About Wanderings

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

‘Paging Dr. Doctivity’: Medicine Evolves Into a Business Model

By Walter Brasch

      Beneath a three-column headline in my local newspaper was a barely-edited press release.
      That’s not unusual. With the downsizing of newsrooms, there’s more room for wire service soft features and press releases. But this one caught my attention.
      SystemCare Health in New Jersey promoted a graduate of a college in my town to the lofty position of Senior Director of Doctivity.
      I checked the dictionary—“Doctivity” didn’t exist. I checked WebMD, the website for amateurs to learn the meaning of unpronounceable medical terms—and how to recognize their symptoms and treatments. Nothing there.
      That left SystemCare Health’s website, which spewed a barrage of buzzwords and useless gibberish, the kind that people in marketing and business think will impress those who speak fluent English.
      The company says it works with major health systems and medical colleges, giving them insight and “strategic brand platforms, service line business building programs, and breakthrough creative ideas so our clients experience real market-moving results [to] increase physician productivity, streamline operations and strategically acquire new patients.” I assume there is little difference between strategically acquiring new patients and an Army sniper strategically acquiring his target in combat.
      After wading through the mission of the company, I plunged into the swamp of Doctivity, which the company claims is “woven into a health system’s culture to create a repeatable process that provides visibility and accountability for the time it takes a new physician to break even [and] eliminates functional silos.” Since “functional silos” are probably what exist in field of cow manure, I was able to reaffirm my initial impressions about the company, and moved forward.
      Forward led me to learn that the company “delivers a personalized business plan for every new physician so they can reach their financial goals faster,” and that “Physician productivity is at the forefront of most profitability discussions.” Unfortunately, somewhere in those left-over functional silos, “It can take 18-24 months or more for a new physician to reach a break-even point (where they are covering their salaries).” But, with layers of Doctivity, which SystemCare Health says is an “innovative business approach that improves physician productivity,” physicians “are hitting their financial goals faster.”
      The psycho-marketing babble splashes website visitors with explanations— “Internal processes sometimes are burdened with lack of resources as well as market and operational constraints to successfully improve new physician productivity and strengthen retention,” and because of Doctivity, “Physicians reach their financial goals much sooner and better understand their new organization, their business and how the organization intends to market them to build a successful practice. Happy doctor = happy patients.” That last sentence, surgically cut out of a fortune cookie, could mean that SystemCare Health brings clowns and comics into physicians’ offices and operating suites. Physicians who are laughing at uterine cancer, multiple sclerosis, and aortic aneurysms will lead to patients who are so happy about their conditions they are willing to pay their physicians even more so everyone is happy. It could also mean that SystemCare  Health might apply “synergy” with pharmaceutical companies to assure they bring plenty of happy food to meetings with physicians. It could also mean productivity increases with the better use of computers and software, which requires physicians to look at screens more than they look at patients. Possibly, happiness is that SystemCare Health has someone on its staff whose job is to make sure that physicians, who can get depressed at workloads and corporate demands, are able to get the proper mood elevators to improve their happiness quotient.
      Under the Doctrine of Doctivity, health care has evolved from care and compassion to the surgical sterility of a business model, where liquidity, maximizing profits, and return on investment become the fabric and glue of health care practices.
      It’s a model where doctors in corporate health care systems are just like factory workers who help provide their corporate bosses better returns on investment that are contiguous with raising the bottom line. Like some workers who are paid by how many widgets they create every hour, or how many bushels of fruit they pick, these health care workers increase their own productivity by seeing more patients every shift. To increase their own productivity, physicians become more “efficient,” seeing patients every 10 minutes; maybe 30 to 40 a day. It’s not unusual for physicians to have a 5,000 patient case load. Spend too much time with a patient, and you lose that productivity. Take time to research a patient’s symptoms and consult with other physicians and you lose income. But, if you refer your patient to a specialist or order more tests, both you and the system will be happy with additional income. Get those patients into your exam room; move ’em in; move ’em out.
      Physicians in some systems who take too much time with patients get reminders about being focused. They don’t get reminders that spending more time with patients, sometimes just chatting about hobbies, the latest films, or the family, can help a physician better understand a patient’s issues and problems. Trapped by those 10- and 15-minute blocks of time, physicians rely upon templates and superficial questions to determine their diagnoses. They may know, but don't have the time to follow through on the most basic part of research--if you ask enough questions, and if you ask the right question, you'll get the right answer. And since it’s been decades since physicians made house calls—too inefficient—they don’t see or understand how a patient’s home or lifestyle might affect that patient’s illness.
      Most physicians, even those who take lessons from a Doctivity specialist, care about people. Most didn’t go into medicine to be part of the country club set. But when corporations set up Doctivity-induced programs, even the best physicians reluctantly sacrifice the art and science of medicine, possibly forsaking the principles of the Hippocratic Oath, to the business of medicine.
     [Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist whose undergraduate degree was social work with a minor in health sciences. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which has major sections about business decisions made by the oil and gas industry that may be more important to some companies than the health and environmental effects.]

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Questionable Calls in the Sports Department

by Walter Brasch

      With the opening of the high school football season, local newspapers and TV stations have again been running lists of what they believe are the top teams.
      Most lists rank teams in the “top 10.” One Pennsylvania TV station, whose on-air number is 16, runs the “Top 16.”
      There are several problems with these lists. First, we don’t know how they got those rankings. We don’t know who makes up those lists or what criteria were used. It could be a sports editor and her grandfather. It could be a bunch of station personnel sitting at a bar, throwing back vodka slammers and team names.
      Even if we know how the lists are compiled, a second major question arises. Why? Yes, why? Why does it matter? Aren’t won-loss records good enough? Shouldn’t the only rankings that matter be who enters and wins in the playoffs?
      Some newspapers have a half-dozen staffers and a couple of subscribers make predictions of the upcoming high school, college, and pro football games. Winners get prestige and, sometimes, gift cards from local advertisers.
      Some newspapers run the odds on upcoming games, apparently so their subscribers have basic, although seldom accurate, information to assist them with bets. While betting on college and pro games is fairly common, and mostly illegal, should anyone be betting on high school games?
      Several sites rank teams from throughout the country. USAToday runs a pre-season ranking of the Top 25 football teams. With one million boys playing football on 14,000 teams, does anyone think anyone, even those with access to a super-Cray computer, can accurately define the “top 25.” USAToday during mid-summer also does a composite score of four national sites which determine the “Top High School Prospects.” These are, supposedly, the “top 100” high school players, and top recruits for a college football scholarship.
      The rankings don’t stop with football. USAToday also ranks the “top 25” teams in almost every sport, including girls lacrosse and boys soccer.
      Do these rankings and predictions give the sports departments something to fill time and space? Do they make the sports editor appear to be powerful or intelligent? Are the lists something to allow fans to believe their team is good enough to be ranked? Or to complain that their team was cheated and should be ranked No. 3, instead of No. 17?
      Related to rankings are the persistent countdowns of the “Best Play of the Week” and “Athlete of the Week.” These TV clips are loaded in favor of quarterbacks throwing balls to receivers or running backs sidestepping two tackles to score from 20 yards out. Usually overlooked is a great block that springs the running back loose. Or, maybe a quarterback sack that stops the other team’s momentum. But, every week there’s some play that someone—we don’t know who—and we certainly don’t know the criteria—decides for the rest of us.
      On Saturdays, we shouldn’t care who was ranked or what the best play was from the night before. We should care that the teenage boys did their best, played hard, and enjoyed their time on the field.
      After all, it’s only a game.
     [Dr. Brasch began his journalism career as a sports writer and then as a sports editor before turning to public affairs/investigative reporting and in-depth feature writing. He is the author of 20 books. His latest is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Boss Who Fought 
for the Working Class

by Walter Brasch

         He was born into poverty in New Hampshire in 1811.
      His father was a struggling farmer. His mother did most of the other chores.
      He was a brilliant student, but the family often moved, looking for a better life—a couple of times so the father could avoid being put into debtor’s prison.
      At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and became a printer’s apprentice, sending much of his wages to help his family.
      For several years, he worked as an apprentice and then as a printer, his hands covered by ink, his body ingesting the chemicals of that ink.
      He worked hard, saved money, helped others achieve their political dreams, became the editor of newspapers, and soon became an owner.
      In the two decades leading to the Civil War, Horace Greeley had become one of the most powerful and influential men in America. His newspaper, the New York Tribune, was the nation’s largest circulation newspaper.
      But instead of becoming even richer, he used his newspaper as a call for social action. For social justice.
      In 1848, as a congressman fulfilling the last three months of the term of an incumbent who was removed from office, Greeley introduced legislation to end flogging in the Navy, argued for a transcontinental railroad, and introduced legislation to allow citizens to purchase at a reduced price land in unsettled territories as long as they weren’t speculators and promised to develop the land. The Homestead Act, which Congress finally passed 13 years later, helped the indigent, unemployed, and others to help settle the American west and Midwest. But in his three months in office he also became universally hated by almost everyone elected to Congress. The social reformer in his soul had pointed out numerous ethical and criminal abuses by members of Congress; his party didn’t ask him to run for a full term.
      He called for all American citizens—Blacks and women included—to be given the rights of the vote.
      In 1854, Greeley became one of the founders of the Republican party. For more than two decades, he had been a strong abolitionist and now the new political party would make the end of slavery one of its founding principles. He was one of the main reasons why his friend, Abraham Lincoln, whom he helped become president, finally relented and two years after the civil war began, finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
      More than 225,000 Americans (of a nation of about 35 million) bought his relatively objective and powerful history of the civil war, making the book one of the best-sellers in the nation’s nine decade history. In today’s sales, that would be about two million copies.
      Unlike some editors who pandered to the readers and advertisers, he maintained a separation of editorial and advertising departments, and demanded the best writers and reporters, no matter what their personal opinions were. Among those he hired were Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Karl Marx. And at a time when newsrooms were restricted to men, he hired Margaret Fuller to be his literary editor.
      He believed in a utopian socialism, where all people helped each other, and where even the most unskilled were given the opportunity to earn a living wage.
      He demanded that all workers be treated fairly and with respect. In 1851, he founded a union for printers.
      When his employees said they didn’t need a union because their boss paid them well and treated them fairly, he told them that only in a union could the workers continue to be treated decently, that they had no assurances that some day he might not be as decent and generous as he was that day. The union was for their benefit, the benefit of their families, and their profession, he told them.
      In 1872, Horace Greeley ran for the presidency, nominated on both the Democrat and Liberal Republican tickets. But, his opposition was U.S. Grant, the war hero running for re-election on an establishment Republican ticket.
      Weeks before the electoral college met, Horace Greeley, who lost the popular vote, died, not long after his wife.
      The printers, the working class, erected monuments in his honor.
      And everyone knew that the man with a slight limp, who usually dressed not as a rich man but as a farmer coming into town to buy goods, who greeted everyone as a friend, who could have interesting conversations with everyone from the illiterate to the elite, was a man worthy of respect, even if they disagreed with his views. For most, Horace Greeley was just a bit too eccentric, his ideas just too many decades ahead of their time.
      On this Labor Day weekend, when not one Republican candidate for president believes in unions, when CEOs often make more than 100 times what their workers earn, when millionaires and billionaires running for office pretend they are populists, when even many in the working class seem more comfortable supporting the policies and political beliefs of the elite, the nation needs to reflect upon the man who knew that without the workers, there would be no capitalism.
      [Dr. Brasch has been a member of several crafts, arts, and trade labor unions. He proudly sees himself not as among the elite but as a part of the working class.]

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Katrina: A 10-Year Review

by Walter Brasch

      This week is the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the southeastern gulf coast by Hurricane Katrina.
      More than 1,800 people died. There is no estimate for the number of pets and wildlife. Damage was estimated at more than $100 billion.
      About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded. In Mississippi, the water surge flooded as much as 10 miles from the beaches.
      The Category 3 storm should not have caused that much damage, but it exposed poorly-designed levees that should have protected New Orleans.
      Sanctimonious critics, many of them conservative politicians, claimed that if the residents had evacuated New Orleans like they were ordered, the death toll and suffering would have been significantly less.
      What they didn’t say, however, was that almost all roads were blocked or destroyed. Even if the roads weren’t damaged, evacuation would have been difficult. Many of the residents who remained were poor, Black, an often relied upon public transportation, as do many residents of urban areas. Hundreds of school buses that could have evacuated the residents were in the flood. Even if they weren’t, there weren’t enough drivers—most were in their own houses, which were flooded, or at the SuperDome or Convention Center, both of which sustained damage.
      The media—and numerous conservative radio and TV pundits—reported looting. But, most was for food and supplies needed to sustain the people through what would be several days of terror. Not reported was that the stores would have had to throw away the food and supplies, but would still get insurance reimbursement, whether the supplies were damaged by the flood or taken from the shelves by the storm victims.
      Prisoners were left locked in flooded cells—the guards had abandoned them. Police deserted their duties. The attendants and staff of at least one nursing home fled, leaving the infirm and elderly to struggle or die. And almost everywhere was the inhumane greed of thousands who filed false claims, set up phony Katrina victim websites to collect money that never went to the victims, or were in collusion with local and state governments to make obnoxious profits on contracts that were supposed to help return the Gulf to at least the level it was before the storm.
      Hospitals sustained heavy damage. Only heroic efforts by medical staff and other employees to evacuate the patients kept the death and injury toll down.
      The damage might have been less if fossil fuel corporations, aided by state and federal governments, had not drilled into the sand bars, natural protection against storms. But, oil was too lucrative, and protection of the coastline not even an afterthought.
      Plywood was not available to cover windows before the storm hit; much of it had been sent to Iraq. Deep water vehicles were not available; they were in Iraq to sustain the war. National Guard troops, who would have been called out in force, were serving in Iraq.
      The Army Corps of Engineers and local and state officials several times before Katrina hit had begged for funds to improve the poorly-designed levee system. But, there wasn’t enough money because it was encumbered in a war economy.
      FEMA’s response time was far too long, its effectiveness diminished by political decisions that were made in the Bush–Cheney administration. Many local and state officials—of both major political parties—showed the nation that ineptness wasn’t confined to the federal government. Supplies were rerouted or never delivered; communications between agencies was dismal. However, the Coast Guard, National Weather Service, and National Hurricane Center stood out for excellence—as did the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and numerous other volunteer organizations, many of which were on the scene before FEMA.
      Homeland security needs to be a lot more than just protecting our country from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists. The budget for the Department of Defense this year is about $600 billion, about 54 percent of the entire federal budget. Natural disasters—from forest fires in Oregon to the severe drought in California and the Southwest to floods in Louisiana—have taken more lives and caused more damage than all the terrorists combined. But the budget for disaster relief is about $7 billion, slightly more than 1 percent of the Defense department budget. Even if all the $50 billion spent in Katrina disaster relief during the past decade is figured into the total, it’s still less than 10 percent of one year’s Defense appropriation.
      And yet, conservative politicians have questioned why the nation needed to put money into Katrina relief. They are the same ones who unquestioningly advocated for more funds for defense while questioning the need for federal funds to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Yet, when heavy rains flooded Texas in May, both of Texas’s senators, who had voted to deny funds for the Jersey coast, were first in line to demand federal funds for their own state.
      Have we still not learned anything in the past decade?
     [Dr. Brasch is author of ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal Government’s Response to Hurricane Katrina, the first major book that looked at the causes, problems, and effects of the storm. He and Rosemary Brasch, two years before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, had written a series of articles that predicted the United States was not prepared for a major disaster.]

Friday, August 21, 2015

Canned Pleasure:
The Thrill of the Kill

by Walter Brasch
      Would you like to go to Zimbabwe, kill and behead a lion, just like that dentist from Minnesota or the physician from Pittsburgh recently did? They paid about $50,000 each for that experience
      How about a black rhino, an endangered species? A professional hunter from Dallas, Texas, won a $350,000 lottery to stalk and kill that animal in southern Namibia. In the 1950s, there were about 70,000 black rhinos. There are now fewer than 2,400, most of them killed off by the human predators.
      If giraffes are your thing, you can go to South Africa and, like a woman from Idaho, kill the world’s tallest animal, pose with it, and post it onto your Facebook page.
      But, let’s say your anemic bank account can’t provide you with the funds for a two-week safari, because that rebel flag you just bought to mount on your broken-down pick-up cost too much.
      For a few thousand dollars, Great White Hunters—complete with rented guides, dogs, and guns or bows—can go into a fenced-in area and shoot an exotic species. In most canned hunts, the animals have been bred to be killed, have little fear of humans, and are often lured to a feeding station or herded toward the hunter to allow a close-range kill. In some of the preserves, animals are drugged or tied to stakes. Some of the “big cats,” recorded in investigative undercover videos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Fund for Animals were declawed, placed in cages, and then released; the terrified and non-aggressive animals were then killed within a few yards of their prisons; some were killed while in their cages.
      For less than $3,000 you can go to Snyder County, Pa., and kill an elk, a deer, or a wild boar. You don’t even need a hunting license or worry about hunting out of season. The animals are fenced in on a private preserve.
      The club recently placed full-page ads in local newspapers, and promises that for your $1,000 to $3,000 thrill, you get a guaranteed success, lodging, meals, and even a color photo of you and what is euphemistically known as a trophy.
      If pheasants are your thing, you can head out to the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, Pa. This is where Dick Cheney and some of his shooting buddies stood and killed more than 400 just-released birds, which they blasted onto their dinner plates for a lead-scented meal. In the afternoon, having hardly raised a bead of sweat, the good ole boys slaughtered dozens of equally tame mallards that had been hand-raised and shoved in front of waiting shotguns for the massacre. By the time Cheney flew out of the area, the mallards were plucked and vacuum-packed, ready for flight aboard the taxpayer-funded Air Force 2.
      The pheasant hunt was a year after the Mighty Dick sent shotgun pellets into the face of a 78-year-old hunting companion, whom he thought was a quail.
      Prefer pigeons? Although they’re not a “canned hunt,” there are still a half-dozen target shoots in southeastern Pennsylvania, where club officials release the birds within 20 yards of contestants, making a kill even easier than hitting metal ducks at a carnival’s shooting gallery. You can’t even eat the pigeons—by the time you pick the shotgun pellets from the bird, there’s no meat left.
      Many of the animals on canned hunts are surplus animals bought from dealers who buy cast-off animals from zoos and circuses; the animals sold to the preserves are often aged and arthritic. Dozens of preserves have bought black bears, zebras, giraffes, lions, boars, and just about any species of animal the client could want, solely to be killed, photographed, and then skinned, stuffed, and mounted.
      Most “kills” on the “farms” are from animals bleeding out. Animals suffer from minutes to hours, says Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States. Canned hunting, says Prescott, “is about as sporting as shooting a puppy in pet store window.” Most sportsmen agree with her.
      The concept of the “fair chase” is embedded into hunter culture. The Boone & Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club (bowhunters), two of the three primary organizations that rate trophy kills, refuse to accept applications from persons who bagged their “trophy” on a canned hunt. The Safari Club does allow persons to seek recognition, but only under limitations that most preserves can’t meet.
      These pretend-hunters have dozens of reasons why they do what they do. The word “conservation” often appears dripping from their meat-filled lips. Some claim they are doing it to conserve wildlife by eliminating the weakest among the species. But, since animals have done rather well at preserving the balance of nature, why would humans want to alter it?
      The big-game safari killers, who can afford a southern African hunt that costs more than the yearly wages of most Americans, say that the fees go to conservation efforts to save the animals. If that’s the reason, why not just take that huge roll of 100s, donate it to the preserves, take a tax deduction and get a suitable-for-framing color photo of a living animal?
      Whatever their reasons to mask their recreation, there is only one reason why they do what they do. They enjoy massaging a phallic symbol and taking a life.
      [Walter Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is the author of 20 books; the most recent one is Fracking Pennsylvania. He also believes in shooting only inanimate objects, especially clay pigeons, which he misses more than he hits.]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

It’s Not Always Good to be a Professional

by Walter Brasch

      Decades ago, newspaper reporters had low wages and no bylines.
      As expected, they were a bit testy about the low wages.
      So, publishers figured out that if they gave reporters bylines, it would soothe their savage egos.
      It worked.
      But, then came the union movement in full force in the 1930s, and reporters wanted more than bylines and low wages.
      And so publishers raised the wages a little bit and gave some benefits.
      But, there was still that ego-thing.
      So, when reporters kept demanding livable wages, publishers made reporters editors and gave them salaries.
A general assignment reporter might also write a weekly story about airplanes. Thus, he became the newspaper’s aviation editor.
      Another reporter might write a story or two a week about fashion, and she—there were few women in the newsroom for many decades, and the ones who were there were consigned to “women’s stories”—would be the fashion editor.
      The editorship of journalism solved another problem.
      Because they were now management, reporters could still work as much as 60 hours a week, be paid salaries, and not get overtime hours. They could also be forced to work split shifts—a few hours during the day, a break, and then return to work night hours, possibly covering excessively boring school board and city council meetings where most of the decisions are made in secret in the euphemistically-called “work sessions” before the open public meeting later in the evening.
      Nevertheless, working excessive hours but with a title and salary led reporters to think they were truly professionals and not factory workers who were paid by the hour and received federally-mandated overtime when their work exceeded 40 hours a week.
      And then along comes the Department of Labor. And it so decreed in 2004 that anyone making less than $455 a week is entitled to overtime if work hours exceeded 80 in a two-week period. Any wage more than $455 a week would keep workers from getting overtime pay.
      But now the Department of Labor wants to raise that threshold.
      In the past decade, the cost of living has gone up about 20 percent.
      Supporting the increase in overtime standards are the worker-friendly Democrats. Opposing the increase are the business-class Republicans.
      Even with an assistant deputy metro editor thrown into the mix, there are still more workers than management.
      Newspapers aren’t the only place where workers can be exploited. For the joy of “being on air,” TV workers can be paid lower salaries and be expected to work excessive hours.
      The national networks (with the exception of Fox News) and entertainment industry, however, are heavily unionized, with crafts workers, actors, and staff receiving overtime pay or being given released time, also known as comp time, if there are reasons why workers have to put in more than an eight-hour day, with breaks.
      But all is not so rosy for factory workers and millions of others who are paid hourly. Some unscrupulous employers have been known to have workers sign in late and punch out early, working 9 or 10 hour days but being recorded for only 8. Other employers do follow the rules, but push mandatory overtime onto their workers. It’s much easier and more economical to require employees to show up 13 days out of 14, have them work an extra hour or two each day, and pay them time-and-a-half than to hire new workers.
      The Ford Motor Co. in 1914 learned a lesson about worker fatigue. Henry Ford doubled wages to $5 a day, highest in the industry, and limited most workers to eight-hour days. Morale went up; productivity went up; and profits went up—in two years, Ford had doubled its profits. But Henry Ford was also a realist—better pay, better benefits, and better working conditions also kept unions out of his company, and he could continue to be the racist, anti-Semitic dictator of a thriving industry.
      Nevertheless, some workers still think getting a salary of more than $24,000 a year and having a title is indicative of being in the professional class, and they support corporate America.
      Does that make any sense?
      [In a 40-year work career, Dr. Brasch worked for minimum hourly wages, for salary, as a contract employee, and for royalties and residuals. He is author of 20 books; the latest one is Fracking Pennsylvania, a look at the process and effects of high volume horizontal fracturing.]

Friday, August 7, 2015

Their Cheatin’ Souls: Short Circuiting Ethics in America

by Walter Brasch
      New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady says he had nothing to do with having air removed from game balls.
      The NFL, following an investigation, says he did. It gave him a four game suspension, which he is appealing. That four game suspension could cost him somewhere between $2 million and $4 million of his $14 million 2015 salary. If he plays well with others, doesn’t get into any more trouble, and injuries and retirement don’t stop his career before he becomes 40 years old in 2017, he will earn $31 million for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
      The NFL also fined the Patriots $1 million and required the team to forfeit its first round draft pick next year and 4th round pick the year after.
      Of course, Brady also forfeited his cell phone. Before it and its 10,000 messages could be confiscated in the investigation, he destroyed it and got a new phone. Multi-millionaires can do that.
      But, the issue here is not so much Brady or the Patriots. It’s an endemic problem of cheating.
      In school, children spend more time learning how to avoid learning than they do learning subject matter. This can be by looking over someone else’s shoulder during a test or copying information from an online story for a paper.
      By the time they get to college, their ways of evading knowledge becomes more refined. They can use their grants and loans to buy term papers written by others. On tests, they can flash hand signals to a buddy two rows away or secretly text each other for answers. They can wear baseball caps to hide their wandering eyes. They can even buy copies of the tests. Some professors give the same tests every year, and fraternities and sororities assist their brothers and sisters by having a current test bank of knowledge. There are hundreds of ways to cheat, and even the best professors don’t know all of them.
      And then the students graduate, their resum├ęs floating into corporate headquarters, like parade confetti. Most of these capsulized on paper lives are fluff and puff.
      Although most workers don’t cheat, there’s enough who do.     
      Eleven teachers in Atlanta were convicted this year of racketeering for changing student answers on standardized tests to make overall scores higher. An Atlanta Journal–Constitution investigation reported about 180 teachers and administrators probably changed student scores; 35 of them were indicted, with 23 accepting plea bargains; 12 went to trial and only one of them was found not guilty.
      The reason there was cheating by the adults, who probably didn’t “notice” when the children openly cheated, was money-based. Scores that flatlined each year or went down from the year before would have led to less funds. Higher scores led to increased budgets, which led to increased teacher merit pay. The superintendent of schools herself was accused of being the gang leader; her motivation may have been not just to make her district look good but to receive the bonuses for increased student performance. Unfortunately, teacher cheating isn’t confined to Atlanta, nor is cheating only a part of the educational system.
      In factories, short cuts lead to products with defects. In some cases, corporate management knows there are defects but ignores the consequences, figuring that the cost of recalls and lawsuits is still less than the profits. In corporate language this is known as “mitigation.” It sounds so much better than “greed.”
      Wall Street and financial institution greed and lies, combined with a serious lack of enforcement by government regulatory agencies, led to the nation’s great recession, which began the last couple of years of the Bush-Cheney administration. Trying to justify why they short-circuited ethics and the law, many of the guilty whined that they were in a high-pressure job to perform, that others did it, that they thought it was all part of the corporate culture; the whine that if they were ethical, they wouldn’t make as much money as expected, and probably wouldn’t be promoted or possibly fired for not meeting production goals.
      Some politicians also cheat. In their case, the cheating could be by accepting gifts from lobbyists or making promises that no one believes will be kept. But, for politicians, the cheating is often to get campaign funds and benefits that might help grease a re-election, which will lead to an even further need to cross ethical lines.
      You don’t have to be a corporate executive, go-go stock manipulator, politician, or even a student to cheat. Just fill out your yearly IRS 1040. Just as there are hundreds of ways students cheat, there are hundreds of ways taxpayers and corporations can cheat on taxes, with the average taxpayer believing it is perfectly acceptable to try to keep as much of every dollar earned as possible. Thus, fudging deductions and under-reporting income have become routine in many households. The IRS believes unreported income—which can be a few hundred dollars in restaurant tips or “under the table” job income to a few hundred thousand dollars stashed in a Cayman Islands bank—could be more than $4 billion a year.
      Of course, cheating may be beneficial to others—if spouses didn’t cheat, the entire country music industry could fall.
      Nevertheless, If Tom Brady did cheat in deflategate—and we’re not saying he did—he was just a part of a culture that is slowly losing its ethics and values in order to get results.

     [Dr. Brasch is a journalist/social activist, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking America, an overall look at the process, effects, and numerous social issues of horizontal fracturing.]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

‘NCIS’ Again Skunked—Except by the People

by Walter Brasch

      Once again, as expected, the people who give out Emmy nominations skunked NCIS.
      No nominations for acting. None for writing. Not one for directing or producing. Not even a nomination in what the industry calls the minor awards—sound editing, stunt coordination, and dozens of others.
      The one-hour drama, with light overtones, is the most-watched drama in television, but the Industry doesn’t think it’s worth any awards. And yet, every one of its primary actors, led by Mark Harmon, could give acting lessons to those who were nominated.
      It took years for TV Guide’s haughty editors to give major stories to NCIS or even highlight individual episodes. Perhaps it’s because NCIS appeals more to the people who don’t live in L.A. or New York.
      Also skunked were USA’s Royal Pains and TNT’s Major Crimes, both excellent light dramas that, like NCIS, are well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.
      Also overlooked by the Industry when they were in production were several outstanding light dramas, among them USA’s White Collar, Burn Notice, and Psych and TNT’s Leverage and The Closer.
      There may be several reasons why these shows, and others, aren’t nominated.
      First, the actors work on their craft, show up on time, rehearse, deliver excellent performances, and then go home to their families and friends. They don’t do a lot of TV guest appearances on the morning and late night shows. Most don’t go to the Hollywood parties, where they can schmooze and cuddle up with fellow performers who can cast just the right kind of votes. And, most important, the actors of NCIS, NCIS: New Orleans, and the USA and TNT shows generally don’t appear regularly in the tabloids.
      Writers and directors tend to stay in the background, melting into the scenery. None are asked to appear on talk shows; very few are even asked to appear in court. Nevertheless, the writing and directing of the overlooked shows is easily among the best that Hollywood has to offer.
      Another reason is that the studios and networks that these shows appear on don’t do much to promote them. CBS, which could have spent a few hundred thousand of its millions of profit promoting NCIS, CSI, and Criminal Minds, seems to think the money is better spent promoting Two Broke Girls and the last remains of Two and a Half Men. USA is owned by NBC/Universal, which pushes its NBC shows, paying premium rental prices for Sunset Blvd. billboards and for ads in major show-biz publications. And, of course, NBC shoves the actors onto the talk shows, especially the ones broadcast by NBC.
      Royal Pains is a drama of concierge medicine in the Hamptons. But, USA snuck the seventh season of the popular show onto the air with almost no promotion, and stuck it into a 10 p.m. slot, possibly hoping it would flatline and leave a vacancy for another one-hour drama.
      For some reason, the Industry doesn’t like light drama, a perception also emphasized in the Oscars. And, it doesn’t seem to like actors who don’t overact, but subject themselves to the quality of writing.
      Last week, when NCIS, about to begin its 13th season in September, was overlooked, it was 4th in the Nielsen ratings. And that was for a re-run.

      [Dr. Brasch is a journalist and multi-media writer/producer. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the process and effects of high-volume horizontal fracturing.]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Fired for Telling the Truth

by Walter Brasch

     Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a hydrogeologist, didn’t plan to be an expert witness for law firms. But, that’s the way it turned out shortly before he planned to retire.
     He had spent most of his career working in the oil/gas industry and then in academics. He didn’t have problems when he worked for ARCO for seven years after getting an M.S. in oceanography from the University of South Florida. However, he did have problems in academics when he tried to tell the truth.
     After five years as an assistant professor at California State University at Bakersfield, in the heart of the state’s rich oil industry, he left to become associate professor/researcher at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), a public university with a strong reputation in engineering and applied sciences. For 10 years, he taught and did research. But in 2006, as horizontal fracking began to be the way the industry was headed, he learned that research is compromised by politics.
     That’s the year he was asked by the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) to evaluate an EPA study about horizontal fracking. The EPA study, conducted during the Bush–Cheney administration, had claimed there were no problems with horizontal fracking, one that used millions of gallons of water, dozens of toxic chemicals, and a new procedure to extract trapped gas in narrow shales.
     “I wasn’t aware of the study, or much about fracking,” says Dr. Thyne, “but I looked at the document and said it appeared to be political.” He did say there was no data to lead to the EPA conclusions, which would eventually be used to help justify the Halliburton Loophole, which exempted the industry from numerous environmental laws. But, it was Dr. Thyne’s observation about the validity of the EPA report that upset the university’s administration.
     Research about fracking apparently upset some in the administration, one of whom was Dr. Myles W. Scoggins who had worked for Mobil and ExxonMobil for more than three decades, eventually becoming president of the International Exploration & Production and Global Exploration division and then executive vice president of ExxonMobil Production Co. before becoming CSM president in 2006. In 2014, the last year of his presidency, Dr. Scoggins received $380,000 in salary and, according to the Public Affairs Institute, about $800,000 from being on the boards of three oil and energy companies.
     A meeting with a low-level administrator resulted in an agreement that Dr. Thyne should not say that there was insufficient data in the EPA study and that he could not identify himself as from CSM in public and written statements.
     But, there was more. Dr. Thyne soon began advocating for more university research about fracking and its effects.
     This time, instead of a department head telling him never to use his university affiliation in his research and public statements, it was a university vice-president. Dr. Nigel T. Middleton, vice-president of academic affairs, told Dr. Thyne the university was dropping him to half-time employment and ordered him not to discuss fracking. Dr. Middleton also has a long history of work with the oil and gas industry.
     Dr. Thyne believes the initial protest this time came from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA). The university president for four years (2007–2011) was  on the board of directors of COGA.
     In an official public relations statement, CSM denied terminating Dr. Thyne’s employment. The university claimed Dr. Thyne left CSM solely because he had another job. However, that was a carefully-couched distortion of truth. CSM did not renew his contract after he did an interview with National Public Radio, and reiterated his position that there was insufficient data to justify EPA conclusions.
     The American Association of University Professors had wanted to take up Dr. Thyne’s case as a violation of academic freedom—“but I declined because by that time, it really seemed to be a no-win situation.”
     The next year, he became a researcher at the University of Wyoming, from where he received a Ph.D. in geology in 1991. This time, six years after he began working at the university, a comment made to a local newspaper led to his termination. The Cheyenne Tribune–Eagle had published a five-part series about fracking and water usage. He says he had told the reporter each well could use two to ten million gallons of water, but for certain wells the water used could be 350,000 to one million gallons per stage, and that there could be as many as 40 stages of drilling. The reporter took the maximum per stage, and the maximum number of stages, and noted there could be more than 40 million gallons of water used. The source of the highest possible number of gallons was unattributed. However, representatives of the industry demanded to know the source, which the newspaper’s editor revealed.
     That eventually led to Dr. Thyne being called before the university’s vice-president of government affairs and a representative from Noble Energy, who demanded he retract the highest number, a number Dr. Thyne had never given the newspaper. Like CSM, the University of Wyoming also demanded that Dr. Thyne deny that any of his comments represented the views of the University of Wyoming. Shortly after that meeting, Dr. Thyne was told, “Your services are no longer needed.” He was never told why his employment was terminated. Because Wyoming is a “right-to-work” state, there was no grievance procedure. The university could easily claim, without having to prove the truth, that there were no more research funds to justify Dr Thyne’s continued employment. David Mohrbacher, director of the university’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute, told the Boulder (Colo.) Weekly
the reason for not renewing Dr. Thyne’s was because, “We chose a different way to go, and really that’s all I can say.”
     Dr. Thyne’s last academic employment was in 2012. “With fracking booming, I thought there would be a lot of jobs,” he says but no one in academia had wanted him. A couple of years later, he found out why. “A friend told me to check out YouTube.” On that social network, he found a one-minute video, which he recorded in 2011, that stated human error in the fracking process can cause water pollution.
     “I’m not naive, I understand politics,” says Dr. Thyne, who acknowledges, “It’s been a difficult transition,” but one he accepts because he will not sacrifice his academic integrity for political convenience.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Grin of a Fool: Gun Control and the NRA

By Rosemary and Walter Brasch

      A white racist with strong sympathies for the Confederacy and segregation walks into a black church in Charleston, S.C., talks with a welcoming congregation for about an hour, and then murders nine of them. The response by the nation is to discuss the Confederate battle flag, and why it should be removed from society.
      An undocumented citizen who was deported five times gets a stolen handgun from a federal officer and murders a 32-year-old woman, whom he did not know, in San Francisco. The response is to discuss immigration laws and practices.
      In Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, seven people were murdered, and 41 injured in 34 shooting incidents. In Baltimore, two unidentified men killed three people in a residential area near the University of Maryland; a fourth gunshot victim survived. In the first half of the year, there were 154 murders in Baltimore. In Allentown and Easton, Pa., three people were murdered; police believe the suspect, now in custody, may also have attempted to kill someone in New Jersey the week before. The response by the public is to escalate the discussion about gang violence.
      Racism. Immigration. Gang violence.
      What’s missing in the discussion—the most obvious issue, the common thread— is the use of guns.
      Hate and fear supply the ammunition; people with guns carry out the execution of peace.
      President Obama, in addressing the nation shortly after the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, alluded to the issue of guns. In a subsequent interview with radio host/comedian Marc Maron, he was more specific—“The grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress.” The president also explained why there is almost no movement on responsible gun control legislation is because manufacturers—who donate millions to the NRA—“make out like bandits, partly because of this fear that's churned up that the federal government and the black helicopters are all coming to get your guns.”
      Conservatives attacked the President’s comments; liberals proved the president’s points by their cowardly silence.
      The Democratic leadership and members of Congress could have said there is a high correlation between the amount of money the NRA pays to legislators and the stranglehold on allowing responsible gun ownership laws to emerge. But they didn’t.
      They could have said the NRA leadership and a minority of its members, paranoid and waving conspiracy theories as if they were confederate battle flags, have their hands firmly around the testicles of the law makers. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that in Mr. Obama’s six years as president, not once did he or the government ever say the government should confiscate guns, but wanted sensible regulation at a level even less than required to get a driver’s license. But they didn’t say that, either.
      If the Democratic leadership and elected legislators didn’t wish to attack the stranglehold of the NRA, they could just have cited facts.
      They could have said that 91 percent of all Americans believe there should be at least some restrictions, including mandatory gun locks to help prevent at least 1,500 injuries to children each year. But they didn’t.
      They could have spoken out about the necessity for background checks for all gun sales, including private sales at gun shows. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that the United States, with civilians owning about 30 percent of all handguns in the world, has the world’s highest civilian rate of ownership of guns. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that only two countries in the world—the United States and Yemen, home to a major branch of al-Qaeda—see gun ownership as a basic right, and almost every other country sees ownership as a privilege. They could have said that, but they didn’t.
      They could have said that over 100,000 people are shot every year in the United States; the rate is higher than almost every other country in the world, including several countries where there is active terrorism.
      They could have stated there are numerous research studies that show a high correlation between gun ownership and both suicides and homicides. But they didn’t.
      They could have flooded the media with outrage after the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee, days after the Charleston murders, continued the ban against the Centers for Disease Control to conduct scientific research about gun violence. But they didn’t.
      They could have talked about the ease in acquiring guns, the kind that killed 12 people and wounded 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and killed 26 at a school in Newtown, Conn. But they didn’t.
They could have directly attacked the argument that the Second Amendment gives everyone the right to own guns, without restriction. They could have cited U.S. v. Miller that permits states and the federal government to ban certain guns. But they didn’t.
      They could have cited court decisions that every one of the Bill of Rights has exceptions, but the NRA erroneously claims the Second Amendment is absolute.
      They could have cited other Supreme Court cases that gives Congress the authority to place restrictions on gun ownership. But they didn’t.
      They could have discussed the principle of use of deadly force in “stand your ground” laws against the “obligation to retreat” when possible. But they didn’t.
      They could have discussed recent legislation in Maine, happily signed by the governor, which permits anyone to carry a hidden handgun without having to get a permit or take any training in the use of firearms. The NRA leadership and lobbyists are ecstatic about that law. Perhaps, as Maine’s murder and accidental shooting rate rises, they will lose the grin of a fool.
      [Rosemary Brasch is a retired secretary, labor grievance officer, and college instructor of labor studies. Walter Brasch is a journalist. The latest of his 20 books is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overview of the economics, politics, and health and environmental effects of horizontal fracturing.]