Saturday, May 11, 2013

Editorial: Stop Business As Usual

West, Texas, is a pleasant small town with about 2,800 residents about 20 miles north of Waco in Central Texas. Until April 17 it was best known for the Czech heritage of the town’s settlers, celebrated every Labor Day weekend with Westfest, as well as the roadside convenience stores that sell delicious sandwiches and kolaches, a Czech pastry, to hungry travelers taking a rest stop from Interstate 35.

The evening of April 17, a catastrophic explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant killed 15 people, including 10 volunteer firefighters and emergency responders. More than 200 were injured. The blast wrecked two schools, destroyed a nursing home, an apartment building and nearly 150 homes in a 37-block blast zone and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

The fire burned for about a half-hour at the plant, which had no sprinklers or fire barriers, before the detonation of as many as 270 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the plant. Luckily, the fire occurred in the evening, so the nearby schools were empty and emergency responders managed to evacuate the nursing home, apartments and nearby houses to limit the casualties.

After the explosion, state officials rushed to the scene to express their support for the community and they pledged to pursue federal assistance, but otherwise it was business as usual.

A few days later, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) flew to Chicago April 22-23 to tout the state’s pro-business climate at a bioscience convention as he sought to lure Illinois businesses to Texas. In an $80,000 media campaign, Perry said, “I have a word of advice for employers frustrated by Illinois’ short-sighted approach to business: you need to get out while there’s still time. The escape route leads straight to Texas, where limited government, low taxes and a pro-business environment are creating more jobs than any other state.”

Then Perry objected to a cartoon by Jack Ohman published in the Sacramento Bee April 25 that showed Perry standing at a podium behind a banner extolling the state’s low taxes and low regulations, while exclaiming that “business is BOOMING in Texas.”

“It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon,” Perry wrote the Bee. “While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.” He demanded an apology from the Bee. (He didn’t get it.)

Rick Rojas of the Los Angeles Times went to West a week after the explosion and he found little outrage among citizens and officials. “Water under the bridge,” said Steve Vanek, West’s mayor pro-tem, referring to decisions that allowed homes and schools to be built near the plant.

Jean Smith, a resident whose home lost most of its roof and sustained structural damage, told the Times, “It was an accident, and accidents do happen.”

“I mind my own business, and that’s what a lot of people do around here,” said Jeanette Karlik, who writes a column for a local newspaper.

Chris Kirkham and Ben Hallman wrote at (4/22) that the plant had been ingrained in the community since it opened in 1962 to supply fertilizer to local corn, cotton and sorghum farmers. Donald Adair, a local farmer, bought the plant in 2004 because it was rumored to be on the verge of shutting down, and few locals seemed to want to criticize his role in the plant.

Mayor Pro-Tem Vanek noted that the plant had been there for decades before housing developments approached it. “It was their call to move to that area,” Vanek said of the plant’s neighbors.

Yes, but many of those residents probably believed that government officials would not allow them to live so close to the plant if it was dangerous. And the governor, predictably, sided with the business interests.

(The same can be said of residents of Mayflower, Ark., who didn’t realize that their homes were on top of an oil pipeline until March 29, when heavy crude “tar sands” oil started bubbling out of the ground and contaminated groundwater.)

Texas has no state occupational safety program, relying on the overburdened federal system for inspections. Texas leads the nation in workplace fatalities, with 433 deaths in 2011. That’s 9.4% of the nation’s total and 73 more than California, which has six million more people in its workforce but, unlike Texas, has a state occupational safety and health agency.

Texas has a voluntary workers compensation system that leaves many employees — including the seven employees of the West Fertilizer plant — without insurance after injuries. And the plant had only $1 million in liability insurance, while estimates of damages run upwards of $100 million.

“In the aftermath of the West tragedy, more than 70 state and federal agents were scouring the plant site. They suspect that the cause was not random, but most likely a failure to control known risks inside the plant,” the Times reported.

However, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said at a news conference April 23 in West that the incident could be classified as a natural fire — an “act of God” — or as accidental, incendiary or left as undetermined.

Gov. Perry said in an April 22 interview with Bloomberg News that there hadn’t been any violations at the West plant since 2006 and that recent inspections hadn’t found any “abnormalities that would cause concern.” Calls for change are “premature” until investigations of the cause are complete, he said.

Perry also questioned whether it would be cost-effective to move plants or residential areas away from each other. West expanded out into the rural area where the fertilizer plant had operated since the 1960s, according to the governor. The plant was outside the city limits, so there were no zoning laws to stop them.

“Are the people willing to pay the cost?” Perry said in the interview. “Cost versus benefit is always what we battle with.”

Texas, in its effort to support local business and lure more companies to the state, has been reluctant to add to regulatory burdens on industry, Perry said.

“We are a state that does not believe in overburdening businesses,” Perry said.

(The governor also does not believe in accepting federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid program to give health care to the working poor because, if truth be told, neither Perry nor the Republican leadership of the state cares that one-fourth of Texas workers are not covered by health insurance. They have no plans to cooperate with the federal government to improve that dismal statistic as long as Barack Obama is President.)

If anything, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is inclined to further reduce regulations at the expense of workers and neighbors. The state House is considering a bill that would end a TCEQ program that grades businesses on environmental compliance and makes those grades public. HB 1714’s author, Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) says the program burdens businesses and regulators. The bill also would restrict public hearings on permit applications. The League of Conservation Voters said after the bill was scheduled for a vote, “As the West explosion demonstrates, more, not less, public disclosure is critically needed in Texas.”

Don’t expect help from Congress, either. In February, 11 House members (10 Republicans and one Democrat) joined two dozen industry groups, including the Fertilizer Institute, the American Chemistry Council and the International Institution of Ammonia Refrigeration, to promote the General Duty Clarification Act, which would sap the EPA of much of its powers to regulate safety and security at major chemical sites under the Clean Air Act. The bill is a project of the Koch Brothers, the Kansas-based petrochemical titans whose investments include fertilizer production.

The Koch Brothers and their hirelings at the state and federal governments never rest, so progressive populists need to redouble their efforts if they want to change business as usual. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2013
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Selections from the June 1, 2013 issue

Austerity cost up to 2.2M jobs;
Obama: worst socialist ever;
New Heritage immigration report contradicts 2006 Heritage report;
Benghazi ‘scandal’: the story thus far;
Ark. health monitors to pipeline spill neighbors: smells OK to us;
Feds crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries;
NRA ‘lawyers up’;
Republicans ready to rumble;
Warren: Give students the same loan rate as banks;
Maine legislature votes to overturn Citizens United;
Fertilizer plant — what's the worst that could happen?
S.C. hates Dems more than lying, cheating hypocrites;
Where to support humane working conditions;
Gov't debt bad, says Mass. Senate nominee debtor;
Limbaugh threatens to quit chain he helped sink ...

What’s wrong with Social Security?

Don’t vent, organize — ‘primary’ a Dem near you

Reasons to ban fracking now

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Illegal and sick: medical repatriation

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Coke global marketing campaign links its unhealthy beverages with healthy living

By Marc Jampole

Behind Coke’s international marketing campaign to insinuate that the beverages it sells are part of a healthy lifestyle lurks the hidden message that Coke doesn’t care what you drink—as long as it’s a Coke product.
That’s not how the company puts it. What Coke says, in a full-page ad in many national (and probably international) print media yesterday, was “At Coca-Cola we believe active lifestyles lead to happier lives. That’s why we are committed to awareness around choice and movement, to help people make the most informed decisions for themselves and their families.”
Now let’s take all the squeamishness out of this soggy statement; change into explicit language the indirect references to the now worldwide epidemic of obesity and to the myth that exercise is a magic elixir; and dismantle the buzz words like “awareness” and “informed decisions.”  In other words, let’s translate the message directly into common sense English. Keep in mind that the following is my rough translation of what Coke is saying: “We know that many of our products contribute to obesity, so we offer other products. We’re putting some of the enormous profit we’re making into exercise programs that are linked with our brand names in hopes that people will think that because they are exercising more they don’t have to cut down on calories to lose weight.  The important thing is that no matter what people drink that they buy a Coke product.”

(I hate using the word product to apply to food because the word “product” suggests unnatural processing, but in Coke’s case it mostly makes sense.)
Instead of its usual collage of happy people drinking Coke, the print ad is a red background with the outline of an original Coca-Cola bottle and the text reversed out in white. The print ad may represent a landmark in advertising because it’s the first time (or the first time I have seen) that a Coke or Pepsi ad is devoid of photographs of happy people. Of course the website to which the full-page ads send viewers,, more than makes up for the lack of smiling faces and Coke-filled bellies in the print ad.

After the code-phrase encrusted first paragraph of the ad, Coke lays out its four commitments:
  1. Sell “low- or no-calorie beverage options” in every market.
  2. Support physical activity programs, again in every market
  3. Label its products with nutritional information.
  4. Not advertise to children under 12.
There is something deceptive about all four of these commitments:

1. The commitment to sell “low- or no-calorie” beverage options (the basic idea that we can we drink what we want as long as it’s a Coke product) assumes that these “low or no” drinks are healthy.  In fact, studies have shown that some types of artificial sweeteners may cause cancer and that drinks with artificial sweeteners give people a greater appetite and so contribute to increased calorie intake and therefore to weight gain and obesity. Coke also sells a line of energy drinks, which studies are now showing are bad for you. Coke also sells juice products loaded with either sugar or artificial sweeteners. That leaves us with Coke’s 100% real juice and water offerings. The problem with the juices is that they are a calorie-rich substitute for fruit; it is healthier to eat an orange than to drink the equivalent amount of orange juice.  The only truly healthy product Coke sells is Dasani water, which Coke has admitted is nothing but tap water.  Instead of dividing its product line into calorie and low/no-calories, Coke could divide it into products that are unhealthy and products that are healthy, but substitutes for food/drink that would be healthier or less expensive.

2. Coke’s support of physical activity programs across the globe is merely a form of marketing. They brand all the fitness programs they sponsor with their name and therefore benefit from the perceived enhancement of their brand through its association with these programs. Coke is then able to advertise its commitment to physical exercise which suggests a commitment to good health; and advertise it they do—on TV, in print, on the Internet and through elaborate social media campaigns.  Finally, the support of physical activities (combined with similar moves by makers of other unhealthy comestibles) contributes to the myth that increasing physical activity is equal to good nutrition and reduced calories when trying to lose weight.

3. Coke provides on its labels only the information required by government regulation.

4. Coke may not place ads on “SpongeBob Squarepants” or whatever Princess tripe Disney is currently purveying, but children also watch Superbowls, basketball playoffs and other sporting events.  Coke’s responsible marketing commitment evidently doesn’t extend to sports. 

In other words, these commitments to social responsibility merely repackage Coke’s marketing, advertising and product development strategies in terms that try to make it seem as if Coke actually does care about the communities it serves.  The question is, is it fooling anyone?

Let’s end this screed against Coke’s deceptive new social responsibility marketing campaign by returning to the first words of the first paragraph of the all-words full-page ad: “At Coca-Cola we believe active lifestyles lead to happier lives.” Happiness, that’s what Coke is selling. Like all the hawkers of products that we really don’t need or which are not good for us, besides the product the company is also always selling the idea that happiness is achieved through buying something. 

Consumerism: It’s the real magic elixir that cures all ills.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

MET dumbs down exhibit of punk fashion into an amusement park fright night.

By Marc Jampole

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition on fashion, Punk: Chaos to Couture, raises a basic question about the modus operandi under which the MET and other museums operate: is the museum a place to contemplate or to be titillated?

For contemplation of the influence of the punk style on high fashion is impossible in this installation, which unfolds as a noisy maze of blinking lights set to an aural wall of the crude clashes and pulsations of punk rock. Each room seems like a different movie version of not a punk gathering, but a psychedelic party of the 1960s. Viewers parade down narrow passageways which turn back on themselves and see dress after dress hanging on mannequins with overblown punk-like wigs that look more like dust mops teased into a chaotic but freestanding mess. The display of fashion wear is broken up with large screen videos of punk-looking men playing musical instruments.  I can only assume they are former punk rock stars.

Because the display rooms are narrow and unidirectional, the light pulsations so incessant and the walls all textured or covered with imagery, walking through the exhibit seems like a trip through an elaborate “fright night” at an amusement park. Instead of a new ghost or goblin suddenly appearing, it’s a new but still raucous beat or a new combination of bright colors.  If you like the music, it’s an easy five to twenty minutes of floating among phenomena of a former youth culture.

But it was impossible to study that youth culture, or that culture’s effect on designers of expensive clothes for rich folk.  The best you could get was a sensation or two before your sensations were numbed by the totality of sensations coming at you at one time.

The exhibit will attract the fan of amusement parks like Universal Studios or Epcot Center, but what does it have to do with the mission of the museum or even that of its notable costume department?  That mission, by the way, isto collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.”

While the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition collects and preserves period costume (which may or may not represent “human achievement at the highest level of quality”), it does not give us any way to appreciate it except through crude titillation.  What small nuggets of knowledge found in the exhibition, such as the influence of graffiti or of the “do-it-yourself” aesthetic, are completely overwhelmed by the sensory overload.

This exhibit could mark another watershed in the dumbing down of America. It’s one thing for both the history and the science museums in a provincial capital such as Pittsburgh to focus on sports. It’s quite another for the flagship museum of the cultural center of the United States, if not the world, to create an exhibition in which it is impossible to engage with the artifacts on display in any intellectual or even any sensual way. (I can only wonder what the Roman poet Horace would have said; he was the one who postulated that all great art must educate as well as amuse.)

We have not even considered the question of cost. To erect this collection entailed far more than arranging bricolage in displays and hanging clothes on mannequins. The textured walls, music rights, over-teased wigs and elaborate AV and acoustical system must have driven up costs. But then again, the MET enjoyed the sponsorship of a fashion design house and a major publisher.

What is so interesting about the exhibit is that it’s as false as the fashion it portrays.  The punk mentality was one of crude, do-it-yourself grunginess. Yet fashion designers imitated it to produce expensive goods for a very exclusive clientele that basically lived in luxury, so that punk haute couture is really a form of slumming, a favored pastime of the ruling elite for millennia. In a similar way, the elaborate walls and halls of the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition are meant to bring the punk mentality alive. Instead they come off as a homogenized scrubbing away of the grit and with it the meaning behind the grit, leaving behind a few empty gestures—style without substance.

Glow in the dark food?

From the heartland, Margot McMillen writes: A week ago, one of my students told me how easy it is to separate the bit of glow-in-the-dark DNA from a jellyfish. They had done it in her undergraduate biology class. When it came to the next step, inserting it into a frog (or something) the procedure was a little trickier, and the wise biology teacher hadn't gone that far. But it could probably be done, she told me, in an ordinary school lab. But now the news from Singularity University that they have, indeed, created glow-in-the-dark plants, a genre without regulation, and they're offering them to people for a small fee. As a food farmer, I hope none of my neighbors jump on the offer. On my farm, we have never planted a genetically modified seed and we never will. It's bad enough that we might have weeds blowing in from a neighbor's place that resist herbicides or kill pests. These genes have been inserted intentionally to crops, but now spread to weeds, thanks to the weeds' clever evasion of continual dousings of poisons from the industrial farms. Glow-in-the-dark biology can find a market--from wal-mart shoppers without a brain between them, looking for something fun to take the birthday boy, to cities looking for new ways to light their streets. But we obviously would need regulation. Nobody wants glow-in-the-dark tomatoes or kale. NO way, says Singularity University, this non-gift should be available to the world. Now, other groups are trying to find ways to raise money to fight the threat, but I can't see how that will work. With a technique so easy that it can begin in an undergraduate bio lab, the possibilities are endless.

Monday, May 6, 2013

College students grab low-paying jobs and stay in debt

By Marc Jampole
When taken together, four current news stories depict the massive grift that American education has been running on the American public for the past decade or so.

Let’s start with what on the surface appears to be good news for college graduates: they’re the ones getting jobs.

College grads are the only employment group to have gained net jobs over the past five or so years. Unemployment among college graduates is much lower than among those without a degree. The most recent unemployment rate for college graduates ages 25 and older was only 3.9%; 7.4% for those with a high school degree.

But what kind of jobs are out there for college graduates? News stories about another trend tell a disappointing story. Most of the new jobs created since the great recession began have been low-paying.  Nearly 40% of the 1.7 million jobs gained since the so-called recovery began have been in 3 low-wage sectors: food services, retail, and what is called employment services and means office clerks.

In other words, college graduates have been taking low-paid jobs. That goes a long way to explaining the mounting debt incurred by graduating students. Some would say that it’s a classic bait-and-switch when colleges offer expensive degrees knowing that many if not most of the students will get jobs that won’t allow them to pay off their loans. Kids think they’ll write TV ads and they end up penning short articles for Internet news services at $25 a pop. They think they’ll be television news reporters and they end up as administrative assistants in the sales department of a local radio station. They think they’ll get a position with a corporate law firm and they end up doing contract legal grunt work at $25 an hour.  Or what about the kids with degrees who are hauling garbage, driving taxis, filing papers and staffing call centers? It’s tough to pay off $100,000 in college loans on the pay you get at any of these jobs.

Those who hold colleges blameless for the low pay in so many professions should consider one more trend: Study after study shows that enormous numbers of kids get accepted to colleges needing remedial work. For example, a study of scores on the ACT test shows that 48% of all high school graduates need remedial work in science.  Other studies reveal that half of all students in California need remedial help in English and math and 40% in Colorado. One impetus for increasing online college courses is to inexpensively address the issue of kids arriving on campus without the basic skills to do college work.

My question—no, my accusation—is: Why do colleges accept students who aren’t ready to do the work?

By accepting and enrolling students who need remedial work, colleges participate in a vast and growing fraud on American families. Wouldn’t the kids not ready for college be better off in community colleges working on their English and math skills? Or in a state-sponsored vocational program that trains people for one specific career?  I do not believe that any accredited 4-year college should be permitted to accept students who need remedial work before they can tackle real college, nor should any 4-year college or university offer remedial courses. It’s immoral to take money for higher education and deliver high school courses.

Now I’m all for universities establishing special extensions to offer high school grads the opportunity to improve their basic skills enough to be able to take college courses, but if and only if they charge traditional community college prices.

Encouraging kids who don’t really belong in college to take another route will solve half the problem, as it will ease the national college debt burden.  But that still doesn’t address the fact that so many jobs pay so little nowadays. To solve the problem will take what it has always taken: Greater unionization. An increase in the minimum wage. Taxing the rich to pay for better public education and non-college training.