Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Kindred Spirit

Eido Cohen won't be reading this blog tonight.

I had no idea Eido regularly read my blog until one night last month, when I was at his apartment and he displayed it to me on his large-screen "Google TV", a device that lets one surf the Web on a television screen. I first met Eido online. A friend had posted seeking writing advice for a book she was working on. I made the mistake of giving my advice, which was not well received. Her response can be boiled down to "You don't know what you're talking about; who asked you, anyway; go away." Well, it was a tad harsher than that, but I digress. This being the Internet, a stranger leapt to my defense, scolding her and lecturing her with an articulate and meticulous explanation of why everything I had said was correct. I emailed him a thank you and we began corresponding.

It was a while before we started talking by phone, mainly because I couldn't figure out how to pronounce "Eido". Usually, people speak their names when you first meet them, but pronunciation is lost on the Web. When Eido learned I was a writer, his interest was piqued. I discovered he had a wide depth of knowledge spread across many disciplines. Like me, he was a Renaissance man. We were kindred spirits.

Eido was well read and as a result had an extensive vocabulary on which he prided himself. I asked him to proofread my Paved With Good Intentions manuscript and that evening was the first time we met in person. I handed him a copy and he drove off. That night, he phoned me complaining, in mock umbrage, he had found two words in my manuscript that had sent him scurrying to the dictionary -- "and that was on the first page!" Like me, Eido did not believe a book was truly enjoyable unless you also learned something while reading it. We bonded immediately. Our online friendship blossomed into a personal, offline one. Eido was an intellectual and we engaged in hours of debate, online and in person. Last year, after my birthday party had ended, Eido and I stayed behind in the parking lot debating politics and economics until the wee hours of the morning. It was only last month, Eido and I went to see the Pacquiao-Bradley fight, and a few weeks before, that we had gone to the IMAX theater to see Dark Shadows.

Eido wrote on his Facebook page that I was one of his favorite authors, which I considered an enormous compliment, considering how well read Eido was. He repeatedly remarked how much he enjoyed Paved With Good Intentions because of its layers and depth, at one point analyzing the book on the basis of moral relativism, leading me to wish someone had written a Cliff's Notes for my own book so I could hold up my end of the conversation. I suggested, since he had found so much of note within the book, he should share his glowing critique on Amazon, where only a handful of lackluster reviews had trickled in, and point out what those readers had missed. He promised to do so, and I waited... and waited. Eido would spend hours composing 800-word replies to Facebook comments each night, but never found time to pen a few paragraphs for Amazon. I often chided him they would soon have to retitle "Waiting For Godot" to "Waiting For Eido" and told him I might not live long enough to see his review when it finally appeared. I never imagined the promising young man two decades my junior might not live long enough to write it.

R.I.P. Eido Cohen, a kindred spirit.

Eido Cohen

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Lobster Thriller

In recent months, there have been unusual reports of rare bright blue, orange, calico, white, yellow, and split lobsters (one color on each side). Fishermen have no explanation for the increase in sightings of the rare lobsters.

The odds of catching a blue lobster are 1-in-2 million, while orange comes in at 1-in-10 million. Yellow and orange-and-black calico lobsters at 1-in-30 million, split-colored varieties at 1-in-50 million, and white — the rarest of all — at 1-in-100 million. But we might have the answer:

 Wesley Snodgrass hates his life. Like most 16-year-olds, he hates the acne that dots his face, forcing him into a nightly ritual of playing Whack A Mole with a tube of acne cream, knowing a new pimple will sprout in any spot he missed. He hates the name Snodgrass. He hates his parents saddling him with a wimpy name like Wesley. He hates being viewed as weird by his classmates for living in an isolated lighthouse with his oceanographer father. But when his father acquires a rare yellow lobster, Wesley sees a path to popularity... unaware the lobster holds a deadly secret. A short story by Keith B. Darrell. 5,000 words.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Outing the Rapists

As a followup to the Savannah Dietrich story (previous post), I want to let you know the attorneys for the boys who admitted as part of a plea bargain to having raped the 17-year-old Kentucky girl after she passed out at a party have withdrawn their request asking the judge to hold Savannah in contempt of court for violating a gag order and revealing her rapists' names on Twitter. While the judge could still hold her in contempt sua sponte (on her own accord), I doubt that will happen after the publicity.

Generally speaking, in my reporting and in my nonfiction books like Issues In Internet Law, I do not name rape victims, the exception being when they have first sought out media attention, which is why I did name Savannah in my previous post. I wrote the post Sunday night, but held it back so readers coming to my blog after the weekend would not miss my weekend post on the Colorado theater shooting. I also held back the names of the rapists -- I don't say "alleged" rapists because they have admitted their guilt in court -- because I believed they might have been minors, as well, since I knew they were on a high school Lacrosse team. While I did have their names, as well as their photos, I resisted the temptation to identify them on this blog, and I will not do so.

However, if anyone else does...

Chris Klein, an attorney for one of the boys, said publicizing their names "may create problems for them in the future." Gee, you think they should have thought about that before raping a teenage girl?

The Law Is An Ass!

"If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is an ass - an idiot." Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors, wrote that line in Oliver Twist in 1838 and the phrase -- often quoted when the application of the law runs contrary to common sense -- remains true today.

Savannah Dietrich, 17, of Kentucky, passed out at a party. Two boys sexually assaulted her and later shared photos of the assault with their friends. In a plea bargain the victim knew nothing about until right before it was announced, the pair pled guilty to first-degree sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism. Savannah thought the proposed punishment (sentencing has not yet occurred) was too lenient, so she violated a court gag order by tweeting their names on Twitter. Now, Savannah could face up to 180 days in jail and a $500 fine if convicted of violating the court order to keep her assailants' names confidential.

The assailants' lawyers asked Jefferson District Court Judge Dee McDonald to find Savannah in contempt of court for outing his clients on Twitter.

"There you go, lock me up," Savannah had tweeted after naming them. "I'm not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell."

Technically, Savannah did violate the court order, although it might be an overly broad restriction on her freedom of speech. The proper course would have been for her to ask the judge to vacate the order or seek to have a higher court intercede. But Savannah was tired of being a victim. “They got off very easy … and they tell me to be quiet, just silencing me at the end,” Savannah said.

The law said Savannah should remain silent, be seen but not heard. But Savannah, who had been seen enough in the humiliating photos by an unknown number of people, wanted to be heard. She had come to the court seeking justice but was basically told the equivalent of the old joke, "when rape is inevitable, you should keep quiet, lay back and enjoy it." So Savannah chose civil disobedience over silence.

“So many of my rights have been taken away by these boys,” Savannah told the Louisville Courier Journal. “I’m at the point, that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it. If they really feel it’s necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me … as opposed to throwing these boys in jail for what they did to me, then I don’t understand justice.”

I understand the law and I understand justice, but they are not always one and the same. It seems intuitive that if a woman is raped, she should have the right to name her attackers. On July 30, Savannah will return to court, this time for a hearing on contempt charges. If found guilty, she could spend the next six months behind bars while the boys who sexually assaulted her are free awaiting their own hearing date. That is what the law supposes should occur. As I squeeze my own figurative hat emphatically in both hands, I echo Mr. Bumble's words: "If the law supposes that, the law is an ass."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Night Rises

One evening, as Dr. Thomas Wayne, his wife Martha, and their little boy walked out of a theater, a gunman accosted them, demanding their valuables. Accounts vary, but Joe Chill shot and killed Dr. Wayne, and his wife died, either from gunshots or a heart attack. The only survivor of, and witness to, the horrible events of that dark night was their young boy, Bruce, whose life would be consumed by a grim determination to protect society from those who would perpetrate such evil and senseless violence on the innocent. Thus was born the Batman. In a stroke of grim irony, 73 years later, life imitated art. A gunman walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire on the audience viewing the premiere of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises".

The gunman, dressed in black body armor and a gas mask, lobbed gas canisters into the theater, creating panic and confusion. He then sprayed the trapped movie-goers with a hail of bullets from an array of weapons that included an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 870 12-gauge shot gun, and a .40 caliber Glock handgun. Another Glock was found in his car. All of the guns used were purchased legally within the past six months. The 24-year-old shooter booby-trapped his one-bedroom apartment with a maze of explosive devices, rigged to explode when someone opened the door, and placed blaring music on a timer, set to play at midnight, ensuring someone would arrive to do so. Such extensive premeditation was not the work of an insane mind, but an evil one. Under the legal definition of insanity, to be determined insane and thus unable to stand trial for one's actions by reason of insanity, an individual must be unable to tell right from wrong. The shooter knew right from wrong; he chose wrong.

Like a Batman film, the script writes itself. A hue and cry emerges urging gun control measures be passed, or at least restored. A ban on assault weapons like the one used by the shooter was allowed to expire in 2004. That ban had outlawed the AR-15 used in what is now the worst mass shooting in American history, in which 12 people -- including a four-month-old child -- were killed and 58 wounded. President Obama has done nothing to control the proliferation of dangerous weapons within this nation's borders. In fact, he has relaxed gun laws, allowing people to carry guns in national parks and to carry guns in their checked bags on Amtrak trains, and has proposed reducing restrictions on exporting guns and other "items with military uses". His presidential campaign opponent, Mitt Romney, has stated his opposition to gun control legislation. The cry for gun control always arises after a shooting. We heard it in 1981, when James Brady and President Ronald Reagan were shot; we heard it in 1999, when two students shot to death 13 of their classmates at Columbine High School and wounded 23 others, mere miles from the Aurora theater shooting; we heard it in 2007, when another student shot and killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus; we heard it in 2009, when a gunman killed 13 people and wounded 32 others at Fort Hood; and we heard it in 2011, when a gunman in Tucson, Arizona shot 19 people outside a supermarket, including a federal judge and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, killing six of them, one a nine-year-old girl. Born of righteous  indignation, the hue and cry for stricter gun control resonates loudly, full of sound and fury but in the end signifying nothing, for nothing will change. There will be no strict gun control in America. That portion of the script has been written by the National Rifle Association, a powerful political lobbyist, and no edits are allowed.

The media adhere to their script, as well. This is "The Big Story". On every channel, there is but one news story: the Aurora theater shooting. Even when there is nothing new to report, the talking heads continue repeating what they have already said, because this is, after all, "The Big Story". Even with 24-hour news coverage, "all news all the time" channels, the script is firm on one point: no other news is allowed to be reported on a day when there is a "Big Story". No other murders occurred that day, no rapes, no robberies, no tornadoes or hurricanes, no floods or monsoons, no scandals, no foreign affairs, no economic news, no reports on the environment or public health or scientific developments. Whenever an event is deemed "The Big Story", the media's script calls for wall-to-wall coverage of only that, even when all that can be said at that moment has been said. Just as on a slow news day when minor events become "news", on a day when "The Big Story" occurs, minor and major events cease to exist.

The public sticks to the script as well, expressing its collective shock at the horrific tragedy. They are good actors, appearing to express genuine surprise that a culture -- overflowing with gratuitous and extreme violence in its music, television, movies, and video games -- that inundates its children with such "entertainment" inculcating them with little respect or regard for human life until they are inured to scenes of mayhem and death, might result in young adults who become sociopathic killers. Computer programmers have a phrase for it: "Garbage in, garbage out." Or, as the Bible phrased it, "As you sow, so shall you reap." Our society continues sowing the seeds of its own destruction and as we watch these shootings, we are reaping the harvest.

I have veered from the script today. As a journalist many decades ago, I was taught to begin any story with the 5 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and hoW (the last, the unofficial 6th W). In the hundreds of news stories I've written, this is the first time I've left out the "who". I've deliberately not named the Aurora theater shooter (or any of the other shooters) because I choose not to give the killer one more second of his 15 Minutes of Fame, or in his case, infamy. The only publicity I would like to see him receive for his heinous act is his public execution. It should be broadcast as a deterrent, so all those tempted to commit such acts realize the gravity of the fate that awaits them. And it should be painful. As painful as the grief of the families and loved ones of the murdered victims. As painful as the shattered lives of the hospitalized survivors, many of whom will live with permanent damage from the shooting: brain damage; paralysis; or loss of vision, hearing, or limbs. No, I won't print that scumbag's name. He doesn't deserve that iota of dignity.

Batman is a fictional character, who rose like a phoenix from the ashes of personal tragedy to make society a safer place. We are real people -- can we do no less?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tax or Penalty: Does It Matter?

There's been a lot of talk about the Individual Mandate being a tax. It isn't. The debate over whether it is a penalty or a tax is merely one of semantics. The Individual Mandate is a requirement that everyone not already covered by health insurance buy health insurance. The idea is to prevent freeloaders who refuse to buy health insurance from getting routine medical services from emergency rooms that can't turn them away and passing the cost on to the rest of us taxpayers. It will bring down overall insurance costs.

Republicans wanted to overturn The Affordable Care Act (which they dubbed "ObamaCare") and they sued, claiming the government lacks the power to make people buy insurance. Now, anyone who drives a car is well aware that the government can require you to buy auto insurance. This was kind of a no-brainer. But the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The government has a lot of powers, but it can only exercise powers granted to it under the Constitution. Under the 10th Amendment, all other powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited by the states, are reserved to the states or to the citizens. So the legal question became, what clause in the Constitution gave the federal government the power to enact the healthcare law and specifically, to require people to buy insurance? There were only two clauses that might allow it: the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) and the Taxing & Spending Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 1).

Now, I believe the Commerce Clause grants the government the authority to do this, but Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the 5-4 majority opinion disagreed with me. He said the government does have that authority, but it comes from the Taxing & Spending Clause, not the Commerce Clause. This is a bad decision because it will have long term consequences for future interpretations of the Commerce Clause, but that's another matter. From a political viewpoint, the Republicans jumped on the ruling to brand the penalty for not buying insurance as a "tax". The Republican spin machine has told us we are all going to be taxed by ObamaCare. That's a lie. Here's the truth. The penalty (what they label a "tax") only affects freeloaders who refuse to buy health insurance - you know, those people who get routine medical services from emergency rooms that can't turn them away, who then pass the cost on to the rest of us taxpayers. If you have health insurance, THERE IS NO TAX. Also, the amount of the penalty can NEVER exceed the cost of the national average premiums for the lowest-cost “bronze” plans offered through the new insurance exchanges created by the Act. So it's the same amount you'd pay in premiums if you had insurance.

There are also exemptions for those who can't afford coverage, taxpayers with incomes below filing threshold, and hardship. The Act says people who don't pay the penalty can't be put in jail and can't be criminally prosecuted. The minimum "tax" for failing to get coverage would be $7.92 for each month of 2014, $28.75 for each month of 2015, and $57.92 for each month of 2016, when the penalty is fully phased in. According to the LA Times, the Individual Mandate "tax" will affect fewer than 2% of the population. That's right, this so-called tax the Republicans have called "the largest tax in history" does not affect 98% of us. That's a fact. Facts are not Democratic or Republican. Facts are not partisan. They simply are what they are - the truth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Getting Healthcare Right

In my previous post, I explained what the Affordable Care Act is and what it does. I like most of what it does, with three exceptions:

1. The electronic health records requirement scares me. I think this is a bad idea. Health records, like financial records, should not be placed online. There is no way to protect them adequately from hackers or accidental disclosure. This is a huge privacy issue and it should be stricken from the Act. Making it a requirement with no opt-out provision is the most irresponsible act I can recall the government committing in my lifetime.

2. The Act doesn't take effect quickly enough. Most of the important provisions do not go into effect until 2014 and some take until 2020 or beyond to start. All of the provisions should be immediate for two reasons: (1) People need help now and (2) People will not understand what the law does until it actually starts doing it.

3. The Act doesn't go far enough. Nice try, but this is a Band-Aid on a problem that requires major surgery. Our healthcare system is a disaster. It is not a world class healthcare system and compares poorly to every other advanced nation's system. The World Health Organization ranked the U.S. 37th in the world for healthcare, despite the fact that we spend the most per capita by a large margin.We need to start from scratch, not amend the existing system. Some support the Public Option, which would create a government-run health insurance agency to compete with existing private health insurance companies. It's called a Public Option because it gives the public the choice of either a government insurer or private insurer. I don't like this idea because it doesn't go to the root of the problem - insurance companies. The reason healthcare costs are so high, and the reason so many people fail to receive proper care, is because insurance companies act as middlemen, pocketing the lion's share of the money and making decisions about your health that you and your doctor should rightfully be making.

We need to take insurance companies completely out of the picture. To do this, we need to change our current healthcare system to a Single Payer system. Medicare is an example of a Single Payer system. Instead of paying a large premium to an insurance company, you pay a small premium to a government agency pool (like Medicare). (It's a smaller payment because the administrative costs run about 3% versus 70%.) The bills go to the agency, which pays them less your deductible and co-payment (20% under Medicare). This eliminates waste and makes medical services affordable for all. If you're under 65, you probably don't understand Medicare (which is not the same as Medicaid, a program for low income people). But ask your grandparents or other seniors what they think of Medicare and if they are willing to give it up. There's a reason why they don't want to give it up -- it works!

So, if I had my way, we'd amend The Social Security Act Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare, by removing two words: "over 65". No need for a 906-page Affordable Care Act. Just delete those two words from existing law and establish "Medicare For All". It's that simple. Yes, it will cost money, but it will also save trillions of dollars in the long term. If we can afford to spend billions of dollars to kill strangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, how about spending the money to save American lives right here?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Truth About ObamaCare

A lot has been written about ObamaCare but you probably still don't know anything about it. So before you decide to embrace it or hate it, take the time to learn what it is, what it does, and what it does not do. In this post and the next two, I'm going to lift the hood on the Affordable Care Act and show you the truth... then, you can decide. I've broken this down into five categories: how the law affects Insurance Companies, Consumers, Rural Citizens, Medicare & Medicaid, and Taxpayers.

Here's what the Affordable Care Act does:

Insurance Companies
  • holds insurance companies accountable for unreasonable rate hikes.
  • gives you a way to appeal insurers' coverage determinations or claims and establishes an external review process.
  • bans insurers from discriminating based on your pre-existing conditions or gender.
  • bans insurance companies from denying coverage to children under age 19 due to a pre-existing condition.
  • bans insurance companies from rescinding coverage; previously, insurers could search for an error or technical mistake on your application and use it to deny payment. 
  • bans insurers from imposing lifetime dollar limits on essential benefits, like hospital stays.
  • requires new plans cover certain preventive services, like mammograms and colonoscopies, without charging a deductible, co-pay, or coinsurance. 
  • bans insurers from dropping or limiting coverage because you choose to participate in a clinical trial.

  • provides free preventive care for seniors. 
  • brings down health care premiums by requiring insurers give customers rebates if their "administrative costs" are too high.
  • reduces paperwork and administrative costs by requiring electronic health records. 
  • permits young adults to stay on their parents’ plan until they turn 26.
  • provides new coverage options to anyone uninsured for at least six months because of a pre-existing condition.
  • sets up an easy-to-use website where you can compare health insurance coverage options and pick the coverage that works for you.
  • creates a program to give financial help to employment-based plans to continue coverage to those who retire between ages 55 and 65, as well as their spouses and dependents. 
  • starting in 2014 if your employer doesn’t offer insurance, you'll be able to buy it directly in an Affordable Insurance Exchange.
  • requires most individuals who can afford it to get basic health insurance coverage or pay a fee to help offset the costs of caring for uninsured Americans. This is the "individual mandate".
Rural Citizens
  • funds scholarships and loan repayments to attract primary care doctors and nurses to under-served areas.
  • increases payment to rural health care providers to help them continue to serve their communities. 
Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP
  • closes the gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage (the “donut hole”) in 2020, and grants a 50% discount on drugs until then.
  • creates new tools to combat fraud in Medicare and Medicaid programs.
  • increases Medicaid payments for primary care doctors.
  • allows those earning less than $14,000 to enroll in Medicaid
  • allows states to cover more people on Medicaid, if they choose to do so.
  • provides more funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • gives Small Business Health Insurance Tax Credits to 4 million eligible small businesses to help them provide insurance benefits to their workers.
  • gives tax credits to make insurance affordable for the middle class - people with income between 100% to 400% of the poverty line not eligible for other  coverage. (In 2010, 400% of the poverty line equaled $43,000 for an individual or $88,000 for a family of four.) 

In my next post, I'll tell you what I like about the Affordable Care Act and what I don't like about it. I'll also clear away the confusion on whether the Individual Mandate is a tax, what the "Public Option" is, and what "Single Payer" means.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Uncivil Disobedience

In my last post about civility, I forgot to mention another aspect: the rules don't apply to everyone except you.

There is little more annoying than stepping into an elevator and finding everyone engaged in conversation -- with themselves. Unless you're in the schizophrenic ward of an asylum, you'll soon notice these people are jabbering away not into thin air but into small metal devices lodged in their ears. (I believe they're called bluetooth, which makes no sense at all since they are placed in the ear, not the mouth, but I digress). Yes, the cell phone is the most uncivil device ever created, causing people to ignore others in their presence, or worse, leading them to disregard a live person in front of them to answer an incoming ring. Presumably, the lack of a phone cord was the advantage of cordless mobile phones over landlines, yet some individuals remain unable to sever the umbilical cord, taking their devices everywhere, because God forbid they should miss a phone call. After all, any incoming call is more important than whomever they might be with or whatever they might be doing.

Yoga is supposed to alleviate stress, especially the stress of daily life. The whole point of yoga is to disconnect from the outside world, according to Northern California yoga instructor Alice Van Ness. So, when she saw a student chatting on her cell phone, she told her class of Facebook employees to turn off their phones. Later, when she saw the same woman texting on her phone, the instructor shot her a disapproving glance. She didn't say anything, but we've all seen that look from teachers.

Two weeks later, the instructor was fired. Her termination letter from Plus One Health Management referenced the incident, noting the Facebook employee had been "embarrassed and shocked by the confrontation" with the instructor. "Unless a client requires us to specifically say 'no' to something, we prefer to say 'yes' whenever possible," the letter added. By that logic, I should find a doctor or lawyer who only tells me what I want to hear instead of what I need to hear that might displease me.

So what have we learned from this?

1. Rules apply to everyone, including you.
2. When in a classroom setting or public gathering, turn your cell phone to 'off' or 'vibrate'.
3. If you attend a class, focus on the lesson and the instructor, not your cell phone.
4. Be considerate of fellow classmates, who came there to learn something, even if you didn't.
5. Don't be alone in the crowd; be part of the crowd. Put the phone away and talk to the live people next to you.
6. If you're foolish enough to hire uncivil employees, at least make civility part of their training.
7. Don't fire employees for doing their jobs or for insisting on the proper working conditions to do the job you hired them to do.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Civility Costs Nothing and Buys Everything

One of the things I miss most from my youth is civility. Civility is defined as politeness or the act of showing regard for others. People were nicer to each other when I was growing up. We never called our elders, including our neighbors, by their first names. As far as we knew, they didn't have first names. Every adult was either Mister, Mrs., or Miss. We, and our parents, did however know the names of our mailman, dry cleaner, pharmacist, newsboy and the store clerk. What's more, they knew our names. They, and we, would take a minute or two each time we met to exchange pleasantries along with conducting business.

Today, people are strangers. The woman at the cash register ringing up your sale is a cypher, a nonentity. If you know her name, it's only because of the nametag she displays on her lapel, like a dog tag on a canine's collar. That makes sense for dogs, who can't talk, but not for humans, who can freely speak their names, if asked. She has no personality, no life, no hobbies, no children, and no opinions. She is a wage earner, and therefore viewed as somehow less human than yourself. If you speak to her, it is only to say "Hello", "Goodbye", and "Do you have change for a ten?"

In my case, the world I live in is populated by real people. For 12 years, every time I passed through Flo's checkout lane at the supermarket, she would ask me how my bird was. We chatted each time I came in and she always recognized me. The man who runs the fish department had lung cancer surgery a few days ago. I'm hoping he'll be back on the job soon and fully recovered. We talked about his surgery a few weeks before he went in. He was understandably frightened but glad the doctors think they caught it in time. I don't think any other customers know about his condition or his operation; I don't think many cared enough about him as a person. To them, he is the fish department guy and they just want their fish. Sal the tailor altered all my suits for years, until I left the job that required me to wear suits every day. About eight years passed before I stepped back into his shop. I was saddened to learn Sal had died and I wondered if his wife would even remember me. I needn't have wondered. Maria saw me and asked how my dogs were. She remembered me, not just as a customer, but as a person, because that's how I had always treated them.

So, I was surprised by what happened at Walmart, today. For the past two years, a Pakistani man has been the greeter at the entrance. Instead of ignoring him as I walk past, I always pause to say hello and ask how he is. He's always been pleased by the attention, and usually rushes toward me when he sees me enter, extends his hand, and sometimes gives me an effusive hug, asking "How are you my friend?" I always assumed he was pleased to see a customer who didn't pass by him as if he didn't exist. But today, I noticed him in the aisle I was in. As much as I detest shaking hands, especially when I'm buying produce, I felt I couldn't ignore him, so I said "Hello." He muttered something back, and turned to the shelf. I stepped closer and replied, "I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you from where I was standing." He turned back to me, explained it was his day off, and turned away again. It took me a second to realize what had occurred. He was a Walmart greeter. Greeting people was his job. It was his day off, so he didn't have to talk to me.

It's a sad society when you have to pay people to be civil.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy." Or, as writer Mary Wortley Montagu put it, " Civility costs nothing and buys everything."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Don't You Love A Happy Ending?

As a wonderful followup to my last two blog posts, I'd like to direct you to this video and article where you can watch Tomas receive the key to the city and be thanked by the man whose life he saved, a 19-year-old tourist from Estonia. The rescued man's father said, "Thank you for saving my son's life. You are now his brother. You are now also my son."

In answer to M.A.D.'s post, the article reveals the private firm "will not seek to renew its $1 million contract, which expires this year."

Swimming Against the Tide

I left out some information from yesterday’s post about Tomas Lopez, the heroic lifeguard fired for saving a drowning man’s life, so let me update the record.

Lifeguards Travis Madrid and Zoard Janko were fired after telling the corporation they would have done what Tomas did. "They sat me down and told me that my answer will determine if I get to keep my job or not," Madrid told reporters. "When I told him I would do the same thing that Tommy did, they told me I was dismissed. I don't want to work for a company like that."

After firing Tomas and being confronted by a wave of public criticism, corporate head Jeff Ellis, according to local station WPTV, stated it would investigate whether "our actions on the part of the leadership team were inappropriate, we will rectify it based upon the information that comes forward." Shouldn't the investigation and information gathering come before the firing of an employee? 

City spokesman Peter Dobens said, “It’s always been city policy, whether it’s in a protected or unprotected area, to respond to an emergency.” The mayor said Tomas should have been offered the key to the city, not fired. Perhaps he would have been, had Hallandale Beach not outsourced its public safety responsibility to a private corporation.

Jeff Ellis Management paid Tomas and the other lifeguards $8.25 an hour to risk their lives and save others. The corporation, in turn, is paid $335,000 annually by the city. Its decision to fire Tomas was easy: those profits (you do the math) were at risk from potential lawsuits."We have liability issues and can’t go out of the protected area," corporate supervisor Susan Ellis said. Tomas’ decision was even easier: a man’s life was at risk.

Jobs are hard to come by today and corporations know it. They are hiring college graduates as unpaid interns, dangling the prospect of a potential job “in the future”. They are asking employees to do things those employees would never agree to in good economic times when jobs are plentiful: accept pay cuts, give up benefits, work longer hours, do the work of recently-fired co-workers, and apparently, even sit back and watch a man drown. Few are in a position to respond with Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” Tomas Lopez proved sometimes you have to swim against the tide. Perhaps it’s time for us to re-examine Corporate America’s values… and our own.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Drowning In A Valueless Society

Last week, I wrote about an ordinary man who displayed old-fashioned American values of honesty and integrity by returning $13,000 he had found in a trash bin. Today, I’d like to tell you about another American hero, an ordinary man who demonstrated old-fashioned American values of courage and common sense, and how, in the modern corporate-dominated America, he paid for doing so with his job.

Tomas Lopez worked as a lifeguard on Hallandale Beach, Florida. But he did not work for the city of Hallandale Beach, at least not directly. He was employed by Jeff Ellis Management, a private corporation hired by the city to guard the beach. Well, not the whole beach. Just one slice of it. There are surrounding parts of the beach adjacent to condominiums or simply designated as “Swim At Your Own Risk” areas.

On this particular day, beachgoers ran to Tomas to inform him a man was drowning about a few hundred feet away. Tomas immediately realized the drowning man was outside of his designated patrol area. The corporate rules made it very clear: because the man chose to swim outside of the lifeguard’s slice of the beach, Tomas was forbidden to intervene. We may never know if the corporate rulebook would have allowed Tomas to save the drowning man had the riptide dragged his body across the imaginary dividing line, into Tomas’ zone, because Tomas threw out the rulebook.

Tomas radioed in that he was leaving his post and arranged for his fellow lifeguards to watch over his slice of the beach for the brief minutes it would take to rescue the drowning man. Maybe he was thinking about the safety of several swimmers who dove in to save the struggling man, fearful these untrained Good Samaritans might be pulled underwater by the panicked swimmer. Maybe he was thinking about a man who was drowning before his eyes while he sat in the wooden lifeguard chair provided by the corporation. Maybe he was thinking about saving a human life. Maybe he wasn’t even thinking; some people do the right thing instinctively.  Maybe he just used common sense.

Tomas dove into the ocean and did what he had been trained to do. I doubt he was thinking of his own safety, or the undertide, or the risk of being dragged underwater by the panicked drowning man. Tomas just displayed his courage and rescued the swimmer, who is still hospitalized in intensive care. Tomas sure as hell wasn’t thinking about his job. But the corporation was.

Jeff Ellis Management fired Tomas for saving the drowning swimmer’s life. Instead, they said, he should have called for an ambulance. Better make that a hearse, by the time it would have arrived. The Christian Science Monitor reported two other lifeguards were fired (possibly the ones who agreed to cover for him) and four more quit in protest, as a sign of solidarity (ABC News reported all six resigned).

Outsourcing public safety government jobs – police, fire, prisons, TSA, or even lifeguards – to private corporations is a bad idea. Public safety is not, and should not, be a for-profit concern. Corporations base their decisions on profitability and liability. People like Tomas act on compassion, courage, and common sense. That’s why corporations are not, and never will be, people, regardless of what Mitt Romney says.

“I’m not going to put my job over helping someone. I’m going to do what I felt was right,” Tomas said. And because of that, a man who would otherwise be dead is not.

After the public outrage over Tomas’ firing, Jeff Ellis Management offered him his job back. Despite having lost a good job in a tough economy, Tomas, 21, exhibited another old-fashioned American value: dignity. He said thanks, but no thanks.  

We know what’s wrong with this country these days. Thank God there are young people like Tomas who know what’s right.

You can watch the video here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day: Patriotism vs. Plutocracy

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed, 40 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it had outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.