10 Times the Price and 10 Times Crappier

Sharon June 5th, 2008

http://www.alternet.org/story/83555/?page=1

Chalmers Johnson is one of my favorite thinkers, so I link to his article for the sheer pleasure of introducing him to anyone else who doesn’t know his work.  But I also mention it because it got me thinking.  Now we all know the statistics - you know, the ones for things like fact that the American military budget is 10 times the budget of the next biggest military power, China, or that we spend much more than all the other countries put together.  But somehow seeing the number laid out in Johnson’s analysis led me to a new thought - the 10 Times More = 10 Times Less Rule.

What is this rule?  Simply this - if we in America use 10 times as much as another country, or spend 10 times as much on something, not only will we use more and pay more, but we’ll get less.  What we get will, inevitably be at least twice as crappy as the much cheaper model, and often as much as 10 times worse.

Is this really a rule?  Well, let’s start with the military budget.  Look, I’m a lefty and no big fan of our invasions, but my feeling is if we’re going to spend 10 times more in our military budget than our nearest threat we should be a lot better than everyone else - that is, we should be able to crush anyone we want like flies.  Again, I’m not saying I’m for this fly crushing thing, just that spending that much should pay off.  Instead, we keep discovering the same freakin’ thing - that people who want you out of their country are way more passionate than 20 year olds who just want some bucks for college, and that a 2 million dollar tank can get its ass kicked by a 300 dollar IED.   So the tanks end up lying on their sides along a road, and we end up paying trillions for an expensive exit strategy, which is a polite way of saying “we got our ass kicked and wasted lives.”

Or what about our food?  The average bite of American food takes 10 calories of oil to produce a single calorie of American food.  The average Indonesian’s dinner comes in at about 1  a calorie of oil (this all assumes that the average Indonesian can get food, but let’s assume they can).  And let me clearly reassure you that the average Indonesian’s cheap-ass bowl of laksa - noodles, broth, coconut milk, maybe a piece of fish -  taste 100 times better than a Big Mac or a bag of Doritos.   That is, we put in all this oil and what comes out - food that tastes like crap, is really awful for us, and can’t even remotely approach the quality of the street food you’d find in almost any third world country on earth.

We only spend twice as much on medical care as most Europeans, but we report that we’re four times as unhappy with our healthcare system, so I bet if we worked on getting our spending up, we could be 10 times as unhappy with our medical care.  One of the largest studies of end of life care in American history discovered that 65% of Americans die “in debt, in pain and alone.”  Now I don’ t know about you, but that sounds pretty much like everyone’s worst nightmare.  The same study found that many other nations do a vastly better job of simply making sure you don’t hurt and you have someone there.  But here, the suffering costs extra.  

The good news about the 10 times more = 10 times less rule is this - if true, we could actually get our usage of many resources back down to a level that might let us go on from here.  Our goal when Rioting for Austerity was to get down by 90% in all 7 categories.  At the end of the project’s first year, we’re down by at least 75% in all 7 categories, and to 90% in food, garbage and consumer goods.  We should hit our goals in heating oil and water in this coming year, as some of our infrastructure changes begin.  Including the allotment for working at home, we came in just short of our share of electricity, and gas is one we’re still struggling with.  But we’re using 78% less gas than the average Americans (except Eli, who is using 69% less, because of his school busing) .

Were we less happy?  No, not at all.  In fact despite the fact that I was nuts and agreed to write two books in 15 months, I’d say we were happier.  Not 10 times happier, but maybe half again as much.  Maybe even double - we saved a ton of money, we had a ton of fun, we found a new community, we had more time.   What’s not to like? 

The thing is, right now, using less energy and having less money is making a whole lot of people less happy.  The reason, of course, is that we aren’t thinking it through - this isn’t a managed decline, and with the media telling us that the crisis was over yesterday all the time, most people are sitting tight, waiting for the good times to roll again.  The great news is that using as much as 10 times less in many areas won’t hurt - but only if we think it through.  That is, you can’t magically get to a diet of great low energy, low cost sustainable food simpy by taking the oil out of the supply chain.  You have to work it. But it can be done, and helping millions who have no choice do it is going to be a big - and fascinating - project.

Sharon

23 Responses to “10 Times the Price and 10 Times Crappier”

  1. Theresaon 05 Jun 2008 at 9:50 am

    This sums up the whole overconsumption/undercontentment problem perfectly! I like how you’ve conceptualized this, and I think it will help me get this point across to others really well. Thanks!

  2. MEAon 05 Jun 2008 at 10:37 am

    Speaking only of health care, so much of the money spent goes not on patient care or anything associated with it. Every time my dd is transported between the local hosptial and the one where they can treat here, by the Child Transport Team, I get a bill for 10,000 which is refused by the insurance company. I call up a woman at the billing center the hospital uses and she resubmits it to a woman at the insrance compay, and all but 80 is paid. The things that gets up my nose it that in chatting with the billing center woman one day I learned that her whole job is to reprocess ambulance claims for one hospital and her counterpart’s (at the insurance compay) whole job is to authorize and pay out the claim when it is submitted again. Obviously, I’m greatful to these two women (who have save me so much money that the 0’s wouldn’t have much meaning to me anymore) and I don’t want them done out of a job, but wouldn’t it save a lot of money if the company just paid the first time. The woman I talked to told me that it takes her about 20 mins to process each claim, mostly becuase she had to print out and send to filing about 30 pages of stuff for each one.

  3. Brad K.on 05 Jun 2008 at 10:56 am

    I read one article that blames much of the military - and other government agency - overspending and underquality problems on Robert McNamara, the bean counting Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy.

    What did the accountant do to America? Introduced the concept that the contract is the product.

    Before McNamara, defense contractors would talk to the military, as during WWII when the process won us the war with record turnarounds and amazing product release schedules. Taking their understanding, the contractor worked up a couple of prototypes, called the Army/Navy, showed them what they had, and took orders.

    The problem McNamara wanted to fix, was that the same select few contractors got most of the work. The competitive bid process was designed to encourage competition, which it has. The down side is that the competitive bid process rewards contract successes, not product successes. Changes to products are now new contract cycles. What most citizens don’t appreciate is that a $50 hammer really does cost the supplier 50 dollars - $1.90 for the hammer, $48.10 for paperwork, quality assurance (yep, that is the hammer we bought), and for processing payments. Skilled procurement people on the government’s side of the table usually take the opportunity of any success - to find a better job.

    Correcting the kind of endemic empire building of government procurement processes today will seriously affect many careers, since so many fewer people are actually needed in a functional sense.

    Congress’s practice of interfering, grandstanding for image management, and ineptitude and ignorance doesn’t help.

    Looking at where much procurement funding goes, I suspect the ‘efficiency’ on the government side is lacking, that is, it likely costs millions for the government to establish a procurement program, process the procurement, and maintain ongoing oversight - depending on the size of the project. And this is besides anyone actually using the product. On the contractor’s side there are niches and shadows where money gets lost, sure, but there are also labor unions and stock holders expecting to share in the money flow.

    After 7 years in the US Navy including a tour on the precommissioning unit of the USS South Carolina CGN-37, and work on a government software procurement project or two, I can assure the frugal voter that the US Government, through design and through inefficiency and through lack of highly skilled people, impose most of the cost that gets reported as ‘gold toilet seats’. I note that the USS South Carolina was nuclear powered, and decommissioned rather that face the expense of refueling her reactors. Besides, refueling wouldn’t have meant another new construction contract.

    But I’m not bitter. Much.

  4. MissyMon 05 Jun 2008 at 11:21 am

    I have to say three things:
    (please know that I love your blog and agree with much of what you say)

    “we should be a lot better than everyone else - that is, we should be able to crush anyone we want like flies.”

    > As a former Marine, rest assured that our military COULD do that, were our hands not tied by our government and (don’t get mad) some (note SOME) lefties who have never served but enjoy the freedoms our military has provided.

    “than 20 year olds who just want some bucks for college”
    >I did not join and serve for money for college. Perhaps my beloved Corps is different, but many of us joined to be part of something that is bigger than our selves… to be part of a proud heritage… part of a brotherhood with bonds that cannot be imagined by those who have not served.

    “we got our ass kicked and wasted lives”

    >We did not get our asses kicked. We are not making the difference we could because we are severely hobbled in our mission. It’s very simple: If you want us to kick ass, we can… however this was was never about kicking ass. (And don’t start on the about oil thing… I sure as heck don’t see any oil easing the rising fuel prices). And wasted lives? For those left behind, some will indeed feel the lives are wasted. For those who chose to serve (and not for college money) they were fighting not for YOU or Iraq or Uncle Sam, but for the guy on either side of him/her.

    Please before anyone hollers at me, I’m no longer a Republican. I am horrified by the money-pit this mission has become. (We could have gone in covertly and killed Sadam Hussein and been done with it years and years ago) But please at least be aware of those three points above.

    Semper Fi.

  5. MEAon 05 Jun 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Please don’t take this wrong, but I think a person’s life is wasted if he or she give it to save another person when they both shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

    This is not to say I don’t appreciate the sacrifice that was made, nor that I think it is the fault of the individual soliders that they were deployed that place. However, it makes the death of that person needless in the sense that if the power that be had shown more sense, one wouldn’t have had to give a life to save another.

    To be it’s a bit like a person who dives into a raging river to save a baby and tosses the infant onto the shore, saving a life. I wouldn’t consider the fact the rescuer drown a useless death unless it turned out that what was thought to be a baby was only a doll.

    I think it takes as much courage to fight a war that shouldn’t be fought as to fight one that should be. But surely it would be better if no one had to give his or her life in a such a way.

    MEA (who has a feeling she should duck and cover)

  6. MissyMon 05 Jun 2008 at 12:27 pm

    MEA,

    It would be better if no one had to give his or her life in such a way. We never want to see a brother in arms lost for such a cause.

    That said: we will NEVER, and I mean NEVER as in not happening, no amount of kumbayah swords into plowshares group hug will make a difference, ever going to live in a world without war. That’s like saying people live in a family that NEVER argues. Disagreements are a part of life. Between siblings it can be stolen toys, between spouses it can be harsh words, between countries… well we all know how that goes.

    I don’t want to be at war. I don’t like the so-called reasons we are at war. Although I know that the WMD issue isn’t what it looked like… I did have a clearance after all - and things get moved by the time we get our lumbering check-up machine in gear ;)

    I just realized that basically I’ve hijacked this thread. I’m rambling on and trying to explain something that just isn’t explainable. I apologize and wish you all peace. I really do agree with most of the main post.. heck only 3 issues out of all that was written? That’s pretty good!

  7. TJon 05 Jun 2008 at 12:37 pm

    To Semper
    Not to holler, but I think you missed the point.
    Precisely for reasons of having NO real REASON to fight the US is getting its ass kicked.
    (who said we HAD to kill Saddam after spending the money on him in the first place - see the original point)
    Yes of course we have nukes and can bomb ALMOST anybody to stone age - but we have no real NEED to do any of that. Much less any MORAL authority.

    While the cheap bastards making IEDs have a “cause” (as much as I detest terrorism / militant islam, etc).
    They are a LOT more successful (per dollar) spent precisely because the guy on either side of them is driven for same idea - not just to “fighting for the guy next to you”.

    I can (I think) imagine how this makes a soldier feel…. but
    consider comparing the sentiment of the soldiers’ countrymen
    in US (1/2 the population) - “Oh, poor misguided 20-something kids, stuck/dying in Iraq just to get through college”

    in say… Vietnam
    better yet, for example that will not cause you to cringe that much - lets take Russia in WW2 - hardly a well supplied army - 70 year old rifle design, serious industrial centers lost, but it would be hard to find anything but REAL “support our troops”.

    To sum up I think the PER DOLLAR effectiveness only comes from real necessity - when ppl don’t have money to waste they make do with very little - be it war / food / medicine / housing — whatever.

    It is great the we have all these resources (for now) but the “needs” we WASTE them on are INSANE. while the real necessities, like health care and (healthy) food and climate go on being TALKED about… shame

    my apologies if this is a long and inappropriate rant
    TJ

  8. Steve Baloghon 05 Jun 2008 at 1:37 pm

    “What is this rule? Simply this - if we in America use 10 times as much as another country, or spend 10 times as much on something, not only will we use more and pay more, but we’ll get less. What we get will, inevitably be at least twice as crappy as the much cheaper model, and often as much as 10 times worse.”

    Sounds like you’d be a fan of Ricardo, and his law of diminishing returns.

    >>When increasing amounts of one factor of production are employed in production along with a fixed amount of some other production factor, after some point, the resulting increases in output of product become smaller and smaller.<<

    http://www.auburn.edu/~johnspm/gloss/diminishing_returns_law_of

  9. Stephen B.on 05 Jun 2008 at 1:59 pm

    I was just going to say, it’s the Law of Diminishing Returns, but I see that Steve Balogh has already pointed this out.

    As another example I’d point out the use of electricity in a small village in say, Africa somewhere compared to the US.

    In a remote village, let’s say some families get together and get a small solar system generated. It’s not a large system, but it gives every family the use of 1 CF bulb for 5 hours every night along with the use of somebody’s laptop and maybe a small community fridge for meds or food. Maybe the family uses 1/4 of a KWh a day. To them, they get a huge bang for the buck so to speak from that tiny electric use, while to most of us in the US, 1/4 of 1 KWh will run the central AC or electric clothes dryer for 3 to 5 minutes.

    Stephen B.
    suburban MA

  10. MissyMon 05 Jun 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Ilargi: It was never supposed to be anything other than this. The US military have acquired their own private source of oil; a truly brilliant move from a strategic point of view. The US invasion of Iraq has been a smashing success all along, and 90% of pundits have completely missed out on that all along. Here’s hoping they’ll start waking up.

    Revealed: Secret plan to keep Iraq under US control
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/revealed-secret-plan-to-keep-iraq-under-us-control-840512.html

    A secret deal being negotiated in Baghdad would perpetuate the American military occupation of Iraq indefinitely, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election in November.

    Please tell me this is not accurate. Tell me it’s conjecture. Tell me that I suppose it answers my questions about “well then if it was about oil, how come our oil prices are so high”. It was never about us was it?

    Apparently, Santa Claus not only isn’t real, but has been selling the reindeer to a meat processing plant. Sigh.

    I am so sad. And so disappointed. And so ready to give up. :(

  11. MissyMon 05 Jun 2008 at 2:32 pm

    Sorry. The above link was via The Automatic Earth blog.

  12. Sealanderon 05 Jun 2008 at 5:31 pm

    I visit the US on business regularly and after a wide sampling of your stripmall cuisine, I have come to the conclusion that there must be no farms left in the country. I suspect that the majority of what is served in these so-called restaurants is actually some sort of vat grown algae that has been shaped and colored to resemble meat and vegetables. :)

  13. Kiashuon 06 Jun 2008 at 12:27 am

    It’s actually not the law of diminishing returns Sharon was talking about, but a law of negative returns.

    If you spend $100 on something for 100 units of result, and then spend $200 for 150 units, then $300 for 160 units, that’s “diminishing returns”. That’s like how in comments to an article, most of the useful and intelligent things were said in the first 20 comments, after 100 comments or so, nothing much is added by more - but people feel compelled to keep commenting. Diminishing returns.

    What Sharon is talking about is spending $100 for 100 units, then spending $1,000 for 10 units. “10 times the price and 10 times crappier.” Spending more and being worse off for it is not a diminishing return, but a negative return.

    Spend less, be better off.

  14. Greenpaon 06 Jun 2008 at 8:17 am

    My understanding is that the ratio is actually worse than Sharon is saying. This is something I have NOT done my homework on- largely because the numbers that are always tossed around are so full of holes as to be silly to squabble about.

    Here’s a rumor for someone to track down, though- there’s a professor from California (Berkeley?) who is going around, talking at meetings- saying, essentially, that the waste in the US is so high we could use 1/100th of current energy expenditures- without a decrease in standard of living. He’s got lots of calculations to show it.

    He doesn’t get press, or listened to much- because his talk is numbers and equations and they’re not photogenic- and he’s talking about what is called “conservation” - and there’s no profit in that.

    Anybody know who he is? 1/100th. Is what I remember.

  15. Sharonon 06 Jun 2008 at 10:25 am

    Missy, The first thing I have to say is that I saw your post and thought I must be home. My sister was a Marine, and we’ve had this discussion about 100,000 times ;-). I’m going to say that most of the uses the military has been put to in the last 50 years in the US wasted lives, money and time. Yes, we can nuke anything we want - but that won’t be without costs, because other people can. It is true we’ll never have a world without war, and I’m no pacifist. But I honestly, in good conscience, could not serve in the American military as it works now, with its empire building goals. Read Johnson - he’s a former Navy guy, and he does an exhaustive analysis of US empire building, and it is pretty disturbing. You might start with _Nemesis_, but all of his works are excellent.

    I think it is horrifying that the US takes the noble and complicated motives of people who both want to serve and don’t have a lot of other economic opportunities, and twists them, and wastes lives. I find it shameful - people doing honorable and good things deserve better.

    Kiashu - Thanks, yes. I wasn’t quite talking about diminishing returns, although, of course, that’s part of it.

    Greenpa, I’m afraid I don’t know who you are talking about, unless it is Amory Lovins, who is fascinating, but Cornucopian in many ways. But doing the Riot, I think it is very unlikely we could get our usage down to 1/100th without a major sense of sacrifice. My observation is that the first 50% is really, really easy, and completely painless, and that the rest is slower and harder, and yes, does involve some self-sacrifice. I don’t consider that last to be a bad thing, though.

    Sharon

  16. Rosaon 06 Jun 2008 at 10:26 am

    I don’t know who he is, GreenPa, but I believe it.

    I know my household decreased direct energy usage 50% just by replacing some old appliances as they wore out with high-efficiency (but still mainstream) appliances, including the furnace, hot water heater, electric washer, and a 15 year old desk top computer that was replaced with a laptop that uses 30 watts of power when it’s charging or running.

    That’s without insulation, changes in habits (we got down to 25% of our previous usage with some extra habit changes that I know not everyone will do) or any of the super-high-efficiency stuff you can get if you really look.

    If we wanted to, we could conserve a lot…but do we want to bad enough?

  17. Roberton 06 Jun 2008 at 11:26 am

    I think that people get what they demand. If Americans would demand quality in all aspects, military, consumer products, whatever else, they would get quality. I always am amazed about the fact that people say that we are the greatest power or the richest most powerful nation in the history of the world and the only things we have to show for it are strip malls, Disneyland, and crap like that. Where is our Acropolis or Taj Mahal or Great Wall?

  18. Peter Attwoodon 06 Jun 2008 at 1:25 pm

    Chris Hedges in Asia Times today gave us a specific application of the 10 times more 10 times crappier rule applied to the Iraq occupation. Brad K. might appreciate the connection, as explained by Specialist Philip Crystal.

    I wrote about it on my blog at http://peterattwood.blogspot.com/2008/06/support-our-troops-how-about-listening.html

  19. Greenpaon 06 Jun 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Sharon- no, definitely not Lovins; and his calculations are based on the “society” as a whole; including users like Wal-Mart, etc.

    I don’t THINK I dreamed him up- he was saying stuff nobody believed, or wanted to hear, and he wasn’t very charismatic- just terribly sincere.

  20. BC_EEon 06 Jun 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Missy M, that was my contention all along. That is, if the U.S. was really serious about taking out Saddam, they could have done it with Special Forces. Therefore, I suspect the motive was different from the stated purpose.

    Also, my ex-neighbor, also a retired Special Forces vet, told me one night on the porch over rum and cokes (a common vice between the two of us) that his son - a Special Forces member, but could not tell me which group - was in Iraq months ahead of the drive to war. His son has also been in Iran.

    Has the good intention and patriotism of the U.S. military been repeatedly abused? I’ll recount an anecdote from a WW II vet.

    I was at a good friends wedding and on this fine July day while waiting for the bride and groom pictures to be taken I struck up a conversation with the groom’s older relatives. Mostly, (as it turns out the fella was the groom’s great-uncle), he reminded me of my grandfather, a WW II vet, who had passed away recently. I had just completed reading the book ‘A Man Called Intrepid’ by Stevenson.

    I said, “Wow, I can’t believe the U.S. government knew days ahead of time of the Japanese attack” (More than one government passed on the information, but in the book the British government gave the Americans 72 hours notice).

    He said, “I know it was a set up.”

    Me, shocked, “Why?”

    “I was in the Canadian Navy then and we were in port in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th. We got a call to quarters at 6:30 a.m. and sailed by 8. The Canadian Navy never sails on a Sunday!”

    So, where are the records of the Canadian Navy being in Pearl Harbor on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1949? I had to check the day of the week myself to ensure the story was sound.

    Now, can we castigate FDR for pulling the U.S. into the war? That is beyond my analysis. Either he was a true hero or a villain, and perhaps the differences may never be resolved. However, one aspect is certain, he did choose correctly.

    What does this mean to the Marines, and the U.S. military in general? Stop being pawns! They use the command structure to manipulate. There are many intelligent and well educated people in the U.S. military now, (I know because I read their material and I am suitably impressed). It may run against the Constitution, but the politicians have clearly taken the law beyond The Looking Glass. The most glaring instance was Colin Powell’s adherence to the Administration because he had be drilled to obey the Commander In Chief although all his instincts and experience told him different.

    I could see it in his eyes.

  21. […] more sensible insights from Sharon Astyk. Or what about our food? The average bite of American food takes 10 calories of […]

  22. Jimon 07 Jun 2008 at 11:15 am

    Greenpa-
    i think you might be thinking of Art Rosenfeld,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqGBIR3_y20

    Brilliant, flamboyant, great speaker.
    When the University of California held a system-wide “how do we respond research-wise to global warming” conference in 1989, he was a keynote speaker. Not much respected– he had good ideas instead of abstruse ones, but as the Couric interview points out, he changed the world by changing California, by changing abstruse appliance and building codes.
    http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/Lab-Rosenfeld-wins-Fermi.html
    http://www.energy.ca.gov/commission/commissioners/rosenfeld.html

    And if you want to see proof of the 10/10 proposition, read his autobiography– amazing!
    (at least the first ten pages– took me a while to write this comment)
    http://www.energy.ca.gov/commission/commissioners/rosenfeld_docs/2000-10_ROSENFELD_AUTOBIO.PDF

  23. Valon 05 Jul 2008 at 5:56 pm

    The problem isn’t that the US military is getting it’s “ass kicked” in Iraq - it’s that war is different today than it was in the past.

    Back then, we would have just reduced Iraq to rubble, moved in if we wanted to, colonized the country, taken its resources, etc.

    Now we have to do things like avoid accidentally killing civilians and immediately rebuild anything we screw up, and not lose any lives on our side in the process either, because the war is unpopular at home.

    We wouldn’t have a diminishing return in Iraq if we’d just invaded in order to take over their oil.

    Of course the military does waste money, but we’re also not getting any spoils of war either.

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