The Inflation Reduction Act: Fossil Fuels Become Law

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 21: Sen. Joe Manchin(D-WV) faces reporters as he arrives at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee at the Dirksen S.O.B. at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The so-called Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 promises much, but better read the fine print in this massive 700 page proposal.

A patchwork compromise with coal baron Senator Joe Manchin, its motivation is the Democratic Party leadership’s desperate need for a legislative victory in addressing escalating inflation, the primary concern of American voters, as the mid-term elections loom. Thus the bill’s name. (The previous version was called Build Back Better).

With close analysis, you’ll discover it isn’t up to the hype. While an unprecedented $369bn is dedicated to mitigating climate change, it locks in reliance on fossil fuel expansion by hamstringing the Interior Department: no renewable energy development on public lands unless drilling leases are also offered to oil and gas entities.

As such, this bill is pure political charade. Fossil fuels cause climate change, yet they’re locked into the bill’s provisions. There is no mechanism to phase them out.

What we get is the loosening of regulations regarding environmental review and, horribly, mandated drilling leases in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Mexico. The result? More pipelines, oil leaks, methane leaks, wilderness lost, species endangered, and continuing temperature rise. In 2016, the U.S. averaged one crude oil spill every other day (undark.org).

There are no caps on carbon admissions!

While the legislation features tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration, the fallout is that this could extend the life of polluting coal plants, exposing the public to toxic fumes, and making it difficult to achieve clean power goals.

Not talked about is an ominous separate agreement to move a bill in September that could potentially weaken protections under the Environmental Policy Act, which grants communities a say in what happens to their local environment. This is subterfuge, pure and simple.

You’re told the legislation will reduce greenhouse gas admissions 40% by 2030 (Rhodium Group, rpg.com). Considering the pressing problems we have with securing energy resources, it’s dangerously possible that fossil fuels will gain the upper hand over renewables, upsetting any trajectory of even-handedness. As is, the Biden administration in early July held its first onshore lease auction, releasing a proposed plan for off shore drilling, despite Biden’s campaign pledge to cease new oil and gas development on federal lands and waters (insideclimatenews.org).

In short, the Inflation Reduction Act takes back what it gives out, a Faustian wager that forfeits the future for a short-sighted political shell game in the present.

I’m not saying there aren’t good things in the bill. And, yes, there are groups like Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and Earth Justice, urging speedy passage of the legislation. They may be willing to drink the Kool-Aid, but not me, nor should you.

I go by the late E. O. Wilson, “Darwin’s heir,” my icon in environmental matters, who repeatedly denounced such organizations for their compromises, perpetuating environmental demise. They’ve thrown in the towel, their credo, Nature is already gone. We live in the Anthropocene. Wilderness must serve human needs (Wilson, HalfEarth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life).

This is a climate suicide pact,” comments Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “It’s self-defeating to handcuff renewable energy development to massive new oil and gas extraction.”

–rj

On Class Warfare in America: The Yacht Mentality Revisited

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I wanted to revisit my last post of several days ago, “The Yacht Mentality that Threatens our Economy,” with this apropos poem by William Carlos Williams, one of America’s foremost modernist poets.  As you may have surmised, it’s called “Yachts,” which I employed as my central metaphor in depicting the economic inequity rampant in our nation.

Williams, by the way, was a physician from Hoboken, NJ, who compassionately dedicated his practice to treating the poor, who were never far from his thoughts.  We see this vividly in his symbolically dense poem that comes close to being allegory in its one-to-one application, or depiction, of the tensions governing the relationship between the oligarchy of the economically privileged (shall we call them them the 1%?) and the majority, marginalized working class folk like you and me.  But first the poem, then my commentary:

Poem:

The Yachts

contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows
to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.
mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls

ant-like, solicitously grooming them, releasing,
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.

In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace of all
that in the mind is fleckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
Today no race. Then the wind comes again.  The yachts

move, jockeying for a start, the signal is set and they
are off.  Now the waves strike at them but they are too
well made, they slip through, though they take in the canvas.

Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.
It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair

until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind,
the whole sea becomes an entanglement of watery bodies
lost by the world bearing what they cannot hold.  Broken,

beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, failing! Their cries rising
in waves still as the skilled yachts pass over.

Commentary:

When you first get into this poem it seems to feature Man vs Nature, but by l. 13 with the specifics about the crew, which “crawls solicitously,” it dawns on you that it also takes in humans pitted against one another.

If the earlier portion of the poem (up to l. 13) gives an imaginative, blissful view of Nature in relation to Man and, in turn, of Man’s inter-relationships, the latter portion gives you the awful reality masked by the seeming tranquility, or the potential for revolt from the status quo of both Nature and Man.

Mention of a “race” sets the stage for transition into a contest for mastery, initially of yacht vs. yacht, but note how the diction changes here with sinister implications:

“Now the sea which holds them is moody”

 “As if feeling for some slightest flaw”

“Now the waves strike at them”

Note as well how the ominous turns into a personification of unleashed violence in what becomes a power struggle waged between haves and have nots, with the yachts metaphorized into repressive knife slashing entities indifferent to whom they maim:

“Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.

“It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair.”

Williams’ subterranean intent now surfaces:  we have a revolt put down by the yachts, the poem’s symbol for connoting the wealthy, of the normally “solicitous,” or working classes, whose labor has made their wealth possible, though they’ve gleaned little for themselves, “bearing what they cannot hold.”

“…the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind,
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies

The yachts, or impervious upper class, obviously win out on this particular day, but not without leaving in their wake their decimated victims:

“Broken,
beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, falling! their cries rising
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.

In sum, Williams has delivered a Marxist polemic of poignant genius in its thematic rendering of class struggle against inequity.  The very style of the poem adroitly reinforces this theme of worker repression by the economically removed in its run-on lines and skillful alliteration at poem end, the yachts unheeding of the crying wounded in “waves still as the skillful yachts pass over,” suggesting speed and, hence, indifference.  For Williams, this hierarchy “live(s) with the grace of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and naturally to be desired.”

In short, their narcissism of self-indulgence (materialism) mirrors behind its proffered beauty their willful escape from responsibility to the working classes on whom their wealth is built (“the crew crawls/ant-like, solicitously grooming them”).

In an America where 37% possesses half its wealth and the top 1% often pays minimal taxes, Williams’ poem reminds us that we have much work to do to render the American dream palpable for not just a few, but for the many.

–rj

Bearded Heroes of a Resurgent Boston

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I watched the Rolling Rally on NESN Saturday with pride and emotion as it wound its way along Boylston Street, over to the Common, then into the Charles (quite literally).   Two million strong, Bostonians lined the streets, often forty deep; stood on steps, looked out windows; and, yes, gazed from roof tops, cheering wildly as their Red Sox heroes passed by in duck boats normally used for touring, waiving back, sometimes slapping hands. Duck boat diplomacy! Certainly, assuredly, unlike so much in life, everything conspired to make this day a success, not least, an unusually warm day in November Boston, a day that will replay itself in memory long after.

Who would have thunk it: that last year’s record 97 losses and last place finish in the American League East would give way to World Series winners?  This was a  motley team in some ways stiched together remarkably, if not cunningly, by general manager Ben Cherington into a flamboyant weave that included a new skipper, John Farrell, articulate, knowledgeable, and able.

Even then, it seemed a no go for the Sox as relief pitching woes mounted up what with sore arms and inability to put out fires.  Ominously, ace pitcher Buchholtz, after a 9 and 0 start, developed a clavicle problem, removing him from the mound till September.  Even in the Series, there was the bullpen collapse of normally reliable Breslow (the Yale biomed whiz).

Chalk up their success to maybe the overachiever syndrome that sometimes compensates for handicap and wins through?  Well, maybe.  For sure, they didn’t get to the winner circle from any embedded superiority.  You might even say this was a David vs. Goliath scenario, replaying itself nightly throughout the season and into the post season against all odds.

The American League playoffs proved better than their hype, the Sox facing an always menacing Tampa Bay, followed by a heavy hitting Detroit team replete with two of the games superior hurlers. Finally, the perennial winning St. Louis Cardinals with, again, fine pitching and, on paper, a knock out bullpen.

It didn’t matter.  The clues, if you think about it, had a way of happening, and kept happening, from the very outset, with the Sox finding ways to win, coming from behind, usually in late innings; each game, a new hero: Big Pappi, Victorino, Gomes, Napoli, Nava;  sometimes Ellsbury on the bases, setting the table; often, a leaping catch by an ever nimble Pedroia or Drew of a smash drive or a diving, in-the-web grab by Gomes.  Slowly I began to believe.  And so did Boston.

They did it so often, thirty times, that it seemed a given–just wait.  Hey, they scratched out one run wins, thrilled us nightly with walk off scenarios, and then there fell into place, as  it were, our secret weapon, passionate, diminutive Koji Uehara, who hitters couldn’t hit.

And how about Lester, fading, only to find himself again, winning games, and anchoring our rotation in the playoffs and Series? Not far behind, Lackey, back from Tommy John surgery, pitching gem after gem right through the Series. “A beautiful thing,” as colorful commentator Dennis Eckersley likes to say.

So many stories here. So many heroes!

But for me, the most important story is that of April’s human wrought mayhem on Patriot’s Day at the finish line of the world’s favorite marathon.  Once again, as in all such misdeeds, I’m reminded of the human capacity to enact evil.  But I also have faith in the resident goodness of the vast majority to confront and transcend such evil.  As Big Papi famously put it, “This is our … City.  Boston needed to be strong and as the President said, “Boston would celebrate again.”

sox5And that’s where the Red Sox came in, showing the way past adversity to renewal.  That’s what the huge crowds were all about.  They identified with the sleeve patch each player now wore:  “Boston Strong.”

Sadly, in this day of free agency and change as one of life’s non-negotiables, we’ll not see their like again with their bearded idiosyncrasies. Peavy ended up buying the duck boat on which he rode.  (He had previously given us the cigar store Indian, which became a dugout fixture, home and away). Saturday evening, the celebration seemingly carried on, captured in a photo of Napoli, apparently inebriated, bare chested, wandering the streets.  I doubt few Bostonians care.  He earned his indulgence and drinks on the house.  I do know we’ll miss that nightly tugging of the beards!

Every now and then I come across some who disdain sports as a volatile vanity out-of-place in a troubled world.  But I don’t see it that way.  Here we can learn something from wise Vergil, who also knew the depth of suffering first hand.  In one episode of his great Aeneas, he writes entirely of several sport contests.  In his prescience, he knew their analogy with life.  Sports give diversion, and what’s wrong with a time out anyway?  But they are more than that, testing and teaching character, a word whose meaning we’ve largely lost to our own detriment.  Tell me how athletes play the game and I’ll tell you if you can count on them in life.  Their true value lies not in victory, but in pursuit.

This was a team of bonded brothers who went everywhere together.  They loved one another and how we loved them!   They helped Bostonians refocus. The poet Dante defined hell as a place of lost souls who had abandoned hope.  The Red Sox taught Bostonians how to climb out of hell and hope again.  Not least, a whole nation.

sox2How moving their stopping in Copley Square, the singing of God Bless America. Team and city united.  City and team become one.

What a wonderful day.  What a beautiful thing.

Boston Strong.

Thank you, guys!

–rj

To Truman: Beloved Friend

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You came into our lives twelve years ago in late August 2001, a compact Bichon bundle of playful love, in a pre-arranged handoff at an I-64 road stop.  I had ordered you by phone from a breeder in Myrtle Beach.  It was instant mutual love.  We decided to call you Truman, and it fit you just right.

Rarely, but it does happen, a mind-boggling event brands itself into memory and we never forget what we were doing and where we were at.  My father often reminisced that early Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.  For me, it had been November 22, 1963 and July 20, 1969 that stood out.  And now a third:  You were getting your first shots.  Our vet, a dog show judge, was admiring your confirmation, saying it was the best he had come across among Bichons in his practice, when the news broke of horrendous misdeeds.  It was September 11, 2001.

Now that’s one of the compelling reasons I’ve always been drawn to dogs and cats.  Unlike many humans caught-up in calculated self-interest with cruel consequences, they want only to love and be loved.  You loved everyone and they loved you.  But you gave me preference, waiting at the door for Daddy’s entrance, then bounding up with enthusiasm on my legs.  How wonderful to come home daily from a world of stress and non-entity to unconditional, uninhibited affection.

How you loved your backyard and how we loved watching you playing the mighty hunter card, one-cautious step after another, standing still, then more steps, gaining, then only, inevitably, the scurrying squirrel, knowing you were there all the time, hustling up the tree.  You at its trunk, patiently looking up, waiting for it to come down

You liked roaming the perimeter or fence line.  Your joy was complete when you heard neighbor dogs bark and scrambled full speed for canine fellowship.  I had read  somewhere that for all their human contact, given a choice, dogs prefer their own kind.  I can understand that, sometimes myself opting for their company over that of homo sapiens.

I remember how tiny you were at first and that there were several times you squeezed through the board fencing, even though I had spent days in winter cold nailing chicken wire over the gaps.  There was the time you got into the neighbor’s yard behind us where several llamas grazed and I climbed over the fence to rescue you from an advancing llama, only to have it come after me.  I grabbed you and jumped over to safety.  Close call for us both!

You liked walking on your leash with me down the street.  I never really had to train you at it, since from the beginning you took instantly to walking at my heel on my left, seldom pulling to get ahead.

But I did enroll you in an individualized obedience course.  Unfortunately, your trainer relied on treats and I could never find a way to wean you away from your addiction and do something simply because it was worthy for its own sake.  But then our own children aren’t all that different.  Getting you to stay was simply impossible for someone as passionate as you.  The gold standard was to take you to a safe area of a shopping mall and get you to stay.  I didn’t even try.  $300 dollars down the drain.  Ironically, you trained me!  Still, you did retain the habit of sitting on cue right up to the end, until your arthritic limbs compelled my pardoning you.

You liked keeping company with us on the couch, snuggling up to Karen and me.  You also had this funny habit of flipping the pillows off the couch and finding your way to the other arm and propping yourself up for a cozy snooze.

You also had this cute habit of carrying your metal dish over to your living room pad after your evening meal and licking it clean.  You delighted us with this gesture from the time you were a pup up almost to the end.

How excited you got to go outside with me to feed the birds whenever you saw me filling the plastic pitcher with seed!

At night when we turned out the living room lights, always the landmark clicking of your nails on the hallway floor as you made your way to join us in slumber.

When you were seven they found a heart murmur and I felt then the first scary pangs I might lose you.  You liked to run at full speed.

Around age nine, they found calcium crystals in your bladder, and so they put you on meds and a special diet.  I don’t know if the crystals caused you any discomfort.  You always acted the happy part.

At age eleven you had slowed down and seemed to labor in your walk.  We put you on glucosomine for that.

Just after your twelfth birthday, or this past June, I took you in for another checkup for the crystals and arthritis.  The ultrasound was distressing, showing not only more crystals despite your prescribed diet, but a tumor  over the right adrenal gland and a nodule adjacent to the left adrenal.  Ominously, the tumor occluded the vena cava, making any surgery risky.   The follow-up radiology report didn’t clearly indicate metastasis, but it remained a possibility.

You were still your active self through June, but then came the weight loss.  Once a robust 21 pounds, you were down to 18 by September, and 14 by the end.  You found it difficult to shadow Daddy from room to room and pretty much snoozed on the couch most of the day.  Your dark black eyes, tinged with sadness, gave off a pleading gaze–as if to say, “please help me”!

I knew things were getting really bad when you increasingly turned away from your food or ate very little, though I tried tempting you with lots of treats and canned meat in place of your former kibbles.  You were always crazy after peanut butter filled bones,  but now  you no longer could muster the appetite to enjoy the feast.

It hurt you to walk and even to lie down.  You couldn’t hold your water.  That last night, Tuesday, I knew we needed to do the right thing when you let out two yelps, one of them when Karen tried to pet your head.  Obviously you were hurting all over.

I caught myself in my own selfishness.  I had wanted to keep you forever.  I should have been thinking about your interests.  I needed to let go as my ultimate gift of love for you, my friend, our friend, always kind, gentle and loving.

Yesterday at the vet’s, we were with you in your final moments.  You seemed unafraid as I stroked you and laid a last kiss on your darling head. You went quickly and peacefully into that long sleep.  No more suffering.

I know that death is part of the deal we make for life, but it doesn’t lessen our grief or bridge the emptiness.  We miss you terribly.  You were a gift of love and we thank you for the daily joy you brought into our lives.  You will be in our hearts forever.

–rj and kj

Chemical Attack in Syria: Obama Looks the Other Way

SyriaThe videos from Syria are horrific and unprecedented, with row upon row of corpses, many of them children, in what now seems to indicate some kind of chemical agent, perhaps nerve gas, judging by the symptoms, also captured on camera, of the last gasps and spasms of the dying.  Presumably the attack was launched under the auspices of the Assad regime, since it’s well known they possess a huge stockpile of chemical weapons.  It maintains, however, that rebels are simply staging a scenario for Western consumption to provoke intervention.

But this isn’t the way Britain and France see it, the latter calling for possible force if there is verification.  Even, and this is a shocker, Vladimir Putin has called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors, already in the country and just twenty minutes away, to visit the scene, though Russia assumes the whole thing is a rebel ruse.  I don’t think for a minute Assad will allow such a thing, though logic would seem to compel it, if what’s happened is simply a rebel scheme.

It’s conceivable Hezbollah or non-government loyalists could have launched an attack like this using make-shift rockets, which they’ve done before, employing tear gas or industrial toxins fired into a confined space.  Bad as the videos are, we don’t see defecation, vomiting and tremors that usually go along with chemical agents.

Because we can’t pin down, at least for now, what precisely happened, we need to refrain from a rush to judgment.  In America we’ve seen enough of war, of thousands of our children killed and maimed, our treasury depleted, and those we’ve fought to liberate us not liking us one bit more.  We got rid of Saddam, Iran’s nemesis, and stoked  its friendship with largely Shiite Iraq.

If this turns out to have been a genuine chemical attack, then such barbarism should meet with a strong response.  It doesn’t require boots on the ground.  No one wants that.  Nor does it mean a no fly zone.   Cruise missiles fired off shore can take out the missile depots.  Give the beleaguered rebels the weaponry they need so that the Assad regime pays a lingering price and this never occurs again.  Include anti-tank missiles as well.

The truth is that the Obama administration has dilly-dallied too long, allowing extremist forces to enter the fray, al Quaeda fighting with the rebels; Hezbollah, for Assad.  Now the war’s momentum, taking a very dangerous turn, increasingly resembles the imbroglio of Sunni vs Shiite, or what we see in Iraq, spinning out of control.

Like an ugly cancer, it threatens to metastasize, drawing in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, where 42 died in a Tripoli bomb blast today.  Iran, meanwhile has been sending in fighters.

The toll on civilians is immense:  100,000 dead;  two million refugees, one million of them children divested of a future.

Meanwhile, our government is clearly confused, self-contradictory, and plainly ineffectual.

Obama told us a year ago, August 20, 2012, that chemical weapons would be a “red line” and “a game-changer.”  Shortly after, he concluded that they had been used and pledged arms.  No weapons have arrived.  Nothing changed.

If we discover that chemical weapons were indeed deployed on this occasion, and substantially, will it make any difference this time?  Don’t bet on it.  Politicians often say things they don’t really mean, and that’s why we’re wise not to believe them when they do.

Ironic for a nation that owes its own liberation from the intervention of the French two centuries ago.

–rj

The Fountain of Youth: We are all Ponce de Leon

medical-symbol1As a 12-year old Florida school boy, I was introduced early to the 16th century Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, whom legend says came to Florida in quest of the Fountain of Youth.  Drink or bathe in its waters and you could be young again.  A story-line like this isn’t unique, finding its replay in myth and legend throughout the world. 

Its insistence  doesn’t surprise us at all, since it mirrors our consummate dream to stay young, not for its own sake, but because we associate youth with beauty, vigor, and libido, or from another angle, the absence of chronic ills like coronary disease, cancer, arthritis, and God only knows what, that often define our later years.  All the parts are new and they work well and at 25 we may sometimes think ourselves immortal.  We dream not just ordinary dreams, but visionary ones that say I can and I will.

Sooner or later, we are all Ponce de Leon, clutching to “the splendors in the grass” (Wordsworth).  Our ads promulgate our folly with promised effulgences of youth’s attributes, abolishing gray, dissolving winkles, restoring passion.

But even medicine itself increasingly wanders into the Ponce de Leon camp these days, some doctors proffering we may soon banish the ills of our human sojourn, advancing our life span dramatically into the 100 year range what with the promise of genetics making individualized therapies possible, perhaps a pill as it were targeting your specific ill, say cancer.

This is pretty much the message of Dr. David Agus’ fascinating The End of Illness, sort of what we do now at the car shop or electronics outlet, plugging into a computer that in seconds spits out solution.  He tells the story of 44-year old Bill Weir, host of ABC’s Nightline, who volunteered to go live, or cameras rolling in prime time, as the newest medical technology imputed his medical data at USC University Hospital.

It was the whole works, including not only blood tests and CT scans, but DNA analysis to assess his hereditary risk for illnesses such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, colon cancer and about 32 other disease scenarios.  A CT uncovered substantial calcium build-up in Weir’s coronary arteries, narrowing his arteries and portending a possible heart attack in the next several years.  He had seemed a very healthy man until testing found him out.

The point is that we can increasingly predict and find impending diseases, and employing  intervention therapy, reduce if not eliminate, their threat.  Because of the high expense, sounds to me like you want to make sure you and your loved ones have the best possible medical coverage.  In the end, prevention may well be less costly than treating a patient with cancer, heart disease or diabetes.

Here I agree with those in Agus’ camp.  Take those prescribed pills, undergo the recommended testings, etc.  Consider pancreatic cancer, for example, a disease that takes no prisoners and recently killed actor Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, and Apple’s Steve Jobs.  It’s an insidious illness that manifests its symptoms when it’s usually too late.  Still, you can undergo an annual complete abdominal ultrasound, MRI, or CT and gain a chance to nip the culprit in the bud.

But do I think medicine in the next 25 years will largely eliminate illness?  I will only say I think the jury’s still out on this one, though I’m doubtful. There is the expense; human inertia; new diseases in an increasingly global village appearing, impervious to our best antibiotics and the lengthy interval in developing new ones.  Even Agus contradicts his own optimism in predicting the inevitability of a pandemic:

The swine flu scare that occurred in 2009 will someday be dwarfed by a real epidemic that will spread rapidly through virgin immune systems and kill millions in its path (as happened, for example, in the flu epidemic of 1918, when an estimated 50 million to 100 million people died) (p. 277).

And I think the title of his book extravagant.  It may spawn sales, but little else, for fragile beings that we are, fraught with mortality, we share the fate of all living creatures, governed in the end by entropy.  We will never arrest illness completely, though we may at times lessen its impacting, and even its timing, by employing health enhancing strategies that will also lend quality to our lives.

At present, the American medical establishment is in breakdown mode.  While heart disease has shown a decrease, cancer continues to plague us.  Apart from disease, our doctors kill up to 200,000 patients yearly by way of medical mistakes; 50 million of us have no insurance; 25 million of us are underinsured.  Meanwhile, our unhealthy lifestyle continues to menace both our health and our wallets.  We have more diabetics than ever, for example.  Many of us are just plain fat.

I’d like to continue this subject in a later post and tell you things you can do specifically to help safeguard the health of yourself and loved ones, though I can’t promise you centenarian status.  Only 1 in 20,000 achieves that!

–rj

Happy Days are here again: and the banks roll on

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If you’ve been watching the headlines on the economic front, you may have seen the news about record bank profits in the first quarter of the year to the tune of $40.3 billion, an all time high.  In fact, profits surged 15.8% over the same quarter a year ago. This marks the 14th straight quarter of bank gains. In short, the bailed out banks (you and I paid for that), are making money hand-over-fist.  Not so, mainstream America.

Meanwhile, in the past 12 months, scandal- ridden JP Morgan has garnered $24.4 billion in net profit, evidencing once again that banks could evade laws with impunity.  The precedent, after all, had been the release of the 2000 page examiner’s report on Lehman Brothers in 2010,  suggesting fraud had brought about its bankruptcy, yet nothing was done.

You’d never have expected hand-outs from the Obama administration, given their campaign pledges to look out for us po’folk and their left of center politics.  Their hand-outs, not loans, to banks and other fiscal institutions, are shockingly in the trillions, with $85 billion dished out every month from the Federal Reserve.

But then again, we can better understand the forces in play when we look at the cohorts Obama gathered about himself:  Jacob Lew, former Citigroup executive, appointed deputy secretary of state, with a cool $900,000 bonus in his pocket from Citigroup;  Mark Patterson, Goldman Sachs lobbyist, made chief of staff at the Treasury, despite a ban on lobbyists;  Timothy Geithner, who became the architect of the bailouts, appointed as Treasury secretary, even after it was discovered he hadn’t fully paid his taxes;  Larry Summers, who authored many of the pro-bank policies of the nineties, recruited as a mainstay economic advisor; and Rahm Emmanuel, appointed Chief of Staff, after gleaning $16.5 million as a Chicago investment banker in just 30 months in-between government jobs. All of them Democrats.  All of them with dirty hands.  

At the present moment, Larry Summers is being touted as the next Federal Reserve Chairman, replacing the retiring Ben Bernanke.  A long time Goldman Sachs executive and trader, he played a primary role in deregulating Wall Street in the Clinton administration.

So far, and probably never will happen, not a single bank or CEO has been brought to account for their criminal mismanagement of the people’s money, leading to the 2008 meltdown and consequent suffering for millions of Americans. Their suffering continues.

Now you would think from the President’s major address on the economy this month that happy days are here again for you and me, what with his boast of 7.2 million new jobs created in the business sector in the last four years.  But politicians do prevaricate, and it’s up to you and me to hold their feet to the fire.  Fact is, long term unemployment is at its highest level since the Great Depression, and of the newly minted jobs, most are low wage (often in the service sector), temporary, or part-time.

Curiously, nowhere did the President mention the plight of Detroit facing bankruptcy and the possible erosion of pension and health benefits for the city’s workers, including police and fire personnel.

To give him his due, he did allude to the growing income disparity between the rich and the majority of Americans:

Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past ten years have continued to flow to the top 1 percent. The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who have been out of work for some time.

But how did this happen?  He didn’t mention government’s largesse to the wealthy through bank bail outs, corporate tax breaks, and reduced wages for autoworkers.  In the first two years of the President’s tenure, or after the downturn of 2008, the richest one percent enjoyed an 11% increase in income, unlike the rest of Americans whose incomes declined.

Again, nobody’s been minding the store.  In 2011, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee  noted Wall Street’s culpability just prior to the 2008 market collapse as “a financial snakepit rife with greed, conflicts of interest and wrongdoing.”

While it may appear that things are humming along nicely, the banks booming, the real estate market up, stocks at their peak, the reality is that more than 3 million of us can’t find work.  Those who do, work for less, often part-time.  Many, particularly those 50 and over, may never work again.  Black youth unemployment is currently at 42 %.

Several million Americans have been foreclosed upon by the banks, losing their biggest investment stake and, sometimes, a whole lot more.  Many others owe the banks for houses purchased at inflated prices, now worth considerably less.

But the banks roll on, too big to take on, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently let slip. What’s more, their lobbyist legions do their work well, busy button-holing members of Congress.  It’s a game of money, always has been, money spelling influence.  It’s America, you know.

This just  in:  The President remains committed to slashing Medicare by $400 billion and Social Security by $130 billion in his projected 2014 budget.  (In 2008, candidate Obama had pledged, reiterated by Biden in 2012, that he wouldn’t cut Social Security.)  Apparently, the bankers are a privileged class; the people, expendable to the exigencies  of  power and influence.

-rj

Overthrowing the tyranny of custom

I have always cared a great deal about animals.  I don’t know where it comes from, but I remember as a child wanting to take in every stray dog.  In 1996, I adopted a vegetarian diet to align my lifestyle with my conscience.  I wish I had done so much earlier but, for too many years, I had simply subscribed unquestionably to a pervasive culture.

The role of culture, often reinforced by religion, makes for an interesting study, since it may well be the primary instigator of human behavior and, unfortunately, a seminal source for a myriad repertoire of injustice, malice and cruelty practiced by humanity pervasively across the centuries.  As moderns, while we’ve made progress, we’re still on a steep climb.

In India, a land bound by tradition much like other Southeast Asian nations, practices sanctioning discrimination inherent with an age old caste system fell with the birth of an independent India in 1947, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and led by its first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru.  There are no more Untouchables, a formidable achievement that hints humanity can often mend its ways.

Earlier, in the United States, slavery was abolished through the courageous intervention of Abraham Lincoln, though it took a civil war, 600,000 deaths, and Lincoln’s own life.  Not long after, in 1867, Tsar Alexander III emancipated Russia’s serfs.

Not long ago, but only in 1920 under the 19th Amendment, did women achieve the right to vote in the United States.  It was as late as 1971 before women could vote in progressive Switzerland in national elections and not until 1991 that they could vote on local issues in all cantons.  At last, conservative Saudi Arabia will allow women to vote, beginning in 2015.  They’re still, however, prohibited from driving cars under penalty of imprisonment and/or flogging.  Disenfranchisement of women extends to many orthodox synagogues and Roman Catholic constituencies as well, barring leadership and voting privileges.  Catholic women cannot become priests, bishops or cardinals, the latter obviously eliminating their inclusion in selecting a pope.

In my lifetime we’ve made considerable inroads against the weight of traditional custom that forbade birth control, abortion and equal employment opportunity.  I grew-up seeing the last vestiges of segregation fall before activist resistance and court decree.  Currently, gays and lesbians are on the threshold of gaining their own civil liberties that include same sex marriage and adoption rights.  Looking back to a little more than a century ago, it seems incredulous that someone like writer Oscar Wilde would be tried in court and sentenced to a multiple year jail term, which ultimately broke the man.

I first became aware of the role of culturally sanctioned wrong doing in preparing to teach Voltaire’s satirical parody of custom in Candide, which I heartily recommend if you haven’t read it.  Slavery, militarism, the abuse of women, the hypocrisy of religion, they all receive their fair share of Voltaire’s scorn.  What really opened my eyes, however, was Voltaire’s taking on the scourge of war that continues to plague mankind, often buttressed with the sanctimonious verbiage of patriotic shibboleths and conferment of divine blessing.  As Voltaire astutely observed in one of his many letters, wars kill and maim far more than all our natural disasters.

As I’ve said, fighting to undo custom is still a steep climb, or hard sell. That’s what makes custom such an insidious threat: “But we’ve always done it this way!”  Like morning oatmeal, we imbibe the prejudices of our parents, who learned them from theirs.  Unquestioning, we adopt the status quo invested by time and institutions. Our brains dulled by habit, we believe what we’re told by our informed guardians: the government and press.  We find fact in the textbooks of our schools, oblivious to their omissions.  We like sameness.  We grow accustomed to our chains.

I give thanks to the avatars that make custom tremble by engendering new ways of thinking rooted in compassion:  the sanctity of animal as well as human life; the right to individuality; the implementing of economic equality; the elimination of political and religious oppression; the accessibility of universal health care; the end of pejorative labeling of the mentally distressed; the right to death with dignity; the healing of a wounded, dying Earth;  the elimination of the scourge of war.

They crowd into my mind:  Gandhi, Nehru, Lincoln, Goldman, Sinclair, Baldwin, Friedan, Sanger, Carson, Singer, Mandela, King, Mill, Voltaire– and so many more–emissaries of Light, their torches lifted high, showing the way to a better world.

I dream most of all of that day when it will truly “be on earth as it is in heaven,” and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4 [KJV:  Cambridge ed.]).

–rj

Baseball fever!

The crack of the bat; the thud in the mitt; smells of peanuts and cracker jacks; mustarded hot dogs washed down with cold beers.  The fever of it!  Baseball, America’s brain child, after a long winter, true harbinger of Spring, you’re back and I’m a young boy again, with dawn’s early light, heading for alleys, looking for buddies, looking for game.

Like eating Cheerios, I fed on baseball, the daily radio broadcasts pouring out their litany in days when TV was but a rumor.  Pa, ensconced in his leather chair, two virtues in exchange for his addiction to booze, a love for the game and a love for the news, rituals of redemption taking root in his child.

Growing-up in Philly’s waterfront Fishtown, tedious streets of inert row houses and white stoops; scarcely a tree, never a park, we gave it no thought,  adopting stick ball and banging our hits off factory facades, in the same way Ruth and Gehrig began their own long journey, Boys of Summer, with every stroke, tapping our dreams of something better than asphalt heat and danger-laden streets.

Philly sported two teams then, the A’s and Phillies.  I knew the player names readily, reiterated by baseball cards we’d get with our bubblegum and trade with each other, sitting on stoops on sultry summer evenings.

I remember the Whiz Kids winning the pennant in 1950, the euphoria sweeping Philly like an exuberant wind.  They played the World Series afternoons back then.

When I was twelve, I learned how to take the El and find my way to Shibe Park to watch the A’s play and usually lose.  After the game, I’d linger around the gate for autographs and recall, as if yesterday, wide-eyed like a boy hooking his first trout, the  thrill of Dave Philley being my first and, crazy kid that I was, grabbing his arm to touch one of the gods.

Baseball had an innocence back then–an absence of big money, drugs, and player mobility.  It was everything good that we’d like to be good again.  I liked the high mounds, the pitchers around for most of the game, so different from the formula of 100 pitches in vogue today.  It’s hard to win twenty games now, and we’ll never see 30 wins again.  Back then, teams like the Yankees sometimes sported three pitchers with twenty wins by season end.

Ted Williams batted 406 in 1941.  He did it without the sacrifice fly added later, which means he batted for an even higher average, going by today’s rules.

I remember Jackie Robinson’s coming into baseball and democratizing the game.

With sadness now, there’s been a sharp decline, after the long struggle, in African-American players these days.  Thank goodness for the Caribbean ball players who keep baseball from reverting to a white man’s game.

But there are changes that have made baseball better such as the playoffs and, in my opinion, the designated hitter.

What keeps my loyalty is the nature of the skills baseball demands.  Every position features its own requisites not easily acquired.  Baseball has few prodigies ready right out of high school.  Generally you hone your skills over several  seasons, playing college or minor league ball.  You learn by doing to play the game well.

If every position has its own repertoire, no less challenging is swinging the bat, with fast balls clocking 90 mph and more, mixed with curves, sliders and off speed pitches.  There are eight players in front of you and you need to hit the ball where they aren’t, a tall order  the very best players achieve only a third of the time.

What I like better than anything else is the stardom in reach for any player in any game at any moment:  the clutch hit, the stolen base, the home run, the pitcher’s shutout, the fielding gem; the sheer democracy of it, unlike any other sport I know.

Every at bat is the old West renewed, batter against pitcher, in strategy based on probability.

I relish the end game with its relief scenario.  Can the “fireman” put out the fire and save the game?  A duel indeed.  Good relievers require ice in their veins.

Baseball, more than any other sport, comes down to numbers, or record-keeping, with the Hall of Fame a pantheon of its greatest, and a way of measuring.

Football and basketball, today’s popular action sports, may enjoy the public eye but, for me, I revel in baseball’s ritual, the mindness in it, the individuality of it; the the crack of the bat, the thud in the mitt; smells of peanuts and crackerjacks, mustarded hot dogs washed down with cold beers. The sheer Americana of it!

–rj

Reflections on living the simple life

Simplicity is about
subtracting the obvious
and adding the meaningful.
–John Meeks

There is a movement afoot known as minimalism, and by this I mean a lifestyle characterized by simplicity.  The movement deserves a better name, something like simple living, since minimalism nearly always denotes a movement within the Fine Arts, e. g., music and painting.

You can view a growing number of websites and blogs dedicated to simple living.  One of the more prominent ones, and my favorite, is Rowdy Kittens with its 100,000 readers, a quite lovely site filled with wholesome counseling for uncluttering our lives,

The simple living movement traces back to ancient history.  Samson in the Old Testament was a Nazarite, or follower of an ascetic mode of living.  The early Christian community was also noted for its communistic regimen, with goods shared in common.   In Grecian times, there is Epicurus who cautioned moderation in all things and the danger of accumulating goods.

The East is even more famous for its preachments of the simple life.  I think of Buddha, Lao-zi, and Confucious.

In America, there’s my favorite, Henry David Thoreau, with his remarkably quotable Walden.  I have read this work several times over and you can see my enthusiasm for it abundantly evidenced in my omnivorous underlining and scribbled notations.

In fact, America, a country of abundant wealth, has a surprisingly vibrant tradition of simple living advocacy: the Shakers, now extinct, and the Plain People, or Amish, for examples.

Abroad, I think of another favorite author of mine, Leo Tolstoy, whose asceticism following his religious conversion, got him into considerable domestic difficulty as he sought to give up his wealth. “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch,” somber, intense, and profound, has always resonated well with me in its cautions again excess, and I have it almost by heart, as I taught it for nearly three decades as a college prof.

The greatest exemplar of this way of life in more recent times is Mohandas Gandhi.  I remember seeing the possessions of this man I have always loved: a mat, cup, sandals, a pair of wire glasses.

A nation where simplicity has been a traditional staple is Japan.  I will always remember the simple life I lived in the mountains surrounding the Nikko temples as a young serviceman on R&R: an unadorned kimono, raw fish and seaweed veggies, a hot bath, followed by a bed on the floor with a hard pillow, and sunset and sunrise setting the parameters of sleep.

Will this rediscovery of simple living take hold?  I think not, though to our great loss, for it has much to teach us, if we will listen.  We live with economies that preach growth, not sustainability, which may be the death of us.

Simple living is good not only for ourselves, but for our wounded planet that can only right itself if the majority of us, worldwide, heed the wisdom of simple living.

I wish I could be more hopeful.  It’s just that there exist two primary lifestyles: of possession and of being, with the former having the upper hand by a large margin.

Possession, or accumulation, leads to inequality, founds classes or social hierarchy, fosters envy, social strife, and spills over into war.

Being, on the contrary, begets concern for life’s essentials, our needs and not our wants.  There is no rancor when people live by their needs and do not exceed their fellows in goods.  Being means to prize people and not possess them; to see nature for its own sake and not as a quarry.  Being means an ability to let go.

Replacing anxiety born of compulsion, we find blessedness.

Do well and be well,

rj

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