What the increase in kids with subsidized school lunches has to do with making society like professional sports

Day after day, people suffer financially outside the public view. They lose their jobs. Their unemployment benefits expire. They can’t pay their mortgage, and if they sell the house, they’ll still owe money to the bank. They move in with relatives or into their car. They scrimp on food for their families. They forego medical treatment or don’t fill their prescriptions. 

Despite the occasional feature article, especially around the December holiday season, those of us with good jobs don’t have firsthand experience of poverty or near poverty and its negative impact on the health and spirits of people. The pictures of the increase in poverty and near poverty in the country come to us in broad strokes: statistics and studies.

Another one of those reports full of numbers graced the front page of today’s New York Times, a disturbing in-depth analysis by the Times of the Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program data. 

The bad news is not surprising given the high rate of unemployment, but it is still shocking: The number of students who eat subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year from 18 million since the 2006-2007 school year. All 50 states have experienced increases, and 11 had increases of 25 percent or more.

As the Times notes, kids in families with incomes at 130 percent of the poverty level or less are eligible for free school meals. That’s $29,055 for a family of four.  Children in a four-member household with income up to $41,348 are eligible to pay 40 cents for a school lunch.

Let’s focus on the hypothetical life of one of these children, say a fifth grade boy in Roseville, a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb where the Times reports that the number students getting subsidized lunches rose to 44 percent this fall from 29 percent five years ago. Maybe the father has lost his job and the mother is only working part-time now. They are in the process of selling their furniture and most of their things, including the Xbox that the boy loves to play with his friends. They’re going to all live in one room of grandma’s apartment. Imagine the boy’s mixture of shame, anger, fear and frustration when he tells his friends he can’t go to movies with them. Or think how his father must feel when he tells the boy that travel soccer is out.

Or think of an African-American first-grader who’s always gotten free lunches because both her parents have always been in the last-hired, first-fired pool of unskilled workers. She has never had a single extra lesson, never had a vacation, shares a bed with an older sister and is lucky to get free meals at school, free afterschool at the Y and free healthcare through a state program. But often towards the end of the month, the family’s dinner consists of baloney sandwiches or oatmeal, and the family has saved nothing for her college.

I could go on and on spinning hypothetical facts that apply to one or to hundreds of individual children. What I want all OpEdge readers to do is imagine just one of these children who only recently started getting free or subsidized lunches, create a realistic life for that child and try to put yourself in the shoes of that one child, try to feel that child’s emotions. Try to evaluate that child’s likely future, given that she/he will have to compete with children whose parents spend enormous sums for music, chess, dance, sports and art lessons, tutoring, specialty summer camps, SAT prep course and, perhaps most importantly of all, for a financially secure and emotionally stable home life. Don’t think of the occasional genius or athlete that makes it out of poverty, think of the average kid and her/his family.  Think how you would feel if you had the rug pulled from underneath you, or never had a rug to begin with.

Now multiply your imagining of one child by 3 million times to represent those who have gone on the school lunch program in the past five years, and then by 21 million times to represent all of the children getting free or subsidized lunches, and you get an idea of the pain and suffering that exists in the United States today.

We can conceive of all societies as games which produce winners and losers. There are always a lot fewer winners than losers and the winners always get more money, recognition and power than the losers do. But in the current epoch—what I call the Age of Reagan—we are taking winning and losing to an extreme. 

We see it in how much we focus on the competitive aspects of elections as opposed to the issues, focusing on who has raised more money, who won a debate and who is ahead in the polls and straw votes.

We see it in the dominance of reality TV, which pits people against each other in winner-and-loser contests involving singing, dancing, remembering trivia or lyrics, scavenger hunts, attracting members of the opposite sex, running a business, survival living or losing weight.

We see it in the media focus on celebrities, who for the most part are the biggest winners, near-winners, and former-winners of society.

But most of all we see it in our economic system in this Age of Reagan, which has gutted the middle class and produced a nation of rich and poor.

I don’t have a problem with a society which produces winners and losers. I like to play, and I like to win.

My objection is that currently the winners get too much and the legions of losers are growing even as their piece of the pie continues to shrink.

What we need to do is take the games analogy one step further.  Consider any professional sports team.  The best players get far more money than the near-great, average player or hanger-on. Often they get such outsized amounts that an economic analysis shows that the owners are overpaying them compared to the other players. 

But everyone else—all the losers—do pretty well in professional sports. Sure, A-Rod got paid $32 million to play baseball in 2011, but the lowest paid player made a cool $414,000.  And they all get premium healthcare coverage.

I’m not saying that everyone should make $414,000 a year. What I am saying is that we should lower the price of losing by expanding government programs, and then pay for those programs by raising taxes a lot on the wealthy and a little on the merely well off. To deal with the current economic challenges, we have to extend unemployment benefits, expand free and low-cost healthcare programs, subsidize banks that revise mortgage terms so that people stay in their own homes and expand public resources such as libraries and after-school programs. Long-term, the best way to make sure that, while winners get more even, losers thrive is to encourage unionization of all industries, raise the minimum wage and pump money into public schools.

Childhood is supposed to prepare children for the adult world. Nowadays, whether it’s baseball, soccer, chess or dance,  we give out participation trophies and ribbons to every kid, and tell them that even if they didn’t win the championship they’re still winners because they dared to compete and they played by the rules. 

Translate that approach to the real world and you have a society in which we let people play to win, but make sure that even the losers survive and have the basics of food, shelter, health care and education.

Media and pandering politicians should hang heads in shame at goading vaccine deniers to put children at risk

The news sent a chill up my spine: In eight states more than 1 in 20 school children now don’t get all the vaccines required for attendance. The number of parents denying vaccines to their children is up in virtually every state. I immediately winced, imagining the unavoidable increase in children getting debilitating diseases and dying because they haven’t been vaccinated.

Many people now believe that certain vaccinations can cause autism. Others minimize the risk of getting disease. Because those opposing vaccination tend to cluster geographically, the United States is going to have pockets of disease spring up, primarily in rural areas; for example, vaccination exemptions for school children in some rural counties in Washington State have exceeded 20%. 

This non-vaccinated population is going to be visited by a plague of diseases they didn’t have to suffer. And guess who is going to pay to treat these people? Unless we end all health insurance and government health benefits, it will be all of us, just as we all pay for the irresponsible behavior of smokers and over-eaters.

The myths surrounding vaccinations have grown with public distrust of both government and science, which is why I don’t blame the parents who deny their children the protection of vaccines. They may anger me, but I don’t blame them. For the most part, they are loving parents, but misguided, gullible and poorly educated.

I blame the politicians, pundits and reporters who spout an anti-science bias in their statements denying climate change and evolution. 

I blame the anti-intellectualism of the news media that conflate the opinions of the person-in-the-street and untrained office seekers with the reasoned empirical results presented by scientists and engineers.

I blame the producers and hosts of talk shows who give ignorant celebrities time to air their mistaken notions about the dangers of vaccines.

I blame all the politicians who have told lies about vaccines causing diseases, abortion causing cancer and brain dead people being able to communicate, all in an effort to garner the votes of the ignorant and uneducated.

For the past decade or so, the main actors in our marketplace of ideas have created an atmosphere in which faith trumps science, even in the kingdom of science. They have shamelessly undercut the authority of science—which is based not on majority rule or inherited rights but on real-world facts. Now we as a nation will reap what they have sown in sick children and increased health care costs.

The Associated Press article announcing the disturbing news exemplified the approach that the mass media takes to scientific issues. The article states unequivocally that there is no truth to the myths that vaccines cause autism or other diseases. Yet the writer feels the need to quote four women who have withheld some or all of their children’s vaccinations to balance the quotes from five experts on how important it is to have children vaccinated. The writer presents everyone’s quotes with respect and objectivity, which equates the views of the misinformed parents with those of the scientists and professors. Thus, even as the AP reports the news, it undermines the authority of science in a matter of science. 

The use of this pros-versus-Joes approach leads to an aggrandizement of the vaccine deniers. Remember, they still represent a miniscule portion of the population, and yet they get feature billing of their views. The views of 99% of the public are ignored.  

I could understand putting the views of the parents opposed to vaccination in the article if the article also included the views of parents who get their children vaccinated, and in some ratio that reflected popular opinion. Since that would require quotes from 20 non-experts, I would settle for the common sense approach, say quotes from five parents who have their children vaccinated and from two who don’t. Having quotes from parents who get their kids vaccinated would have reminded us that the non-vaccinators were expressing opinions only, and that the reporter did not seek their views to balance those of the scientists.

Mainstream media spin Black Friday sales and limited violence to support the ideological imperative to shop

In a weekend OpEdge entry, I concluded that the three small incidents of violence reported nationally on Black Friday demonstrated how docile a society we have become. An Associated Press writer used the same three incidents to build a case that Black Friday has “devolved” into a “wave of violence” in an article titled “How much crazier can Black Friday get?”

With an estimated 152 million people shopping in stores and only three incidents, all relatively minor, I stand by my initial assessment that Black Friday was actually a very peaceful day this year. I do, however, want to explore the ideology behind the hand-wringing hype.

The hyping of Black Friday violence serves several ideological functions: The issue itself—has Black Friday become more dangerous, more violent or less civil?—serves as an example in the public discussion of the broader issues of safety and civility. Societies always have public safety concerns: how they are manifested is thus revealing of each particular society. How we speak about public safety makes subtle statements about the ideology or ideological battles of the times. Thus in the 50’s, an age in which one of the most important ideological imperatives was to influence Americans to move to car-dependent suburbs, a lot of talk about public safety revolved around the dangers of city living.

What we see in the AP’s and other articles about Black Friday violence reflects our current fears of violence in public places. The context, however, is shopping, pure and simple. Just as so-called urban violence prevented people from keeping their families safe in the 50’s, so the AP story subtly proposes that violence threatens our ability to shop. In both cases, the threat is to something central to the American way of life. In misinterpreting the relative calm of Black Friday, the subliminal message of the mass media is that the commercial transaction is central to our lives, a right that is under attack, the fear of losing which resonates within us with the raw emotional power of love or hunger.

The secondary effect of these stories about Black Friday violence is that the perpetrators become role models for misbehavior against which we can measure our own actions.  We saw this effect a year ago when a self-styled Tiger Mom advocated a harsh program for raising successful, career-driven children. The Tiger Mom became a symbol of overly restrictive child-rearing techniques, but also for intellectualism and Asian child-rearing philosophies. Tiger Mom’s absurd actions such as not allowing her children to have sleepovers made people feel better about the anti-intellectual, undisciplined approach that many American parents take to child-rearing. She made American parents feel like they were good parents, because they were better than she was; and it made them feel that the weaknesses of American child-rearing—permissiveness and anti-intellectualism—were the very reasons that they were better.

In the same way, reading about the pepper-spraying woman, shop-lifting senior and parking lot thugs who perpetrated the few incidents of Black Friday violence make shoppers all feel better about themselves. We may have pushed a little, we may have grabbed something from the hands of someone else and we may have wasted hours waiting on line. But we didn’t pepper spray anyone. We can feel good about our shopping etiquette, and by implication, the shopping we did. We never have to confront the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of making shopping the be-all and end-all of our existence, the only way that we measure or manifest all emotions. The fact that we’re good little shoppers conceals the fact that all we’ve done is shop.

The final tally for what the news media is now calling “Black Friday Weekend” was impressive: A record 226 million people visited stores and websites during the four-days starting with Thanksgiving, up from 212 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 over the weekend, up from $365.34 a year ago.

Many articles offered speculation as to whether people were making their purchases early or if the sales increase meant that retailers were going to have “a holly jolly Christmas,” in the words of that esteemed social philosopher Burl Ives.

The assumption behind all of this quick-and-dirty analysis was the same: increased holiday sales is a sign that the economy is on the mend. This basic assumption ignores that the increased spending, if it occurs, will take place within the context of a real unemployment rate of 16%. The profit from the sales will not be used to hire more employees. As with all the windfalls from lower taxes, higher profit and lower costs that corporate America has received over the past 30 years, the additional profit generated by larger than expected sales will be divided among existing employees, with virtually all of it going to senior management and stockholders.

The basic fraud of the low-tax, free market regime is that growth is always good, because the rewards of growth will trickle down. Every reporter writing on Black Friday sales this year assumed this fraud as an unsaid eternal truth. To the perpetrators of contemporary American ideology, whether or not Black Friday signaled a good holiday season is grist for an always-hungry mill that daily churns out millions of words about public controversies. But the grist concerns the trivial question as to whether or not Black Friday Weekend sales predict growth. The answer matters not. But what does matter to our ruling elite is that we all continue to believe that growth is good no matter how few people enjoy the benefits of that growth.

The lack of Black Friday violence demonstrates that Americans love to wait on line

A woman pepper sprays her fellow shoppers to get close to the XBox she wants to buy.

A robber shoots a shopper in the parking lot of a mall.

A cop bloodies the face of a senior citizen who was trying to take advantage of the swarm of people to shoplift something.

What are we to make of these three unrelated violent incidents during the celebration of our newest national holiday, Black Friday? My conclusion: not very much.

An estimated 152 million people packed stores and parking lots during a one-day spree of crawling in traffic, hunting for parking, waiting on lines and pushing at counters, all a few hours or a day after an orgy of overeating and overdrinking.   Besides feeling overhung or dyspeptic, many Black Friday shoppers must also feel the emotional crush of the economic contraction:  lots have families in which one or more adults are unemployed or underemployed. A large number are living in houses worth less than the loan they have taken on it.  People are angry, worried, frustrated.

And all that the media could find were three incidents?  That sounds like an hour’s worth of violence in a small city on an average Wednesday evening.

The small amount of Black Friday violence reported in the national media suggests that security is working, the petty thieves are taking a holiday and people are pretty docile. Sure, they like to push and shove, and maybe surreptitiously give someone a little secret jab to the back or squeeze the breast of a stranger.  And sure it’s great to buy something at one of the lowest prices it’s going to be during the year, and greater still to be one of the “happy few,” or even the last one to get the hottest gadget or doodad in the store.

But I can’t help but wonder if, for many Americans, standing in line is the real pleasure of Black Friday.  We may complain about waiting for a physician or a dentist, but when it comes to entertainment, standing in line is as much a part of the experience as the blockbuster movie, the Disney or amusement park ride, the new Harry Potter book or tickets to that hot group that make people cue up like lemmings waiting to try blind cliff-diving.

And make no mistake about it, Black Friday is a form of entertainment, the form of entertainment that Americans seem to love most: engaging in a commercial transaction to purchase a good or service likely to fill an emotional need.

The history of American holiday celebration really reduces to the story of American businesses and mass media attaching two actions to every holiday: eating and buying stuff.

It’s been more than a century since we first commercialized Christmas.  In that time, we have created holidays that require us to make purchases, such as Mother’s and Father’s Day, and secularized minor religious holidays by reducing them to buying and eating; witness St. Valentine’s Day and All Hallows’ Eve (AKA Halloween).

For decades, Thanksgiving seemed to be immune to commercialization.  Yes, the holiday structures itself around a meal, but the basics of that meal comprise the traditional rituals of the celebration, and so have remained relatively unchanged for centuries: The food part of Thanksgiving– turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pumpkin pie—kept buying gifts out of the holiday celebration.

The recent emphasis on Black Friday in the mass media has finally changed all that.  The news of stores offering Black Friday specials before and on Thanksgiving extends the media coverage and advertising about our national shopping day.  Black Friday now surrounds Thanksgiving with commercialism and subtly changes the mix of holiday stories in the news media. More stories in the news media are about shopping and fewer about people helping other people participate in the ritual of turkey eating.

Encircling Thanksgiving with Black Friday also links the two more closely. Thanksgiving was long an oasis of quiet private celebration in the long season of riotous consumption that starts with Halloween commercials in early October and continues unabated into the flood of sales, gift card purchases and gift returns of early January. Thanksgiving has been diminished into that big meal we eat before we engage in competitive shopping in late November.

There is very little that 152 million people do together in any country.  Only 111 million watched the Super Bowl worldwide.  About 129 million cast votes for either President Obama or John McCain in 2008.  Imagine if 152 million showed up for one day at Occupy encampments all over the country?!

Thus, Black Friday has entered the pantheon of major American holidays.  Perhaps we can call it the first post-modern holiday, because unlike other holidays, for which the reason for celebration is a pretext for shopping, shopping is both the pretext for and the manifestation of the holiday.  Christmas is about shopping to give presents to your loved one.  Halloween is about shopping to buy the tools of celebration—candy, decorations and costumes. Black Friday is shopping for the joy of shopping. One characteristic of post-modern art is that it is often about the process of making art.  In the same way, Black Friday is about the process of celebration.

The next step in the deconstruction of Thanksgiving will surely be a spate of stories in the news media about charitable activity to help people participate in Black Friday. I can see it now: stories about teen groups that help seniors shop or wait in line for them outside Walmarts.  Toy drives culminate not under the Christmas tree at the local Y in December, but in a party for poor kids in a mall the day after Thanksgiving. Merchants start to brag that a small part of every Black Friday purchase will go to prevent breast cancer.  Target will announce a special program to make it easier for the disabled to participate in Black Friday festivities.

In short, I predict that Black Friday will take on some of the aspects of Thanksgiving as it continues to supplant turkey day as our most important harvest festival.

Since god-given talent and IQ give some people an edge, why reward them so much for winning?

I’m still catching up with the Sunday newspapers.  I want to recommend “Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters” by David Z. Hambrich and Elizabeth J. Meinz, both professors of psychology, that appeared in the “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times.

Hambrich and Meinz dismantle the myth that time on task can make anyone a success, and in particular the silly idea that an IQ of 120 is enough to ensure anyone can go to the top of their fields if only he or she work hard enough. Just like a basketball player of average height and speed for high school teams has no chance against the size, speed and dexterity of Shaquille O’Neil, at any given level of endeavor, the one with the photographic memory has an enormous edge on the average Joe of middling intelligence.

What does that mean to our reward system, which lately pays outsized amounts to the winners and miniscule amounts to all the other players?  Think only of the business game in which most employees have lost ground to inflation over the past 30 years, while the winners—the executives and owners—take home lots of cash.

Many of those winners are the talented and the high IQ: gifted athletes, entertainers, writers and high-end knowledge workers like lawyers, surgeons and senior executives.   Do they (do we?) deserve the enormous sums of money they rake in?

Hambrick and Meinz have established for us that hard work can only take you so far.  Those geniuses that go the farthest may or may not work hard. They’re at the pinnacle because of something they had when they were born. They can cultivate, apply or fine tune their natural abilities, but never can they create their ability. It was given to them, so I don’t care if we call it “god-given talent.” You have it or you don’t. And if you have it, succeeding in what you do best is easy as pie.

Don’t forget that success must manifest itself within a social context. Once upon a time, we rewarded people with superior marksmanship and strong arms. Now we reward people who can add numbers quickly and use words to communicate clearly.  Having the right talent for the current age is worth a lot to many of those who currently make a lot of money. Sadly, Willie Mays might have been a field slave if he had been born 100 years earlier.

If a large and perhaps the most important part of your success had nothing to do with anything you did, why should you reap unlimited benefit?

Now in the United States we let there be a free market, which means we let the winners take all, or most, of the stakes. We then use tax policy (or until Bush II, we used to use tax policy) to make sure that no one gets an unfair share, making people pay an ever greater percentage of additional income in federal income taxes. On the level of ethics, what we’re saying is that the more money you make, the greater likelihood that the reason you made it had to do with something out of your control, such as inherent talent or high IQ. Thus the less of your money you get to keep and the more of it goes to fund government services to the entire community.

The one exception we make to this idea is the tax for Social Security and Medicare, for which everyone pays the same percent of their wages. In fact, there is a cap on the amount of wages for which the Social Security tax applies, but there is also a cap on the amount you can collect each month in benefits.

Every Republican candidate except the honorable Jon Huntsman has called for some kind of a flat tax. The flat taxers are really saying that no matter how much a person makes, it’s entirely resulting from his or her time and efforts solely, with nothing caused by other factors, such as the circumstances of the time, god-given talent, family wealth and connections, the support of society or plain old luck.

That’s why outside of Huntsman, every Republican candidate, from Newt to Mitt to the Pizza King, will be disastrous for this country. All will pursue a flat tax, which will lead to the wealthy paying even a smaller share of the tax burden, which in turn will lead to a greater erosion in government services and a larger tax burden for the poor and middle class.

On social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and birth control, the Republicans represent about a third of the country. But on economic issues, however, they represent the top one percent, and no one else.

When will media stop trying to sell us on a car- and mall-dependent suburban life?

It’s really hilarious how often it is that some organization or another comes up with a study that concludes that the best place to live or raise a family is a distant suburb in which all there is to do is visit the chain stores in the mall, take drugs and get into trouble.  A suburb, where the cultural highlights of the year are the church choir Easter concert and whatever is playing at the Cineplex on Black Friday, where children under the age of 16 are prisoners of drivers and those over 16 are helping to clog up the roadways. A suburb, each of which may have a little ethnic diversity, but all of which will be regimentally uniform in economic background and life goals of the inhabitants.

The latest to create a bunch of pseudo criteria for quality of life and then declare that suburbs meet them better than cities do is BusinessWeek.com. In a survey that Yahoo! and other portals have blasted out to us over the past few days like a pro-communist song over the loudspeakers in the meeting hall of a Chinese village, BusinessWeek.com names the top five places to raise a family. 

First the criteria, which might serve as a good guide if BusinessWeek.com actually understood what they mean:  “We evaluated educational factors (such as school scores, the number of public and private schools, and colleges), economic factors (including median family income, expenses, job growth, and unemployment), crime, amenities (such as child day-care centers, zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, recreation centers, green space), air quality, and ethnic diversity. School performance, expenditures, and income were given the most weight.” 

BusinessWeek.com biases the study from the start by only focusing on places with populations between 1,000 and 50,000 people, and median family income within 20 percent of the state median.  So New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Boston and any place big enough for a vibrant urban life is eliminated right from the start. In fact, the closest cities to four out of five of the winners are all on the small side, with relatively few of the amenities of urban life. The underlying assumption is that the best place to raise a family must be in a small community.

The article about the study claims that the researchers looked only at cities in which the crime index was less than 10% above the national average. But I don’t imagine that crime played all that big a role in the final decision, since the number one city turned out to be Blacksburg, Virginia,  home of one of the worst mass murder in American history, the killing of 32 students on the Virginia Tech campus less than five years ago. In fact, it’s a bit creepy to read that Blacksburg finishes on top in a study of the best places to raise a family.

The study gave no points for mass transit, probably because there is no real mass transit in any of the more than 4,000 small municipalities that qualified for consideration. And although the survey criteria include ethnic diversity, museums and theatre, I don’t think the authors really took a close look at these factors, seeing that only one of the five is situated near anyplace with decent theatre and museums or any kind of ethnic diversity to speak of.

The winners, with name of closest large city in parentheses):

  1. Blacksburg, VA (40 miles from Roanoke)
  2. Arlington, NE (35 miles from Omaha)
  3. Morton Grove, IL (15 miles from Chicago)
  4. St. Henry, OH (60 miles from Dayton)
  5. Spring Arbor, MI (8 miles from Jackson)

Living in any of these “five best places to raise a child” would have bored my son to tears—and his parents as well. In all five of them, all I see is a relatively constrained and unimaginative childhood, devoid of regular opportunities to expand horizons.

I’m wondering if BusinessWeek.com was really trying to figure out what were the worst upscale places to raise a child.

Thumbs up to Naomi Klein’s six strategies for addressing climate change; thumbs down to tax-hating Republicans

Everyone should read “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Naomi Klein’s fine article on a wide range of climate change issues in the November 28 issue of The Nation. 

First Klein presents a lively history of how the right wing has reduced the percentage of Americans believing in man-made climate change from 71% to 44% in a mere four years, pointing out that virtually all of this historic shift away from science has come among card-carrying Republicans. 

In the next part of this very long article, Klein admits that the right wing is correct to fear the changes that we must make to halt climate change and deal with its ill effects.  The rightwing values the free market above all else, even above the well being of others, and to address climate change we will of necessity have to impose government solutions on society and the free markets, the result of which will be a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy downward to the middle class and poor. I have made this connection between fixing the environment and government intervention on a number of occasions for more than two years, and I’m delighted to see that Klein and others agree with me.

Klein offers six strategies which government must pursue to address climate change, and again, OpEdge has proposed all of these strategies over the past few years:

  1. Reviving and reinventing the public sphere.  Klein wants to reverse the 30-year trend towards privatizing government functions. To quote Klein, “Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action.”
  2. Remembering how to plan. Klein calls for world, regional, state and local governments to develop environmental plans that are realistic and effective.
  3. Reining in corporations. Amen, sister!
  4. Relocalizing production. Transporting goods long distances raises their environmental cost. Relocalization, which simply is buying locally-produced goods, will not only cut fuel costs, over time it will diversify local economies everywhere, making them inherently stronger.
  5. Ending the cult of shopping: As I frequently point out, Americans consume too many resources.
  6. Taxing the rich and filthy. Often, they’re the same people, as with the case of Koch brothers and other executives and owners of large companies that pollute the environment.

Klein’s last strategy—to tax the wealthy—reminds me that I haven’t commented yet about the slow-mo train wreck called the Congressional Debt Reduction Special Committee. Despite rumors of deals earlier in the week, as of this writing the committee is still deadlocked with no solution in sight and the deadline before a solution is enforced on the country is Wednesday at midnight.   

The main impediment to a deal, as usual, is the obstinacy of Republicans who, like spoiled five-year-olds who can’t get their way, refuse to admit that it’s mathematically impossible to reduce our debt without raising taxes on the wealthy. 

As the National Priorities project computes, the value of the Bush II tax cuts to the wealthiest 5% of the population is more than one trillion dollars and counting, with more than $715 billion going to the top 1%. Judging from recent surveys, the public’s positive reaction to the Occupy movement and stories in the mass media, more and more people are coming to realize that one of the two main reasons for our current fiscal crisis is that these temporary tax cuts were passed 10 years ago (the other reason being that we waged expensive and useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). If we just let these temporary tax cuts expire, we would go a long way towards solving the debt crisis.  

I also like the idea of reducing the maximum value of mortgage deduction. I’m not sure why the federal government ever got into the business of subsidizing the housing market in the first place. Guaranteeing viable loans I can understand; giving a tax break to every home owner seems inflationary. All it does is fuel increases in prices, as people can afford to buy more expensive homes with the tax break. Curtailing the deduction will hurt everyone with a mortgage, but the entire country will benefit as the additional taxes raised can be deployed to create real jobs and/or pay down the deficit.

Now the idea of ending the corporate deduction of health care benefits that I’ve also heard is bad, bad, bad. It would drive many if not most employers out of the business of providing healthcare insurance to their employees. Like it or not, our current system of healthcare insurance relies heavily on private coverage by employers. As of today, we don’t have anything to replace it except a still infant market for private individual insurance policies and government-paid insurance for the poor and elderly. Until we have more viable alternatives to employer-sponsored healthcare, we need to keep the deduction in the tax codes.

But I’ve drifted lazily into wishful thinking and indolent day-dreaming.  I’m just wasting my time and yours, since it’s nothing more than a pipe dream to consider any of these tax increases given the ostrich-like ability of Republicans to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the necessity of raising taxes on the wealthy.

When they start going after Franco Harris for supporting his father figure, Joe-Pa, it’s called a witch hunt

Franco Harris has become collateral damage in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

Franco is best known for making one of the four or five greatest plays in professional football history, catching a ball that evidently bounced off the helmets and bodies of other players and then running for a game winning touchdown as time expired in the very first play-off game of the Pittsburgh Steelers team that went on to capture four Super Bowl titles in six years.

All Franco did was say that Joe Paterno, his former coach, didn’t do anything wrong and did not deserve to be fired.  He showed support for the man who selected him for athletic greatness in high school and then showed him how to be both the Hall of Fame player and the community leader that Franco became after leaving Penn State for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Would you fire a son for saying that his dad was innocent?

Anyone who doubts that Joe Paterno has been a father figure for Franco Harris for forty some odd years probably has never spent even a minute in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But first a race track fired Franco as spokesperson and then the Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, the notoriously callow and mediocre Luke Ravenstahl, forced Franco to resign as president of Pittsburgh Promise, a local public-private partnership which guarantees college money for anyone graduating from Pittsburgh Public Schools who is admitted to a college in Pennsylvania.

I don’t agree with Franco that Joe Paterno should not have been fired.  Coach had a serious lapse of ethical judgment in not following up more aggressively after he passed on the allegations of sexual abuse to his superiors.  There was no excuse for it.  Over time, I believe that most people will remember Joe Paterno for running a model college  football program that graduated its players and prepared them for the real world of life after football.  But for now, Penn State and we as a community of people have to do what we have to do, which is make sure that everyone understands that protecting our children from sexual predators is more important than a football team. Joe had to go.

But I can’t find fault with anyone for providing moral support for Joe Paterno, while making clear that they are against child abuse.  I’m excluding, of course, those who select violence or the destruction of property as their means of expressing support.  These hoodlums should spend a few days in jail and make restitution.

But punish Franco Harris for supporting his coach?

Let the guy continue to serve on boards, help non-profit organizations raise money and actively sell important ideas about health, education and safety to the community, while making a little money serving as a respected corporate spokesperson.

The only good coming out of L’Affaire Franco is that now we know what a witch hunt looks like.

Obama shows what unifies U.S. foreign policy since Truman: be a military power first and foremost

During the 2008 elections, when many people, including myself, heard Obama’s view on foreign policy, we focused on his vow to end the war in Iraq and dismantle the Guantanamo prisoner camp, a symbol of our inhumanity to other humans. We did not hear him speak of going to war in Afghanistan, or if we heard it, we thought it would be a quick surgical strike against a few terrorists.

We remembered his courageous stand against the Iraqi war in 2003 and that memory was reinforced when he won the Nobel Prize, a move that I’m guessing the prize committee is now regretting. I’m sure regretting that I supported that decision, though I did point out at the time that he won the award for not being George Bush the Younger.

So now when I contemplate my disappointment with President Obama for his latest militarism, I have to remind myself that he never said he was against war. I just assumed it.

I’m of course referring to the announcement that the United States is basing 2,500 Marines in Australia. Every news story about yesterday’s announcement mentioned that it was a message to China.

Barack Obama follows the same foreign policy that emerged among the American elite after World War II: to dominate the world by being the biggest and baddest bully on the block with the newest and most expensive toys. Even during the relatively peaceful Clinton years when we reduced military spending and enjoyed the prosperity that ensued, we projected military force from time to time.

In the context of this tradition of war as the primary tool of foreign policy, Obama is doing a great job, especially recently. Besides pursuing the Afghanistan war, here are some of the violent acts our president has ordered these past few months, some of which are against international and U.S. law:

  • The legal capture of the country’s most important enemy, but then he marred this victory through allowing, condoning or ordering the illegal assassination of the fiend.
  • The use of drone fighter planes to kill people in eight countries with whose government we have no official dispute without the permission of the official permission of the governments of those countries.
  • The illegal assassination of a U.S. citizen instead of capturing and bringing him back home for a trial.
  • Military support to the winning side of the Libyan overthrow of Qaddafi, an act that even a pacifist such as I am has trouble criticizing.

These acts of violence are all small flourishes, so in this sense, Obama continues in the less virulent Clintonian strain of militarism. There just seem to be so many of them.

It would take a less clever set of leaders than the current crew running China to be taken in by such a meager move as posting 2,500 marines in a country whose capital is 5,604 miles from theirs. I think they realize that this kind of small move characterizes a bluffer more than a bully, but neither matters: bluffers fold and bullies back down.

The Chinese are playing the economic game and the alternative energy game and kicking our asses in both. One of the reasons that the Chinese have money to spend developing solar energy and cornering the market on rare metals is that they have a small military budget. With more than triple our population, they spend a fifth of what we do on defense. We project our power by killing people or threatening to do so. The Chinese are projecting their power by making, buying and selling things better.

At the end of the day, I believe that the Chinese strategy has the advantage over ours in a global economy run by sophisticated technology and threatened by both resource overuse and resource shortages.

Congress prefers to help processed food industry than to help children improve their nutrition.

There was more in the news today than Republican candidates’ self-destruction by means of mouth opening and the idle speculation on what will happen to the Occupy movement now that local governments across the country have decided to clear the parks instead of waiting for the snow.

Buried in the back pages is the news that Congress has halted efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches by refusing to fund the changes. 

The USDA had proposed to take a few small steps to make school lunches—and by implication the children who eat them—healthier: Limit the use of potatoes, halve the amount of sodium, provide more whole grains, raise the amount of tomato paste considered a serving of vegetables. This last proposal would have made it impossible to count the tomato paste on a slice or two of pizza as a vegetable.

The USDA plans were based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they were necessary to reduce childhood obesity and future health care costs. 

There can be no doubt that childhood obesity and unhealthy eating are both a health and an economic problem. At last count, about 17% of children (and 34% of adults) are considered to be obese. Obesity has been linked to a large number of debilitating ailments, including heart disease, diabetes and (probably) some kinds of cancer.  The more people who have these diseases, the higher the cost of healthcare for everyone. Eating more fruits and vegetables helps to lower the amount of calories people consume, because they are full of fiber and water. Fruits and vegetables also contain nutrients like anti-oxidants that have been shown to help lower cholesterol and fight cancer.

Improving the nutrition of school lunches will help make healthier children in two ways: 1) They’ll eat more nutritious food; 2) They’ll see the lessons they learn about nutrition and health in their classes applied in the real world.

Why did Congress decide to ignore this grave heath challenge?

We all know the answer: The pressure of large companies. To quote the New York Times:Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals and require food that many children would throw away.” 

Saying that many children would throw away the lunches is just silly. Children have always thrown away or traded all or parts of their lunches. And children have always frowned at trying new foods or foods prepared in an unfamiliar way, then tried them and liked (or tolerated) them.

The cost argument is profoundly obnoxious. The USDA proposal would have added 14 cents to the average cost of each lunch meal. 14 lousy pennies. The total cost over 5 years for these improvements is $6.8 billion, which computes to about $9.28 in additional taxes per year per federal individual and corporate tax filer (although we have to keep in mind that the additional amount might be paid in state taxes, so it might be slightly less or more). If Congress decided to fund these improvements by raising taxes only for individuals and families making $200,000 per year or more, it would increase the taxes of these upper middle class and rich people by about $309 per year. Congress could also cut one quarter of one percent from the Defense Department budget to fund healthier school lunches. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, the cost increase proposed by the USDA was trivial. 

No, the major corporations that lobbied against the proposed new rules for school lunches do not care about either costs or waste. And they evidently don’t care about the future of our children. They care about one thing and one thing only: keeping the money rolling in.

That Congress should succumb to their pressure shows once again that our elected officials care more about the interests of a narrow group of corporations and wealthy individuals than about the rest of the country. And it truly is befuddling: It’s not as if the proposed changes would have taken money from food producers, merely shifted it from those producing some kinds of foods to those producing other kinds of food.

Congress is always making (and has always made) decisions that favor one industrial sector over another. Congress routinely prefers the interests of oil companies to those of companies involved in solar, wind and other alternative energy.  It routinely favors automobile manufacturers over mass transit equipment manufacturers. And over the past 30 years, its tax policies have consistently favored the wealthiest Americans over everyone else. In each case, different policies would have had a negligible effect on the economy, merely shifting money from the hands of corporations whose products, services and actions were having a pernicious effect on the country to those whose products, services and actions could help to make us healthier, address global warming, clean the environment or lead to the more equitable distribution of wealth we see in Japan, Canada and most of Europe.