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No News is Good News

I think that if I were forced to sit in front of the television or my computer screen every day for the whole year I would slit my wrists — the news of our world seems that bad, and, if the news doesn’t convince me that it’s that bad, the organizations I give to regularly would certainly convince me through their emails requesting funds/signatures.

Luckily, in the summer I manage to get outside most of the time, and there’s always something to see that convinces me the world’s a beautiful place if we manage to take care of it. More often than not, I find that beauty in one of the few places that retain their native beauty, but occasionally I also retreat to man-made places that gather beauty from all over the world in one place.

A favorite of these is the Pt. Defiance Dahlia Garden, especially this time of year when dahlias are in their prime. Dahlias must be one of the most diverse family of flowers, both in shape and color.

Some, like this beauty, manage to combine several different elements into a harmonious whole.

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while others offer startling contrasts, like this red, white, and yellow flower.

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It’s hard to believe this one is even related to the first two, startling with brilliant summer colors.

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while this one takes on a peaceful lotus-like shape.

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Hard to find a better way to escape the news of the day than a quiet morning walking through a dahlia garden.

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This Economy is Giving Me the Blues

I think I’ve done a remarkably good job of limiting my political views to my Facebook account recently, but, since I’m already off on that vein, I thought I’d share these two things that happened to appear at almost the same moment.

I’d just received a notice that Playing for Change had released a new album, and since I support their initiative I went to iTunes and purchased their new album. After listening to the Keb’ Mo’ cut, I went back to iTunes and ended up purchasing his “Bluesamericana” album. This cut

was a favorite, perhaps because it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from a blues album, though, in retrospect, I probably should have expected it.

As I was listening to the song I was also browsing Facebook where I found this Bernie Sanders quote

BernieSandersQuote

posted by long-time blogger friend Jeff Ward.

Together they go a long ways toward expressing my frustration with an economy that seems determined to undermine the middle class and pervert our democracy into an oligarchy, if it hasn’t already occurred.

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Who Needs Social Security?

One of the most surprising results of my serving in Vietnam was that I became a caseworker shortly after I returned home rather than accepting a banking offer or seeking out other businesses opportunities. Though I had no specific training in casework, I scored very high on the state test and with added points for being a veteran I was quickly offered a job in Aberdeen, Washington, one I readily accepted.

Like most caseworkers, I began working in Old Age Assistance and (I think) General Assistance. Although I had seen the grinding poverty in southern parts of the United States and, even more dramatically, in The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand while in the Army, naïvely, I hadn’t expected to find such poverty so close to home. America manages to hide its poor much better than the rest of the world, particularly in rural areas.

Most of the people I worked with, at least those in Old Age Assistance, had worked hard their whole lives but were unfortunate enough to live too long, to live until resources were dwarfed by inflation or until a mate had died and they no longer drew two pensions. Most of these people drew very little Social Security because there had been no Social Security when they had started working. What pensions they drew were usually “company pensions,” which provided a fixed income. As a result, many were trying to live on 40’s wages in the late 60’s. With an inflation rate often approaching 18%, they would have starved without government aid unless neighbors were willing to feed them and pay utility bills.

Almost invariably they were blue-collar workers or wives of blue-collar workers. Because it was Aberdeen, Washington, many of them were retired loggers, workers who had earned good wages when they were working, though logging is both seasonal and cyclical. Although many of my clients owned their own homes, they did not have savings (If they had savings, they weren’t eligible for OAA).

In fact, if you were going to blame my clients for being on “welfare,” you’d have to blame them for not having saved enough during their working years. All those years they didn’t have Social Security deducted automatically from their salary they should have been putting 10% (their 5% and their employer’s 5%) of their income into savings so that they could retire comfortably. Not sure how they would have done that during the winter or other periods when they were unemployed, but it’s tough to see that retirement is more important than a meal out once a month, or more important than a vacation every 5 years. Do you put money in retirement or help your kid go through a JC or 4-year college?

I suppose you could have blamed them because they were only blue-collar workers; they should have studied harder and gone to college. Heck, many of them hadn’t even finished high school, dropping out at 16 to get a real job to help pay the bills. Times have changed, and a college education wasn’t required to make a good living in those days. I’m not sure how much money today’s college graduates will be able to sock away for retirement when they’ll be required to pay off thousands of dollars in student loans for years after they graduate.

Social Security has finally eliminated Old Age Assistance. Because so many people don’t think about old age until it’s too late, the government requires automatic saving from the wage earner throughout his/her earning years and requires his/her employer to contribute an equal amount to his retirement. Social Security not only helps the wage earner in the long run, it also saves taxpayers money by not requiring them to support those people who can no longer work but who haven’t saved enough money to live on their retirement income and savings. The money most people received from Old Age Assistance was considerably less than the amount they now receive from Social Security. Unlike assistance, they (and their employers) have earned Social Security, at least they have if the government hasn’t frittered away the money they put into the system. Equally important, they don’t have to feel demeaned because they are “on welfare” and aren’t “charity cases.”

No one is going to live well on Social Security alone, but they’re not going to starve, either, and, more importantly, for those who are only concerned with how much they pay in taxes, taxpayers are not on the hook for them, either. Although Americans seem willing to put up with the elderly having to wait on them at fast-food joints during the day and having them greet them at the door in Wal-Mart, I doubt most Americans are willing to see large numbers of seniors forced to sleep in doorways or beg on the street as I saw in a number of third-world countries.

Unfortunately, in our current economy more and more old people may have to rely on Social Security for their sole source of income. Fewer American companies offer traditional retirement programs (which, considering their recent track record, is not necessarily a bad thing), which means a lot more Americans will be responsible for providing their own retirement plan. If the past is any indication, and it’s the only one we have, more Americans will reach retirement age without the kind of investments needed to provide for themselves. It certainly doesn’t take long to search the internet and confirm that we are approaching a retirement crisis (not surprisingly, the conservative Newmax seems to be the lone dissenter on this issue. Wonder what their position is on Social Security?#!)

Even though the company my wife works for will match 401 donations up to a certain percentage, she notes that far too many of the workers aren’t doubling their money by putting it into retirement.

I also saw some very troubling signs when I worked as a tax preparer for H&R Block after I retired from teaching. Whenever there was a recession people were cashing in their 401K’s, even though they ended up paying a 10% penalty for doing so. Some of the time it seemed they could’ve tightened their belts and gotten by on unemployment benefits instead of cashing in their retirement, but often it was difficult to disagree with their strategy when they were in danger of losing their house or were simply unable to pay their current obligations without using their savings.

Considering how much worse the latest recession has been, particularly for older workers, it seems likely that an even greater percentage of workers must have withdrawn funds from their 401K funds in recent years. I find it amazing/appalling with so many indications that people are having a harder and harder time saving for retirement that there are so many calls from Republicans and their supporters to cut back, privatize, or totally cut Social Security.

Even for those who have considerable wealth, Social Security serves as a safety net in a worst-case scenario. Why, then, is the Republican Party so set on limiting or eliminating Social Security, especially when a large majority of the public actually opposes their actions? The only motivation that really makes sense to me is that businesses want to eliminate their 7.5% share of Social Security. As a tax preparer it was not uncommon to run into companies that were unlawfully treating employees as Self-Employed workers to avoid paying those costs to the government (the Self-Employed worker was required to pay both his usual amount and what would have been his employer’s share of Social Security). I imagine profits would take a considerable jump if Social Security could somehow be eliminated, and what company wouldn’t welcome a 7% increase in profits?

Personally, I thought this battle had been won nearly a hundred years ago when it was passed by the Roosevelt administration. It allowed workers who could no longer physically compete with younger workers to retire at reduced wages while providing younger workers with jobs at a time when job opportunities were scarce. People don’t seem to age as rapidly now as they did in the 30’s, but the ones least capable of working past 65, physical laborers, are the ones who are most apt to need Social Security, and the ones whose low wages have made it hardest to set aside money for retirement. Of course, they wield the least political power and, thus, are the ones least apt to have their needs met.

I taught high school for 30 years and was finally exhausted by the challenge and was beginning to have as hard a time identifying with the sons and daughters of students I had taught when I began teaching as they were of identifying with my values. The stress of the job was beginning to affect my health, but I could have continued to teach for several more years if necessary. Luckily, my house was mostly paid for, I’d saved some money, my pension was enough that I could survive on it until I could draw social security, and I was able to work part time as a tax preparer to earn money so that I could do more than just survive. If I had to survive on Social Security alone, I would have continued working because I want more from life than mere survival. After contributing to Social Security for 40 years, I was always counting on it as a part of my retirement. I don’t know many middle class people who aren’t counting on it so that they can do more than merely survive in their senior years.

Thank God for a mandatory retirement saving plan. I doubt I would have had the foresight to start saving for retirement when I started teaching when there never seemed quite enough money to meet the needs of two growing children. It’s hard for anyone who’s 25 to really imagine that they are ever going to retire, even though it seems just like yesterday when I look back at those times.

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Time to Put an End to Police Militarization

In August of 1965 I sat in a barracks in Fort Irwin California on high alert as our Battalion’s tanks were loaded onto flat cars ready to deploy to Watts, waiting to see if President Lyndon Johnson was going to declare a state of emergency and send federal troops to aid the police and National Guard already fighting rioters and looters.

If he had done so, we would probably have been the first army troops to reach the area since we were only hours away. As I watched the television screen late into the night I prayed we wouldn’t be sent. We had spent years learning how to destroy tanks in desert warfare and were quite good at it, but I couldn’t imagine how that would help us control rioters and looters.

It would have seemed surreal to lead a column of tanks from LA’s railroad yards to the Watts areas — high school footage of Russian tanks rolling into Hungary immediately came to mind. I hadn’t joined the army to invade an American city, and I’m sure none of the many enlisted men in my platoon many who had come from the LA area wanted to “invade” their home town, either.

Tanks are ill-suited for riot control, though the sheer shock of seeing a column of tanks rolling down the streets of Watts might have quelled the rioting temporarily. What would we do, though, if we came under sniper fire? Would we have been under orders to just button up and wait for the fire to stop, or would we have returned fire? An M60’s 105mm canon, it’s 50 caliber machine gun, and even the gunner’s 7.62 machine gun are not meant for precision fire. If you took a sniper out with a 105mm round, you would probably take out the sniper’s neighbors, too. That’s not liable to create goodwill in the neighborhood, as the Israeli’s should have learned by now.

After the shock effect of the tank columns had dissipated, snipers or rioter’s with Molotov cocktails would have felt compelled to try to take on the tanks that were occupying their neighborhood. Molotov cocktails were used as early as the Spanish Civil War to combat superior armored forces and are particularly effective in urban areas where they can be dropped on tops of tanks as they pass below. Still, I suspect the real reason Johnson did not send in federal troops was because he didn’t want Americans seeing tanks rolling down the streets of their country on the evening news. A country is in serious trouble when they have to call up the military to suppress rioting.

I got a real taste of what it was like to been seen as an occupying force by the people you’re supposed to be guarding a few months later when our Battalion was sent to Vietnam. By that time I was the heavy mortar platoon leader, not a tank platoon leader. There wasn’t actually much use for a mortar platoon in a tank Battalion where we were stationed, so my platoon was assigned to guard a village where they were building our Battalion’s permanent base. At least that’s what we told the locals when we started building our barracks just outside their village, the theory then being that if we could protect the villager’s from outsiders, i.e. Viet Cong, they would gladly join our side.

We tried to coördinate our forces with the village elders, hiring Vietnamese interpreters to work with them. We even hired villagers to help build our camp, doing everything from filling sandbags to building furniture from the shipping crates used to transport our equipment from the states. Apparently a steady income wasn’t enough to buy their loyalty, because we caught fire from the village nearly nightly, along with a few grenades and Soviet-supplied claymore mines.

I suspect if we had done our job (though it was never exactly clear what our job description really was, other than trying to stay alive until we could get back to reality) we would have talked more to the people about what was going on and patrolled the village with Vietnamese locals. That would have been tough since none of us spoke Vietnamese, or even French, for that matter, and none of us had any police training.

As it was, we huddled up at night in wagon-train fashion outside the village, and returned fire only when fired upon. That probably meant the villagers had to spend all the nights we were there sleeping flat on the ground to avoid shots coming their way. Not surprisingly, at least 90 per cent of the fire we got while I was there came from the village we were “protecting,” not from Viet Cong patrols in the jungle, the side where our tanks had been stationed after an earlier attack.

After particularly long nights the local Catholic priest and head of the village would come out and talk to us, assuring us that everyone in the village was on our side, that we shouldn’t fire in their direction. We nodded our heads, agreeing with everything they said and assured them we were doing our best not to fire into the village unless absolutely necessary. At least I think that was what we told them, for it turned out that our interpreter was a Viet Cong who was captured by an infantry unit while out patrolling the jungle in front of our position.

Though our job was supposedly to protect the villagers, in retrospect I suspect that having tanks and armored personnel carriers stationed outside the village helped the Viet Cong to gain new recruits. I even suspect if I had been Vietnamese I would have been one of those who joined the Viet Cong. What true patriot wouldn’t take up arms against an occupying force?

There’s another less obvious, but equally critical, problem with using military equipment like armored personal carriers in policing an area. They engender a sense of power, perhaps even a sense of superiority, in those who use them. Under the right/wrong conditions, high-powered military equipment conveys a sense of power that can give you the confidence you need to fight under battle conditions. Feeling far too vulnerable in my assigned jeep, when a fire-fight started I jumped in a PC and manned a 50 caliber machine gun, never doubting that there was an enemy I couldn’t kill or repel. That feeling is a lot more apt to keep you alive in combat than cowering while the enemy pours lead on your position. I doubt it is a helpful feeling in policing the people you’re hired to protect.

All my experiences tell me that militarizing the police who are supposed to protect us is a mistake. When I saw the police in Ferguson sitting on the top of armored personnel carriers wearing flack jackets, it was hard not to flashback to my own experiences in Vietnam. Who was stupid enough to believe that a military-like presence would defuse the situation instead of inflaming it? Since the State Police and the National Guard have finally led to quiet, some would argue that military force was the answer, that it just took more force than the police could muster with their limited resources.

That may be true if your only goal is to maintain the status quo, but it’s clear the state is not willing to invest those kinds of resources for very long and, in fact, are already withdrawing the National Guard after the first night of calm.

I’m not wise enough to know what fault to assign to those involved in the incident that triggered these protests, but I do know that such incidents are inevitable as long as police are seen as an occupying force by the majority of residents. Unfortunately, it’s a pattern that we are seeing repeated in large parts of American, not just Ferguson.