Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Magical Thinking

"Governor Walker has demonstrated over the past year what sound fiscal policies can do to turn an economy around, and I believe that in November voters across the country will demonstrate that they want the same in Washington, D.C. ... Tonight voters said ‘no’ to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and ‘yes’ to fiscal responsibility and a new direction," Gov. Romney said last night after the Wisconsin recall election in which the incumbent won. "I look forward to working with Governor Walker to help build a better, brighter future for all Americans."

   Last night was a victory for big money, the conservative right in America and those who rely on the gullibility of low information voters who are the central actors in the politics of the States today. The incumbent Gov. Walker won 53% to the democratic contender’s 46% while four of the five GOP senators won their recall elections and the fifth race was close enough to have a recount giving the lie to a reported close race so this counts as a serious win for the Republicans and their Wall Street supporters in a traditionally democratic and union state. This doesn’t auger well for President Obama in the November presidential elections with this result in the swing state of Wisconsin that he handily won in the last election. The recall election campaign was the swan song for organized labor and will have broad social implications for the future of the working class including some unexpected ones as I will discuss in this post.  The major effect will be a legitimization of the Republican legislatures’ rollback of women’s rights, elimination of collective bargaining for public workers and the privatization of state assets which will be a reward for the financial efforts of the Koch brothers. Walker also got 47% of women’s votes in spite of his repeal of the 2009 equal pay for women’s act, elimination of sex education in Wisconsin schools and banning of abortion coverage in insurance policies so this is a good example of the low information voter syndrome that seems to be in effect everywhere in American politics.  Another bill, SB 507, currently in the pipeline which was sponsored by Republican Senator Grothman on February 14, 2012 makes non martial parents of children guilty of a felony conviction for child abuse as a contributing factor solely on the grounds that they are single parents or LGBT parents so thirty percent of Wisconsin parents would be liable to jail time of up to one year based on this one act.

The people of the state of Wisconsin, represented in senate and assembly, do enact as follows:
Section1. 48.982(2)(g)2.of the statutes is amended to read:

48.982 (2) (g) 2. Promote statewide educational and public awareness campaigns and materials for the purpose of developing public awareness of the problems of child abuse and neglect. In promoting those campaigns and materials, the board shall emphasize nonmarital parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect.

   This fits in neatly with the prison privatization bill that Walker introduced in the Wisconsin legislature in 1999 but failed to pass during the democratically controlled assembly. Now that he is still in charge ,he will be able to fill future private prisons with all the inmates that he wants.
 A similar scenario played out in the “common sense revolution” of the Ontario conservative victory of Mike Harris in the late nineties and the effects are still being felt today.

  The video above is a 35 minute overview of the Walkerton tragedy that took place in the rural community of Walkerton, Ontario starting on May 15, 2000 in which out of a total population of approximately 5000, over 2300 residents became sick and seven died from E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria contaminated drinking water. The town well (#5) was drilled in fractured bedrock and was shallow which made its water susceptible to surface contamination and this occurred after heavy rains beginning on May 8, 2000 washed fecal material containing E. coli and Campylobacter jejuna from an adjacent dairy farm. Cattle manure is a well known source of these contaminants. Although the proximal cause was criminal diligence including  false lab result entries on documentation, mislabelling of water samples for analysis and lack of appropriate action  after receiving adverse results on the part of the town public works employees, Ministry of the Environment budget cuts during  a prior recession, privatization of water analysis laboratories  without proper regulatory reporting regimes for adverse results and the deregulatory enthusiasm  of the Mike Harris, conservative government were contributing factors.  An inquiry lasting two years by the Honourable Dennis O’Connor was published and it can be read here.

 This is a perfect example of neo-liberals in their search for ideological perfection who are oblivious to larger societal risks especially when it doesn’t affect the economic elites who stand to benefit from financial rewards associated with privatization of public goods.  Laureen Snider, a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario wrote a paper entitled “Captured by Neo-Liberalism: Regulation and Risk in Walkerton, Ontario” with the following abstract:
This paper examines E coli contamination of the public water supply in Walkerton, Ontario, which caused 2300 illnesses and seven deaths in 2000. This disaster was made possible, if not inevitable, by the downsizing and deregulation agenda undertaken by the Province of Ontario. Having described the events at Walkerton and how the risk management program of the Ontario government and the Ministry of the Environment failed, the paper asks why it failed, highlighting the decline of the power and inclination of nation-states to oversee and control the private sector. The case study shows how, in a quest to cut costs, downsize government and eliminate regulation, dramatic new risks to human health and safety were generated.

  After a total cost of about $150 million for the entire post crisis clean up and compensation to victims, one would think that the neo liberals would have learned their lesson but conservatives have short memories when it comes to implementing their pet theories so it came as no surprise when I read on June 2, 2012 that in the scientific journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, a paper  was recently published showing a strong correlation between the titer of drinking water viruses and human illness in a variety of locations in the State of Wisconsin. Last year and wasting no time since their installation the new Republican controlled legislature in the state with their appetite for universal deregulation rescinded a previous act requiring the treatment of all municipal drinking water and this year over sixty Wisconsin municipalities have stopped water treatment in order to save money and balance their budgets which were partly placed into deficit positions by cuts in state transfer payments to the local authorities. Eight democratic legislators have asked the federal EPA to act but the body has decided to make compliance with safe water statues voluntary. The EPA is a favorite target for Republican budget cuts and there is a bill on the floor of the house (H.R. 2018) to make water quality regimes purely a state function and restrict the right of the federal EPA to intervene even in extreme circumstances. The really big worry is the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria which was implicated in the Walkerton event and has cow manure as its primary source. Don’t forget all the dairy farms in Wisconsin. They call themselves cheese heads for a reason. I did a little research and sure enough on September 14, 2011 there was an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in Greene County, Wisconsin where eight people became sick and one died from hemolytic uremic syndrome which is an infrequent but fatal complication of this bacterial infection. 

  The source of the bacterial outbreak was not stated and the story soon forgotten but it’s only a matter of time before a Walkerton level event occurs in the state. The moral of the story is that neo liberals are limited in their cognitive functions and legislative actions to implementing the catechism of revealed truths – all deregulation is good and the market is the final arbiter of the public good, ever smaller government and the shift from public to private sourcing for common needs, endless tax cuts -without considering the real world consequences of provision realignment. Some of these are unexpected. The British government in the second half of the nineteenth century implemented a series of public health acts to improve the health and welfare of its poorest citizens because they discovered during the Crimean War that the laissez-faire capitalism of the industrial revolution debilitated the male working class of England to the point where the military recruiting officers couldn’t find enough fit males among the people to serve in the army and maintain the force at the level required by the conflict. The American conservatives want a strong and robust military but only a quarter of the potential recruits from the inner cities met the minimum requirements for physical fitness and half of those failed the minimum educational requirements so they had a problem meeting their recruitment goals in spite of the recession which reduced employment opportunities in the civilian sector. Magical thinking requires a cognitive dissonance between cause and effect as well as the idea that a symbol has an effect on the real world and that by invoking the name of the symbol we can bypass known realities and ignore expected consequences.
Republicans in election mode   (Kris Kuksi)

  Interestingly enough when it comes to election campaigns, the right certainly doesn’t rely on Magical Thinking. While the left considers elections to be politics, the right understands the campaigns to be war and the left is puzzled when it loses after bringing a knife to a gun fight. A good example is the use of voter suppression techniques by the conservatives. In the Canadian federal election of 2011, conservative party workers used “robocalls”, automated voice mail,  to misdirect probable liberal supporting voters which had been identified during their canvassing, to incorrect locations for voting booths in Guelph, Ontario in order to suppress illegally the opposition vote and this is a violation of the Elections Act. The same story in Wisconsin yesterday as anonymous “robocalls” from republican friends of the incumbent were sent to self identified anti Walker voters explaining falsely that if they signed the recall petition then their vote had already been recorded so they didn’t have to vote. The Walker campaign committee has so far denied any complicity or awareness of the suppression technique but Prime Minister Harper also denied any involvement by the Conservative party election apparatus in the event until it was proven later through phone records that the phone calls originated with one of his party`s workers.

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Monday, 4 June 2012

Club Sandwich Generation

Convocation at UBC on May 24, 2012

   I didn’t post last month because of family issues which all seemed to come up at the same time. Strangely, the number of hits on my blog reached an all time high which makes me wonder about the inverse relationship between the amount of blogging that I do and the degree of interest in the blog. I try to write posts that have “legs” and stand the test of time rather than immediate reaction to transient events in the news.  Some of the largest hit rates came on my rather banal and short postings while my analytic posts which I consider my best work and on which I laboured for a significant amount of time don’t seem to attract viewers to the same extent. Anyway, at the beginning of last month my 93 year old mother had a stroke and was admitted to hospital where she is residing until they find a long term care facility for her and my oldest daughter graduated at the end of the month with a Master’s degree in Archeology from the University of British Columbia so I spent eight days in Vancouver with her and my two other daughters exploring the area and being present at her convocation on the UBC campus. My bed ridden mother seems to have lost her short term memory and needs 24/7 care while none of my four adult children has had a job that pays enough on which to live so I’m officially part of the sandwich generation or more specifically the “club sandwich” generation coined by Carol Abaya.

  Carol Abaya is a former journalist who writes a syndicated column for newspapers entitled “The Sandwich Generation.” She got involved in this area when her two aging parents became infirm and needed extensive personal care. The “club sandwich” generation are older baby boomers, boomers being those born between 1946 and 1965, who have infirm parents and adult dependent children. With the ongoing effects of the recession on the employment of younger people and the medical advances which have kept seniors alive for longer periods to the extent that the fastest growing demographic in North America is octogenarians, my generation - the baby boomers – never prepared for the possibility of supporting both our parents and our children at this stage in our lives which was suppose to be freedom fifty five and playing golf in warmer climes. At this point in our parent`s generation, the grandparents stayed at a condo near a golf course in Florida while the parents lived in the large suburban home in which they raised their children and the children had full time jobs, a car, and an apartment in the more trendy part of downtown.
My eldest daughter (by 11 minutes)

  I think that part of the cause is longer education for my generation or in the case of my Ex going back to post secondary school for a second degree. Because of this we had children later in life and so they were still in the process of getting established not to mention that they also had more education so the generational timing is out of sync with the traditional life stages and my parent’s generation is at a stage in life where they would be expected to require more care but we were still focussed on our children’s situation. Most of us were running so hard with the day to day issues taking precedence over long term considerations and especially when you had four children like me that we didn’t have time to reflect on future issues until they were upon us. In this situation the period of saving for retirement doesn`t exist although I was lucky enough to have a defined benefit pension plan which most people at present don`t have at their places of employment.
My three daughters on the UBC campus

  Fortunately in Canada, we have a single payer universal healthcare system so the ongoing health costs are borne by the state but it doesn`t pay for long term care if the patient has an income above a fairly low level so it’s a constant drain on family resources and especially if your adult children live at home because the salary levels at most of the jobs available to them regardless of their educational qualifications don`t allow them to live independently. They also have a high degree on entitlement due to the standard of living that they have been use to their whole lives such as the live-in board certified nanny from Scotland when they were young or the best schools and summer camps. We tried to give them a quality of life superior to our youth but one of the consequences is a level of entitlement and a disregard of the effects of debt. They all max out their credit cards and pay the minimum installment even though I explain that they are paying an extra twenty percent for the privilege of immediate gratification. My parents lived through the depression and World War two so they always saved for a rainy day and wouldn’t buy items unless they could pay cash although I found their delayed gratification a bit much at times. My generation saved less but tried to provide a balance and I think that the only area in which I spent to excess was on my children. My children`s generation has accept debt as normal and expected so they don`t ever plan to have savings or even a buffer of cash in the bank for the unexpected event. In the long run, the current family budget is unsustainable but I don`t see any solution unless the current economic climate changes and people are paid more for their efforts. The 2008 recession and the ongoing reduction in real wages with deficit financing by households and individuals has really changed the whole game. If government austerity comes into force next year a lot of families will go down the tube since the financial instruments that most people use are set up like a house of cards with cascading penalties and consequences if even one area doesn’t mesh or you miss a payment. In the States, household financial collapse will become more frequent as the government redistributive programs such as food stamps and Medicare go on the block and this will happen regardless of who wins the election. Certainly the general electorate in America isn’t aware of the coming economic tsunami since the leading proxy for anticipated household wellbeing, the average cost of a wedding, is still twenty six thousand dollars which is the same as the median annual individual income last year. If folks are willing to spend a year`s salary on one day`s festivities then they aren`t facing reality.
Post convocation party at the Nuba restaurant

  The chart below is from an article published in Statcan in 2002. Since this paper was presented, the situation has become much worse and especially with the current employment situation for young adults since the economic downturn which is reflected more in the underemployment with its concomitant lower wages and reduced hours rather than the unemployment rate which is still high for this age group.

  I hope that you don’t take this as a rant on the unfairness of life but I’m not alone as you can see from the infograph below.

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