Monthly Archives: February, 2011

All You Need is Love….And Unions

Just read this long piece by Kevin Drum about why unions improve life not just for union members, but for the entire middle class. The ultimate fact, as research in Drum’s article shows, is that politicians don’t do things for the middle class or the working class. We like to think Senators Whitehouse and Reed just love us because we’re their li’l peeps and they want to take care of us, but the truth is that politicians respond to powerful lobbying forces, and the past 30 years has seen a marked decline in powerful lobbies for the middle class. Drum presents two things you need to understand to get why our politicians have become so unresponsive to the needs of the middle class:

The first is this: Income inequality has grown dramatically since the mid-’70s—far more in the US than in most advanced countries—and the gap is only partly related to college grads outperforming high-school grads. Rather, the bulk of our growing inequality has been a product of skyrocketing incomes among the richest 1 percent and—even more dramatically—among the top 0.1 percent. It has, in other words, been CEOs and Wall Street traders at the very tippy-top who are hoovering up vast sums of money from everyone, even those who by ordinary standards are pretty well off.

Second, American politicians don’t care much about voters with moderate incomes. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early ’90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that’s not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don’t respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that’s not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don’t respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.

Clean Enough

Here’s a link to Mother Jones that answers the question–‘How clean does that cat food can have to be before you throw it in the bin?’

It’s complicated, MoJo explains the fine points.

“Race to Nowhere” — Screening at Brown University on March 6

More details about the screening here.

Planned Parenthood Saves Lives

About twenty-five years ago, a young woman scheduled a job interview at a photo studio. She was a skilled retoucher who could make decent money fixing portraits with a graphite pencil and a sable brush. The studio was where the downtown Pawtucket pedestrian mall used to be, and right on the bus line.

When she arrived for the interview, she found herself in a room with two men who gave off an unwholesome vibe, and as they discussed business she formed a quick escape plan in her mind, but fortunately did not need to book it out the door. When she got up to leave, the conversation went like this–

“We’ll give you a ride home.”
“No, that’s fine, I don’t need a ride.”
We’ll take you home.”
“No thanks.”

By this time she did not want to be in a car with these guys, or let them see her house. The men were insistent beyond politeness, but she kept saying no, and finally got out of there, vowing to avoid the place and regretting that they had her resume with her address.

To paraphrase Mark Patinkin, I was that girl.

I never heard from them again, and would have forgotten the episode if the studio owner had not been arrested some time later for sexual assault.

The story in the paper as I recall it was that the photographer had enticed an underage girl to pose for him, promising to shoot a model portfolio and make her rich and famous. He persuaded her to take off her clothes, then told her that he would show the pictures to her mother unless she let him have sex with her. The crime was discovered when the girl went to Planned Parenthood, fearing she was pregnant. She told her story to a counselor, who reported it to the police.

This happened in 1984. The Providence Journal did not put its archives online until 1986, and the only way to find a citation for this story was to go to the Providence Public Library, search through index cards and look at microfilm.

I couldn’t remember which year this happened, but I had help from some people who used to work for the Pawtucket Times. The story was a minor local scandal, and the photographer was ‘a character’ who used to hang out at Tom’s Diner. Not a scary guy at all unless you were a fifteen-year-old girl he was extorting. I found only one reference in the card catalogue, and one article–

Providence Journal May 25, 1984 p.C9

‘Pawtucket businessman charged for coercing teenager into sex’

PAWTUCKET– A Pawtucket man was arraigned in District Court yesterday on a charge of first-degree sexual assault on a girl, 15, and Judge Anthony J. Dennis set bail at $100,000 with surety pending a grand jury hearing.

———–is charged with coercing a minor to have sexual relations by threatening to distribute nude photographs of her.

Capt. John Tomlinson, prosecution officer, said the girl said she answered a newspaper ad for girls interested in a modeling career.

The rest of the article says that Capt. Tomlinson wanted the bail set at $200,000. It sounds like the police thought he was a real bad guy.

I can’t find the article that cites Planned Parenthood, I’m still looking.

The photographer paid $10,000 surety, and the records posted online at show many hearings and court dates ending in a plea of no contest to a lesser charge of 3rd degree sexual assault. I’m not a lawyer, sounds like a plea bargain to me.

This assault was a felony crime then, and now we are even less tolerant of child pornographers and child molesters. The use of coercion means the crime fits the definition of human trafficking, even though the girl was not taken out of state.

I’m not naming the offender, I’m told he has died and he’s not the point of the story. The point is that Planned Parenthood is accessible health care and advocacy for women who have few other options. The staff at Planned Parenthood are bound to confidentiality. They have been targeted on trumped up charges of aiding human trafficking when in fact they are an agency where women can find help and advocacy.

Contraception is under political attack, and if women’s health is collateral damage, it’s the poor and the young who will suffer the most. Many of us can remember a time when Planned Parenthood was the only medical provider we could afford. Planned Parenthood saves lives.

Feministe lists some of the services the House of Representatives voted to de-fund…

One in five American women has used Planned Parenthood’s services. The vast majority of care — more than 90% — offered at Planned Parenthood health centers is preventative. Every year, Planned Parenthood carries out nearly one million screenings for cervical cancer — screenings which save lives. Every year, Planned Parenthood doctors and nurses give more than 830,000 breast exams — exams which save lives. Every year, nearly 2.5 million patients receive contraception from Planned Parenthood — a service which prevents enormous numbers of unintended pregnancies and, by extension, an enormous number of abortions. Every year, Planned Parenthood administers nearly 4 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV — tests and treatments which save lives, extend lives, preserve fertility, and maintain reproductive health.

Reproductive health is not a luxury, it’s an essential part of women’s health. Politicians want to score points by playing with women’s lives. We won’t let them.

Watching the Sky

On February 18th I saw an especially vivid full moon coming up in the East, with brilliant ragged clouds in a sky so clear that through the city lights the stars shone like diamonds.

On February 19th I saw the same circle of the moon on the Western horizon just ahead of the dawn. Large and golden, and as the sun rose and the sky turned blue it started to snow. A snow shower from the patchy clouds and a thin layer of icy flakes that did not melt in the sudden arctic cold.

Ain’t life grand.

You Can’t Take the Sky From Me

The Year of the Rabbit is off to a good start. Joss Wheeden’s ‘Firefly’, the only TV worth watching with the exception of some PBS documentaries and most episodes of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ has emerged from the black hole of series cancellation…

( — Browncoats rejoice: “Firefly” is returning to basic cable — and Nathan Fillion has something to say about it.

The Science Channel has acquired the rights to the cult-hit and will air the series in its short-lived entirety, plus some new extras. Science Channel will wrap each episode with interstitial segments starring renowned physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, who will discuss the theoretical science behind the show’s sci-fi concepts.

Nathan Filion, Firefly’s Capt. Mal Reynolds, would love to star in future episodes. I vote for a script that pre-dates the timeline of the movie Serenity so that Alan Tudyk and Ron Glass can resume their roles without doing some hokey Star Trek back from the dead kind of thing. When Joss kills off a character, they stay dead, unless they’re undead.

I have a science crush on Michio Kaku, so I might locate where I threw my TV when Firefly was cancelled by the dastardly Fox and fire it up again.

Myths about US Education that Hurt our Schools

Diane Ravitch was in Wisconsin last week, before all the trouble started with throngs of workers marching and the Democrats going into hiding. Ravitch spoke about why the current direction of our federal school reform movement is endangering education. From In These Times:

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have formed an alliance with billionaire “school reformers” whose agenda is to downgrade U.S. public education and blame its shortcomings on “bad teachers,” warns educational historian Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch spoke Thursday night before a crowd of more than 1,000 education professors, students, public school teachers, and community activists at the University of Wisconsin.

“These corporate reformers are pursuing a strategy based on ideology, not on evidence,” she charged. “It is demoralizing teachers and setting up public schools to be de-legitimized, as they are called upon to meet impossible goals. This is not an improvement strategy, it is a privatization strategy.”

Ravitch was a former supporter of charter schools and school choice, back when she was the Secretary of Education for the elder President George Bush. Now she is coming out powerfully to question whether these reforms have served education well, and her conclusion is that they haven’t. I think it’s important to listen to her because she has a lot of wisdom and experience, and could help us to not go any further down the road toward fruitless reforms.

On a related note, it’s important to look with skepticism on the claim that our education system has gotten worse over the past 50 years. There is not a lot of clear evidence to support this claim. In fact, there is evidence to show that though we have always been mediocre compared to other countries, we have improved in the past few decades. From Jay Mathews at the Washington Post:

“U.S. students, who once led the world, currently rank 21st in the world in science and 25th in math,” Newsweek reported in September. I hear that a lot. Politicians and business leaders often bemoan the decline of American education compared to the rest of the world. We are doomed, they say, unless we [fill in here the latest plan to save the country.]

So I was surprised to find, in the latest report by the wonderfully contrarian Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, that the notion of America on the downward track is a myth. The data show that we have been mediocre all along, as far back as 1964. If anything, we have lately been showing some signs of improvement.

Loveless, senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, says in his annual report on American Education:

“The United States never led the world. It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter. It is more accurate to say that the United States has always trailed the world on math tests.”

Among the comments on the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in December, which showed some U.S. gains, was this from Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia: “The good news is that the free-fall seems to have stopped–and it was a free-fall for a while.”

Loveless says no. “There was no sharp decline–in either the short or long run,” he says. “The U.S. performance on PISA has been flat to slightly up since the test’s inception, and it has improved on TIMSS [the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, another major series of tests] since 1995.”

This is not exactly good news, but context is important. If we have managed to be the world’s most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools.


I just visited a high school friend who has worked almost thirty years delivering health care. She’s been on TDI and COBRA for almost the last year, slowly recovering from disabling health problems of her own.

She’s trying to figure out how to navigate the insurance maze that confronts her as the COBRA runs out.

Although health reform means that she cannot be denied for a pre-existing condition, the insurance she could buy is unaffordable. She was always sensible with money when she was working, but a year with no paycheck has put her in a crisis.

These kind of problems burden people with endless paperwork and errands to run when they are sick, and unforseen expenses when they can’t work.

She said that a relative of hers has a similar illness, and they compare treatment. He is getting good care, similar to hers. He has government health care. He lives in Hungary.

If she were just a few years older, she’d be on Medicare. If her military service fell into the right category, she’d be able to use the Veteran’s Administration.

Right now, she needs professional help. Not just to treat her illness, but to find out how to pay her medical expenses.

She’s one of the many people who would use a public option, Medicare for all, a single payer system that our parents use.

It’s not cheap or easy, but neither is it cheap and easy to bring a child into the world, raise and educate them, benefit from their skilled labor in the workplace, and depend on their support as a citizen.

I heard people at the Health Care Reform Town Hall’s say that we have no choice but to discard people and let them die when they run out of private insurance and saved cash. Austerity feels so bracing when it’s someone else making the sacrifice.

I don’t know what’s Hungarian for ‘yes we can’, but if they can, we can.

The Future Boom in Mixed-Use Housing

I began receiving a newsletter from David Stookey, who seems to ask a lot of the same questions that I find myself asking as I try to navigate the future for myself and my family. This article in particular, about the likely increase in value of mixed-use housing, appealed to me because (you guessed it) we live in a mixed-use neighborhood. From “People Will Pay to Walk”:

A housing boom?
Demand for one type of neighborhood is predicted to grow fast.

We’ve been looking at the long-term advantages of living where there are shops, schools, businesses, health clinics, residences all jumbled together. A “mixed-use neighborhood” planners call it.

Many of these advantages derive from the rising costs of energy, healthcare, and taxes forecast for this decade – the stuff I’ve been writing about. Others come from the retirement preferences of baby boomers.

–saving transportation costs as fuel prices rise
–walking and biking more as health costs rise
–commuting without traffic to nearby jobs
–getting to know more neighbors
–using nearby public transit for longer trips
–finding smaller homes, apartments, and yards
–enjoying libraries, art, music, theater close to home

I very much like that I can walk to my kids’ elementary school, the grocery store, my office, my church, the local pool (which BETTER open again this year!) and a host of other places. Also, this makes me think of some of the incredible houses in the Elmwood section of Providence, which will (in an optimistic vision of the future) become a strong middle-class mixed-use neighborhood. If David Stookey is right, there are some bargains to be had on houses in our many interesting mixed-use neighborhoods across Rhode Island.

One of the 8,000 Chemicals You Should Definitely Avoid

There is a growing awareness, particularly in our younger generation, that we need to do something about the 8,000 chemicals in our environment that are floating around unregulated. I am hoping for a generation of young warriors who will bring some level of safety standards to our environment and make sure chemical companies pay their fair share for the do-over. One particular chemical that I am joining Dr. Mercola in focusing on is an “anti-foaming agent” that is put on McDonald’s Chicken Mcnuggets. From the good doctor:

Do you put dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent made of silicone, in your chicken dishes?

How about tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a chemical preservative so deadly that just five grams can kill you?

These are just two of the ingredients in a McDonalds Chicken McNugget. Only 50 percent of a McNugget is actually chicken. The other 50 percent includes corn derivatives, sugars, leavening agents and completely synthetic ingredients.

I will admit to eating my share of chicken McNuggets over the years, and I’ve noticed that they have a weird bitter aftertaste, particularly when cold. Well, just one more reason to try to avoid fast food and processed foods whenever possible.


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