatory failures and voids in leadership on Wall Street. Stressing consumer confidence and unemployment indexes as opposed to stock market increases as indicators of recovery, he further warned against decoupling emerging markets from states more hard hit by the crisis and marked terrorism of equal importance to addressing financial crisis. In doing so, he referred to “fault lines” in the international system fractured by terrorism, and called on Muslim IGO’s such as the Organization of Islamic Conference to do more in bridging interfaith dialogue.

It was timely advice since his address was preceded by America’s Ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Conference, Sada Cumber. Addressing a mostly Pakistani audience, he underscored the importance for diasporas to seek opportunities for interfaith dialogue so as to reclaim what has become an internationally inaccurate view of Islam. Proactively promoting interfaith harmony in addition to transcending party lines for non resident Pakistani’s was another prescription. He offered an example of Former President George Bush who when asked about his Clinton as his Democratic successor in the 1990’s explained he supported the American President, suggesting such bipartisan, unified support is what Pakistan requires politically.

But his most provocative insight came during Q&A session when someone asked about the IMF’s role on Kerry-Lugar legislation to Pakistan. Without delving specifically  into IMF policies which disperse funds in a traunch system only as stringent conditions are met in entirety, Aziz succinctly explained that anytime a state accepts IMF funds, they compromise economic sovereignty. It was a powerful, provocative statement from a man whose experience in international finance runs deep. He went on to supplement the idea by describing achievements in maintaining Pakistan’s economic sovereignty during his political tenure when he rejected IMF funding.

Overall, Aziz was insightful, relevant, and quite entertaining. He always manages to capture audiences with sharp commentary that transcends generations and professions. After all, every time i’ve heard him speak has been at entrepreneurial conferences, and I’m far too nerdy to be an entrepreneur.



Defeating Terrorism with Development

September 25, 2009

kerry lugar

Senate unanimously passed a bill authorizingappropriations to promote an enhanced strategic partnership with Pakistan”. The legislation is likely to receive similar support in the House later this week before being sent to President Obama for final approval. Initial versions of legislation were presented as the Biden-Lugar bill last year led by democrats Joe Biden and Senator Kerry, and supported by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Currently, the bill is coauthored by Republican Senator Dick Lugar making it widely bipartisan which reflects our growing desire to engage Pakistan ensuring stability and ultimately our interests in the region.

The Legislation triples foreign aid to our major non NATO ally” allowing up to $1,500,000,000 for their cooperation in “counterterrorism/counterinsurgency describing Pakistan’s ongoing struggles and successes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It cites assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Islamabad and Mumbai hotel attacks last fall among other suicide bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of which involved deaths of US citizens to underscore an immediate need to assist Pakistan at this critical time. As we face mounting deaths in the War on Terror, send additional troops to Afghanistan and President Obama works closely with generals to revamp our strategy there, the bill is meant to forge a new relationship with Pakistan.

It extends diplomatic rhetoric directly to the people of Pakistan by describing the daily plight of citizens who are “especially hard hit by rising food and commodity prices and severe energy shortages” with 2/3rds of the population living on less than 2.25 and 1/5 of the population living below the poverty line”.  It further mentions “Compatible goals of combating terrorism, radicalism and promoting economic development through building of infrastructure and promoting social and material well being for Pakistani citizens through development of public services”. And most interestingly, the bill cites Pew opinion polls finding:

Pakistan has historically viewed the relationship between the United States and Pakistan as a transactional one characterized by a heavy emphasis on security issues with little attention to other matters of great interest to citizens of Pakistan”.

Then referring to the current civilian government as an “opportunity to place relations on a new and more stable foundation”. The bill’s ‘statement of policy‘  identifies the following objectives:

  1. Support the consolidation of democracy, good governance & rule of law in Pakistan
  2. Support economic growth & development to promote stability/security
  3. To build a sustained, long term, multifaceted relationship with Pakistan
  4. Expanding bilateral engagement with Pakistan
  5. To work with Pakistan and bordering countries to facilitate peace (a possible reference to mediating the Kashmir issue. President Obama mentioned doing so during his campaign run for President)
  6. Expand people to people engagement between US and Pakistan through increased educational, technical and cultural exchanges (possibly in the form of more student/professional visas. Envoy Holbrooke mentioned this in visits to Karachi in July)
  7. Work with government of Pakistan to:
    • prevent Pakistani territory from being used as a base/conduit for terrorism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India or elsewhere
    • Coordinate military, paramilitary & police action against terrorist terrorism
    • Help bring peace, stability and development
      • (this might entail counterinsurgency/counterterrorism assistance and cooperation through intelligence sharing, arms development/trade and training of Pakistani forces)

Pakistan is aptly described as a major non-NATO, long-standing ally. But cooperation has been dominated by security issues generally in the form of military dictators supported by the States in exchange for Pakistan’s military assistance throughout the Cold War and current War on Terror resulting in the Pakistani mindset of solely “transactional” relations. This bill is a fair attempt to shift that context to a more positive tone with the aforementioned objectives and diplomatic rhetoric.

However, certain specificities such as timetables and solid oversight must be transparently accessible to the Pakistani and American public to ensure more positive relations are achieved. Already experts are weighing in with concerns. Despite the commitment to development in addressing the plight of daily Pakistani’s, Foreign Policy Magazine mentions that the bill doesn’t say exactly how much of these funds are to be allocated toward military assistances. And although senator Kerry insists “Clear, tough minded accountability standards and metrics” are contained in the bill, Dawn News cites Rand Corporation expert Dr. Christine Fair raising the issue of “greater transparency” and wanting to ensure international accounting standards are applied in allocating these funds. Such concerns are equally felt in Pakistan, where past commitments of economic development have not always found their way to alleviating the plight of daily citizens for whom funding is supposedly intended.

For this reason a concerted conviction to improving the daily lives of Pakistani’s is required by Pakistani politicians who have ultimate control over how these funds are applied. I hope that President Asif Zardari along with Parliament works closely to ensure monies are responsibly allocated to a “sustainable” development the bill calls for.


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