Monday, August 27, 2012

Mourning in America: Working People a Necessary Evil

It’s beginning to dawn on Americans that according to the Republican world-view, ordinary working Americans are a necessary evil, like exercise and broccoli.  They are unpleasant but obligatory.  Billionaires need average lower and middle class working people for two reasons, to: 1. buy stuff, and 2. do work they can’t have machines perform or outsource.  If they had their way, they would live within their walled enclaves, flying from their retreats in the mountains, to their private island home in the Bahamas, or to their chalet in Switzerland or on the French Riviera, where they could hob-nob with other millionaires and billionaires and never be forced to come into direct contact with people who actually do work with their hands. 

The only exceptions would be their private physicians on retainer, cooks, house keeping staff, drivers and pilots for their Lear Jets, and nannies.  Needless to stay, these employees would be required to wash regularly, avert their gaze in their employers’ presence, and keep their distance. 

Here comes the rub.  Some of the brighter billionaires are starting to figure out there aren’t enough people to buy their garbage or worthless “services.”  Ordinary people from Atlanta and Minneapolis, to Athens and Lisbon, can’t afford to continue buying their stuff.  Their corporations are desperately trying to convince us we need another smart phone, Flat Screen television or Ram Pickup Truck.  But not enough people can afford them.  That is actually the main reason the world economy is on the brink.  The economic crisis has little directly to do with deficits. The deficits have a cause, and that is that countries can no longer afford the most basic services expected of any civilized society.  Advanced democracies are gradually becoming failed states.   The main problem is lack of reasonable employment, wages and benefits for 90+% of the people. While the rich have gotten staggeringly richer, the average citizen has had no wage increases for nearly 20 years. 

Without sources of reasonable income, ordinary people have insufficient money to survive, and if they have little money they can’t buy stuff, and if we can’t buy stuff the billionaires can’t keep getting richer and richer.   Wow, that’s a real problem… for rich people!  And for governments, if ordinary people aren’t earning enough money they pay less and less in taxes, which provides decreasing money to support the most basic governmental services. Ergo, we’re all on our way down the crapper except the 1%... at least for now.

So maybe the billionaires’ next step will be to merge their largest corporations with the US government so they can begin directly collecting taxes from the rest of America instead of depending exclusively on income from purchased goods and services. That isn’t as far fetched as it may sound if they control the Supreme Court, the Congress and a Republican is elected president.  Oh, it wouldn’t happen over night, but over four years, that’s another matter.  That way Billionaires can still get away without paying living wages or providing benefits to workers, and continue having machines do nearly everything or shipping jobs to China, India, Pakistan and eventually to the Congo, Liberia and Zimbawe.   The goal, in due course, is to level the standard of living across the globe so in all countries workers wages and government services are roughly equal, very, very low and barer than bare bones services.  

So we can envision a Koch Department of Energy, and an ATT Federal Communication Commission, and a Blackwater National Security Agency.   Remember in “Brave New World” the citizens were required to recite, “Our Ford who art in heaven…” as they prayed to the T, as in Model T Ford.  Today, of course, the religious symbol would be a K. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

American Sheep & Republican Electoral Travesty of 2012

Our ancestors fought and died so they would have the right to electoral self government, from the nation’s earliest days during the Revolutionary War.  Our fathers, uncles, brothers and sisters died in World War 2, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan, not for vacuous principles, but for the very practical rights we enjoy, the most important of which is the right to democratically choose our leaders.  Within the past few years hundreds of thousands of people in Libya, Egypt and Syria have fought and died for the same rights.  Yet here in America for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, which Republican politicians insist on describing the country as the bastion of “Exceptionalism,” one in four African Americans may very well be prevented from voting and one in 10 Americans across the board may not be able to vote for the president, senators or congressmen.

 The only thing exceptional about that is how utterly anti-democratic it is.  The vast majority of voters being disenfranchised belong to groups which disproportionally vote Democratic. What is most puzzling is that the vast majority of Americans stand by twiddling their thumbs doing nothing about this travesty, while the clock ticks down to the November election. In most other countries, people would be protesting in the streets by the thousands, demanding a stop to this massive disenfranchisement.

 Republican legislators governors in 8 states have passed laws which make it nearly impossible for many minority, elderly and college age citizens to vote in the forthcoming election.  Perhaps some are not aware of the reasons these voter suppression laws are a serious problem.  On the surface, requiring photo voter identification may seem reasonable.   But it turns out, that if such a law were passed, and photo voter IDs were to be a requirement consistent with our voting rights, the laws passed would have to be dramatically changed to address their systematic discrimination against some voters.  As they are, they are unconstitutional.

1.     According to a national study by the Brennan Center at NYU Law School, a photo identification requirement excludes 11% of all Americans, 25% of African Americans, 18% of over 65 voters and 18% of 18-24 year olds.

2.     You may ask “What’s the big deal with getting a photo ID?”  There are numerous problems making it nearly impossible to vote.

a.     In some states a birth certificate is required to obtain a photo ID that is a substantial expense for poor people.   It costs $21.50 for a copy in Ohio, for example. Poor and elderly people often cannot afford to pay for a birth certificate.  Basically, that makes voters pay a poll tax, which is prohibited.  Some rural elderly people were born at home and no birth certificates exist. Other citizens were born in another country many years ago and have no accepted birth certificate.  Many poor and elderly people have no means of transportation to the required state office, often in another town, or in another part of a large city, in order to reach the office to buy a certificate.  Many people work on jobs where they lose wages if they take off work to obtain a birth certificate and lose wages again to stand in very long lines to vote.  They often can't afford that.  If this were to be a requirement it should be paid for by the government.

b.     In some states other citizenship documents are required to get a photo ID.  13 million American have no practical access to citizenship documents, and 39% of people with lower incomes have no documents.  It costs $55 to obtain a US passport card the first time, which is prohibitive for poor Americans and again, amounts to a poll tax.

c.     College students may be required to register to vote in their home state though they live in a different state while attending college, which would require they fly home to register, and fly home again to vote.  Some states, like Pennsylvania, have outlawed mail registration. Anyone who has moved in the past year may be required to re-register, which is a special problem to students. Anyone who has changed their name, such as recently married women, may be unable to vote.  They tend to be younger people.  For 18% who have photo IDs, their address is not current.

3.  Access to polls has been reduced.  Voting hours have been reduced in most voter suppression states, so there is very little time before or after work to vote, which requires people paid by the hour to lose wages in order to stand in long lines to vote, which is a serious financial hardship for many poor White, Hispanic and Black voters.  Many African American people have historically voted the Sunday before the election on Tuesday, so Republican have blocked voting on that Sunday in some states. In some states, there are fewer voting machines per precinct in poorer areas than in wealthier white precincts, guaranteeing long lines.  If it rains electionday, many poor voters may have to wait in the rain for hours to vote while voters in affluent precincts will be accommodated more comfortably.  During the 2008 election some voters stood in line in the rain 11 hours to vote.

This election promises to be the most corrupt in the nation's history.  The lack of public response, the near silence from the citizenry is stunning.  We are standing by doing nothing, while the voting rights of from 1 in 4, to 1 in 10 are in jeopardy.  Where is the outrage?  It has been said, “You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a whole flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men….let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost —- he becomes a unit in unreason.*” Have we become an utterly passive obedient populace, docile and indifferent sheep, accepting the unacceptably unconstitutional laws imposed upon us, devoid of backbone? 

[* Sir Henry Maximillian Beerbohm (1911)]

Weiser WR & Norden, L. (2012) Voting law changes 2012. Brennan Center for Justices, New York University Law School.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Casino: Where There's Smoke There's Smoke

The Shooting Star Casino and hotel is located in Mahomen, MN located 36 miles north of Detroit Lakes, MN (population 8600), the nearest significant town, 65 miles from the Fargo-Morehead area on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, 80 miles from St.Cloud, MN, 200 miles from Winnipeg and 240 miles from Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN.  In other words, the Shooting Star Casino is on the White Earth Indian Reservation a long way from any population center, in an isolated area of the state.

We arrived about 3pm on a Monday afternoon for a conference being held in an adjacent conference building and staying in a hotel attached to the casino. Lots of conferences are held in casinos because they offer cheap sleeping room rates and meeting rooms at low or in some cases, no charges as long as a minimum number of sleeping rooms are booked. 

The parking lot in front of the hotel and casino was almost full when we arrived. We wonder where in the world all these people come from, arriving at the White Earth Indian Reservation in the middle of an unpopulated forested and farming area of Northwest Minnesota? Astounding!  Most of the license plates are from Minnesota, but some are from North and South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Manitoba.  A large charter bus was parked near the entrance of the hotel when we arrived which had recently unloaded its passengers.

The town of Mahomen, with a population of 1,200 and is about 6 by 12 blocks on Minnesota highway 59.  It has few shops and nearly no entertainment other than the gambling casino. There is a bar in town for every 5 by 5 block area. Mahomen has a small coffee shop called the Red Apple, the Wild Rice Lounge, a Subway restaurant, Supervalue grocery store, and the Lucky 7 liquor store, a hardware store, a bank, the Maytag Laundromat, the Lean To bar, a small community hospital and clinic and a small community college.  Mahomen, MN is a difficult place to live six months out of the year, with average low temperature in January of -8 degrees F and more than one inch of snow falls on half of the days in January.  Winter low temperatures of -18 to -24 are not uncommon.  The reservation is sparsely populated (8.4 people per square mile) and includes some farms and scattered individual homes. That compares with 571 people per square mile in Hennepin County where Minneapolis is located). Many people who work at the casino live in Detroit lakes or nearby towns from 35-50 miles away.

There is not much to do in Mahomen but gamble or drink, though in good weather fishing and hunting is possible.  This isn’t Las Vegas with swanky restuarants and glittery non-stop shows with dancers and bands.  The casino offers entertainment Friday or Saturday evening, such as Bill Engvall (a country-western comedian), Creedance Clearwater Revival or Williams & Ree (who describe themselves as “The Indian and the White Guy", a singing comedy team).  Show tickets are from $20 to $60 so obviously few local people are able to attend.

After checking into our hotel room, we wandered around to check out the place.  The casino is connected by a short hallway to another building where the conference we were attending was being held.  As soon as we reached the hallway leading to the casino we are met by the strong smell of cigarette smoke.  The casino has colorful neon lights on nearly every vertical surface.  By mid-afternoon, around half of the gambling machines were occupied with people intently staring at the displays and punching buttons as the symbols “spun,” emulating old-fashioned slot machines making synthesized whirring sounds and occasional electronic “dings.”  The machines are set up shoulder to shoulder across several large rooms the size of a small auditorium in a typical conference center. As far as I could tell, most people gambling are Anglos.  

 Gamblers appear to be mostly older people, 40 years old and older.  Most people appear to be heavy smokers, alternately inhaling their cigarettes or flicking ashes in their ashtrays next to each machine, and punching the keys on the gambling machines.  The air is very dense with cigarette smoke. For a non-smoker the smoke level is very noxious.  The three restaurants in the complex are only accessible by walking through the casino.  One offers “fine dining,” the second informal table service and the third a buffet.  There is no effort to separate the smoking area of the casino from the restaurants.  A study by an independent group in California reported that smoke-filled Indian casinos have up to 50 times more cancer causing particles in the air than highways and city streets clogged with diesel trucks in rush hour traffic. Indian Casinos are exempt from state and federal laws regarding policies regulating smoking in public places, because they are a sovereign nation and regulate their own health and environmental policies.  Among Native American plains tribes, about 50% of adults are smokers who have a very high rate of health problems associated with smoking.

Almost no talking occurs among casino patrons.  It seems eerie to see a couple hundred people seated nearly shoulder-to-shoulder staring at screens, with no one interacting.  On one side of the casino is a long curved bar down a few steps below the level of the gambling machines.  Though it’s still early in the day, a half dozen people are sipping their beers or drinks and watching the gamblers.  Others are seated at nearby tables chatting, drinking and smoking. Most amazingly, some people were already gambling by 8am when we came down for breakfast the next morning,   and by 6 or 7pm all of the machines are occupied, with their lights blinking  and machines producing pinball-like sounds beeping and ringing sounds. 

For some reason this activity is called gaming, I suppose for the same reasons AK-47s assault rifles are euphemistically called fire-arms instead of guns or weapons.  Gaming used to refer to playing games, like rummy or Monopoly or croquet.  Now “gaming” is only used to refer to gambling, and most commonly gambling in Indian casinos. 

As we left the casino another long distance chartered bus was unloading its passengers in front of the hotel entrance, mostly middle aged and older people with white hair, some with canes with difficulty walking being helped down the steps, including a couple with oxygen tubes inserted in their nostrils.  They were all heading for the casino. Several police and uniformed security officers are visible in the lobby and walking through the casino.  A security guard walks the hotel hallways with a drug dog sniffing at guest room doors, apparently smelling for marihuana or other volatile drugs.   Who would come all the way to this incredibly isolated place to use drugs?  I guess some people must, at least one of the officers said some people do.

Many of the people employed by the casino, from the front desk, to buffet dining room,  house cleaning staff and maintenance people, appear to be Native American.  This is the largest employer in this region, which is one of the poorest counties in the state.  No one here seems to know what portion of the gambling proceeds are returned to the White Earth Reservation for health, education and other human services, though local people seem to believe it is most of the net profits. There is little evidence of such facilities in Mahomen other than the Community College, though the village of White Earth some miles away has a child development center supported by gambling money which provides services for young children. There is a history of scandals in some Indian casinos, in which the tribal leadership had skimmed off a substantial percentage of the proceeds for their own use.

Because Indian casinos, which exist in 28 states in the US, are on the property of sovereign nations, as a visitor you lose your rights as a US citizen once on the reservation property.  If you have any grievance against the casino (e.g. think you were cheated) or if your property is stolen from your room or you slip and fall on slippery floor and break a leg, you have no recourse through US law enforcement or courts; You must seek redress through the tribal criminal justice or court system, which may not be very helpful.

The word Mahomen is Ojibwe for Wild Rice, which continues to be another source of income in the area. When one considers the understandable pride of the Objibwe Anishinaabe community in their traditions and values (honesty, humility, truth, wisdom, love, respect and bravery), and their ties to the land, it is difficult to reconcile those traditions with gambling as the primary income source.   Some people sardonically believe gambling casinos are Native American retribution for the abuses and crimes of White people against their ancestors. Perhaps so, but it is a high price to pay. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012



For regular readers of my Oughtism blog, in the future it will be divided into two separate blogs, one mainly for parents, teachers and other practitioners interested specifically in autism OUGHTISM and the other will discuss a wider range of issues at greater length as in my previous blog.  For those with greater tolerance for windy commentaries OUGHTISMTOO is probably for you.

I’ve been thinking about Dog Days of summer that is upon us, and wonder whether snakes really go blind during Dog Days like in the legend. Or maybe it’s just a myth based on the fact that when snakes shed their skin they develop a white layer over their eyes so people assume they can’t see (WRONG, DON”T PUT YOUR HAND DOWN BY A SNAKE TO TEST THEIR VISION).  I guess things aren’t always what they appear, like those magical mystery cures for autism that try to pull the wool over parents’ eyes.

Parents of kids with autism and the general public have become wary about science in general and medical treatments specifically.  Problems with environmental pollution and toxins and potentially harmful additives justifiably alarm the public, which unfortunately makes no distinction between companies seeking to enrich themselves selling such material and the vast majority of scientists who have repeatedly warned the public about their dangers.  As far as John or Mary Q. Public is concerned, it’s all “science.”

Some people are very willing to believe physicians are in cahoots with drug companies to take advantage of them, which feeds into their suspicion of vaccines.  Make no mistake, some doctors have behaved unethically in promoting other drug treatments, but parents should attempt to be more rational about this.  Is it really likely nearly all responsible physicians throughout the entire developed world would organize themselves to protect unethical drug companies at the expense of young children needing protection against communicable diseases?   Is it really likely that the medical professions in all of the developed countries would conspire to harm young children? Not rational. That belongs in the same category with alien abductions, the Loch Ness Monster and channelling dead relatives. Makes no sense.

The public generally has no way to distinguish false claims based on no convincing evidence, and treatments or diagnostic methods that have emerged from carefully conducted research.  In general, the news media report whatever appears dramatic, like a new quick and inexpensive brain or blood test for autism (which doesn’t actually exist) or a new “brain” treatment claimed to reverse autism symptoms  (but that actually doesn’t).  The typical TV, internet or print media reports typically provide no caveats whatsoever about the adequacy of evidence for the reported claim.  Sometimes people with dubious credentials publish poorly conducted studies in obscure magazines of questionable scientific legitimacy, in an attempt to create an illusion of credibility. As far as the general reader or TV viewer is concerned, they are all “scientific” and sound the same.  They are not the same. Not at all.  Caveat emptor.  The internet is a cesspool of this stuff.

I strongly encourage parents and practitioners to check a couple of websites about any extravagant sounding autism diagnostic or treatment claims before getting involved:

Association for Science in Autism Treatment

Autism Speaks  Autism Speaks is generally a reliable source, though at times have endorsed treatments with inadequate evidence of effectiveness.  They have never endorsed harmful or risky treatments.

National Institutes of Health

QuackWatch This website is generally on target in alerting the public to scams, but is sometimes intemperate in their characterizations of people they view to be charlatans.