While celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, let’s not forget that segregation still exists

Segregation is the separation or isolation of individuals or groups from a larger group or from society. Segregation has taken many forms throughout history: refugee camps, work camps, concentration camps, castes, class systems, quarantines, slave quarters, homelands, ghettos, pales, redlined districts, housing development covenants, mass transit seating and classrooms, to name some of the more prevalent means of denying people the right to enter or leave.

Except for medical quarantines, not one of the myriad means to segregate are fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous or tolerable to the fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous and tolerant person. While it enriches a pluralistic society when individuals of a group—say Jews or Pakistanis—move to the same neighborhood and open specialty stores catering their cultural predilections, to restrict these or other groups to areas undermines any society or nation. The same is true if a group tries to keep others out, either everyone or another specific group. A free society demands free access to everyone to all areas that offer free access to anyone, except of course for private property not engaged in civic affairs, commerce or other public ends.

Nelson Mandela defeated a particularly pernicious form of segregation called apartheid.  He resolutely withstood years of jail to lead a movement that eventually negotiated with the defenders of apartheid and defeated them in a democratic election. He fulfilled the vision of Gandhi, the dream of Martin Luther King.  That he began his public career supporting violence only makes more poignant the story of his achieving the good he sought peacefully. It also demonstrates the caliber of the man—always growing, always improving, always questioning.

In celebrating Mandela’s long life, however, let us not forget the many forms of segregation that still exist today throughout the world, including the abominable irony of an apartheid-like system in a nation controlled by a national group that suffered one of the most horrifying examples of segregation in recorded history.

In the United States, our most harmful form of segregation is the separation of rich from poor in access to education. Educational segregation—enforced by expensive private schools, private lessons and gerrymandered public school districts, has unleveled the playing field, helping to create what is the least socially mobile country in the western world. In the United States, it is harder for people to leave the lowest fifth in income and wealth and easier for someone in the highest fifth to remain there than in any other industrialized country. It makes a mockery of our democratic ideals for it to be so hard to climb the economic ladder. Education has usually been the way that the poor have become rich in open societies; thus the connection between educational segregation and growing inequality of wealth and opportunity.

But educational segregation is merely one form of this pox on society that we need to address. The situation in Israel and the occupied lands is morally intolerable.  The Wikipedia article titled “Racial Segregation” details legal and de facto segregation in Bahrain, Canada, Fiji, India, Malaysia, Mauritania, the United Kingdom and Yemen. This list doesn’t include prisoner and refugee camps.

The mass media is already trying to homogenize Nelson Mandela, as they have successfully done for Martin Luther King, turning the day of remembering King’s life into a general day of service to the community, which whitewashes that he dedicated his life to one particular kind of service: peaceful disobedience to oppose racial discrimination.  In the same way, the mass media is already focusing on Mandela the peaceful fighter for democratic elections and freedom. But freedom for South African Blacks involved much more than getting the right to vote.  Mandela’s fight was to create a pluralistic post-racial society of equal access, equal treatment, equal rights and equal opportunity.

The only way to appropriately honor Nelson Mandela is to continue the fight—the peaceful fight—against segregation of every kind, wherever it is.

What current media fascination is most like AIDS news coverage in the 1990’s? Hint: Lots of K’s involved

To those old enough to remember the 1990’s, the phrase “AIDS story of  the day” will resonate, because in fact there was a new story about some aspect of AIDS virtually every day of the week in the mass media: research into its origin or cure, its spread, measures to prevent it, art and literature about AIDS or by artists with AIDS, changing cultural patterns, types of condoms, famous people outed because they contracted AIDS, protests by AIDS victims, the impact of AIDS on communities and cities, the spread to the heterosexual community, vignettes of sufferers and their families, the overcoming of prejudices, funding challenges, studies and reports from other countries. Every day it was something new as reporters, magazines, newspapers and TV programs tried to top each other with the new or unusual related to this dreaded plague.

That there was a constant onslaught of news stories over pretty much an entire decade was understandable. It was a worldwide epidemic of a horrible disease that was related to sexual practices or intravenous drug use with an unknown cause. The story of the world’s reaction to AIDS—finding its cause and then the means to ameliorate if not prevent it, while gaining a new respect and tolerance for its victims—represents humanity at its best.

How ironic then that the contemporary news phenomenon that most resembles the AIDS story in its longevity and number of story angles is not a monumental medical epic involving millions, but the private bantering and peccadilloes of a family of rich but garish narcissists.

Only those who ignore the mass media don’t know to whom I’m referring: It’s the Kardashians.

Every day, a story about one or more Kardashians appears on the Yahoo! home page, Google News, the news pages of popular email portals such as Verizon’s and Time Warner’s, many of our finest tabloid newspapers like The Daily News and gossip-based televisions shows like Entertainment Tonight and The Wendy Williams Show. More staid and serious news media such as Wall Street Journal and New York Times cover the family with some frequency.

Their loves, flirtations and breakups, frustrations, life events and parties, purchases, vacations, clothes, cars and other toys, family relationships, faux pas and ignorant statements, rumors, popularity and the very fact that they are a phenomenon are all grist for the Kardashian mill. Even the Kennedy family at its height did not command so much constant attention, partially because they flourished before the age of 24/7 Internet and television media.

And why so much news coverage for a pack of uneducated conspicuous consumers of luxury products?

  1. Their parents are rich.
  2. They tend to couple with famous people, mostly second rate professional athletes.
  3. They have starred in a succession of reality TV programs in which they inelegantly portray garishly ostentatious lives of conspicuous consumption and family bickering.

In short they are pure celebrities, famous for being famous, or more bluntly, famous for sleeping with famous people.  The fact that much of the detail of their lives and adventures may be created by a stable of reality show and public relations writers matters little. The post-modern blending of reality and fantasy is accepted as gospel by so much of the news media that the Kardashian universe has become the fulfillment of the Karl Rove dream of replacing a reality-based world with an ideologically determined one.

The Kardashian ideology, embraced by the show’s sponsors and the owners of the many media outlets that cover their antics, is worship of the commercial transaction. Peruse the stories (but not too many) and you will find that virtually all them involve buying or giving/taking something someone has bought. The Kardashians’ many complex but frangible relations all boil down to shopping. What Lamar got Khloé, where Kourtney shopped, what designer jewelry Kris was wearing.

Every day the sheer volume of Kardashian stories overwhelms coverage of more important matters. Just now, for example, I found 69.7 million stories about the Kardashians in Google News, but only 140,000 on the car bomb attack in Yemen and a mere 6,000 about the Illinois pension overhaul. Several months ago I reported a study by some Stanford scientists which demonstrated how to provide enough electricity for the entire world through wind power, which garnered exactly one news story throughout the Googlesphere.

Even the most ostensibly high-minded mainstream news media are prisoners of the need to make money by appealing to advertisers. And advertisers like stories that exhort readers to buy expensive toys. And even more do they like stories which advocate the idea that every emotion and human expression must manifest itself in a commercial transaction—buying something.  And most of all they like stories which glorify the shopper as the person to be most admired and honored.

So-called bioethicist would rather see people die than change society

In a New York Times Op/Ed column, Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institution, questions the wisdom of extending human life.

Callahan rightfully calls aging “a public issue with social consequences” and mentions two of the ramifications of more people living into old age: 1) More medical costs for society; 2) Fewer jobs for the young, as the old extend their working lives.

But instead of seeing health care and the workforce as challenges to overcome as we extend the amount of time people can live, he sees them instead as reasons not to extend life. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but his underlying argument essentially throws people under the bus when their usefulness to the economy appears to end.

The increase in medical costs to treat the elderly should not be seen as society’s burden, but rather as our joyous reward for having created a world in which people can live longer and continue to thrive. That so many people live longer is a sign of success, not a reason to stop the advance of medical research. We expanded educational institutions to meet the large increase in the population of children when the Baby Boomers started popping out. What is so different about expanding medical and social programs for our increasing population of the elderly?

The jobs issue is a little more complicated, primarily because our automated economy does not create enough jobs for everyone willing and able to work. But instead of artificially creating job openings by kicking out people at a certain age, we could fix what’s wrong with our economic system. Here are some thoughts:

  • As more people live to 90, 100 and beyond, they will need more caregivers, which creates jobs for younger people.
  • Local organic farming requires more human labor. If we created an agricultural system that relied on a mix of industrial and older techniques, it would create many more jobs for the young. The key, of course, is to make certain that these jobs pay a decent wage.
  • Unless there is a pressing financial reason, those in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond typically don’t want to work 40-hour weeks. Job-sharing, especially between the old experienced hand and the young go-getter, makes a lot of sense.
  • We are currently not spending enough on many job-creating enterprises, such as fixing our roads and bridges, hiring enough teachers to decrease class sizes, exploring out-of-space and developing renewable energy sources and systems.

To make any of these ideas work requires two actions that give conservatives the willies: 1) More government management of the economy; and 2) A more equitable distribution of the wealth.

When people use economic arguments to justify denying people basics such as nutrition, healthcare or education, I always wonder if they include themselves. Evidently the 83-year-old Callahan does not, as he admits to having received a seven-hour heart operation and to using oxygen at night for his emphysema.  In our current world, the rich—and I include Callahan—can afford to keep themselves alive and have nice cushy jobs from which they can keep drawing income for decades after turning 65.

Callahan’s sole concern is that as currently constructed, our society and economy cannot afford to extend such privileges to everyone.  While he seems to care about the social good, he argues explicitly from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe or want society to improve or change. He is happy living in a world dominated by the politics of selfishness, the idea that “I got mine, who cares about anyone else.” He sees an increase in the very old as a threat to that world, as opposed to being a sign that we are making progress towards a better one.

We all know people whose lives are so filled with pain and suffering that to the outsider it seems as if they would be better off dead. Focus on these poor souls (and don’t ask if they want to remain alive in their pain) and Callahan’s argument that life extension may not be an absolute good makes a tad of sense.

But instead, try focusing on the many vibrant 80 and 90 year olds around. Even those who are not so active can still enjoy their friends, their favorite foods, music, outings and games, sports teams, reading, the changing of the seasons, the chirping of birds, the affection of pets, the delight in seeing the flowers pop up in the spring, in short the sheer joy of existence.  We should be doing as much as possible to extend that joy for all people.

What is the biggest cause in the drop in crime rates?

The latest statistics demonstrate that New York City’s Draconian stop-and-frisk policy has not been the cause for a precipitous drop in the rate of violent crime in the five boroughs. Even after NYC’s finest curtailed stop-and-frisk without cause, crime rates continued to plummet.

I’ve been meaning for some time to analyze why crime rates have dropped and continue to drop across the United States, but especially in urban areas outside of Chicago.  Despite the right’s wails and lamentations about unsafe communities, most of us live in far safer places than we did a decade or two ago. Interestingly enough, the crime rate is down most precipitously in that modern Sodom or Gomorrah, the Big Not-So-Rotten Apple.

Why has crime decreased?

First, I want to discount the idea that crime fell as a result of increased incarceration of individuals, victims to the many 3-strikes-you’re-out and anti-crack laws passed in the late 70’s and 80’s. We have filled our prisons with a bunch of people—black males to a large extent—who don’t deserve to be incarcerated. All they have done is minor kid’s stuff or drugs. We have the highest incarceration rate in the western world and yet we still have the highest rate of violent crimes. No doubt, some small percentage of those locked up for years for tooting crack might have committed future crimes, but some percentage of those locked up learned criminal ways in prison and became lost to society.  I’m thinking the net effect disproves the idea that locking more people up than any other industrialized nation led to a drop in crimes rates.

One of the gun lobby’s many fantasies is that the increase in open carry and other gun rights leads to a decrease in crime, because the criminals won’t want to run into someone who would shoot back. This absurd claim crumbles to lies as soon as we look at the facts: Forget that the incidents of citizens stopping criminals by pulling out their gun are extremely rare. Consider that the higher the prevalence of guns in any country in the world, the higher the rate of deaths and injuries from guns in that country. More guns equal more violent deaths. Also consider the fact that while there are more guns out there now, fewer households own guns today than 20 years ago, continuing a trend that is more than 50 years old now.  Fewer people own more guns. I think it’s likely that the decline in gun owners may have led to a drop in crime.

So far, I’ve consider some bogus arguments conservatives make about the drop in crime. Now let’s take a look at three legitimate arguments which I think have been factors in the continued drop in crime, but not any as the primary cause.

Let’s start with the end of the use of lead paint: This theory goes that crime increased soon after we started using lead-based paint in apartment buildings, because children would eat the paint chips and suffer one or more of the side effects, which include learning disabilities resulting in decreased intelligence, attention deficit disorder and behavior issues, all predictors of criminal behavior. Once we stopped using lead paint, the crime rate went down (even thought the rate of diagnosing ADD continues to soar). It’s a very believable theory backed by evidence that suggests but does not prove causality. Not enough research has done on the affect of lead paint on human adherence to social norms, but the explanation does sound plausible.

We can also look at the growth of dispute resolution programs in the schools as another factor in lowering the rate of crime. I think it was some time in the 80’s when these programs began, first in urban areas. Having sixth grade kids mentor first-graders, throwing middle school kids in with high schoolers, bringing together groups of students from different schools to talk about race, religion and other hate issues, the growth in organized sports leagues—all of this additional socialization had to turn many
marginal children away from crime.

My own pet theory is that the growth of video game play helped to lower the crime rate.  The idea is that people work out their anger and anti-social urges playing Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty: Black Ops.  So while I despair that most video games tend to infantilize young men, preventing their ideas and thought processes to mature, I do think that the games have kept many young men busy and out of trouble.

I do reject one non-conservative theory: A professor has postulated that the legalization of abortion has resulted in fewer unwanted children born and that unwanted children commit more crimes. The problem with this theory is that the introduction of birth control pills assuredly prevented the birth of more children than did the legalization of abortion. But the introduction of the pill paralleled the increase in the crime rate in the 1960’s and early 70’s, at least at first.

Lead paint, growth in socialization programs and video games all played a role in the decrease in crime, without being the main cause. Sociologists and historians who calculate crime rates in many cultures through centuries report that the rate of crime is primarily a function of the number of 16-29 year old males in the population. Most crime is committed by young men, so the higher percentage of young males in the population, the higher the crime rate.

The facts certainly match this theory until about 2003. When the Baby Boom turned 16, crime rates started to soar. Males aged 16-29 represented the largest percentage of our population in our nation’s history.  When Generation X—otherwise known as the Baby Bust—started to turn 16 and Baby Boomers started turning middle-aged, crime rates started dropping. Now the birth rate increased again with the Millennial generation (AKA Generation Y, although judging from the high achievements of its female members, maybe Generation Non-Y is a better moniker!). But when the Millennials started turning 16, the crime rate did not pick up again.

My thought is that the impact of the Millennials on the overall population is far less than that of the truly outsized Baby Boom generation. So while we have more 16-29 year old males, this demographic segment is not as great a percentage of the whole as it was at the height of Boomer young adulthood.  The end of lead paint, greater socialization, the growth of video games, a decline in gun ownership and other factors still unidentified all combined to keep the crime rate going down.  By this theory, if the Millennials were as large a factor as the Baby Boom generation had been, the crime rate might still not have risen, but not to Boomer levels because of these additional factors.


Ayn Rand Institute factotum tries to convince us Wal-Mart pays its employees enough

Right-wing factotum Doug Altner, an analyst with the Ayn Rand Institute, poses a provocative question in a Forbes article: If Wal-Mart is such a crappy place to work, why do 1.4 million Americans work there and many more want to?

It’s the type of question that extreme free-marketers love to ask, because it assumes that we really have a free market in which every market participant has equal rights and equal clout.

Altner forgets that the poor and the uneducated have very few options.  That 10,000 people apply for 300 openings when a new Wal-Mart opens says less about the attractiveness of the company and more about the lack of jobs, especially for young people who don’t have diplomas from one of the top 300 or so colleges. In many rural areas, Wal-Mart’s entrance into the marketplace destroyed many local and regional retailers who paid their employees more in wages and benefits. Wal-Mart does pay marginally more money than burger-flipping, but that does not mean that it pays a decent wage.

Altner gives three reasons why he thinks people clamor to work for Wal-Mart:

1.     The work is not physically straining.

What Altner writes is that “Many entry-level Walmart jobs consist of comparatively safe and non-strenuous work such as stocking shelves, working cash registers, and changing price labels.” Altner goes on to mention that these jobs pay more than other entry-level jobs that require few skills. What he doesn’t say is that other non-strenuous jobs pay much more money. I can’t remember the last time I worked up a sweat writing an article or meeting with a client. I do remember that an attorney and a company president with whom I recently met both looked absolutely exhausted—they had just come from a racquetball game at 10:00 a.m. on a week day! Sarcasm aside, the fact that work is not physically exhausting shouldn’t justify paying less than a living wage.

2.     Wal-Mart provides entry to myriad career opportunities.

Altner points out that Wal-Mart tends to promote from within and that three-quarters of its store managers started as hourly workers (Altner uses the Wal-Mart euphemism and calls them “associates.”). I’m not sure how Altner earned a PhD in industrial engineering, because he certainly forgot to do the math. Counting 1.3 million employees and about 5,000 Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs across the 50 states, a new hire at Wal-Mart has less than three-tenths of one percent chance of becoming a store manager.  But the 1.3 million number is the wrong one to use, since 70% of all Wal-Mart employees quit within a year, a stunning indicator of employee dissatisfaction which Altner neglects to mention.  If we consider the competition for 75% of store manager jobs to be everyone hired in a 12-month period, then the statistical probability of becoming a store manager is significantly less than two-tenths of a percent. But the real odds of getting a job are assuredly even less than this number, since the company does not turn over all store manager jobs within a year. Maybe the competition for store manager jobs includes everyone hired by Wal-Mart in a six-year period (less than 6/100ths of a percent) or even a 10 year period (less than 4/100ths of a percent).  I’m guessing that if you consider everyone who draws a salary playing for all the major and minor leagues of baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, race car driving, golf, tennis and every other professional sport, the chance of becoming a professional athlete is probably as great as starting as a Wal-Mart entry level employee and becoming a store manager. In other words, the opportunity is there, but it’s far-off and very unlikely.

The article does not miss a beat in defending Wal-Mart. For example, the one example of a hourly worker who made it to the top is a woman named by Fortune Magazine as one of the 50 most powerful women of 2006. I’m sure that offers consolation and hope to the many Wal-Mart female employees who are suing the company for wage discrimination and a hostile work environment. He doesn’t say it, but Altner selects this woman as his example to fight the negative publicity Wal-Mart continues to get for its treatment of women.

3.     Others are waiting for the Wal-Mart jobs.

Altner declares that Wal-Mart can get away with paying low wages, so why should it pay higher wages. He complains that critics think Wal-Mart should pay more, “regardless of whether he has the skills or experience to justify such a wage, regardless of whether he is a model employee or a slouch, regardless of how many other individuals are willing and able to do his job for less, regardless of whether raising wages will be good for the company’s bottom line. In effect, their premise is that $12+ per hour wages shouldn’t have to be earned or justified; they should be dispensed like handouts.” He forgets that it is Wal-Mart that is getting a handout because so many of its employees rely on government assistance programs to supplement their low wages.

Altner is really making a case for no minimum wage and, in fact, no government regulation.  He can’t really believe that Wal-Mart offers a great deal if 70% of employees quit within a year, unless he postulates that all 70% are “slouches.” The fact that others are waiting in line to take the jobs is no excuse for paying less. Many attorneys are clamoring for high-priced jobs at corporate law firms. I get dozens of resumes a month from people clamoring for a job at a public relations agency. These are high-paying jobs that stay high-paying despite the fact that lots of people want them.

For decades, Wal-Mart has taken advantage of the economic climate. It thrives by exploiting the fact that the minimum wage has lost its buying power through inflation and is much lower than it should be; the fact that the current laws allow corporations to play games with part-time work to limit benefits; the fact that there are far fewer jobs than there are people seeking them.  In this sense, they are bottom feeders who take advantage of the poor and uneducated.

The heart of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is selfishness. In its discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the Ayn Rand Institute website writes, “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

I disagree entirely. All of our sustenance and pleasure—our necessities like food and shelter and our joys like music and sports—come through our interactions with society.  We owe society—for roads and bridges, our electrical grids, our safety, our markets, our cultural norms and standards, our base of knowledge and all our goods and services. No one can live outside society or without other people. As a society, we owe everyone, and in this I mean everyone in the world, food, shelter, education, health care and a chance to better themselves.

As individuals, we manifest what we owe society by following its rules and regulations. For the good of the whole, we impede people’s rights to adulterate food or use inaccurate weights and measures. And we also impede people’s right to take advantage of the downtrodden. That’s what the minimum wage is all about.

If Wal-Mart (and many other employers)  did not operate always and only on the principles of pure selfishness, there would be no need to unionize or to raise the minimum wage. But they don’t, so society and its members have every right to foster unionization and to set a minimum wage.

We are living in a particularly harsh time now, mainly because for too long we have let those like Doug Altner and other Randers set the tone of the political debate. We hear too much about the rights and prerogatives of corporations and rich folk and too little about the family of humans and how interconnected we all are.

Dunkin’ Donuts adds both extra sugar and salt to new hot chocolate-flavored concoction

The amazing thing about the diversity of manufactured food offerings in food stores and restaurants is the degree to which the proliferation of new food products leaves everything tasting the same: half salty and half sweet.

For one thing, there’s the sauce inflation at national chains for what is called “casual dining.”  You know, Applebees, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Outback.  The fad now is to cook meat with one sauce, glaze or other covering and then pour both a cheese or cheese product and another sauce over the entire entree.  For example, Olive Garden has its Steak Gorgonzola Alfredo and Pizza Fritters Napoli. Applebee’s has its Fiesta Lime Chicken and Four-cheese Macaroni and Cheese with Honey Pepper Chicken Tenders. And check out the description of this sweet and salty delicacy from Outback: wood-fire grilled chicken breast topped with sautéed chicken with mushrooms, crisp bacon, melted Monterey Jack and cheddar and honey mustard sauce. The combinations of meats, sauces and spices always leave these dishes with both a salty and a sweet taste, sometimes with or without a slightly hot favor, depending upon whether or not it is “spicy.” There is no other taste and no subtlety of taste or aroma.

Forget about the added calories from the cheese and multiple sauces for the moment. Just think what happens when you put salt and sugar on everything—it all comes out tasting the same.  Now I know that we only taste salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (meat flavor), but with the varied smells of food, it really is possible to create a myriad of taste combination. It seems as if all American food manufacturers want to do is make us taste only salt and sugar.

The latest salt-and-sugar concoction—at least as far as I can tell with my limited TV viewing and total abstinence from processed food and national chain restaurant offerings—is Dunkin’ Donuts’ (DD) “salted caramel hot chocolate.”

Caramel is the smoky sugary flavor you get when you melt sugar at a low heat. There is always some sugar or other sweetener in all chocolate, but adding caramel pumps another jolt of sugar—or whatever sweetener DD uses—into the drink. Plus there’s the salty part: who wants to drink something salty anyhow? Salty food make you want to drink something—I’ve found water is best to quench a salted thirst. So the effect of drinking DD’s salted caramel hot chocolate drink is to make you want to drink something else. A Dunkin’ coffee anyone?

The small version of this beverage product runs 220 calories and the extra large version comes in at 550 calories, which is approximately one-quarter of what nutritional experts tell us the average adult male should eat in an entire day. While looking at the list of ingredients, keep in mind that the ingredients are always listed in order of quantity—the first item is used the most in the food product, the second item second most, etc.

Here are the ingredients in salted caramel hot chocolate: Water, Salted Caramel Flavored Hot Chocolate Powder {Sugar, Non Dairy Creamer [Partially Hydrogenated Coconut Oil, Corn Syrup Solids, Sodium Caseinate (a milk derivative), Dipotassium Phosphate, Sugar, Mono and Diglycerides, Sodium Silicoaluminate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor and Artificial Color (Annatto and Turmeric)], Nonfat Dry Milk, Cocoa processed with alkali, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Salt, Cellulose Gum, Silicon Dioxide, Sodium Citrate}.

The first thing to note is that what we have is a packet of dry chemicals that DD stirs into hot water. Some of the chemicals derive from processing plants or animals; others are completely artificial, in that the starting point wasn’t a food that grows such as sugar or cocoa. Also note that cocoa is probably the fifth most used product in the dry mixture, behind non-dairy creamer, which in and of itself has seven chemical parts, including corn syrup and even more sugar.  I write “probably,” because of all the stuff in the non-dairy creamer. Note, too, that there is more non-dairy creamer than nonfat dry milk. Thank goodness there is less salt than cocoa in this brew.

Drinking one, or even five, of this beverage comprised of sugar, chemicals and salt won’t count towards the daily dark chocolate dose that keeps away heart disease. In fact, a DD salted caramel is one of the unhealthiest things you can put in your body.  Drinking one defiles the body much as dumping radioactive wastes defiles a wooded area or wetlands.

Don’t think that the sauces, glazes, cheese products and drizzles at national casual dining chains are any different. Dig deep into the ingredients of most of these concoctions and you’ll find a lot of chemicals, a lot of corn syrup and sugar and a lot of artificial flavors.

Of course, with all the potential carcinogens and all those unneeded empty calories come that simultaneous hit of both sugar and salt which the food manufacturing industry has trained us to crave.

Pro-nuclear journalists nuke mainstream news media; fall-out is wasted time in addressing global warming

In the past week, both Eduardo Porter, a left-leaning columnist from the New York Times and Hendrik Hertzberg, a centrist-looking-left columnist at the New Yorker have advocated nuclear power as the necessary bridge to solar and wind power.

Both writers use the same arguments: We can’t produce enough energy—by which they mean electricity—by solar and wind, so we need nuclear to replace carbon-spewing coal and oil if we are to address global warming in time.  Porter and Hertzberg make two assumptions: 1)  we must wait for the market to develop for solar and wind as opposed to making massive government investment to create the market; and 2) the only viable solutions involve central generation of electricity controlled by large companies and the decentralized solutions such as mini-generators in neighborhoods and solar panels for heating space and water are unacceptable.

But using nuclear energy to produce electricity strikes a bargain with a devil as pernicious to the earth as global warming. The safety problems with nuclear power are numerous and well documented. Briefly, a major accident spewing significant radiation has occurred somewhere in the world about every 10 years since the 1950’s, including Chalk River, Kyshtym, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, to name some of the more notorious accidents.

There is also the issue of storage. The United States still hasn’t found a permanent place to store nuclear wastes, so it sits at the plants or in temporary locations smoldering  and spewing radioactivity.  The half life of some nuclear waste is 25,000 years, which means that in 25,000 years half of the radioactivity will have dissipated. That’s more than twice the length of time that humans have had civilizations with written records and agriculture. How many people can speak the languages humans spoke 25,000 years ago? When I think of storage of nuclear waste, I always imagine future intelligent life discovering cavernous vaults with strange hieroglyphics on them, wondering what the symbols mean and eager to break open the vault and see what is inside. They drill through only to let the radioactivity escape and poison them and those in nearby settlements.

By spending money on building more plants for the nuclear generation of electricity we deny resources that could make solar viable. Instead of the private sector investing in nuclear, why can’t the government increases taxes on the private sector’s use of coal and oil and use the funds to buy solar-based batteries, solar roof panels for heating federal buildings and other existing solar products? Making solar and wind more competitive does not have to involve only making them cheaper; it can also involve making coal and oil more expensive by raising taxes or withdrawing current tax breaks. The government could also give greater tax breaks for developing wind mills and solar plants. It could pass a law that makes it harder for rich folk to pursue lawsuits because their view of the Atlantic is impeded by a windmill.

Why waste precious public and private resources in nuclear energy? Let’s go right to what must be the energy of the future—solar and wind.




What do Wal-Mart and Arne Duncan have in common? Neither understands that it’s all about the wages

Two stories floating around the news media lately both make me want to shake the principal actors and yell in their faces, “Raise wages and you’ll solve the problem.”

The first story involves Wal-Mart’s latest embarrassment—employees in it Canton, Ohio store organized a Thanksgiving food drive for fellow workers.  This act of charity—by and for employees only—begged the question that pundits, labor leaders, left-leaning actors and supporters of the minimum wage are all asking: Does Wal-Mart pay its employees too little money?

The Canton food drive for Wal-Mart employees came on the heels of a report by Demos, the liberal think tank, that if Wal-Mart had not engaged in a stock buy-back program is recent years, it would have had the money to raise employee salaries by $5.83 an hour and kept the same profit. My only problem with the survey is that it doesn’t attack the profit margin, which is pretty fat for Wal-Mart and could be reduced as another way to pay employees a living wage.

At this point, Wal-Mart’s treatment of its employees has achieved near mythic notoriety in the mainstream and the left-leaning media. The food drive is merely this week’s “Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its employees enough” story. I’m sure many others are as tired as I am of shouting at the paper, TV, radio or computer screen, “Just do the decent thing and raise their salaries to $15 an hour!”

Perhaps not so many people were yelling at  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan the other day when he announced a new public relations campaign by the Department of Education to get more kids to consider careers as school teachers. Other sponsors include the Advertising Council, Microsoft, State Farm Insurance, Teach for America, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions and several other educational groups. The problem the campaign addresses is that the Baby Boom generation of teachers is beginning to retire and many predict teacher shortages in the future.

If Arne Duncan doesn’t know it, maybe his friends at Microsoft and the multinational advertising agencies involved in the Advertising Council could tell him that it’s a simple matter to attract more—and more competent—people to a job or career. Just offer more money.

I suspect that Duncan is not entirely serious about attracting more people to the teaching profession, given his continued support of charter schools. From day one, the goal of the charter school movement has been to hammer down salaries of teachers by destroying public school unions.  We know that the big money funding the charter school movement doesn’t really care about quality education. Otherwise they would have pulled the plug on charter schools years ago, given that on average charter schools underperform public schools.

The equation is simple:

1. Charter schools pay less

2. Thus, charter schools drive down teachers’ salaries

3. Lower teacher salaries decrease interest in becoming a teacher.

If this esteemed group of government entities, companies and nonprofit organizations really wanted to build the next generation of school teachers, it would be bankrolling a campaign to make union organizing easier and to set high federal wage standards for all school teachers, public and private.

Both these stories come down to people with power scratching their heads and wondering what to do when the answer is standing right in front of them like a large cold and hungry elephant shivering and trumpeting loudly. PAY THEM MORE! It may mean taking a little less in profits, which are currently exorbitant. Or it may mean raising taxes. Doesn’t matter—those with jobs should make enough money to feed their families, and the professionals to whom we entrust our children should not have their decent wages reduced but instead be raised to the same rate at which we pay lawyers, accountants and other professionals. Pay teachers as much as we pay neurosurgeons and top PR execs, and we’ll have more people interested in the profession.

In our adulation of the dead JFK, let’s not forget almost every myth about him is false

In the tsunami of stories about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, no one yet has observed that JFK was one of the first and finest examples of manipulation of the mass media to elect a major candidate.

In 1956, Kennedy was a back-bench Senator known for little else than being the son of a rich man and the right-wing alternative to a moderate Tennessean as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. Then his family launched an incessant public relations program based on the question, “Can a Catholic be elected president?” It seemed as if every month some national magazine or prestigious newspaper was asking the question and answering mostly in the affirmative.  In launching this PR campaign, the Kennedy family had one very large advantage: the family business was the largest advertiser in the mass media in the 1950’s.

After the first debate with Richard Nixon, the Kennedy PR machine shifted into fifth gear to focus the media conversation not on what was said, but on how they said it and what they looked like.  It was certainly the first time that issues—real or fabricated—took a back seat to style in discussing a major election. Likeability, that ineffable essence that the media later told us Bush II had and Al Gore did not, became a factor and the news media made sure we liked JFK a lot more than we did RMN. Of course, they had some help from Tricky Dick himself!

Fifty years after his assassination, the Kennedy legend is mostly built on myths, the most significant and mendacious of which is that he was a liberal or a progressive. Kennedy came from a dark past: His father sympathized with the Nazis. His younger brother was a lawyer for Joseph McCarthy.

As president, Kennedy tended to favor the right-wing. He called for decreasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations and for an increase in military spending. The two fiascos of his Administration—the Bay of Pigs invasion and the assassination of the head of the South Vietnamese government—were both examples of American imperialism and militarism.  Both decisions came back to haunt our country for years, like the equally foolish decision to invade Iraq decades later.

In retrospect, Kennedy’s civil rights record was shabby. Yes he was hobbled by his inability to manage Congress, but reviews of his administration’s actions in such books as Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters suggest that Kennedy was always looking for an excuse to declare failure in Democratic attempts to pass civil rights legislation.  Other books suggest that in finally passing civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, violence at the marches and riots in the inner cities moved Congress and the American people far more than did fulfilling the legacy of a martyred president.

Although Kennedy was born 30 years too early to be part of the Baby Boom generation, the fact that he was America’s youngest president when the Baby Boomers were reaching their teens did make it easy for Kennedy to become a symbol of a new, younger America. His public lifestyle and his rhetoric did seem to symbolize that youthful time, but his political actions did not represent youthful rebellion and idealism, but rather immature adventurism in foreign affairs and a middle-aged willingness to live with the status quo in everything else.

Part of the Kennedy myth is his personal glamour and elegance—but it was the glamour of rich folks spending their money on expensive stuff. The glamour was also part of the Kennedy PR machine, as exemplified by the first lady’s televised tour of the White House. I do, however, appreciate the fact that until Obama, Kennedy was our last president to cherish urban and urbane values. Between these two, all our presidents have wanted to be seen flipping sausages at a barbecue pit or chopping wood.

I do not believe someone’s personal life should enter into an accounting of his or her public legacy. I don’t care one way or another that Kennedy is reported to have bedded dozens if not hundreds of women. It has nothing to do with his ability to perform as president or his public legacy, unless the sex were not consensual or there were something else he did that indicated poor judgment or unacceptable behavior—underage women, hypocritically advocating celibacy while whoring around, sexual harassment or rape, for example. That Kennedy once forced a White House intern with whom he was having an affair to publicly felate a Secret Service agent does not speak well of the man.

It probably helps Kennedy’s legacy that no president has died in office since he did. I remember many older family members telling me how heart broken they were when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office. It occurred 18 years before Kennedy was assassinated and 22 years after Warren G. Harding died in office. It’s now been 50 years and, thank goodness, no one has supplanted Kennedy as “the president I remember dying in office.”  The violence of the assassination heightens the sadness and sense of tragedy surrounding Kennedy, as well it should.  That there are so many photographs and moving images of Kennedy makes it easy for even those born long after him to know him, or at least know his myths.

The persistent rumors of a conspiracy to assassinate JFK also contribute to his high visibility. In fact, most of the Kennedy myth has little to do with the public man. Just think of the ways that his life and death are being covered these past few weeks:

  • The details of the assassination
  • The conspiracy theories
  • His wealth and glamour
  • His sex life (helped by the fact that one of his paramours was a third-rate actress who had a habit of bedding famous and powerful men and after her death became another mass media martyr)
  • The excitement of the New Frontier
  • The sad fact that he didn’t have time to work on his political agenda.

Of course, there are a few stories of substance as well, mostly discussions of whether Kennedy would have escalated the war in Viet Nam. Typically, left-wingers say no and right-wingers say yes. In this case, the right is most certainly closer to the truth, based on all of Kennedy’s actions as president.

Like most public myths, Kennedy is a vessel into which we can pour whatever beliefs we want. Some see him as right-wing, left-wing, cold warrior, dove, hawk, symbol of a more optimistic time, glamour god, sex symbol, sex pervert, leader of youth, friend to minorities, whatever you want.

My take on Kennedy is that he was a rich guy whose family spent a lot of money helping him obtain an office for which he was less than qualified.  His politics reflected the views of large corporations of his time, from lowering taxes on the wealthy to pursuing an aggressive imperialism throughout the world (For more on how large corporations controlled Kennedy, read G. William Domhoff’s recent The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy). He basically cared about power and his social class.  That he is beloved as one of our greatest presidents of all time is just another proof of the power of rich folk to manipulate the news media.

How often does mass media exhort public to imitate people who aren’t rich?

We’re seeing a very rare media trend this fall. Story after story in the style, living, home and even business sections of newspapers and websites are advising people to imitate individuals who aren’t famous and don’t earn a lot of money, maybe $30,000 to $57,000 a year.

The envied group we’re supposed to imitate consists of professional shoppers. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from typing “Black Friday shopping tips” in the Google search box.  Of the 1.24 million results that come up, the first few pages are filled with articles that are going to teach us how to “shop like a pro,” by which the writers must mean a professional shopper, those low-paid gofers of party planners, marketing departments and rich folk.

Here is a sampling of articles in which we can learn how to “shop like a pro”:

  • How to Shop on Black Friday Like a Pro” lays out three steps and three tips for shopping like a pro the day after Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the writer and editor are less than pros and make a number of irritating syntactical errors, such as writing “your” instead of “you’re.”
  • Shop Black Friday Like a Pro” starts with the premise that the readers—like the writer—love to shop for the Holidays.
  • 12 tips for shopping Black Friday like a pro” is a graduate seminar in how to shop during the Holidays. The last tip however, places a dark cloud on the whole process (I write “process,” since when there are 12 steps, there must be a “process“): “Plan a nice brunch or other social gathering at the end of your trip, so you’ll have something to look forward to.” Wait a second. If, as the article claims earlier, you are so excited about shopping that you “are already salivating,” why do you need something to which to look forward? Maybe professional shoppers are supposed to end their work days with a snack, kind of like reverse carbo-loading.
  • 5 Steps to Shopping Black Friday Like a Pro” advises people to have a Holiday shopping strategy.
  • Black Friday Survival Guide – How to Shop Like a Pro” compares Black Friday to the Superbowl, but warns that on the “potentially dangerous and stressful day” you better learn how to shop like a pro.  Football serves as the appropriate analogy for the grim picture of waiting on line, running towards products and pushing and shoving painted by the author.
  • 3 Ways to Shop Black Friday Like a Pro” boils it down to the essentials of planning your route and coordinating with friends, so that one of you shops for certain items while the other looks for other things.

Those who aren’t satisfied merely to achieve a professional status, though, may prefer “How to win Black Friday 2013: Tips from a master.”  The article never tells what it means to win, but if there are three things I know about 21st century America it’s:

  1. We like to shop
  2. Winning is fun
  3. We like to aspire to the pinnacle, such as the pinnacle of shopping professionalism, that exalted point at which others laud you as a “master.”

The “shop like a pro” theme doesn’t exhaust the ways in which writers are giving us advice for Black Friday. You can find tips, steps, ways, lessons, strategies, tactics and ideas in any quantity you like: 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 or 20. There are even 10 issues worth discussing in the eternal debate between shopping in person on Black Friday or online on Cyber Monday. Don’t worry—there are advantages to each.  That’s the great thing about America—you’re doing okay, as long as you’re shopping.

Interestingly enough, no one mentions products much in their advice on shopping. There are occasional references to tablets and video games, but mostly the products don’t matter—it’s all about the act of buying.

Traditionalists shouldn’t beware just yet. My Google News search of “Thanksgiving” yielded 158 million stories, as opposed to a mere 136 million for “Black Friday.” If we measure significance by number of Google hits, Thanksgiving is still the top Holiday of the last week of November.  There are many how-to-articles for Thanksgiving, too—how to roast a turkey, how to make a turducken, how to make gravy, how to plan a vegetarian Thanksgiving, how to address family disputes, how to decorate in a festive way.  It all seems mundane and old-fashioned, though, compared to the thrilling rapture of pulling a credit card out of a wallet and handing it to a cashier.

But give it time. Black Friday is relatively new as a holiday.  It is still developing its traditions and its history. In the future, perhaps, certain food will become associated with Black Friday, like Mexican food with the Superbowl (My money is on hot turkey tacos). People will start telling stories of Black Friday the way they remember it in the good old days. The year Mom wrestled a PlayStation away from a 400-pound man. The year we roasted turkey on the portable grill in the Wal-Mart parking lot. And sooner  or later, someone is going to figure out that like most other American holidays, the best way to celebrate Black Friday is to buy something for someone and give it to them. Yes, I can see the glorious day—glorious for retailers—when people exchange presents for Black Friday. And at that point, we’ll have to create a new holiday—the one on which we shop for Black Friday presents.