Saturday, July 21, 2012

Summer Weight Gain for Children

Ran across this article in our regional paper this morning: "Students get dumber and fatter during the summer."

While we probably can blame the decline in academic performance to being out of school, the increase in weight would probably occur in the summer regardless of whether school was in session or not.  Unlike the summers of my childhood in the 1950's, current summers are hotter (yes, climate change), and unlike the homes of my 50's childhood, most people's homes are cooler via the miracle of air conditioning, making outdoor play unappealing.  Unless you have a pool, the attractions of the sedentary indoor life are greater than those of the outdoors in today's summers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Are We Heading for a New Minimum?

The Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis provide nearly real time (about a 24 hour delay) data on the extent of ice at the poles. After a winter of nearly "normal" (close to the 20 year mean of 1979-2000) ice extent, the spring melt began to pick up speed in May and early June, and the ice extent has already dropped well below the previous record minimum extent of 2007.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Modest Proposal for Arizona

Arizona House Bill 2625 will allow employers to reject insurance coverage for contraceptives for their employees if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 Monday to endorse SB 2625 which would allow Arizona employers the right to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives based on religious objections. Arizona House Bill 2625, authored by Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, would permit employers to ask their employees for proof of medical prescription if they seek contraceptives for non-reproductive purposes, such as hormone control or acne treatment.
“I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the Soviet Union,” Lesko said. “So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.”
I propose an amendment for Arizona’s SB 2625. I am not aware of any Christian religion that officially states that men can have sex outside of marriage and/or for non-reproductive purposes while women may not. [There are many religions that not only allow but encourage non-reproductive (marital) sex by both men and women]. In practice there may indeed be such a double standard – but that standard is not found in actual official Christian religious doctrines. Indeed, the Old Testament reference usually used to justify the anti-birth control position refers only to men and their “seed,” and not to women at all.

Therefore to more truly meet religious objections to non-reproductive sex both outside and inside marriage, I propose the following: Any employer who wishes to deny medical coverage to any woman engaging in non-reproductive sex on religious grounds, must also deny medical coverage to any man engaging in non-reproductive sex.

In order to qualify for health insurance coverage of Viagra or other anti-impotency drugs, a man must 1) be married, 2) to a woman who is medically certified to still able to bear children (has not passed menopause, not had a tubal ligation, a hysterectomy, and does not have any medical conditions that cause infertility), and 3) who does not use contraception; additionally, 4) the man must have medical certification that he does in fact suffer from impotence due to physical causes that are treatable by anti-impotency drugs such as Viagra.

No employer is required to deny men health insurance coverage for anti-impotence drugs, UNLESS they deny women health insurance coverage for birth control on religious grounds.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Zombie America - Installment 3

"Where's the work that'll
set my hands, my soul free,
Where's the spirit that'll
reign over me.
Where's the promise from
sea to shining sea,
Where's the promise from
sea to shining sea."
by Bruce Springsteen
"We Take Care of Our Own"
Wrecking Ball 2012.

What is "Zombie America"? It's an America that has lost its spirit, its promise. It's a nation that is a hollow shell of itself, walking around going through the motions, but the spirit has flown. Zombie America is a place that no longer dreams, that has drawn in upon itself, and is retreating into the past as fast as it can.

In the first installment in this series, I wrote about the derelict and demolished towns and urban landscapes of America and Europe. That destruction is powerfully evoked in Bruce Springsteen's "Death to My Home Town" on Wrecking Ball (2012). A destruction not wrought by cannon balls, or bombs, but silently and stealthy by "robber barons" and "greedy thieves."

The second installment spoke of the unpaving of the roads, the retreat of water and sewer systems.

Today I speak of another retreat, the retreat from commitment to universal phone service. Today, in Frankfort, Kentucky, the Senate Committee on on Economic Development, Tourism and Labor approved Senate Bill 12, a bill drafted by AT&T, that if passed by the full legislature would further diminish state regulation of the telephone companies and allow them to end basic phone service in less profitable parts of its service areas.  AT&T also has been pushing similar measures in other state capitals this year. [Read more here:]

From the 1890's to the 1960's, the push in America has been to extend basic phone service to more and more people. To that end both federal, state and local governments have provided tax breaks, grants, and subsidies to telephone companies to make sure that the poor and elderly could have the basic life-line of a phone in their homes. Kentucky's SB12 is the smoking gun of our retreat from basic services, and our retreat into the past. Should SB12 pass the Kentucky Senate and House, it represents the wholesale abandonment of the communicate needs of poor and rural (poor or affluent) people.
In January of 2011, during the period of time (nearly 2 weeks because of incompetence by AT&T) when my AT&T land line service was disconnected from my old house, but not yet connected to my new house, we were dependent upon alternative voice communication options. Cell phone communication would not work in either of our houses (old or new).  The only spot I could pick up a signal was in the middle of the road  by our house. So I stood outside in 15 degree weather in two feet of snow, making cell phone call after cell phone call. Luckily due to the 2 feet of snow, I didn't have to worry about some one running me down in the middle of the road. On more than one occasion, during long complicated calls, where I'd been shunted from one department to another my cell phone battery would go dead.  I'd have to stop, go back in the house, and warm up while my cell phone completely recharged.  Except for the one day that we also had a power outage (due to that 2 feet of snow), and then all I could do was sit in the snow bank and cry over my dead cell phone.

The thought that this might be our future here in the Kentucky mountains is overwhelmingly depressing. And it makes me wonder...The electric utility company constantly chafes at the expense of maintaining electric lines in the mountains, chafes at the high costs of restoring power after storms bring down trees and electric lines. How long before they too decide that they no longer want to be obligated to provide power to widely scattered rural residents? How long before we stop being a Zombie nation and simply become a dead one?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Zombie America - installment 2

(Second in a series)

America is in decline. The signs are all around us.  These are the words with which I began this series, but I was wrong - it isn't just America, its the entire advanced industrialized world.

Advanced capitalist industrial societies are all zombies - we all died some time ago, we just didn't notice we'd become the walking dead.

The first indicator of this decline that I talked about in the first installment is the desertion of communities, first small towns, and now urban neighborhoods and cities.  All my examples were from the United States, because until today, I was unaware that the exact same trend is occurring in Europe.

Yesterday, I began reading a fascinating, almost lyrically written, work of non-fiction The Coming Population Crash And Our Planet's Surprising Future by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press 2010). There on page 87, at the beginning of chapter 10, were these words:
"Even at eight p.m. on a sunny summer's evening, the roads were empty in Chemnitz [Germany], an industrial center known for forty years as Karl-Marx-Stadt. The tiny summer houses on suburban allotments were deserted. I have seen the derelict, rust belt landscapes of former industrial towns before--not least in England, on trains from Sheffield to Doncaster or Birmingham to Wolverhampton.But this world seemed drained of people. In Bavaria, I had asked if anyone ever went to Dresden or beyond. Most shuddered at the idea. I could have been asking about Chernobyl. Of course there were people about, but far fewer than there once were."
Pearce goes on to give details of the abandonment of the industries, towns and cities of the eastern portions of Germany. In the eastern town of Hoyerswerda the main municipal activity is tearing down buildings and "giving street after street "back to nature;" a description that readily fits the conditions of Detroit in the U.S. as well.

The film below examines the dismantling of Detroit:

The second indicator that America is a zombie society, is the dismantling of basic public amenities such as roads, water systems, sewer systems that were once assumed to be part of modern community life. 

I live in one of the few areas of America that never achieved those things.  In the coal fields of eastern Kentucky where I live, municipal water systems have never reached more than 30 percent of the residents of this region. Municipal sewage service reaches only about 20 percent. The last significant expansion of water and sewer services in my county was 10 years ago (when my neighborhood got "city" water). Sewer was suppose to follow that within a few years, but never did. As I read reports about the retrenchment of such services in more urban communities, I begin to realize that sewer probably never is coming to my neighborhood.

Paved roads are being dismantled in America. Across the nation, smaller municipalities are finding that they can no longer afford the costs for the petroleum based components of paved roads.

In a Wall Street Journal article, "Roads to Ruin: Towns Rip Up the Pavement: Asphalt Is Replaced By Cheaper Gravel; 'Back to Stone Age'" reporter By Lauren Etter describes the process in widening phenomenon:
"Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

The heavy machines at work in Jamestown, N.D., are grinding the asphalt off road beds, grading the bed and packing the material back down to create a new road surface.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as "poor man's pavement." Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel."
Roads aren't the only modern amenity to take a hit in recent years. In Jefferson County, Alabama malfeasance, fraud, construction problems, rampant political corruption and a series of debt and derivative deals that went sour have resulted in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Soaring costs have meant soaring rates for water and sewer, that the poor of Jefferson County cannot pay. The poor of Jefferson County have found themselves cut off from municipal water and make due with bottled water for drinking and bathing, and setting up portable toilets in their yards in place of sewer service. That the poor are doing with less is nothing new in America. The most fascinating element of the story of Jefferson County, is that the middle class and affluent in Jefferson Counties suburban communities are responding to the high rates for water and sewer by installing individual septic systems. ("Third world in the U.S." BBC World, 14 December 2011

When affluent suburban communities start moving backwards, from municipal sewage service to private septic systems (and all the environmental problems those pose), something is very, very wrong in America. Something vital has died.

This morning I read a comment following an Internet news article by some anonymous reader of libertarian persuasion, who argued that there would be no loss of services like police, fire, and rescue workers, when (not if) libertarians were successful in cutting federal taxes and the size of federal government. This clueless commenter suggested that people would willingly start paying higher local governments taxes to provide all those services. As someone who has made a life study of community sociology, I know that tax austerity has its roots in local governments, and that the pressures for tax cuts, and the service cuts those tax losses make necessary are far more acute at the community and county level than at the federal level.

When towns are tearing up roads and cutting off water and sewer lines due to low tax mentality, how would communities ever compensate for the loss of federal funds for necessary services (like police, fire, rescue)?

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Wealth Creators

I’ve heard a lot of politicians talk about tax cuts for the “job creators” in recent months, but what are we doing for the “wealth creators”? The only way to create wealth is through work, digging things, cutting things, building things, assembling things, cooking things, selling things, and providing services that people want.

Wealth isn’t created by the wealthy, they only gather it up and move it around; wealth is created by the workers – the coal miners, the plumbers, the assembly line workers, the burger flippers, the house cleaners, the nurses, the road pavers, the truck drivers, the waitresses, and computer programmers.

We need to start talking about what we are going to do for the “wealth creators” in this country.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Zombie America - installment 1

(First in a series)

I was awake most of the night last night (New Years Eve/New Years Morning) thinking about things over which I have no control.  The downward spiral of obsessive thought began with something very personal - my mother's mental decline into dementia - but I was quickly distracted into much more far reaching national, international, even species (human species) issues over which I have no control.

America is in decline. The signs are all around us.  I started thinking about those signs in the wee hours last night (and will discuss some of them in a few moments). For decades I have been waiting for the "beginning of the end," the moment when it all begins to unravel, the day that the "shit-hits-the-fan."  [I'm currently reading a right-wing paranoid post-apocalyptic sci-fi mystery that does a good job of imagining the consequences but not the causes of the day "The Shit Hits the Fan."] Last night, it came to me that that day, that moment came and went a long time ago. We're on the downward slide, not waiting to go over the crest.

We probably never will be able to fix a firm date on the beginning of the end of United States as a developed first world country. The causes are far too complex and are inevitable results of the multiplicity of contradictions buried within industrial capitalism. If you're the kind of person that wants to understand the whys and look for the beginnings, there are plenty of good books you can read, such as:
  • Grant McConnell's Private Power and American Democracy (Vintage Books 1966)
  • James O'Connor's The Corporations and the State: Essays in Theory of Capitalism and Imperialism (Harper and Row 1974) and The Fiscal Crisis of the State (St. Martins Press 1973). [The latter book goes to show that social theorists on the left understood about the dangers of deficit spending decades before the first Tea Partier took up the chant].
  • Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Avon Books 1977)
  • Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison's The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (Basic Books 1982)
  • Donella Randers, Jorgen Meadows, and Dennis Randers' Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (Chelsea Green Publishing 2004) [original Limits to Growth was 1971]

Most of these books have more recent editions, but I refer you to the originals so that you can see that causes of Americas decline was thoroughly analyzed and well understood thirty or more years ago; some people did bother to listen, they just lacked the numbers, the money or the political power to do anything about it.
What are these signs of decline in to third world status that I'm talking about? This isn't an exhaustive catalog, just a few telling indicators.
The first sign is the abandonment, boarding up and eventual leveling of American towns and urban and suburban neighborhoods.
It began in the rural areas.  The long term demographic transition of industrialization, that began in the 1880's in the United States, involves the shift in population from rural areas, small towns and villages In the 1950's the declining population of rural communities is viewed as progress. "How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?" asks a popular song of the 20th century, speaking of soldiers returning from World War I and World War II. Mechanization and science take over farming, fewer farm workers are needed, and industrial growth in the nations cities and suburbs beckon young people from farm to city. American government farm policy of the 1950's was to actively wring the people out of agriculture.
There was a brief exurban surge in the late 1960's and early 1970's, of "back to the land" folks, former hippies, disenchanted urbanites and the first trickle of elderly retirees taking advantage of improved social security benefits to return to their childhood home towns. I helped document this five or six year demographic reversal for sociologist and demographer Thomas Ford at the University of Kentucky in 1976.  But it was short lived and the larger population shift away from rural areas re-emerged in the late 1970's.
It's was then that we begin to realize that there's something wrong, and that people who wanted to be farmers and small town dwellers were being forced off their land and out of their communities.   By the early 1980's farmers started to organize nationally and regionally, and popular culture got on board with institutions like Farm Aid (first concert in 1985), to assist farmers and farming communities facing crushing debt from mechanization.
But rural farming communities were not the only ones hemorrhaging population, the mechanization of coal mining and timbering both, helped depopulate non-farming rural areas as well.
Today its become so common place that we've stopped noticing it, stopped being aware that far from stopping, it is getting worse than ever. You drive through small rural towns through out this nation and what you see are empty store fronts, boarded up windows, and empty lots where buildings have been torn down. Around those empty down towns, there are empty houses, in various stages of decay and demolition.
But it didn't stop in the small towns. The industrial cities that rural people flocked to from 1880 to 1970, are now experiencing abandonment, decay and desolation. We noticed it first in the inner city slums of east coast cities in the 1960's. Factories moved out, property values skyrocketed, middle class families moved out, and slum landlords turned once prime housing into substandard apartments for poor people who paid exorbitant rates for tiny pockets of ill-maintained space. Then along came urban renewal and gentrification in the 1960's and the 1970's. Convention centers and upscale shops got built, upper-middle class urban professionals renovated 100 year old row houses in "transitional" neighborhoods, and built rental apartments in their basements. Only the deterioration of the inner cities continued around the convention centers, and not all urban neighborhoods made the "transition".
In some cities whole neighborhoods became ghost towns, boarded over, condemned and in some cases razed. While portions of most of the large industrial cities of the east coast, and upper mid-west have been lost, there are some cities, like Detroit that are more striking than most

Photo of Detroit skyline copyright by Z. Fein Photography

Only about half the population lives within Detroit city limits compared to the city's height in the 1960's. Gone are the automotive jobs, and so are the people, leaving behind empty skyscrapers, office buildings, schools, police stations, and thousands of empty homes, and empty lots where homes once stood.
We know these things, we see the pictures of the deteriorating urban landscape in our movies and television shows, as the back drop to gritty stories of crime and drug wars. We forget that those are not movie sets, but are real places that are no longer habitable neighborhoods and communities.
The second indicator of decline will be discussed in the next installment.