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, 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.]