A Thin Man Watches Me

A thin man watches me

From across the room

Arms folded across his chest,

His gray suit hanging too big

For the man he has become.

~

One day the suit fit closely

Over muscled arms and broad shoulders.

Time has worn him away,

Waiting.

~

In my sleep, I forget him.

Chase through meadows amid spring flowers

Wrestle with the fullness of flesh

Savor the taste of beef on my tongue.

~

He’s there in dawn shadows,

His arms crossed, bunching the fabric of his suit.

Eyes narrowed as if at any moment I might

Spring free from his gaze, escape into woodland

Where so many shadows and meadows await

That he might never find me.

~

At first light, he fills me with dread,

Banishes my dreams,

Reminds me.

There is no escape.

Today’s Big Lie

Topping today’s fake news is the Republican mantra that Obamacare is failing and whatever faults their replacement plan may have, nothing can save Obamacare. Cited as evidence is a decrease in the number of insurance companies serving certain states. Aside from the obvious option of the federal government providing coverage as it does in Medicare, which no one mentions, is the quiet Republican sabotage that brought about this situation.

For the last seven years since the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) came into law, Republicans have not only claimed they had a better plan (when they obviously didn’t),  they have worked behind the scenes to gut key elements of the ACA. Now, disingenuously, they act as though they had nothing to do with the problems they cite as evidence of its failure.

If these were decent people, they wouldn’t be able to face themselves in the mirror. But extremists have never let a little basic human decency get in the way of their agenda.

Back in 2015, as the ACA took effect and more people were for the first time able to gain desperately needed medical care, Republicans saw that they would never be able to tear this coverage out of the hands of sick and dying people without suffering political blow-back. So with their midterm election wins giving them legislative authority, they eagerly set about gutting key elements of the ACA in a strategy meant to guarantee its failure.

The law had made provisions for early insurance company losses described in the bill as a ‘risk corridor.’ Expected to decreasingly occur as the bill’s mandatory enrollment requirements gradually built up the number of healthy insured persons, the risk corridor would eventually die off. In the interim, companies were guaranteed government reimbursement to cover such losses.

So in 2015, Senator Marco Rubio led an effort to gut the risk corridor provision. Slipped into a massive spending law late that year, their meddling cut the payments to insurance companies from $2.9 billion to around $400 million. This left insurance companies no choice but to begin withdrawing from low income/high illness states.

Now we hear Rubio, Ryan, et al crowing about how the ACA failed as if they had no hand in that failure.

It’s not that these men want to really hurt their less fortunate brothers. It’s that they worship only two gods—money and so-called conservative values.

As noted in an excellent discussion of the Republican conundrum about health care, “Republicans will not increase the role of government [in health care] for political and ideological reasons” which is why they cannot now or ever develop a plan that is better and cheaper than the ACA.

The conservative agenda is clearly stated as limited government, a healthy culture, and a strong defense. I’ll refrain from ranting about their idea of a healthy culture, code words for “White” and “Christian.”  Sticking to the topic of this post, I’ll point out that “limited government” does not include mandating health care or providing for health care in any way. Worshiping at the feet of so-called ‘free markets,’ conservatives want the sick left to die. If relatives, neighbors or churches don’t help them and they haven’t managed to make enough money to help themselves, then it’s their fault and God’s will that they suffer.

Limited government is a loosely applied term, however. If it comes to invading private homes to rout out pot smokers, conservative lawmakers are all about it. Yet if it comes to corporate polluters lying about profitable chemicals that cause birth defects and cancer, it’s hands off. This means government is limited only when it comes to policing entities that are too big for any citizen or group of citizens to fight alone and unlimited when it comes to bringing the full police powers of the state against individuals who violate conservative cultural norms.

In one tiny example of the absurdity of the health care debate currently underway is the fact that over half of Medicaid recipients are children under the age of six who have developmental disabilities. I blogged about this last week. While seeking to reduce or eliminate Medicaid that serves such children, the Republicans simultaneously are eliminating government oversight of chemical pollution from which many such disabled children arise.

If legislators had the real interests of the American people at heart, they would throw out their replacement plan and the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicare to the entire population. They would remove profiteering insurance companies from the mix. They would instill cost controls on drug companies and medical providers.

After all, if utilities are such a vital need that they deserve government price controls, surely health care is an even greater vital need.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that without insurance companies taking a healthy slice of every health care dollar, costs would go down. Or that there’s a screaming need for cost controls when pharmaceutical industry profits routinely equal the profits of banks at nearly 20%, some as high as 40%.

Drug companies are quick to cry how much they need all that money so they can develop new drugs. But reality is that despite investment in new drugs and abusive advertising campaigns, their profits exceed most other industries. With that kind of loose change, it’s no wonder that one of the heaviest contributors to political candidates are drug companies, coming in right after big banks and weapons manufacturers.

World’s largest pharmaceutical firms
Company Total revenue ($bn) R&D spend ($bn) Sales and marketing spend($bn) Profit ($bn) Profit margin (%)
Johnson & Johnson (US) 71.3 8.2 17.5 13.8 19
Novartis (Swiss) 58.8 9.9 14.6 9.2 16
Pfizer (US) 51.6 6.6 11.4 22.0 43
Hoffmann-La Roche (Swiss) 50.3 9.3 9.0 12.0 24
Sanofi (France) 44.4 6.3 9.1 8.5 11
Merck (US) 44.0 7.5 9.5 4.4 10
GSK (UK) 41.4 5.3 9.9 8.5 21
AstraZeneca (UK) 25.7 4.3 7.3 2.6 10
Eli Lilly (US) 23.1 5.5 5.7 4.7 20
AbbVie (US) 18.8 2.9 4.3 4.1 22
Source: GlobalData

In fact, if you take a look at the list of corporate donors to the 2016 campaign, you can pretty much determine the current legislative agenda: more military spending, Wall-Street friendly cabinet members, and no serious effort to provide for the health and well-being of the American people.

 

 

Medicaid and the Chemical Industry

Figure 4: Medicaid is the third largest domestic program in the federal budget.

As of 2002, the majority of Medicaid beneficiaries (54%) were children under the age of six years. Contrary to the popular myth of aging slackers, drug addicts, and welfare queens sucking at the national teat, this majority of Medicaid provides healthcare to children and adolescents with limitation of activity due to chronic health conditions. Their numbers quadrupled from two percent in 1960 to over eight percent in 2012.[1],[2]

This increase parallels the growth in manufacture and use of agricultural chemicals.

One of the fastest growing patient groups covered by Medicaid is children with developmental disabilities. Over the last 12 years, the prevalence of developmental disabilities (DDs) has increased 17.1%—that’s about 1.8 million more children with DDs in 2006–2008 compared to a decade earlier: autism increased 289.5% and ADHD increased 33.0%.

According to a recently released study, children with special health care needs suffer conditions that include

autism, Down syndrome, and other intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD); physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and muscular dystrophy; mental health needs such as depression and anxiety; and complications arising from premature birth. They may need nursing care to live safely at home with a tracheotomy or feeding tube; attendant care to develop community living skills; medical equipment and supplies; mental health counseling; and/or regular therapies to address developmental delays.[3]

One source puts the annual cost of caring for a child with severe autism at $72,000.

What is happening?

Consider the case of Eva Galindos, a twelve-year-old girl with autism. At age three, she was diagnosed by her pediatrician, but he could not answer the parents’ urgent questions about why this happened to their child. Seeking answers, the Galindos family participated in a study. At the time of Magda Galindos’ pregnancy with Eva, “the family was living in Salida, a small town in central California surrounded by fields of almonds, corn, and peaches. The Galindos could see the planted fields just down the street from their stucco house.” Magda recalled the acrid smell of chemicals sprayed on the fields, very different from the fertilizer odor.

The study revealed that during pregnancy, Magda had been exposed to chlorpyrifos.

In 2014, the first and most comprehensive look at the environmental causes of autism and developmental delay, known as the CHARGE study, found that the nearby application of agricultural pesticides greatly increases the risk of autism.[4] Women who lived less than a mile from fields where chlorpyrifos was sprayed during their second trimesters of pregnancy, as Magda did, had their chances of giving birth to an autistic child more than triple. And it was just one of dozens of recent studies that have linked even small amounts of fetal chlorpyrifos exposure to neurodevelopmental problems, including ADHD, intelligence deficits, and learning difficulties.[5]

The American use of chemicals to eradicate insects both in homes and crops dates back to lead arsenate in 1892, but as early as 900 AD, poisonous arsenic sulfides were used in China.

The search for a substitute [to lead arsenate] commenced in 1919, when it was found that its residues remain in the products despite washing their surfaces. Alternatives were found to be less effective or more toxic to plants and animals, until 1947 when DDT was found. The use of lead arsenate in the US continued until the mid-1960s. It was officially banned as an insecticide on August 1, 1988.[6]

Total global pesticide production and global pesticide imports (1940s-2000) – Tillman et al. (2002)0

DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) quickly took the place of lead arsenate, even though research as early the 1940s had shown its harmful effects. After Rachel Carson’s expose Silent Spring pointed the finger at DDT for poisoning wildlife and the environment and endangering public health, the chemical was targeted by a growing anti-chemical movement. In 1967, a group of scientists and lawyers founded the Environmental Defense Fund with the specific goal of banning DDT. Despite continuing efforts, DDT is still produced for ‘vector control’ and for agricultural purposes in India, North Korea, and possibly other locations. At least three to four thousand tons of the chemical is produced annually.

Like many chemicals, DDT persists in the environment as well as in tissue of all life forms. Its biological half-life in soil is up to thirty years. Organisms at the top of the food chain suffer greater exposure as the chemical and its major metabolites of DDE and DDD accumulate in animals and plants which are then consumed by other animals.[7] Among its effects, DDT is an endocrine disruptor which can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

Specifically, “endocrine disruptors may be associated with the development of learning disabilities, severe attention deficit disorder, cognitive and brain development problems; deformations of the body (including limbs); breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid and other cancers; sexual development problems such as feminizing of males or masculinizing effects on females, etc.”[8]

With the ban on DDT, farmers and other chemical consumers turned to chlorpyrifos.

Estimated worldwide annual sales of pesticides 1960 to 1999 in billions of dollars (Herbicides, Insecticides, Fungicides, and others) – Agrios (2005)0Despite the overwhelming evidence that chemicals lead to ever-increasing negative health effects, chemical companies are willing to spend whatever it takes to discredit the evidence in efforts to delay any meaningful regulation of those chemicals. In a lengthy article published January 14, 2017, in The Intercept, an online newsletter, author Sharon Lerner details the efforts of Dow Chemical to protect its lucrative products from EPA regulation.[9] It’s a staggering indictment not only of Dow’s strong-arm tactics but also of the willingness of legislators and government agencies to ignore their duties to American citizens.

Exposure to chemicals which are wreaking havoc on the nation’s children is suffered disproportionately by the poor. Agricultural workers live near fields where chemical sprays drift in through open windows. Inner-city poor live in housing that is routinely sprayed with pesticides despite the presence of children and pregnant women. Long-term exposure plus ingesting food laden with pesticides means that while autism rates among children across the U. S. population is one in 68, for women in poor neighborhoods or near commercial agriculture, the rate of impaired children is one in 21.

Parents such as Magda Galindos can’t afford to move away from the fields where chemicals are sprayed. She also can’t afford to buy organic food, which is often twice as expensive. Her household income and the medical needs of her daughter Eva qualify for state and federal assistance.

Which brings us back to Medicaid.

Figure 1: Type of health insurance among children with special health care needs

Despite compelling and well-documented scientific studies showing the strong link between certain chemicals and a slate of neurodevelopmental disabilities including autism, the EPA has for decades postponed any meaningful action to more strictly regulate (or ban) the culprits. In a recent publication, scientists stated:[10]

In 2006, we did a systematic review and identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers. We postulate that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered.

This is the tip of a massive iceberg. As reported in a 2016 PBS report on “Science Friday,”

There are more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use today, many of which haven’t been studied for safety by any government agency. But that’s about to change…somewhat. President Obama today signed into law the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, named after the late senator who introduced a version of the bill in 2013. This marks the first overhaul in 40 years to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the nation’s main law governing toxic chemicals.

Absurdly, the law only requires the EPA to test twenty chemicals at a time and each one has a seven-year test deadline before a five-year period during which industry is supposed to comply with any new regulation. At that rate, it will take over a century for all the current chemicals to be tested, all while about 20,000 new chemicals hit the market each year.

New EPA head Scott Pruitt, who voted for the Lautenberg bill, has stated that the law “guarantees protection of the most vulnerable by placing emphasis on the effects of exposure to chemicals on infants, children, pregnant women, workers and the elderly.”[11]

This should be a hopeful note, but even in a best-case scenario where President Trump’s EPA enacts swift meaningful restrictions on chlorpyrifos and other chemicals saturating our soil, air, and waterways, the incidence of fetal exposure and the resultant impairment of so many of our nation’s young will not abate any time soon. These chemicals wash down our rivers and linger in oceans where we harvest seafood. They soak into the walls and floors of our homes, survive in cropland that produces our fruits and vegetables, and become even more concentrated in livestock feeding on those plants.

Since developmentally disabled children form over half the nation’s Medicaid caseload at an estimated cost of about $300 billion (2015), legislators looking to reduce Medicaid expenditures should turn first to the nation’s agrochemical industries. In 2015, for example, Dow AgroSciences reported a full year profit of $962 million. In 2016, even after some losses, the company still enjoyed an $859 million profit.  Monsanto and DuPont reported similar numbers.

Why not impose a 50% tax on such profits? This would yield a modest $1.5 billion toward the Medicaid costs resulting (in part) from their products and serve as a powerful incentive to ensure such products are safe before they’re marketed.

~~~

[1] https://www.nap.edu/read/10537/chapter/4#50

[2] http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865609389/10-common-disabilities-American-children-have.html

[3] http://kff.org/medicaid/issue-brief/medicaid-and-children-with-special-health-care-needs/

[4] https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/122/10/ehp.1307044.alt.pdf

[5] https://theintercept.com/2017/01/14/dow-chemical-wants-farmers-to-keep-using-a-pesticide-linked-to-autism-and-adhd/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_hydrogen_arsenate

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endocrine_disruptor

[9] See Footnote 5 above

[10] http://thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(13)70278-3/abstract

[11] https://www.bna.com/trumps-pick-lead-n73014449061/

Talkin’ About My Generation

Last week a friend posted on his Facebook page a Boston Globe guest article by Bruce Cannon Gibney, author of a book released today, March 7. The article summarizes Mr. Gibney’s polemic entitled A Generation of Sociopaths: How The Baby Boomers Betrayed America.

Apparently failing at careers as a hedge fund manager and attorney, Mr. Gibney now claims to be an author. In choosing an inflammatory topic, perhaps he hopes to igniting interest and hence, sales.

I doubt he’ll gain either. The target of his scorn, the Boomer generation, are the primary buyers of books and there’s little chance they’ll spend money to hear his half-baked allegations.

Gibney, like my young friend who praised the article as “what he’d been waiting for,” has fallen for a half century of corporate propaganda meant to discredit Boomers.

In defense of my generation, here are a few rebuttals to his claims:

The author claims:

In 1971, Alan Shepard was playing golf on the moon. Today, America can’t put a man into orbit (or, allegedly, the Oval Office) without Russian assistance.

The truth is that Russian/American cooperation in space programs saves both nations money and furthers efforts to discover distant worlds, investigate dark matter, and watch for potentially deadly asteroids that may need to be diverted from direct impact. We are, after all, one planet facing a daunting universe. Space program advances not only include men and women living in space but also such amazing technological feats as the Hubble telescope.

The author states:

Improvidence is reflected in low levels of savings and high levels of bankruptcy. 

Assertions are free, so Gibney spends nothing but his credibility asserting that this state of affairs rests solely on some deficiency of the boomer generation and has nothing to do with old-money one-percenters and corporate profiteering over fifty years of gobbling up an increasing share of the economy.

Further, he states:

Interpersonal failures and unbridled hostility appeared in unusually high levels of divorce and crime from the 1970s to early 1990s. 

Hard to know how crime and divorce should be considered jointly, but here’s the thing about divorce. Until women gained better footing in the job market circa 1970s, divorce meant losing financial support. Women stayed with abusive husbands who, like Don Draper of “Mad Men,” caroused at their pleasure while the little woman stayed home to suck it up.

As far as rising crime rates, one only must look at the Nixon/Reagan drug war to figure out why the numbers went through the roof. Drug prohibition creates flourishing criminal markets and a marketplace that can only be policed by underworld gangs. It’s been 80+ years since alcohol prohibition, apparently too long for us to remember the lessons it taught us.

Gibney continues:

[Boomers] were the first generation to be raised permissively, the first reared on television and subject to its developmental harms, and the only living group raised in an era of seemingly effortless prosperity. 

Few of the Boomer generations escaped physical punishment by parents and teachers, so this idea of being raised ‘permissively’ is Gibney’s fantasy. We were also raised with regular schoolhouse drills to hide under our desks if nuclear war erupted. So much for the laissez-faire childhood the author imagines.

As far as ‘developmental harms’ caused by television, granted Boomers weren’t out in the fields each day hoeing cotton. But television made them more aware than any previous generation of the world around them—the plight of children starving in Africa, the devastation of the environment, and the butchery of war, a war that plucked brothers, lovers, and classmates up from whatever they were doing and dropped them into a fetid jungle with napalm and guerilla fighters. The world suddenly wasn’t what they’d been told, all those fairy tales about happy endings and the greatness of America. Watching their illusions die on television screens motivated Boomers to try to make America what the Founders had promised.

The author continues:

 In the 1970s, the older establishment had already begun bending to boomer power, though not always cravenly enough, a problem boomers resolved by becoming the establishment itself.

Patently absurd. The older generation never bent to boomer power. It bowed up as Boomers tried to stop the war, stop environmental destruction, and gain liberty and justice for minorities, disabled and women, not only beating demonstrators (and at Kent State killing  them), but more pervasively by sending them to jail. The drug war specifically targeted Boomers and provided a government tool to disenfranchise, bankrupt, and discredit an entire generation.

Gibney evidently has zero understanding how Boomers transformed from the materialism embedded in 50s upbringing to a New Age of awareness. Mind-altering drugs along with the events of the times fostered a change in consciousness. Boomers walked away from corporate jobs, fancy houses, and the latest fashion in shoes.

Nothing could have terrified the corporations more. Their entire marketplace was at risk of going bankrupt. Together with government already in bed with the military-industrial complex, corporate power brokers destroyed what they could of the Boomer generation’s credibility and co-opted the rest. By the end of the 70s, ‘hippie’ had become a dirty word.

So no, the “older establishment” did not bend. They came back with Reagan and it’s been a street fight ever since.

The author conveniently skips over the 80s when Reagan handed a death sentence to worker unions and then Geo W Bush followed on his heels, both the manifestation of corporate power and ‘older establishment” control. To claim that Clinton served the selfish Boomer agenda with disastrous results is simply making it up as you go along.

But hey, this guy has a book to sell.

Gibney tries to have it both ways as he explains that all the excesses, failures, and wrongheadedness currently facing the nation is a result of this sociopathic generation when in fact every possible side of politics and social attitudes can be found within this large population of people. To claim that despite the staggering diversity of the generation, they somehow all arrived at a more or less equal degree of selfishness and shortsightedness is clear evidence that Gibney has a theory in need of real facts.

He states, for example, that

The 1 percent is, by definition, just 1 percent, unable to dictate national policy on its own.

But that’s exactly what the one percent does with ownership of the jobs, real estate, and the wealth upon which the other 99% must depend for survival. It also owns the government, most assuredly since the SCOTUS decided that corporations had the same rights as real people.

In his desperation to bend reality to support his paper-thin thesis, Gibney states that

Reagan lowered taxes on income while raising them on capital gains (when boomers had salaries but not portfolios)

as if Reagan, hero of the aging Silent Majority, suddenly reversed his position and catered to the Boomers.

Then there’s Gibney’s outrageous claim that the increase of the national debt is due to Boomer extravagance while he ignores all the other factors that have created the debt, towering above all else the corporate exodus to third world countries for cheap labor and lack of environmental regulations.

The author states:

Finding decent growth requires stretching all the way back to the 1990s, and even so, the 1990s barely edged out 1970s’ squalor on a per capita GDP basis. Thanks to boomer policies, the new normal is 1.6 percent real growth, well below the 2.5 to 3.5 percent rates prevailing from the 1950s to the 1980s. For the young, the price will be incomes 30 percent to 50 percent lower than they could have been.

In truth, real growth has been dropping as the nation exploited the vast trove of natural resources gained when settlers killed off the native population. Within a relatively short time, the gold and silver was mined, most of the forests cut, and natural fisheries depleted. A modest growth spurt occurred with the development of technologies that produced food without armies of people hoeing crops or steel girders without men scorching their faces as they poured molten metal into molds. The downside was that with each wonderful technical advancement, people lost jobs. As more and more jobs fell to technology and cheap foreign labor overseas, more of the per capita GDP dropped.

The author’s whine is loud and long. ‘If only’ those self-indulgent shithead Boomers hadn’t been such sociopaths, incomes today for the ‘young’ would be 30 to 50% higher. I’m wondering what magical metric he used to arrive at these statistics.

Mr. Gibney’s vantage point is that of a disillusioned young man with enough anger to fuel him well into his 50s. I suggest he get out of his suit and out of the big city and wade around in the real world for a while where millions of Boomers go about their lives with dedication, caring, and enthusiasm. I could almost forgive him for this screed, considering that I know how hard it is to sell books. But I won’t. His immature ideas malign an entire generation without offering any rational solution for his litany of woes. Short of nuking the entire generation, I’m not clear on what Gibney wants to do about it. [I won’t be reading his book to find out.] At the least, his writing outlines a self-serving excuse for his failures.

One thing is certain. If it weren’t for the Boomers, he and his fellow millennials along with the rest of those younger folks looking to assign blame would live in a much more dismal, broken world.

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

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Following 2015 charges against “19 Kids and Counting” star John Duggar for molesting his sisters and the rape of a young girl at the hands of a former employee of Rep. Justin Harris who had adopted the girl then ‘rehomed’ her to the man who would rape her, the latest moral scandal in Arkansas has to do with a scheme of kickbacks in exchange for funneling state tax dollars to a tiny religious college. Earlier this week, former Sen. Jon Woods, Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III, and a business consultant friend of the two, Randell G. Shelton, were named in federal indictments.

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Former Rep. Micah Neal

Previously indicted on several counts in the same scheme, former Rep. Micah Neal entered a plea of guilty to taking kickbacks. Other indictments may follow for additional persons, one of whom is referred to as “Businessman A” and for Ecclesia College, assumed to be “Entity A.”

The federal investigation has been ongoing for a couple of years and covers a period from 2013 to 2015. Until news of the investigation leaked out in the summer of 2016, Neal had been running for county judge. He dropped out of the race, citing residency concerns as his reason. News of his indictment came later.

jon_senate

Former Senator Jon Woods

Woods announced in November 2015 he wouldn’t run for re-election, possibly due to knowledge of the investigation.

Here’s the set up. An Arkansas law allows leftover money from the General Improvement Fund to be allocated for pet projects in legislators’ home districts. If approved, grant requests disperse the money through economic development districts toward worthy nonprofits. It’s a system ripe for abuse.

Currently in session, the legislature is expected to take away this honey hole at the urging of our rather embarrassed governor, Asa Hutchinson, a former Congressman, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and more recently, head of Homeland Security.

But the cash cow is already out of the barn, at least for this highly religious group. A total of thirteen indictments against former Senator Woods alleges he committed fraud and took a bribe of $40,000 plus “an undetermined amount of cash” in exchange for helping funnel more than $350,000 to Ecclesia College, purportedly for land on which to build student housing.

But there was no need for student housing. The grant request claimed that the college needed housing due to “rapid growth.” The college with an enrollment of less than 200 mostly off-campus students already owned 200 undeveloped acres. Records show that the GIF money paid for about fifty additional acres at an inflated price. To date, no building permits have been sought to build on any of this land, so evidently the ‘urgent’ need for housing wasn’t so urgent after all.

While indictments do not constitute a conviction, chances are good that plea deals will follow. The money was there and they wanted it and they had a handy nonprofit, namely Ecclesia College, by which to obtain it. According to the indictments, as early as January 2013 these three men “devised a scheme and artifice to defraud and deprive the citizens of the honest services of a public official through bribery.”

A March 3 write-up in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reveals a tangle of people eager to get their sweaty hands on state tax dollars. Never mind that Woods and Neal, as elected officials, both swore to uphold the state’s constitution. Never mind that Paris served as president of a college presenting itself as a Christian institution. The elaborate diversions through which the money flowed portrays clear evidence these men knew they were doing something wrong.[1]

But it’s worse than that. It’s not just greed at work here. A text message from college president Paris to Woods is cited in the news article:

Good selling point to conservative legislators is that (Entity A) produces graduates that are conservative voters. All state and secular colleges produce [a] vast majority [of] liberal voters.”

Woods replied: “Agreed.”

This blatant agenda to brainwash students toward conservative views fits right in with the apparent right-wing philosophy that the ends justify the means. These men were leaders of their communities and their church. As such, the highest standard of ethical and moral behavior would be expected. Yet they apparently had no qualms about perverting the intent of GIF grants in order to enrich themselves as well as serve their ultimate goal, that of furthering the Christian agenda in taking over the nation’s political institutions.

I recently wrote that the right-wing effort to make the United States a “Christian nation” constitutes treason.  This latest incident is only a tiny glimpse of a pervasive delusion rampant in that group that whatever is done in the name of God is acceptable, even praiseworthy.  The text of Oren Paris III clearly states the intent to increase the number of conservative voters in order to bring the country closer to their ideal Christian Nation.

This type of thinking is no different from that of ISIS leaders who justify acts of terror by claiming that it pleases God. They know what Allah wants and the ends justify the means.

Aside from minor inconveniences like federal indictments, Wood, Neal, Paris et al may suffer little consequence among their peers. Shortly after the indictments hit the news, Ecclesia College board chairman Phil Brassfield posted a letter on the college’s Facebook page stating, in part:

While the allegations made against Oren [Paris] are to be taken seriously, we are confident once all the facts and the truth are made known, all will come to understand as we on the Board of Governance believe, that Oren has acted at all times with absolute integrity and always in the best interest of Ecclesia College. We are at peace in the knowledge that Oren is a godly leader, a loving husband and father, a vigilant shepherd and a faithful servant. It is in this confidence that we as a board remain loyal and steadfast with our brother in Christ.[2], [3]

Clearly, right-wing Christian Republican hypocrisy stretches from the lowest levels of government all the way to the top where–at this very moment–perjury, lies, and dissembling of every order permeate the executive and legislative branches. In the name of God. Because the ends justify the means.

~~~

[1] See also a write-up in the Arkansas Times.

[2] In the Arkansas Times article cited above, a testimonial written by Oren Paris’ wife regarding his meeting with then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz, states, in part: “At one of the meetings Oren was able to attend Senator Cruz and his wife Heidi shared how the Lord led them to run for the Presidential Office. I remember Oren sharing with me how the love of Jesus shone through Heidi as she told of her prayer to God whether she should do this for Ted (leave her job and dive into a campaign) or not. The Lord spoke to her and said, “No you should not do it for Ted. You should do it for Me, for my glory.” That meeting lasted more than 7 hours and was filled with Senator Cruz and Heidi (daughter and granddaughter of missionaries) sharing their hearts, answering questions, and joining in prayer for revival in our nation.”

[3] In unanimous agreement, the board confirmed Paris’ continuing role as college president. The letter was signed by board members including the newly elected Washington County judge, Joseph Wood. When former Rep. Micah Neal suddenly dropped out of the county judge race in the summer of 2016, for reasons later revealed to be his federal indictments, Joseph Wood stepped into the candidacy despite concerns about whether such a move was legal. His questionable activities since taking office, including breaking several regulations about appointees, remain under scrutiny. For more, check this article at the Arkansas Times.

 

Yes, Get Over It — Constructively

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Rep. Steve Womack addressing an overflowing crowd at town hall Feb 21, 2017

Yesterday I attended a town hall meeting sponsored by Rep. Steve Womack (Republican) of our 3rd Congressional District (Northwest Arkansas). The room would comfortably hold thirty people. Over 200 showed up. With the hallways and doorways and standing room thronged, half the people ended up standing outside in the parking lot for the 1.5 hour event. In light rain and a heavy temper.

Womack could have taken charge of the situation by reconvening five blocks away in the much larger community center. He chose not to do so. He could have opened the meeting by immediately taking questions, but instead he spent at least twenty minutes talking about his agenda. His primary concern was the national debt which he elaborated citing numbers and projections intended to shock and awe.

Not surprising for Col. Womack, a 30-year national guard veteran who commanded the 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry, 39th Separate Infantry Brigade in the Sinai, Egypt, between 2002 and 2009. He’s a member of Cross Church, earthly kingdom of Ronnie Floyd who has served in a leadership role of the world’s largest Southern Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States, with over 15 million members as of 2016. Womack is a poster child for the right wing.

The Arkansas 3rd district rolled to the Republican side in 1967 following continuous Democratic control since Reconstruction and has remained in Republican hands ever since. Only a couple of times have strong Democratic candidates come close (1992: 47.2% to 50.2%) to regaining the seat while generally Republicans enjoy over 70% majority on Election Day. Womack is serving his fourth term.

Despite this position of strength for Womack, the crowd wasn’t having it. In a surly mood in a room whose temperature approached one hundred degrees due to severe overcrowding, people jostled signs, interrupted, and talked over Rep. Womack in what became the norm for the entire exchange. His temper flared on occasion, telling people to shut-up and reiterating his party line position on issues ranging from the EPA to National Endowment for the Arts to Medicare. Less than a quarter of those who wanted to ask questions were actually able to do so before his ‘drop dead’ quit time of 10 a.m.

Driving home, I kept wondering what people actually expected. Did anyone think for an instant that he would agree to demands that he personally ‘do something’ about the ‘man-child Trump,’ as one speaker requested? Did anyone think that he would suddenly veer off the positions in which the political right has grown increasingly entrenched for the last fifty years?

I didn’t. I know lots of people like him. They’re my relatives and my neighbors. They’re positive they’re right. Nothing is going to change them.

But after a lifetime of advocacy on various impossible causes (women’s rights, environment, and most recently drug policy reform), I remain optimistic that in some small demilitarized zone between right and left, a productive dialogue can lead to some understanding. At the least, a grudging mutual respect.

Few in the crowd seemed to understand that philosophy. They had an ax to grind in their outrage over Donald Trump and his agenda. They wanted to shout and hurl accusations. Whatever ground might have been gained in building a tenuous link of communication died under the stomping feet of those who only wanted to protest what has come to be the current reality: Republicans control the government.

Despite a few well-considered questions that earned a thoughtful response from Rep. Womack, less than a quarter of those who kept raising hands ever had a chance to speak. Womack avoided replying to demands for increasing taxes on the so-called ‘one percent’ as he explaining how government had exceeded its mandate and was spending two-thirds of its income on ‘mandatory’ programs compared to the 1960s when mandatory only consumed one third.

Womack, along with the Republican majority, condemn food stamps and other social support programs as well as protections for waterways and the air we breathe. This isn’t a new conflict. It’s been picking up steam for five decades. Aligned on the side of the protesters are the progressives who—many of them—have worked to enact those very programs. Aligned on Womack’s side are those who see those programs as a symptom of moral decay.

Railing about the national debt is a convenient cover for such moralistic thinking. Every president since Calvin Coolidge had added to the national debt, most recently George W. Bush by 101% and Obama by 68%. The elephant in the room (literally) is the wars started by Bush after 9/11. The cost of the Iraq War tops two trillion and in Afghanistan, over four trillion with no end in sight.[1]

As we all know, financing what we want when we want it ends up with the ugly reality of paying off debt without getting anything in return. With interest. This is the staggering problem keeping Womack and other legislators awake at night, Democrats among them. But while the portion of national revenues dedicated to mandatory spending has increased, military spending now gobbles up fifty percent of discretionary spending. So while Womack et al set their sights on cutting other discretionary spending such as public broadcasting,[2] none of them mention the possibility of letting the Middle East sink or swim on its own.

Republicans seem hell bent on continuing to wage war on behalf of Israel and oil, throwing in the specter of terrorism and a nuclear Iran for good measure. The truth is, none of these ‘reasons’ hold water. The U. S. could fully withdraw from the Middle East without suffering any real threat here at home.[3] But that would outrage the special interests: military contractors, oil sheikdoms, the Israel lobby, and a hypnotized electorate who equates patriotism and war.

Unless we culturally divest from war, even a massive cut in non-military discretionary spending would do little to offset the debt, much less make a dent in the mandatory side of the scales.[4] And while Social Security and Medicare are theoretically paid for through payroll tax deductions, the increasingly longer projected life expectancy of Americans means that people far outlive the amount they’ve paid in.[5] Fewer workers paying for increasing numbers of retirees leads to the brick wall ahead.

One of the main arguments raised against Womack’s insistence on cutting programs, including ‘restructuring’ mandatory spending programs, was the repeated cry to increase taxes on the rich. He never once acknowledged the question or attempted to answer. The facts are that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the time praised by Womack when mandatory spending only constituted about a third of the national revenue, the wealthiest Americans paid a top income tax rate of 91%. Today, the top rate is 43.4%. In 2014, after deductions, the richest one-percent paid an effective federal income tax rate of 24.7%.[6]

Loopholes which allow billionaires like Trump to pay zero taxes have been skillfully placed into the tax code by cooperative legislators benefiting from generous campaign contributions and other perks. These same legislators prize their own interests above their constituents, catering to corporate profits instead of forcing lower prices on essentials like prescription drugs. This outrages Americans, causes distrust in government, and propels a demagogue like Trump into power.

Meanwhile, in the guise of addressing the debt, Republicans gleefully set about righting the perceived moral decay they’ve campaigned on since Ronald Reagan. They’re eager to cut federal spending for Planned Parenthood (further restrict abortion rights), public radio and television (stifle the progressive agenda), and especially social support programs like unemployment and food stamps (force slackers to work), but such changes promise little more than a drop in the bucket of deficits.

As in yesterday’s meeting with Womack, progressives repeatedly fail to make a strong case for their agenda or provide meaningful solutions to the nation’s fiscal distress. Angry demonstrations only delay what progressives must do to take back leadership of the political spectrum. We must show why improving conditions for the poor, the jobless, and the weakest among us is the only path to solvency, why strong environmental protection must be preserved, why women must be allowed to decide who gets born.

These arguments must be made, and in order for them to gain purchase in the near term, dialogue with elected officials like Womack is essential. Public tantrums are counterproductive. In the long term, refinement of and spirited advocacy for progressive policies will form the platform by which a progressive political party can regain control. Among us, we must find those willing to sacrifice themselves to the public arena as candidates capable of inciting voters’ imaginations with such an agenda.

Then will be the time to shout.

~~~

 

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/09/cost-wars-iraq-afghanistan/499007/

[2] https://www.nationalpriorities.org/campaigns/military-spending-united-states/

[3]  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-faux/why-are-we-in-the-middle_b_7301370.html

[4] https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/

[5] https://www.thebalance.com/current-federal-mandatory-spending-3305772

[6] http://americansfortaxfairness.org/tax-fairness-briefing-booklet/fact-sheet-taxing-wealthy-americans/