Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Brain-tickling: n- back tasking

I’ve just returned from North Carolina, visiting my wife’s father in a nursing home. He turns 92 this Christmas. Right now, he’s recovering from a series of falls, the last one resulting in a broken ankle and hence nursing facility. Daddy is lucky in some respects, for the facility strikes me as well run, with sensitive staff (blessed with a sense of humor), decent meals even if institutional, and clean premises.

Yet in all of this, I couldn’t help taking in the white-haired residents, all of them in wheelchairs. Some seemed fixed, no movement throughout the day, heads bent, silent. One dear lady, presumably a stroke victim, courageous, tried to greet strangers, but she might well have spoken another language. In place of words, cheerily pitched sounds, but murmurings for all of that. In nearly a day at the place, I saw few visitors. If “loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every person,” as writer Thomas Wolfe held, then its apex must be old age.

And yet there are things we can do to ease our journey into our senior years. For some time, I’ve been exercising daily, and rigorously, on our elliptical machine. Now I’ve added strength exercises three times a week, using weights to enhance muscle growth. After recently taking a bone scan test, I was delighted to learn I hadn’t lost any height, an occurrence as high as 80% in seniors.

I keep up with testing in general, whether annual blood checks or colonoscopies every three years, given my family’s cancer history. I get a flu shot every fall.

I haven’t touched meat in 15-years. I learned just the other day that only 15% of vegetarians suffer heart attacks. That’s good enough for me.

So much of preserving good health lies in adopting a preventative regimen, as Medicare and health insurers now increasingly recognize and encourage.

But there’s an aspect of maintaining good health that needs more attention. Consider that half of those past 85 suffer dementia. Now that’s huge! Think of the cost and the suffering, the diminishment in human dignity. We need to exercise our minds as well as our bodies.

I subscribe to Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory. In its recent issue, the newsletter notes the success of those who exercise their brains, hence slowing down Alzheimer's, or even preventing it. Cross word puzzles, Sudoku games, learning a language, etc., all help--and a lot. This hits my palette, for I’ve generally favored games of mental skill like chess over games of chance.

New research indicates that the key to warding off dementia lies in boosting working memory. But how best to do this?

Turns out there’s a brain exercise called n-back that not only stimulates working memory (the kind used in reasoning and solving problems), but increases IQ. Hey, it actually makes you smarter!

Well, this got me going on my own research. I even bought the iPad application N-Back Suite. It’s as gorgeous as it’s friendly to users, allowing for stretching the mind through sensory stimuli (letters, images, sounds, colors, etc.).

With n-back tasking the idea is to remember items appearing in sequences. You can adjust your speed and there are ten levels of difficulty. Most of us will be lucky to get to level 3. It’s challenging.

It’s been tried with children and young adults, too. After 30 days of exercising for 20 minutes, results showed significant gains in fluid intelligence, i.e., the ability to recognize unfamiliar patterns and solve problems. IQ scores averaged 5 point gains. These results lasted 3 months, even though the participants were no longer doing the n-tasks. MGH neuropychologist Mimi Castelo calls the results “impressive.”

If all of this interests you, here are some web sites that offer sample n-back exercises. But don’t forget the iPad application I mentioned earlier.



Good luck!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Holding the President's feet to the fire

If you go to the Obama campaign site Obama, you’ll read its boast of the EPA initiating restrictions on mercury and other pollutants from coal and oil fired power plants during the President’s tenure.

Just recently, the Obama administration announced its reaching agreement with the nation’s auto manufacturers to increase vehicle fuel efficiency to 54.5 mpg by 2025,

Perhaps the best news for environmentalists is the State Department’s recent announcement that it would delay construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to review its previously approved routing, ultimately deciding its verdict after the 2012 elections.

These seeming environmental breakthroughs, while making good copy, masquerade sobering truths.

Take the Keystone delay, for example. While this change from approval to delay has apparently rekindled environmentalist enthusiasm for Obama, Greens should be forewarned it probably reflects politics rather than sincere commitment.

You may remember that just last August hundreds of protestors against the pipeline, which would transport carbon-heavy tar sands from Canada to the Gulf, were arrested outside the White House, leading many environmentalists to think seriously about not supporting the President’s reelection.

This caution has apparently been tossed to the winds by the Keystone delay. I think this is a mistake. (See Rekindle.) Obama is simply just another politician governed by pragmatics, hence quite willing to pander rather than stick to principle in order to keep power. The Keystone Project delay is about re-routing only, not abnegation, and environmentalists are foolish not to note the difference as well as its ominous time-line.

Underscoring my suspicion is Obama’s earlier September decision to shelve new EPA proposals on smog. The President justified his decision on the basis of not wanting to jeopardize the economy by imposing new pressures on industry and business. Republican House speaker Boehner had argued that one of the EPA’s proposals would have cost $90b. Never mind, however, the consequences for those millions with respiratory problems. Clean Air Watch called Obama’s turnaround “political cowardice.” I agree.

As for the original Keystone plan that routed the pipeline incredulously through the sensitive Oragulla Aquifer, it was the Obama administration that signed on.

Won't anything ever change in Washington? If we hold our ground and not conflate rhetoric with meaningful change, it will.

The bottom line is that we must hold the President’s feet to the fire.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Harvesting awareness

Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.
--Helen Keller

Are you a sleep walker? I’m not talking here of those who walk about rather than lie in bed when they sleep. I mean the way many of us live our lives, asleep to what goes on around us. Not surprisingly, we lose out on life’s conversation.

As sentient creatures, we’re able to respond to stimuli in the guise of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Think about it! Just take away any one of them and you get the picture. While losing your sight or hearing are surely impacting losses that severely limit, so is the loss of other sensory capacities. Imagine what it would be like being unable to relish mashed potatoes with gravy or the pleasure of your tongue indulging a chocolate ice cream cone.

My favorite poet has always been John Keats, poet extraordinaire in his sensory awareness. Reading a Keats poem is something like being locked up in a bakery. The one thing he feared was death, which he viewed as horrible in its annihilation of the senses, an end rendering us but sod. But we don’t need to die to forfeit awareness. Some of us are downright zombies in the here and now.

We live in a world now pervasively scientific and technological. They have their place in helping us live more ably and comfortably. And yet they often fail us when we live only for the quantitative or functional. We are not simply physical or material creatures. We are spirit, with the capacities to not only think, but to feel and choose. What would our world be like if we didn’t have music, or image (art/photo/film), smells of freshly cut hay, dinner on the stove, or garden roses? What if we couldn’t feel that soft velvet, the clasp of warm hand, the softness of the beloved’s cheek?

More than ever, we live in a world that can so busy us that we can become callous to what really matters. Each day simply repeats yesterday’s routine. Tomorrow promises more of the same.
Life is brief and tomorrow shouldn’t be assumed, for we live in a random universe. Our heaven lies in the Now.

Here are some tips that may help you increase your awareness and, consequently, your pleasure in life’s rich tapestry:

Keep a journal or blog

I can't think of a better way to improve my awareness of what happens around me, or within myself for that matter, than keeping a journal or maintaining a blog: who, what, when, where, how. Writing this blog is a prime example. I've been writing on myriad topics for almost a year. Thinking about a topic has kept me on my toes, forced me to think about what I hear, see, or do. Good journals and blogs can be on anything, but simply centering in doings is more like keeping a diary. It's not going to grow the senses. Select like you would at a gourmet restaurant, choose according to your palette, but choose wisely. Write not only about what matters, but why it matters.

Find space

We all need moments for ourselves. I find some of my best times are when I'm outside, working in the yard, the world very far away. My senses are kindled, and the birds, rustling leaves, and even the lowly worm, get noticed. Though I'm raking leaves, I'm alive, my mind a bubbling stream.


I'm still working on this. Health authorities increasingly cite research, indicating a host of benefits in its alleviating stress and consequent anxiety, those salient features of modern life. Ironically, letting go or emptying ourselves leads to replenishment of awareness as we become absorbed in our breathing rhythms and are reduced to the sensory essentials. You can meditate anywhere with no equipment needed. Yoga, especially hatha yoga because of its slow pace and easy postures, affords a wonderful way to purge life's pollutants and yield not only relaxation, but a reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, better sleep, and improved moods.


Become an omnivorous devourer of books, quality magazines and journals. Reading stimulates and prompts new conversations. But choose wisely. Some books are meant to be read; others, to be chewed; some, to be spat out. Some magazines, pulp publications devoted to stardom and gossip, are better left in the rack.


Reacting is fundamental to achieving improved awareness. When you read, go to movies, converse with others, see or listen to the news, ask questions, make associations, think about the validity of underlying assumptions, reign in generalizations. Be wary of too much TV. It breeds passivity, dulls the senses, makes the mind lazy, steals time for better things. Socrates wisely tells us that the unexamined life isn't worth living. Don't be a sponge. Be a hose.

Change your routine

Waking or driving, do you take the same route to work or school? Try a different one.

Always eating at the same restaurants? Go for adventure. At home, why not try that new recipe?

Always watching the big three: football, basketball, baseball? Why not take a peek at soccer, lacrosse, or hockey?

I think you get my meaning. Routine dulls the senses. Hey, it happens in relationships, too. Take heed!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Only the rich get to see Europe

I had promised my sister-in-law, ailing in Germany, that my wife and I would be visiting her next June. That may not be possible.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I checked into Orbitz this morning and discovered the cheapest fare was $902 with United/Continental. Wait! It gets better. That’s just the airfare. Add taxes, $617.19, and you’re looking at $1,519.19 per person. In other words, the taxes are two thirds the actual fare. I think that’s outrageous.

I decided to find out why the high taxes. It’s the EU countries that are doing this. Scrapped for cash to finance their deficit welfare-state budgets, they’re looking everywhere. Tourists don’t vote. Voila! Well, and I think I’m not alone, I’ll vote with my feet.

Have they no clue they're busting their own economies? No more flotillas of Americans and Canadians. Already, you can hear the screams of the European travel industry, not to mention airlines. So far, to no avail.

It’s amazing. I can book a trip from Lexington, KY, all the way to gorgeous Hawaii for just 754 rt, taxes included.

What a mess Europe's gotten itself into. For decades since WWII, they’ve pretty much thought they had a free lunch, given their generous government outlays. Did they really think Disney World would go on forever? As is, they’ve got this heavy value added tax on virtually everything you buy, their touted free medical care is escalating in cost, and all of this while cutting their defense spending, already meager, by 50% in some countries. What a milk toast ally!

They don’t work as hard as Americans. Most retire 30 years and out. Vacations average 6 weeks, versus two for Americans, many of them not taking any vacation.

What’s awful is that their sorry mess could plunge all of us on this side of the pond into recession again. But what do you do about people who riot in the streets whenever austerity measures are adopted?

And there’s a warning in all of this for America to get its own financial house in order to avoid becoming a version of Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland. My own state of Ky is nearly 8 billion dollars delinquent in funding pensions for its public employees, including teachers.

Republicans, cutting spending without revenue increases through higher taxation won’t get the job done.

Democrats, increasing taxes without meaningful cuts in spending only delays our day of reckoning.

Better book that trip to Hawaii--don’t I wish--before Congress fancies imitating our European brethren and we all go down the tubes.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Evolution's triumph: the Sandhill Crane

You can't mistake Sandhill cranes, resplendent with red crowns, wide wing spans, and long legs.

Every fall, they come to Kentucky by the thousands, transients pursuing a rest stop as they wing their way to winter feeding grounds in the Mississippi delta, Florida, Mexico and Cuba. They draw their name from their principal migratory feeding ground along the Platte in Nebraska, with its 75-mile stretch of grass secured sand dunes.

They're enchanting birds to watch and listen to. You can hear them coming a long ways off in what sounds like a thunderous French r made deep within the throat. These are creatures who sing and dance. Couples, who mate for life and live up to 20 years, actually sing in mutual cadence, sometimes leaping up and down.

They’re among our most ancient birds, stretching back several million years and preceding humans. By the early part of the Twentieth Century they had been hunted virtually to extinction. Through careful conservation, they've rebounded, though still threatened principally by habitat loss in Mississippi and Cuba.

Lately, they've been in my thoughts. Last spring I had been reading Carl Safina's impassioned lament for nature's vanishing wildlife, The View from Lazy Point, and several times he alluded to and quoted Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, a collection of Thoreau-like observations on nature and man's troubling despoilment of it. I was not disappointed.

In the course of this beautifully written book, Leopold comes upon the Sandhill crane:

A glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spiral to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.
When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the chorus of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.
The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.


This week here in Kentucky, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources announced it will take applications for permits from Nov. 15 through Nov. 30 and hold a drawing Dec. 5 to select up to 400 hunters, the first state to do so East of the Mississippi. Hunters may take up to two sandhill crane then, or until hunters take 400 birds. The season will begin December 17.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Water: managing a precious resource

In North America, we take water availability for granted. This may not be our future.

One of our greatest challenges over the next several decades will be meeting our water needs, whether globally or in the USA. We can live with less oil or coal, find alternative fuels, or develop new technologies. Not so with water, an element vital to sustaining food production and keeping ourselves alive. Though as humans we can be a narcissistic lot, the truth is we’re composed of up to 90% water.

I was reminded of this fact several weeks ago after a three day bout with the stomach flu, with all its unpleasant symptoms. One of the first things you learn is to replace lost fluids quickly and amply. If you don’t, you risk dehydrating and its ultimate consequences, kidney damage and even shutdown.

When Americans think of drought, they probably think of Africa, certainly in the news lately and in past decades with its devastating water shortages. The reality is that what Africa is experiencing is becoming increasingly apropos for earth’s more prosperous regions as well. Take Australia, for example. Sydney draws its water primarily from capacious water storage facilities, drawn from rainfall and held in check by dams. In fact, Sydney’s reservoirs exceed New York’s storage capacity 4:1. Even so, the water flow into Sydney's nine dams fell 45% between 1996 and 2003. The situation, even now, remains critical. It hasn’t rained plentifully in New South Wales for a very long time.

In the U. S, particularly California and the Southwest, water sufficiency, always a problem for essentially desert regions, has become a gnawing challenge. Southern California depends for much of its water on Northern California, to the latter’s consternation, since it’s also become plagued with serious water shortages. Normally dependent on melting snowpacks from the mountains, this source is proving unreliable, with snow melting earlier before it can consolidate in yet another link with rising global temperatures. Elsewhere, while Los Angeles is certainly under threat, one of America’s fastest growing cities, Las Vegas, may well run out of water, and very soon.

Consider the Midwest. Beneath America’s agricultural heartland lies the Ogallah aquifer, stretching through eight states, South Dakota to Texas. Used as a primary irrigation source, it’s now seriously depleted through over pumping. We are producing agricultural bounties drawing on tomorrow’s water.

If I had time, I could explore with you the causes for increasing drought and, ironically, for some areas like my native New England, unprecedented rain and snow with ensuing floods such as Vermont recently encountered. I wish I also had time to explore proposed solutions such as building more dams, which actually create other dilemmas. My focus here is on conservation, the wise use of water to make it go round and last longer.

1. Get rid of your lawn, or, reduce it sharply.

A 2008 NASA study concluded that grass lawns in the U. S. exceed the entire land area of New York state. In fact, one third of our water use is spent on our lawns or, shockingly, 200 gallons of water per person, per day. Lawns can be replaced or reduced with native, drought-resistant grasses of short height, needing little water. Attractive ground covers such as Irish moss or creeping thyme can help do the job. You’ll save on your water bill while reducing gas mower pollution and insecticide run off as well.  If you’re a garden keeper, plant varieties of flowers and vegetable with lesser water needs.

2.  Install water barrels.

Think about this: an inch of rain falling on a 1000 square foot roof generates 600 gallons of water, which can then be used for your flowers and vegetables. I installed one last summer with a eighty gallon capacity and found it filled up after a brief shower. More and more communities are imposing restrictions on water usage and water rates have been rising as new treatment plants become needed. I’m hoping to plant several raised garden beds accessed to this barrel through a hose.

3.  Be conservative in using water in the house.

In buying water products such as shower heads, faucets and toilets, look for the EPA’s WaterSense label. You can find such products online at

If you’re planning to build a new home, a family of four can save up to 50,000 gallons of water annually in a certified WaterSense installation. That’s sufficient to do 2000 laundry loads a year and a savings up to $600 on water bills. Savings can also be had by confining washer/dryer purchases to Energy Star products. (Tankless water heaters, by the way, can save up to 20% in energy costs per year and don’t require periodic flushing.)

Repair dripping faucets promptly.

4.  If a city dweller, opt for a green roof.

All of the applications I’ve mentioned have business and industrial applications as well. In Chicago, green roof gardens are catching on, with some 200 now in existence, including City Hall. Green roofs provide not only space for growing vegetables, but capture storm water while simultaneously cooling the urban landscape.

5.  Stop eating meat.

This recommendation may surprise you, sounds crazy, and is least likely to be adopted, given our cultural biases. But I mention it anyway, just for the record. A recent study by the Agricultural Water Management indicated that cutting animal product use by just half would result in a national reduction of dietary water requirements of 261 billion cubic meters annually by 2025. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of 14 times the annual flow of the Colorado River.e ample

The point in all of this is that you and I can take steps now to assure we have ample water at minimal costs in a world where this will be a decreasing reality.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Lebensraum in Texas

On October 31, the United Nations Population Fund announced that world population had reached a watermark 7 billion.  This couldn’t come at a worse time, given global warming. Combined with diminishing economic and natural resources, it possibly heralds a doomsday scenario of accelerating species extinction, famine, and mass starvation.  Some would argue our demise has already begun, given the continuing rise in sea levels, devastating drought, and declining resources as more humans compete for their place at the table.  In the 19th Century, it was clergyman Robert Malthus who provided the first numerical analysis of exponential population growth, and he lived in a world not facing the spectre of climate change as the great complicator. 
For the most part, science has been able to keep Malthus at bay with its progress in developing new crops less impervious to insect and drought.  Such gains, however, have now slowed, given their inability to stay even, or ahead, of population growth.  Adding to this developing tragedy is its impacting the world’s neediest, those living in Africa or developing nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  As I indicated in one of my first posts back in January, the unrest in North Africa has been essentially over rising food prices, now consuming up to a third of a family’s budget.  To the South, or African Horn, starvation threatens several million Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans.
While Northern Hemisphere nations scramble for oil, the major crisis in resources, namely water availability, dwarfs all other resource challenges. By 2025, the International Water Management Institute projects that nearly 2 billion people will live in areas lacking sufficient water to sustain agriculture.  But this crisis will affect the wealthier nations as well.  In the U. S., the rich underground water table that feeds the generous corn and wheat bounties of the Midwest is dropping precipitously..  In Australia, huge areas, particularly near Perth in the west, once known for their wheat and vineyard harvests, haven’t seen rain in several years.  Less wheat and corn translates to less surplus available for third world nations.  While the wealthy nations will work out coping strategies, it’s the already poor who will suffer yet greater degradation. Uncurbed population growth exacerbates their suffering.
Not everyone agrees with the dismal portrayal I’ve given here.  In a lead Time Magazine article (Oct. 26, 2011), writer Bryan Walsh argues we have the resources to not only take care of 7 billion, but many more. Moreover, there’s good news on the birth control front. In 1950, the average woman had 5 children, now down to 2.5.  Present world population growth is just 1.1  a year. True, population continues its rapid rise in sub-Saharan Africa, but this is offset by their low impact on resources. "[The] real problem for the world is that each of the 300 million people in the U. S. consumes as much as 32 Kenyans do,” Walsh argues.
Personally, I think people like Walsh are living on another planet. More people means more environmental degradation in the form of carbon emissions, declining wildlife habitat and loss of fauna and flora, more competition for oil, gas, and, yes, food.  We may be able to feed ourselves now to the point of waste and obscene obesity, but this doesn’t help distressed populations in Africa and Asia.  Soon we will not even have sufficient grains to export and alleviate our guilt, or is it our complacency?  Have we forgotten the spectre of global warming that is fast changing the equation?
I have to laugh at those who argue like Walsh that we could fit the entire world population into Texas and wouldn’t exceed the density of New York City, a place he finds tolerable.  Personally, I shudder at the prospect of every place looking like Jersey or NYC. Has this guy ever been to India, a nation with just a third of China’s land size, yet destined to surpass China’s population in the next decade?
United Nations population projections (2010):
2010 2050 2100
United States:  310m 400m  478m 
Russia: 142m 130m  110m  
Nigeria: 150m 425m  740m 
China    1b,300m 1b,200m  941m 
India     1b,225m 1b,692m  1b,551m
Afghanistan 31m 76m 111m 
Uganda  33m 94m  171m 
Pakistan 174m 275m 261m

More people--more pollution, hunger, poverty, resource depletion, habitat loss, flora/fauna extinction, accelerated climate change.
Hot off today’s environmental news: Africa’s western Black rhino now officially declared extinct.
More:  25% of mammals now headed for extinction.
No problem:  We could fit the entire population of the world, both now and later, into Texas.  Hmm, wonder how Texans might feel about that.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Raising cain

News media have been preoccupied of late with the sex scandal surrounding Republican presidential candidate Herbert Cain to the point of nausea. I suspicion he may indeed be guilty of harassing women, what with a total of four women leveling charges, two of them publically, and a settlement years ago with another.

More women may be involved who haven’t come forward. As they say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire." One of the women going public gave very specific detail. Still, Cain simply denies the charges, blames some of his fellow Republican competitors, or even pulls the race card. He seems to be increasingly recovering from amnesia, each new day belying his initial bear-faced denials.

Americans need better than this, and clearly this guy’s running his campaign from the seat of his pants. If conservative Republicans remain loyal, it’s probably more their fear of Romney, whom they don’t trust, than Cain charisma. Anyone but Mitt.

Right now, it might be a pretty thing to see Newt Gingrich walk through the door. The several debates clearly evidence a man with articulation skills and a defined approach to America’s many ills that merit more listening. Without the baggage of Mitt, who likes camouflage, he could prove a strong Obama adversary.

But back to the media. In all this scuttlebutt, you’d think they’d make parallels with the myriad women linked to Bill Clinton across the years, and I’m talking about the pre-presidency years: Dolly Kyle Browning, Judy Gibbs, Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, Deborah Mathis, Christy Zercher, Elizabeth Ward, Paula Jones. As President, he showed follow-through with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, who probably would have appreciated a good set of knee pads. The candidate Clinton makes Cain look impotent, a mere groper.

Yet not a word from the media about having gone down this road before. Is this lapse simply political bias at work? Or is it just another instance of press frenzy for the story-of-the-moment? Wait a little bit and they’ll move on to something else.

Ironically, today Clinton is one of the most well-liked politicians in recent memory, a caring, good-will ambassador bent on good deeds. People often forgive not out of charity, but because they forget.

If one likes Cain he might urge him to just hang in there. As I’ve said, time blurs misdeeds. What’s more, today's miscreants often become tomorrow’s heroes.

Unfortunately for Cain, he’s a Republican, conservative, and black.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Right-on, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Warren, Democratic aspirant to the Senate seat held by Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, recently came out with what’s now become a widely publicized comment, subsequently picked-up by YouTube and Move On websites:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Her comment rests on the assumption that the rich aren’t paying their fare share in taxes. In a previous post I’ve shown that the top 1 percent do pay 38 percent of the federal tax; however, this isn’t the bottom line. It’s what they don’t pay in taxes, given limitations on payroll taxes on social security, or sharply reduced tax brackets, once 70% before the Reagan era, now 35% max, etc. And then there are the investment loopholes and off shore tuck-a-ways a la places like the Cayman Islands and Swiss banks.

Concurrently, many of the middle class at substantially lower income levels pay at a high 28% clip. That includes my wife and me.  The unpleasant truth is that the rich have exponentially  increased their economic disparity with the middle and working classes to the point where the future threatens something resembling the two class set-up common to many South American countries of some rich and many poor.

We now learn that 20 million of our fellow Americans live in poverty. Forty-three percent of our unemployed, those age 50 and above, have been out of work more than a year. Unemployment among minorities, the fastest growing segment of our population, approximates the squalor of the Great Depression. The average indebtedness of a college graduate, a good many unable to find meaningful work, stands at $25,000, all of this at a time when corporate profits have soared 12% over the last decade, despite the 2008 down turn.

Sounds like Jacques Rousseau, but in the fine print of Warren’s spirited quote lies the idea of the social contract, that those with means have a responsibility for those who lack. The perquisites of the wealthy rest on the labor of the working poor and middle classes, as Warren points out.

Here in Lexington, KY, local government, facing severe budget limitations, is impinging on health care benefits for its employees, who are being asked to pay a larger share; for families, that’s some $600 monthly. Get real! As prolific social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich astutely observes in her 2001 classic, Nickel and Dimed, “Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.”

Ehrenreich writes of employees in the minimal paying service industries, or of the working-poor, but her observations are no less valid for the vast majority of middle class families, too.

It was essayist John Ralston Saul who famously observed, “Everyone has an equal right to inequality.” Let the rich, the banks, the corporations try on the other fellow’s shoes, and I can promise you bellowing howls and light-year speed in concocting remedy.

Right-on, Elizabeth!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

They, too are family

The other day I came upon this picture of an emaciated Somali child. Unfortunately, we can multiply his number into the hundreds of thousands across the East Horn of Africa (Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti). A drought like this hasn’t been seen in 60 years. In Somalia, conflict waged by al Shabab, an extremist Islamist group, has added to the tragedy, killing aid workers and kidnapping would-be refugees desperately fleeing for help. We can’t do much about the gratuitous evil nature sometimes wreaks, but worse than the horrors of earthquake, tsunami, and drought is Man’s savagery across his recorded history. Voltaire once suggested we kill more in our wars than all the natural disasters, and he missed the two World Wars of the previous century. Ironically, throughout history much of this bloodshed has born the imprint of religion that frequently breeds intolerance. Reading history and following current events, I am distrustful of all euphorias, claiming to have found the the person or way. As Robert Brault puts it, "I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true."

In Kenya, there is now a huge refugee camp that’s arisen, a tent city sheltering perhaps 500,000 refugees who cross into Kenya at about 1000 a day. Some have walked for 15-days, only to reach the final 50-mile stretch frequented by bandits, often fellow Somalis, who rob and rape. The UN says that up to 750,000 may die in this drought. That’s sufficient horror in itself.

In the West, I think the vast majority of us don’t think about places like Africa and its teeming poverty, pickpocket governments, roving militants and, now, famine. Africa seems far away and the people very different from ourselves. It’s convenient to think this way, a way of walking across the street rather than encountering people who, shed of the cultural baggage, mirror ourselves with names, families and the same desire for love, security, and happiness. Geography is often accidental. By chance, we drew the lucky cards, born in the West, where even our have-nots are rich by comparison.

I went to India years ago, and not with a tour. It changed my life. Again, these were people like ourselves. Compassion doesn’t hide behind a fence. Drawn from empathy, the putting on another’s shoes, it overflows geography. Everyone should visit a third world country. Better, go as a helper. Nothing comparable helps us catch the vision: to see ourselves as one.