My Personal Consumerism, Part II

So the appliances.

With this latest wrinkle in my life that has provided a modest financial margin to do things like put a new roof on my house, I’ve also invested in new appliances. This will be the first time in my life I’ve been able to have nice new kitchen appliances. How thrilling!

One would think that purchasing something new would lend a warm feeling of excitement and satisfaction. That’s what we see in advertisements, isn’t it – smiling happy faces with shiny new products? Well, let me tell you…

Previously, I purchased what I had to have from Lowes because I had a charge account there. Never mind their interest rate of 21-25%. No, never mind that. (This is the quiet assault on the poor, those who never can lay out $1,200 for a new fridge when the old one suddenly stops working and so end up paying far more because of interest.)

But now, with my new cash budget in hand, I didn’t need to charge anything!

So I went to Lowe’s for a new stove and dishwasher.  My existing stove had been in service for about 20 years, a purchase made on a credit card at a store in Springdale that carries new stuff but specializes in scratched or dented appliances. The stove was bashed in on the right side and the bottom drawer never worked properly, but the burners and oven performed well until the last several years during which time the right front burner stopped working. Mice had periodically invaded the insulation behind the oven, and so baking produced a slightly mousy odor.

Plus, you know how stoves get – janky – no matter how carefully you clean. Scratched enamel and burnt on film on the burner grids.

Then there was the over-the-range microwave, used when I got it with a break in the bottom door frame. In order to replace the light bulb, a series of tiny screws had to be removed to drop a glass panel. The front grill for ventilation could not be completely cleaned as the intake grid vanished into the upper areas of the microwave. No turntable. Not 1000 watt.

Then there was the dishwasher, installed sometime in the early ‘90s. The panels on the door had long since developed a rich array of rust spots. The door spring busted years ago and I replaced it with a semi-functional spring that made loud squawking noises when the door opened. The bottom spray arm lost part of its assembly at some point, so washing the lower rack became hit or miss with plates spaced widely apart and requiring pre-washing by hand. So yeah, give me a new dishwasher!

Back in August, my early-90s refrigerator died and the new one I got at Lowe’s needed matching stainless steel appliances, although I will admit to feeling disgusted with myself for jumping on the bandwagon for ‘all stainless steel appliances.’ How many times have I rolled my eyes while watching Home and Garden channel and other home improvement programming where invariably someone says they want all stainless steel appliances? It’s like a club of avid consumer cliquishness.

But here I am, trying to obtain all stainless steel appliances. At least my washer and dryer are white.

So at Lowe’s I quickly discovered that all their ranges have five burners with metal gridwork completely covering the top of the stove and reminiscent of a medieval drawbridge gate. What the hell? Who decided this? Who wants to lift (and clean) massive metal burners? Where are we supposed to place spoons or spatulas we use while cooking?

At Lowe’s website, I found four-burner stoves in stainless. Problem solved. But no – wait. I read the fine print, then called the store, and learned that installation of said stove-microwave-dishwasher involved a whole new level of expense. For the range, they’d require $60 to convert to propane and another $155 to send a plumber for the installation. (Turn off gas supply, unscrew old hose, screw on new hose…)

For the microwave, they’d require $105 to install and would not touch installation if the old microwave had been direct wired. Well, of course mine had been.

Then for the dishwasher, they’d require $139 for a plumber to install plus $20 for the new water connection hose. And, same as microwave, they wouldn’t touch it if it had been hardwired. (See previous paragraph.)

No, they didn’t offer a combination of plumber duties between stove and dishwasher in order to reduce the cost.

Hell, I could have bought an entire additional appliance for all that.

Then I checked in with the place in Springdale. Sure enough, a very friendly salesman got on the phone and told me everything I wanted to hear. Stove – slightly cheaper, no problem. Dishwasher, cheaper. Microwave cheaper. And all installed by one guy for about $150. Get outta here!

Plus – they would haul off all my old stuff at no charge. Lowe’s wanted $20 for each old appliance.

So several days later the truck arrives and right away I see problems. The microwave is enormous and dented on the right side. The range is white – and not adjusted for propane. At least the dishwasher seemed ok. But no one had lined up the installer.

Thus began a three week saga that is still not finished. The store agreed to switch the massive dented microwave (dent NOT mentioned by salesman) for a small countertop model plus range hood. Dishwasher doesn’t really dry the dishes unless I put it on a long ‘heated dry’ cycle, but that’s part of the slow deterioration of manufacturing quality, not a problem caused by the store. Second delivery of range, adjusted for propane, was a FIVE BURNER model. Are you serious?

Went to store where they admitted they had zero four-burner stainless ranges in stock. What? After I put my fists on my hips and shifted to a slightly louder tone of voice, they finally agreed to order a four-burner, stainless steel range.

Here’s the model I really wanted but they didn’t have him in stock.

Even though I loathe driving to Springdale, I will visit the store BEFORE they deliver the range to see if they’ve adjusted the burners properly because the white stove currently in my kitchen, which they ‘adjusted’ at the store, has no low flame. Turn the burner to ‘low’ and the flames are just as high as they are on ‘high.’ They said that had to be a problem with my propane tank pressure. But it wasn’t a problem with my old stove, so it can’t be that my propane tank has spontaneously jacked up the pressure.

Also, it turned out the installer’s fee wasn’t part of what I paid the store, which wasn’t made clear. (In one of my six phone conversations with the store manager, I asked if they’d fired the salesman yet. They have not.) Plus installer had tried to call me to coordinate his arrival with the delivery but the store hadn’t given him the right phone numbers, so everything on the first delivery arrival had to be rescheduled to match his availability. And the installation fee wasn’t $150 but $275 because he had to wire two outlets at $50 each and connect a new drain line for the dishwasher. Still, even at $275, it was cheaper than Lowe’s.

Highway robbery: Fifty bucks to wire an outlet to an existing wire.

I’m not sure how much more of this consumer joy ride I can stand.

 

My Personal Consumerism, Part I

A beige plastic spoon rest I’ve used for the last twenty-plus years is now ignominiously stained and warped by more than one close encounter of the worst kind with a stove burner. It contains three shallow cradles where spoons can rest in between stirring whatever I might be cooking. Being well versed in the Gospel of Consumerism, I recently decided to replace it.

This was a job for Amazon.com, where a total of 41 PAGES of search results offer an array of elaborate spoon rest choices. One might find a metal spoon rest with all the features of a fish, or elephant, or sea horse. A multitude of spoon rests have been created with colorful mosaics, period art, or clever or poignant statements about love, life, or food. Spoon rests in solid colors and various shapes abound as do rests that aren’t really rests, but rather exercises in various aspects of geometry by which a spoon might stand on its nose or recline at an angle.

Some of the rests feature an ingenious slotted holder whereby drippings from said spoon might settle below the actual spoon, in essence creating two surfaces to later clean instead of only one. Or consider the utilitarian grater spoon rest for your garlic, cheese, or spice grating in addition to use as a spoon rest. (below) Others form such a textured and convoluted surface that one might never fully clean it.

Despite the enormous array of color, design, and material, none of these elaborate and in many cases outrageously expensive spoon holders offer the key features provided by my humbly stained, warped plastic spoon holder:  a nesting place for three spoons. Virtually all but one or two of these models now available in the vast warehouses of kitschy kitchen gadgets offer a place for only one spoon.

I wasn’t aware that cooking in the modern era had been streamlined down to one pot. In my world, there might be simultaneous preparation of mashed potatoes, green beans, and braised steak with onions, each of which would deserve–indeed, demand–its own utensil.

Yes, there are exceptions. One product offers space for two spoons. It retails at the popular Wayfair.com site and sells for ‘only’ $33.99.

Or there’s this streamlined offering from Amazon.com (below) for only $9.99, if one wishes one’s ladle and spoon handles to become airborne.

Yet another option is the silicone ‘utensil rest’ item which would hold up to five utensils, essentially filling the entire space between left burners and right burners at its 7.3 x 6.7 x 1.5 inches dimensions. The warnings include: “Don’t clean it with abrasive soap or scouring pad, hand-wash recommend. Don’t heat it directly by fire. Don’t pull and impact it violently or scratch it with sharp things. The sudden change of temperature must not exceed 240 centigrade while being used.”

One must admire the energy and creativity invested in this vast array of spoon rest options. Yet I despair.

Why can’t I get a new spoon holder just like the spoon holder I already have?

Well, I could, kind of. By Google searching for “triple spoon rest,” I located one that looks just like my old one and ‘only’ $4.94. But overall, consumer ratings put it at 2.4 stars out of 5. Here’s one review of it:

I had one just like this from the same company that I bought years ago. So when it finally gave up the ghost, I wanted to replace it with the same item. I really like how big it is and that I can put multiple spoons on 1 rest. (If you are really cooking you use more than one utensil). I found this on Amazon and was pretty excited to be able to replace mine with an exact duplicate. Well, the shape and size are the same, but wow!! What happened to the thickness and quality!!?? It is so thin compared to the one I bought years ago. In fact, I washed my old one over and over in the dishwasher. This one came out partly melted the 1st wash.

So that’s a big NO.

I also found one for three spoons made of stainless steel. It’s an ideal concept for a stove-top item. HOWEVER, the piece is 10 x 4.9 x 0.4 inches. Ten inches long? WHY?

This disappointing array of consumer options has brought me to a new understanding. I should respect my old spoon rest and keep it. Its stains are markers of our years together, the many pots of chili and vegetable soup, the hours of simmering pot roast. Its misshapen profile serves as a reminder of neglectful moments when my attention to cooking gave way to refereeing kids or lingering on a too-long phone call.

After all, I too show the marks of my years, kind of warped around the edges from close encounters to heat of a different kind. And other life drama.

With more than 20 years of faithful service to its credit, why should I replace the venerable old servant with something that doesn’t fit my needs, costs too much, and would be bereft of any memory whatsoever?

Consumerism instilled by vast corporate effort turns every item and every occasion into a compelling need to spend money. As the years go by, more and more of our past ends up in the landfill for no good reason other than an infection of consumerism. It must be new! It must be shiny! By what other blood would the corporations of the world flourish if not our pervasive consumerism?

So I won’t participate, at least, not for this item, not for this moment. The old spoon rest will maintain its pride of place on my new stove top.

(More on the new stove in my next blog, My Personal Consumerism, Part II.)

 

What You Might Not Know About China

With trade politics thickening the air like an April snowstorm, you might be intrigued to know a bit about China’s past history with exports and imports. As in, we should be very careful.

We all know China’s civilization is one of the world’s oldest with historical records dating back at least to 2000 BCE when the Xia dynasty began. Legendary emperors introduced natural medicines including ephedrine, cannabis, and tea—the latter being the crux of a trade matter that would come back to haunt Westerners today.

Over 3000 years passed as the country went through various changes in leadership and cultural developments but here’s the important thing—they stayed within their borders. With all their advancements, they seemed content for all those centuries to keep to themselves.

Just because the Chinese did not use their advancing sophistication in efforts at world conquest did not meant they didn’t trade. Bits of Chinese silk have been found in Egypt from around 1000 BCE. The famous Silk Road, established around 200 BCE, accommodated the trade of Chinese silks, herbs and spices, and cultural ideas ranging from Buddhism to use of horses. Only with the Mongol invasions in the early 13th century were the Chinese forced to deal with outside forces.

The Chinese bounced back with the founding of the Song dynasty, considered the high point of classical Chinese civilization.

Empress Zheng (1079–1131)

The Song economy, facilitated by technology advancement, had reached a level of sophistication probably unseen in world history before its time. The population soared to over 100 million and the living standards of common people improved tremendously due to improvements in rice cultivation and the wide availability of coal for production. The capital cities of Kaifeng and subsequently Hangzhou were both the most populous cities in the world for their time, and encouraged vibrant civil societies unmatched by previous Chinese dynasties. Although land trading routes to the far west were blocked by nomadic empires, there were extensive maritime trade with neighboring states, which facilitated the use of Song coinage as the de facto currency of exchange. Giant wooden vessels equipped with compasses traveled throughout the China Seas and northern Indian Ocean. The concept of insurance was practiced by merchants to hedge the risks of such long-haul maritime shipments. With prosperous economic activities, the historically first use of paper currency emerged in the western city of Chengdu, as a supplement to the existing copper coins.

The Song dynasty was considered to be the golden age of great advancements in science and technology of China …Inventions such as the hydro-mechanical astronomical clock, the first continuous and endless power-transmitting chain, woodblock printing and paper money were all invented during the Song dynasty.

China’s military and imperial ambitions did eventually lead to imperialistic ambition. By the 1400s, Chinese colonialization in foreign lands extended to Japan and Vietnam. That was small potatoes compared to the Europeans who had begun far-flung expeditions to virtually every corner of the earth. In fact, by 1500 a strong isolationist fervor developed in China. When contacted by Western powers such as Portugal in 1520 and the Dutch in 1622, the Chinese vigorously repelled any and all attempts at collaboration.

Meanwhile, the West had begun to thirst for all things exotic including spices from Indonesia and India and especially tea, silk, and porcelain from China. Despite rich colonial profits from Caribbean sugar and tobacco to American cotton, African ivory, and Mexican silver, imperial appetites were insatiable. Just like today, the West—especially the fanatical tea-drinking British—suffered a terrible trade imbalance with China. China didn’t have much interest in the woolens and other commodities offered in trade by Britain and insisted on silver payment for its tea. By the late 17th and early 18th century, Britain faced a monetary crisis over its trade with China.

And here’s where it becomes very instructive as to our current trade situation with China, “we” meaning Americans, that peculiar offshoot of the British Empire who fired its first shot over the king’s helm by dumping, yes, you’ve heard this before, crates of tea overboard in Boston Harbor. British efforts to shore up its finances meant hiking taxes on tea, and the colonists weren’t having it.

Meanwhile, among its other conquests of empire around the world, British invasion of India brought them local merchants dealing an ancient and powerful substance known as opium. Clever Brits thought to import opium to China in the belief that it could balance its trade debts from tea. It didn’t take long for Chinese authorities to recognize the threat to their social order posed by widespread opium use. In 1780, the Qing government issued an edict against opium and other restrictions soon followed.

… Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor wrote to King George III in response to the MaCartney Mission’s request for trade in 1793: “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Tea also had to be paid in silver bullion, and critics of the tea trade at this time would point to the damage caused to Britain’s wealth by this loss of bullion. As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for tea, Britain began exporting opium from the traditional growing regions of British India (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. Although opium use in China had a long history, the British importation of opium, which began in the late 18th century, increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837, and usage of the drug became more widespread across Chinese society. The Qing government attitude towards opium, which was often ambivalent, hardened due to the social problems created by drug use, and took serious measures to curtail importation of opium in 1838–39. Tea by now had become an important source of tax revenue for the British Empire and the banning of the opium trade and thus the creation of funding issues for tea importers was one of the main causes of the First Opium War.

Delicate business, trade. By the early 1800s, Americans also began importing opium to China as a blend of opium and Turkish tobacco. The resulting competition between America and Britain brought opium prices down resulting in easier access for the average Chinese resident. By 1838, Britain alone imported more than 1,400 tons of opium to China. It was estimated that 27% of adult male Chinese were addicted.

China’s emperor wrote an impassioned letter to Queen Victoria, explaining the harms of opium use and questioning Britain’s “moral judgement.” Sources say the queen never received the missive, but it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The economics of trade meant that the nation’s leaders bowed to commercial interests.

Under the new law in 1839, Chinese began boarding British ships and confiscating opium. In one raid alone, authorities destroyed over 1,200 tons of opium on a public beach. Outraged, British importers demanded the assistance of British military. Matters devolved as Chinese banned British ships from taking supplies or water at Chinese ports and various skirmishes ensued, leading to debate in British parliament. The House of Lords (which included owners of most of the ships and trading companies) wanted war with China. The House of Commons, more sympathetic to the problems caused by opium, wanted the opium trade to stop.

No extra points for guessing who won. In a military buildup of British ships and personnel beginning mid-1840 and supplemented by Indian dragoons by 1841, Western powers with their heavily armed gunships and superior technology sailed up the Pearl River and destroyed less-well-armed Chinese vessels and troops. The British blockaded Chinese ports up and down the coast. In July 1842, British warships steamed up the Yangtze River to Canton where they destroyed Chinese forts protecting the city. Ultimately, China had no choice but to surrender and accept terms including stiff fines payable in silver and British control over Hong Kong and Singapore, initiating what the Chinese called “The Century of Humiliation.”

Meanwhile, the East India Trading Company [British] sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to sneak into China to steal tea plants and a few Chinese men who knew how to grow it. Vast tea plantations in India were the result. Under British control until 1947, India’s tea crops bypassed China’s, thus ending the need to trade with China for the tea supply.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point. It seems the Chinese have learned their lessons well.

~~~

Quoted passages pulled from Wikipedia articles:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_China#Xia_dynasty_(2070%E2%80%931600_BC)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Opium_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tea

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Fortune

U.S. Budget — Military and Social Security

Deceptive and Counterproductive.

Discussion ebbs and flows on the topic of U.S. spending. Of particular interest to several of my liberal friends is military spending. Frequent Facebook posts on this subject claim that military spending consumes over half the budget.

I agree that the military is not an ideal place to invest so many billions of dollars. I also agree that the U.S. has a history of blowing money on weapons and aggression. Further, I question whether the U.S. uses military means when a better, longer-lasting path to peace and stability in troubled parts of the world would be investments in education, infrastructure, agriculture, and commercial development.

All that said, I have to protest the continuing use of incorrect data in arguing against military spending. The cause for less military spending is not enhanced by presenting incorrect information. Just the opposite.

The accurate 2017 budget breakdown:

Please note that the portion designated military spending occurs in the lower left  of this pie chart and as such does not constitute half of the U.S. budget. It’s important to discriminate between a breakdown of discretionary spending and overall spending. Discretionary spending is one category of overall spending. It’s within the slice of pie of discretionary spending where we see the big bite that goes to the military:So yes, military spending within its slice of pie of discretionary spending, is over half the budget. And there’s no limit to the close examination this distribution of funds deserves. But please, let’s make our arguments based on the actual facts.

A second realm of considerable error by liberals calls for a shift in U.S. spending to better honor social programs like Social Security. A popular mantra on social media these days mistakenly claims that we ‘own’ our retirement funds because we paid into them. The following discussion spells out the facts:

“It’s My Money” [WRONG!]

* A common perception about Social Security benefits is: I am entitled to the money. It’s my money. I’ve saved it.

* Social Security is mainly a “pay-as-you-go” program. This means that it pays most of its benefits by taxing people who are currently working.

* Per the Social Security Administration: The money you pay in taxes is not held in a personal account for you to use when you get benefits. Your taxes are being used right now to pay people who now are getting benefits. Any unused money goes to the Social Security trust funds, not a personal account with your name on it.

* From the start of the Social Security program in 1937 through the end of 2016:

  • 94% of all Social Security payroll taxes were spent in the same year they were collected.

  • 13% of Social Security’s total income (including payroll taxes, taxes on Social Security benefits, transfers from the general fund of the Treasury, and interest on the Social Security Trust Fund) has accumulated in the Social Security Trust Fund.

* Per the Social Security Administration: Since the Social Security system has not accumulated assets equal to the liability of promised future benefits, the social security wealth that individuals hold represents a claim against the earnings of future generations rather than a claim against existing real assets.

* After the federal government pays back with interest all of the money it has borrowed from Social Security, the program’s current claim against the earnings of future generations is $30.8 trillion. This amounts to an average of $132,914 for every person now receiving Social Security benefits or paying Social Security payroll taxes.

* Per the Social Security Administration: There has been a temptation throughout the program’s history for some people to suppose that their FICA payroll taxes entitle them to a benefit in a legal, contractual sense. … Congress clearly had no such limitation in mind when crafting the law. … Benefits which are granted at one time can be withdrawn.…

* In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5 to 4) that entitlement to Social Security benefits is not a contractual right. [emphasis added]

[For more discussion of Social Security taxes, allocations, and projections, visit the Just Facts page.]

So let’s get our heads screwed on straight, fellow progressives. While a large chunk of U.S. tax dollars go to military expenditures, it is NOT consuming over half of our tax dollars. Our Social Security and Medicare funds are NOT held for our future use like individual savings accounts, but rather are spent immediately in payouts to persons currently receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits.

If we expect to prevail in directing our nation toward a more equitable and socially conscientious future, we need to be well informed and make our arguments for social justice in ways that make sense and align with the facts.

That is all. For now.

A Presidential Stain

Just like in every other aspect of his privileged yet miserable life, Donald Trump can see only the surface. His “shithole” description of nations like Haiti or those in Africa is apt if you only see the poverty and political chaos. A thoughtful educated person would see beyond that surface to the culpability for all that of white Europeans.

African tribes lived fruitful happy lives in their native state, just as did the natives of the Americas. But their natural progress was interrupted by those from more developed cultures who took them as slaves and exploited the resources indigenous to their lands. Since emerging from the dark ages, European countries have sailed around the world trying to enforce their religious beliefs while at the same time seeking slaves and resources to enrich their nations.

That’s how Haiti became a predominantly black society. When Spanish explorers arrived in 1492, they found a widespread population of the Taino people, a Native American tribe. Disease and genocide pretty well eradicated the Taino by 1625 when Spain’s grip on the island loosened in the face of French, English, and Dutch incursions. France seized control of Haiti and by 1700, France had established plantations for tobacco and cotton and imported African slaves to work the fields. Within the next century, the agricultural focus turned to sugar cane.[1]

Intimidating slaves with unimaginable brutalities didn’t require many whites. Accounts of horrific tortures are preserved in Haitian histories. The island’s populations suffered not only the brutalities of enslavement but also the irregular devastation of earthquakes and tidal waves. The current status of Haiti resulted from the most recent earthquake eight years ago with “a death toll estimated by the Haitian government at over 300,000, and by non-Haitian sources from 50,000 to 220,000.” The quake destroyed the country’s capital city and in the intervening years, hundreds of thousands have died of starvation.

Clone this story of Haiti into a long list of other “shithole” countries referenced by our Moron-in-Chief, with a few tweaks and details thrown in. No one in Africa asked for Europeans to come into their midst to enslave their people and steal their natural resources. Just as Native American tribes had enjoyed a sustainable lifestyle in the lands now called the United States,  African tribes maintained long-held religious practices and lived in stable communities.

Facts about the exploitation of places now referred to as “Third World” are available to anyone with a modicum of curiosity and reason. In a world before Trump, knowledge of these facts by a person elected president would have been taken for granted. Such knowledge would inform attitudes as well as foreign policy, most especially our immigration policies as, allegedly, the most advanced nation on earth.

Slavery became common within much of Europe during the Dark Ages and it continued into the Middle Ages. The Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Arabs and a number of West African kingdoms played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade, especially after 1600. David P. Forsythe wrote: “The fact remained that at the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will either in some form of slavery or serfdom.”[2]

The conquest of African nations occurred for two reasons: Christian zealotry convinced of its supremacy and the acquisition of wealth. Christian and Muslim missionaries still plague Africa, preaching sin and redemption to people who originally possessed sophisticated spiritual beliefs that had served them well for millennia. Social disruption and war resulted—my religion is the true one and infidels must die. Much of the warfare in Africa today is based on conflicts between Christians, Muslims, and tribal traditions. This serves several objectives—it keeps the local people at a disadvantage so they’re more easily exploited and it sells weapons of war, fattening the wallets of First World industrialists.

As for the direct acquisition of wealth, in the ages before modern machinery, slaves were the machines who tilled, planted, cultivated, and harvested the crops. Crops for food, crops for textiles like cotton, and crops for rope and other industrial materials enriched farmers. More slaves equaled more money. If advancing social conscience hadn’t eliminated slavery, likely the advance of the machines would have accomplished much of the same thing. (Or, arguably, the elimination of slavery helped push the development of machines.)

But slaves weren’t the only wealth captured from these “shithole” countries and exploited by European conquerors.[3] “Africa has a large quantity of natural resources, including diamonds, salt, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, petroleum and cocoa beans, but also woods and tropical fruits.”[4] Once European nations discovered these resources, they couldn’t keep their hands off. Using primarily enslaved indigenous people to perform the labor in mining these resources, European nations built their wealth on the backs of African people and their native wealth.

This smash-and-grab mentality continues today. Much of the chaos of Central and South American countries is a result of American agricultural interests controlling the vast majority of suitable cropland. Here in these winter-free zones, crops can grow year round and keep the supermarket shelves full even in January. The story of American exploitation and criminal interference among our neighbors to the south portends a timebomb waiting to go off in our faces.

Under previous presidents and as the United States has tried to become more than an imperialist power in the world, programs to help improve conditions in “shithole” countries have been an important objective. Unlike our current president, previous holders of that formerly-prestigious office have supported programs to help improve conditions for native peoples. Education, health care, and social reforms have been part of an outreach that included a proportioned immigration quota.

The denigration of nations and even an entire continent by racist labeling shows nothing about those places or their people compared to what it shows about the person uttering the denigration. What Trump’s profanity reveals is a man totally bereft of curiosity, respect, and knowledge about the world around him, a man whose only goal in life is self-aggrandizement. That his petulant narrow vision should spread such shame over our entire nation is a horror that can end none too soon.

~~~

This post is dedicated to Martin Luther King, a man who rose to the pinnacle of human achievement, unlike the man current soiling the White House.

 

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

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exploitation_colonialism

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_resources_of_Africa

The Health of Arkansas

Yesterday, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson beamed as he announced a drop in the number of state residents receiving health insurance through Medicaid.

Today there are fewer Arkansans on Medicaid than when I took office in January 2015, while our state’s population continues to increase. In the last year alone, the rolls have decreased by 117,000 (10%). Because of the reduction in Medicaid enrollment, DHS is now projecting that it will spend roughly half a billion dollars LESS (taxpayer money) on Medicaid in SFY’19 than anticipated in the biennial budget.

Perhaps to some, this is great news. We’re saving money! Woopee! All those freeloaders out there sucking on the government teat are now out in the cold where they belong.

But wait. We’re talking about medical care here, people who are sick or disabled or otherwise unable to obtain health care because they can’t afford to buy insurance. By his own numbers, our governor just celebrated the fact that 117,000 people of Arkansas are no longer able to obtain health care.

Now maybe that’s not exactly true. Maybe some of those folks got well from cancer or liver failure or whatever caused them to qualify for Medicaid. Maybe some of them got great jobs and have insurance now through their employers. Maybe some of them became the sudden beneficiary of their Aunt Tilley’s fabulous estate. Or won the lottery.

Or maybe not.

The reduction might have something to do with the federal government’s deep cut in advertising about how to sign up for health care. Or the federal government’s reduction in the sign-up time period. Or the state’s questionable method of deciding who to remove from the program—the electronic data system currently in use automatically deletes anyone who doesn’t respond to a request for income information. As in, one lost piece of mail. One overlooked letter amid a pile of unpaid bills. One person’s inability to comprehend what is being asked of him as he undergoes chemotherapy.

Last year, the governor looked for all the ways he could reduce the amount of money Arkansas pays for health coverage. As reported in the Arkansas Times in the May 2, 2017, edition, the governor’s goal was to lower the income limits.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, Arkansas expanded Medicaid via a unique policy known as the private option, which uses Medicaid funds to purchase private health insurance plans for low-income Arkansans. The concept was later re-branded as “Arkansas Works” by the governor. The expansion covers adults who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — that’s $16,400 for an individual or $33,600 for a family of four.

The governor’s proposed changes to eligibility remove anyone who makes more than the federal poverty line (that’s $11,880 for an individual or $24,300 for a family of four) from the Arkansas Works program. Only people who make less than the poverty line would qualify going forward. That includes not just the beneficiaries who are covered by private option plans but also those who were deemed medically frail under Arkansas Works (the 10 percent of beneficiaries with the greatest medical needs, who are currently routed to the traditional Medicaid program rather than private option plans).[1]

So just to be clear, any single person earning more than $990 per month or head of household with spouse and two children earning more than $506 per person would no longer qualify for government assistance in gaining health insurance. This hasn’t yet been implemented because the federal government has not yet responded to Gov. Hutchinson’s request for the change. But really, governor?

Even the 138% of poverty level leaves lots of people without access to care. In 2013, 21% of Arkansas adults went without health care because of the cost. Do bragging rights automatically come to Gov. Hutchinson because that number dropped to 15% by 2016? What is 15% anyway, besides a seemingly small number?

The state’s estimated population is 3,004,279. Take away 23.6% of that for people below 18 years of age (non-adults). That leaves 2,295,270 adults. Fifteen percent of that equals 344,290 adults in this state without health care. That’s a lot of friends and neighbors.

In a November 2017 report, the Arkansas Times explained another proposed part of Hutchinson’s Medicaid ‘reform.’

Those between the ages of 18-49 would be required to work 80 hours per month; if they were not working, they would have to participate in job training programs or certain approved volunteer activities. Beneficiaries must be in compliance for nine months out of the year or they would be removed from the program for the duration of the year. Beneficiaries 50 or older would not be subject to the work requirement; exemptions would be available for others who met certain criteria, such as caring for dependent children.[2]

Studies have examined the realities of financial need in the United States and have come up with a set of numbers that reveal just exactly how morally bankrupt is the governor’s reasoning (along with the increasingly evident moral bankruptcy of the entire Republican party).

For a family with two adults and two children, the average cost of living in the United States hovered around $65,000 per year in 2015. The figure excludes discretionary spending on nonessential goods and services, such as leisure, entertainment and luxury items.[3]

To be fair, another source gathering economic data specific to locations gives credit to a lower-than-average cost of living in Arkansas. For a family of four in Little Rock, the average monthly cost is $2876.46. For an individual not paying rent, the monthly cost is estimated at $819.24.[4] However, in the governor’s proposed lower income limit, in neither case is there any ‘leftover’ income adequate to buy health insurance. In case you didn’t notice, the estimated average cost of living for Little Rock is $400 MORE than the cutoff income level for those seeking Medicaid coverage under the governor’s preferred income guidelines.

It’s no secret that Arkansas is one of the unhealthiest states in the nation. We rank 48th. We have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and general poor health both physically and mentally. In particular, according to a January 1, 2018, report published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, from 2013 to 2016, “the percentage [of Arkansans] who reported that their mental health had not been good in 14 of the past 30 days rose from 14.7 to 16.4 [percent.]”

The report I’d like to hear from Gov. Hutchinson would show data about the number of marginally-employed people who have gained better-paying jobs. It would show how many of those suffering mental or physical illness have gained any improvement in their health. I’d like to hear that Arkansas is spending more, not less, on health care not only in direct services but in education—I’m talking about nutrition education, cooking lessons, and everything else humanly possible to teach people how to eat healthy—which, tragically, probably doesn’t include toaster pastries for breakfast.

I’d like to hear the governor talk about how vouchers and private schools won’t be allowed to siphon money away from public schools. I’d like to hear his analysis of how inadequate education leads to poor self-esteem and how a positive self-image is key to a person’s ability to pay attention to diet and exercise. I’d like to hear him talk about how a person who doesn’t feel good either mentally or physically is a prime candidate for substance abuse.

I’d like to hear the governor discuss the abysmal status of substance abuse treatment options in the state, a crushing health care issue that gets short shrift in public discussion. More on that in another blog.

The governor needs to say that fundamentals like good health and proper education make all the difference in how a person participates as a vital member of society or how he/she gains and maintains sufficient employment. He needs to say, again and again, that a person who is well, who has learned how to reason, and who recognizes the responsibility of self-care and citizenship is the kind of person we absolutely must gain a lot more of in this state.

At any cost.

~~~

[1] https://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2017/05/02/governors-proposed-cuts-to-medicaid-eligibility-will-increase-costs-for-working-poor-likely-to-increase-uninsured-rate

[2] https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/state-still-awaiting-federal-approval-on-medicaid-expansion-changes/Content?oid=11322951

[3] Cost of Living https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/cost-of-living.asp#ixzz53JNGsNLI

[4] https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/in/Little-Rock

America’s New Greatness

It’s been a crushing year. One after another, hard-won social advancements have been blocked or dismantled in the rush to “Make American Great Again.” But what does that even mean?

Exactly when was America greater? When everyone used outdoor toilets? When women couldn’t work outside the home? When skin color decided who could marry whom, or vote, or eat at a lunch counter?

Is ‘great again’ a worthy goal, the best we should expect? Is the conservative mantra right, that free enterprise and individual liberty “under limited government” was and forever will be the pinnacle of human achievement? If only we could rid ourselves of this ‘big government’ and free ourselves of onerous taxation, would the U.S. of A. become the shining star of the days of yore?

No, no, and no.

Let me explain. At the time of the Founding Fathers, ‘free enterprise’ applied to white male landowners. The constitution ignored the rights of women and non-landowners. Voting rights for Natives or slaves never entered the discussion. The founders conceived of a nation of educated, well-to-do white men who used women, natives, and slaves to meet self-serving goals in creating heirs, seizing ever greater slabs of the continent, and forcing labor from non-whites in order to sustain and increase their wealth.

They weren’t evil men. That’s just how things had always been. No wonder certain white males today would see those as the glory days.

But there’s no lack of free enterprise. Men and women of any class or color routinely open their own businesses. Three out of ten workers in the U. S. are self-employed or are hired by self-employed persons.[1] The ‘small business’ community provides the majority of American jobs.

…large businesses only employ about 38 percent of the private sector workforce while small businesses employ 53 percent of the workforce. In fact, over 99 percent of employing organizations are small businesses and more than 95 percent of these businesses have fewer than 10 employees. The reality is that most Americans are employed by a very small business that has little in common with the tiny sliver of the business demographic represented by corporate America.[2]

The complaint of conservatives is that free enterprise is hindered by big government. They rail against requirements that employers pay into insurance policies that provide medical care for workers injured on the job or that provide health care that meets the employees’ needs. Employers also must pay into Social Security and Medicare funds on a 50-50 basis with the employee’s withheld funds. Employers are required to deduct the appropriate amount of state and federal income tax from employee wages and to deposit this tax into government accounts. Employers also must provide a wage statement at the end of each year (W-2, 1099, etc.).

These requirements annoy the hell out of employers. When I operated my own café, I spent hours working on payroll. I resented spending money on workman’s compensation insurance – I never had an injured employee and all that I paid was money down a hole. But I understood the reason for it. If an employee had become injured, should I expect the government to pay for medical care? Should I personally pay for it? Should the employee be abandoned to pay himself?

These are old problems solved incrementally over a long period of American history back when a majority of legislators worked for the people instead of themselves. We stopped sending disabled or aged persons to poor farms where a pitiful stipend from the state supported them along with the random generosity of wealthy donors who might drop a few crumbs from their tables. We stopped allowing employees to be injured or killed in unsafe workplaces. We required people and their employers to set aside funds for retirement.

Like the Affordable Care Act, social support systems developed by our elected representatives to better provide for the ‘general welfare’ are an evolved safety net for all of us. The simplistic idea that these systems should be dismantled in pursuit of some long-vanished ideal of “free enterprise” fails to recognize all the reasons these systems came into being in the first place. We need them. They serve an important purpose.

‘Individual liberty’ is another often-touted phrase by deconstructionist conservatives. What that concept meant to the founders no longer applies in our current reality. The founders lived on the edge of an unexplored country with such a vast reserve of lands that no one could imagine a time when there weren’t new horizons where young men could ‘go West’ to make their fortunes. Individual liberty was possible only because men gained forty acres or more by simply staking a claim or, in many cases, serving in the military after which they received land grants.[3]

What land is free now? None.

What we took from the Natives was a virgin continent full of natural resources. The lands of Europe had been exploited for over two thousand years and here was a whole new start. Individually and collectively, we harvested those resources while patting ourselves on the back about how smart and industrious we were in building a fabulous new nation. We never considered that sooner or later, the last farmland would be plowed, the last gold nugget would be found, and we would run smack up against the end of the bonanza. We did the same thing here that our forefathers had done in Europe.

Conservatives, enraptured with these myths of a glorious past, believe we can return to times when anyone who wanted to work hard could simply plow his way to success with a mule and a compliant wife. Women, keen for their own ‘individual liberty,’ aren’t so compliant anymore. Farming is no longer a viable path to sufficient livelihood.

Obviously our living standards have changed. No more outdoor toilets or working the fields from dawn to dusk. We’re dependent on electricity and modern medical care and automobiles, all things that as recently as a hundred years ago simply did not factor into the picture for a majority of Americans.

Ever in pursuit of their bankrupt myth, the conservatives’ last gasp is the current grab of political power, attained by selling the myth to those who don’t understand. The conservatives are busy ending food and medical care for the aged, the homeless, and other needy segments of the population. The entire social net crafted over decades is being dismantled in a futile grab for a long-lost past.

The descendants of European colonialism want the glory back. They don’t agree that taking from the rich and giving to the poor is the right approach for modern societies. European nations have already grasped this concept. America today and in the future can never be the America of 1800 or 1900 or even 1950.

Making profit off of sick people or school children is immoral. Just as government regulates utilities, so it must regulate other services required by everyone, including health care and the internet. This is not an appropriate arena for capitalism. Government, not profit-driven capitalists, serves as the most efficient provider for the common welfare –healthcare, affordable housing, education, public transportation, infrastructure like bridges and railways, and a vast network of social services.

Reducing the tax burden for the wealthiest among us accomplishes nothing but the impoverishment of our entire nation. The current imbalance of wealth is clear evidence that the rich should be taxed even more. Expanded social programs should ensure that those at the lowest income levels are brought into counseling, health care, education, and training programs in order to improve their economic status.

We’re a largely urban, multicultural society now, completely different from what the Founding Fathers knew. Just as the founders were right to declare the rights of personal liberty, so were progressives right to end discrimination against minorities, women, and the handicapped and to provide mechanisms by which the damages of such long-term discrimination could be healed. It’s the progressives who have understood that the safety net must be available equally from state to state, a service that only the federal government can ensure.

The personal bankruptcy of a small number of men like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon cannot be allowed to dictate the future of our country. Such men long for a culture where white maleness guarantees ascendancy. Without a white male-dominated social structure, they cannot gain the power they so desperately crave. These are weak men dependent on the subjugation of others for emotional and economic support. They will die off just as the Neanderthal died off.

It’s called failure to evolve.

Here’s a toast to 2018 and the continuing evolution of our great nation.

 

~~~

 

[1] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/10/22/three-in-ten-u-s-jobs-are-held-by-the-self-employed-and-the-workers-they-hire/

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristie-arslan/five-big-myths-about-amer_b_866118.html

[3] Bounties of up to 1,100 acres were granted for Revolutionary War service between 1775 and 1783 and up to 320 acres for the War of 1812 through 1815. Additional free lands went to men fighting in the Mexican War 1846-1848 and in Indian Wars from the 1780s through the 1890s. While outright land grants ended in 1855, Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War received homestead rights along with others meeting certain criteria. Much more on land grants and homestead rights at Wikipedia.