Hate your job? Watch the dumpster divers…

July 26, 2009

Hate your job? Don’t like the working conditions and think you are not paid enough?

Watch what I watched a few minutes ago and you might change your mind.

These days, I have read, it has become a status symbol just to have a job – any job.

I was getting something out of my car in the apartment complex where I now live (we had to downsize from a house to an apartment – we like it though). A young couple was dumpster diving, gathering all the recyclables they could in plastic bags. The guy said hi and told me “it’s a rough way to make a living”. While I was out for a morning walk a few days ago I had seen an older man and a younger man doing the same thing, dumspter diving, that is.

You could say, oh well, people make their own life choices. But really, especially in this economy, it is only by the grace of God, yes and maybe some decisions you made along the way, and luck that you are where you are now.

I truly think that as a nation (a world?) we are in another Great Depression. It may not be as bad as the last one or, in fact, it may be worse. But a lot of people whose lives have not been terribly affected yet, and especially that insulated class we call our leaders, don’t realize the misery much of society is going through.

On a happier note and related to all of this, I am back at work again truck driving. Unfortunately I am not at my last job – I had to go back to a previous job and am making half or even less than half as much as I made in my last job. But I’m not complaining. In fact, I am hopeful that I can keep working, and that will depend on two things: the economy, and my health.

For my regular readers, I had blogged the other day that I would be off the web for awhile because I was on the road. I’m back at home for a day and a half, but it’s back on the road tomorrow.

The optimists (the Republicans) say that if there is15 percent unemployment that it is not bad because that means 85 percent are working. Well without going into all of it, I doubt whether the statistics accurately reflect the real situation – they are at best an indicator. And the indication is that society is in turmoil.

I noticed a lot of businesses along the road boarded up. I was going to stop at a café I used to stop at out on Highway 97 in eastern Oregon, but it was no longer in business.

Stay with me here – I’m not skipping to another subject: I just read a news story that said that Iraq war veterans now in Afghanistan are finding the enemy there fiercer.

It’s an all-volunteer force now – kind of like a mercenary force, and I’m sure they all feel happy to at least have employment. And they seem to be quite brave.

But maybe our leaders need to rethink this whole thing. We’ve already leveraged or indebted ourselves to the tune of a trillion dollars or more to fight in Iraq, which we did not have to do, and now to fight in Afghanistan where our goal is illusive. And Afghanistan has been resistant to invaders through the centuries. Maybe in some broad geopolitical sense there is a rationale for fighting there. But in the real world of economics I am afraid it is going to bankrupt us.

If my job and I hold out I won’t have as much time to blog and pontificate or bloviate (maybe), but at least I will be part of the world again, and I do plan to continue this blog and may blog quite often when I can upgrade and get more mobile with it.


Planning a road trip…

July 23, 2009

I might not be posting a blog for some days because I plan to be out on the road. If I were more advanced – this is the computer age and this is a blog – I would just blog from the road. But I have to get a little upgrade to do that and I plan to as soon as I can.

But I’ll be blogging more soon about what happened out on the road and my take on current events and other things.

Please check back.


An unclear picture of what down on the farm means…

July 22, 2009

How are things down on the farm? Well, I don’t know. I don’t live down on the farm. But I ask this because something caught my ear while hearing part of an interview with Willie Nelson who is going to put on another Farm Aid concert.

Willie says the folks are “hurtin’” down on the farm.

The first problem is that “the farm” or “farmers” is a kind of generic term that conjures up some type of bucolic existence with a hay barn, cows and pigs, and maybe some sheep and goats, and chickens running around in the yard, and maybe a garden plot.

But farming in the real world includes everything from giant corporate-run institutions with much heavy equipment and probably no chickens running around in the yard, to large family operations with again a lot of heavy equipment and run much like a corporation, to what I described in the previous paragraph.

And these days some people farm as only a supplement to a regular job or visa versa and some people do it for hobby only.

But I’ll get back to that later.

What caught my ear was that farmers are “hurtin’”.

Just a year or so ago many farmers, such as mid western corn farmers, had hit a bonanza with rising prices due to export demand and the ethanol market.

But the economic downturn has hit nearly everyone, farmers included, and now price projections are not so good in many sectors.

The dairy industry has been hit hard because of the recession and again the drop off of the milk export market, but at the same time rising feed and fertilizer and other production costs.

But farmers are not a homogenous group. There are all kinds of farms and farmers involved in raising all types of crops and animals and there are all kinds of business arrangements.

In addition, a large part of the nation’s farm economy is subsidized in various manners by the government through farm programs usually included in something that is passed from time to time called the omnibus farm bill.

I’m not an expert in all of this but I know that as an example mid western corn farmers take advantage or can take advantage of things such as federally-subsidized crop insurance (get paid if your crop is ruined in a hail storm or something like that), subsidized loans, and price supports. In many cases the government will buy a crop from the farmer if market prices are not high enough.

Nelson’s Farm Aid concert thing began back in the late 1970s. What had happened is that the farm economy in general was flush in the early 70s and the government was urging farmers to plant as much as they could and banks were falling all over themselves to loan money. Farmers did plant all they could and new people or corporations entered the market.

Well, of course that created a surplus, and the market went south, so to speak. A lot of farmers could not pay off their loans and lost their farms.

There is good logic to having government farm programs in that they are supposedly designed to create stability in the production of food and fiber. Farm commodity prices are so volatile that it would be difficult for the average farmer to invest year to year in land and equipment and seed and fertilizer and so forth without some backup that farm programs provide.

Unfortunately there is much abuse, such as so-called farmers who operate out of the skyscrapers of New York and collect vast amounts of farm subsidies.

And on a much smaller scale you run into something like this: Once while working as a farm reporter I attended a meeting of a local Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Committee – local farmers appointed via a federal agency. A farmer submitted a claim for crop damage. He had a field of what is called “volunteer oats”. That is the oats originated from a previously-planted crop and came up again from left over seed. So here is a field he did not plant. The oats came up on their own. But they were subsequently damaged, by rain at the wrong time, or hail or something, I don’t recall. The committee voted to pay his claim out of your federal tax dollars. Maybe there is some logic in that – I did not see it. But that claim was small potatoes when compared to the billions paid in subsidies to corporate farms and many family farmers who have large spreads and quite frankly do not need the help.

Personally, I am a big supporter of what is generically called the farm economy. And I have reason to believe that family farms or owner-operated farms are a more efficient and a better model for our society than corporate farms. Family farmers tend to be more dedicated to their land and are more likely to be conservation oriented. They also actually may operate their farms more efficiently. I had a corporate farm manager tell me once that family farmers have an advantage in decision making. He said he could, for example, eyeball a field and tell when it needs irrigation and how much. But in the corporate structure things such as irrigation schedules are worked out by a committee and have little flexibility and decisions cannot be made on the spot.

Family farmers also have a better chance of being diversified. Corporate farms tend to milk something (cows if they are into dairying) for all it’s worth and then move on.

And diversity is important when it can be done in agriculture. To use a farmy metaphor, putting all your eggs in one basket can lead to trouble.

And that may be part of the problem for the dairy industry. I know that in California, despite that ad campaign that shows happy cows living in pastoral paradise, the average dairy here is more like a factory with thousands of cows and shifts of workers, and the animals lying down in their own waste. In the typical California model milking cows are usually not pastured. They eat at the trough while they are being milked and then go back out into a pen. There are variations in this model.

If dairies were smaller and if the farmers were more diversified, raising other commodities, they might have an option when milk prices declined. As it is many of the big dairies are going out of business, as I understand it, and that even despite government price supports.

But I do not have it out for agriculture. I am a big supporter. When I think back on it, I have made much of my income over the years indirectly and almost directly from agriculture. As a teenager I worked as an irrigator and later I worked for a number of years as a farm reporter and I worked for many years as a truck driver hauling predominantly farm products. And I know it’s important because I eat food and wear clothes. Even if we don’t make much clothing in this country anymore, we still grow a lot of cotton, and do produce some wool.

Agriculture policy is a complex issue. I just have a suspicion that some use the image of the old woman and man and pitch fork, ala American Gothic, as a promotion for help down on the farm. Money is tight. A lot of people need help. I do believe in family farms. But let’s make sure who we are talking about when we support the various farm subsidies and make sure we are helping a good cause and not just serving as a cash cow for a farmer headquartered in a skyscraper in New York.

P.s.

Interestingly, virtually all nations subsidize their agriculture.


Hard to support a health care plan that is a “work in progress”…

July 21, 2009

Seems to me all this polling about how many voters support health care reform and how many don’t is skewed in that there is no coherent or identifiable plan out there.

I guess that’s called “transparency” ; you can see through it all because it’s not there.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Selbelius just said in a short interview on FOX News that there is no “it” (meaning plan), that it is a “work in progress”.

Kind of hard to answer the question whether you support a plan that is still in progress.

Nonetheless Fox glibly reads off the numbers – 50 percent approve of the Democrats’ or president’s plan and 40 disapprove (I guess 10 percent have no opinion – wise people since there is no one plan to have an opinion on). And maybe I got the numbers reversed, because in double checking what I thought I heard,  I found that on the Gallup Poll site for today it says 50 percent of those polled dissapprove of the president’s handling of the health care issue and 44 percent approve. And I suppose if you do not even know any details, you probably would be forced to be dubious of the whole thing.

I like how FOX News likes to play the devil’s advocate with its chums on the right. When a Republican congressman was lambasting the liberal Democrats for bloating the budget, the FOX host pretended to corner him by asking: “where were you when Bush passed all those spending bills and ran up the deficit?” (okay, not really the exact quote, but a good paraphrase).

I fell for it. I thought “ah hah!, got you there Mr. Two Face”. But the seemingly hard question was just a set up. The congressman answered that he voted no all the time and warned Bush that he was running up the deficit. Well some Republicans must have voted yes, especially for those many years that Bush had the majority in both houses.

(Despite its tag line, FOX is neither fair nor balanced in its coverage, but it is entertaining at times and it does in a way serve as a check on, say, CNN or MSNBC, but while the latter may at times seem to lean one way, the former is just one way. The problem is most of the news on cable is mixed with opinion, so you seldom if ever get the straight story.) 

Not much of a segue here – but even though some think partisan politics is a bad thing, at least if practiced correctly it might get something done. I thought the purpose of political parties was to form ideas around a set of beliefs and coalesce everything into proposed legislation.

But in American politics with our separation of powers, particularly between the legislative branch and the executive, and our emphasis on individual candidates and personalities and the power of special interests (via lobbyists and their money donations), parties are not effective as they are in nations that have a parliamentary form of government.

And that is why President Obama is apparently having such a hard time passing health care reform legislation. Even though he has a super majority in the congress, not everyone in his party is behind him and to make matters worse he does not even have his own plan that can be identified and studied.

I almost think he would have had a better chance of just pushing his own plan and calling it “socialized medicine” and proclaiming that it is the only way to guarantee health coverage to all and at the same time get a handle on costs.

Social Security is a sacred cow, so why couldn’t he just call it Social Health Security?

And now I hear one pundit say something to the effect that if we try to cover everyone the doctors will not be able to handle it so therefore we will have rationing. So I take it that he would prefer we not offer health care to everyone. (ADD 1: I realize now that was the creepy, but ever political insightful, Dick Morris.)

President Obama seems to be on the ropes with his health care reform initiative, but for all I know he knows what he is doing and will prevail. But from what I can gather it seems more likely that some type of Band Aid measure may make it through and although it will not really help, Obama will be forced to declare victory and move on.

I just happened to be listening to cable news gabbing when I should have been doing something more productive and felt compelled to get some observations down.

P.s.

I heard more on this current story of a woman in Canada who said through the government health care there she was put on hold for a life-saving procedure and wound up coming to the United States. She had to mortgage her house, I understand, but at least she got treated. She said that after getting some info from the U.S. she tried to go back to Canada on the U.S. doctors’ advice to get what she needed done via the system there because it would be cheaper. But she still ran into a brick wall there and got her procedure done in the U.S. after all. She also claimed that Canadians often do not admit that they get a lot of health care in the U.S. while claiming they have such a good health care system at home. I personally have no idea if this is all true or whether she is leaving something out. The bottom line is if you have the money, you can get medical care somewhere. The problem is so many of us do not have the fortune required to get medical care that we need. Sometimes I think not enough is said as to why medical care costs so much. I understand the cost of advanced technology and the fact that professionals will always demand high remuneration and the cost of research for drugs. Even so, are there not limits?


Health care: entrenched system hangs tough against change…

July 21, 2009

Soaking the rich for universal health care won’t fly. And it should not. Taxing existing health care plans via the employer deduction or through the employees’ individual income is counter productive and unfair, and borrowing more dollars from China is not wise, to say the least.

I’m not sure where that leaves things. But it seems that the cost of health care needs to be a shared thing, not left on the shoulders of just one group, because for one thing they will resist and for another they will get out of it, and soaking the rich is not really right anyway. If health care is to be provided universally then it should be paid for that way. Of course not everyone has equal means to pay.

And I should note here that there is a practical question as to whether there can be a system in which everyone gets identical care, that is everyone has the same level of care available. I personally have always assumed that those with means are going to have an advantage. They can pay cash and/or have better, more expensive, health plans.

And how much is too much to pay for health care? When it comes to your own life or that of a loved one, you can’t come to that ultimate figure, except by what you have available or can raise. But what if someone else is in dire need but has to get help from you through your taxes? As big a heart as you may or may not have, that is where one is liable to think a little more rationally (and ration, as in rationing, is part of that word).

This question becomes especially troublesome when we are only prolonging life for a limited amount of time.

And here’s a problem on a personal level. I’m weighing my options (if I have any) as to whether I can go back to work after being out on disability with cancer (that is not cured and cannot be). My COBRA plan (the federally-mandated program that allows one to keep group health insurance from a job by paying the full premium) is due to run out three or four months before I would be eligible for Medicare. I can extend my insurance beyond COBRA but it will not cover as much and it will cost more, my insurance carrier has told me (what a deal offered by private enterprise).

If I am able to go back to work, I can have a company-sponsored plan (not entirely free for me as in my last job that is no longer available) that will cost me less, but will my employer continue to offer the now tax deducible plan if my employer would have to pay taxes on it as some are proposing? Not likely, especially in this bad business climate. Will the government cover me then? And what hoops and how much waiting is involved in getting on a government plan? It’s two years for Medicare. Taxing health plans as one current Democratic plan seems to be calling for contradicts President Barack Obama’s campaign promise not to mess with anyone’s existing insurance plan while offering some type of government option.

I keep thinking that the point of this whole thing has to be availability and then cost, which sometimes amount to the same thing.

As much as I distrust and even resent at times the health care industry, I think messing up the current system where the majority of people have private or so-called group plans through their work is not the way to provide universal care, if for no other reason than the offering of a universally available plan from the government would probably wipe out private plans, especially if the government plan was free or at a much-reduced price to the consumer, even if it was more bureaucratic and not as good as private coverage (and I don’t mean private coverage is not bureaucratic – it is). Employers are not likely to offer health plans if they know everyone can be covered by the government.

The way to provide universal care – and here I go again – is to cover people who are not able (not just don’t want to bother) to buy their own insurance. While I would not be against in concept, say, a single-payer, government health care system, that seems unlikely when a different system is so entrenched and accepted by the majority.

Yes, Medicare is said to being going broke. But, it would seem the most cost effective and quickest way to extend coverage would be through Medicare, a system already in place.

And now we are being bombarded with the story that people in Canada, Great Britain, and Sweden and other places that have what is often called “socialized medicine” (provided through the government) have to wait for critical care or procedures for months or years or are flat out denied and sometimes resort to going to the U.S. to get care. That’s interesting. You still have to have the money to pay and if you have the money to pay, what’s the problem? The whole problem is people cannot afford medical care without health plans and health plans, whether they be privately run or run by the government, have to have some means of cost control or they would go broke. Waiting can be part of that cost control, as well as outright denial. I am not sure why just because some other country might have a plan that is not consumer friendly why the U.S. cannot improve upon that plan, but still offer universal coverage.

Medicare needs to be improved, to include offering broader coverage (vision, dental), and it needs more funding. Of course that will put a larger strain on the budget. But doing any improvement will necessitate spending more money. Improving an existing and quite workable program would seem to offer the most cost effective solution. 

We face two major needs: one is for everyone to be secure that he or she has health coverage. The other is for everyone to realize that he or she has a responsibility to help fund that coverage to his or her ability. As it is now, we who pay for health insurance share in the cost of health care for all in that we pay higher premiums to help medical providers help defray their mandated care of the indigent and others who do not pay and we are taxed for Medicare and the other public health programs. We need a simpler and more efficient and more equitable way to do all of this.

It’s estimated that current legislation on health care change going through congress could cost $1 trillion over a decade. Strange that it matches with the projected cost of the Iraq War. That war has been rightly called, I think, a war of choice. One wonders why the health of our citizenry was not considered the better choice. Our health care system is pricing people out of the market and people are losing coverage each day due to the current economic catastrophe. It’s estimated that as many as 14,000 people a day lose their insurance due to job cuts (from and article out of the Wall Street Journal online).

An oft cited figure for the uninsured is about 50,000, but a significant part of that is young people who earn enough money but don’t want to pay for insurance, figuring, I guess, that they are healthy. So when something bad happens the rest of us have to pay. We also pay for people who are in this country illegally. One study estimated that insurance ratepayers fork over some $1,000 extra per year to cover the expenses of the uninsured (from an article in the Wall Street Journal online).

Stories like the one I heard today on CNN do not help support the public option. It was revealed that Medicare pays at least one private company a thousand dollars to rent a wheel chair for a year when the same model can be bought for $300 or less from that same private company. That’s because when congress made the deal it was lobbied by the industry on price schedules and bidding procedures. So the same private industry that rails against public health care realizes when it is inevitable and profits from it.

I appreciate the president’s even handedness and willingness to negotiate, but sometimes leadership calls for putting together a workable plan and not letting it be diluted or emasculated by allowing the opposition (which likes the status quo) to get its hands on it, and then sticking to your guns to support your own plan (you have to have your own plan too).

One problem in all of this is that no one seems to identify exactly what the proposed plans supposedly being debated in congress would look like. And most people, quite understandably, do not want to lose what they have if they have it. Another problem that I see is that the president does not seem to offer an identifiable plan, other than in broad generalities, and his own party, the Democrats, have various plans afloat. The Republicans, as far as I can tell, are mostly pretending to be concerned or to want health care reform, but are primarily interested in carrying the water for the health insurance industry (to be fair, sadly many Democrats seem to be in the pocket of the health care industry lobbyists too).

Health care is such big business. There is so much money to be made. It is hard to fight the establishment, even for the yes we can man.

P.s.

Have you noticed that the Harry and Louise ads on health care from the 90s are back but this time that concerned upper middle class couple wants change? (Things have deteriorated somewhat in their formerly protected world, apparently.)


Recalling how man went to the moon while I lost interest…

July 20, 2009

Assuming that any of my blogs are worth writing, this one probably is not, but I nevertheless feel compelled to blog something about the 40th anniversary of the U.S. moon landing which took place on July 20, 1969. (And of course the U.S. would be the only country to make manned moon landings).

Almost like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I remember where I was and what I was doing at the time. I said almost. Whereas my memories of the Kennedy assassination day are still vivid, the ones of the moon landing day are not quite as clear.

Let me explain. As I have previously blogged, I was a follower of current events, of news, at an early age, having grown up listening to the morning news shows, such as Today, when I was still in bed, resisting the need to get up and get dressed for school. For a time, my next older brother and I slept in a bedroom that doubled as the family room or TV room.

And although I was never on the school newspaper – which seems kind of strange now that I look back at it – I always was a kind of journalism fan. My father was a journalist. As an adolescent I read news magazines, along with newspapers – of course no computers back then. I eventually worked on newspapers as a writer/photographer.

But something came over me after high school. I joined the army. I was in for three years. For the first two years the outside world nearly stopped for me. Guess I was into my own trivial problems. I was lucky I was sent to Germany rather than Vietnam, being as I began Feb. 18, 1968.

So what does all of this have to do with the first moon landing?

Well I had no thoughts of landing on the moon or any outside news that day. As I recall, my tank unit in Baumholder, Germany headed out to the field that day. I recall sitting in a grassy field near a large electrical transmission tower. I was all wrapped up in my own problem of the moment. I was a tank driver and as such depended on communication with my tank commander and other crew members via a crash pot on my head that had earphones and a mouthpiece, a CVC helmet, they called it. In order for that thing to work, I depended in part on a flexible wire called a “spaghetti cord”. Mine was not working. That necessitated people to yell at me or maybe kick my back with a foot. While we were stopped I was hassling with the cord and thinking about this relatively minor problem in the army thousands of miles away from hostile fire. One of the crew members mentioned to me that the U.S. had just landed on the moon.

That jogged my memory that there was a world, in fact a universe, out there. I went back to being interested in the news and have never stopped. And I find it hard to think of why some people seem so wrapped up in their own lives that the world around them becomes irrelevant. But it happens.

P.s.

And I think back on the ambitious goal of President Kennedy who vowed we would go to the moon, and a few years later we did, but he had been cut down by an assassin’s bullet by then.

While we did fulfill his promise to go to the moon, I think the U.S. lost part of its soul when Kennedy died.

We eventually abandoned manned flights to the moon and anywhere else in space except for the International Space Station. We should have landed on Mars by now. But instead we are spending trillions of dollars to fight terror, as if you could do battle with a concept, and we dither over whether we have enough resources to guarantee every citizen health care.

What happened to the nation that could do anything, who could go to the moon?


What a captive soldier says under duress does not count…

July 20, 2009

I vividly recall a class I took in Army basic training at Ft. Lewis, Wa. back in 1968. It was held in a small garage-like structure on our company grounds and the lieutenant was saying that if we were ever to get captured by the enemy it would be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for us to make any statements on behalf of the enemy. Okay, I said my recollection was vivid. I don’t recall his exact words; I just have the clear mental picture of the setting and the gist of what he said.

He also said that the only thing – the only thing – we were supposed to divulge was our “name, rank, and serial number”, as per the Geneva Convention (and as a bit of trivia, we had serial numbers then, that being just before they exchanged military serial numbers for Social Security numbers). Our main duty, the lieutenant said, was to conspire with other prisoners to escape.

With that in mind, I watched and read with sadness the story of the Idaho soldier who has been taken captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan (apparently everything in that part of the world ends in an). There he was saying he was “scared” (quite understandable) and he urged his government to bring the troops home. Of course he was saying all of this under coercion. One wonders how the enemy can think this has any effect.

The military rules back when I took the class, according to that lieutenant, carried penalties (treason) for any soldier who gave in to the enemy like that. But as far as I can detect those rules have not been enforced, at least since Vietnam (Korea?), and I think I read once that they have been softened some.

Even fearless John McCain (and I am not being sarcastic – anyone who could pick Sarah Palin for a running mate seems fearless, and there I was being sarcastic) temporarily gave in to the enemy after being tortured, although he later recanted and resumed his brave resistance while still in captivity.

I feel nothing but sorrow and pity for anyone captured by the enemy and give no weight whatsoever to what a person might say when obviously under duress.

(And that goes for both sides. Waterboarding is not truth serum.)

While I don’t believe in news censorship, I do believe in news judgment. While I think it probably is incumbent on those who present news in such a story to mention that a captive has been obviously forced to make statements, there is no need to actually play videos of them, or to say much more.

It is important to know or get clues about how the enemy is treating our prisoners.

Unfortunately we can only expect the worst if we look inward and think how maybe our government has treated some prisoners.

The U.S. military charges that the enemy is violating international law by forcing the captured soldier to peform for a video. Too bad our government was not so concerned with laws against torture. It weakens the case.

Yes, even though I might not always agree with U.S. war policy, I still think that it is generally correct to say that the U.S. is on the side of right.

On the other hand, our foes have no doubt convinced themselves of the same thing, and have no mercy for captives.

P.s.

My condolences to the captured soldier’s loved ones and a wish that he comes home safe after all.