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by brasch

We Gather Together to Ask…

5:54 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Rosemary and Walter Brasch

Segued into a 10-second afterthought, smothered by 60-second Christmas commercials, is the media acknowledgement of Thanksgiving, which nudges us into a realization of all we are thankful for.

But the usual litany, even with the omnipresent pictures of the less fortunate being fed by the more fortunate, doesn’t list well this year. Our thanks seem to be at best half-hearted or at least insensitive and shallow.

All of us might be thankful for peace if America still hadn’t been involved in two recent wars. The Iraq war lasted almost nine years; the other, in Afghanistan, has lasted more than 12 years and is the nation’s longest war. And now it appears that we will be in Afghanistan for several more years.

When we first went there in 2001, it was to capture Osama bin Laden. We can be thankful that has been done. But why are we still there? And why should Americans still be getting wounded and killed? There were 4,486 killed and 32,000 wounded in Iraq, an unnecessary war that was launched with bravado and no long-range plans.  In Afghanistan, there have been 2,292 killed, almost 18,000 wounded.

American children who are 12 years old years and under have never been able to be thankful for peace! We used to say some Irish children never knew peace—now it’s us.

We know there are thousands of veterans who have committed suicide or are trying to overcome the aftermath of traumatic head injuries, loss of limbs, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The care has been so abysmal that combat veterans, who were given excellent care by combat medics in the field, are dying in VA hospitals while waiting for simple surgeries or treatment for more serious health issues.

We remember to say thanks for their service, and attempt to salve our collective conscience with charitable funds, flowery words, and flying flags. But it must be hard for those who served to be truly thankful to a nation that holds parades on Main Street without acknowledging that many of those honored sleep on that same street every night, with no affordable decent housing available to them.  And they hope for something warmer than an American flag to wrap themselves in. More than one-fourth of all adults who are homeless are veterans. Is our one line of thanks really enough?

In addition to our country’s homeless vets, whole families are also homeless—many direct victims of corrupt banks and semi-corrupt politicians, who never thought twice before foreclosing on the homes those families cherished, leaving them on the street, while not one executive had to give up his or her opulent office for a prison cell, despite the crimes they committed against the people.

For those foreclosed upon who managed to find a new way of life—to find shelter, to find work—their reward is a worthless credit rating despite having excellent credit before companies downsized and outsourced to “maximize their profits,” and banks foreclosed upon them. Unlike major financial institutions and corporations that squandered funds and went into bankruptcy and then were bailed out by the Congress, families can’t even get small loans to pay security deposits on their downsized apartments. Many families are living in one room in cheap motels—so many that schools have redirected bus routes for stops for the many school children living like this.  Those families would surely be thankful for a secure home. Who should we direct all our thanks to?

Many of the executives who sit on bank boards are heads of companies—the same companies that have chosen not to recycle their profits by expansion. That, of course, would provide new jobs, something so many Americans would be truly thankful for. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs are grateful as we gather around our holiday tables and give thanks for the bounty before us. Unless, of course, we’re the working poor. For them, the horn of plenty may be empty this close to the end of the month—and every month. Many, including those working minimum wage jobs, have to rely upon food stamps to help provide food; Congress, willing to spend fortunes on junkets, now plans to cut foodstamps.

There are those who earn upper-class incomes who decry the “welfare” recipients who they believe are predators of tax funds. There are some who are welfare cheats, but most just want a job and enough income to feed and clothe their families and have some left over for other basic necessities. If the politicians would hire more caseworkers, there would be better care for the nation’s underclass—and far fewer people scamming the system because there would be better oversight.

Many charitable organizations struggle mightily to get enough funds to feed more and more of our nation’s hungry as more and more workers are forced to accept part-time jobs at minimum wage. Full-time jobs could provide benefits, but Congress and our state legislatures, always willing to raise their own salaries, won’t raise the minimum wage to at least a few cents above poverty levels. The reason? The working poor have no lobbyists.

And yet both houses of Congress have dozens of committees, including ethics committees, that seem to be more of a way to showboat their politics than to meet the needs of the country. Maybe we need one more committee, this one made up of people who aren’t millionaires and aren’t able to parlay lobbyist money into November victories. This committee, made up of the working poor, will advise all of us of what the problems are, and what the solutions can be.

If on this Thanksgiving Day our thanks seem hollow, perhaps it’s the hollow victory of our veterans surviving combat only to be subjected to problems at home, or the hollow sound of an empty house that has been foreclosed upon, or the hollow growling of a worker’s empty stomach, or maybe the hollow pain of those who should seek medical assistance but can’t because there are some among us who want to destroy federal law, which allows those who are less fortunate to have adequate medical attention.

Most Americans want to help others; there are some politicians who mouth the words but say nothing.

May we all remember that when the basic needs are filled for all Americans, only then can we be truly thankful for the day.

[Rosemary R. Brasch is retired, after a career as a secretary for state and federal agencies, as a labor studies instructor at UMass and Penn State/Hazleton, and as a family services specialist for the Red Cross disaster Services. She and her husband, Walter, the author of 18 books, were editors of Oasis, a Red Cross-sponsored newsletter for families of combat troops.) Read the rest of this entry →

by brasch

Fewer Words; Less Filling

9:31 am in Uncategorized by brasch

                        

                                                              by WALTER  BRASCH 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

by brasch

Labor Pains: A Fable for Our Times

7:02 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

                                                           by Walter Brasch

 Once, many years ago, in a land far away between two oceans, with fruited plains, amber waves of grain, and potholes on its highways, there lived a young man named Sam.

Now, Sam was a bright young man who wanted to work and save money so he could go to school and become an electrician. But the only job open in his small community was at the gas station. So, for two years, Sam pumped gas, washed windshields, checked dipsticks and tire pressure, smiled and chatted with all the customers, gave them free drinking glasses when they ordered a fill-up, and was soon known as the best service station attendant in town.

But then the Grand Caliphs of Oil said that Megamania Oil Empire, of which they all had partial ownership, caused them to raise the price of gas.

“We’re paying 39 cents a gallon now,” they cried, “how can you justify tripling our costs?” they demanded.

“That’s business,” said the Chief Grand Caliph flippantly. But, to calm the customer fury, he had a plan. “We will allow you the privilege of pumping your own gas, washing your own windows, checking your car’s dipsticks and tire pressure, and chatting amiably with yourselves,” said the Caliph. “If you do that, we will hold the price to only a buck or two a gallon.”

And the people were happy. All except Sam, of course, who was unemployed.

But, times were good, and Sam went to the local supermarket, which was advertising for a minimum wage checkout clerk. For three years, he worked hard, scanning all groceries and chatting amiably with the customers. And then one day his manager called him into the office.

“Sam,” said the boss, “we’re very pleased with your work. You’re fired.” From corporate headquarters had come a decision by the chain’s chief bean counter that there weren’t enough beans for their executives to go to Europe to search for more beans.

“But,” asked Sam, “Who will scan the groceries?”

“The customers will,” said the boss. “We’ll even have a no-hassle machine that will take their money and maybe even give change.”

“But won’t they object to buying the groceries, scanning them, bagging them, and shoving their money into a faceless machine?”

“Not if we tell them that by doing all the work, the cost will be less,” said the manager.

“But it won’t,” said Sam.

The manager thought a moment, and then brightly pointed out, “We’ll just say that the cost of groceries won’t go up significantly if labor costs were less. Besides, we even programmed Canmella the Circuit-enhanced Clerk to tell customers to have a nice day.”

Now, others may have sworn, cried, or punched out their supervisor, but this is a G-rated fairy tale, and it wouldn’t be right to leave Sam to flounder among the food. By cutting back on luxuries, like food and clothes, Sam saved a few dollars from his unemployment checks, and finally had enough to go to a community college to learn to become an electrician. After graduating at the top of his class, an emaciated and homeless Sam got a job at Acme Industries.

For nine years, he was a great electrician, often making suggestions that led to his company becoming one of the largest electrical supplies manufacturers in the country. And then one day one of the company’s 18 assistant vice-presidents called Sam into a small dingy office, which the company used for such a day. “You’re the best worker we have,” the AVP joyfully told Sam, “but all that repetitive stress has cut your efficiency and increased our medical costs. In the interest of maximizing profits, we have to replace you.”

“But who can do my job?” asked Sam.

“Not who,” said the manager, “but what. We’re bringing in robots. They’re faster and don’t need breaks, vacations, or sick days. Better yet, they don’t have union contracts.”

“So you are firing me,” said Sam.

“Not at all. We had to let a few dozen other workers go so there would be room for the robots, and we won’t be hiring any new workers, but because of your hard work, we’re reassigning you to oil the robots. At least until we design robots that can oil the other robots.”

For three years, Sam oiled, polished, and cleaned up after the robots. Sometimes, he even had to rewire them. And then the deputy assistant senior director of Human Resources called him into her office.

“No one can oil and polish as well as you can,” she said, but the robots are getting very expensive and we still have several hundred workers who are taking lobster and truffles from the mouths of our corporate executives, “so we’re sending all of our work to somewhere in Asia. Or maybe it’s Mexico. Whatever. The workers there will gladly design and assemble our products for less than a tenth what we have to pay our citizens.”

“You mean I’m fired?!” said a rather incredulous Sam.

“Not fired. That’s so pre-NAFTA. You’ve been downsized.”

Downsized?!”

“If you want, we can also say you’ve been outsourced. How about right-sized. That’s a nicer word. Would you prefer to be right-sized?”

By now, Sam was no longer meek. He no longer was willing to accept whatever he was told. “The work will be shoddier,” said Sam. “There will be problems.”

“Of course there will be,” said the lady from HR. “That’s why we hired three Pakistani goat herders to solve customer complaints.”

“Our citizens won’t stand for this,” said a defiant Sam.

“As long as the product is cheaper, our people will gladly go to large non-union stores and buy whatever it is that we tell them to buy.”

And she was right.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and former university professor. His latest book is the social issues mystery novel, Before the First Snow, available at amazon and other book dealers.]

by brasch

Outsourcing America’s Health Care

8:40 am in Uncategorized by brasch

“Ola, Amigo! Pack your bags, we’re going to Mexico!” bubbled Dr. Franklin Peterson Comstock III, faux physician and money-maker.

“Yeah, I could use a decent vacation,” I replied, figuring he’d pay for both of us since he had just set the world record for the most nose jobs in a 24-hour period.

“What vacation?” he said. “I’m setting up practice.”

“And give up catering to rich people with inflated bank accounts and deflated ethics?”

“Don’t have a choice. I’m getting laid off.”

Comstock had been a rainmaker for the Megabucks Happy Health Care Medical Center for the past decade. There was only one reason I could think of why he’d be laid off. “Megabucks tired of paying your malpractice insurance?” I asked.

“Not just me,” he said. “Hospital’s laying off most of the staff, making the rest work overtime, and hiring outside contractors. They said it was hard to survive when the profit was down to only 20 or so million a year.”

“I didn’t realize it was that serious,” I said. “You planning to set up private practice to help the poor in Mexico?” I asked admiringly.

“Not a chance! Gonna get rich working for Megabucks!”

“You just said you were laid off.”

“Been laid off in the U.S.,” said Comstock while putting a frozen burrito into the microwave. “Megabucks/Mexico just hired me. There’s cheaper labor down there.”

“You crazy?” I asked. “You’re the cheaper labor.”

“Obviously you don’t know American business,” said Comstock haughtily.

“Megabucks/U.S. closes its auxiliary operations, and then contracts with Mexican companies for a fifth of the cost in the U.S. They do the work, ship it back to the U.S., and Megabucks bills Blue Cross the full rate as if it was done locally.”

“So where do you fit in?” I asked.

“Just as before. Nose jobs. Breast augmentations. Tummy tucks. All the important medical procedures. But this time, I do it in Cancun.”

“To rich Mexicans,” I said disgusted.

“To rich Americans!” said Comstock. “If they want the best care, they’ll take their private jets to Mexico and then deduct the trip as a necessary business expense.”

“And what about the impoverished and middle-class Americans?”

“If they can sneak across the border, they can also get medical care.”

“What about prescriptions?”

“Megabucks contracted with some of the best drug dealers—I mean pharmacists and chemists—in Mexico. Quality is just as good and it’ll only be four or five times production costs. Unlike the U.S. there’s no TV advertising and six-figure MBAs and lawyers that require drugs to be 30 or 40 times production costs.”

“With prices that low, how do you know there won’t be mass rushes by Americans to grab everything they can?”

“Because there’s security! Every hospital and pharmacy has armed guards with the best automatic weapons smuggled through the God-fearing 2nd Amendment patriotic Southern states.”

“Is Megabucks outsourcing all its operations?”

“Keeping the ER. After tummy tucks and butt lifts, that’s the hospital’s ‘cash cow.’”

“So, then, it’ll have to keep some services like X-Ray and the lab,” I said. “Maybe even a doctor or two.”

“Too expensive,” said Comstock. “Megabucks will hire more residents and foreign-educated doctors, and work them 18 hours a day. More work, less time to complain. Residents will do anything to get experience to pass their boards. May even hire a couple of hospitalists. You know, the ones who graduated at the bottom of their class and can’t even get work in a Free Clinic.”

“I suppose they’ll also do the lab work?” I asked.

“Do you know some of those lab techs are making as much as $30,000 a year! Made sense to lay them off, too.”

“So how will the ER know a victim’s blood chemistry, or if there’s internal injuries?”

“Technology,” said Comstock. “They scan the blood here, and send digital X-Rays to Mexico. Mexican lab technicians—you know, the ones that don’t know about unions and will work for only a few bucks a day—will analyze everything, then text the results back to the U.S.”

“This sounds like it’s not only a way to maximize profits, but also a way to avoid dealing with the President’s health care reform program.”

“Obamacare!” spit out Comstock. “Nothing but socialized medicine.”

“Most countries have forms of socialized medicine,” I countered, “and they not only have good health care but affordable prices to their citizens.”

Comstock put his hands to his ears and began chanting, “We’re Number 1, We’re Number 1.”

“Number 37,” I corrected him. “The World Health Organization ranked the U.S. just below Costa Rico.”

“They’re all Commies,” replied Comstock. “Besides, that study is a decade old.”

“Last year, the independent Commonwealth Fund compared the nations of the United Kingdom against the U.S., and the U.S. ranked seventh of the seven.”

“Yeah, like Americans will go to Canada? It’s covered by snow and run by a queen who can’t even speak English.”

“You and Megabucks are crazy!”

“Possibly,” said Comstock, “but outsourcing is the American way. By the way, do you put ketchup or mustard on a burrito?”

[Dr. Walter Brasch isn’t licensed to practice medicine, but he goes to some excellent physicians who are—and they’re just as frustrated with the costs, insurance companies and myriad forms as anyone else. His current book is the critically-acclaimed mystery novel, Before the First Snow]

by brasch

Stories We Will Still Have to Write in 2012

8:22 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by WALTER and ROSEMARY BRASCH

 In January 2009, with a new president about to be inaugurated, we wrote a column about the stories we preferred not having to write, but knew we would. Three years later, we are still writing about those problems; three years from now, we’ll still be writing about them.

We had wanted the U.S. Department of the Interior to stop the government-approved slaughter of wild horses and burros in the southwest, but were disappointed that the cattle industry used its money and influence to shelter politicians from Americans who asked for compassion and understanding of  breeds that roamed freely long before the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.”

We wanted to see the federal government protect wolves, foxes, and coyotes, none of whom attack humans, have no food or commercial value, but are major players in environmental balance. But, we knew that the hunting industry would prevail since they see these canines only as competition.

We wanted to see the Pennsylvania legislature stand up for what is right and courageously end the cruelty of pigeon shoots. But, a pack of cowards left Pennsylvania as the only state where pigeon shoots, with their illegal gambling, are actively held.

For what seems to be decades, we have written against racism and bigotry. But many politicians still believe that gays deserve few, if any, rights; that all Muslims are enemy terrorists; and publicly lie that Voter ID is a way to protect the integrity of the electoral process, while knowing it would disenfranchise thousands of poor and minority citizens.

We will continue to write about the destruction of the environment and of ways people are trying to save it. Environmental concern is greater than a decade ago, but so is the ignorant prattling of those who believe global warming is a hoax, and mistakenly believe that the benefits of natural gas fracking, with well-paying jobs in a depressed economy, far outweigh the environmental, health, and safety problems they cause.

We will continue to write against government corruption, bailouts, tax advantages for the rich and their corporations, governmental waste, and corporate greed. They will continue to exist because millionaire legislators will continue to protect those who contribute to political campaigns. Nevertheless, we will continue to speak out against politicians who have sacrificed the lower- and middle-classes in order to protect the one percent.

We will continue to write about the effects of laying off long-time employees and of outsourcing jobs to “maximize profits.” Until Americans realize that “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” we’ll continue to explain why exploitation knows no geographical boundaries.

The working class successfully launched major counter-attacks against seemingly-entrenched anti-labor politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states. But these battles will be as long and as bitter as the politicians who deny the rights of workers. We will continue to speak out for worker rights, better working conditions, and benefits at least equal to their managers. We don’t expect anything to change in 2012, but we are still hopeful that a minority of business owners who already respect the worker will influence the rest.

There are still those who believe education is best served by programs manacled by teaching-to-the-test mentality, and are more than willing to sacrifice quality for numbers. We will continue to write about problems in the nation’s educational system, especially the failure to encourage intellectual curiosity and respect for the tenets of academic integrity.

Against great opposition, the President and Congress passed sweeping health care reform. But, certain members of Congress, all of whom have better health care than most Americans, have proclaimed they will dismantle the program they derisively call “Obamacare.”

During this new year, we will still be writing about the unemployed, the homeless, those without adequate health coverage—and against the political lunatics who continue to deny Americans the basics of human life, essentials that most civilized countries already give their citizens.

We had written forcefully against the previous president and vice-president when they strapped on their six-shooters and sent the nation into war in a country that posed no threat to us, while failing to adequately attack a country that housed the core of the al-Qaeda movement. We wrote about the Administration’s failure to provide adequate protection for the soldiers they sent into war or adequate and sustained mental and medical care when they returned home. The War in Iraq is now over, but the war in Afghanistan continues. The reminder of these wars will last as long as there are hospitals and cemeteries.

We had written dozens of stories against the Bush–Cheney Administration’s belief in the use of torture and why it thought it was necessary to shred parts of the Constitution. We had hoped that a new president, a professor of Constitutional law, would stop the attack upon our freedoms and rights. But the PATRIOT Act was extended, and new legislation was enacted that reduces the rights and freedoms of all citizens. At all levels of government, Constitutional violations still exist, and a new year won’t change our determination to bring to light these violations wherever and whenever they occur.

The hope we and this nation had for change we could believe in, and which we still hope will not die, has been minced by the reality of petty politics, with the “Party of No” and its raucous Teabagger mutation blocking social change for America’s improvement. We can hope that the man we elected will realize that compromise works only when the opposition isn’t entrenched in a never-ending priority not of improving the country, but of keeping him from a second term. Perhaps now, three years after his inauguration, President Obama will disregard the disloyal opposition and unleash the fire and truth we saw in the year before his election, and will speak out even more forcefully for the principles we believed when we, as a nation, gave him the largest vote total of any president in history.

We really want to be able to write columns about Americans who take care of each other, about leaders who concentrate upon fixing the social problems. But we know that’s only an ethereal ideal.  So, we’ll just have to hope that the waters of social justice wear down, however slowly, the jagged rocks of haughty resistance.

 

[Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues columnist, former newspaper investigative reporter and editor, and journalism professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Rosemary Brasch is a former secretary, Red Cross national disaster family services specialist, labor activist, and university instructor of labor studies.]