NO! to a 5-Story Hotel in the Heart of Dickson Street

Residents and visitors of Fayetteville might want to pay close attention to the issue currently facing the city council, that of a proposed ‘arts corridor’ and parking deck at Dickson and West. Several aspects of this project don’t quite pass the smell test and once it’s done, it’s done.

No one seems to know how the idea of an arts corridor got started. According to one council member I consulted, “The story I’m being told is that one of our planners, Leif Olsen, who has no expertise in arts and culture, drafted the grant proposal to the Walton Foundation. I can’t discern who directed him to do that, if anyone with appropriate expertise consulted with him, or if he worked with any stakeholder group.” So far the biggest champion of the art corridor is the Walton Arts Center CEO and president, Peter Lane. Hm.

In order to gain the coveted arts corridor, the city must convert the WAC parking lot into a park with a civic forum space, which in turn requires the construction of a parking garage to offset the loss of parking for the WAC. The mayor has determined that such a parking facility must be no more than 1000 ft. from the WAC, no doubt after consultation with the WAC.

The project has progressed to the point that only three possible locations will be considered. One is the place now known as the Nadine Baum Center, which would be torn down and replaced with a garage and some liner buildings that would supposedly offset the loss of current art studios in the Nadine Baum Center. Another is a city-owned space on School Avenue, immediately east of the current Spring Street garage. The third, and current favorite of Peter Lane, the mayor, and certain other development-happy folks, is a space smack in front of Arsaga’s Depot along West Avenue. About half of that land is privately owned by developer Greg House.[1]

A fascinating bit about the preferred lot is that House plans to build a 5-story hotel immediately adjacent to the parking garage. The hotel would take pride of place at a landmark corner of Dickson and West, removing the train bank and looming over the 1882 depot building. We must ask whether any study has discovered the remaining number of parking spaces for the WAC once the hotel’s employees and guests have parked there. Hm.

Also fascinating is that in April 2019 when voters were asked to approve a $31.5 million bond issue for a cultural arts corridor, the bond issue included a parking deck for $10 million to replace the 290 spaces lost when the Walton Arts Center parking lot becomes a green space. (One must ask why one of the most trafficked spots in town must suddenly become green space, when most people patronize parks near their homes. Oh, yeah, the arts corridor…) What the bond issue also covered was a group of improvements for streets, police, the fire department, and other civic concerns which might be more appropriately labeled ‘bait’ to assure the approval of the arts corridor.[2]

But hey, just asking questions here.

Apparently the clock is ticking on how long this issue can be batted around before the money time frame runs out. That is, the time frame for the $1.7 million Walton Foundation grant to help fund the arts corridor. Thus the hurry-up among council members as well as interested parties in the refusal to take a step back and think about the big picture before rushing into an irreversible decision.

So to get the $1.7 million, we’re going to spend somewhere near $30 million. Fast, before we have time to really think about it.

Big picture considerations include the historic tradition of Dickson Street. As I’ve ranted before, once Dickson Street’s charm is pockmarked with big shiny boxes, the charm leaks away. At that point, the only reason to go there would be the WAC. With structures built as early as 1882, the street has been a treasure to alumni, residents, and visitors not to mention entrepreneurs who find small individual buildings more affordable housing for their dream enterprises. Slick new buildings such as The Legacy and The Dickson cost a lot more per square foot and offer ZERO charm. But hey, they’re new and shiny.

Some people don’t care about historical. Remember when they wanted to tear down Old Main?

If the city has determined on its own aside from Walton influence that an arts corridor is truly going to be an asset, something the city needs, then why not take half the current WAC lot and make it a park/arts corridor and use the other (west) half to build a parking garage. Simple. Just because this wasn’t considered in the original conceptualization of the project doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Currently, the reason it ‘can’t’ be done is: “We spent about $350,000 on a schematic design,” [the city’s director of sustainability and parking] Nierengarten said. “A schematic design that does not show a parking deck on the civic plaza is what the citizens of Fayetteville voted on as part of the bond last April.” So let’s rush right out and spend $10 million building a deck that will primarily benefit a private developer and add one more nail in the coffin of one of only two historical areas left in Fayetteville.

Who first had the idea of a cultural arts corridor? Or a ‘civic plaza’? Why was the ‘study’ funded by a Walton Foundation grant? Why was a study of the area’s arts community, also initiated by unknown parties, contracted out to a Minnesota company named Artspace that developed a “Creative Economy Map” for the NWA region, also funded by a Walton Foundation grant? In this map, significant portions of the Fayetteville creative community fails to appear. (The map is heavy with Bentonville locations.)[3]

I agree that NWA and Fayetteville in particular is home to a large contingent of richly creative people. In the 1960s, Dickson Street became the town’s entertainment district because there was affordable commercial space where creative people built popular music venues that hosted talented musicians plus art studios and art galleries (now mostly priced out), and pursued skills as varied as tie-dye, jewelry, poetry readings, one-act plays, sculpture, metal work, and even outdoor gear that later became famous (Borealis). The result was a vibrant part of Fayetteville that attracted the Walton Arts Center.

In the tradition of The Little Shop of Horrors, the benefit of Walton money for the arts center (and so much more) is countered by the need to please the Waltons. As we’ve seen on multiple occasions, the money comes only when Fayetteville does what they want. For example, the outdoor concerts that started at the Fayetteville mall parking lot grew in popularity but now operate at the Arkansas Music Pavilion, otherwise known as the Walmart AMP, in Rogers, moved under Walton threat of withdrawing funding if they didn’t get their way.

No question that an arts corridor across from the WAC would primarily benefit the WAC but arguably, also the city. But the corridor will also infect the city’s trail system from Lafayette Street down to Center and then south to Prairie with a ‘cleanup’ of unsightly undergrowth and removal of wild aspects of those surroundings including partly channelizing the stream. Okay, the stream has been channelized for at least 100 years, rising from a big spring currently hidden under the WAC parking lot. That spring originally served as a water source and cooled produce and meat in the earliest industrial area of the town. From the WAC lot, the stream flows through underground ditches to Center St. and then comes into view for the distance to Prairie.

The rushing stream and the wildness of that stretch of the Frisco Trail has been a primary attraction to hikers and bikers. Now, as part of the arts corridor, that section of trail will suffer the imposition of installations of ‘art,’ as decided by various persons. Why, in the midst of our downtown, can we not have some unadulterated natural areas?

By the way, the rationale behind this concept is the same as the rationale allowing the natural woodland of Markham Hill to come under bulldozers, concrete, and x-number of persons per square foot in order to satisfy the bottom line of out-of-town developers. But that’s another story of greed, insider capitalization, and lack of spine/vision by the city government. The excuse is that there are only a handful of reasons city government can refuse a developer, none of which are impassioned pleas by neighbors, preservation of natural areas, or historical importance.

There’s still time to save what’s left of Dickson Street from any additional high rise buildings. (Too bad there wasn’t any protection of Dickson before The Legacy and The Dickson were built. And yes, big bucks can buy anything and do what they want in private ownership, but there can be city codes requiring that anything built in a historical area must meet historical design standards.)

A greater understanding of what voters want remains to be seen because the city didn’t fully inform voters of what the arts corridor et al would entail. No one is going to die if this project comes to a full stop right now and renewed efforts are made to educate the public about the ripple effects of the project – including the destruction of Dickson Street’s unique historical flavor.

Notice that only the depot out of the surrounding historical structures is shown to scale. If they were, viewers could more fully appreciate how the development would overpower its surroundings.

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[1] https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/jan/23/fayetteville-downtown-parking-deck-nego/?news-arkansas-nwa

[2] https://www.fayetteville-ar.gov/3539/2019-Bond-Information

[3] https://www.artspace.org/presentation-findings-northwest-arkansas

Why Are We in the Middle East? A quick take.

US military bases in the Middle East. Afghanistan is not considered part of that region.

For a long time, oil was the lure to involve the U.S. in the affairs of the Middle East. An equally important factor in our presence there was to protect the newly established state of Israel. But since the end of the Cold War in 1980, the Middle East has become the battleground in our proxy war with Russia.

Oil

About 20% of the U.S. oil supply comes from the Middle East, largely Saudi Arabia. You can fill in the blanks about how that fact has affected our foreign policy—trillions in military spending, nearly 40,000 American deaths, and moral compromise are just a few.

Consider the outcome of walking away from the Middle East’s oil. At the worst, we’d lose 20% of our oil supply, although other suppliers wait in the wings making such an outcome rather unlikely. But let’s consider it.

Reduce your travel by 20%. Reduce your consumption of goods and services by 20% because these items are dependent on vehicles fueled by oil. Reduce your travel by common carrier such as busses, airplanes, boats. Reduce your use of plastics, since virtually all plastic currently produced derives from petroleum. Reduce your use of chemicals from prescription drugs to fertilizer.

Ethylene and propylene are the two dominant petrochemicals: in 2016, the U.S. produced over 26 million tons of ethylene and over 14 million tons of propylene. Ethylene is primarily converted into polyethylene (the most common plastic, used in thousands of applications), but is also used to make other plastics such as polyvinylchloride (PVC, for pipes and home siding) and polystyrene (used as a general plastic and as Styrofoam for insulation and packaging). Propylene is mostly converted into polypropylene for fibers, carpets, and hard plastic; some propylene produced during oil refining is used to make compounds that are added to gasoline to improve performance. Both ethylene and propylene are used to make many other chemicals and materials with many uses, including specialty plastics, detergents, solvents, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, synthetic rubbers, and more.

Fertilizers – hydrogen derived from methane (the main ingredient in natural gas) is combined at high temperatures with nitrogen extracted from air to make almost all of the ammonia in the world (a small amount of ammonia is produced using other sources of hydrogen such as propane, naphtha, or gasified coal). About 88% of U.S. ammonia consumption is used as the nitrogen source for fertilizer. Other important uses of ammonia include household and industrial cleaning products, refrigerants, and in the manufacturing of plastics, dyes and explosives.

Pharmaceuticals – almost all pharmaceuticals are made from chemical feedstocks manufactured from petrochemicals and their derivatives.

Many detergents and other cleaning products are made from petrochemicals.  Similar cleaning products made from plant oils are now widely available, although these products are often also produced using substances made from petrochemicals.

Road asphalt consists of roughly 95% crushed stone, sand, and gravel; the remaining 5% is a thick, dark oil known as asphalt or bitumen, which occurs naturally in some rocks but is also produced by oil refining.[1]

Other sources of oil to take up the 20% loss from Middle East oil? Consider Venezuela, where U.S. meddling in their political affairs has reduced the government to chaos and the people live in desperate poverty. [This is the Middle East of the future, complete with terrorists who hate us and don’t have to travel far to find us.] Oil supplies in Venezuela are estimated to last another 350 years. Surely that’s enough to get the U.S. through another fifty years or so, enough time for us to figure out viable alternatives to oil.

Israel

As for Israel, currently U.S. taxpayers are spending over $3 billion a year in support of Israel. Most assume this is to provide security for a small Jewish nation in the face of threats from the Muslim nations surrounding it. But that’s not it.

Were Israel’s security interests paramount in the eyes of American policymakers, U.S. aid to Israel would have been highest in the early years of the existence of the Jewish state, when its democratic institutions were strongest and its strategic situation most vulnerable, and would have declined as its military power grew dramatically and its repression against Palestinians in the occupied territories increased. Instead, the trend has been in just the opposite direction: major U.S. military and economic aid did not begin until after the 1967 war. Indeed, 99% of U.S. military assistance to Israel since its establishment came only after Israel proved itself to be far stronger than any combination of Arab armies and after Israeli occupation forces became the rulers of a large Palestinian population.

…In the hypothetical event that all U.S. aid to Israel were immediately cut off, it would be many years before Israel would be under significantly greater military threat than it is today. Israel has both a major domestic arms industry and an existing military force far more capable and powerful than any conceivable combination of opposing forces. There would be no question of Israel’s survival being at risk militarily in the foreseeable future.

…the continued high levels of U.S. aid to Israel comes not out of concern for Israel’s survival, but as a result of the U.S. desire for Israel to continue its political dominance of the Palestinians and its military dominance of the region.

There are other reasons than military for the billions of dollars sent by the U.S. to Israel each year. At the top of that list is religion, specifically evangelical Christians who believe Israel plays a pivotal role in the ‘second coming.’

Based in part on a messianic theology that sees the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land as a precursor for the second coming of Christ, the battle between Israelis and Palestinians is, in their eyes, simply a continuation of the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, with God in the role of a cosmic real estate agent who has deemed that the land belongs to Israel alone–secular notions regarding international law and the right of self-determination notwithstanding.[2]

Compared to the influence of the Christian Right, the role of Jewish interests is minimal but not without power. Not to discount the lobbying from the arms industry, which contributes five times more money to congressional campaigns than pro-Israeli groups. Those who argue for a continued close relationship with Israel cite trade benefits to both nations, but there’s nothing in that trade which requires a continuing U.S. payout of billions of dollars in foreign aid annually.

Military Presence

The U.S. role in the Middle East has become increasingly intractable and tenuous, with no end in sight. Virtually all the terrorist hatred of the U.S. leading to acts like 9/11 and their determination to destroy our nation results from our overwhelming presence in their backyards.  We might point to groups like the Kurds whose existence is under threat from Turkey as justification for our continuing military occupation of Middle Eastern nations, but is that really what it’s all about?

No, I don’t think so. Consider the money.

According to data compiled by the Forum on the Arms Trade from the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program, some $25.5 billion in deals have been agreed with nine countries around the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) so far this year (2019). That compares to just $11.8 billion in 2018, marking a 118% year-on-year rise. …Globally, U.S. arms sales have increased by 42% this year, to a total of $69.7 billion, the highest level since 2010.

Arms sales are often an issue in Congressional deliberations, but the current president encourages it. Over half of those sales goes to the Middle East, often ending up in the wrong hands.

President Donald Trump has often made arms sales a central element of his relationship with Gulf rulers and has vetoed Congressional moves to block the trade. This is despite evidence of how arms sold to the UAE and Saudi Arabia have at times ended up in the hands of Washington’s opponents. Analysts say the large arms sales of recent years from the U.S. and other suppliers have been a critical factor behind the rising instability around the Middle East.[3]

The role of the U.S. in military activities, foreign aid to Israel, and arms sales is responsible for the current trillion dollar deficit and an unconscionable moral failure in our nation’s leadership regarding the Middle East. We need to get out of our proxy war against Russia and stop the flow of money and arms. Our role in North Africa, Afghanistan, and other foreign hot spots also deserves strict reconsideration.

 

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[1] https://www.americangeosciences.org/geoscience-currents/non-fuel-products-oil-and-gas

[2] https://ips-dc.org/why_the_us_supports_israel/

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2019/12/16/arms-sales-middle-east-soar/#54a63bfbfea8 

Adventures in Real Estate

Friends, I’m pleased to announce the release of Adventures in Real Estate: A Ridiculous and Mostly Rewarding Journey from Tenant to Landlord. The book has been a long time coming, with work progressing slowly over the last several years. It’s sometimes intensely personal, sometimes densely wonky, but mostly–I hope–entertaining and useful.

Officially, the book is about what began as a quest for a larger yet affordable shop space for a small-town repair business and how that turned into a thirty-year adventure in the ups and downs of real estate ownership with detours into such unexpected crises as adverse possession, lawsuits, evictions, city ordinance violations, easements, and endless tenant drama.

As the author of this blow-by-blow account, I offer helpful hints based on hard-earned lessons about ownership of commercial property in a rapidly growing part of the country, Northwest Arkansas. I wish I’d had this book in 1980! Perhaps even more helpful to anyone interested in dabbling in this particular type of investment opportunity is the entertaining narrative tracking my struggle to learn, adapt, and survive in the onslaught on unexpected legal, construction, and tenant challenges while raising three children and surviving a failed marriage.

Will the story end in despair and bankruptcy? Or will the investment pay off with retirement income sufficient to keep body and soul together into the twilight years? Read to the end to find out!

My observations about my adventures in the local real estate market offer a treasure-trove of advice to anyone contemplating investing in commercial real estate. This richly-told story is a profile of how to get in cheap and make it work for anyone looking to provide a decent return on almost zero dollars and a lot of sweat equity.

Grab your copy today, only $19.95 at Amazon.com

Those Evil Corporations!

I agree that corporations should not be allowed to make political contributions, and in that regard, they’re not ‘persons.’ That’s a step too far. But I’m here to defend the concept of corporations. Liberals need to get up to speed on corporate structures and why they exist. The long howling rant against corporations as a general concept discredits the progressive movement.

A corporation mostly isn’t a bad thing. There are non-profit corporations we rely on every day, and plenty of for-profit corporations that bring us everything from electricity to internet to vehicles. Corporations have been the construct by which new inventions in digital technology, medicine, and transportation have come to exist in the modern world.

The commercial incorporator has a specific objective—to streamline the business operation. Under the corporate umbrella, the business owner(s) can partner with other entrepreneurs, obtain materials, hire workers, own property, and produce goods and/or services from one checkbook, that is, the corporate checkbook, without having to do those things in his/her own name.

Likewise, the corporation can pay wages to the owner(s) and all employees and provide the corporation’s required contribution to Social Security and Medicare funds as well as unemployment  and disability insurance (required by law) and in many cases, health insurance—all without involving the owners’ private personal income and spending.

Whatever money the corporation holds in its bank accounts (and other investments) that is not spent on production/operations can be paid out in dividends to its stockholders. ‘Dividends’ is a simple concept: whoever put in money to help the company start and/or grow is paid a divided portion of the profits (usually quarterly) according to the amount paid in. If there are significant profits above and beyond operating expenses, the money paid in dividends can be an important income source for stockholders.

My disabled brother in law, for example, received big oil stocks as a gift from his father who had been at the leading edge of early oil exploration in Texas. Dividends from those stocks have made the difference for him and my sister in raising their family and surviving as they age. Even if we abhor the environmental degradation created by the oil industry, is there something evil about him receiving those dividends?

The concept of the ‘evil corporation’ is so ingrained that the term has its own entry in Wikipedia: “An evil corporation is a trope in popular culture that portrays a corporation as ignoring social responsibility in order to make money for its shareholders. …Evil corporations can be seen to represent the danger of combining capitalism with larger hubris.”

What is social responsibility then, that corporations may find easy to ignore? “Social responsibility is an ethical framework and suggests that an entity, be it an organization or individual, has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large.”[1]

Walmart, for example, has tried to claim social responsibility by its efforts to reduce waste, streamline shipping, and provide better work conditions and wages. Their 2018 Global Responsibility Report highlighted collaboration “with industry experts, NGOs, suppliers and the company’s own research to address risks pertaining to social issues in the supply chain.”[2] In general, Walmart’s approach to “environmental, social and governance issues goes beyond minimizing our own footprint or mitigating risk. We take a more assertive approach: sparking collective action to transform the retail sector for environmental, social and economic stability.”[3]

While naming laudable goals for one of the world’s largest corporations, Walmart continues to reap massive profits for its shareholders and especially the Walton heirs. “Sam Walton’s descendants have a combined wealth of $163.2 billion, according to Bloomberg. This is more than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, and nearly $70 billion more than the second-richest family in the United States, the Kochs.”[4]

Bernie Sanders has remarked that the Waltons earn more per minute than its employees earn in a year, and number crunchers have shown this is true (about $25,000 per minute). That imbalance would hardly decrease even if the company paid its 2.1 million employees $20 per hour. That would increase the total payroll by around $20 million, a drop in the bucket to the Walton heirs’ annual dividend payment of about $3.2 billion.  Such a wage increase would also go a long way to reducing employees’ need for social welfare support at taxpayer expense, currently estimated at $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing.

This kind of inequity in profits versus salaries is one of the reasons corporations are seen as evil. And there’s no question that over the centuries as the corporation has matured as a legal entity, it has also maneuvered ways to embody self-serving benefits into law. It is this unfair advantage of a large, organized, well-financed behemoth versus the unorganized ‘little man’ citizen that drives much of the present-day fury toward corporations.

We can’t rely on corporate conscience to ensure fairness in its wages or environmental conduct, a lesson we’ve learned time and again. Just as environmental laws have reduced egregious corporate pollution, policy makers should pass laws that apportion CEO pay and stockholder dividends according to employee wages to ensure a livable wage. After all, without the employees, corporations would have nothing. Unions used to provide this balance, but right-to-works laws and the move to overseas production has pulled the rug out from under them.

Nevertheless, it’s wrong-headed to blame corporate structure in general for doing what anyone would do, which is to pursue advantages that benefit its goals and rewards. The problem is with those entrusted to make and uphold our laws and their vulnerability to highly paid lobbyists who sell corporate demands on the economic benefits of providing jobs and ignore inequities that place millions of workers in a form of wage slavery.

Local economies have also suffered in cases such as Walmart replacing local businesses supplying groceries, hardware, automobile supplies, clothing, shoes, stationery, and more. Grinding the point home is the fact that most of the profits made by Walmart don’t stay in the local economy but rather aggregate in Walton heirs’ pockets. Just as destructive is the arrival of a Walmart that lasts long enough to drive out  local drug stores, for example, then after a few years moves away, leaving the community without a pharmacy.

Yet enterprises like Walmart, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and massive financial corporations looming over today’s landscape provide jobs, goods, and services that we could not have any other way. Local grocers had no way to provide the assortment and quality of goods available at Walmart. Is it better to have bananas in January or a local grocer stocking a few essentials? These are problems facing a world in transition to a global economy.

Short of catastrophe and the accompanying deprivation it would bring, there’s no clear path to return to a village economy where local farmers are the primary source of food and local craftsmen fashion the only available light fixtures, for example (assuming electricity would be available). Whether we like it or not, we’re accustomed to a world-wide marketplace with advanced delivery systems.

As far as the current political mess in which the Citizens United ruling gave corporations the right of an individual in making political contributions, again we must look to our legislators to remedy the apparent lack of appropriate law. A constitutional amendment may be needed in order to refine the definition of a corporation other than as a ‘person’ with all the same rights as individual citizens.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), is a landmark United States Supreme Court case concerning campaign finance. … The ruling effectively freed labor unions and corporations to spend money on electioneering communications and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates.”

With the slow death of unions and other consumer/worker advocacy organizations, the political power of corporations has become an obscene force in politics. While the legal structure of corporations in and of itself is not evil, when large corporations spend obscene amounts to influence elections, there is no doubt that their actions are self-serving and not necessarily of benefit to the common man.

The hue and cry, then, must not be about ‘corporations’ but rather against the actions of corporations that undermine our system of government and its stated purpose to protect the rights of its people. The duty to oversee this Constitutional guarantee belongs to all of us as voters but in particular to our elected representatives. It’s past time for us to hold our legislators responsible for their action or inaction on this subject.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_responsibility

[2] https://www.supplychaindive.com/news/walmart-corporate-social-responsibility-efforts/521961/

[3] https://www.energydigital.com/csr/walmarts-2018-csr-report-20mn-tonne-reduction-emissions-sustainable-sourcing-and-more

[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-waltons-spend-their-fortune-2017-7

Why am I furious?

This is about the institutions and businesses we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is about the failure of corporations to serve the people who depend on them for necessities. This is about the breakdown of human civilization.

Today my daughter left home at 8 a.m. to pick up a rental car which would take her on a 200-mile journey to where she would stand for her oral exams to become licensed. When she arrived at the place where she was to pick up the rental car, she found an empty lot. Apparently the corporate representative she spoke with (on more than one occasion) has no idea what’s going on in the real world. The computer told the corporate representative there was a Fayetteville office. The computer told the corporate representative that my daughter could pick up the car at 8:30 a.m. The corporate representative believed what the computer told him. He lives in India.

This is one tiny example of the customer abuse increasingly rampant across the U.S.

Go into a Walmart store. Look for something you bought three months ago. Not only is it not where you last found it, no one in the store knows if it’s been discontinued or if it’s out of stock or where else in the store it might now be located. And since Walmart has been almost universally successful in under-pricing any local competition out of business, there is no place to find that item you want.

Consider my 95-year-old mother who a few years ago agreed to a switch of her phone from Southwestern Bell to Cox since she already had Cox cable. Touted as a money saving move, the switch has meant that when Cox service is down, she has no phone. For the last two days, this woman who will be 96 in August had to walk to a neighbor’s house to use a telephone, and that worked only because the neighbor had a cell phone. Because Cox is out all over town.

Who is responsible? Who cares that this fragile woman can’t use her phone? Will she or any of the Cox customers without phone or cable service be refunded for the days Cox didn’t provide its contracted services? Ha!

Consider my nine-month old refrigerator. As if anticipating the problem, installers set the refrigerator and freezer at their lowest temperature settings. Despite that, the refrigerator has never cooled below 45° even though the FDA says 40° is the highest safe temperature for storing food. Or my new range, also nine months old. The manufacturer saved money by downgrading the controls. The oven light doesn’t come on automatically. Oven temperature is set by ten degree increments instead of five like my former range. Heat pours up from the bottom of the oven door which gaps enough that I see the flames reflected on the floor.

A couple of months ago, I came into the cross hairs of an organized hate group because I said something they didn’t like in a public policy discussion on the Arkansas Times Facebook page. Not content with rationally arguing their views on that forum, they attacked me personally and professionally. One of the places they could harm me was on Amazon.com where my books are for sale. They proceeded to go to each of my books and post 1-star reviews.

In order to report a ‘problem’ with book reviews, you must use certain links. Then the workers (in the Philippines) check the review guidelines and if the reported review violates the guidelines, they are able to remove it. If it doesn’t violate the guidelines, they can’t remove it.

Of the 39 one-star reviews posted to my books on Amazon, fourteen now remain. It took two months and over thirty online requests and repeated phone calls to Amazon service representatives to achieve even this partial success. Amazon service representatives aren’t allowed to remove reviews. That’s only accomplished through a special department which has no phone access.

One service representative kindly explained that if the review change requests aren’t formatted in a specific way, the requests can’t be processed. He took my information and submitted the change requests in the required format and as a result, eight of the 39 reviews were removed. But I never could reach him again because there are thousands of customer service representatives (in Seattle) and the service requests go to whoever is next available and none of the other seven service representatives I spoke with offered any assistance, instead referring me back to the online review report system.

Now I have fourteen 1-star reviews written between March 24 and March 30, 2019, by people whose sole intent is to harm me and there is nothing I can do about it. You would think that any platform presenting itself to the public as a service to authors would carry some responsibility to protect said authors from attacks like this. So far I haven’t found an attorney who knows enough about online entities like Amazon to advise me on whether I can sue Amazon for failing to protect me from this harm.

But I haven’t stopped trying.

The problem, in part, lies with men like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg who believe they can set up an enterprise and replace thinking human workers with lists of guidelines and/or algorithms. Anyone who’s ever had a problem on Facebook knows only too well that THERE IS NO PHONE NUMBER to call if you have a problem.

Zuckerberg has refused to delete a purposefully distorted Facebook video of Nancy Pelosi. His response? “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true.” So if it’s not their policy, it must be OK. No responsibility. No morals or ethical standards. Since Facebook is “free,” users have no rights.

I want to sit down with Bezos and explain why a list of review guidelines can never anticipate the myriad problems which might occur. I want him to invest in employees who have the authority to think on their feet. I want to punch him in the face if he doesn’t accept responsibility for the protection of authors whose books are sold on his website.

Companies routinely profit off your crisis whether it’s no rental car, no phone service, or intractable one-star reviews. By refusing to ensure employees are available for customer needs and capable of fully comprehending English and U.S. social norms, corporate moguls like Zuckerberg and Bezos zoom to the top echelons of the world’s wealthiest people along with bankers who can pull off mortgage fraud and the ultra-rich Walton heirs who insist they can’t possibly pay their employees a living wage.

News alert to the Waltons: It’s the employees who earn your fortunes.

Feeling so smug with their “success,” what these greedy MFs don’t realize (or care about) is the steady toll on our society, their contribution to the destruction of the marketplace, the rising level of anger and frustration, or the inevitable outcome when all that bottled up rage manifests itself in violence.

I like to think of a time when vacant big box stores have been converted into housing or indoor farmers markets, when I can wander into a mom and pop store and ask where to find that thing I bought three months ago and they lead me to the shelf where it’s now found. Or they tell me how long it will take for them to get the next order. You know, human interaction, smiles and apologies and gestures of good will.

I like to think of Zuckerberg spending his days sitting face to face with people subject to his data gathering and advertising, to hear real world crises with his genius setup so that he can actually understand the problem. I like to imagine Bezos being subjected to one-star reviews for his books – but then he’s never written a book, so…

I don’t have anything against the people of India or the Philippines or anywhere else where people need jobs. But I don’t think for one minute that the employment of foreign workers is about helping them. It’s about paying the cheapest possible labor in order to generate higher profits for the fat cats at the top.

It’s about pushing customers in need of those goods and services as far as possible toward the brink, of Bezos calculating that authors like me need to market on his website and will continue to use those services even if he doesn’t protect me from hate campaigns. It’s about Walmart knowing they’ve destroyed all the local stores and entire companies and product lines in order to create a monopoly on the majority of consumer goods.

None of this is new. It’s a creeping illness in our society—and the world—that has yet to hit bottom. We’re hooked on what they offer and can’t get off the hook.

How long before we revolt? The guillotine comes to mind.

~~~

Michael Douglas in Falling Down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkwQ6EjLdMQ

Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdIXrF34Bz0

The Undiscovered Cost of Inclusion

The mythology of bad teachers empowered by entrenched unions is only one part of a national disaster that has crept up on us over recent decades with the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Meant to provide legal protections for the disabled, the side effects of these laws has been to undercut funding and appropriate learning environments for normal children.

By stating this fact, I am risking a rain of fire from incensed parents of disabled children. These parents have been a primary inciting force of these laws, alongside adults with disabilities, and have ensured federal and state tax dollars will flow into programs that aid the disabled.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 … assures certain protections to certain students with disabilities. §504 states that:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .”. 29 U.S.C. 794(a).[1]

One result of these laws has been the “mainstreaming” of students with disabilities into American public school classrooms. IDEA mandates that students with disabilities receive a “Free and Appropriate Education in the Least Restrictive Environment.”[2]  Previously, students with disabilities with conditions such as autism, developmental delay, emotional/behavior disturbance, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, learning disability, learning disabilities and speech and language impairment may have been placed in special schools where teachers with specialized training could focus directly on their special needs.

Mainstreaming works for many types of disabled students but does not work so well for many others. School districts face lawsuits from distraught parents if their disabled child is perceived not to be treated “equally” with other students. There’s also a cost factor, with estimates upwards to $100,000 per year per student for a special needs environment, according to one article detailing a situation in Georgia.[3] The risk of lawsuits and soaring costs for special needs education causes school districts to place disabled students into classrooms with “normal” children.

A veteran educator dealing with special needs students for over 30 years in a major metropolitan school district cited one example of the outcome of such policies.

“One of the things we tried was to put her in an art class. She sat there the entire hour voicing this loud moaning cry.” He imitated the sound. “I don’t know how anyone expected her to learn anything. She functioned at the intellectual level of a six-month-old infant.”

What this educator could not quantify was the effect of this person’s behavior on the rest of the class over the eight years this student remained in this secondary level school. Did anyone else learn anything in that art class or was this a wasted hour in their day, an hour when they might have learned how to draw perspective, or blend complimentary colors if not for the loud cries steadily emanating from the severely disabled person in their midst?

What’s been lost in our urge to help those with special needs is the primary mandate of our schools—to educate the next generation of scientists, artists, technicians, educators, workers, and leaders for our nation. The commendable stated objective of the ADA, to make it possible for everyone with a disability to live a life of freedom and equality, is deceptively simple and ignores the reality: people with many types of disability will NEVER be able to live a life of freedom and equality.

This is not something many parents of such children are willing to accept. Many of them believe if their child mingles with regular kids and attends the same classes, they will graduate high school and go on to college. It’s a heartbreaking situation.

In our public policy pursuit of this fantasy, we’re continuing to overlook the collateral damage. Consider one experience of an elementary teacher in a private Christian school in a small Midwestern state. At the start of the 2018 school year, a new student was introduced to her class. Neither parents nor administrators introduced the child to the teacher or explained her needs. Instead, the teacher soon discovered that she would be expected to change the child’s diapers, spoon feed her, and deal with increasingly loud, belligerent, and violent behavior. The teacher’s aide, meant to assist in teaching a class of over 30 young squirmy children, was forced to devote her entire schedule to managing the disabled girl.

“Finally, at the end of the semester,” the teacher remarked, “my documented chronology of abuses by this student forced the administration to contact the parents and the student was removed from the school. I feel like I’ve lost an entire semester with the rest of these kids.”

The decision by a private school to accept ID kids is often a financial one—the school needs the tuition money. Private schools are not under the same federal mandate to mainstream kids with disabilities because they don’t rely on public funding. This helps explain the push to channel tax dollars to private schools and may in part have to do with maintaining the freedom to deny admission to severely disabled students.

Not all disabilities lead to chaos in the classroom. Young people with physical disabilities may require specific desk heights and schools free of stairs, but they can still participate in the learning process alongside non-disabled students. It’s the intellectually disabled who pose the greatest challenge in mainstreaming.

Intellectual Disability (ID), formerly known as mental retardation, is an ongoing and perhaps increasing condition in the U.S.[4]  Criteria for ID include an IQ under 70 in addition to deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors that affect everyday, general living although many variables move the determination up or down these markers. Conditions meeting this definition include Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome.

Intellectual disability affects about 2–3% of the general population. Seventy-five to ninety percent of the affected people have mild intellectual disability. Non-syndromic or idiopathic cases account for 30–50% of cases [An idiopathic disease is any disease with an unknown cause or mechanism of apparent spontaneous origin.] About a quarter of cases are caused by a genetic disorder, and about 5% of cases are inherited from a person’s parents. Cases of unknown cause affect about 95 million people as of 2013.[5]

Benefits of mainstreaming for both normal students and disabled students include exposure to diversity. But the majority of benefits are exclusive to the disabled: learning socialization skills, exposure to higher functioning children, and the challenge of competition. This says nothing about any benefit to normal children. As the 30-year veteran put it, “Here we’re spending big chunks of our limited budgets to provide an aide to accompany an ID student all day while spending nothing to assist or promote a kid with 140 IQ.”

The loss to our future society is incalculable.

Of equal concern is the inevitable observation by ID students who compare themselves to the social lives and interactions of normal students. ABC’s ongoing (2015 to present) television program “Born This Way” portrays one aspect of this effect by showcasing high functioning Downs syndrome children who aspire to marriage, stardom, and independent living. Many of the stars of this program are closely assisted by their mothers, leaving a question about what they’ve actually accomplished on their own. At times the program seems exploitative, showcasing anomalous humans for entertainment purposes. Encouraging their expectations for a normal life may ultimately prove cruel.

Before dumping severely disabled children into classrooms with normal students, schools need to ensure that teachers are prepared for the challenge. Many of them are not. Teacher education does not include techniques for changing diapers on physically mature ‘students.’

An estimated 1.8 million of the U.S. population are considered severely disabled, yet many of the disabled youth have parents who struggle to ensure their child’s future is as close to normal as possible. What parent wouldn’t?  Yet as observed by one special educator,

“… research also shows that students with disabilities, whether mild or severe, often have poorer social skills and are less accepted by their non-disabled peers. So we have to ask ourselves—who are we really thinking of when we talk about inclusion? Are we thinking of the student with a mild learning disability who may easily blend in and be accepted by their abled peers, or the student with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and must be fed by a feeding tube, who just may stick out in a mainstream crowd? Speaking from experience, I’ve seen that the best communication skills, motor skills, and social skills are developed when students work alongside peers who are like themselves—peers who share their struggles, who know what it feels like to make huge gains in small steps.”[6]

It’s time to take a fresh look at the ADA and IDEA legislation and come to a new understanding based not only on what parents of disabled children dream for their child but also what is best for the rest of our children and the nation as a whole. The cost burden to schools is enormous. Specially trained aides are required to accompany disabled children through the day, to feed them, change diapers, and physically contain them. School budgets have not increased commensurate to the added expense of adequate staffing for meeting the needs of disabled children, and yet the nation wonders why classroom teachers are buying school supplies out of their own pockets.

Aside from the tremendous cost to taxpayers,[7] there is no real assessment of the cost to teachers, normal students, or society as a whole for these well-intended policies, but it surely is great. Many teachers are leaving the field with its low pay and unexpected demands. Yes, there are lousy teachers out there just as all levels of competence exist in any profession. This isn’t a problem of unions or incompetence—it’s a problem of well-intentioned public policy failing to take the big picture into consideration.

~~~

[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individuals_with_Disabilities_Education_Act#Individualized_Family_Service_Plan_(IFSP) for more details about these laws

[2] https://www.eparent.com/education/mainstreaming-the-education-of-children-with-disabilities-the-teachers-perspective/

[3] https://www.theclassroom.com/the-cost-of-mainstreaming-vs-special-education-classes-12067245.html

[4] Multiple studies show a direct link between pollution and intellectual disabilities. See, for example, http://www.sci-news.com/medicine/link-air-pollution-intellectual-disabilities-06637.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_disability

[6] Smith N. Takepart. Op-Ed: An argument against mainstreaming kids with disabilities. A special education teacher shares why she believes students with special needs thrive in schools solely for kids with disabilities. https://www.scoop.it/t/issues-in-special-education

[7] Approximately fifty percent of the current Medicaid budget pays out to children with disabilities. See https://www.kff.org/medicaid/issue-brief/medicaids-role-for-children-with-special-health-care-needs-a-look-at-eligibility-services-and-spending/