Sweet Poison: The Lethal Costs of Big Sugar

August 22, 2014

“Drastic Measures”, in the Financial Times (April 25, 2014) details a dramatic shift in health care priorities and the effect of putting the first significant, coordinated pressure on sugar consumption: “… governments are waking up to the rising costs of illnesses such as diabetes and cancer that have increased alongside obesity. ‘The discussion of sugar linked to dietary concerns has been has been gathering momentum,’ says Stefano Natella of Credit Suisse. “The related global healthcare costs are at an all-time high–the bill is $500 billion or over 10 percent of global healthcare spending — as are obesity and diabetes levels.”

The way that smoking leads to tobacco farmers, the path to the current health care crisis begins with sugar producers. In the United States, the obesity and diabetes epidemic point to Florida where sugar billionaires tied massive subsidies in the Farm Bill to subsidies for corn fructose. When earlier this year the World Health Organization reduced the recommended daily sugar intake by half, to the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar a day, billionaire sugar barons in West Palm Beach and Coral Gables paid closest attention. Florida sugar producers have a global reach — with operations proliferating in low-cost labor nations like the Dominican Republic, but their intense focus is the Florida proving ground where a sophisticated mobilization of economic, social, and political resources maintains the aura of Big Sugar as good corporate citizen.

Big Sugar is quick to repel environmental and community indignation in Florida — as well as decades of lawsuits over its pollution of the Everglades — , but it hasn’t decided what direction to take with respect to emerging science on the crisis triggered by its products. While Republican members of Congress rant and rave about the costs of the Affordable Health Care Act, none complain about the toll on consumers’ health through excess consumption of sugar. Thirty years ago, 1 in 20 kids were obese. Today, it’s 1 in 5.

The Institute for Responsible Nutrition notes that 77% of grocery store items contain added sugar; “Food companies know that the more sugar they add, the more people buy.” In Great Britain, policy makers are considering a sugar tax. In Florida during the first Clinton term, when Big Sugar faced a tax that would have forced the industry to pay for polluting the Everglades, it enlisted among its chief supporters the churches and leaders in the African American communities of Florida, appealing to minorities disproportionately bearing its high costs.

A recent investigative series by the Tampa Bay Times disclosed that Florida’s top GOP politicians, including Gov. Rick Scott and senior Republican legislators, were flown to all-expenses paid hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas by U.S. Sugar. Read the rest of this entry »


Drowning in Information: On Memory, the Internet, and Reading Comprehension

July 24, 2014

(Counterpunch) Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about memory. I’m sensitized by family members in their 90s. Each are in flagging health and suffering memory deficits; from dementia, Alzheimers, to simple cognitive decline.

It’s sad and I do worry about the road ahead, but I’m also troubled by the road I’m on.

On the way to writing this post, I went online for a New York Times OPED that had interested me; how reliance on the internet has diminished the ability of consumers to fully process what we are reading. I’ve noticed that when I read a newspaper online, my retention of information is qualitatively different from when I read a printed newspaper in my hands. It’s an unscientific result reached after many years of reading and writing to earn readers’ attention.

Before I could find what I was looking for in the Times, my attention was diverted by an interesting story on a public hearing about fish eggs and nuclear permitting on the Hudson River. When I couldn’t find on my laptop the OPED I meant to bring to your attention, I reached into my backpack for my iPad and logged on to see if the OPED was in the history bar.

There, open in my browser I had a yoga schedule, a Sun Sentinel article on Jeb Bush’s legacy (taking a huge hit!), a weather site (to rain or not to rain), a Miami Herald report (even now can’t remember what it was about), an article from the UK Guardian on climate change in Miami (drowning!), a coffee vendor website (have to order now), a friend’s blog (have to read now), another NY Times OPED (not the one I was looking for), an article on restaurants in Paris, 40 Genius Travel Tips That Will Change Your Life Forever, and Trouble Shooting Your Cable TV Connection.

I never did find what I was looking for — my memory was hazy, which doesn’t help when using search words — , but when I find it I will share the news: comprehension skills have declined with our reliance on the internet.

That we are drowning in information is hardly news. We are all in a turbulent current where brains don’t multi-task so much as substitute breadth of capacity for depth of understanding. Then, too, some evolutionary part of us believes that attention to lots of different pieces of information, as many as we can hold, will make life safer; the digital equivalent of sniffing the wind for signs of danger.

Take the daily blog I write (eyeonmiami.blogspot.com) and reader comments, for example. We get the most comments from short posts. We know (as paid newspaper editors do, too) that readers’ attention spans are foreshortened by so much freely available information. Blogs that cost nothing but a glance. It doesn’t mean our readers aren’t interested or don’t fully appreciate our longer reports, or for that matter longer investigative pieces in newspapers or magazines.

Who can absorb it all? And if we are not using the information we receive from the internet to become more educated, better humans, improving our condition, our health and welfare, and that of our family, friends, and communities; what in the world are we doing?


The Re-Making of a Conservative: The Jeb Bush Mirage

May 29, 2014

(Counterpunch) Anyone familiar with the record of Jeb Bush’s two terms as Florida governor will be rubbing their eyes at the recent NY Times profile depicting Bush as “an intellectual in search of new ideas, a serial consulter of outsiders who relishes animated debate and a probing manager who eagerly burrows into the bureaucratic details.” (Jeb Bush Gives Party Something to Think About, New York Times, May 24, 2014)

Jeb was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. In 1994 he narrowly lost his first political race to the late Lawton Chiles. To the right-wing of the GOP, it was a glitch. As a result of that loss, George W. and not Jeb was in line to be the Republican contender for president in 2000. Twenty years later, in 2014, Jeb Bush, longtime advisors, and the deepest fundraising network in Republican politics is pushing a version of Jeb Bush into the media headlights. That version, detailed in the New York Times puffery, bears scant resemblance to the Jeb Bush who was governor.

Jeb could be a micromanager. But “an intellectual in search of new ideas”? Hardly. Jeb made his mark as a micromanager by requiring adherence to preconceived ideas, like those developed by his conservative think tank, The Foundation For Florida’s Future. “A serial consulter of outsider who relishes animated debate”? Debate requires two sides of an argument, and Bush rarely paid attention — more frequently was dismissive than not — of those who dared rebut what he had already decided.

The depiction by the New York Times may be the portrait Bush advisors want to paint for the public, but it doesn’t resemble the Jeb Bush who used Florida as a model for radical conservative experiments.

“Those who have hashed over policy and politics with Mr. Bush describe him as a conservative animated less by rigid ideology than a technocrat’s quest to identify which solutions work best.” Well no, New York Times. That is just wrong.

Instead of consulting with those who tried to change Jeb’s mind or offer different points of view, the Times relied on an author and a conservative think tank executive (from the American Enterprise Institute, no less) to polish Jeb’s intellectual credentials. It’s nonsense.

“The approach, aides said, suffused his government, which became a hothouse for ambitious, mostly conservative policy programs. They included assigning A through F grades to public schools, offering performance bonuses to government workers, privatizing many public services and, through billions of dollars in land purchases, locking in the conservation of the Everglades.”

if Jeb’s administration was “a hothouse for ambitious, mostly conservative policy programs” it took place behind a wall of secrecy that few outsiders ever penetrated. That Jeb determined to use the power of his first elected office to advance a highly conservative agenda was never in doubt, but he was also closed-minded. Inclusive? Relishing debate?

In 2000, it took a phone call from his father to bring an end to a protest by African American state legislators. Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill lead a 25 hour sit-in, in the governor’s waiting room, because Jeb refused to even hear them out on important policy issues.

Jeb’s policy programs were not “mostly” conservative, they were universally conservative and applied across a range of policy issues with a broad brush, helping pave the way for powerful campaign contributors who profited mightily from the housing boom — kindled by Jeb’s donor base in Miami — and then the subsequent crash from which Florida has yet to emerge.

The alliances Jeb forged between big business insiders, like the Council of 100 in Florida run — in those early 2000′s — by Al Hoffman, chairman of both Bush brothers’ campaign finance committees, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce has rushed to the rescue of the flagging campaign of the current governor, embattled Rick Scott. Bush, with Hoffman’s help and encouragement, laid the groundwork for a pro-business, anti-environmental agenda that boosted suburban sprawl at the expense of wetlands and water quality. Eventually in 2008, Hoffman’s company, WCI Communities, Inc., declared bankruptcy. Jeb’s first consultant job after leaving the Governor’s Mansion in 2008 was for the state’s biggest bond brokers, Lehman Brothers. At virtually the same time Jeb was set in motion by Lehman Brothers to solicit an equity investment by Carlos Slim, the Mexican multi-billionaire, WCI Communities declared bankruptcy with over $1.8 billion in debt. The value of the company’s stock was halved overnight. The Lehman Brother’s collapse cost the state of Florida well over $1 billion. (Florida stands to lost $1 billion because of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, Tampa Bay Times, June 4, 2009)

How conservative ideologies embraced by Jeb Bush, without room for dissent or debate, masked profit schemes built on fraudulent financial footings that caused housing to boom, then collapse, dragging the nation’s economy into a prolonged spiral downward: this perspective is nowhere to be found in the New York Times sunny portrait of another Bush.

As to assigning A to F grades to public schools, that’s a red herring for the Bush initiative assigning stifling curriculum standards across the state in a “one size fits all approach” that Republicans otherwise abhor. “Offering performance bonuses to government workers”? Compare that to the Bush inaugural speech in 2003 where he exulted in his promise to empty government buildings of workers. “Locking in the conservation of the Everglades”?

On that one, it is hard to know where to begin.

But let’s try with one example: the land purchase of Palm Beach Aggregates in West Palm Beach — Jeb’s first as governor– that eventually landed three county commissioners in federal prison and even then was such an exorbitant expense (benefiting insiders) that it set a gross example of land pricing the state would have to bear for buying out other insiders in subsequent transactions. Or how about the failed plan to locale in Florida a new Scripps Institute on a massive farm in former Everglades wetlands that Jeb attempted to shoe-horn, also in Western Palm Beach County, around state environmental rules and regulations? Then, Ave Maria University — founded by ultra-conservative, Republican Tom Monahan of Domino’s Pizza — on the other side of the Everglades in remnant wetlands, creating a massive urban footprint in Florida panther habitat. The list goes on.

The fact is that Jeb’s concern for the Everglades was about water supply for the cities, and the outsourcing of water management district functions — including the appointment of a key campaign supporter and state GOP chair, Al Cardenas, to run the counsel operations of the South Florida Water Management District — assured massive politicization of water related issues on behalf of Jeb’s pre-conceived notions.

If you really want to dive into one of those pre-conceived notions, turn to his Foundation for Florida’s Future monograph from 1996, “The Next Step in Environmental Protection: A Move Toward Free-Market Environmentalism”. There Denver Stutler touts the premise of wetlands mitigation banking. Instead of government regulation, private industry would “cooperate” to protect wetlands, and in doing so would provide a more effective public benefit than regulation.

A private firm called ECOBANK is singled out for being an innovative, conservative response to a new business ethic driven by reasonable, conservative values. Stutler, an ECOBANK principal who would later become a trusted Bush aide in the Governor’s Mansion and Florida Secretary of Transportation, wrote, “ECOBANK is an example of a coming trend in environmental protection that uses a new vision to evaluate and establish a logical approach in private mitigation banking (of wetlands)… The strategy for effective private mitigation banking, like ECOBANK’s, is to establish “megabucks” to support complete ecosystem restoration and maintenance, while allowing credits to be produced quickly and economically. These megabucks will be able to serve the needs of all customers for many years. Moreover, this market based approach using private investment will substantially increase both the pace of restoration of sensitive lands and the amount of land acquired for public benefit.” He concluded: “Everyone from concerned citizens to active players, and most importantly our natural environment, will benefit from the new balanced mitigation approach.”

By 2006, the Tampa Bay Times published its groundbreaking series by Craig Pittman, Vanishing Wetlands. The series included: “The ‘Bad Apple’ of wetlands banking: Held up to Congress as a shining example of the promise of wetland mitigation banking, their business went belly up.” (December 18, 2006) The company that went bankrupt? ECOBANK.

“Jeb Bush Gives Party Something to Think About” gives discerning readers plenty to think about: namely, what is going on at The New York Times.


The Scramble for Cuba: Here comes Miami!

February 4, 2014

(Counterpunch) Consider it done: in the United States, the figurative hurricane barriers against access to Cuba are opening. Given they have been clamped shut for half a century, there is a lag time between turning the screws and actuating the gates. Put it this way: the lubrication is done.

On Monday, the conservative Capitol Hill Cubans blog hoisted a warning as the Washington Post published, “Sugar Tycoon Eyes Sweet-Deal With Castro”. Pay attention wherever Big Sugar surfaces. Cafecito is not the currency of the realm in Florida: sugar is. And not just Florida. Half of American health care costs are tied to the ill effects of sucrose in its various forms.

In June 2012 the blog, Eye On Miami, noted the first visit of Alfie Fanjul in Havana. Alfie is one half of the Florida Crystals family, the billion dollar brand that dominates anything related to land use, water management, agricultural subsidies and pollution control in the Florida legislature, Congress, and the White House.

It was more than a curiosity to learn that by 2012 wealthy Cuban Americans had publicly crossed the Florida Straits, risking the antagonism of the right wing message machine in Miami.

That message machine — embodied by vitriolic anti-Castro, Spanish language AM radio – routinely enforced political orthodoxy in Florida’s most politically influential county, Miami-Dade. Instructions came from the top down, and at the top: money from Big Sugar. The booming shrink wrapped luggage and long lines of passengers en route from Miami to Havana defied the stigma of the embargo. In other words, a brisk business between Miami Cubans and families on the island had already started beneath the AM language rants. Notwithstanding old hard liners banging war drums, by 2012 the gold rush was gearing up and by the presence of at least one Fanjul brother — Alfie — in Havana, political cards were being played.

Political observers who dismiss the importance of recent Fanjul statements to the Washington Post are missing the point. The Post offers Alfie Fanjul’s version of himself: teary-eyed, standing before the family mansion in Havana. Maybe there was a tear or two.

Capitol Hill Cubans allude to the fact that the Fanjuls’ wealth grew from the largesse of American taxpayers and through the sheer political skill involved in maintaining the subsidies that have earned hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, I would add, a billionaire fortune built on immigrant farm labor, pollution, and turning the Everglades, the Florida legislature, and Congress into their own VIP rooms. That’s not, however, the direction Capitol Hill Cubans want to explore.

“Monopolists understand each other”, they write. More to the point, conservative Cuban leaders tolerated the Fanjul monopolists extraordinarily well so long as the action was shared. One of the first business lines of Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the right wing Cuban American National Foundation, was to broker farm equipment to the sugar barons.

The current leader of the foundation, Pepe Hernandez, told the Washington Post, “Having known Alfie for 40 years, I think we can trust him to do the right thing.”

Now, the Capitol Hill Cubans spy the fault line breaking at the possible campaign of Hillary Clinton, where the Democrat side of the Fanjul clan, Alfie’s, resides. But that’s not it at all.

The issue prying the remaining hard liners in Miami from the Fanjuls is that the Fanjuls will not wait while billions in business opportunities are being hammered out between the Cuban government and wealthy South Americans and European competitors. It’s not ideology that kept the Fanjuls from Cuba, it’s the fear of losing money now that there is money to be made.

Leaving the issue of the Castro regime to the side, the question is not when will the regime come to a close, but …when will the money spigot open?

It is open, now. The sign is not yet above the model unit, beckoning buyers, but insiders have already done their walk-thrus before the public is admitted.

For an aging and dying generation of Cuban Americans, the enduring hope was for retribution and a swift execution of justice in Havana. Miami Cuban Americans would lead the charge. Instead of forcing change in Havana, anti-Castro hatreds primarily succeeded in mobilizing voting blocks in South Florida, ensuring a conservative GOP majority in the state legislature and a Congress that marched to the same syncopated downbeat as the upbeat in Havana. Meanwhile, a lot of money was made by Miami Cuban Americans controlling the levers of politics, of growth and development of suburbs and condo canyons, of privatization of government services and charter schools, while the Castros held on in Havana.

Today, the Castro brothers are fading faster than the conservative Cuban American lock on Miami politics. The Fanjuls, on the other hand, with their “30,000 foot view” do understand that history is moving.

So what the Fanjuls do, matters. The Washington Post story is like the wisp of smoke emerging from the Vatican chimney when the cardinals have made their decision on the next Pope.

Put another way: there is money and then there is real money. The very rich, like the sugar barons, are — as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in another context — “not like you and me.” The Fanjuls have excelled at manipulating governments in service of sugar profits in the United States. In the Everglades, they deploy the best black hats that money to delay Everglades restoration while tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent in work-arounds of lands in sugar production that need to be returned to fix the Everglades. There are always ways to make money from economic barriers. But when those hurdles are defeating profits — the way opposition to Castro in Miami is, today — the hurdles have to fall. It’s just business.

Here is what Capitol Hill Cubans will not write. For so many of the Miami Cuban American elite, the signal of the Fanjuls turning to Cuba is a shift as great as the state department declaring the cessation of hostilities and the return of the embassy to Havana.

What the Capitol Hill Cubans can’t ask and can’t answer, how big is the piece of the pie going to be for Miami Cuban American businessmen? That’s always been the question they wanted to know. (I learned this in the 1990s, leading the battle against the conversion of a military base in South Florida bordering two national parks into a privatized commercial airport for the benefit of powerful Cuban American businessmen. They said it was for a “reliever airport” to Miami International. No, it was for a private and exclusive cargo airport to control the resupply of Cuba once the regime changed.)

For decades, Miami Cubans claimed to want the whole of Cuba, for “freedom and democracy”, knowing that they probably have to settle for less. But how much less? As the years ground on, with Mas Canosa gone and Fidel enfeebled, business interests from other parts of the world have gained traction. The port work, the infrastructure, the city center: the shovels are turning in Havana.

The Miami vise-grip of Cuban Americans on the “embargo” against Cuba is the theoretical analog of the decrepit, old fleet of 1955 Chevy sedans, held together with the same tenacity in Cuba. That fleet is being replaced on the streets of Havana with Toyotas, KIA, and Fiat, the same way as they have in Rangoon. Or Yangon. Whatever.

The Washington Post story and the instant reaction from the Capitol Hill Cubans couldn’t be more clear. The Fanjuls want their piece of the action. The game in Havana is, on. Let the scrambling of lesser mortals, begin.


Environmental Regulation is the Enemy and Time is Our Friend — Just Drink Water From Our Plastic Bottles and You Will be Safe Until This Crisis Blows Over West Virginia’s Message to the Nation

January 13, 2014

(COUNTERPUNCH) The vaunted capacity of enlightened corporations to do better than government to protect the public interest in clean, safe water just cracked a big leak in West Virginia.

Here is the most curious omission in media coverage of the West Virginia pollution disaster: how politics in West Virginia harbors antipathy to the very environmental regulations that ought to protect the state’s drinking water.

It is also an outstanding example how politics have consequences like those depriving 300,000 people in Charleston of safe drinking water. It is almost as though the media — that knows no boundaries when it comes to matching mayhem to eyeballs — has discovered in the underbrush of West Virginia politics a tragedy that is too horrible: the indelicate matter of voters supporting choices that undermine their own existence.

Curious, too, the media has no difficulty macerating an event in New Jersey that is similarly totemic: traffic flow on the George Washington Bridge traffic constipated by political ambition. Arguably the Elk River in West Virginia represents the same theme of politics making mince-meat of citizen safety with a significantly more dire outcome. Yet the media holds its nose.

Although both US Senators from West Virginia are Democrats, they are a leaden part of the Democratic majority in the Senate that exposes the American public to the worst of right-wing extremism against environmental regulation.

West Virginia is a poor state. Poverty indexes put the state near the very bottom. So when a story like the Elk River, that bears an eery familiarity to the burning rivers of the industrial midwest that spurred in the 1970′s the first federal environmental laws, emerges: one struggles for interpretation more clear than a poor state subject to most unfortunate, unavoidable calamity. That is exactly what is playing out on nightly network news.

Not a word either from Fox News how environmental rules might have reached to protect Charleston’s drinking water from the owners of the coal-industry company. The Politburo in the Soviet Union had the Soviet era organ called Pravda to selectively inform Russians. That pretty much defines Fox News, when it comes to the environment and the importance of regulations. Where is the indignation? Where is the outcry? Where is the investigation of the evisceration of the EPA’s enforcement authority?

Although the federal EPA — the bogeyman of the right-wing — is not implicated in the Elk River disaster, the shadow cast over a city incapable of delivering clean water to citizens invites full disclosure.

According to news reports, even though the tanks were decades beyond their useful life, the catastrophic pollution event awaits dilution and time. Thus it is with pollution in the United States.

The name of the company responsible for the catastrophe in West Virginia: Freedom Industries.


The Killer Politics of Big Sugar: It Is What It Is

January 10, 2014

COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION JANUARY 10-12, 2014

A recent report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) underscores the health care crisis in the world’s most exceptional democracy. The U.S. spends two and a half times per capita more on health care than any other developed country. How does this happen? Take a look at a key player in the paradox: sugar growers. In Florida it is called, Big Sugar. In other states it is beets, maple syrup and most ubiquitous of all: high-fructose corn syrup extracted from an unlimited corn crop heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

“30%-40% of healthcare expenditures in the USA go to help address issues that are closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar.” (Credit Suisse Report: “Sugar: Consumption At A Crossroads”, Sept. 2013) In Forbes Magazine, contributor Dan Monroe summarized, “Basically, the U.S. healthcare system spends about $1 trillion per year (and possibly more) fighting the effects of excess sugar consumption.”

“Higher health spending per capita tends to be associated with lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy, but this is not the case for the United States.” (“OECD: Switzerland tops 34 nations for life expectancy at 82.8″, UPI, Jan. 7, 2014) American politics are organized to protect corporate interests that make voters and taxpayers sick, and there is no better example: in a candy bar or a bowl of healthy granola, sugar is the big stake in the heart of American health.

According to a recent United Health Foundation study, “Nine of the 10 least healthy states in the nation had among the 10 worst obesity rates in the country.” The United Health Foundation was established by UnitedHealth Group in 1999 as a not-for-profit, private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care. Its ”America’s Health Rankings” rates the most healthy and least health states by evaluating factors such as healthy behaviors, quality of health care, health policy, the presence of diseases and deaths from illnesses.

The study is a good gateway to explore the politics of sugar. Nutrition advocates and environmentalists who have every reason to despair at the corrupting political influence of sugar have never connected the dots for the American public: sugar is not just another crop that receives federal benefits. It is a crop whose profits deform democracy and public health, no matter whose political party is in charge or at what level of government. Read the rest of this entry »


In the Climate Change Coal Mine: The Year the Canaries Came Home to Roost

January 1, 2014

In the Climate Change Coal Mine
The Year the Canaries Came Home to Roost

(Counterpunch) For my final essay of 2013 I am going to (again) write about climate change. This seems to be the year of the canaries in the climate-change coal mine. “Seems”, because at the risk of repetition I have been on that metaphor from the moment I started on the environment.

Back in the late 1980′s I wrote about serial algae blooms in northern Florida Bay. Although the scientists were scratching each other’s eyes out at the time — on the facts and cause –, it was clear that nothing could stop amorphous, amoeba-like blobs from destroying a vast, extraordinary piece of the Everglades ecosystem.

Nothing but government action to reverse decades of water mis-management that accrued to the benefit and upstream profits of Big Sugar. But the deniers controlled the levers of government: it was the time of Ronald Reagan, James Watts and the Wise Use Movement mobilized through the precursor to the Tea Party, called then the Sagebrush Rebellion — against government and especially against environmental regulation — and its Florida Keys branch, the Conch Coalition. Read the rest of this entry »


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