Yet Another Rant

Many of my articles have been based on what I perceive as something wrong with our society, politics, priorities and the like. But sometimes the complaint, problem or suggested solution is too limited for a whole article most of which seem to be in the 1500-2500 word range, so I include it in an article about several topics which I have called my “rants”: the first one and the second. And, having made a little list of my latest complaints and issues, each too limited for a full article, I am offering to my reader(s) “yet another rant”.

First, I have to complain about the the sorry state of health information in the US. We saw this early in the pandemic from the Trump administration’s disgraceful handling of essential information. First, we experienced the cover-up of the severity and deadliness of the pandemic from the chief executive himself, then during dozens of presidential press conferences we were treated to exhortations to treat infections with disinfectants and the like while qualified medical personnel stood by, mentally rolling their eyes in disbelief and wringing their hands in frustration, never themselves offering us anything more concrete than masks, “social distancing” and hand washing. And they couldn’t even agree on the best kind of mask or tell us where they were available. I clearly remember the panic my wife and I felt when absolutely no masks were available anywhere and we were reduced to madly fashioning some from whatever we could find, including sewing a few primitive cloth masks on her sewing machine. In retrospect I don’t know why medical authorities could not have sent several good masks to every citizen, certainly preventing a significant number of infections and saving many lives.

And smooth-talking HHS secretary and former Eli Lily big pharma executive Alex Azar (a perfect example of the “revolving door” between government and private employment) frequently disagreed or talked over and around Trump CDC director Robert Redfield. Then we cringed to see how Redfield sacrificed himself and the lofty reputation of his agency on the altar of Trump by acquiescing to politics, watering down recommendations to mere suggestions, overruling scientists and generally destroying the integrity of his agency and public trust in it.

And we aren’t a whole lot better off right now, with obscenely wealthy corporations like Pfizer apparently running the show and hapless and helpless CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stumbling through her public pronouncements. Early on, with reckless and needless hyperbole, she warned that COVID may be “just a few mutations” away from being able “to evade our vaccine in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death.” Then she decided to overrule her own agency’s advisory panel and recommend boosters for workers whose jobs require often interacting with the public.

On related matters with booster shots, she first called for boosters for vaccinated people who were over 65 or who had compromised immune systems or other chronic conditions. Now it’s boosters for everyone except children. Oh, I forgot, first it was Pfizer boosters only – then eventually, after panicking those who had received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, approving those boosters, or, without supporting detail, it was okay go ahead and “mix or match”. Of course with Pfizer calling the shots (pardon the pun) one might wonder what CDC’s relationship with Pfizer really is. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the entity first calling for boosters at all was Pfizer itself, not the CDC. And it was Pfizer and not our government that first announced suitability of their vaccine for children. Hmmm, lots more shots…lots more money for profits, stockholders and CEO. And I’ve already noted in an earlier article that Pfizer fancies itself a quasi government entity, bustling all over the world making deals with foreign governments for vaccine sales, totally independent of the US State Department or federal health agencies.

But it’s not only during the “covid age” when we’ve been misled by our well funded and supposedly brilliant and far-reaching health authorities. Remember the “low fat” recommendations that were supposed to save us from cholesterol, clogged arteries and heart attacks? What happened to that? All of us scrambled madly to avoid fat in our diets. But not a word was said about sugar, the much more likely cause of heart problems than fat as I recounted in my article about sugar. And we suddenly found out that many fats were actually good for us. Really? Why did that take so long?

And then there were the warnings that one of the most nutritious natural foods available to us – simple, everyday eggs – were responsible for cholesterol and clogged arteries, so many of us, including myself, compromised our nutrition by dramatically reducing egg consumption. In fact I recall foolishly boasting to my cardiologist (back when I had one) that I was down to eating just one or two eggs a week.

Yet another example of bad information was the almost universal advice that all of we older people who feared heart attacks should consider taking low dose aspirin every day. Yes, I’m sure the king of aspirin manufacturing, Bayer, influenced this decision – look at all the money they made. Well just recently the CDC reversed itself on this too, because apparently the potential harm of daily intake of low dose aspirin is likely to outweigh any benefits. And why did they just discover this – now, after all these years?

And remember the old “food pyramid” published by the Department of Agriculture to help us with wise food choices? Debuting in 1992, its broad base suggested lots of refined carbohydrates, the middle recommended meat and milk items and the tip fats – all of it lousy (and dangerous) advice since we know now how beneficial many fats are and how dangerous refined carbs are. After many revisions over the years, most very misleading and ultimately useless, it’s been replaced by the “plate” – introduced by Michelle Obama and corporate farm advocate Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak (incidentally now still plying his corporate craft in the same position for the Biden administration) – perhaps a slight improvement but ultimately of only marginal utility. Yet both the succession of “pyramids” and “plates” were presented to millions of school children as the nutritional gospel. Poor, innocent kids.

Another issue I have to complain about (again? I think I complained in another recent article) is our corporatization of the fight against the covid pandemic. The worst aspect of the behavior of these corporate behemoths raking in billions in profits is that they have refused to share their patents or formulae for covid vaccines with the world, choosing instead to market them to countries willing to cough up the millions necessary to buy enough doses to vaccinate their populations. Especially egregious is Moderna’s refusal, since their vaccine was developed with the support of millions of federal dollars from the NHA, along with the knowledge and expertise of many NHA scientists. This might be a good place to note that in a 1955 interview, American virologist Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, was asked who owned the patent. He replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” No one became fabulously rich developing, distributing and administering the polio vaccine. And now?

Moderna, the company that never manufactured anything of consequence before the pandemic, has now placed five newly minted billionaires on the Forbes 500 richest list. And guess what, a full forty new billionaires from other companies have been created from the fight against the pandemic. What should have been a cooperative nonprofit effort by governments all over the world has turned out to be a wild corporate competition for riches and a bonanza for these greedy forty.

Why on earth didn’t we nationalize these greedy corporations and have the government manufacture the masks, the personal protective equipment, the billions of vaccine doses needed all over the world and send it all to poor nations completely free? We all knew that if the whole world did not get vaccinated we would see deadly variants emerge. And sure enough, South Africa, with its less than 30 percent vaccination rate, has presented the world with the Omicron variant threat. Will we now shift into high gear and vaccinate the world? As long a corporations are calling the shots (again – pardon the pun), I think not. Rich countries are at fault for the formation and spread of this latest covid variant – failure to curb corporate greed, read Pfizer and Moderns, and vaccinate the whole world. We could have stopped it and did not.

It might be worth noting that poor, humble little Cuba, wracked by cruel unnecessary US economic sanctions, has all by itself, manufactured effective covid vaccines that it plans to share with the world. Yes, Cuba’s public medical sector, note “public”, no corporations or profit involved, with its strong commitment to public health, has successfully manufactured its own vaccines. One hundred percent of its population has now had at least once dose and the country has reopened its schools and businesses and is now open for tourism as well. What a contrast to our own country where public health and vaccines are a commodity, to be bought and sold, and to be profited from.

Also related to the sorry state of health matters in our beloved country is the fact that the cost of Medicare, deducted from our Social Security checks, is going up. Yes, because the FDA has recklessly and irresponsibly approved a frightfully expensive and likely useless drug, Aduhelm, to treat Alzheimers, which will cost $56,000 a year, Medicare Part B is increasing its monthly premium from $148.50 to $170.10 in 2022, in case prescribing this drug, which experts say should cost no more than $8000 per year, causes a huge bump in Medicare drug spending.

And another item – Republican obstructionism. I can visualize Republican Representatives and Senators getting up in the morning, getting ready for work, and going in and having a simple and stress-free day – not much effort, no thought – just obstruction. If you are a Republican legislator, you don’t really have to come up with ideas, programs or policies to help the country or to assist your constituents. You just have to come into your office and decide what and how to obstruct that day. Pretty simple job description, isn’t it? Honestly, when is the last time you heard or read of a big Republican legislative program? You’d pretty much have to go back to Trump’s infamous “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” in 2017, which did not help anyone except the wealthy and corporations. Otherwise it’s been obstruction all the way. Yet amazingly this intellectually bankrupt political party, a minority party mind you, is poised to take over both houses of Congress in 2022 and because of voter suppression and gerrymandering I am sure will assume the presidency in 2024. 

As part of this obstructionism and non-governing, I have to add the question of why we seem to be the only industrialized nation on earth that regularly brings itself to the point of financial collapse by threatening to refuse to raise the “debt ceiling” or “pass the spending bill” or whatever, potentially leading the US government to default on its debts and cause an implosion of world credit markets. This unrelenting political and financial brinkmanship is practiced periodically by Republicans as blackmail to achieve certain objectives, this time to prevent Biden’s vaccine mandates from being imposed.

And I have a few things to say about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Why is she so revered, worshipped and venerated? If I read another article about how wonderful it was that she shared a love of opera with and even attended performances with fellow justice Antonin Scalia, I’ll be sick. In spite of her notable work as a jurist on issues like gender equity and women’s rights, to me her greatest legacy is her arrogance resulting in opening the door and keeping it open for a generation long conservative majority on the court by staying on the Court for far too long despite her body telling her again and again that she needed to retire. Her first encounter with cancer came in 1999 and even after several more bouts and declaring herself “cancer free” in 2020 she finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer later that year, enabling President Donald Trump to appoint Amy Conan Barrett, his third Supreme Court Justice. 

If Ginsberg had been a little less arrogant and had listened to her body and her doctors, President Barack Obama could have appointed her replacement. Thus to me, Ginsberg’s most lasting legacy was her sense of superiority, of her indispensability. “I’ve said many times that I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam,” Ginsburg said in RBG, after she was asked about the calls for her to retire. “And when I can’t, that will be the time I will step down.” Well there were many times during her struggles with cancer that she could not do her job “full steam” and should have stepped down but her insufferable pride and hubris kept her there long enough for her replacement to be named by a Republican president. So when I think of Ginsberg, I don’t think of her legal ability or her importance on the Court. I can only see her foolish self-centered pride.

On another very important current issue, I cannot believe that my own Democratic Party is messing around with the SALT deduction. This limit on the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted from federal taxable income was the sole progressive element of Donald Trump’s infamous “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”, likely included in the legislation to “get back” at high tax blue states where state and local taxes were high enough to make a difference on some wealthy taxpayers federal income tax obligations. But now, to appease effected high income taxpayers, donors I am sure, in their states, many Democratic senators have proposed canceling or adjusting this limit. Corporate Democrat Senator Bob Menendez has even referred to it as “the SALT cap nightmare for 99% of NJ families”, a blatant lie, since the cap effects just the most wealthy. But I am furious that any Democrats at all are behind the push to raise or abandon this limit since doing so is quite simply a tax cut for the wealthy.

Another long standing gripe I have is with our Congress pouring money into the Pentagon. The last insult was a short time ago when Congress gave our reckless and feckless military not only all of its latest budget request of $715 billion but also added an unsolicited allotment of another $25.5 billion. And these are the same people that cry about the deficit and wring their hands because there’s no money with which to expand Medicare or provide paid family leave or free community college. The United States spends more on its military that the next 11 highest nations combined, an absolutely incredible fact. And our Pentagon spending is never audited. Our mindless largesse is pretty much a blank check for these uniformed fools to spend any way they wish. And has our vaunted military won any wars recently?

And also making me quite angry is that this monstrous bill for “defense” is deemed a “must pass” by our Congress, while Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill is being whittled down to nothing in an effort to please “King Coal” Manchin and self-styled “maverick”, Kyrsten Sinema. 

And related to the military, I have had to sit through the few NFL games I chose to watch recently and look at a host of coaches, Gatorade boys and various other hangers-on sporting expensive military garb for their “Salute to Service”. What nonsense. Precious few players, coaches and other personnel have ever served in the military. That “privilege”, since the military abandoned the draft, mostly falls to the poor, the marginalized, immigrants, Native Americans and people of color. So is all this hoopla to ease their guilty consciences? What about the cost of the military jet flyovers, the cost of all the clothing? I wrote about his deplorable practice a long time ago, December 2017 to be exact, and can’t believe the NFL is still doing it. Again, as my article suggested – why not give this monstrous pile of superfluous clothing or the money it took to buy it to the needy or to the Salvation Army or other worthy charity? Or why not honor some segments of society that are involved in helping and building, not killing and destroying – like perhaps teachers, Doctors without Borders or Peace Corps volunteers. What a terrible waste of resources….and it is still going on. 

I would also like to say a few words to Republicans who are so concerned about government spending and inflation. Interesting how no one was concerned when a gaping hole was blown in the budget with Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”, a piece of legislation which really cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, not you and I and which did not create any jobs. Instead of investing and hiring more people, corporations indulged in stock buybacks with their newfound bonanza. It’s demand that induces corporations to invest and hire anyhow, not enormous profits.

I’m no economist but here’s my take on the causes of recent inflation and how to rein it in. First, there was a huge amount of pent-up demand stored in the economy because of the covid pandemic. People didn’t go to restaurants, to the movies or to live performances. Shopping malls were dead zones. While they still ordered some hard goods over the internet and kept the “essential workers” at the post office, Fedex and UPS busy, the net result was that they had tons of money left over, augmented by the checks from the federal government covid relief programs, sitting in their accounts. And as a result, production of all sorts of goods, even agricultural products, slowed. Now that things have loosened up, people are trying to spend this money, putting a serious strain on production and distribution of goods and thus temporarily raising prices. 

Another reason we are wrestling with inflation now and Republicans and Larry Summers are gleefully pointing their fingers at Democratic spending bills, is that indeed we have spent a great deal of money on fighting the pandemic and on keeping the economy strong. But we have not raised taxes at all to pay for these programs. Thus, yes indeed, there is a great deal of money sloshing around the economy chasing too few goods right now. Increased taxation, particularly of corporations and the wealthy, would reduce it. But curiously, the Democrats seem reluctant to raise taxes on those most able to pay, on those who have profited mightily from the pandemic. I find it quite interesting that after the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the Trump “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” of 2017, the Democratic Party, even when in power, has never chosen or never been able to restore them to their former levels. Even Biden’s much ballyhooed Infrastructure and Build Back Better bill, have not been funded anywhere near completely but instead by a few half hearted inadequate increases on corporations and the wealthy and some wishful thinking about what a boost in IRS funding would yield from wealthy cheaters.

In addition, vastly more industries have monopolized in recent years, making it much easier for them to raise prices arbitrarily to increase their bottom line for their investors and their overpaid CEO’s. It’s absolutely astonishing that our government has given up on fighting monopoly and concentration of production and distribution. As a sample, check out the stats in this important publication.

Another thing that really annoys me and should upset everyone else are the continual attacks on the US Postal Service mostly by our Republican friends. The complaints about subsidies for this essential service and calls for it to be “profitable” do not make any sense to me. The Post Office performs an essential service for us. What it charges via stamps and fees for mail processing and delivery defrays a significant portion of that expense and if that’s not enough to pay its bills, the federal government plugs the holes. And why shouldn’t it – the post office serves the whole country. In small towns it serves as place where people meet, chat and gossip while they deliver or pick up their mail. I oppose the continual shrill Republican calls to privatize the Post Office, as if that were any kind of solution. Oh sure, let’s privatize the post office and stuff the pockets of a “Post Office Corporation”, its new stockholders and CEO.

If we are serious about increasing Post Office revenue and making it more self sufficient, we need to consider restoring a role it enjoyed from 1911 to 1967 – providing banking services to customers through the Postal Services Savings System. Many other countries still provide banking services through their post offices. We also need to take a look at how domestic shipping prohibitions and restrictions limit revenue and provide opportunities for competitors like Fedex and UPS. We do not need to reduce costs and increase revenue by cutting personnel and slowing down delivery, as Trump holdover Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is trying to do.

Another item – I am so overjoyed that we now have a “Space Force” general – yes, replete with uniform, lots of medals and a high salary. Don’t believe me? Check out a recent Washington Post column by Josh Rogin. Yes, we not only have divided the entire world into “Combatant Commands”, like European Command, Central Command and a bunch of others covering the entire globe, but, lucky for us, our Defense Department has added a “Space Force” command and now we have a real Space Force general. I am sure before too long we’ll be conducting yet another cold war with China and Russia in outer space as they “attack our space assets” and we have to stock space with bigger and better “assets”. Really I had a hard time telling whether Rogin was writing his article with tongue in cheek. But I guess he was serious, demonstrating once again how sacrosanct the military is to both our Congress and our media. Oh, my God, Space General David Thompson cries that “US satellites are being attacked every day!” We need to retaliate!

And yet another example of Republican hypocrisy – individual rights and sanctity of the body when refusing covid vaccines, yet not where abortion rights are concerned. A woman’s right to control her body is okay if she’s refusing a vaccine and endangering herself and those around her, but is not acceptable when she’s pregnant by rape or incest or her health is threatened by pregnancy or childbirth. Incredible how the far right so selectively yells, “My body, my choice”. And furthermore, how is it that the far right is so reverential about life from conception to birth, yet so non-caring about supporting life afterward – promoting a culture of violence, flooding the country with guns and the world with military weaponry, supporting an obscene Pentagon budget and cheering the death penalty, while making war on medicine and universal healthcare, popular gun safety laws, housing for the indigent and a most spare and basic safety net for our citizens. 

Thus concludes my latest “rant”. Yes, of course, I’m angry and upset about many other things that I experience daily or read or watch in the media but I’ll have to save those for another time. Oh wait, sorry, I have to mention this one. Recently my wife and I have summoned the courage to purchase tickets and venture out for a couple of concerts, our first since the pandemic began. And while announcements were quite consistent in requiring proof of vaccination to enter and mask wearing during the concerts, we were both terribly upset to see about half of the audience remove their masks upon finding their seats and sitting down. Why? And why didn’t the concert authorities insist that masks be kept on. These unserious and careless acts permeate other activities as well. Simple shopping trips in our area have also revealed a reckless mix of mask wearing or not, both by employees and customers, confounding and contradicting what should be a collective unified struggle against this dreadful pandemic. Very disturbing indeed. But what to do? Where to start?

On the day I plan to publish this article, I was subjected to a news report that again made me very angry, so I have to end with a comment on the issue it raised – that of human rights. The US has decided not to award diplomatic recognition to the Winter Olympics in China, although our athletes may attend and compete. Why? Because of China’s “human rights record”. Please… spare me. How dare we condemn the human rights record of any nation while we turn a blind eye to the everyday human rights abuses of our “staunchest ally”, Israel. This rogue nation goes on murdering and maiming Palestinians and stealing their land, homes and livelihoods every single day, with complete impunity. American politicians at every level remain two faced and hypocritical about human rights, fearing that by raising a voice or finger against Israel might turn off the money spigot that funds their campaigns. So no more talk about the human rights abuses in China unless we also talk about them in Israel. 

There, I’m done.

Majority Rule? Think Again – Why a Minority Rules America

From a very early age we were taught about voting and how whoever gets the most votes wins. Oh yes, when running for class president, whoever got the most votes won. And my New Jersey governor won because he received the most votes and the senators and representatives who represented my state in Congress were sent to Washington because they got more votes than their opponents. Thus power is bestowed on those who receive the most votes in an election. 

But wait…why is this not true on a national level? Chief executives in every democracy in the world win and serve their people when they receive more votes than other candidates. In every democracy, that is, except ours. Our former chief executive, Donald Trump, came in second. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, won far more votes that he did. And in 2000 Al Gore received more popular votes than George W. Bush. Yes, the reason Gore and Clinton lost was the dreadful Electoral College with its  state by state “winner take all” rules set up by our genius “founding fathers”. Perhaps if we could have included some “founding mothers” in that august group that wrote the US Constitution, their sense of fairness could have prevailed and our presidents would have been elected with the popular vote. Just think if Gore has been elected instead of Bush. The trillions of dollars and thousands of lives wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan  wars would still be with us. And I am sure we would be leading the world in saving the climate as well, considering Gore’s long held convictions concerning climate change. 

And what if Hillary Clinton had won the election in 2016? Yes, news of Bill prowling around the White House looking for things to do would not have been pleasant. But he could have been appointed by his wife the President to some new position, perhaps  “Ambassador to the World” or something like that, just to keep him occupied and out of trouble. But our government institutions would have been left intact, we’d still be participating in the Paris accords for climate change and the Iran nuclear deal would still be extant. We’d still be serious players on the world stage. And the clown show led by Donald Trump and his entourage of fools and incompetents featuring Ivanka and Jared would not have occurred. And perhaps most important of all, the scourge of the Covid 19 pandemic could have been contained and hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.

But, because our country is ruled by a minority, the Republic Party and its leader Donald Trump had a grand time promoting disaster in Washington. How has this happened in a “democracy”, where the majority supposed to rule? Let’s take a look.

First of course is the aforementioned “Electoral College” method of electing our chief executive. Ostensibly put in place by our genius Founding Fathers to protect the power of small states, which it indeed does, in fact, this quirk of American presidential elections was put in place to also protect the power of slave states. The “three fifths person” designation for slaves was enough to give slave states enormous power in the Electoral College through significantly increasing their representation in the House of Representatives, even though these hundreds of thousands extra “3/5” people could not vote. 

Also simply giving small state a minimum of three votes in the Electoral College, gave them an advantage. And the recent anomalies of George W. Bush becoming president even though his opponent Al Gore had a half-million more popular votes and Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote overwhelmingly yet losing to Donald Trump, has given the Republican Party tremendous power, even though a minority party at those times. Thus it’s no wonder that recent polls have revealed that a huge majority of Republicans want to retain the Electoral College, whereas a majority of Democrats want to elect our president with the popular vote.

Another negative aspect of the Electoral College is that it reveals the apparent uselessness of voting in certain states and the phenomenon of “swing states” in others. With the statewide “winner take all” character imposed by the Electoral College, if one votes in a presidential election in overwhelmingly Democratic New York or California or in overwhelmingly Republican Wyoming or Idaho, that vote, whether Republican or Democrat, does not matter much, since the result is largely already determined. But in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Florida, one’s vote is extremely valuable since the result could go either way. For example, my wife and I could have voted for president in Vermont last November. But why, since the state would vote overwhelmingly Democratic anyhow. So we made sure we voted in our home state of Arizona, which has become a “swing state” and really needed our Democratic vote. The simple result of all this is that is if the president were elected on a nationwide popular vote, every single vote would count and voters would eagerly participate, no matter where they lived. A Vermont vote would be every bit as valuable as an Arizona vote. There would be no “wasted” votes.

The perverse power of Republican minority rule is also exemplified in our Congress and the way it conducts its business. The membership of just one legislative body in Congress, the House of Representatives, is based upon population and is therefore quite democratic. The other, the Senate, since every state gets two senators, is terribly undemocratic, revealing the anomaly of tiny states like Wyoming or South Dakota having just as much power in the Senate as populous states like California and New York. Today, each Democratic Senator from California represents 371 million American citizens, while each Republican Senator from Wyoming represents but 289,000. On a macro level, the undemocratic nature of the Senate is illustrated by the fact that, now divided 50-50, Democratic Senators represent fully 42 million more citizens than the Republican half. In fact, though in control of the Senate many times since 1996, that year was the last that the Republican party actually represented a majority of Americans. Yet Senate Republicans, representing a minority of voters, have effectively blocked a hugely popular minimum wage bill  and passed extremely unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

Another way that the Republican Party, a minority party, mind you, retains power is through gerrymandering. Over ten years ago, while the Democratic Party was foolishly focusing its resources into ensuring the reelection of Barack Obama, Republicans, led by Karl Rove and financed with millions of dollars from the Koch brothers and other right wing billionaires, wisely set their sights on control of state governments, especially state legislatures, which in most states have the power to draw legislative districts after each decennial national census. So after the 2010 census results, Republican legislatures across the country began some very serious gerrymandering, guaranteeing a growth in Republican House of Representatives seats that would last through multiple elections. So even in the House of Representatives, which is by far the more democratic of our two legislative houses, although millions more voters voted for Democrats than Republicans in 2020, Republicans dramatically increased their share of seats.

In the same way that my own part-time residence in a heavily Democratic state like Vermont renders my vote superfluous – whether I vote Democratic or Republican, either way it’s wasted, gerrymandering strives to render certain votes useless as well, by “packing” or “cracking” legislative districts in order to render them uncompetitive. Cracking involves breaking up groups of voters who usually vote a particular way in order to deny them the power of voting in a block. Packing involves drawing districts in such a way as to concentrate voters of one persuasion or another in such a way as to maximize “wasted” votes or to maximize the power of your party’s voteAnd now in 2021, it appears that Republicans, who again control most state legislatures and who again do so right after a census year, are perfectly positioned to take control of the House of Representatives in 2022, even though their total votes will likely not increase and may even decrease. The Republican controlled state legislatures are poised to take their new census information and very precisely and scientifically, create legislative districts across their states that will enable Republicans to win a majority of House seats with a minority of votes. Their plans are well outlined in this New York Magazine article. Ari Berman states for the article that “Republicans could pick up anywhere from six to 13 seats in the House of Representatives — enough to retake the House in 2022 — through its control of the redistricting process in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas alone”. No need to work hard to earn more votes, or come up with programs or policies that voters prefer – gerrymandering will be sufficient.

And additional examples were offered by NYTimes columnist Jamal Bouie who noted that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature has passed a new map that would, in a state that is pretty much 50-50 Democratic and Republican, give it 10 of the states 14 congressional seats. In Ohio, a proposed map would provide Democrats with but two seats out of the 15 allotted to it after the 2020 census, only 13 percent of the total. And this in a state that is only slightly more Republican than Democratic. In both cases, these two states would have to achieve blowout, supermajorities of Democratic votes in order to be proportionately represented. Ari Berman’s prediction noted in the previous paragraph is already coming true. And the minority party’s triumph for Congressional dominance has already been determined as noted by a NYTimes article just this week And as if the Electoral College and gerrymandering were not enough, just the transfer of population from several norther “swing states” to Republican strongholds in the south as revealed in the new 2020 census,  will further cement Republican minority strength in presidential and congressional elections.

One might reasonably ask why Democrat-controlled legislatures and Democratic governors are not doing the same thing right now – redrawing districts to make sure that they sent more Representatives to Congress. Well as it so happens, other than present efforts in Illinois and New York, when the Democratic Party controls state legislatures and the redistricting process, instead of drawing legislative districts to benefit their party, it instead tries to establish independent commissions to draw legislative districts. Thus by striving to be fair the Democratic Party is shooting itself in the foot.

Another way that we are ruled by a minority party is through voter suppression.  Presently the Republican Party is doing everything it can to limit the votes of poor and minority voters. Under the guise of “election security”, promoted by the “big lie” – that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election and rampant voter fraud gave the election to his opponent, Republican controlled legislatures and Republican governors are making it more difficult to vote. They are doing so by limiting mail in voting, requiring specific types of identification for both in person and mail in voting,  limiting voting days and a variety of other changes to make voting more difficult. Georgia has even made it a crime to bring water or food to a person in a long voting line. And who does voter suppression hurt the most? Poor voters and people of color, who usually voted Democratic, again helping the minority party, the Republicans.

In addition and much more serious is that many Republican-controlled state legislatures are changing how votes are counted and who does the counting. While typically a state’s voting operation is under the supervision of a secretary of state, some state legislatures are wresting control of elections from state and local election supervisors and placing it directly under their control. If this had been the case in Georgia in the 2020 election, the state legislature could have declared Trump the winner, instead of the steadfast Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger refusing to accommodate Trump as he did. 

It’s important to note that simply because of the way the Electoral College is set up, with it being composed of electors equal to the Congressional delegation of individual states, even without all the shenanigans listed above, the minority party retains a 3.5 point advantage there. And in the Senate, because of each state having two senators and a minimum of one representative regardless of size, the minority party maintains a five point advantage. Thus, even after winning millions more votes that Republicans in 2018 and 2020, the Senate is evenly split and Democrats have but a narrow four-seat advantage in the House.

Yet another way the minority party is limiting the influence of the majority party is through packing the courts with conservative Republican judges, picked from the ranks of the Federalist Society. With the help of then majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump filled over 200 vacancies on the Federal bench, including 53 vacancies on Federal Appeals Courts. This was the highest total of any first term president since Jimmy Carter. And of course this includes the incredible number of three Supreme Court justices appointed by a single one-term president. Amazingly just two Republican presidents who were elected by a minority of the popular vote have appointed four of the justices on the Supreme Court, ensuring a conservative majority for at least a generation. And the Supreme Court, as the final arbiter in election law, has done its best to ensure minority rule, with far reaching decisions on the role of money in elections (it’s “free speech”, not corruption) and in voting rights enforcement, to name but two decisions which have further entrenched the minority party.

And finally, the filibuster, the Senate rule not in the Constitution, enables the minority party in an evenly divided Senate to repeatedly block any legislation it does not like, by requiring a 60 vote majority, very difficult or well nigh impossible to achieve in our evenly divided Senate. Consequently Republicans used it recently to block the Voting Rights Bill, called also the For the People Act, which would have constituted the largest federally mandated expansion of voting rights since the 1960’s. It would have standardized voting procedures in all states, allowing mail voting and same day registration, banned partisan gerrymandering, and limited the role of money in our elections by forcing super PAC’s to disclose major donors and creating a new public campaign financing system. Yet because of the filibuster, the Republicans in the Senate were able to keep the bill from even being debated on the floor. 

So it should be obvious that America is indeed ruled by a minority – the Republican Party. And why? It’s pretty much our lousy constitution which badly needs to be changed. It established the Electoral College, determined that each state regardless of size should have two Senators and a minimum of one Representative. It allows anti-majority rules like the filibuster. It determined that elections, even federal elections, should be a state function and it made Supreme Court justice a lifetime job, subject to the vagaries of old age and death, regardless of who is in the White House or which party controls Congress. All these factors enable one political party, a minority, to effectively thwart the will of the people and wield majority power. If the US is to remain a democracy, this must change. 

The United States of Incrementalism

Why is it that in the United States of America we can’t ever seem to get anything completely done? We look at this problem or that problem and wrangle about how to “make it better” – like maybe “cut child poverty” or “increase the number of people who have ‘access’ to healthcare” but never decide to wipe out child poverty completely or cover all of our citizens with health insurance as so many other nations have succeeded in doing.

Not long ago, before he went on leave, in the New York Times was a column by likely the most caring of their stable of mostly great columnists, Nick Kristoff, who eloquently and sensitively describes the problem of child poverty in the United States and how President Joe Biden’s 1.9 trillion dollar American Rescue Plan will “cut child poverty in half”. Kristoff went on to quote Jason Furman, Harvard economist, asserting that  Biden’s bill is the the “most ambitious proposal to reduce child poverty ever proposed by an American president”. He further goes on to speculate about whether we’re able to “shrink” child poverty.

So what’s wrong with all this? While the intention is truly honorable and greatly needed, it’s the use of words and phrases like “cut in half”, “reduce” and “shrink” that concern me. We never seem to come up with a plan to get rid of child poverty once and for all. Isn’t it possible to do this in the world’s richest country? I would certainly think so. Do Democrats and Republicans both deem child poverty unacceptable? I would think that they do and therefore we need to stop beating around the edges of this problem and attack it head on.

So perhaps we should ask why child poverty exists here in the richest nation in the world? And why do we insist on referring to “child poverty”rather than “poverty”? Does child poverty exist in well-to-do or middle class families. Or can children be well off in poor families? Of course not, so let’s stop separating “child poverty” from the larger and more real problem of family poverty. Why we have poor families, why we have poverty in the first place, is that simply we do not ensure that families have enough money to live honorably and securely. It’s the never-ending curse of “low wage jobs”, where the head of a family can work full time and still be poor, or that the head of a family can work multiple jobs or both parents can work and still not earn enough to keep a roof over the family and keep food on the table, much less take care of health and education needs.

I mean, how long can we continue to kick the poverty can down the road? President Johnson waged his “War on Poverty” well over 50 years ago and so many aspects of his program certainly did “reduce” poverty. But did it rid this wealthy country of the disgrace and shame of harboring minions of poor people, homeless people and sick people? No it did not. And direct efforts to “reduce” poverty ever since them have been cumbersome and incremental efforts limited by work requirements, means testing and the like rather than direst direct financial support. Even President Biden’s much ballyhooed antipoverty efforts lately have been defined by “tax credits”, providing help for those with jobs who actually file tax returns, but little or nothing for the extremely poor who do not have any regular income and thus cannot access tax credits.

If we are serious about taking care of our children and their families, we would attack the problem of “low wage jobs” directly so that anyone who worked 40 hours a week could afford decent housing and all the other advantages that enable one to live an honorable and hopeful life. And let’s stop listening to the excuses of business owners who say that increasing employee pay would “drive them out of business”. I say too bad. Any business that cannot pay a living wage to its workers should not be in business and should relinquish its role to other entities that can provide the same service while paying its employees  reasonably.

For example, fast food companies have long protested increasing wages to a living level because they would have to raise prices of menu items. This is simply not true. In other developed countries fast food workers are paid a living wage and menu items have not skyrocketed. Apparently the fast food owner, franchisee, or corporation would simply have to be satisfied with less profit. 

This is further illustrated in another very entertaining and informative article by Nick Kristoff focusing on Denmark. 

And unfortunately we have chosen yet another incremental program to “reduce hunger” in poor families – the food stamp program or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as it is now called. So rather than ensuring that families receive enough money to live properly, we accept their poverty but lend a hand to enhance their ability to purchase food for their families. Again, why the beating around the bush, helping people to live better while staying in poverty but never really getting  ahead. SNAP’s official description underscores its incrementalist approach: “SNAPprovides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency”. Oh sure, how generous.

The same incremental principle has been applied when we try to even up the playing field in terms of internet access. Since poor families often cannot afford broadband connections, rather than make sure they have enough money to purchase this essential benefit, we instead provide yet another program to assist them. This proposed $50 per month subsidy for broadband connection for poor is merely one more source of assistance for poor families that can end or be withdrawn when the other political party is in power. This is no way to end poverty or end the curse of “low wage jobs”, the main cause of poverty.

And then there is the issue of healthcare incrementalism. President Obama’s signature major legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, despite its accolades, simply increases the number of people who could afford to buy medical insurance. It has expands coverage to more than 20 million Americans, cutting the uninsured rate to 10.9 percent in 2019 from 17.8 percent in 2010. It did so by expanding Medicaid to cover those with low incomes, and by subsidizing private insurance for people with higher earnings. There’s those words again – “increases”, “expands” and “subsidizes”.

And since it functions through the existing jungle of corporate control of healthcare, it does so through funneling more money to healthcare corporations, either directly, in order to “cover preexisting conditions” or something similar, or indirectly, by subsidizing purchasers of healthcare insurance. And, most significant of all, it does not, will not and will never cover everyone.  As I noted in my article about Obamacare, it contains the seeds of its own destruction and ultimate demise, in that the only way it can “extend coverage” is by shelling out ever more money to insurance companies, which has to be definitely limited. There will always be “holes” in the Affordable Care Act, always be groups of people that will remain outside its coverage. Truly the only way to provide medical care to all US citizens without exception and from birth to death is through a single payer program like “Medicare for All” as so many other nations successfully provide.

And yet, despite Biden’s promise to provide a “public option” for those seeking health insurance, this effort has come to nothing. He insists that any effort to extend healthcare to more people will be done through “building on Obamacare”(there’s those incremental terms again – “extend”, “more” and “building”) This will never work since the whole objective of health insurance corporations is to increase profit, not cover all Americans. They will always be trying to limit coverage in some way or increase deductibles or maximums or copays.

And then there are other incremental programs that cover additional individuals but never everyone. One is the Children’s Health Insurance Program” or CHIP,, which was started during the Clinton administration as a halfway step to obscure the fact that Hillary Clinton’s proposed program for health insurance had miserably and spectacularly failed. Ostensibly, CHIP provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. In most states, thus, it constitutes only yet just another incremental approach to healthcare – covering only “some” children, but not their entire families.

Okay, right now people fortunate enough to have health insurance obtain it in myriad ways – Medicaid for the indigent, Medicare for the elderly, CHIP for children who qualify, medical insurance from employers for those who have jobs and whose employers provide it. Ah, but another problem – the apparently infinite variety of programs, higher or lower copays, higher or lower maximum reimbursements, limiting who or what can provide the care, and on and on – all are related to our profit based system and incremental approach. Why can’t all Americans be covered from birth to death, like Canada does, or Norway, or Finland, or every other developed country in the world – and at a much lower cost? How amazing it would be to simply go to the doctor or hospital, present your identification, get treated and go home, knowing that all providers were fairly compensated but that profit was not part of the system. And of course, Medicare itself is an incremental program, in that it does not provide for all of the health needs of our elderly population, containing the glaring holes of no coverage for hearing, vision or dental needs. This lack is now ostensibly being addressed by a dizzying array of “Medicare Advantage” programs, all provided by for profit corporations who reap those profits from overly generous reimbursements from the government. And their vaunted coverage of hearing, vision and dental needs is woefully insufficient.

And now there is childcare incrementalism – even if the “Reconciliation Bill” goes through entirely, it will only be “narrowing the gap” between what European countries pay for childcare and what the US pays. Reliable childcare is absolutely essential in an advanced nation like ours. Yet people struggle every day, just as my wife and I did when our children were young, to find reliable and reasonably priced childcare, when both parents choose to or must work. Rather than having to seek out childcare among neighbors, friends and relatives, Europeans are able to send their children to professionally run and staffed facilities provided by the state – what a difference from the risky, varying quality here in the “richest country in the world”. And that cost to a family is heavily subsidized by the state as well. But here, even with the long shot effort of Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation, which may never pass anyhow, we will only be partially crossing the chasm between what we have and should have. Again, an incrementalist approach to a serious social need.

And also consider our feeble efforts to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, even itself, though a big step, wholly insufficient to provide a decent life for its recipients. Our feckless Congress has steadily refused to raise the minimum wage and every single bill proposed or passed at the state level to do so raises it so gradually to that by the time anyone reaches $15, the effects of inflation will have rendered it already inadequate. Fifteen dollars an hour is in itself merely an incremental goal. If the present federal minimum wage of $7.25 was adjusted for inflation since its inception it would be $22 per hour now. 

And I suppose that the most important example of the curse of incrementalism is our scattershot effort to fight the existential threat of a steadily and inexorably warming climate. Yes, we have some electric cars on the road, many more solar installations than ten years ago, and a steadily increasing number of “wind farms” on the plains, mountaintops and coasts of our country, but not nearly enough to make an impact on our shameful position as the number two carbon polluter in the world. And the country that is number one, China, has rapidly become our “rival” or our “enemy”, making necessary cooperation between the two to combat climate change all but impossible. And fossil fuel companies still enjoy privileged status among the “lawmakers” that inhabit our useless Congress and thus are still largely unregulated and still, would you believe it, subsidized by the US government. And President Biden’s “Build Back Better” program contains revolutionary legislation for the climate promising to “reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030” so is accordingly incrementalist at best. And even this incremental approach is apposed by “King Coal” Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. So unfortunately, this is the best that the world’s number two carbon emitter, the United States, can do. Michael T. Klare in a brilliant article for Tom Dispatch makes it crystal clear that for the world to save itself, China and the U.S. must unite as climate partners and lead the way for other nations to follow. If they do not, climate catastrophe is inevitable. We cannot any longer be incremental in this most important fight. 

And then of course as a nation we have to contend with covid incrementalism. Certain elements of our society cannot seem to get it through their heads that we have required vaccination for serious diseases for decades, with nary a peep from anyone save the few rabid antivaxxers who are prepared to sacrifice the health of their children on the altar of misinformation and obstinance. When I was a child and the Salk polio vaccine and later the Sabin version became  available, millions of thankful parents and children lined up to get immunized, with little concern  about its origin or manufacturer or concerns about its efficacy. And I do not remember any of the corporate Pfizer – Moderna – Johnson & Johnson wrangling and profit seeking nor any politicization of vaccines that characterize the US struggle and dysfunction with covid 19 vaccines today. And, likely most important, there were successful efforts to immunize the entire world against this dreadful crippling disease so that today isolated cases of the disease lurk in but three countries – Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Covid 19 cannot be controlled until the entire world is vaccinated. But this effort is incremental at best since our government has chosen to protect the patents and formulae of the corporations who have developed the vaccines, despite their development being financed by billions in government subsidies. Many US citizens, including myself, have longed for this “richest country in the world” to lead in immunizing everyone everywhere, just as we did with polio vaccines. But instead we have decided to allow pharmaceutical corporations to selfishly maximize profits. Pfizer has in fact become a quasi government entity all by itself – negotiating sales of its vaccines directly with governments across the world independent of any US government role.

And finally, historically we’ve used incremental means to resolve racial segregation issues – school busing to integrate schools was really beating around the edges of the issue, rather than facing it head on and resolving issues like income disparity and racism that created segregated housing in the first place. We very badly need to address racial segregation head on which would include properly educating our population about slavery, Jim Crow and lynching in this country as well as our country’s and our hemisphere’s disgraceful genocide of its native population. Correction of our nation’s terrible inequality, especially evident in its black and other minority populations, would help too. And what about reparations? This whole issue is far to large to address here in one paragraph but we need to face it and solve it as a nation. Get it done once and for all.

And one more thing. The Democrats need to hire someone like Frank Luntz to help with their messaging. Why on earth have they always called this latest bill the “Build Back Better” bill, which has all the oomph of Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” or even more maddening and obfuscating, the “$3.5 Trillion Reconciliation Bill”. This bill contains hugely important and popular legislation that will help all Americans – like making Medicare covering vision, hearing and dental needs, establishing a universal pre-K program and a childcare program for all families, making community college free, a substantial push against climate change and much more. While some very popular provisions have already been cut, to garner more Congressional support, some better messaging would have likely had a very positive effect and the entire bill would have had a much better chance at surviving and becoming law.

Short Story

We always knew when Dad and Mom had a fight. No one ever said anything, there were no raised voices, but the atmosphere in the house changed so that we all knew. It could be the heavy silence between them, or the silence of an otherwise gregarious father, or the concern and sadness in the face of a normally smiling mother. Or it could be big sister Barbara’s lowered voice and guarded conversation. Simply, we knew it was there.

Things were not going well financially. What little my father earned, he kept mostly for himself, and Mom did what she could to earn money for the family. Mostly, as I remember, she did this by raising chickens. Sometimes there were laying hens and we sold eggs door to door in the nearby towns. I must have cut a rather pathetic figure, meekly knocking on a stranger’s door and asking if they wanted to buy fresh eggs. Or sometimes there were chickens raised to sell for food, in which case strangers came to our door, responding to a sign at the end of the lane. Then we had to catch a couple of good looking pullets or roosters by the legs, tie them up and throw them in the customer’s car trunk. We never knew exactly what happened after that – only that a couple more chickens were sold and Mom had some money.

But to raise chickens required some limited capital investment, and Mom and Dad’s differences sometimes interfered with this. Before you could fatten the young ones to sell for meat or keep long enough to become laying hens, we needed to buy the chicken feed and ground oyster shells for calcium. If Mom had kept enough from egg or chicken sales, things were fine; if not, Dad was required to invest in the enterprise, often reluctantly. And if things were tough between them, he didn’t.

Once, we had gone through the entire process for raising chickens for sale – first ordering the chicks, which miraculously came in the mail straight to the local post office. Little fuzzy chirping, cheeping little creatures that had to be fed, watered and kept warm. Chicken mash was fed to them from flat containers, and they were watered from contrivances involving an inverted Mason jar full of water. They were kept warm by an electric light bulb and reflector dangling above them. Thus were they nurtured and fed and coaxed toward avian adolescence and adulthood to be sold as food or if kept long enough, as a source of food. There were the occasional casualties – the chick smaller than the rest, who gradually starved to death because of his inability to get close to the food, and, weakening, became further unable and finally expired. Or there was the chick which was different colored than the rest, who was picked on because of the difference and had to be clever to get the food he wanted, and who maybe became stronger doing so much running away from the rest. 

One such chicken, a black chick in a litter of yellow, actually became a pet of sorts. Hard to believe that that little bird brain could so be trained but he actually came when called. Hollering “Blackie” would cause him to emerge from the bushes and come toward you to get picked up and petted, or to receive a dish of more special food served in a protected area like under an overturned crate.

But once when a flock of chickens was on its way to adulthood, in that stage of growing feathers and shedding the fuzz, that dreadful time in our family came again and we could all feel it. The air was heavy with apprehension, fear and questioning. We whispered to each other as if afraid that the sound of our voices would make things worse. Gradually it became clear that Mom had no more money for feed and Dad wasn’t going to help. And there were fifty plus ravenous chickens out in the chicken house with no food.

Chickens are excitable creatures. Even in the best and most relaxed of circumstances, a suddenly opened door or sudden noise will cause them cackle excitedly and to flap excitedly into the air raising clouds of noxious chicken house bedding and manure dust. So an egg gatherer or chicken feeder or waterer had to move slowly and stealthily. Hungry chickens who had ran out of food were even more excitable and ran toward their feeding dishes as they were newly supplied. Thirsty chickens knew when the water came and crowded madly around the waterers to get it as well. 

But the behavior of our starving chickens was horrifying. A shadow on the window caused them to flock toward it and fly madly at the window and flap their wings against it. They ran wildly toward an opening door, in anticipation of feed. The slightest noise caused wild excitement of the expectation of food. The horror and the pity of this behavior in the face of hopelessness I never forgot. All of us felt helpless, afraid to get involved in why there was no feed, fearful of the fury of Dad, if challenged or questioned, or if sympathizing or taking sides with Mom. But there they were – chickens slowly starving to death and nothing offered for their relief. Whether there really was no money, or whether it just was refused for the purpose of feeding the chickens, we never knew. All we knew was that these creatures were starving to death.

Dad’s frequent absence at that time, and our collective pity and concern for the horrible plight of our chickens forced a decision. With Mom’s permission, I connected the garden hose to the exhaust pipe of our 51 Chevy pickup and ran it to the door of the chicken house. The mad activity of starving chickens at these signs of nearby movement, was quieted little by little as they succumbed to the poisonous exhaust and one by one flopped down to stillness. After an hour or so, a quick look inside revealed piles of prostrate, white feathered forms everywhere and no movement at all. 

The dead chickens then had to be buried and that was my job also. After digging several large holes in the nearby cornfield, I loaded these dead chicken carcasses into a wheelbarrow and trip by trip dumped them into the holes to be buried. Having lifted many healthy chickens, it was terrible to see how little these dead creatures weighed. To avoid touching them, I used a pitchfork to load them and was surprised to see how easily the tines passed through the pitiful thin bodies – feathers, skin and bones, little more.

The job finished, the next thing to do was to try to start over and put this dreadful incident in the past. The situation between Mom and Dad seemed to get better, now that the chickens were gone. Although the traumatic incident remained with us for many years, this remained the major means for Mom to make money. And we waited for another shipment of little chicks to arrive.

The Troublesome Challenge of Choice

I recently read a piece by Paul Krugman, long one of my favorite New York Times columnists, that really struck a special note for me. It was about the choices we have to make, many or most unnecessary and many very difficult.

Frankly I am really tired of being asked to compare and choose. Maybe it’s old age but I long for the simpler world that I once enjoyed when I lived in Kuwait and Turkey. First, I did not have to choose an internet provider. There was only one in these countries – very efficiently run, reasonably priced, extremely dependable and a very strong signal – and it was provided by the government. There was only one mobile phone provider as well – the government. And in both countries it was very good service – affordable and very dependable. I enjoyed great service and was very happy that I did not have to choose. And everybody around me – colleagues, friends and casual acquaintances were happy with the service as well and never mentioned that they wished for another provider so that they could compare and choose for themselves.fBut here in the good old USA we have to choose an internet and a telephone provider. And how to choose? What’s more important – the monthly charge or the minutes of usage? What about the number of lines? And how dependable is the service at this company or that? And how do I locate reliable criteria that allow me to compare? And what about purchasing a mobile phone? Do I do it through the mobile provider, purchase directly from the manufacturer or another source? That’s different from company to company as well and it’s damned difficult to weigh all of these variables against others and make the best choice.

While I knew little to nothing about auto insurance in Turkey – I drove a school provided car that was maintained and insured by the school, I did experience purchasing a car and required auto insurance while I lived in Kuwait. OK, what’s auto insurance? Nothing very complicated. You buy a service that pays for repairs in case of an accident and pays your medical bills if you get injured. But here in the US it does get complicated. What you get depends on who’s at fault – you or the other driver. Thus lawyers as well as the police need to get involved to determine who’s at fault and which insurance company pays what to whom. In Kuwait your own insurance paid for for car repairs or replacement and medical expenses for you, the other guy’s insurance paid for his car repairs or replacement and for his injuries. Fault was determined by the police and appropriate civil penalties were assessed. But no lawyers or other insurance companies were involved. Deductibles? All standard and determined by the state. Simple. No need to “compare”. There was only one insurance company.

I was always astonished at how little auto insurance cost in Kuwait. Hmm, could this be because I didn’t have to watch hours of TV commercials inviting me to “save 15 percent or more”, or save money through “bundling” your car and home insurance, or “customize insurance so that I pay only for what I need”? Have you, as I, ever wondered how much of the high cost of auto or home insurance results from the advertising costs inviting us to “compare”? Well, here are the top three offenders’ annual advertising budgets:

Geico $1.6 billion

Progressive $1.1 billion

State Farm $802 million

Just think if all this advertising money was put instead into reducing premiums. Also, why in the United States, are only corporations allowed to provide auto insurance and why should they make a profit for providing a service so essential and so simple? Honestly, I wish every day that the Federal government provided the insurance on my houses and cars and that profit, shareholders and multi-million dollar CEO salaries were not involved.

Also consider if you will the ridiculousness and impossibility of “healthcare choices”. President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” as it’s euphemisticly known, I consider to be one of his greatest failures because it formalized and institutionalized corporate profit as an integral part of healthcare in the US. Also, Obamacare signified the beginning of what has now become a complex jungle of healthcare choices.

And now, during “open enrollment”, we are invited to “compare” healthcare plans and select the “best for you”. How in hell do we do this? One plan offers a larger deductible, while charging smaller copays, while another offers smaller copays and smaller deductibles, but has a smaller maximum level of payments. Another features lower copays and lower deductibles but the monthly cost is more. Another seems to have lower copays, lower deductibles but doesn’t cover you out of state. You almost have to develop a spreadsheet and become an overnight math genius, to figure it all out.

And now for older people like myself and my wife, with so many healthcare corporations making huge profits off of “medicare advantage” scams, it gets even more complicated. A day never passes that we do not receive another advertisement in the mail inviting us to “get our medicare from Humana”, or from United Healthcare or Aetna. Why are these damned corporations allowed to provide medical insurance from a government program? 

I get very nervous anyhow when I realize that my healthcare is being provided by a corporation, whose major reason for existence is to make a profit, no, to maximize profit so that shareholders will be happy and so that their CEO can be given millions. All the efforts to “keep you healthy and well” ring hollow, when the objective of any healthcare corporation is to make and increase profit. The CEO of United Healthcare, which provides my “Medicare Advantage” insurance through Arizona State Retirement received a yearly salary of almost $18 million in 2020. Pretty good for a company whose only job is to take money from companies and the government and shell it out to providers while keeping a pile for themselves for profit. What a business plan!

We need to stop this scattershot approach to healthcare and provide a single payer system like Canada’s or the United Kingdom’s that takes care of everyone from birth to death, pays doctors and hospitals well and takes corporations and their miserable profit motive out of the equation. We don’t need choice in healthcare. We just need to be taken care of. But this welcome scenario seems ever more distant here in the United States, when our government encourages a steadily greater corporate role in healthcare rather than limiting it.

And of course the issue of choice has taken hold in my former chosen profession – education. When I started in public education back in 1965, I was impressed by public schools. Everyone, rich and poor, black and white, native or immigrant, was there, getting a good education at public expense, in well funded schools and taught by well trained and well paid teachers. And this education took you through elementary, junior high and high school and from there you could go into the workforce with a good basic education or enter university with a good college prep education. Generally speaking, there was already choice in education: if you close you could pay tuition to a parochial school or if you were very wealthy you could send your child to a select private or boarding school. 

But when the public school finance doors were opened to entrepreneurs and corporations who wanted to privatize public education and make profit from it, gradually, under the guise of “choice”, you could choose a for profit charter school for your child or a non profit charter school, both collecting public money, both likely not required to adhere to the same rules that regulate public schools. And the Supreme Court is prying open the coffers of public support for parochial schools. And how to choose? Again, weighing convenient transportation against teacher training requirements against curriculum requirements against class size, cost and a host of other variables is not easy. And I might add, should be unnecessary. Please give us back well funded public schools that can competently serve everyone.

The article by Paul Krugman that I referenced earlier in this piece also discussed the issue of utility choice, which has reared its ugly head in an increasing number of states with the flood of profit seeking, privatization and deregulation of public utilities. Time was when our electrical power and natural gas was provided by highly regulated, non profit public utility companies. The dreadful situation in Texas was mentioned where electricity is provided by a host of for-profit, highly deregulated and privatized electric companies, (likely including one called “Johnny’s Juice” – why not?), from which the consumer needs to choose. Yes, there are even Texas websites that advertise that they will help choose the “energy plan that’s right for you”. All of this deregulation helped cause the dreadful debacle in Texas during the winter of 2020, when unexpected cold caused power outages, disaster and death throughout the state, and electric bills of as high as $17,000 per month when your power stayed on. Krugman quotes the Texas Lieutenant Governor as saying this was the customer’s own fault for not “reading the fine print”. For God’s sake, I just want the lights to go on when I flip the switch and the heat to turn on when I raise the thermostat level. Spare me the “energy plan that’s right for me”! Profit should have no place in the provision of essential services for citizens.

We’re being killed by supermarket choices. Remember when you could buy “Bounce” dryer sheets in the laundry section to soften your laundry a little and make it smell good when taken out of the dryer? Well, in case you haven’t noticed there are now a few more choices. You can buy regular Bounce dryer sheet or Outdoor Fresh, or Unscented or Pet Hair and Lint Guard, scented or unscented, or Wrinkle Guard scented or unscented. Or you can “toss away wrinkles and static” with Wrinkle Guard Bounce dryer sheets. My God, what the heck to do. Well maybe I’ll just buy a box of each to stack and teeter on my laundry room shelf and I’ll just use what seems best at the time.Forget it….please, please, just the old original Bounce Dryer Sheets. They were fine

And how about something as simple as ketchup? Remember when you could simply buy Heinz ketchup – great tasting, lasted a long time in the fridge and perfect for that home cooked hamburger or hotdog. And you could buy it in the original bottle and pound or shake it madly upside down so that some would finally come out or buy the squeeze bottle, stored upside down to make it easier. Yes, I know it had the ubiquitous nasty additive, sugar, but it was still the old favorite Heinz Ketchup. But now in the supermarket you have to stand in front of the ketchup area, stroke your chin thoughtfully, shake your head impatiently, maybe check ingredients, compare prices and then try to decide among “no sugar added”, “simply-no artificial sweeteners”, “no salt added”, “blend of veggies”, “sweetened only with honey”, “hot and spicy”, “jalapeño”, or “sriracha”. What the hell, are these different kinds of ketchup necessary? Honestly, I don’t need these choices, never did and never will. To me, ketchup is ketchup. Any other flavors, enhancements or whatever, I can add myself. Why does shopping for something as simple as ketchup have to be so complicated? I have enough decisions to make during the course of a day. I don’t need ketchup choices. 

These two examples merely scratch the surface of the choices in supermarkets today. Have you noticed how many varieties of my old favorite cold breakfast cereal, “Cheerios”, are now available? Check it out – what used to be good old fashioned whole grain oat cereal without added sugar, now not only has totally unnecessary sugar (see my article on sugar – “White Poison”), but also comes in a dozen different varieties, from “Maple” to “Apple Cinnamon” to “Chocolate” or “Fruity”, and all likely heavily sugared. This proliferation of choices has gotten completely out of hand. And just imagine the additional burden placed on the poor “essential worker” supermarket employees – how to handle and display all of these absolutely unneeded varieties.

And just this evening among the things on my supermarket list was the nutritious (as snacks go) snack cracker,” Triscuit”, which I have always liked because of their simplicity – actually shredded wheat with a little salt – ingredients: wheat, salt. However, I was bowled over by all of the new flavors of these snack crackers. There was “balsamic vinegar and basil”, “fire roasted tomato and olive oil”, “cracked pepper and olive oil”, “roasted garlic”, “four cheese and herb” and a few more, truly a staggering array of flavors from which it was very difficult to choose. I am sure all are great, but honestly, are all these flavors really necessary? Yet another example of having to choose. I wonder what other flavors the Triscuit people are working on now.

And before I finish I have to share consideration of how many TV choices there are for us today. From the simple offerings of just a few major networks in my youth, we have now gone to the hundreds of channels available from cable or satellite companies. And only in the last several years, these hundreds of channels have been significantly augmented by the availably of streaming devices which, if you are willing to pay, open the door to hundreds more choices. This dizzying array of choices not only make it difficult to choose but also introduce the new feeling of “what am I missing?” While I’m watching the interminable mix of news and comment of MSNBC, really a rehashing of the same old news by different anchors and  commentators, I might be missing that great French movie that I’ve longed to see again. Or I’ve got to forfeit the news to hurriedly watch a movie on Netflix that’s leaving next week. Really, I’d be happy with the old major network offerings again. When I’ve finished watching Walter Cronkite (real news, real facts, without the embellishment of opinion people), I could watch Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore and then read a book and go to bed. Really, what’s on cable and streaming today is just too much.

Perhaps part of the “choice” dilemma is that I’m old now, feel the finiteness of time like never before, and would rather not waste time making so many unnecessary choices. But for younger people, busier than ever, working for a living and raising their families, it must be even more difficult to make these choices. I think they are a waste of time and completely unnecessary.

Down Memory Lane

I can think of no worse thing to happen to a person than to lose one’s memory. The dreadful scourge of Alzheimer’s, which eventually took the life of my father, has to be far worse for anyone than the myriad diseases and deteriorative conditions that afflict the elderly. Personally I would prefer to be bedridden and immobile and still retain my mental faculties than be the picture of good health with a full head of still brown hair and not recognize either myself or my loved ones and not recall any of my personal history, which describes my father’s condition before he succumbed to a merciful death

Memory is such an amazing and necessary quality. It makes you alive by placing you solidly along a continuum of life experiences. And even more amazing is how it works. I don’t know what the scientific names for them are but I’ll simply call them short term memory and long term memory.  At night when I am ready to go to sleep I often review the duties I should have completed to be ready for tomorrow.  Did I make the coffee? Yes, I recall rinsing out the carafe, filling it with water and pouring the right amount into the chamber. I also remember specifically being extra careful to make the measurer level with coffee since it was a bit strong yesterday. Did I take my pills? Yes, I recall filling a glass of water and taking them. Are my clothes ready for when I get up? Yes, tomorrow I plan to exercise downstairs, so my shorts, t-shirt and sweatshirt are ready, and my sneakers are where they should be. OK, I remembered all those events. But will I remember them tomorrow or the next day? No, absolutely not, because somehow my brain says that I shouldn’t have to. Why would I remember these specific events for longer than a day? Not necessary, so I am allowed to forget them. So memories of these routine activities are soon gone and gone forever, making room apparently for activities and events of greater importance or more proximate in time

Apparently there is also something that we could call “temporary memory” as distinct from “short term memory” – those memories that our brain “dumps” periodically to make room for more permanent memories. Short term memory contains those incidents, feelings, impressions that one can remember from last week or last month, that may or may not become part of long term memory, as opposed to all the minutiae of routines, incidents, feelings, impressions, smells, etc that clutter our brains for a day or two and then are forgotten. 

All memories when first formed are “short-term”.  But over time, the physical representation of the memory in the brain becomes more stable through a process known as called consolidation. The stabilized memories then become “long-term” memories. 

And my long term memory still is okay. When it’s quiet and there are no distractions and I am up alone in the early morning, my long term memory still functions quite well. Those childhood memories and impressions are still there. Those names of people I knew long ago, or worked with, still come back just fine. Yes, some names and faces are growing hazier with the passage of so much time (I’m 79 now), but for most purposes, my long term memory is working as well as my short term memory.

We are our memories. Our memories are our existence. Without our memories we are nothing. Our personalities and mannerisms are linked to memory. We are composed of all those events lodged in our memories. All those events – our childhood, our education, the trauma, the struggles, the losses and victories, come together and truly make us who we are. If all this is obliterated by disease or other incident, we essentially cease to be. We are nothing, although still perhaps still physically whole, because that essential quality, memory, is missing.

All of us, the children of Charles Ralph Friedly, our father, have to be very conscious of memory, I think, because of how Dad died. His wife, our mother, saw his memory and personality fade. She observed the growing helplessness and panic as he steadily lost the essence of himself. I am always asking myself (and I am sure my brothers and sister do the same) – can I remember what happened yesterday, the day before that? How about last week, last month? And do I remember the year before last? Hmmm, yes I can so for the time being I can rest easy. I don’t have Alzheimer’s…at least not yet. Yet, like most elderly people, there are times when I can’t remember the names of certain individuals, so I’m content to refer to that person for the time being as “what’s his name?’. Also, the names of certain objects escape me from time to time. So I’ll blurt out some nonsensical sentence like, “Does what’s his name still have that thing he bought years ago?” Or since these times are becoming somewhat more numerous, this inquiry becomes a more routine “Does whatsizname still have that whatchamacallit?” Yes, I know, a bit ridiculous but that’s old age coming on. I don’t think that it means the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

There was one time in my recent life, however, that I thought that my brain might be succumbing to some early signs of this dreadful condition. While in my last job, I experienced what I can only describe as a total memory blackout. The immediate circumstances I can’t recall. I may have been sitting in my office at my desk alone, shuffling through some papers or preparing to make a phone call. Or I might have been talking to someone sitting across from me or I may have been on the phone. But suddenly I was terrorized by the realization that I didn’t know who I was, where I was or what I was doing. I couldn’t even remember my own name. Some horrible mental cloud had momentarily obscured my actual existence. I had to look at some papers on my desk to find out my name, had to get my drivers license out of my wallet to see my face and realize that person’s face was really me. Yet nothing really clicked. The association of the name on the letter or the face and name on the driver’s license, the people in the family pictures on my desk, with me, the guy sitting helplessly at that desk, just was not there. The feeling of terror and shock that I didn’t know who I was, where I was and was suddenly nameless, was indescribable. My memory had stopped. Thank God, after a few minutes, this horrible feeling passed and all became normal again. But the experience was truly terrifying and I thought for awhile that this could mean the beginning for me of what happened to my father. 

Looking back, I think that this frightening experience could have been the result of some kind of momentary blockage of blood flow in my brain. Maybe it was caused by something I ate, or didn’t eat. Maybe all those scotches at the end of the day were catching up with me. All kinds of things ran through my mind. But really I think that the extreme tension and stress I was experiencing at that time on my job were the real cause. I don’t know precisely how stress affects the brain and memory but it certainly can’t be good. So sifting through all the potential causes, this seems the most likely. I can’t begin to describe that period of time on this terrible job, in fact, over the several years since, I have done my best to forget it. But the stress to which I was subjected undoubtedly took a temporary toll on my health, both physical and mental. 

As we get older, we seem to have more and more memory lapses or absent mindedness that worry us a great deal. However, most of these problems are commonplace and should not be a cause for worry. And we all have experienced them. A short article in an AARP publication lists them:

  • Blocking – can’t think of the name of that person or book or movie even though it’s right on the tip of my tongue.
  • Scrambling – remembering most of an event but not sure how or when it happened.
  • Fading away – you think you should remember something but cannot because too much time has elapsed and memory has been “swept away” by the brain to make room for more.
  • Struggling for retrieval – just met someone and already can’t remember the name, or the name of that movie or book you’re trying to recommend.
  • Muddled multitasking – getting so involved in a task that the first or second one is forgotten, e.g. something boiling away or overcooked on the stove while you are doing something else. 

And then there is another interesting aspect to memory that was described in an article in the New York Review of Books , which I resurrected from my files to reference for this article – the phenomenon of “reconstructive memory”. This occurs when there is an incident in our past which may have indeed happened, but over time, we tend to inadvertently embellish with a little bit of fiction – details that fit the general configuration of that central memory and perhaps enhance it. Sometimes these embellishments add to the notability or daring of the deed or occurrence we remember, or they perhaps they are gathered and attached to that specific memory in order to enhance our perceptions of ourselves. Often these fabrications are exposed when siblings or friends may recall an event at which they were present in totally different ways. Their respective memories are not necessarily faulty: it’s just that their memories of this single event have been enhanced, diminished, or detailed by each’s idiosyncratic personal fictions. Or, as the author Oliver Sacks related, a particular memory may not be one’s own at all but may be adopted from another, as long as it fits neatly into a previous memory structure of sufficient strength and importance.

I have experienced this phenomenon several times myself. Detailed memories surrounding a certain traumatic event in my childhood or early adulthood have proven to be fallacious or at least richly embellished, since they were perceived in strikingly different ways by siblings or others present during the occurrence. I have lived with the notion that certain of my vivid memories are immutable and have been surprised by the fact that they are malleable. One group of such memories relate to Hurricane Hazel which struck the eastern seaboard, including my state of New Jersey in 1954 when I was 12 years old. My memories of a tall chimney crashing down on the house yet not penetrating the roof were refuted because when Hazel smote New Jersey our family no longer lived at that particular house. However, my memories of seeing the WAWZ (our church radio station) transmission towers blown down and lying in the fields was in fact corroborated by others. Perhaps I had mixed my hurricanes up and it was another that took down the chimney when we did in fact live at that house. But what I thought was an accurate recollection simply was not.

Another interesting thing about memory is how we can commit what one might call “accidental” or “unconscious” plagiarism or, certainly more comforting, “legal plagiarism”, when ideas clearly gleaned from others, perhaps from their writing or lectures, find a solid place in our own memories because they fit so well with our own previous experiences. Thus, these ideas, now embraced as our own, are called up to embellish and illustrate our own thought and writing and we never think to attribute them to others. All of us have experienced this phenomenon in one way or another. Particularly, much academic writing must be of this nature. A student of a particular discipline writing about a subject within that discipline is never alone. He may endeavor to attribute certain ideas to others, like all academics should, yet little of his thinking is truly original but is really just what has been distilled from all of his reading over the years and embraced as one’s own. The real challenge is where and how to distinguish and draw a line between what can readily be attributed to another and what is an amalgam of personal experiences and knowledge which cannot now be separated into what is truly personal and what has been gleaned from others.

Thus plagiarism can be honestly accidental. Who knows the sources of the “deep insights” or the “epiphanies” or “revelations” that I experience while thinking and writing in the early morning. Are they my own or have they been derived from something I’ve read earlier and adopted and adapted for my own? They certainly seem to be my own but referring back to the article by Sacks, I’m not really sure. Sacks calls these incidents “auto-plagiarism”, or more precisely, an even more technical term, “cryptomnesia”, which I could not even find in my dictionary. 

Sacks relates a great example of this phenomenon – when George Harrison, of all people, was accused of plagiarism and was actually sued, when his song, “My Sweet Lord” was deemed too similar to another song, “He’s so Fine” by Ronnie Mack, recorded eight years earlier by The Chiffons.  Indeed, listening to them both confirms great similarity in melody and refrain. But apparently the judge in the case, although finding Harrison guilty of plagiarism, generously deemed Harrison’s mistake not deliberate, casting it into the category of accidental or inadvertent plagiarism described above.

It might be useful to tie all of these notions about the malleability of memory, i.e. “reconstructive memory”, “auto” or “accidental” plagiarism together with a great quote from Sacks, offered by Nicole Krauss in her review of his book, Rivers of Consciousness – “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”

Sacks’ opinion deals directly with one of the dreadful negative effects of reconstructive memory – the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal convictions. Fully two thirds of wrongful convictions, those overturned by the introduction of DNA evidence, involve faulty eyewitness testimony. In these cases, “reconstructive” memory is faulty and may have been hastily adapted to fit a preconceived idea of the witness’s self importance. 

This phenomenon has been illustrated by tests done on a variety of people. For example, multiple individuals are shown a video of a car crash, yet each observer sees something different than the others. One can’t remember the colors of the cars or which car entered the intersection first; another can’t tell which was going faster, whether a man or woman was driving, who was standing in the intersection or whether a bicycle was actually there, and so on.

Eyewitness memories are usually “contaminated” by the stress endured by someone involved in the incident or by previous remembered experiences. The uncommon and exaggerated excitement or shock of observing a certain occurrence can easily get in the way of accurate recollection of the event. “Lineup” identification processes are similarly fraught and unreliable.

A well documented example was featured in the New York Times a couple of years ago – the dreadful experience of Penny Beerntsen, who misidentified her assailant, resulting in his spending 18 years in prison before being cleared by DNA identification of several hairs of the assailant. The incident was described by Debra Tolchinsky in her short film and in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer”, which features the story of her misidentified assailant without Beerntsen’s perspective.

Before closing this lengthy article I would like to mention several more remarkable characteristic of memory. One is outlined in Claudia Hammon’s fascinating article about time: that without memories of the past, we cannot exist in the present, nor can we predict a future for ourselves. When we think of the future – where we’ll be years hence, what kind of health we will enjoy, what we will be doing – all of this has to be considered in terms of the past and present. Evidently we employ the same part of our brain when considering the past and imagining the future. And it is this that allows us to consider different scenarios of the future before we decide which choice to make or road to take. This ability to simultaneously consider the past, present and future is what makes humans unique and is also what enables us to be creative and conceive and generate works of art. We’ve obviously known about this relationship between the past and the future for a long time, as Hammon reminds us that Aristotle “described memories not as archives of our lives, but as tools for imagining the future”.

And one other fascinating attribute of memory is recounted in Rosenfeld and Ziff’s article “Making Memories”, all based on a review of a book by Luke Dittrich about the famed patient “HM”, who had a part of his brain, specifically parts of the hippocampus removed. “HM”‘s unique condition and especially the nature of his memory loss spawned many useful studies of the brain and memory and the article discusses several of those.

It goes on to state that apparently all memories are subjective, idiosyncratic for the individual and tailored for that person’s unique “self”. In fact, for the memory to work properly it must have created a “self”, an image through which activities and events are actually lived and then remembered. This image of self also includes a three dimensional image of one’s body, dynamic and changing because of our movements, and created from sensory responses to those movements. With our eyes closed we have no problem touching a chosen part of our bodies in any attitude with the finger or hand. This “map” of the body explains why someone will remember a limb that has perhaps been removed and can actually feel it still there and even fancy yet touching it, though gone. The filtering of events through our unique body image ensures that memories of those events are subjective and are ours alone. Another experiencing the same event will over time and space remember it differently because of filtering it through their own self and image.

I have enjoyed this little jaunt “down memory lane” through the miracle and mysteries of memory itself and have found that the selected readings and attempts to digest and relate their content to myself and others dear to me have been stimulating and meaningful. What is rather sobering since I live now in old age is that, regardless of their quality and quantity and their value and meaning to me presently and to others, all those memories are but temporal. Certainly hard to conceive now, with my body and brain still functioning satisfactorily, that at the death of my body in the not too distant future, poof, all those precious memories will disappear.

Face It

I have a real obsession with faces. I see them everywhere. When gazing absentmindedly out of the bathroom window here in Vermont, suddenly a face will emerge from the irregularities in the grass on the lawn or from the bark on a tree. Yes, there are the two eyes, between them what passes for a nose and yes, below the nose is what could be a mouth. And sometimes there’s even the hair, a forehead or the ears or a chin. I don’t ever really look for a face but when my eyes will relax and go out of focus for a moment or two, it just sort of comes out. If I look away toward some other object in my view I may lose that particular face, but another may appear when looking a different direction or at a different surface. And when this occurs, it’s always a face, nothing else.

Faces are obviously important to me. If I meet a new person, perhaps the friend of a friend or a new service person who comes to my house to do a job, I will look intently at his or her face and eyes, trying to gauge what kind of person they are. I look for a kind, understanding face or perhaps one expressing respect, resolution or confidence. I think that faces are the passageway to the inside of a person and show what kind of person they are.

Now, from a developmental, evolutionary point of view, faces are even more important. We absorb a face into our memories, not a name, explaining why when we definitely remember a face we often forget the name. In ancient times, it was the face that identified a friend or foe, certainly not the name, reinforcing why faces are so important.

In my precious former profession, education, when interviewing teachers, I became accustomed to paying attention to teaching candidates’ faces, always looking for an expressive countenance, because I had noted over my career that the most successful teachers were those whose faces were mobile and expressive, who “wore their hearts on their sleeves” and were able to show children how they felt. Teachers with expressive faces were always the best disciplinarians. Their faces showed students that they cared, through easily showing pleasure, disappointment, surprise, concern and humor through their faces and body language. I have always claimed that good teachers control their children with the raised eyebrow, not the raised voice. Children inherently want to please us and we have to constantly demonstrate an appropriate response.

As an elementary principal I supervised many teachers over the years who never had a single discipline problem and also had a few that failed utterly at running good cooperative, joyful classrooms. Or one group of children would be “full of troublemakers” according to their teacher that year but the exact same group would go on to the next grade and be the “best class I’ve ever had” to another teacher. Why? The teacher’s expressive face, demeanor and body language, but especially the face, meant the difference.

With regard to remembering faces I should relate an amazing story about face recognition. Many years ago while at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, I was struck with the familiarity of the face of a waitress working there. I knew that face from somewhere in the past but could not remember where or how. After glimpsing her several more times as she conducted her job and noting her voice and body language I finally decided that I must know her from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was convinced that she had been a cashier at the Harvard Coop, where I regularly went to buy LP records for many years after I had been a graduate student. She specifically had manned a cash register in the record department. But….how could this be, how could I be sure, after being so far removed from that Massachusetts memory, both in distance and in time? How could that face belong to someone whom I encountered in this somewhat insignificant role at least five years ago in the past at a place over two thousand miles removed from Tucson?

Upon mentioning this conviction to my wife, who shook her head in surprise and disbelief, claiming that I had to be mistaken, I resolved to approach the young lady and ask her about my strong belief that she once worked in the record department at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally summoning my courage, approaching her and asking the question, she beamed with surprise and pride and said that yes, she had worked for several years in precisely that establishment before moving to Tucson. Absolutely amazing, the depth, power and memorability of a face. Oh sure, the fact that his young lady was attractive probably had something to do with my memory of her, but nevertheless, I will forever be amazed at this incident.

And speaking of faces, I have to discuss that of our President, Joe Biden. Listen, I’m awfully happy that he won the presidency. I shudder to think what our country would have been in for had our fascist friend Donald Trump won a second term. But of course I would much rather have had Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as our leader because of their authentic “for the people” propensities so evident in their careers and campaign proposals. 

Unfortunately there is little authenticity to former machine politician Joe Biden who for 34 years represented the Cayman Island-like state of Delaware, save the now hackneyed declaration that “he’s a good man” and that he is genuinely empathetic because he has “suffered loss”. Indeed, losing the loved ones President Biden has lost over the years would soften the hardest of hearts and souls and he wears the empathy badge quite genuinely. And I do think that he genuinely cares.

And during this horrible pandemic that has now killed well above half a million of our citizens and thousands more world wide, it has been wonderful to have a leader who can say the right words to us, to be a credible “comforter in chief” as it were. His recent speech on the subject, sympathizing with those millions who have lost loved ones, was impressive, made even more so by knowledge of his personal experience with loss.

But when watching our president during any kind of emotional outpouring, something is missing. Perhaps I’m being petty, but I don’t see Joe’s face reflecting any anguish, sadness or empathy. Whether he has been outlining legislative goals on the campaign trail, accepting the results of the election, or extolling the virtues of the nation and pledging to uphold its values during his inauguration speech, Joe’s expression is pretty much the same – the same beady eyes, the same immobile mouth, turned down at the corners in a perpetual grimace, and of course, the same blindingly white teeth, big and lots of them…when he smiles.

As I noted above in a different context, I think the face is everything in human communication. The frown, the raised eyebrows, the smile, the knitted brow, the eye roll, the clenched teeth, can often convey emotion and understanding that words cannot and can certainly punctuate words and phrases and give them emphasis, additional meaning and emotional impact. Look again at President Biden’s speech about the pandemic – the words are perfect and quite meaningful, but we are left hanging without validation from his expressionless face. 

Now, we should ask why is this? Why is our president’s face so empty of expression…of whatever kind? Anger, laughter? When looking back at the many pictures and videos of Joe in the past, it is clear that his face has changed – dramatically. Remember his famous aside to President Obama after the Affordable Care Act became law? “This is a big f——-g deal!”, he chortled in the president’s ear, his whole face smiling and reflecting his glee.

The moment after Biden’s remark

Other pictures and videos from his many years in the Senate, show a face full of expression, able to show sarcasm, surprise, concern, or embarrassment quite easily. Actually, even when then Senator Biden ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2015, his face was fine. But something happened to that face between his run against Clinton and his run for the Democratic nomination in 2019. 

Biden 2012

Now, we all know about the vanity of politicians and Joe Biden was never an exception. As a balding senator, in fact the victim of a very unseemly process, where the hair seemed to thin severely but uniformly, no bald spot or receding hairline for Joe, his vanity response was his famous hair plugs – swiped from his neck and various other places where the hair was thick and then inserted into his scalp. Okay, baldness assaults the best of us and we all deal with it in different ways, including the famous “comb over” (https://ralphfriedly.com/2016/07/04/the-comb-over/). But Senator Biden’s answer for his problem was quite radical and obviously quite expensive. 

Biden then

Well, all this was fine – we got used to the “hair plug look”, but why mess with the face. Joe’s face, aside from a sagging double chin or wattle, was always fine. His smile and his hearty laugh were always engaging, as my son Conrad can attest, when Vice President Biden visited with and thanked his Peace Corps group in Jordan in 2008. Really, Biden’s engaging personality, favorably supported by those expressive characteristics, was one of his finest attributes. But apparently his vanity expanded unwisely well beyond those hair plugs after he ran against Clinton in 2015. It was during his run against Sanders and Warren for the Democratic nomination, that his supporters and we voters noticed a fundamentally altered face and its resulting negative characteristics.

Biden now

Yes, Joe Biden is old. Hmm, well maybe not so old since he was born in the same year I was, 1942. I’m already 79; President Biden will turn 79 in November. But he is without doubt the oldest person to become a US president. The closest to him was Donald Trump, who when he was elected in 2016, was 70 years old. But to me that’s not a good enough reason to change an engaging and expressive face to one that’s most times a complete cypher, in an ill advised effort to look younger. His wife, “Dr. Jill”, should have advised against it.

President Biden

But President Biden, a devoted exerciser, is trying to ensure that his body is up to the exhausting role of US President. He’s been known to challenge opponents to push-up contests, among them President Trump. And yes, he would have easily won. But in my humble opinion he should also have exercised, not excised, his charming and distinguishing facial characteristics, retaining the expressive face of the “lunch bucket Joe” that we grew to respect and love as Senator and Vice President.

Addendum

Another story about facial expression that I wanted to share but that would not fit easily into any of the above, concerns a Mark Twain book, me and my father.

I mentioned in another article that many of my favorite books were purchased at a used book booth at Packard’s Farmers Market on route 206 in Somerset County, New Jersey when I was a youngster. One of them, an ornately bound first edition of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad”, was quite special. I remembered some clever illustrations in the book dealing with interpretation of facial expressions that I wanted to consider for this article but of course this precious book was on a bookshelf in my study in Scottsdale so I abandoned the idea.

But, would you believe it, after idly typing the title and author into google, a scanned version of exactly my first edition came up and after looking through the chapters and pages, I found the exact page, illustration and text that I wanted. Both the illustration and Twain’s text describing the expressions caused lots of uproarious laughter from both me and my father when sharing them. They still don’t exactly fit into the article but here they are, along with the text – I hope you enjoy them:

Twain’s text:

There is an old story that Matthews, the actor, was once lauding the ability of the human face to express the passions and emotions hidden in the breast. He said the countenance could disclose what was passing in the heart plainer than the tongue could.

“Now”, he said, “Observe my face – what does it express?”

“Despair!”

“Bah, it expresses peaceful resignation! What does this express?”

“Rage!”

“Stuff! It means terror! This!”

“Imbecility”.

“Fool! It is smothered ferocity! Now this!”

“Joy!”

“Oh perdition! Any ass can see it means insanity!”

Elder Statesmen

I was disturbed by the worshipful reverence implied in the smaller news item inserted into the story of President Biden’s inauguration on January 20 of this year.

Sure, most Americans were happy to see the end of the chaotic, disastrous and disgraceful presidency of Donald Trump and happy to usher in what we all hoped would be a much more deliberate, thoughtful, honest and transparent presidency. Although Joe Biden’s tenure has yet to be judged, the end of Trump’s certainly has caused a national sigh of relief.

And I assume to help make that point we were treated to a dramatically posed and videoed meeting among three of our ex-presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, where we could hear them reminisce and ruminate about the “peaceful transfer of power” in which they all participated and position themselves as contrasts to the last four years. For many viewers and observers perhaps it worked. I mean, who wouldn’t look good next to Donald Trump. Whose administration would not shine when compared to the destructive wrecking crew of ne’er-do-wells who populated Trump’s cabinet – from Betsy DeVos to Scott Pruitt – all bent on destroying that which they were appointed to protect. 

But I had a problem with this video – not with the sentiment expressed by these ex presidents about the peaceful transition of power, which was quite appropriate, but with being reminded as I looked at each one and remembered their respective eight-year presidencies, of how flawed our recent presidents and their legacies have been. The reflective gathering of these three should have been not a celebration but a commiseration. All three have huge black marks on their respective administrations that will define them forever and that history will not erase.

In order – Bill Clinton and his “triangulation” strategy caused no end of misfortune for America. His “middle ground” abandonment of principles of the Democratic Party that got him elected and embrace of right wing policies to ingratiate him with the Republican Party resulted in some disastrous legislation. His crime bill, in the words of NYTimes columnist Charles Blow, “…flooded the streets with police officers and contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacts Black men and their families. It helped to drain Black communities of fathers, uncles, husbands, partners and sons….”. 

And then there was Clinton’s welfare reform bill which would “end welfare as we know it”, when he took another page from the Republican playbook by changing welfare to a block grant program for each state, inadequate to begin with, and which assured significant disparity among more and less generous states. His program also dictated onerous work requirements which presented impossible transportation burdens for poor families and, worst of all, ran out at an established point, depositing many one parent and struggling families right back into the gutter of despair and hopelessness from which they were trying to escape and where they remained. 

Then there were Clinton’s clumsy foreign policy forays, which included “Operation Infinite Reach” – the bombing of purported terrorist havens in Afghanistan and a western built pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, claimed to be manufacturing nerve gas. These attacks were violations of international law and failed to achieve anything except enhancing Osama bin Laden’s reputation and strengthening the terrorist resolve that resulted in the disaster of 9/11. Along with his ill-conceived assault in Somalia culminating in the infamous Mogadishu firefight of October 1993, our friend Bill should be forever contrite and repentant.

Another signature bill of Clinton’s presidency was the oft-touted North American Free Trade Agreement, known better as NAFTA, which accelerated the departure of  manufacturing from America to low wage countries like Mexico. Why the hollowed-out cities of Michigan and Ohio with boarded up factory buildings? NAFTA is the reason. The loss of well paid, unionized manufacturing jobs was a huge contributor to destroying the middle class and making the United States the most unequal country among OECD nations. With NAFTA the corporations, their CEO’s and their stockholders got richer and their former employees got poorer.

The corporate takeover of Medicare also began with Bill Clinton. It was during his administration that private healthcare corporations were first allowed to administer Medicare programs to seniors. First called Medicare “Choice” programs, they eventually morphed into the myriad “Medicare Advantage” programs of today, which offer “enhanced” medicare providing additional benefits like dental care, hearing and drug coverage and so on at great taxpayer cost through requiring Medicare to pay a hefty annual coverage cost to private companies, who then profit by limiting coverage (See my upcoming article on this subject).

And then, of course, Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern forever blemished the US presidency. Yes, one might argue that other presidents had their weak moments too, certainly FDR, Eisenhower and Kennedy come to mind. But Clinton’s were not tastefully hidden but blazoned in the headlines for all of us to see and feel. 

So perhaps President Clinton, standing so dramatically with those two other ex presidents, should have been apologizing to his colleagues and to the American people instead of discussing the “peaceful transition of power”.

Then there was George W. Bush, the biggest failure of all, standing in the twilight with Bill and Barack. He manipulated intelligence and initiated a catastrophic war of choice with Iraq which should be described with terms like “illegal. war crime, deception, lies, immoral, mass murder” that cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives while making the world a more dangerous place. In addition to the money, now calculated by Brown University’s Cost of War project at $1.922 trillion (averaging about $8000 for every US taxpayer) and the lives lost, estimated to be more than 300,000, we left a dreadfully unstable and still struggling Iraq. Plus our friend Mr. Bush gave the ok for “black sites” and legalization of torture, leaving a most shameful and permanent blemish on the character of our nation. Actually, the costs of Bush’s entire “War on Terror”, which would include not only Iraq, but also Afghanistan and military actions in more than 80 other countries all over the globe, and which accomplished little but further deterioration of our reputation, have tallied an astonishing cost of $6.4 trillion and 601,000 precious lives lost. Thank you, George W. Bush.

 And of course, we remember “W”’s disastrous reaction to Hurricane Katrina. It’s really hard to imagine a more detached, uncaring posture in the face of such a huge disaster, but there he was, after interrupting an already disgracefully long 27 day vacation on his Texas ranch, disdainfully viewing the deadly catastrophe from the distance and safety of Air Force One. Then, eventually on the ground and finally trying to lead, he comes out with his immortal statement to inept FEMA director Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”. This dismal performance as president in the face of terrible disaster will long be remembered.

And guess who privatized and deregulated the Texas power grid, severed it from those in adjacent states to prevent any federal oversight, and placed it under the control of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)? Yes, George W. Bush did all this while serving as governor of Texas, calling it “The nation’s most extensive experiment in electrical deregulation” – an extraordinarily expensive and deadly experiment, with Texas residential consumers paying ten of billions more for their power than state’s traditional utilities, most of it going into the pockets of investors, power company CEOs, and the campaign coffers of Texas Republican politicians. And we all know what happened when the changing climate sent a huge cold wave to Texas this past winter – approximately 800 people died and the the state sustained billions in property damage. Thank you for that too, George W. Bush.

So Bush, as detailed in a superb New York Magazine article the “painter”, the “artist”, is trying to launder his reputation and sanitize his legacy with his vapid portraiture. Oh yes, “inspired by Churchill”, he is painting portraits of immigrants, including fellow war criminal Henry Kissinger and marketing a  book celebrating his “artistry” with all the power he can. Why? Does he need the money? Hardly – he’s been a multimillionaire for decades for whom politics and now art have been a hobby. He’s just doing everything he can to make us forget his disastrous presidency and unfortunately we’re mostly going along with him. And George W. Bush, war criminal, had the gall to appear on BookTV being interviewed by none other than his own daughter and expounding  on his new career and book. 

Oh, and let’s not forget that like every good Republican president, “W” also cut taxes for the wealthy in 2001 and 2003 under the guise of “tax relief”, a Frank Luntz term that I illustrated in another article. So George W., paint and pontificate all you want. You will never live down the legacy of being one of the worst, most disastrous of all US presidents.

And good old President Barack Obama, now basking in the riches obtained by he and Michelle’s movie production deal with Netflix and the considerable royalties from the first volume of his presidential memoirs, should be sadly looking back at a failed presidency. Oh sure, he was a distinguished leader on the world stage, might be the most eloquent of all of our presidents, and indisputably was our first black president, but he could have done so much more, were he not locked in the embrace of neoliberal orthodoxy. His vaunted “hope and change” never materialized – we all hoped but nothing much changed. 

Surrounded by advisors recruited from the ranks of Goldman Sachs he chose Wall Street over Main Street, bailing out the very same big banks that caused the financial crisis of 2008 instead of prosecuting them and failed to help the millions who lost their sole store of wealth – their homes. Yes, President Obama refused to prosecute those who caused the crash of 2008, in contrast to the thousands of prosecutions following the savings and loan debacle of the ’80’s and ’90’s and chose instead to bail out the big banks, the real culprits, instead of common people who were losing their homes. And the stimulus finally passed to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and livelihoods was far too small, causing the recovery to drag on for much too long. Furthermore and very important, this choice fueled an era of populist rage and resentment that infected the country and paved the way for  the election of Donald Trump.

And while all of us hoped for something better, President Obama forever doomed American medical care to be a for-profit corporate “product” by allowing the Affordable Care Act to be virtually written by the health care and pharmaceutical industries. True, it extended “affordable” healthcare to additional millions of people but at the huge cost of government subsidies to healthcare corporations. “Obamacare” – ostensibly a compromise between liberals and moderates, was in reality a giveaway to the already corporatized healthcare industry. And Biden’s much touted “enhancement” of Obamacare and the aforementioned Medicare Advantage programs have tightened corporate America’s grip on American healthcare and have made transition to a much less expensive and far more efficient single payer government run program which would cover every single person in the country from birth to death increasingly difficult and now maybe impossible.

Also, it was President Obama who, perhaps unwittingly, signed the deceptively named Ensuring Patient Access and Drug Enforcement Act, which stripped the DEA of power to staunch the flow of opioid pills outside of normal avenues of prescription and distribution, protecting drug manufacturers and their distributors and making it easier for them to get away with exacerbating the epidemic of overdoses and death. And it’s interesting to note that the bill’s most passionate advocate, Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, was later nominated by Donald Trump to be his “drug czar”.

Plus while president our friend Barack Obama embarked on a series of ill advised and illegal executions, an example of which certainly was the much ballyhooed “capture” of Osama bin Laden, who actually was murdered extrajudicially instead of being brought back to the US to face justice. Yes, our “constitutional scholar and professor” president who campaigned against the death penalty, actually kept a “kill list” and was only too happy to execute any number of Muslims without charges or trials, some of whom were US citizens, along with dozens of innocent bystanders, who likely were deemed mere “collateral damage”.

Another shameful feature of the Obama presidency was his treatment of whistleblowers. Of course, Mr. Obama, boasted of his administration’s “transparency”, promising “a new era of open government”, but betrayed that pledge time and time again, spearheading eight Espionage Act prosecutions, more than all US administrations combined. The Obama administration’s treatment of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, James Risen, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Donald Sachtleben, Stephen Kim and the very latest, Daniel Hale, whose prosecution began under Obama, continued through Trump and will conclude under Biden, was shameful and contrasts shockingly with the preferential treatment of David Petraeus, guilty of the same sharing of government secrets.

When considering the aforementioned, why President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize remains a mystery. Conjecture suggests that this award was perhaps a veiled repudiation of the previous administration, or perhaps some “hope” based on Obama’s overtures to Muslim countries. But it is amazing that so many of his administration’s actions violated the honor of this recognition. Quite contradictory also, especially in view of his promises to work toward a “nuclear-free world”, which probably helped him win the Prize, was his authorization of a trillion dollar program to “modernize” the US atomic arsenal with its 5800 warheads already capable of destroying the world and everyone in it several times over. And, like presidents before him, he continued the coverup of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. In 2009, when a journalist asked him if he knew of “any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons,” Mr. Obama responded, “I don’t want to speculate”, making his efforts to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons to maintain a “nuclear free middle east” disingenuous at best.

I should add that President Obama and his pompous blowhard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, repeatedly betrayed and damaged my precious chosen profession, public education. Obama and Duncan, both private school products, demonstrated little knowledge of public education and its important role in American democracy and displayed little awareness of the causes of its problems. They continued the detached and useless tenets of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” involving standards, test scores, competition, and school reward and punishment, simply using different names – “School Improvement Grants” and “Race to the Top”. And both presented charter schools and “choice” as solutions to public school struggles, sucking away precious public school resources and depositing them in private pockets. 

And one more thing – as a dedicated Democrat, I was terribly upset to see President Obama, the leader of my Party, and his dedicated supporters, throw virtually all of their effort and resources into his 2012 reelection, to the detriment of national Democratic concerns. During President Obama’s eight years in office, when Democrats like me could feel some pride in a Democratic presidency, the Party lost more House, Senate, state legislative and governor seats, a net total of 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats than under any other president. Among the states lost by Democrats were Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa and West Virginia, all key to the victory of Donald Trump in 2016. 

And finally, the great humanitarian, President Obama, who so sensitively and eloquently reflected the grief and concern of the nation at at mass shootings in schools and churches, even singing “Amazing Grace” when he “ran out of words”, did absolutely nothing to impede Israeli land theft, settlement expansion and human rights abuses, all violations of international law, during his presidency and worse, sat by while the US funded Israeli war machine killed thousands of Palestinians during the Gaza “war” in 2014 including 551 children and 299 women, while injuring over ten thousand and orphaning more than fifteen hundred children, all the while mouthing the same tired platitude, “Israel has the right to defend itself”. Instead Mr. Obama rewarded this criminal nation by signing a 10 year, $38 billion aid MOU with Israel. This $11 million per day “tribute” to Israel has recently ballooned to $20 million per day as our politicians stumble over each other in their eagerness to “help Israel”. “

So President Obama, enough with your well honed speeches and sanctimonious and thoughtful demeanor and enough with your “presidential memoirs” which gloss over your mistakes and failures. If you really want us to forget, why not impress us by trying your hand at building homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity like President Carter did, or maybe join Stacey Abrams knocking on doors to expand voting opportunities for poor people of color. Oh, and one more thing –  it was Obama’s EPA that approved toxic chemicals for the fracking industry, that break down into deadly “forever” poisonous compounds called PFAS which threaten people and wildlife through soil and water contamination.

Before publishing this bleak assessment of our last three presidents’ legacies, it might be only fair to consider a few of the best things to emerge from their respective administrations. Hey, it wasn’t all bad.  However, what most consider to be Bill Clinton’s major achievements – NAFTA, his crime bill and welfare reform, I have asserted to be major failures. Yet he can be proud of the first balanced Federal budget in many years. George W. Bush has been lauded for PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs relief),  a successful humanitarian effort to combat AIDS in twelve African countries. And ironically, what’s commonly viewed as Barack Obama’s greatest achievement, the Affordable Care Act, I include above as a major failure. But he should be recognized for the DACA program, his Consumer Protection Bureau, joining the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran Nuclear deal, reaching out to Cuba and for his active support for LGBTQ rights. But, all considered, in my view the achievements of these three remarkably flawed presidents were far outweighed by their errors, mistakes and failures.

Vermont Again

This has been a most difficult year. About a year ago we all became aware that there was a deadly virus spreading around the world and concerned countries took various measures to protect their populations – with greater or lesser success. And the US, as we all know, was unfortunately in the latter category. And, again as we all know, the reasons were clear: lack of Federal leadership and action, the inability of the medical community, with its resources proscribed and limited by corporatized, for-profit systems, to respond sufficiently, and an ignorant and incompetent president who utterly failed to respond and lead.

As individuals, like the nations of the world, US citizens responded differently too. Some heeded the pleas of the medical community and followed the now dreary dicta of masking, social distancing and hand cleansing. And some did not but selfishly went about their everyday activities without protecting themselves and others. And over time it became apparent that states too, responded differently. Some required citizens to practice good medical hygiene and some did not. And many suffered the consequences of that differentiation. By summer and into the fall of 2020 some states, among them our home state of Arizona, were suffering infection rates among the highest in the world. And some, like my adopted state of Vermont (my spouse’s native state) were among the lowest. So, motivated by these differences, we decided not to return to Arizona in November as customary, but to remain in Vermont through the winter, thus making this already “most difficult year” even more stressful.

Yes, we chose to stay in Vermont because statistically it was “safer”. But I had never experienced an entire  Vermont winter and my spouse had not experienced one since she was quite young. And this particular winter, unfortunately, has proven to be among the harshest over the last decade or so. Yes, we had visited our summer home during the winter several times over the approximately eleven years we have split time between the two states, but the experiences had been uneventful – some snow, some ice or some slush. But this winter, which we are still dealing with in early March, has added a devastating and depressing dimension to this already disastrous year. And at our ages, 78 and 70, dealing with a Vermont winter has not been easy.

After a beautiful October, usually one of the finest months of weather in Vermont, we passed through a somewhat unremarkable November – brown grass, bare trees, some rain, steadily increasing lower temperatures, but nothing unexpected. And we enjoyed a pleasant pandemic Thanksgiving holiday with our Florida daughter and granddaughter who had remained in Massachusetts for the same reasons we were still in Vermont.

But in the middle of December we experienced a truly frightening event – a snowfall the like of which I had never experienced. Beginning in the late afternoon of December 16, the snow continued all night, accumulating at the rate of a couple of inches per hour. I arose around my usual time of about four in the morning, turned on the outside light on the front deck and was astonished to see snow accumulations and drifts approaching the top of the four foot railings. And it was still coming down heavily.

Lower deck 4:00 AM December 17

In the morning as the snowfall slowed we began to explore what was necessary to get outside. I could not even open the storm door on the front porch because the snow had come almost up to the doorknob and I could not get the door open. The back door was somewhat better – even though the snow had come well above above the top step on the stairway, because there was not a flat porch on which it could accumulate, I was able to open the storm door enough to squeeze out with one of my snow shovels which thankfully were accessible, having been stored in the downstairs garage. In trying to come down the three steps I was astonished to realize that the snow depth was well above my knees and thighs and almost to my waist. I literally could not move, it was simply too deep. So to get anywhere I had to dig a trench in which to walk, so I dug my first such trench out from the porch steps and then around the deck toward the front of the house where my spouse’s bird feeders were located because I knew that she would want to replenish them especially in the midst of such a huge snowfall. Thankfully, despite its incredible depth and quantity, the snow was relatively easy to shovel, being more of the light and fluffy variety rather than the wet and heavy type.

Bobbie and her bird feeders December 17

Later that day, as the storm slowed and finally stopped, I gazed at the quantity of snow and actually felt afraid. What if one of us suddenly fell seriously ill, sustained a heart attack or a broken bone from a fall of some kind and had to get to a doctor or hospital. Forget it, there was absolutely no way. Dorset municipal plows had already cleared the road leaving a six foot mountain of plowed snow effectively blocking the end of our driveway. During the winter our driveway has routinely been cleared, even in our absence, by Jerry Merrow, a groundskeeper from Rutland who mows lawns in our area during the summer. Mr. Merrow handles the snow with a good sized gasoline powered snowblower so I wondered how he could handle a snowfall of this depth when the opening on the front of his blower was only about 18 inches high. For the rest of that first full day dealing with this snowfall, we did little more that express concern and wonder at the snows awesome depth.

The next day around noon, with the storm finally gone and a bright sun illuminating the monstrous drifts, Jerry arrived with not only his snowblower, largely ineffective in snow of this depth, but with a helper with a pickup truck and snow blade, along with the customary assistance of his teenaged grandson armed with his snow shovel. Starting with the massive pile at the driveway entrance, and pushing right and left, the pickup truck was able to slowly make its way up the hill toward the house. Now, before leaving in the fall and before the first snow, it has been my practice to insert four foot fiberglass reflective wands every eight or ten feet along the edge of the long curve of the driveway so that it’s marked for anyone plowing or snow-blowing the drive. In this case, however, the markers had virtually disappeared because of the depth of the snow. So the plow, unable to follow the curve of the actual driveway, missed much of it and shaved strips of sod from the lawn and picked up various rocks trimming the edge of the drive and the long curved flower garden, all of which were now lodged in the huge piles of snow created by the plow.

Eventually, the plow got close enough to the house for Jerry and his snowblower to take over, which was quite interesting to observe. His blower simply burrowed into the snow in many places, the depth and quantity even covering the chute blowing out the snow. However, with the help of his snow shovel-armed grandson and some additional shoveling by me, Jerry’s blower was able to create some space around our parked and snow covered Ford Taurus and space up to the garage door finally freeing up our little four wheel drive Suzuki Grand Vitara, making us feel considerably more confident about being able to handle an emergency. Because truly, before the driveway was cleared, we would have been totally helpless if we had to get out or get another vehicle, like an ambulance or fire truck, up to our house.

Our Ford Taurus sedan December 18

After the driveway was cleared, I proceeded to dig a trench along where I remembered our walk was, down to the stone steps to the driveway. Bobbie, armed with the other of our two snow shovels decided that she would attempt to dig from the other side of the driveway up to the front porch to free that up. Eventually she finally made her way to the porch and we both cleared off enough snow so that the front storm door could open.

Trench to the front porch December 18

I have to admit, looking back, that this initial snowstorm was quite exciting, despite its massive size and threatening aspects. Both Bobbie and I, along with Jerry, the snowplowing guy and his helpers, had been able to respond appropriately and restore some measure of personal safety. And after having done that, we were able finally to marvel at its remarkable depth and bright beauty, which had effectively obliterated all irregular landscape features, covering them with a smooth stark cover of white.

Wondering what would happen to all this snow was answered about a week later when we were blessed with two very oddly warm days above 50 degrees on which a southern wind blew intensely and we were blessed with large swaths of snow melting and exposing areas of brown grass. During this time I was finally able also to clear the lower deck of virtually all of the snow on it. However, even this big thaw failed to completely melt the huge piles of snow left by the plow on its uneven trip up the driveway. Those piles, full of rocks, driveway gravel and strips of sod from the lawn, remained.

Driveway mess December 20

The two days of thaw ended quickly and the real Vermont winter resumed, with all of its numbing cold and continuing snowfalls, beginning with a very deep, heavy and wet snow, which became a foundation layer of frozen slush, to form the first of many snow layers since then, and burying the afore-mentioned several huge leftover piles of plowed snow full of unsightly lawn, garden and driveway detritus.

January 22

Since that time in December and after a very quiet and lonely Christmas we have gone through over two months of additional (ten to be exact) snowstorms that required Jerry’s driveway and walk clearing, and dozens of “snow showers”, all of which have deposited their layers of new snow upon the old, in varying thicknesses. This constant blanket of snow has thickened and thinned, because of the sun and some evaporation but has remained at a depth of between one and two feet because of constant unrelenting freezing weather. We’ve had dozens of nights of below zero and single digit temperatures and daytime temperatures also in single digits and teens and even a couple of days when even the “high” temperature remained at or below zero.

February 2

And after each snow, we’ve dutifully shoveled as much as we could, again clearing the walks to the bird feeders and down to the driveway, again clearing the upper and lower decks and the front porch. These duties have not aged well and have gotten monotonous and burdensome very quickly. I can see little pleasure in shoveling snow when I know well that more will come again very soon and present the same challenge. And the repeated snows, accompanied by the packing, the occasional slushy wet version and the occasional sunny day contributing some softening and melting, along with the repeated very low nighttime temperatures, have caused what has remained on the walks and driveway to turn to solid ice several inches thick. We have not seen the driveway gravel or any of the flat stones or brown grass of our walks since that pre Christmas thaw. And simply walking down the driveway to get the mail has become a dangerous challenge. The lower deck too over this winter has accumulated unremovable snow and slush to become a coat of thick ice. Recently with some sun and temperatures near freezing, I have been able to pry some chunks loose and toss them off the deck into the snow. I must say, it’s been nice to see more and more of the deck surface reappear.

February 22

Our poor Ford Taurus has been coated again and again with a new blanket of snow, which I have brushed off each time, only to be coated again. I have periodically started the car and let it idle for a half hour or so to make sure the battery stays charged. In the meantime, our little Suzuki has stayed snug in our tiny garage beneath the living room and has faithfully taken us through the winter on necessary shopping trips, even a couple all the way to Trader Joe’s and Costco in Burlington.

And our propane furnace and radiator heating system has performed admirably all winter so far (knock on wood), striving mightily to maintain livable temperatures inside the house, although I have not enjoyed paying the last couple of monthly fuel bills of $400 plus which have come over the last months. Oh and incidentally, I have had to accommodate Dorr Oil and Propane’s deliveries by digging and keeping clear a trench from the road to the underground propane tank and marking its location.

March 7

The worst aspects of this winter have been the dreary boredom of it all. Sunny days have been rare and gazing out at the dull constant white and shades of gray of this eternal blanket of snow has been quite depressing. The time has passed far too quickly. For example, many times I have thought it to be Wednesday and it was already Friday, or have been astonished that February came and went so quickly and it’s already March. Unfortunately it is a fact that time flies by when activities are constricted and one day resembles another. For time to pass slowly, one needs new experiences, new scenery, new people, new travel, new challenges and new learnings, as it did in our youths or working adulthood. And what of these have we experienced here in this bleak and colorless Vermont winter when today is an exact replica of yesterday and this week was exactly like last week and same with he months?

And during this relentless sameness both Bobbie and I are fighting some depression – thankfully not the serious, debilitating, clinical kind, but the listless boredom, lack of interest in anything kind, during which many required tasks are rarely begun, much less finished and one no longer cares about very much at all. The days are spent in bored computer searches, occasional television news, getting the mail (consisting mostly of catalogues and other junk mail), opening it and allowing it to sit around in ever increasing piles. I mean what kind of life is it when the day’s highlight is going down to get the mail, or replenishing the bird feeders, or emptying the trash and navigating the ice to take the containers down to the end of the driveway to be emptied?

Meal preparation and consumption are boringly the same. Every morning for me it’s been my breakfast “smoothie” of water, yogurt, egg, “Orgain” protein powder and frozen berries and for Bobbie her oatmeal, yogurt, frozen blueberries and almonds. And for lunch it’s eggs in some form and then a salad for supper. Yes, all nutritious but frightfully monotonous. We seem incapable of departing from this simple norm for our meals. We simply have neither the creativity nor the energy required.

Same with the daily chores of maintaining our home – doing the wash, folding clothes and putting them away, filling the dishwasher, putting dishes and silverware away. All just as dreary as the meals, adding nothing different to our daily routines. And all constrained and limited by the boring white and constant bone chilling cold outside – the tasks and the environment conspiring to mesmerize our daily existence and sap our creativity and spontaneity.

Through all of this I’ve managed to maintain my exercise routine, despite developing a desperate hatred for every single phase. First, twenty pushups, then a specified number of arm and shoulder exercises with first, ten pound dumbbells, then the two twenties. Then twenty more pushups and finally climbing onto the elliptical machine for a tedious 30 minutes. But in spite of the relatively sensible diet and the regular exercise my aged and pitiful body has accumulated ten additional pounds of fat around its middle which is still with me and which will require considerable will power and effort to get rid of.

Looking back on this dreadful winter, both Bobbie and I are concerned about its effect on our daily lives. The terrible monotony of every day and every week seemed to smother energy and ambition. Despite having both of my scanners here in Vermont, one working with my Mac and the other with an older but still functional Windows PC, and piles of old photographs and slides to digitize and organize, I never really got going on this extensive project. 

And the best I could do with my blog, to which I used to add pieces at a regular rate, is simply start new articles during rare spasms of interest rather than finish any of the dozens already begun. I simply did not have sufficient enthusiasm and concentration required to put the finishing touches on any articles. Several mostly completed were rendered useless and out of date by changing facts or conditions and had to be discarded. Others, with more timeless and universal import, I just did not have the motivation or energy to complete and publish.

Also quite oddly, I never read a single book all winter. Oh yes, the overall quantity and quality of my reading remained quite high, consuming the Times and the Post each day, along with other favorite websites offering a liberal or radical view and analysis of political, social and academic developments, like Common Dreams, Alternet, Truthout, Public Citizen, Pro Publica, Consortium News, Mondoweiss, Counterpunch, Jacobin and others. But whatever resolve it takes to simply grab a book from our bookcase, sit down and read it, I simply did not have. Oh, I tried but never got past the first several pages before giving in to walking aimlessly about the house looking for something else to interest me.

Although I cannot speak for her, my spouse Bobbie, who was apparently stricken by the same malaise, with each day’s activities so restricted by the weather and covid 19 isolation, virtually the only things she accomplished on a regular basis were replenishing her bird feeders and perusing items on her computer. We both killed considerable time watching television, mostly news programs on MSNBC and PBS and selected offerings from Book TV on CSPAN. Our Roku streaming stick offered some occasional respite from these offerings but even with access to hundreds, we watched precious few good movies. Again….little interest.

So basically, with all the time in the world, we wasted most of it and accomplished very little. Neither of us really realized what was happening, until we read a very interesting article from the Guardian about how the fateful combination of isolation and boredom can do terrible things to the brain. While the article dealt mainly with factors related to the lockdown isolation of the covid pandemic, our condition was exacerbated by the additional conditions imposed by an especially challenging and debilitating Vermont winter. Thankfully, the article made clear that in most cases, the “brain fog” developed under these conditions is temporary and with the resumption of more normal activity and socially interactive lives it dissipates and memory, feeling, passion, ambition and energy can return to former levels.  

March 11

On the brighter side, things are finally looking up. Here in mid March, we are both looking forward to obtaining our second covid 19 shots and then at the end of the month driving back to Arizona for long delayed doctor and dentist appointments and to attend to the needs of our house and Bobbie’s little Honda HRV, parked now in the garage for nine months straight. Yes it has a charger on the battery but it should have been started and driven a few times. I hope it has not sustained any lasting damage from such a long period of inactivity. And our house, although son Conrad and special friend Tara have visited a few times, will likely need some serious inspection and  maintenance. 

And best of all, the weather forecast for this week, March 8 – 15 contains some awfully good news – temperatures in the forties and fifties and even a little rain towards the end of the week. Finally, finally, we may see this eternal blanket of dull white snow shrink in size and depth. And finally we may see some stones peak through the ice on the walks and gravel once again appear on the driveway. Perhaps we may see some areas of brown grass emerge from the white on the lawn. And perhaps we can break out of this snowbound and icebound isolation and take a long walk.

March 11

I do know this, even though flying would maybe make more sense, I am eagerly anticipating the drive to Arizona and back again in early May. It will be thrilling to again be on the road, watching the scenery, even if only Interstate Highway scenery, slip by and feeling in control of our own destiny again. And will we spend another winter in Vermont again? Absolutely not, we’ve learned our lesson. But will we happily return to spend the summer and fall here. Very definitely.

A Way with Words: The Devious and Devastating Genius of Frank Luntz… and More

I mentioned Frank Luntz in my article “Shared Values” , in which I willingly gave him credit for the clever term itself – I mean what could be more effective in garnering American support for rogue nation Israel than hearing about how similar it is to the United States? While my article made clear that these “shared values” are  fallacious, I do, however begrudgingly, give Luntz all the credit. His talking points for defense of Israeli aggression and human rights abuses have indeed been effective, as noted by Patrick Cockburn writing in British newspaper The Independent. He was masterful in his Israel Project handbook, for example after the Gaza slaughter of 2014, advising Israel supporters to always appear empathetic, “no Palestinian mother should have to bury her child” (even though that child was killed by Israel) and describing Palestinian negotiating points as “demands” because Americans dislike people who make “demands.”

Dr Luntz has always claimed, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”. And he has masterfully put that knowledge to work on behalf of Republican conservative causes for  decades. He was responsible for all the clever Republican soundbites during the election of 1994 wrapped in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, the title of which was also Luntz’s idea. Here we find all kinds of examples of his ingenuity, from the use of such terms as “tax relief”, “job creation”, “personal responsibility” and “taking back our streets”, to the undeniably worthy goal of imposing term limits on “career politicians” so that they could be replaced by “citizen legislators”. In addition he advised Republicans to “talk like Newt” by describing Democrats in pejorative terms like “corrupt,” “devour,” “greed,” “hypocrisy,” “liberal,” “sick,” and “traitors.” 

Luntz’s work for the Republican Party in the area of taxes has been particularly effective. It was he who suggested always using “death tax” instead of the perfectly reasonable and accurate terms “estate tax” or “inheritance tax”. In a memo to Republicans, he even recommended staging press conferences about opposing or reducing this tax “at your local mortuary” to dramatize the Issue, stating that “I believe this backdrop will clearly resonate with your constituents….death is something the American people understand”.

Dr Luntz’s term for reducing taxes, “tax relief” is brilliantly conceived, cloaking our very necessary contributions to common safety, order and the public good as nasty unfair burdens. Employing the phrase “tax relief” suggests that taxes are an affliction that Americans need to be rescued from and ensures that those proposing the taxes are portrayed as villains, while those fighting against them become heroes. Use of this term was employed by George W. Bush promoting his tax cuts, primarily benefitting the wealthy but advertised as something quite different, nicely illustrated in this incredibly deceptive photo-op. Right there in front of all these cute, struggling American families is Frank Luntz’s term and sitting down to sign the bill providing that “relief” is our hero, George W. Bush. 

Republican talking points about health care are also representative of the influence of Luntz. A favorite term used by Republicans to describe “Medicare for All” or any other government program covering all Americans is “government takeover”. Dr Luntz earned the 2010 Lie of the Year award from Politifact for his promotion of this phrase starting in the spring of 2009. “Takeovers are like coups,” Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. “They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.” Right, and added to this are always the buzzwords “choice”, where health care is concerned, and “competition”, as if anyone seriously ill or facing a medical emergency has the time and the information to properly “choose” the right doctor or hospital, or examine some kind of list and find the most cost effective providers. While I’m not sure of its origin, it certainly could be Luntz, another favorite term employed by those fighting single payer programs is “rationed care”, totally fallacious but quite effective, like the others mentioned above.

Luntz enjoys putting together his “lose” and “use” lists of words according to the topic at issue.  For example, about climate change and green technology, which he opposed, he suggests the following:

  • USE: Cleaner, safer, healthier. LOSE: Sustainable/sustainability.
  • USE: Solving climate change. LOSE: Ending global warming.
  • USE: Principles and priorities. LOSE: Values.
  • USE: Reliable technology/energy. LOSE: Ground-breaking/State of the art.
  • USE: New careers. LOSE: New jobs.
  • USE: Peace of mind. LOSE: Security.
  • USE: Consequences. LOSE: Threats/Problems.
  • USE: Working together. LOSE: One world.

Anyone can see how cleverly selected or rejected these words are. For example “peace of mind” instead of “security”. He’s right – the first suggests a threat of some kind and therefore has negative connotations, the second does not.

And here was his “lose and use” list for Republican before the 2006 midterm election: 

BI Graphics_Rhetoric 1

Other “use and lose” pairings that he has suggested more recently are rather than “undocumented worker”, use” illegal alien”, a much more negative and threatening term. And when discussing school vouchers, putting public money into corporate pockets, never use “school choice” – always say “parental choice”. And Luntz urged Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to move away from the dry phrase “funding the border wall” to the more evocative term “border security” — a language tweak the White House has obviously adopted.

As a very successful pollster, Dr Luntz has tested all kinds of political slogans and catchphrases. One of his most successful was used by now Senator Rick Scott in his last run for Florida governor and was likely responsible for his narrow victory – “let’s get to work”. In an oft-used commercial Scott was depicted heading down an alleyway while putting on his jacket, appearing like he was looking for a fight, with the words appearing – “Let’s get to work, let’s get it done”. Certainly much more effective than defining problems and suggesting solutions or plans. And clearly it worked. And presently billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloom has adopted Luntz’s phrase for his multi million dollar TV ad blitz – “Mike will get it done”.

I would like to add a few more examples of clever use of language in politics. Certainly the Democratic members of Congress took a page from Frank Luntz’s book with their extremely effective use of the term “kids in cages” to help describe the dreadful situation on our southern border. And although it cannot be attributed directly to Luntz, the Bush/Cheney administration’s deceptive use of the term “enhanced interrogation” to describe what was clearly and plainly torture, in dealing with captive suspected terrorists during the Iraq War. And just the other day I read a description of how corporations get away with paying little or no taxes on their billions in profits – it’s their use of ‘lawyers, lobbyists and loopholes”, a very definitive and resonant phrase to be sure.

Also I should add a few examples of political language employed today to cast doubt on much needed debate and embrace of tenets of dominant candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. In a brilliant article for Truthdig, R.J. Eskow dissects and defines some favorite phrases being bandied about by most of our “moderate” (read “corporate”) Democratic candidates. Several of the more striking are “free stuff” which Eskow defines as “A term of contemptuous dismissal for public services that are commonly available in other developed countries and which any decent society would make available to all human beings”; ‘I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on bold ideas” really means “I don’t have any bold ideas”; and “I know how to get things done”, (of course trumpeted constantly by Joe Biden) really means “I intend to use a political approach that hasn’t gotten anything done in years”.

And finally I would like to add a few oxymorons to this discussion of clever use of words. A favorite of mine that I use as a definitive example of an oxymoron is “military intelligence”. Others that are used in political discussions are “fighting for peace”, “bureaucratic efficiency” and “congressional ethics”. And George W. Bush enjoyed describing himself with the fallacious term “compassionate conservative”. Certainly, in this time of striking divisions in politics, it might be illustrative to suggest several that define our times. “Moderate Republican”  and “billionaire Democrat” are certainly oxymorons today. Obviously there is no such thing as a moderate Republican presently and the very existence of billionaire Democrats like presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, are contradictions in terms as repudiations of what a Democrat is expected to embrace. And I will add my own original contribution to the lexicon of  political oxymorons, one which circles back to my first paragraph and Frank Luntz’s work for the Israel Project – “Israeli justice”.

And one more thing, after his house was narrowly saved by valiant Los Angeles firefighters from being burned in the Skirball fire, Frank Luntz has seen the light (and felt the heat) and has joined the ranks of climate change believers, offering passionate and personal testimony recently to Congress on the urgency of dealing with its effects. Also, observing that “It’s hard to be partisan when you see the damage being done”, he has abandoned his long standing association with the Republican Party. Who knows, he may decide to share his devious and devastating talent with all political parties.