About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Toxic Lead to Cover Iowa Killing Fields

by Walter Brasch

Iowa, which gave us the carnival known as the Iowa Straw Poll and artery-clogging Deep Fried Butter, will unleash another health problem, Sept. 1.
            The Iowa legislature last year approved a dove hunting season, the first in more than nine decades. However, the state's Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission (DNR) banned the use of lead shot and bullets.
            That led to a massive all-out assault by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the U.S. Sportsman's Alliance (USSA).
            In a letter to Gov. Terry Branstad, the NRA underscored its opposition by waving a veiled threat that banning lead ammunition is an "attack [on] our freedoms."
            “Absurd," replied Robert Johns of the American Bird Conservancy, who explained that "the NRA continues to deliberately miscast the lead-versus-nonlead ammunition issue as an attack on hunting." There is nothing in the Constitution or in any federal court decision that would prohibit the banning of any specific kind of ammunition.
            The NRA blatantly suggested the ban on lead shot "is designed to price hunters out of the market and keep them from taking part in traversing Iowa's fields and forests." For its "evidence," it pointed out the cost of non-toxic ammunition is higher than ammunition made of lead. However, the use of non-toxic shot results in only a 1-2 percent increase in total costs for hunters, according to a study conducted by the National Wildlife Research Centre, certainly not enough to justify the NRA's paranoid panic that non-toxic bullets will lead to a decrease in hunting.
            Iowa's DNR, the NRA claimed, was echoing not just environmental extremism but "the unscientific battle cry of the anti-hunting extremists."
             Contrary to NRA and USSA statements, there are several hundred scientific studies that conclude that lead shot is a health and environmental danger. Lead can cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, reduced reproduction, neurological damage, and genetic mutation. For those reasons alone, the U.S. bans lead in gasoline, water pipes, windows, pottery, toys, paint, and hundreds of other items.
            "Wildlife is poisoned when animals scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead-bullet fragments, or pick up and eat spent lead-shot pellets[,]mistaking them for food or grit," the Center for Biological Diversity points out. As many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from lead poisoning, says the CBD.
            Humans can be poisoned by eating animals that have eaten the pellets from the ground or which have eaten decaying carcasses of birds that have been shot with lead ammunition. Iowa is one of only 15 states that don't have some regulation that bans lead in shot and ammunition. Most European countries ban the use of lead shot for hunting.
            The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991 banned the use of lead shot in all waterfowl hunting. The NRA screamed its opposition at that time. However, the ban didn't lead to a reduction of hunting or hunters, nor did it violate any part of the Constitution.
            R.T. Cox, in his column, "The Sage Grouse," notes that "bird hunters can leave 400,000 pellets per acre of intensely hunted areas." About 81,000 tons of lead shot are left on shooting ranges each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Part of the reason for so much lead shot on the ground is that doves, which can fly up to 50 miles per hour and make sharp turns, are difficult to hit. While hunters may claim they shoot the birds as a food source, such claims are usually blatant lies meant to hide the reality that the 20 million doves killed each year are nothing more than live targets. The five ounce mourning dove, hit by shot, provides little usable meat. The NRA even advises hunters that for health reasons, they should "cut away a generous portion of meat around the wound channel."
            Lead on the dove killing fields isn't the only problem. An investigation by the North Dakota Dept. of Health in 2007 revealed that 58 percent of venison donated to food banks by the Safari Club contained lead fragments. A study conducted by the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2006 revealed there were toxic levels of lead in condors. During the past decade, 276 California condors were found to have had lead poisoning; there are fewer than 400 in the state. A ban on lead shot was enacted in 2007.
            There are alternatives to using lead. Non-toxic bullets and shot are made from tungsten, copper, and steel, without the negative health problems. While some hunting advocates maintain that lead bullets are significantly better in the field, there is no evidence to suggest that "green" ammunition results in fewer kills.
            Nevertheless, disregarding scientific evidence and facing NRA wrath, Branstad said he agreed with a legislative panel's decision to ignore the findings of the state's professional wildlife conservationists, who he said exceeded their authority, to restore lead shot hunting.
            Andrew Page, a senior director for the Humane Society of the United States, has another opinion, one far more logical than the NRA/NSSA rants: "If hunters are conservationists as they say they are, they should be the first to stand up and say they won't poison wildlife or the ecosystem."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

‘Step Right up!’ Snake Oil for Sale

by Walter Brasch

            The Tea Party, mutant spawn of the Republicans, held their spineless parents and the nation hostage during the debt ceiling crisis, and is now demanding an even greater ransom.
            Flushed with what they mistakenly believe is success, they have launched an all-out assault upon the presidency. Their generals, fattened by Iowa corn and midway schmaltz, are Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. Sarah Palin, hovering near the battlefields to soak up the media sunlight, much like a black hole absorbs all energy and light from nearby stars, is waiting to see how the war goes (and if she can write some intelligent sentences) before deciding to re-enter battle.
            Bachmann is the winner of the strangest political non-election in the country, the Iowa Straw Poll. She won the race the old-fashioned way. She bought it.
            To make sure that Iowans entered the Tents of Instant Gratification and, thus, cast their ballot the right way, the candidates, who paid $15,000–$31,000 to rent space at Iowa State, provided food, music, and carnival fun for the voters. Bachman had a petting zoo, and drew fans to a concert by country superstar Randy Travis. Cost of the banquet: $30 a ticket.
            To assure there were enough votes, Bachmann’s campaign, like all other campaigns, paid the $30 admissions ticket. That would be $144,690 for 4,823 votes, plus several hundred thousand dollars in related campaign expenses. Related campaign expenses for the candidates included renting charter buses to bring voters from throughout Iowa to Ames.
            But, Iowans aren’t stupid. Many wanted to see Randy Travis and eat the food of politics but didn’t plan to vote for Bachmann. About 6,000 persons took the “free” $30 tickets. Thus, she officially paid $180,000, $37.32 a vote; unofficially, with all expenses figured in, the cost could easily have been well over $200 a vote so she could be the winner and earn the title of Media Darlin’ of the Week.
            The establishment media generally avoided Ron Paul, the second place winner, who “only” got 4,671 votes, 152 less than Bachmann, and 27.7 percent. Paul is a pariah in the Republican party, and something the media can’t figure out, because he actually has a core set of principles, which sometimes leads him to ally with liberals, but for different reasons.
            Third place, with 13.6 percent of the vote and, according to numerous media pundits not charismatic enough to be a serious contender, went to Tim Pawlenty, who didn’t drink much of the tea and dropped out of the race after spending about $1 million in Iowa. Not dropping out were Tea Party favorites Rick Santorum (9.8 percent) and Herman Cain (8.6 percent), who lured voters into his tent with free Godfather’s Pizza. Mitt Romney, who had spent about $2 million in the 2007 Straw Poll, but skipped this year’s non-binding poll, finished behind Rick Perry, dripping tea with every statement he makes, entered the presidential race only after the Iowa Straw Poll, but did get 718 write-in votes for 4.3 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, Romney is still believed to be the front-runner.
            Thus, going into the primary season, the Tea Party can arouse themselves with Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, Cain, and maybe Palin. Not identified with the Tea Party, but in its gravitational pull are Romney, Jon Huntsman, and whatever is left of Newt Gingrich’s chances.
            The Tea Party began a few months after Barack Obama was elected president, with a stated purpose to reduce wild government spending. But its deep structure shows an amorphous bunch of white middle-class ultra-conservatives, aided by upper-class political consultants and media manipulators, who have developed the ability to sound impressive with only half-truths behind their rants and chants, and a zealous determination to keep President Obama out of a second term.
            During the debt ceiling crisis, Tea Partiers refused to budge on a demand of not raising the debt ceiling, cutting numerous social and educational programs, and holding firm to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Everyone must cut back, especially during economic crises, they bleated. Austerity is their mantra.
            But, based upon their extravagant lifestyle and the wild spending they did in Iowa, shouldn’t their mantra now be “hypocrisy”?

            [As a young reporter in Iowa, Brasch covered everything from fairs to politics to rock concerts. His current book is Before the First Snow, a powerful look at how the collusion of Big Government and Big Business can destroy civil liberties and lead to environmental destruction and health issues. The book is available at www.greeleyandstone.com, http://www.amazon.com/, or Barnes & Noble.]

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Punishing Educational Curriculum


   by Walter Brasch

            With the nation’s unemployment rate hovering about 10 percent, recent high school graduates are escaping reality by going to college, and college grads are avoiding reality by entering grad school. The result is that it now takes an M.A. to become a shift manager at a fast food restaurant.
            Colleges have stayed ahead of the Recession by becoming business models, where students are “inventory units,” and success is based upon escalating profit. Increasing the number of incoming units, class size, and tuition, while not increasing teaching and support staff, leads some colleges to believe they are solvent in a leaking economy. Budgets for academics are decreasing; budgets for dorms are increasing. Enrollment in degree-granting institutions is expected to be about 19.1 million in 2012, an increase of about 25 percent from 2000, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
            Desperate to destroy their image as places of scholarship, colleges are using the 98.6 admissions criteria—admit almost anyone with a body temperature. Colleges may claim they admit only students with at least a 3.0 grade point average, which at some high schools is about half the student body, but it’s likely that students with lower averages aren’t recruited because they’re already working as lab specimens.
            Across the nation, Developmental Education classes are increasing, with some departments now within the Top 5 in the college. For those who don’t speak “academicese,” that means more students are in college who have basic readin’, ’riting, and ’rithmetic problems.
            Nevertheless, there are still a few hold-outs among colleges where students actually go to study, develop their minds, and hope to make great contributions to society. This, of course, in a declining economy, is not acceptable.
            At Neargreat Tech, when the Admissions department failed to increase enrollment because most high school grads didn’t want to be associated with geeks, the President convened a Judiciary Review Board to reduce the college’s academic reputation. First in was the class valedictorian.
            “Bennish, this is the fifth time this semester you’ve been caught sneaking into the library. This administration just doesn’t know what to do with you.”
            “Sir, maybe I could increase my community service and read books to the ill and illiterate.”
            “Why can’t you just go to our football games Saturday afternoons, then party and get drunk like a normal college student?”
            “Because, sir, we don’t have a football team.”
            “Then start one! If it’s as bad as it could be, you’ll have an excuse to drink. Next!”
            Next in was a student accused of disturbing the peace.
            “Rachmaninoff, your advisor says you’re a pretty good musician, but you only want to play the classical stuff. We’re assigning you to the marching band.”
            “But, Dean, I play the piano.”
            “Great! The band needs a pianist.”
            “Sir, it might be difficult to carry a piano along Broadway. Besides, there are only 20 members in the band anyhow.”
            “Even better! Pick an instrument. Banjo. Double bass. Electric guitar. They need everything! Dismissed!”
            Next to be called to face a disciplinary hearing was Schopenhauer. “You were seen lying on the grass beneath a tree in the quad,” said the president. “The campus police claim you were thinking. We should give you an opportunity to defend yourself against this egregious accusation. What exactly were you doing?”
            “That’s outrageous! You know we don’t like our students to think. What’s your major?”
            “Philosophy, sir.”
            “That’s the problem,” the president declared. “Since you’re only a freshman, and probably don’t know better, I’ll be lenient. You are sentenced to a day of writing graffiti on the university’s bathroom walls.” He paused a moment, then snapped, “And don’t let me catch you writing anything intelligent on those walls!”
            Later that afternoon, the president met with his staff.
            “This isn’t going to work,” said the dejected president. “We can’t catch every practicing scholar on campus. They’re just snickering at our rules. If we can’t stop education, then we won’t be able to raise our enrollment and get performance bonuses.”
            That’s when Winslow, a newly-appointed deputy assistant dean spoke up. “Perhaps we need to look elsewhere for our inspiration. What is it that almost every college but ours has?” He didn’t wait for a response when he declared the college needed fraternities and sororities.
            “How do we know the students will even want to participate?” asked the president. “Most of our students have no desire to participate in a system that humiliates them, strips them of their individuality, and causes them to walk six abreast down a narrow street while singing off-key.”
            “Perhaps,” suggested the deputy assistant dean, “we can tap our reserve fund and build a couple of fraternity houses, maybe a sorority house or two.”
            “Will that guarantee we’ll get more common students to raise the enrollment?”
            “If you build it, they will party,” said the deputy assistant dean.
            “Winslow may have a bright idea here,” said the president, who immediately promoted him to vice-president of academics and parties.

             [Walter Brasch bracketed several years as a college professor with work as a journalist and multimedia writer/producer. His current book is Before the First Snow, a light-hearted, yet tragic, look at what happens when an energy company moves into a region, lures citizens with high-paying jobs in a depressed economy, but which may have significant health and environmental issues as byproducts.]

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Debt Ceiling Crisis: Let’s Get Personal


by Walter Brasch

        You have a credit card with a $25,000 limit.
         Because you have a good job, you only have $6,000 on the card, and routinely pay the monthly statement and a little extra on the principal.
            But then you decide you need a 52-inch high-def LCD TV screen to go into your “man cave,” and your family rightfully decides they need a vacation. So, you add a few thousand to the credit card. But, it’s all OK since you just got a promotion at work.
            A couple of months later, your 2008 Honda begins puffing smoke. By the time repairs are done, it’s another thousand on the card.
            And then your boss calls you into her office. Your work has been excellent, she tells you. You have made numerous contributions to the company, she says. But her boss has figured out he can make even more money for himself and the nebulous apparitions known as stockholders, so he is sending much of the company’s manufacturing needs overseas, where labor (and often workmanship) is much less of a financial burden. Besides, he won’t have to deal with unions overseas. Oh, yeah, says your boss, you’ve been replaced by some guy in Pakistan who’ll work for a tenth of your salary.
            But there’s good news, says your boss. Because of your long and dedicated service, you’ll get four whole weeks salary—and health care benefits for two full months. You’ll surely find work in that time, you believe.
            Three months later, you’re still unemployed. The mortgage is due. Bills pile up. But, you’re optimistic. You have a good work record. You’ll find another job. Besides, your wife (who had quit her job to spend full-time taking care of the home and raising the three children) just got a job at $7.80 an hour as a clerk at a big-box department store to help out. It’s only temporary, the two of you believe. You’ll get a job soon; she’ll be able to quit her job. A few more months go by, and both of you are now working—she as a near-minimum-wage clerk; you as a part-time customer service representative for a hardware store at two bucks over minimum wage. That’s all you could find. You don’t have health benefits; hers, which cover the family, are significantly less than what you once had.
            You’re depressed, but there’s no money for social workers or psychologists. You and your family are a bit testy, snapping out for no apparent reason; there’s no money for marital counseling.
            The bills pile up. There’s unreimbursed medical costs, a couple of unexpected veterinary bills for your two dogs, clothes for the kids, gas for the cars so you can get to your jobs. And then that variable interest mortgage hits a new high. You put a few more necessities onto the credit card and are now are at $24,950 of your $25,000 debt limit.
            So, you go to the bank—the one that sold you the house, and which gladly gave you a mortgage when times were good and it could make a lot of money—and ask for a raise in the credit limit.
            But times aren’t that good right now, and the bank refuses to raise your credit limit. After all, says the banker, there’s no way you could make monthly payments.
            You plead that if the bank doesn’t raise the credit card limit, you won’t be able to survive, that you’ll have to default. That means you’ll lose your house and, probably, your cars. Your credit rating, once among the best, will plummet even further. Too bad, says the banker. Get another job, he says. One that pays better. Or, maybe work two jobs. Of course, there’s no jobs at the bank, or anywhere else. But that’s not his problem.
            You again plead for help, but the banker isn’t interested. It’s your fault you’re in this mess, he tells you. You spent too much, he coldly explains. Cut spending, and you’ll be able to meet your minimum monthly payment—you know, the one with the 13.5 percent interest that goes to the bank—and, well, figure out something. He has no compassion and won’t help.
            But there may be hope. Another banker comes into the office, hears your story, and wants to raise your debt limit, but the other banker has taken a stand. With you in the office, the two of them talk, argue, and shout loud enough so the other bankers and customers can hear them. It’s now 3:55 p.m., and the bank closes in five minutes, at which time the credit card, because of steadily rising interest, will be maxed out.
            Finally, the two bankers agree to provide a miniscule amount of help. They will temporarily raise your credit limit, but will now dictate exactly what you can spend, and how you’ll spend it.
            Since you like hunting, and they like hunting, they’ll let you buy all the guns and ammunition you want. But, they can’t help you on your health bills, or even lower the insurance premiums and co-pays. And, they can’t do much for that inflated mortgage payment. Or to help you find another job.
            You will have to wear old clothes, used clothes, or lower your clothing expenses, they say, but there’s a solution. They give you a catalogue of very nice clothes—men’s, women’s, children’s. The pictures of the clothes, in full color on glossy paper, is just what you need to reduce your costs so you look presentable at the next job interview. And no one notices that the clothes the banker wants you to buy are all made in Pakistan.