Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Lee H. Hamilton, Director
The Center on Congress
1315 E. Tenth Street, Suite 320
Bloomington, IN 47405
Dear Mr. Hamilton,
Our local paper, the Deming Headlight, frequently runs your editorials and so we benefit from your perspective, as someone who served in Congress for more than three decades and won the respect of both of our dominant political parties; as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission; and as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
Today’s editorial concerns the budgeting process and, in particular, the irresponsibility of sequestration as a substitute for a rational budget. It is bad enough to see the routinization of continuing resolutions, for all the reasons you describe, instead of a deliberative and productive budgeting process. It seems to me that we have depressingly low standards, if any, for the performance of our representatives in Congress. You, of course, have the perspective of one who has been there.
I am moved to respond to two points, both occurring in the ninth paragraph of your editorial calling for a budget agreement. These are nitpicks, I admit, but given the dearth of quality reporting on economic issues in the American news media – a gap filled all too readily with deliberate misinformation – I believe diligence and clarity are very important.
You wrote, “The country needs gradual deficit reduction that avoids disrupting the economy or harming the vulnerable.” While I have no quibble with that statement on the surface, it requires some context. Most people – certainly here in New Mexico’s second Congressional district – do not realize that the current administration established a record of deficit reduction even before sequestration went into effect this year. Indeed, one of the objections to sequestration was that it would increase deficit reduction to a degree that would endanger recovery from the “Great Recession.” Indeed, most readers do not grasp the difference between short- and long-term deficit analysis, which leads to contradictory theses and much confusion.
In the same paragraph, you write, “It [the country] needs reforms to Social Security and Medicare that put them on a solid footing for decades to come.” This sentence, unfortunately, contributes to a misunderstanding about (1) Social Security’s relationship to the budget and (2) its current fiscal health. As I am sure you are aware, misinformation abounds about Social Security (for the moment, I leave Medicare aside), and one of the popular myths (happily repeated by those who would like to see it privatized) is that it is already bankrupt, or on the cusp. It is also widely believed that Social Security contributes to the deficit, because it is so often mentioned in the context of deficit reduction. It needs to be made clear, and repeated more often than the misstatements, that Social Security does not contribute a single dime to the deficit because it is financed separately and cannot – as per the Social Security Act – spend beyond its own revenue stream. It cannot draw from the federal budget, and is therefore irrelevant.
What is also not clear to most is that Social Security is, if we leave it alone, capable of fulfilling its promised benefits for another two decades; and at that point, projections say, it would be able to pay reduced benefits. There is a long-term problem here, but not an eminent crisis.
While I am grateful to you for promoting increased revenue as a desirable solution – via increased contributions by higher-income citizens – I deeply regret that you also include the C.P.I. boondoggle which dresses up benefit cuts in technical language. Those who esteem compromise must understand that the “chained C.P.I.” solution is an austerity policy offering cuts without revenue. It is no compromise, it is a giveaway – by the poor, to the rich.
It is my privilege to write for this same local paper, and more often than not it is all I can do to debunk the myths about Social Security, which serve to obscure the efforts of those whose political purpose is quite simple: to dismantle Social Security as a public institution and appropriate that revenue for the private sector. Let us not play into their hands and call it compromise, for that is capitulation.
You have indulged me thus far, and I will close wishing you wonderful days in this coming new year.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Lately, I've had some time to play in the kitchen. This means I've been chopping and peeling a lot, and that means making stock.
One of my most cherished books is Tassajara Cooking. Edward Espe Brown, the Soto Zen priest who was head cook and a manager of the Tassajara Zen Center , wrote it.
It is, I believe, a first-edition copy of the book, which was a follow-up to his famous Tassajara Bread Book. The edition I have is a paperback, dated 1973, given to me in 1998 by Rebecca when I took ten precepts at Providence Zen Center.
It's a lovely thick paperback book that shows signs not only of age, but of being used in kitchens.
The book has a distinctly home-made feel about it, even including some of Brown's handwriting. It has a lovely introduction by a young Baker roshi, before all the trouble; a prose poem about cooking, and a beautiful section about caring for kitchen implements entitled "Good Friends." There is a section on caring for knives, and a guide to good chopping; some words about different cooking methods. There are no recipes, in the form we recognize from typical cookbooks. There are very brief sections about various vegetables, fruits, other ingredients, soups, sauces, and so on. It makes some suggestions but sends the reader on their way to experiment, pay attention, and learn from direct experience. Like zen practice. In fact, this is better than a whole lot of beautiful zen books. There aren't even photographs, except for one lovely hippie picture of the author and his family at Green Gulch farm. There are hand-wrought illustrations throughout.
And since I've been making vegetable stock lately, here is a taste of this book, from its advice on making stock.
vegetable scraps: almost anything -- ends, tips, tops, trimmings, roots, skins, parsley stems, outside cabbage leaves, limp vegetables. Go easy on the green pepper centers. Some people find a large amount of onion skins or carrot tops makes too strong a flavor.
water to cover
Place all the vegetable scraps, which may be chopped up first, in a saucepan or stockpot and cover with water. It's important that this brew simmer rather than boil. Simmering means a few wee bubbles are popping gently to the surface -- a quit, subdued leaching process, while bouiling means that the entire surface is in turmoil, bubbling and frothing. Vegetables do not endure boiling very well, soon yielding their more rank flavors and aromas, so bring the stock to a simmer and then turn the heat down low enough to keep it there, or you will have a harsh-flavored stock.
Let the stock simmer an hour or more, and then strain out the vegetables, squeezing or mashing out the last juices. Use in place of water for soups, or for cooking vegetables, grains or beans. If not using immediately, leave uncovered until cool, then cover and refrigerate.
To make the most of your vegetable trimmings, make this stock every day. Start it while you are preparing the meal, adding all the trimmings as you go. Use a little water from the stock to rinse out each pot. Simmer through the meal and then strain it afterwards. This kind of stock will keep indefinitely if it is simmered (with new additions) at least once a week. To give it a lift add a few onion, garlic or ginger slices.
The whole book is like that. This is the kind of book I would give to anybody wanting to try cooking for themselves. It is written in just the right kind of voice, with just the right amount of information, without leaving any crutches.
Monday, December 02, 2013
Last night, and just in time for "Cyber Monday," Amazon CEO Jess Bezos surprised a CBS interviewer by revealing a prototype robot -- an "octocopter" -- that Bezos says he hopes will be able to make deliveries to Amazon customers within a few years. Today, the media is full of talk about small flying robots delivering products to consumers within a half hour of their online purchase -- a great story with which to open the holiday shopping season!
And, as James Ball argues in The Guardian, it just might be a publicity stunt. In particular, Ball writes:
Bezos' neat trick has knocked several real stories about Amazon out of the way. Last week's Panorama investigation into Amazon's working and hiring practices, suggesting that the site's employees had an increased risk of mental illness, is the latest in a long line of pieces about the company's working conditions – zero-hour contracts, short breaks, and employees' every move tracked by internal systems. Amazon's drone debacle also moved discussion of its tax bill – another long-running controversy, sparked by the Guardian's revelation last year that the company had UK sales of £7bn but paid no UK corporation tax – to the margins. The technology giants – Amazon, Google, Microsoft et al – have have huge direct reach to audiences and customers, the money to hire swarms of PR and communications staff, and a technology press overwhelmingly happy to incredulously print almost every word, rather than to engage in the much harder task of actually holding them to account.
Whether it's a bunch of hooey or a sincere plan (albeit not yet practical), I thought it was worth a letter. As you'll see, it's really about people, not robots.
Mr. Jeffrey P. Bezos
410 Terry Avenue
North Seattle, WA 98109
Dear Mr. Bezos,
Last night, in a television interview for the program 60 Minutes, you revealed a research and development project at Amazon. I refer, of course, to your “Prime Air” initiative, in which small, unmanned vehicles (called “octocopters”) would deliver merchandise to consumers within minutes of placing an order.
As your customer, let me say thanks for your interest in making our shopping experience unique, and completing orders quickly using new technology; and having said that, please allow me to share my concern about this initiative and suggest an area of investment that would make me feel much better about shopping on Amazon -- far more than flying robots with cameras showing up at my house.
While “Prime Air” is certainly novel, how necessary is this technology? While Amazon offers a staggering array of goods for sale, I cannot imagine what a consumer would need from Amazon so urgently as to justify aerial delivery within minutes. It’s not as though we will be ordering blood for transfusions. Are you considering a move into pizza delivery? Aren’t “Amazon Prime” and Amazon’s music download service fast enough for non-perishable merchandise? My mailman does a splendid job finding my house and I have no wish to take work away from him, as exciting as it might be for a novel to get dropped on my doorstep by a drone.
The truth is, I have long had concerns about Amazon’s business model, particularly with respect to labor. It concerns me greatly that Amazon’s warehouse workers are not represented by a union, that many if not all are employed indirectly through a staffing agency, and are now facing further automation (to whatever degree “Prime Air” delivery becomes a reality) and reduced employment. You would be reducing your own labor costs at the expense of regional economy and effective demand for the economy as a whole.
Let me proceed to an area of investment that seems, to me, far more necessary and beneficial to Amazon. Instead of sending robots to my house, I would like to see some investment in your human staff. Periodically, I read reports about conditions in Amazon’s “fulfillment centers,” which in straightforward English we call warehouses. Most of us do not see these warehouses, but we know that human beings work very hard in these places, in shifts longer than eight hours, and there are several worthy investments in this area that Amazon might consider.
- Expedited warehouse security procedures. There are reports that security checkpoints take as long as half an hour or more, which comes at the end of an employee’s shift (which are sometimes as long as 12 hours), and it is not compensated time. Requiring an employee to remain on site for an extra half hour without pay constitutes wage theft. The procedures should either be reorganized so that employees can clear the checkpoint quickly, or the employees should be released from their shifts early to accommodate the process while they are still on the clock.
- Lunch facilities for warehouse workers. Although an eating area may be provided, the distance employees must travel on foot to reach the facilities sometimes consumes half their allotted break time, leaving them insufficient time to eat, much less rest during a long shift. It would be humane, and beneficial to morale, to alleviate this problem. If the warehouses cannot be redesigned to bring break areas closer to employees, what about golf carts or shuttles? You win bonus points if the shuttles run on batteries charged from solar power, or a non-petroleum fuel.
- Climate control in all warehouses. I am sure you are well aware of what went on at your facility in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania. In that case, Amazon invested $52 million in order to provide appropriate air conditioning. That is a lot of money but it was well spent – in terms of the welfare of your employees as well as your reputation among your customers. Has Amazon conducted a review of climatic conditions at its other facilities, and made improvements as appropriate?
There are more suggestions I could make, but I think this gives you the gist. Without cynicism, I would also recommend that you publicize these investments so that your customers – and other large companies -- see Amazon making investments in the welfare of its employees. You might even consider deepening your investment in personnel by increasing direct employment at appropriate living wages, and relaxing your objection to union representation. I understand that rapid delivery is part of your brand, and there may be concerns about compromising that service, but I truly believe your keys to maintaining that signature service is not just technology, but also human morale.
Your company has made a point of not commenting on these matters for the press, and I don’t expect a response to this letter either (although one would be welcome), but I hope it is read – if not by you, then by someone with the authority to consider these concerns and bring them up in an appropriate venue. Amazon has ample opportunity to use its considerable capital to set a whole new standard of how large companies operate. I am optimistic that Amazon can lead the way, if it wishes.
Most sincerely, and with best wishes for your holiday season,
Friday, November 29, 2013
The Burning House has been quiet, again. Your correspondent has been writing in other venues and rehearsing an important acting project (while getting some audition material ready as well), applying for jobs, and more.
It may remain quiet for a little while, but we wanted to share with you this conversation between journalist Bill Moyers and the scholar Henry Giroux, as we found it compelling enough to listen to it multiple times. It concerns democracy, capitalism, and what is required for true human freedom.
We hope you enjoy it, as we have. Giroux is an energetic and doggedly optimistic man, who speaks of the importance of imagination to activism, legislation, and citizenship. Please watch.
And then: cure the zombies.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Here is my monthly "Desert Sage" column for the Deming Headlight. It appears in the November 14 edition and was posted to the website on the evening of the 13th.
* * *
"They just don't want to work."
That is the enduring reactionary myth about the unemployed, the argument for slashing assistance to those in poverty: these people are leeches who don't want to work. So we punish them, and their children along with them. We see no need to address systemic problems.
At a time of maximum prosperity for major corporations and investors, job growth is slow, poverty has expanded, and it is the working people and small businesses that are squeezed to pay for the ongoing crisis of our economic system.
During a recent visit to Deming, Congressman Steve Pearce proclaimed himself bewildered that record-setting unemployment persists in Luna County. After all, there are job listings. As quoted in this newspaper, Mr. Pearce said, "The hospital says they have 33 jobs waiting to be filled and the schools have 20 positions open. Yet, no one is filling those jobs."
If you visit Mimbres Hospital's website or the New Mexico Workforce Connections site, you will indeed find a number of jobs listed. Like ripe fruit, they hang there waiting to be taken. For instance, there are numerous openings for registered nurses. They are also in need of medical lab technicians, physical therapists, and a phlebotomist. Step right up, Luna County! On the hospital's website, you can click on positions of interest to you and add them to your "job cart." It's just like browsing for books on Amazon.
These are, indeed, good jobs. Yet they require certain qualifications and prerequisites that are not in high supply within our community. I am an able-bodied person willing to work; I have a high level of education and lots of work experience; and yet I would not qualify for a single one of these jobs. Many of these jobs would have to be filled from outside the community.
It is not quite as simple as walking in and saying, "Here I am!"
Now let's check out these school district jobs. Earlier this week, the Deming Public Schools website advertised not 20, but 10 positions. Of these 10, one was a custodial position and nine were for teachers. Teaching jobs, again, require certain qualifications and prerequisites. If qualified for hire, you may have to enroll in graduate teacher training, adding graduate school to your full-time job.
Lots of people do this, and for those with a passion for education it can be a wonderful experience. Even so, it means a lot of work and stress even for people with the skills and education necessary to succeed. Often, these jobs have to be filled from outside the community. (This is, in fact, how your humble correspondent first came to Deming.)
As for that one custodial job: it is part-time, which means no benefits.
Almost without exception, the jobs mentioned by the congressman require a level of education or specialized training unavailable to most people in poverty. It is therefore just a bit disingenuous for him to point to these jobs and profess surprise at our high unemployment rate.
Unemployment is not solved by pointing to job listings and ignoring the realities of poverty, such as a lack of access to education and training; hunger; unsafe housing or homelessness; illness and lack of adequate medical care. Economic growth rewards investors but does not necessarily lead to job growth, as we have seen in this so-called recovery.
These factors can be addressed, but they require a commitment to social investment and public programs, the very things that Congressman Pearce usually opposes. But you know how it is with some of these politicians.
They just don't want to work.
[Image: I took this photograph on Spruce Street in Deming.]
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
The Deming Headlight has been around since the 19th century, is currently owned by the MediaNews Group, and is the only newspaper in town. The rest of the letter is self-explanatory, I think, and I've included some hyperlinks.
* * *
Sylvia Ulloa, Managing Editor
Las Cruces Sun News
256 West Las Cruces Avenue
Las Cruces, NM 88004
Dear Ms. Ulloa,
Congratulations on your new position as managing editor of the Sun News. It is my understanding that you will also be responsible for our Deming paper, the Headlight, and it is about our local paper that I am writing to you today.
The Headlight has no competition, and we depend on our single paper (or its website, though I still prefer newsprint) for our local news. Bill Armendariz, the editor, is well known and loved in our community as a hard-working and sincere man. It seems to me that Billy is doing the best possible job with limited resources.
When I arrived in Deming in 2008, there were a couple of local reporters employed by the paper, writing about local events. One died, one took another job, and since then there are a couple of bylines that turn up occasionally. I don’t know if they are full-time or stringing or what. But what I see very frequently is “For the Headlight.” The school district writes stories about itself, the state police writes stories about itself, and I’ve done it myself in order to boost performing arts events. I have seen editions of the paper where most of the articles have been “for the Headlight.” I have seen pages that consisted entirely of advertising, paid and unpaid.
There is no investigative reporting being done locally, and very little reporting on the activities of local government, government agencies operating in Deming, and matters of interest to our community such as economic matters.
As you know, our city made international news last week with a disturbing story about police activity and an expensive lawsuit. The Headlight has depended on the Las Cruces Sun News for what little coverage it has offered to Deming readers. A remarkable aspect of this story has been the lack of any official response – and this lack of response is, in part, attributable to a lack of local journalism. Last night, I attended a meeting of the Deming City Council – the first since these allegations were revealed, and the first opportunity for the public to comment or ask questions of the city pertaining to this matter. There was not a single reporter present from any media organization. Today’s story, front page and above the fold, was about a local CPA winning an award.
I should disclose that I am a volunteer columnist for the Headlight. Once a month, I submit a 600 word piece for Billy to run on the editorial page. There are a few of us who do this, because we very much want to see local writing, and some debate on local issues. I’ve also sent in photographs, and I’ve been tempted to write up city council meetings and other events in order to help the Headlight do more reporting on local stories. It feels a little strange, however, to consider volunteering on behalf of a private, for-profit corporation – indeed, one of the largest newspaper corporations in the country.
Luna County suffers record-setting unemployment, intensive poverty, and social problems related both to poverty and our proximity to the border. We need editorial voices addressing these subjects, which is why some of us write as volunteers. Otherwise, Billy is left to populate the editorial page with content from outside of the community. Variety is good, but there is not a sufficient balance of locally-oriented editorial writing or critical journalism. Meanwhile, again, the state police and the school district are covering themselves. I’m sure you see the problem.
Newspapers are a business. It’s been that way since the United States were still British colonies. I accept the presence of paid advertising. And I know that this business is getting tougher and tougher, and papers are being squeezed with budget reductions and fewer personnel. Yet the Headlight seems to be neglected, unable to carry on the essential social function of an effective local newspaper. If more resources cannot be distributed to the Headlight, then at the very least we need one or two Las Cruces reporters on a Deming beat. Yet I cannot help feeling that more should be done for this distinguished, old, and local newspaper.
If you wish to question me further about this or respond in any way, I can be conveniently reached via...
Monday, November 11, 2013
It is Armistice Day. (I much prefer that to Veterans Day, with no offense intended to the men and women who have offered their very lives for a vow of service.) You are not going to see this before midnight, however, because Blogger seems to be having some trouble publishing the post.
I have neglected this blog for a while. A lot is going on, some of which I'll write about, and some of which leaves little to write, being the day-in and day-out of parenting and making ends meet and trying to open doors, or whatever metaphor of making opportunities you prefer to insert here.
Anyway, in the last few minutes of Armistice Day, I am popping in to tell you about a book. If you only read one non-fiction book this year, I think you should consider making this the one.
A Freedom Budget For All Americans is an outstanding book, surely among the best in history and policy in 2013. It tells several complicated stories in a cohesive and highly readable narrative, making a large contribution to history and offering us tangible ideas for policy in our time.
One of these stories is the historic march on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the social movement preceding and following that event. It documents the involvement of socialists and communists in the movement, with particular attention on the work of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
The organizational work is one story, but there is also a political story, about a moment where differing theories came together brilliantly and were soon dispersed again, in large part because of the Vietnam war's escalation and disagreement about how to proceed with respect to President Johnson, the Democratic party, and to the capitalist system itself. Some, including Dr. King, saw economic justice as the natural culmination of the civil rights struggle -- that racial equality meant little in the context of economic injustice, unemployment, and poverty. This contribution to a coherent history of the U.S. left is invaluable.
There is also the story of a much-forgotten document produced by these civil rights leaders, a shadow budget, a "freedom budget for all Americans" reflecting the budgeting and political economy of a good society, an attempt at a comprehensive policy approach to realizing the dream. This is a story that ends sadly, as the politics of the Vietnam war plays a large role in deflating the movement behind the freedom budget, until it languishes as a footnote and is largely forgotten.
And, finally, one more story: the story of how a new "freedom budget" might be designed for consideration, debate, and implementation in our time.
To achieve all of that in such a slender volume, in a book so enjoyable to read, is quite remarkable. This is one to pass around, friends.