No Surprises Here

There are a number of stories making the rounds this week about the heat wave that has hit the country and the accompanying drought that has seriously affected the crops, especially in the Midwest. The corn, wheat, and soybean crops are in serious trouble in the nine-state Midwest region where two-thirds of the states are experiencing various stages of drought — up from about half of those states just a week ago.  As a feature story reports accompanied by this photo:

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Corn and soybeans in the U.S. Midwest baked in an unrelenting heat wave on Monday with fears rising of big crop losses that will boost food and fuel prices and cut exports and aid from the world’s top shipper of the key crops.

The condition of the nation’s corn and soybeans as of Sunday deteriorated even more than grain traders had feared, and the U.S. Agriculture Department cuts its weekly corn crop condition rating by the biggest amount in nearly a decade.

In Southwest Minnesota where I live and in Southeast South Dakota which we drive through to get to Sioux Falls the corn plants are tall and green, but the cobs have not yet started to fill out and will not without a well-timed rain. In some areas the farmers have already started to cut the plants down to feed them to their cattle, giving up on the corn season.

This country depends on these crops not only to feed our own populations, but also to export to other countries. In fact, food is almost the only commodity this country manages to export and the balance of trade requires that we export something or it will become even more precarious. Thus the drought that is affecting the country has serious repercussions for the entire economy which, as we all know, is already in deep trouble.

But as I read about this situation, which borders on (that overused word) “crisis,” I cannot help but think: why are we surprised? Climatologists have been predicting these conditions for years and we have simply ignored them. We don’t like to worry about things that don’t affect us directly and we have a naive faith in technology that leads us to assume that every problem can be fixed — by someone. Though these are comforting convictions, together they spell disaster.

We should have seen this coming and we should have started doing something about it long ago. Some think it may be too late, and that may or may not be the case. It’s not just about the record-breaking heat. It’s also about the melting of the permafrost, the opening up of the Northwest passage, the record number of hurricanes and tornadoes. It has all been  predicted. But to this point it has been someone else’s problem. We are now starting to deal with the consequences of global warming  “in our own back yard.”

Perhaps now the situation will get our attention and we will start to recognize not only the problem itself, which is abundantly clear to all but the most delusional, but also the role of humans in creating the problem. If not now then assuredly when the food and fuel prices start to rise precipitously, or when we see reports of global starvation, or civil wars being fought over declining food supplies. At the very least, we must insist that this country shake loose from its reliance on fossil fuels and take major steps to accelerate growth in the clean energy industry. If we are to climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, we must start very soon to be part of the solution. To this point we have been only a large part of the problem.

Back On Board

The conservative newspaper “Wall Street Journal” recently faulted Mitt Romney for fumbling the ball on “Obamacare,” calling him “dumb” and insisting that his waffling on whether the mandate is a tax or a penalty may end up costing him the White House. They also faulted him for taking an expensive vacation at a key moment in this important race. Poor Mitt can’t win for losing.

A recent article on Huffington Post summarized the Wall Street op-ed piece and also noted that Mitt’s overall strategy is to repeatedly point to the sitting president’ failure to solve America’s economic woes. Specifically, the article says Romney’s campaign strategy so far has been to pivot all points of discussion to Obama’s failed economic record, but according to the Journal, voters would benefit from actually learning why Romney’s policies would fare any better — something his campaign has yet to elaborate on.

I am not a political strategist, but it does seem to me that voters in this country find a willingness to change one’s mind in the face of new facts a serious character flaw. As a general rule, I would not fault Romney for changing his mind unless he did it for purely political reasons — which is assuredly the case here. But then apparently I am more tolerant than most. Voters faulted George McGovern for changing his mind about Thomas Eagleton in 1972, a decision that critics said virtually assured Richard Nixon’s victory. In any event, the pattern has been fairly clear since that time: be consistent even if you are consistently wrong. Voters admire a man or woman who “sticks by their guns” even if the path they have chosen is stupid and possibly treacherous — witness George W. Bush and the “weapons of mass destruction” (which some people still think are hidden somewhere in Iraq). But I suspect voters will soon forget that Mitt has done an about-face on the mandate, that he may have fumbled the ball, because he and his team will divert their attention elsewhere.

Romney’s strategy is to simply say nothing until his opponent opens his mouth, or keep pointing an angry finger at the economy while he repeatedly insists it’s all Obama’s fault. This may in fact be a politically wise course to take, given past elections. If we have learned anything, we have learned that if a thing is repeated often enough, people will believe it. It doesn’t matter if what is repeated is right or wrong, true or false, no one will take the time to check. If they hear is often enough, it is as though it were carved in stone.

So we had best prepare ourselves for the endless repetition of the mantra: Obama is to blame for the retched economy….and he wants to raise your taxes. It will be repeated ad nauseam. In the meantime, Mitt has joined his fellows on the Republican band wagon and now insists that the mandate is a tax (which Obama has foisted on the American people) and we will soon forget that he ever thought otherwise. All we will hear is how the sitting President is to blame for the poor economy and for the thousands of Americans being out of work — though, as the above quote suggests, we should not expect this candidate to provide us with a program of his own or convince us how he would have acted other than Obama has acted — given the mess he inherited.

You Gotta Love It!

(I have decided to break my pattern of daily posts — not counting the blogs I re-blog — by writing about an incident that is about to happen. I have decided to do this because writing about what is about to happen seems to be in fashion these days. If I mistake the signs and portents, I will write an apology.)

The recent story about Mitt Romney’s ready response to the immanent Supreme Court decision (due today) on Obamacare, as it is called, was most interesting. It says, in part,

No matter how the Supreme Court rules on President Obama’s health care law on Thursday, Mitt Romney already has a response to the court’s decision: Obamacare was a “bad policy” that diverted the president’s attention away from the more important issue of getting the nation’s unemployed back to work.

What we have here is a response to an event that has not yet occurred in a news story about something that is not yet news! You gotta love it! We now live in an age in which things happen before they happen (hence this blog!). We don’t even need to wait to see what happens; we can simply read about it beforehand and then go back to watching sit-coms on TV. Wonderful!

But we all know (a) what the Supreme Court will (has) decide(d) on health care. They will almost certainly rule against the “mandate” which will pretty much make the matter a dead issue. And we also know that (b) Romney will turn this (and any other issue) into an attack on Obama’s “failure” to deliver the country from an economic mess that his predecessor left behind — though the latter element of the story will be carefully ignored.

It is true that politicians have become predictable. But it is also true that the central issue in this election is not the economy — contrary to what you may have heard — but national priorities. We simply cannot continue to do “business as usual” and must begin to consider alternatives to our unmitigated thirst for “things” and our determination to live in a grand style while others around us, and the earth itself, suffer from neglect.

The good news is that we can do both at the same time: we can inject life into a tired economy by putting our efforts into renewables and clean energy (there’s a sleeping giant out there ready to be wakened) thereby putting people back to work while at the same time we help bring the earth back to life and restore our own sense of worth. Now THAT would be newsworthy!

Just Plain Stupid!

Aside from the fact that the Republicans seem intent upon trashing the public education system in this country, there are two items high on their agenda that are just plain stupid. The first is the urge to cut-taxes-at-all-cost mentality that ignores the fact that many of the programs under the axe are essential to the health and well-being of this country and its citizens. At the extreme right end of this pole are the TEA partiers who simply want to slash taxes with no thought for tomorrow. But, as a fellow blogger pointed out in a recent blog, the Democrats are not without blame, either. since they failed to support a bill that would have increased taxes along with the cuts in a 1 to 10 ratio. ” last summer’s Obama/ Boehner 10 to 1 compromise [should have passed] in a heartbeat. . . . That should have been a no brainer..” Clearly, there is waste and there should be cuts. But we must also be willing to pay for the benefits we receive and in many cases desperately need.

The second stupid item on the agenda is the attack on the environment in the name of good business. This is stupid because it rests on the false dichotomy: either we protect the environment or we save jobs. We can do both. But as a recent item in the Sierra magazine points out, this Republican Congress is “the most anti-environmental Congress in history.” It has passed 209 anti-environmental bills in the name of business, while the clean energy industry waits patiently for a sign that they will also receive some of the government’s largess.

But the news is not all bad, as it happens. The American citizens may be waking up slowly. And this is a good thing, because we may not have much time if even the most optimistic predictions of the scientific community are correct. The good news, as also reported in the Sierra magazine, is that electric cars and hybrids are selling at record rates. In addition, electricity generated from coal has “dropped to 36.7 percent in February, the lowest level since 1973.” And in “five states electricity generation from wind now equals or exceeds 10 percent. In South Dakota [of all places!] the figure is 22 percent.” Further, we read that Warren Buffett has thrown his considerable weight and influence behind investing in solar energy. There is hope, and clearly there is also money to be made in clean energy.

That is why these items on the Republican agenda are so stupid: they are short-sighted at a time when we need enlightened leadership and long-term planning to help save the planet and all life on it. The Republicans need to wake up. But so do the Democrats. It is time for the politicians in this country to realize that our priorities in the past have run their course and we need to turn in another direction before it is too late.

What’s It Worth?

A man sits next to an attractive women at a bar and offers to buy her a drink. She accepts with a smile and while they’re waiting for the drinks they start chatting. At one point he asks her if she would sleep with him for $5,000.00 and she laughs and says she probably would. After the drinks arrive and they have had a few sips he asks her is she would sleep with him for $1,000.00. After a pause she smiles and says “probably I would, after a drink or two.” He than asks if she would sleep with him for $500.00 and she responds angrily: “Of course not, what do you take me for, a whore?” He quietly responds: “We’ve already established what you are. I am just trying to determine what your price is.”

A joke, to be sure. But it reflects the fact that in this country, as the popular movies tell us, “everything has its price.” In fact Nicholas Kristof has recently written a review of a book in the New York Times that develops this idea  in an interesting way. Everything in our culture, increasingly, does seem to have a price. As Kristof notes, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, . . . argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

Kristof notes the bizarre case of a woman in Utah who agreed to have the logo of an online casino tattooed on her forehead for $10,000 in order to have enough money to send her son to college. The U.S. sells visas for half a million dollars to would-be immigrants. Massachusetts recently considered selling the naming rights to its state parks to corporations. And we don’t need Kristof to tell us that schools and school buses have corporate logos prominently displayed and the school halls are filled with machines dispensing unhealthy foods; TVs broadcast news, complete with commercial messages, to the classrooms.  And we all know ball parks, athletic fields, and civic arenas now bear the names of corporations as well. Athletes sell out to the highest bidder and coaches regularly jump contracts for a better deal — and they are widely applauded: “who wouldn’t?” Kids leave college and “turn pro” for millions of dollars, thereby undermining their future prospects. In fact, there seems to be no limit to the number of things that have a price tag — including our integrity. And that’s the point. Kristof and Sandel wonder if there are limits, as do I.

We moan about the economic problem in this country, and well we should. The infamous 1% of the obscenely wealthy (who number among themselves virtually all of the members of the Senate and most of the members of the House of Representatives) now control 40% of the wealth in this country — more than the lower 90% put together. In effect, they own the country. The remaining 9% aspire to become part of the 1%. The country, as Joseph Stiglitz has been saying for years, has become radically split between the very wealthy and the growing number of poor and it increasingly resembles a third-world country — while a number of those countries, ironically, struggle for greater economic equality. We worry aloud about the national debt, the number of people unemployed, the homeless, the undernourished, and the rising costs of the things we need; we might do better to ponder the real economic problems in this country.

They are twofold: (1) the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and (2) our increasing willingness to sacrifice morals for money. As our preoccupation with money grows — perhaps as a consequence of the disparity mentioned in point #1 —  our sense of morality wanes. As Kristof asks, quoting his source, Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? The obscenely rich want to keep it that way — in the name of “free markets,” or more accurately “market fundamentalism.”

This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality. It has been called “market fundamentalism,” which is . . . the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.

Call it “systemic inequality,” or “market fundamentalism,” or “free markets.” By any name it is a crass materialism that puts a price on everything under the sun. Indeed, I would argue that this is not only the major economic problem in our country; it is a serious moral problem as well.

Our True Religion

Brace yourselves! Here it comes again: The Super Bowl, once again reminding us what we truly worship in this country. It isn’t football, per se, or even this particular football game, which is merely a pageant. Rather, it is the Almighty Dollar that pulls the strings behind the pageants, professional and collegiate — and, increasingly, high school. Like any true religion, professional sports provides us with a deity, the Almighty Dollar, together with a panoply of saints in the form of the athletes themselves — who disappoint us from time to time, but we worship them just the same. And it’s not a once-a-week thing for an hour, it fills every nook and cranny of our empty lives, giving us something to talk about over coffee or beer during the week, including fantasy games we can play to keep us attuned to what is going on daily.

TV is itself a constant reminder of what really matters to us — not only in form of the games we watch, but also the inspirational shows, like “Fox News” that tells us 24/7 that money is what counts. So when we tire of talking with one another about last weekend’s game, we can commiserate with each other about the sad state of the economy, vowing to vote out the rascals who are taking money out of our pockets. Again, the Almighty Dollar reigns supreme. Our true religion fills our lives the way Christianity filled the lives of the poor Europeans during the middle ages when cathedrals were being built and church was attended every day — sometimes twice a day — by all and sundry. Religion provided the main focus of nearly every life and there were no unbelievers. This still appears to be the case; only the religion has changed.

To focus for a moment on one aspect of our true religion, the game of football itself is great fun to watch and the athleticism of the participants is remarkable and at times unbelievable. But the game has taken on a life of its own and now possesses a power over us that is deeply disturbing. We watch captivated by the sheer brute force exhibited on the field or the TV set. This may indeed be a healthy release of sadistic impulses, as some have suggested. But it does show us at our worst at times as we glory in the violent spectacle that these professional, and semi-professional, athletes put on for us.

But behind it all lurks the specter of filthy lucre: money. Buckets filled with it in the form of TV revenue, profits from memorabilia sales, food sales in the second largest feeding frenzy of the year, the obscene salaries of the players — not to mention the profits garnered by the owners themselves — and the sale of the TV sponsors’ products through the clever ads that we look forward to each year at this time. We tend to get wrapped up in the event itself and forget that this spectacle is being set before us to divert attention away from the fact that what this country worships above all else if the Almighty Dollar. And this deity holds sway each year at this time in all its glory.

It’s not so much that this one game each year sweeps us up in its dazzle and glitz. That’s not a bad thing in itself. We need diversion at times, especially in times of economic woe. But the powers behind the spectacle are insatiable. They influence not only the professional games at all levels, but also the “amateur” games at the collegiate level, bringing about innumerable examples of shame and disgrace (witness Penn State of late, which is only the latest in an extended series of scandals that go back beyond memory). And now, thanks to TV networks like ESPN, the reach of the profit-grabbers is extending to the high schools where games are regularly televised, including “All-America” all-star games sponsored by the armed forces. And we are asked to watch as high school players make the decision which college to attend — an event that is staged to increase dramatic effect as the high school student picks up the hat of his chosen college, to his mother’s chagrin. All are designed to dull our awareness of what is really taking place, as Tocqueville noted in 1831: “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” The Super Bowl brings in plenty!

In the end, the game will be played and discussed ad nauseam on TV for weeks and months to come. It will be enjoyed by millions here and abroad. It is well worth watching (yes, I will be watching). But it is also wise to remind ourselves from time to time what it’s all really about, namely, the Almighty Dollar. That is, truly, this country’s ultimate object of worship. The game is just a game.

Scare Words

In every generation there are a number of words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to progressive educators who ignore the fact that discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person who was regarded as discriminating. In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest scare term is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term became out of fashion when the Soviet Union broke up and conciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Christ. Further,  the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing influence on the part of the government into economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further such things as anti-trust laws do interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system, by the way, that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans. But even if the current President has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes “but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed. “All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,” as Raymond goes on to point out.

In Finland teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students.  Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs.

Am I advocating socialism? No. But I am in total support of the Wall Street protesters who want a  system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; I support this President’s attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten rather than to advance understanding.