Monday, January 18, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Debt Class

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made the central issue of his campaign the idea that our government has abandoned its responsibilities to the middle class. I would go a step farther and argue that we don't have a "middle class" at all. What we have is a "debt class" masquerading as a middle class. Debt has become an acceptable concept for politicians and ordinary citizens alike, and actively encouraged by financial institutions that reap huge profits at our collective expense. We're propped up as local, state, and federal governments, and family budgets. We are not solvent in the least.

Not only are we encouraged to borrow, we are punished for saving money by horrendously low interest rates. I still cannot understand why there cannot be separate interest rates for borrowing and saving, but that is the current situation and it is intolerable. One should earn more than (less than) pennies on the dollar for their personal or family emergency fund.

How do we accomplish changes to the status quo? Goals must be set in both legislation and personal consumer choices. We need to resist the temptation to borrow, to "keep up with the Jones'" lifestyle. Service, sharing, and generosity should be our personal governing concepts, not the accumulation of material wealth. We can do that without a government mandate. Those admirable ideals can, however, be enhanced by policies that reward those behaviors, and reward work rather than inherited wealth and corporate excess.

One of the quickest roads to bankruptcy in the U.S.A. is a health catastrophe. When even one hospital visit can put your bank account in arrears, and/or force you to beg on GoFundMe, we have a societal issue. So, addressing healthcare is paramount to turning around the personal debt crisis. A single-payer system ("Medicare for All"), as Sanders advocates, would be a great next step for the Affordable Care Act.

Student loans are another source of debt, and if we could at least make an effort at reducing college costs, if not making higher education free as many other developed nations have, then that would put many people on a more level playing field. When you consider the current minimum wage against cost of living and student debt, it is a wonder any young person can afford housing and a car, let alone a family.

Raising the minimum wage to at least fifteen dollars an hour is doable, with tax credits for small businesses. We should be actively encouraging more small businesses, so reward them as employers and entrepreneurs, and do not demand them to play by the same rules as multinational corporations.

Collect taxes from corporations currently avoiding taxation. End bailouts, subsidies, and other forms of corporate welfare. The revenue from this alone would likely reduce some individual tax rates, as well as reducing the federal deficit.

Meanwhile, we have to take some personal responsibility. We should start saving in spite of the poor returns at the present time. Cut up the credit cards. Flee big banks and put our money in accounts at credit unions where customers come first and there are no shareholders. Stop patronizing payday loan and rent-to-own enterprises that prey on our desire for instant cash or merchandise. Live frugally for ourselves, generously for others. Demand that the media stop obsessing over the wealthy.

What was it Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said? Something about "the content of their character." He was denouncing racism, but I suspect that today he would add that we shouldn't be judging the self-worth of others by the content of their bank accounts, either. That should most definitely not be the measure of any man (or woman) today.

Ok, so maybe we can do some of this. What would be the result? Were I a gambling man, I would bet that you would see some or all of the following result from increased wages, reduced debt, and overall fiscal responsibility: Alcoholism and drug abuse would decrease because of decreased stress from debt and poverty. Theft, illegal gambling, and related crimes would decrease with rising income. Frivolous litigation would decrease because currently lawsuits are viewed in part as a way to make up for low wage income. Employment would increase because one person wouldn't need three jobs to make ends meet. Dependence on welfare programs would begin declining. Volunteerism would increase because people would have more time free from wage-earning.

Bernie Sanders has, unfortunately, failed to articulate these connections between wealth disparity and the negative behaviors that result from it, let alone the potential benefits of reforming income inequality. Still, he is endorsed by virtually every economist in the land. We have at hand an unprecedented opportunity to begin reversing trends that, left to continue, will be the ruin of our society. I urge you only to think very carefully about both your vote at the booth, and how you vote with your hard-earned dollars in the marketplace.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Good Guys Without Guns (or Lawyers)

The police came knocking on our door the other day. Turns out that another neighbor had called in a disturbing the peace report on our next-door neighbors who routinely argue if not worse. As I answered the policeman's questions, I began to feel guilty that I hadn't been the one to make the call myself. Then it occurred to me that my behavior had changed over recent history in part because personal intervention in neighborhood incidents is a lot more risky now. This is one of the unspoken consequences of the proliferation of guns in our American society: Unarmed good guys won't help you now.

I lived in a very ugly neighborhood in Cincinnati in the 1990s, and domestic violence and youth gangs were essentially weekly problems I faced in my apartment building. I had zero tolerance for either, and regularly spoke my mind to those doing the offending. Granted, now I have a spouse who's welfare I must consider as a higher priority than even my own, but there are plenty of reasons I rarely intervene in loud squabbles anymore. The biggest one is that I don't know what weapons they may bring to the fight. Logic and a good vocabulary don't seem to go very far these days.

Even aside from the potential for lethal force is the potential of legal force. Everyone is armed and litigation-happy. I better make sure that if I confront someone now, that it is on neutral territory. We have a homeowner's association here in our townhouse complex, so I'm not even sure where the boundaries are. I can't afford to open us up to a lawsuit from anybody.

This is why neighbors don't know each other anymore. We don't trust each other, we assume the worst, we value "privacy" above all else, and we don't participate in neighborhood events. This is certainly true of younger people for the most part. We have an annual neighborhood association meeting and it is attended by less than one dozen people.

Our neighborhood is also largely "minority." We don't know how to talk to each other even if we did want to. I am not saying ethnic diversity is a bad thing. Far from it, but everyone sticks with their own kind and it is at the least awkward to try and change that. The last time I spoke to any neighbor was because the postman had delivered their mail to our address.

I have no idea how to change any of this, and frankly my will to try has become mired in the inertia of the status quo. I would sooner run for public office than a leadership role in my own HOA. There is something more appealing about serving anonymous citizens than dealing with the pot-head across the walkway.

The bottom line is that I am embarrassed by the person I have become. I have maintained empathy and respect for the vulnerable among us, but have ceased to intervene out of fear and the "hassle" that often comes from doing so. Still, I will not give in to the point of purchasing a gun myself, or putting a lawyer on retainer. What to do instead of that remains the challenge.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Malheur Incident

Imagine my dismay to learn, while trying to spend quality time with my spouse's family, that one of my favorite places on the planet is being occupied by an armed militia in apparent retaliation for a perceived unjust jury sentence for ranchers convicted of arson. There is so much conflicting information, and such visceral reaction to this incident, that it is difficult to know where to start. I can only speak for myself, so here it goes.

© Bev Wigney

I have visited the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a handful of times. It is located in extreme southeast Oregon, and is so remote that it is a long haul from anywhere. The Center Patrol Road is just about guaranteed to give you a flat tire every time you drive it. Still, it is worth the effort and trouble to go. The birds and other wildlife are astounding in their diversity and abundance.

Malheur NWR hosts a wide variety of birds like White-faced Ibis and Great Egret
© Bev Wigney

My gut-level reaction to hearing of the takeover of the (at the time vacant) headquarters building was "Get the hell off of my refuge!" It is, of course, your refuge, too, but thanks to this "protest," the refuge is closed until further notice. You are being deprived of your right to visit a public facility paid for with your tax dollars.

Refuge headquarters contains instructive dioramas like this one....
© Bev Wigney

That, I believe, is the essence of this whole conflict. The protest is selfishly motivated, hostile, and pits private interests against the public good. This is not what I would classify as domestic terrorism, yet, but there are better ways to publicly appeal a court verdict, if that is what this is really about, and certainly better venues. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though.

....and fragile, historically important collections like these eggs
© Bev Wigney

The uneasy truce between the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other federal agencies and private landowners is our current American model for averting what is known as the "tragedy of the commons." This principle dates back perhaps to Aristotle, but certainly to English economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. His pamphlet was the genesis of the recognition of the potential for abuse of common resources. It was ecologist Garrett Hardin who popularized the term "tragedy of the commons" in 1968 in his essay of that title in the journal Science.

The gist of the argument is that when access to a common resource, such as a cattle pasture, is granted to several stakeholders, each person will act in their own best, short-term interests, such as increasing the number of their own herd. This leads inexorably to the deterioration of that resource.

It can be argued that the leasing of federal lands to ranchers for cattle grazing has prevented irreparable damage to rangeland as a whole by expanding the acreage available for grazing. This is not without consequence, naturally, and success hinges on the cooperation of lessees in the proper, agreed-upon management of the resource.

Violation of laws regarding burning of invasive plants led to the charge of arson when a burn on private land expanded into public land. That much seems to be acknowledged by both parties involved here. What happened in the aftermath is debatable. Here is one side's argument. I would hesitate to call the occupation of refuge headquarters "civil disobedience." It is anything but civil, especially when guns are involved.

It should be noted that your taxes dollars also subsidize the grazing of privately-owned cattle on public land....and at a fraction of the cost a private landowner would charge for grazing. See this story for more about the great deals ranchers get as part of our "socialist" government practices.

The folks holed up in the refuge headquarters building are not terrorists. They are mostly whining cry-babies with guns who think they are getting a raw deal when in fact the feds bend over backwards to appease them. They are hopelessly confusing their "rights" with the privilege of using federal lands for private gain. Yes, ranching is a risky business, but a minority of ranchers do not wish to assume any risk. It is telling that not one of the local communities near the refuge has come out in unanimous support of what is happening. Those engaged in this misguided occupation are clearly extremists.

© Bev Wigney

Do governments have all the answers when it comes to managing resources like rangeland? Of course not. But this kind of behavior threatens to backfire. I can see a day when an incident like this results in the revocation of grazing permits for individuals who participate in unlawful protests; repossession of equipment purchased with government loans; and even more "aggressive" government expansion of public lands as these protestors accuse the feds of doing already. Frankly, at this point, I'd be all for it.

Monday, November 30, 2015

My Colonoscopy

That deflating sound you hear is my disappointment over the anticlimactic experience with that medical procedure that signals the beginning of old age: the colonoscopy. Here I was anticipating something similar to the ordeals suffered by the likes of Billy Connolly, Jeff Foxworthy, and Bill Engvall. Alas, there were few fireworks, but still a little comedic material in my case.

My general practitioner referred me to the Pikes Peak Endoscopy Center, and I was surprised that they could accommodate me within the month I called them. A week prior to the procedure I picked up my "prep kit," as shown in the image above. You can't say they don't have a sense of humor, however warped.

Everyone you consult prior to your colonoscopy will tell you the procedure itself is a piece of cake, but the preparation beforehand is a nightmare. In fact, the day before, you can't have cake. You can't have anything solid. The day before that you are supposed to be on a low-fiber diet. One bonus was the discovery that Ritz crackers have no fiber! It was a good excuse to go all meat and white bread, but if you like a more varied menu it was pretty boring.

The day before is the worst, though. You have to take an inordinate amount of laxatives, in a pretty short period of time. I expected this would amount to a liquid hand grenade detonating at my anus. Not so. There were maybe one or two projectiles ejected with minor force. No volcanic elimination described by our comedian friends.

Perhaps the whole "prep" thing has evolved and improved dramatically since the 1990s. Maybe I followed the dietary restrictions better than the average Joe. Whatever. The remaining laxative effects consisted of me being unable to tell if I was peeing or pooping.

So, I get to the clinic the day of the procedure. I was treated very nicely, I must say. The nurse took me into the room, told me to undress and put my gown on so it opened in the front. I told her she'd have to tip me for that show. She laughed and corrected herself, then asked if I might like a blanket. I said that would be nice, especially if my gown was open in the front.

The anesthesiologist wheeled me, in my bed, into the operating room where the doctor and another nurse were waiting. After introducing himself, the doctor dutifully re-iterated the risks of the procedure. I think I'd prefer that they leave me in ignorant bliss. Then the anesthesiologist said "Ok, this (anesthesia) works very quickly, and you will notice a metallic taste." (He shoots the drug into the IV). Me: "E-e-e-e-w, you're right, that does taste awf...."

That was the last thing I remember until I woke up in recovery. This may be why so many alien-abduction victims are over fifty. A nurse came in and offered a selection of snack items and beverages. The "Bottoms UP Cafe" provides a variety of gourmet blends, from "Lights Out Latte" to "Wake Me Up Before You Go 'Joe'." I chose a "Moon Me Mocha."

What was the result, you ask? Well, they did find and remove a small polyp that turned out to be benign but potentially cancerous. So, I'm cleared for now, but need to report back again in five years (instead of the ten year reprieve you get if no polyps are found).

I want to thank my doctor for being polite but insistent that I get this procedure done, and my friend Philip Kline for also being insistent. Lastly, I'd like to thank my wife for carrying me on her insurance from her workplace. Kaiser Permanente paid for the whole thing, which is as much of a relief as having the actual colonoscopy....dare I say....behind me.

The End (of the puns, too)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Scale

Few people agree with me (or want to admit) that capitalism in its present form is the source of most of our economic, environmental, and institutional ills. We want desperately to cling to our belief that the "American Way" is the *right* way, the *best* way, the only way; but we might be wrong. At the very least, we have an escalating problem with the sheer scale of capitalism. It no longer benefits everyone, and that puts at risk something far more sacred than capitalism: democracy.

Let us look at what corporate capitalism has done for us (or to us) lately:

  • Reduced consumer choices
  • The bigger the corporation, the fewer the choices for the consumer. What results from mergers and acquisitions is the illusion of choice. Take television for example. Mergers of various networks insure that we will see the same content distributed over several channels instead of new content on those other channels. Sports are increasingly televised on stations for which the consumer must pay extra as part of a cable or satellite package. This amounts to consumer coercion, whereby formerly free broadcasts are now held in virtual ransom. More disturbingly, news media are being concentrated into fewer and fewer outlets controlled by corporations that filter the news to further their own corporate, political, and economic agendas; or distract us with fear-mongering and celebrity status reports.

  • Suppressed technologies
  • When you have an existing industry firmly entrenched in the status quo of the marketplace, it will exercise all its power to maintain its dominance. Hemp is an example of a raw material that would compete very favorably with cotton, paper, even plastics and some metals. Those existing industries act to suppress the hemp industry through lobbying our government representatives and agencies, and spreading false information to consumers. Hemp is a relative of the marijuana plant, but contains only a fraction of the chemical compound that gives marijuana its pharmaceutical and recreational properties.

    Only recently have alternative, sustainable, and clean energy technologies been allowed to blossom. Even these have come under attack because of the scale of those enterprises. Giant windmills kill birds and bats, but all resources for wind energy are directed to those large-scale models. Bird-friendly, small-scale alternatives are ignored.

  • Fewer consumer, labor, and environmental protections
  • Most major corporations on the Wall Street scale honor only their monetary bottom line and increased revenue for shareholders. The consumer, employee, and environment all take a distant back seat to those goals. To that end, lobbyists argue for erosion or outright repeal of existing laws aimed at affording labor, consumer, and ecological protections. "Studies" are rigged or altered or biased to reflect business interests. Conflicting research is suppressed. Recalls of dangerously defective products are postponed. The Clean Air Act is constantly under fire, as well as the Endangered Species Act and other landmark legislation that is arguably among the best ever enacted by *any* government on a national scale.

  • Corporate Welfare
  • The welfare distributed to individuals and households in poverty is nothing compared to the dollars delivered to corporations and industries annually. We pay lip service to, and worship, the "free market" as the God of the economy which, left unfettered by regulation, will allow businesses to flourish; yet we prop up failing industries with subsidies, tax breaks, and bailouts that seem to always be lavished on CEOs and shareholders without even a trickle down to workers and consumers. We protect ailing industries with import restrictions and tariffs. Left to the "free market," those American industries would wither and die. They do anyway, of course, as manufacturing is transferred overseas to cheaper (read "substandard") labor forces.

  • Perpetual definition of the "American Dream" as the attainment of material wealth
  • It can be argued that the accumulation of wealth is in itself a goal not worth pursuing, and at worst a lifestyle that threatens the well-being of others, and even the planet itself. Consumption and economic growth as we are accustomed to in this century are definitely not sustainable, and take resources away from more vulnerable human populations. One would be hard-pressed to refute the idea that the Earth could benefit from fewer numbers of Homo sapiens, and certainly from less "development" of natural resources.

  • Increased stress and decreased physical health
  • Our physical and mental health are at risk from social, cultural, and economic pressure that are inflicted upon us or that are self-generated. We are valued in the marketplace only for what we can consume, not what we can produce, unless it is more consumers in the form of children. Our labor is consistently undervalued to the point of corporations balking at a raise in the minimum wage; and suppression of collective bargaining to insure workplace safety and fairness. The end goal of industry is production without labor, but the unemployed cannot afford to purchase products.

    How we value ourselves is just as important as cultural expectation. I, myself, constantly struggle with the idea that my wife is the major breadwinner in our household. This flies in the face of the "standard" I was brought up with. It takes a major effort to remind myself that my ego is not the point of our marriage; and money is not what strong relationships are built on in the first place.

There is reason for hope. All is not lost. In fact, there are surprising trends that indicate a potentially bright future ahead. Community gardens and farmer's markets are springing up almost daily, taking our food production back from corporate agri-business and returning it to local roots (literally). The "tiny house" movement is spreading, and demonstrating that a lifestyle with fewer material possessions means stronger personal relationships and an enhanced sense of community (while going off the grid in many cases). There is increasing demand for better public transit, more walkable neighborhoods where one can work, live, and play without dreadfully long commutes in a vehicle powered with fossil fuels. We still have power, folks, beyond the voting booth, and the internet age allows us to quickly find friends and support for what we believe is important. Thanks to crowdfunding, we can even find money for making those inventions and community projects happen, without dependence on institutions firmly entrenched in the status quo. Go for it!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ode to Logan

Yesterday evening we bid farewell to our best friend, Logan, a Sheltie mix that had blessed Heidi's life for fifteen years, and mine for the last four. We had a professional humanely euthanize him, and it might even have been a bit overdue. It was becoming more painful for us to watch Logan labor through his days, instead of truly enjoying life. He was 16 1/2.

This was my first real pet, in the traditional sense of cats and dogs, and I found it surprising how quickly I fell in love with him. I'm already missing him licking my nose; the soft sound of him shaking to fluff up his fur; the clinking of his tags as he trotted ahead of me on the leash. He rarely barked, but I think I even miss that.

When I first met Heidi, her answering machine greeting began "You have reached Heidi and Logan...." It took me awhile to recall instantly that Logan was the dog and not another suitor. In retrospect, I realize I had quite the competitor in terms of loyalty and unconditional love.

No matter how much my education in the sciences reminds me of the dominance of instinct in other animals, I can't shake the idea that Logan was more than that. Even if he wasn't, his endearing quirks and unique personality were captivating.

I am sure that for many days, even weeks from now, I'll stop myself and think that I need to go walk the dog, feed the dog, check in on him downstairs if I am upstairs. Logan was a rescue obtained from a shelter, and we are unsure what trauma, if any, he sustained before Heidi got him. He certainly got stressed out over the microwave, when he could still hear well. He was always reactive to strangers, though quickly settled down in the presence of our friends.

Logan won't be replaced any time soon. I mean, he won't ever be replaced in our hearts; but we won't be getting another dog in the near future, either. We might move, and wouldn't want to visit that stress on a pet. At the very least, the carpet needs replacing lest it drive another pet nuts from residual odors alone.

I'm not sure whether there is a Heaven, but if there is, I am confident that all other animals go there, too. I would not want any part of the afterlife if that was not the case. We are comforted a little by the idea that Logan is finally free of physical limitations to truly enjoy dog paradise. Rest in peace, sweet buddy.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Geometry

Chessboard clearcuts
With power-tower pawns
Protecting
Electric station queen.
Checkmate,
Progress wins again.

Nazca lines
Make no sense
Only cars know their destinations.
Circle fields
Rolling
Along tangent roads.

Bridges
Bisect rivers,
Span lakes.
Dams
Divide streams,
Diverted water is confused.

Eric R. Eaton, circa 1982.