Friday, July 3, 2009

Killing the geese

The subprime mortgage scam was the tipping point that brought on the Wall Street meltdown that created our current economic crisis. Or so goes the official explanation.

But this crisis might not have been a crisis, if the middle class was economically stronger.

For the last thirty years, the oligarchs who run our country as a for-profit enterprise have passed legislation that slowly moved the nation’s wealth upward. They stripped the middle class of its economic power until our bank accounts and cookie jars are finally empty.

Now we’re forced to help them jump-start their cash machines by mortgaging our grandchildrens’ earnings. Other than some minor tax law tinkering, little has been done to change the economic injustices that got us into this pickle.

A strong democracy depends on an economically robust middle class. We are the geese that lay the golden eggs that the rich so covet.

American Atrocities

We Americans have a short memory about atrocity. Over the last 350 years, we’ve perpetrated numerous atrocities, yet they’re first rationalized and then forgotten. And pretending they never happened is what allows them to reoccur.

For the first three hundred years after we invaded and colonized what became the United States, we committed just about every imaginable atrocity against the Native Americans who lived here.

We exploited their naiveté by swindling them out of their lands and signing dozens of treaties we had no intention of keeping. We massacred them in their sleep, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. We hunted them down like animals and then force-marched them to concentration camps where we starved them to death. We used germ warfare against them by deliberately infecting them with fatal diseases. We rounded them up and then staged mass executions. We took their children away from them for reprogramming into Christianity.

For more than 200 years, we used Africans as farm animals and personal servants even though we knew they had been kidnapped against their will. We chained and mistreated them. We bought and sold them as chattel. We branded them and raped them. We hunted them down like animals. We took their children away from them to be sold as livestock.

During the Civil War, both the North and the South put fellow American soldiers into concentration camps where they were starved to death, mistreated and forced to live in unimaginable squalor.

In World War II, we dropped thousands of tons of conventional bombs on German and Japanese cities with no regard to the civilians who were living there. We put American citizens of Japanese descent into concentrations camps. We dropped thermonuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima when the war was all but over, killing 250,000 people and injuring countless more.

In Vietnam, we killed between two and three million Vietnamese with our "carpet bombing" and committed uncounted massacres where innocent civilians were wantonly executed. Other than William Calley, few were even reprimanded.

As part of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, we have killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians and 20,00 Afghani civilians. We have routinely kidnapped, held without charge, mistreated, sexually assaulted, sodomized and raped prisoners who may or may not even be guilty of anything. We have systematically tortured captives in violation of the Geneva Conventions. We have allowed military contractors to beat, rape and kill civilians with virtually no accountability.

The facts of these atrocities are not disputed by anyone. They are recorded in newspapers and history books. They are supported by documentation, witnesses and photographs. Yet, we still deny them. These atrocities are the dirty laundry that we refuse to wash.

Until we own up and accept the blame for these atrocities, we will keep committing them.

Faith-based Education

It takes a leap of faith to believe
that how well students do
on standardized tests
has anything to do with
the quality of their education.

It’s like trying to use a wooden ruler
to measure the volume of a balloon.


My granddaughter, Annabelle, needed a replacement wheel for her car after hitting a curb. I volunteered to pick up a used one at a local junkyard. Because I spend so many hours a week banging on this keyboard, I jump on a good reason to get outside for a couple of hours.

I called the closest junkyard still in operation, a small family-owned business in the next town. A pleasant-sounding man told me they had a wheel. I hit the sleep key on my computer and headed out the door.

When I got there, the place seemed deserted. I went into the small but neat office where I found a man busily packaging auto parts. There was already a sizeable pile of boxes by the door.

‘Hello, there. I’m the one who called about the wheel,” I announced.

“99 Pontiac Grand Am. Right?”


He picked up a walkie-talkie from the counter.

“Hey, Dennis. You out in the yard?”

“Yeah. What do you need?”

“Can you put your hands on a 14-inch Grand Am wheel--steel not alloy?”

“I’ll have to take one off.”

The pleasant-sounding man looked over at me. “You mind waiting?”


“Dennis, pull one off and bring it down.”

He looked back at me again. “He’ll only be a few minutes.”

Then he went back to his work. After each part was packaged, he went to the computer and printed out a packing slip and label for the next one.

“Where are all these packages going,” I asked.

“All over. Mostly Mexico, South America and Africa.”

“That far?”

“Hell, there’s no money in local business any more. People trade in their cars before they break and a lot of those go overseas where there are no parts to fix ‘em. We do most of our business online these days. Everything’s paid by credit card and shipped UPS.”

I looked at the pile by the door and counted eighteen packages ready to go.

“You ship this many every day?”

“Pretty much.”

The phone rang. It was a nice day so I stepped outside. When Dennis appeared, I went back in and paid the pleasant-sounding man twenty dollars. On the ride home, I remembered a story that I had written more than twenty years ago.

I had to copy it from a 3.5-inch floppy disk and make a few corrections, but here it is:

To get back and forth to college, my son drives an old Volvo station wagon that doesn’t have the good sense to die gracefully. It has clocked more than a quarter million miles but is still fairly dependable.

The starter died the other day, and he couldn’t afford a new one. So we called around the local junkyards until we found a used one, then drove over to pick it up.

I hadn’t been to a junkyard for years, and things had certainly changed. The place we went wasn’t really a junkyard. It was more like a used auto parts store. We parked outside a ten-foot high chain link fence with barbed wire along the top and iridescent red, attack-dog warning signs every thirty feet.

The office was bustling with computer terminals, ringing phones, several casually dressed counter men and a good Saturday morning turnout. The room was Spartan but clean with several vending machines off to one side. The wall behind the long counter was covered with auto parts manufacturer posters.

We stood at the end of the line. At least the customers hadn’t changed much. They were still the same mix of shade-tree mechanics.

When we finally reached the counter, the man said they didn’t have a starter off the car.

“You can take it off yourself if you have your own tools or pay five dollars to have it removed.”

We didn’t have the tools so we had to pay the extra five bucks. He filled out a Part Removal Authorization form and handed it to us with brief but polite instructions.

“Up the center drive, seventeenth row on the right. Find what you want and give the pink copy to Skip. He’ll be in the yellow pickup.”

We found the part and Skip. He made short work of getting the starter off a battered, white four-door sedan with only 170,000 miles on the odometer. He put the pink copy on his clipboard and an initialed tag on the part. Everything neat and business-like.

As we walked back to the office, I explained to my son how junkyards had changed.

The junkyard I went to as a teenager was different. The only dogs were scruffy but friendly mutts. The only fences were stonewalls with sagging wooden gates.

Bob Wilson’s house stood on a neatly mowed knoll under an immense elm tree--an island in a sea of decaying automobilia. There were red geraniums planted in white-painted tires and a sandbox filled with Tonka trucks.

Everything outside of the yard was as overgrown as the yard was neat. Behind the house were a large cinder block garage, several sheds, a chicken coop, a couple of old school busses and truck bodies. Bob used the garage to dismantle cars. The rest provided storage for parts that were worth keeping out of the weather.

The cars sat in rows somewhat sorted by make and model. If you looked around, you could find cars you knew. Cars you had ridden in. Some were grim reminders of accidents involving people you knew. Others of awkward, adolescent experiments in love.

Each time I went, I checked to see whether the weathered old 1946 Pontiac that my mother drove when I was in grade school had eluded Bob’s torches. Or the worn-out 1949 Mercury that my cousin Phillip gave me when he graduated from law school. Sooner or later, the picked clean carcasses were dragged down back and burned. Then they were cut up for scrap.

Everything sat in waist deep hay with roadways worn down to the dirt between the rows of cars. In the summer, daisies and black-eyed susans bloomed between the cars.

Most of the cars lay with their bellies in the dirt, but a few lay helplessly on their roofs like overturned turtles.

Bob’s mobile tool bench was an ancient red panel truck with no doors, fenders or hood. In faded lettering on each side were the words “Coffee Time” surrounded by musical notes. The back end sagged under its burden of acetylene and oxygen bottles and overflowing toolboxes.

A huge vice was mounted on the homemade diamond-plate steel back bumper. At each corner was an outlandishly oversized tire. Because it never left the junkyard, it had no need for lights, horn or muffler. This was a vehicle that made no pretenses or excuses. What it lacked in finesse, it made up for in utility.

During the week, Bob worked hard in all weather dismantling and cutting up cars, loading the pieces on his big flatbed truck and delivering them to scrap metal dealers. On Saturdays, however, you could find Bob in the small office attached to the garage.

The office was furnished with two school bus seats and an oil-stained oak desk. Fancy hubcaps decorated the walls. A wood stove sat in front of one of the windows with a stove pipe running out through a piece of asbestos that replaced one of the window panes. A tool company calendar picturing a busty blonde whose bathing suit was printed on an acetate overlay hung on the inside door to the garage.

Bob sat in an old office chair with his feet up on the desk swapping stories with his customers. A car radio perched on the windowsill next to the desk. It was connected to a car battery on the floor below and an antenna wire hanging out the window. The baseball game was usually crackling out of the speaker lying next to the radio.

In this world, Bob was philosopher and sage. He passed out information with Yankee directness and frugality, generously peppered with four-letter words. A big man in soiled green coveralls, he was a walking compendium of cross-referenced parts from one make or model to another. And he seemed to know every car in his yard including which parts were still intact and most likely to work.

He ran an honest business and appreciated an honest customer. In fact everything pretty much worked on the honor system. Bob could tell you where you would most likely find the parts you needed. Then you could drive right in so you wouldn’t have to carry tools and parts back and forth. You stopped by the office on the way out to talk price. If the part was no good when you put it on, he’d give you another—no questions asked.

About this time, my son and I reached the office with the Volvo starter in hand. The cashier examined the tag and printed out a sales slip. We paid thirty dollars plus five for removal.

In the car on the way home, I was continuing my reminiscence when my son’s favorite band came on the radio. He turned up the volume and the conversation turned to getting the car going in time for his evening date.

Sheep Shear Cuttings

I recently discovered an artist that lives just over the Connecticut River in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Carolyn Guest practices a form of paper cutting called wycinanki (vee-chee-non-kee).

This art form originated in the early 19th Century when Polish sheepherders cut designs out of tree bark and leather with sheep shears. The designs were often used to decorate their homes or given as gifts.

Apple Picnic

The techniques were passed down from generation to generation. As the years passed, the paper cuttings became more detailed and intricate. Town and village competitions evolved, producing beautiful multi-colored and multi-layered wycinanki. Traditional subject matter included peacocks, roosters and other birds, circular or star-shaped medallions, flowers and decorative scenes depicting holidays.

Carolyn became intrigued with this traditional Polish folk art after working in Poland as an International 4-H Youth Exchange delegate. She began cutting with the traditional Polish sheep shears and continues to cut with her first pair of 13-inch shears using techniques she learned from Polish paper cutters.

Morning Call

Carolyn grew up on a farm in Lyndon, Vermont and was an active 4-H Club member. Folk art and crafts were always a big part of her life. Paper cutting has become a way for her express her creativity and portray her rural Vermont heritage. She has traveled to Poland and several other countries to study with paper cutters.

Carolyn continues to challenge herself by cutting ever more elaborate designs using her sheep shears. She was one of ten Vermont artists featured in a traveling exhibit “Ten Artists View of Vermont Agriculture” sponsored by the Vermont Council of the Arts and Vermont Department of Agriculture in 2002. She was also one of five Vermont artists who made ornaments for the 2002 White House Christmas Tree.

4-H Barn

You can find Carolyn’s work on her website at, and you can contact her at

The healthcare controversy

The healthcare controversy boils down to this:
Are we willing to allow corporate insurance,
pharmaceutical and healthcare profiteers
get rich because people get ill?

Corporate vs. Public Interests

The issue isn't that large corporations are evil. It's that they must be profitable. They have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for their shareholders, even when that goal is not in the best interests of the general public.

We like corporations because they stimulate innovation, create jobs and provide necessary goods and services. The legal benefits and protections that help young corporations grow and prosper are the same ones that allow them to run amok when they become behemoths.

The idea behind corporate law is to allow people to form corporations so their businesses will thrive and then benefit society. We give corporations lower tax rates and special deductions. We allow them to establish credit and to raise money by selling shares to investors. We give them life that goes beyond that of the original owners. Then we give the owners protection from nearly all personal liability.

These protections are precisely the ones that allow large corporations to produce shoddy, dangerous products with little accountability, to make outrageous profits while paying little or no taxes, to pay executives obscene salaries, to artificially inflate or deflate stock prices as needed, and to put themselves into bankruptcy or sell out to another corporation for liquidation if necessary.

The real trouble comes when corporations become so big a part of our economy that we can’t control them. Then we’re facing extremely powerful opponents with interests that run contrary to public interests. They have the resources to flood Washington with lobbyists to influence Congress, to run national propaganda campaigns and to support political candidates who are loyal to them.

These juggernauts have dismantled government regulations that were put in place to protect us from them after the last great economic meltdown.

Who represents the public?