Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shut Up and Go Away!

The latest royal birth makes great news for tabloid journalism, but even better is the latest sex message sent by Anthony Weiner to a woman who is not his wife. Weiner was not yet a household name when he was a Congressional representative from New York, or even when he began talking a lot on MSNBC, but now he has become famous for the crotch shots he sends all over the country.

Can he parlay his name recognition into a successful campaign for mayor of New York? Until recently Weiner was leading his main opponent, Christine Quinn, current Speaker of the NY City Council, despite the scandal that made him resign from Congress in 2011. But in the last week we have learned that long after his resignation Weiner continued to send sexual messages and explicit photos to women he had never met. He is now reported to have initiated three new online sexual relationships and maintained them more than a year after resigning. There may have been contacts even after Weiner began his campaign for mayor.

Weiner says this is all in the past, which perhaps is true. Maybe it took him several years to learn that this form of cheating on his wife would be unpopular with voters. But what kind of man sends such messages while in Congress, gets caught and resigns, makes a big deal of publically apologizing to voters and to his wife, then continues to send messages to other women while he plans to run for mayor?

Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia has also recently earned tabloid headlines by using his elected position to finance a lifestyle far beyond the means of virtually all Americans. Bob McDonnell is one of the highest-paid governors in the US, earning $175,000 as of 2011. But that’s not enough for him. A campaign donor, who also has business before the state government, paid for catering at his daughter’s wedding, gave loans of over $100,000 to corporations owned by him and his wife, paid for his wife’s luxury shopping spree, gave McDonnell a $6500 Rolex watch, and more. Some of these gifts were not disclosed on McDonnell’s financial statements.
Now he has apologized for the “embarrassment I brought on my beloved Virginia”. What kind of man uses elected office to enrich himself, helping a wealthy donor tout his products while accepting giant gifts from him?

What happens when politicians get caught with their pants down or their hand in someone else’s pocket? Weiner says that there is no way he is dropping out of the mayor’s race. "You're stuck with me," he said. “I am waging this campaign on a bet, and the bet is at the end of the day citizens care more about their own future than about my past with my wife and my embarrassing things,” he said in Brooklyn. Weiner sent an email to supporters saying that his campaign for mayor was “too important” to give up over “embarrassing personal things”. Too important to whom?

Republicans and Democrats have called for McDonnell to resign, even though his term ends in January. But that’s not going to happen. “I'm not going anywhere. I love this job. There has been no consideration of that,” he told NBC.

Is Weiner’s continued presence in the mayoral race good for New Yorkers? Is it good for his party? Is McDonnell’s spending a few more months in the governor’s mansion good for his “beloved Virginia”? Is it good for his own attorney general, who is waging a tight race to replace him?

Both of these guys are in it for themselves. They can’t do without the power and money that politics can bring. They don’t want to give up their position in front of the camera. They can’t admit that they have proven themselves unfit for office. They want to be the center of attention, even if that attention focuses on their egotistical creepiness, their greed, and their colossally bad judgment.

Why can’t they shut up and go away?

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 30, 2013

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Long Decline

The incredible dominance of Roger Federer in tennis is over. He’ll win more tournaments and win a lot more money, but his power to control other men on the tennis court has diminished. Federer was number 1 in men’s tennis for four years, from age 22 to 27. Now he’ll be 32 in a few weeks, and he has been pushed aside by younger men, Rafael Nadal at 27, and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at 26. The same thing happened to Pete Sampras, who was no. 1 for 2 years at age 25 to 26. These men did not suddenly fall off a precipice: both Sampras and Federer later regained their top position for shorter periods. Sampras was 29 the final time he was no. 1.

Recent world record holders in the 100-meter dash, both male and female, set their records in their twenties, except Carl Lewis who had just turned 30 in 1991. Martina Navratilova lasted longer, reaching the finals at Wimbledon every year from age 25 to 33, winning her last Grand Slam that last time. At age 47, she became the oldest player to win a professional singles match.

In a much more physical sport, Michael Jordan prolonged his reign over basketball until he was 36, and still played well enough to score 40 points three times at age 40. Evander Holyfield was world champion heavyweight boxer at age 38, and Muhammed Ali retired as champion at 37.

A handful of athletes have retained their greatness past 35. But even the determined application of biological science by Lance Armstrong in the form of illegal doping didn’t allow him to win a Tour de France after age 33.

The message of these few statistics is clear: the human body generally reaches its physical peak well before 40 years old, usually by the early 30s. After that, a gradual physical decline sets in, lasting the rest of one’s life. When humans lived by hunting, only a small minority lived past 60, so the physical decline did not last long for most.
Over the past 150 years, life expectancy has jumped: Americans can expect to live until their late 70s, and a long list of nations show life expectancies into the 80s. The gradual decline of physical ability now occupies more than half of our lives: an adult can enjoy perhaps 20 years of top physical ability before embarking on a 40-year journey downward.

Fortunately not all of our abilities diminish at such a young age. Certain types of intellectual ability at the highest levels of performance don’t last much longer than physical ability: only the current world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, among those at the top since Mikhail Tal in the 1960s, has lasted past age 40. But great writers have continued to produce superior prose into their 60s and beyond, despite the complaint of the humorist James Thurber: “With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and definite hardening of the paragraphs.”

I believe that the ability to negotiate daily life, often called common sense, continues to improve until quite late in life, which is why a wrinkled skin and white hair can signal wisdom as well as age. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings quote a popular saying in one of their songs: “Old age and treachery always overcome youth and skill.”

But eventually intellectual decay and continuing physical decline bring people beyond the point where they can no longer care for themselves to a kind of twilight world, where they no longer know what is going on. We have made up words to describe this condition, like Alzheimer’s and dementia, but we don’t yet know what to do with the rapidly increasing number of our relatives who need assistance.

The medical advances which have prolonged the life of the body may have gone beyond the natural life of the brain. I hear myself and my middle-aged peers say that we do not want to continue living if we can no longer remember our names or recognize our children. But how is that to be accomplished?

We cannot simply hope that researchers will come up with a way to prevent Alzheimer’s – that is like building walls of sand to keep the tide from coming in. The expansion of nursing homes has been one social response to an aging population and to changes in the living patterns of the American family. But we need to keep thinking about how to deal with the decline of our bodies and minds in a way that preserves dignity and allows us to decide that decline has gone too far.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 23, 2013

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Playing With Food Stamps

Here in farm country, the politics of agriculture can mean the difference between profit and loss. Billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers are given out each year by Congress. Mandating ethanol mixed into gasoline raises the price of corn, and has led to the expansion of acreage in corn across the Midwest.

Millions of Americans who are not farmers also depend financially on farm legislation. Since 1973, every congressional farm bill has included the food stamp program, now called SNAP, run by the Department of Agriculture. That is, until last week, when Republicans in the House passed a farm bill with no food stamp program. Because of the economic crisis of the past few years, the number of people in poverty and receiving food stamps has grown from about 26 million in 2007 to 46.6 million in 2012. One in seven Americans needs that assistance so they don’t go hungry. Costs have risen from $30 billion to $75 billion.

Conservative Republicans have attacked the food stamp program for years. The budget that Paul Ryan proposed in 2012 as he ran for Vice President would have cut food stamps by about 20% for the next 10 years. This year he proposed that people with $2,000 in savings, or a car worth more than $5,000, be ineligible for food stamps. The Congressional Budget Office said that would eliminate nearly 2 million people, mostly low-income seniors and working families with children.

In June, House Republicans passed an amendment which would encourage states to drug test food stamp recipients. Although the SNAP program already has a normal requirement that recipients must look for and take jobs, an amendment from Steve Southerland (R-FL) would allow states to cut people from SNAP benefits if they are not now working 20 hours a week. Then state governments could keep half of the money saved and use it for any purpose. Every Republican but 6 voted for the Southerland amendment and every Democrat but one voted against it.

Republicans who don’t want to cut food stamps enough are targeted by conservative activists. In May, the Heritage Action Fund took out radio ads against three Republican members of the House for supporting a “food stamp bill”.

Which Americans receive food stamps? In 2011, of the 20.8 million households receiving food stamps, less than a third had any earned income. One-quarter of these households consisted of an elderly or a disabled person living alone, virtually all of whom had no earned income. One-sixth are unemployed single people living alone. The rest are mainly households with children, most of whom are headed by a single parent, and 13% of whom have no adult at all. That last group totals 1.3 million households of only children, about 2.6 million children. The average gross income per household is less than $9000 a year. Their total assets average $331.

What do they get? The average SNAP benefit is about $134 per month per person, a bit over $4 per day for food. That’s not enough to last a month: 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month.

The proponents of cutting food stamps argue that every program must be cut to deal with our national debt. But the House farm bill actually increases certain subsidies, to sugar for example, and cuts farm subsidies overall less than the bill that passed the Senate or than President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal. The vast majority of farm subsidies, averaging about $17 billion per year since 1995, are paid to huge farm operations and wealthy farmers: half of that money went to 4% of farmers at $820,000 per recipient; at the other end, 80% of recipients averaged only $9000, about 11% of the total.

For that reason, it has been criticized by conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which says that farm subsidy programs “transfer tax payer dollars mainly to rich landowners and wealthy farmers”.

What about “government waste”? SNAP program administrative costs are only 5% of the total program, and fraudulent selling of benefits is estimated to be 1%. Only 4% of recipients are non-citizens, mostly documented immigrants and refugees.

Feeding America, whose nationwide network of food banks works to alleviate hunger, says “Our nation’s budget is a moral document.” Congressional Republicans say that reducing the national debt will save future generations from financial disaster. To do that, they are taking food off the table for today’s children. What kind of morality is that?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 16, 2013

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hooray for Nature

Wisconsin has beautiful rivers, curving through thick forests, running over boulders left by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago. Last week, as we canoed down the Namekagon in the northwestern corner of the state, we enjoyed some natural encounters uncommon in central Illinois. Turtles the size of serving platters sunned themselves on dead logs until we approached too closely, then slipped into the water. A bald eagle watched us approach and then swooped overhead for a closer look. Most of the time the loudest sounds were leaves rustling and water rushing past rocks. During two hours on the river, we saw only a group of three kayakers.

At the other end of the state, the Wisconsin River runs through a sandstone gorge, also created by glaciers, called the dells. About 5 million people every year visit this area, which calls itself the Waterpark Capital of the World. To keep these millions coming back, new attractions are constantly being invented. For 2013, you could forget you are a thousand miles from the ocean by surfing an artificial wave at Noah’s Ark Waterpark, the largest outdoor waterpark in America. For more thrills, you could ride 70 miles per hour on the Hades 360, billed as “the world's first upside-down, underground, wooden rollercoaster.” To relax, you could jump into the 1000-square-foot hot tub at the Kalahari Resort and swim up to the bar at the Mud Hut.

The Namekagon and the Dells represent two different approaches to the interaction of humans and nature. Namekagon is derived from an Ojibwe word meaning “the place abundant with sturgeons.” It is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, whose mission is to “preserve, protect, restore, enhance, and interpret the riverway's exceptional natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” This and many other protected areas were created by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The system preserves 12,600 miles of 203 rivers, less than one out of every 400 of the nation's rivers. The rivers are protected from us, from the kind of human intervention which created the Dells. Not only is building not allowed along these rivers, but existing buildings have been purchased and removed. Campsites along the Namekagon are accessible only from the river. Entertainments are provided by nature itself.

It is all too easy to romanticize nature. In northern Wisconsin nature can be intrusive and annoying. Swarms of tiny insects, often called no-see-ums, just hatched on July 4 and covered every white surface they could find, including our sinks and bed sheets. More dangerous are the much larger animals with which we share this region. Recently encounters between black bears and people have increased, as the bear population of Wisconsin more than doubled over the past 25 years, and their range has moved into the more populous southern part of the state for the first time in a century. Although bear attacks on people are rare, they can be devastating. If we want to coexist with nature, we must exercise caution and discipline.

The contrast between the Namekagon and the Dells is not only between natural and artificial, but also public vs. private. Preservation of wilderness as a public good requires political will, which was manifested throughout the 20th century by the gradual creation of our system of national parks. That bipartisan will remains strong among Americans: 92% of Democrats, 90% of Independents, and 81% of Republicans believe it is quite or extremely important “for the federal government to protect and support” our national parks. But much of that will has disappeared in Washington. The last Congress was the first since 1966 not to protect a single additional acre of wilderness. Even after the sequester cut the budget of the National Park Service by 5%, Congress cut another $30 million in March. That means more cuts in staff, longer lines to get into parks, shorter seasons, fewer campsites and nature programs, locked restrooms and overflowing trash cans. Our national parks are a bargain: while 5 million tourists spent a total of $875 million in the Wisconsin Dells area in 2011, the 280 million visitors to our 401 national parks, memorials, lakeshores, parkways and historic sites cost the taxpayers only three times that much, $2.6 billion.

Some people prefer waterslides to watching bald eagles, riding artificial waves to spotting a snapping turtle. It’s less effort to swim up to the Mud Bar than to carry a canteen of water in a canoe. That’s fine, but we also need the less commercial, more natural experiences. Anti-government ideologues say they want to protect future generations from a debt disaster. In fact, posing as deficit alarmists, they are destroying our children’s chances to enjoy America’s unique natural heritage. Instead they will only be able to ride the world’s tallest looping waterslide, and see eagles in the zoo.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 9, 2013