Archive for the ‘Rural Life’ Category.

The Spark in Nevada

Lenin and the early Bolsheviks believed the world had gotten to a point in its history that the proletariat would revolt. Like a forest full of dried timber baking in the hot sun all that was needed for the Communist Revolution they so desired was for a spark, iskra, to set the forest ablaze. The concept was so important to Lenin that he named his newspaper after it while he lived in exile. It was a continuation of Marx’s belief in the evolution of control over the means of production. Marx looked at the world around him at the height of the Industrial Revolution and saw the dehumanizing impact of life living in the crowded cities and working in the factories. To him this was a natural progression from the dawn of civilization that would inevitably lead to the rising up of the working class to take ownership of the factories they slaved in. Marx expected this revolution to occur in countries on the vanguard of the industrial revolution such as Prussia, France and Great Britain, but except for the brief interlude of the Paris Commune in 1848, socialist uprisings failed to materialize in these countries.

The United States has always had a small contingents of people who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. During the colonial period various groups came to America fleeing religious persecution in continental Europe. The expansion of America westward was led by individualists like Daniel Boone and religious heretics like the Mormons followed by vast waves of immigrants seeking better lives after escaping oppressive regimes in Ireland, Central Europe and Russia. Each individual of that time left a legacy that is written in our DNA as a people. Echoes of the suffering of each Russian Jew arriving penniless in New York City or illiterate Irish woman sleeping with her children on the deck of steamer paddling up the Mississippi from New Orleans can be heard as whispers in our collective unconscious. These unique experiences are why we so frustrate our allies and enemies alike. It is impossible for a Brit to truly understand why Americans instinctively abhor collectivism and celebrate the codified rights of the Constitution that protecting individual liberty. The divisiveness that comes with individual rights also encourages our enemies to see America as a “paper tiger” that will explode into confetti with the right spark, be that a sneak attack on the Pacific fleet while in port or twin skyscrapers in Manhattan.

This is also a lesson that the American left socialized on European collectivist thought has forgotten over the past generation. The American Left has always looked towards the Continent for inspiration but that had been tempered at least somewhat by the home-grown anarchism of Henry David Thoreau and at least found common cause with American libertarians. But sometime over the past forty years being a socialist or progressive has meant believing in the power of the State. This reflects an acceptance by the American Left of “Big Government” European-style Socialism which ironically is in decline in the Scandinavian countries, the UK and Germany. As a consequence anarchists and libertarians who once were considered extreme leftists are now viewed by the American Left as extremist members of the right wing.

Today’s American Left wing now sees the State as its salvation and protector. Unions in the private sector have almost disappeared yet the public sector unions are thriving. In 2011 the Economist reported, “government unionisation has risen from 23% in 1973 to 36% today, while private-sector unionisation has declined from 24% in 1973 to 7% today.” Challenges to state power are no longer coming from the Left as they did in the 1960, but from the Right as exemplified today by the Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada.

In this dispute the Left stands with the federal government while the Right including the libertarians side with the Bundy family. Progressive groups have gone on the attack including calling for the silencing of Tea Partiers and other supporters of the Bundy family. In It’s Time to be Honest: The Tea Party Has Become a Terrorist Group, Allen Clifton writes,

But the longer these people are given a voice, the more they’ve moved from a political movement to a domestic terrorist organization.  In politics, they’re doing everything possible to sabotage our country for political gain while outside of politics they’re becoming even more brazenly radical than ever before.

And much like traditional terrorists, these domestic tea party terrorists have a main goal of demonizing and destroying the United States government.


Burning Man founder and liberal activist Sean Shealy plans to hold “Bundyfest” promising 30 days of anarchy across from the Bundy Ranch. In a Facebook post Shealy pokes fun at Bundy then ends, “Get a grip, folks. It’s about some cranky old dude and some cows in the middle of a barren desert. And the rule of law.” Rule of law? Coming from the organizer of the largest LSD and Ecstasy bash in the country it’s nice to know Shealy has some boundaries. It would be nice if he turned himself in for promoting illicit drug use at his bashes, but I’m not holding my breath. The Left has come a long way from getting their heads bashed in Chicago in 1968 by the police force of Mayor Richard “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder,” Daly.

The Bundy standoff has shown the true face of the American Left. Transport the hippies of 1967 through Time to today and it’s unlikely they’d find the federal government all that groovy. The anti-establishment of that era has become the Establishment.

So now it’s up to the right wing and its individualist supporters to take up the idea of “iskra.” The right wing and old-school libertarians have always had a paranoid fringe, but Edward Snowden’s  revelations of domestic spying along with the IRS persecution of conservative groups exacerbated by the government takeover of health care proves the wisdom of Henry Kissinger’s quote that even paranoids have enemies. Could Bundy be that spark that ignites the conservative base into open revolt?

Cliven Bundy is not a natural leader for everyone who distrusts the government, nor is his issue with the federal government a clear-cut case of abuse of the individual by the State. It would be nice if there was a more appealing leader than a Mormon rancher, and a more obvious case of government persecution, but the mere fact that the Bundy Ranch dispute continues making headlines on both sides of the political divide shows the there is plenty of tinder in the forest. Only time will tell if the Bundy standoff leads to the rollback of federal power.

Recommended Life Skills From A Nobody

The following are what I consider to be life skills for everyone that you won’t see in the usual lists floating around the internet. Mastering just a few of these will improve your well-being as they have mine.

If you already know them, teach a friend or if you have kids, teach them. For specifics on how to do any of the following, Google and YouTube are your friends.

Now you might ask, “Why should I listen to an old fool like you? You aren’t famous. You aren’t rich. You’re really a nobody.”  I admit I’m old and often foolish and while I may not be rich I am comfortable. As for being a nobody, I’m somebody to the animals I’ve rescued and care for, to the Kid and to the Wife. Their opinions about me matter more to me than the number of  readers I have of this blog, Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Besides my advice won’t kill you, unlike Jenny McCarthy’s.

As MM catches in the comments there is no particular rank to these skills. They’re pretty much in the order they came to me, and this being an easily editable blog post, I’ll continue adding to the list. Enjoy!

1. Safely change a flat tire. Nothing screams “Moron!” like driving on the shoulder with a flat-tire, turning a $10 problem into a $200 one. And while I recommend AAA, there’s no reason to call them for a flat unless you are a woman. I’ve driven half a million road miles and have never seen a woman change a flat. Evidently it’s something that men can do that women can’t, like pee standing up (although I have seen women do that.) You’ll know we’ve achieved true equality of the sexes when you see women changing flat tires. Sexist? Yes, but you don’t need much upper body strength to fix a flat.

2. Learn how to do laundry. Hint: Like likes like. Oh, and read the label (if you haven’t cut it out already).

3. Be able to prepare and cook at least one breakfast, one lunch and one dinner. The key? The only time you use high heat is to boil water. Everything else cooks best with moderate heat. Always keep a jar of pasta sauce, box of spaghetti and a bag of frozen meatballs on hand. Within 20 minutes you will have dinner for two.

4. Learn how to use a multimeter, specifically how to measure resistance. I’ll admit I’ve used multimeters for a long time but only figured out how to measure resistance last week. It’s like using a hammer for years to pry nails up and then realizing that gee, you can beat them into the wood too. Seriously it was a revelation. Once I learned this I was measuring conductivity of everything in the house. (Tip: Cats are NOT conductive, at least at the amperage contained in your average multimeter.) Bad fuse? You’ll know instantly. Short somewhere? Your multimeter will help you find it.

5. Balance a checkbook. Learn how to handle cash flow, especially when using checks and maintaining a small balance.

6. Floss. Your dental hygienist is right. Flossing makes a big difference. Not only does it keep your teeth clean, it helps maintain your health. And it makes kissing bearable.

7. Learn how to correctly iron a shirt. In today’s casual business environment of “wrinkle-free” shirts and slacks, you might think this is anachronistic. Think again. Even the so-called wrinkle-free shirts look positively frumpy compared to a well-ironed shirt. It’s a small detail that says a lot about you to your colleagues and will be noticed, even if you are a jeans/t-shirt type at heart. Every decent motel contains an ironing board and an iron. If you are traveling on business, use them.

8. Do your own taxes. Using software is okay, but before you go to H&R Block or let your brother who is studying accounting do them for you, do them yourself. Doing so will teach you your relationship to society. You will see learn that the rebate check you receive after you file isn’t a gift: it’s the money taken from you throughout the year that’s leftover after the government takes its cut.

9. Sew a basic stitch. Buttons pop off at inopportune times, and small tears can often be handled with a few stitches. Sewing kits tend to breed in drawers. Learn how to use them.

10. Never run out of gas. If you live in a hurricane prone area it’s a good idea to never fall below half a tank during hurricane season. If you can’t think far enough ahead to avoid running out of gas you probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.

11. Learn how to say “No, thanks.” This is one of those general life rules that should be common sense but isn’t. Learning how to say “no” without causing offense or leading to intimidation is one of those skills that once learned can save you from a lot of grief. Is a guy hitting on you wanting to buy you a drink? Say it politely. Are your buddies offering you one for the road? Don’t take it. The boss offering you another project to take on to your overwhelming work load? Say, “Not until I get some bandwidth. As soon as I finish (X project) I’ll be happy to take it on.” No is one of the shortest yet most important words in the English language. Use it to avoid trouble.

12. Make being skeptical instinctive. Everyday we receive more marketing offers than ever before promising us endless opportunities and joy. None of them actually deliver. You are a target, a walking wallet to an assortment of sundry, often shady enterprises. Maintaining your skepticism will help you avoid being scammed.

13. Pay your bills on time. Preferably a couple of days before they are due. Get in the habit and you’ll avoid late fees, collection calls, dings to your credit rating.

14. Safely handle a firearm. Guns are not everyone’s cup of tea, but you’d be surprised at how tasty the tea is once you try a sip. There’s a  mystique about guns thanks to the anti-gun media, and it’s one that isn’t based on reality. The reality is that like any tool they have their uses. Knowing your way around a handgun or rifle de-mystifies them. They are tools with a purpose, and just as you wouldn’t think about playing with a running chain-saw (at least while you’re sober) if you treat guns with the same respect you will have nothing to fear from them. As an ex anti-gun person who is now a card-carrying member of the NRA, take my word for it. Even if you decide you do not want a firearm in your house, learning about them will help you make an informed decision.

15. Learn a poem by heart. I’m not sure why it’s important, but trust me, it is. In college I memorized Theodore Roethke’s I Knew a Woman, and every time I recite that poem something stirs deep within me.  It’s not meant to be explicable, just experienced. “She moved in circles, and those circles moved.” Delightful!

16. Avoid socializing with emotional vampires. I first saw that term used years ago in a Harlan Ellison book where he recommended this, and experience has taught me the wisdom in this statement. You have to recognize that there are people you can’t save. Often these people don’t want to be saved or merely exist by feeding on the kindness shown to them by their friends and family members. In the end they will suck you dry of your money, your love, or your mental well-being, leaving you a drained corpse while they move on to their next victim. Whether it’s a family member or friend, run don’t walk away from these people and cut them out of your life.

17. Memorize the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. Not only does it sound charlie-oscar-oscar-lima when you say it, it also helps people understand you when you’re talking on the phone. I find it ironic that while telephones have improved and become more mobile thanks to the invention of the cell phone and its evolution into the smartphone, call quality hasn’t improved. If anything it’s gotten worse, so knowing the phonetic alphabet will help you order the right item on a website, or help guarantee your name is spelled correctly on a form.

18. Learn how to ride a motorcycle. Yes they are dangerous. According to a UK study motorcycles have 16 times the rate of serious injuries compared to cars. According to most motorcyclists though, they are at least 16 times more fun to ride. There is nothing quite like the joy of riding a motorcycle on the open road.  A motorcycle makes you feel a part of a landscape instead of feeling apart from it, puts you in it instead of seeing it through panes of safety glass in a steel cocoon. While I wouldn’t dream about using a motorcycle to commute to work with on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia, I’m glad I own one for the occasional times when I just want to escape. Oh, and another thing: You can’t multi-task on a motorcycle. Being on a bike forces you to enjoy the moment in a way a car cannot.

19. Keep a pet. Keeping a pet forces you to think about something else besides yourself. If you’ve never had a pet before start with something small and easy like a goldfish and work your way up. Seriously. Don’t immediately adopt that cute Jack Russell you saw outside the Petsmart; you have to work your way up to high maintenance animals like that. Oh, and never pay for a dog or cat unless its to cover spay/neutering or other vet costs. There is no shortage of these animals, and while I recognize that most breeders are decent people who care about animals, the reality is that the shelters are full of animals needing homes.

20. Live in a foreign country. Nothing teaches you about your own country like living outside of it. Sure you’ll learn about your host country, but you will become a window through which others see yours. You’ll be surprised at what they say and think about your country and your people, and you’ll gain a new perspective on what being a citizen of your country means.

21. Learn how to wait. Most of life isn’t exciting and the fact is you will spend a lot of time waiting. There are several kinds of waiting – waiting for the right man/woman to come into your life, waiting for better times… But the waiting I refer to here is of the more mundane variety such as what to do while waiting in line. The next time you are in line at the grocery store watch what others do while they wait. The majority fidget, checking their phones or the headlines on the tabloids. Hardly anyone relaxes or simply observes the world around them. I’ve been told that veteran soldiers become the masters of handling down times like waiting. They’ve been trained to use the free time to rest their minds, even sleep when possible, so that the next time things get exciting they will be mentally alert. When I’m feeling particularly Zen I like to practice mindful meditation, focus on my breathing and allow the world to happen around me as if I were a leaf on a pond. But since I suck at Zen I struggle just like everyone else. Like all of these items on this list I am learning to perfect this skill which isn’t easy to do since my monkey mind is rather gorilla sized.

22. Study a foreign language. As my friend PJ suggests in the comments, this is a life skill worth trying. I stress “trying” because I’ve never come close to speaking a foreign language fluently the way my friends like PJ or the Wife (who’s fluent in several) have done. Learning a foreign language has many benefits, some more obvious than others depending on circumstances. But regardless of what you study you will see the world from a different perspective, even if you never attain fluency. Take Japanese. I never came close to mastering it, but learning the basics of the language taught me some key assumptions. For example, in most cases “I” is never used and is implied. This ambiguity touches upon the cultural trait of the Japanese stressing the group over the individual. The language also relies upon honorofics,  for example the “-san”, “-chan” and “-sama” suffixes that portray the rank of the speaker and whom he or she is speaking to. Japanese conveys the social contexts of the speaker and the listener in ways that are impossible or at best archaic in other languages. Think Downton Abbey for a taste in English.

23. Listen to an old person. I know people who met people who had been born into slavery. Others I’ve talked to remember life without indoor plumbing. While waiting for a car repair to finish I once talked to a Vietnam vet who flew psyops over North Vietnam. What’s better than talking to someone about history who’s lived it? For most of our history as a species the only history books we had were our elderly. The only problem with these “books” is that often by the time we need them, they’re gone. It’s a cliche to attack our youth-centric culture, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the frivolity of youth as long as we keep the more important of life’s decisions in the hands of those who appreciate history and the sense of proportion such knowledge brings. Everyone has elders. Get them talking about a particular subject they are interested in, then listen to them. You might learn something.

 24. Patronize an unknown artist. Perhaps there’s a street musician you pass by on the way home who is playing music you like. Don’t just toss him a buck; buy his CD if he has one laying out. Visit art fairs and art shows that spring up locally and put some of your hard-earned cash into the hands of a skilled but unknown artist or craftsman. Instead of buying a poster of a dead artist, buy an actual print of a living one. We live in an age of mass production where few things are handcrafted. Even things that were once hand made like prints of the Masters are now mass produced. We are human beings, each crafted through evolution by genetics to be one of a kind. We should celebrate this not hide it  behind some cheap prints picked up at Ikea. There are artists in every community who are doing amazing, unique things in their preferred medium. Each piece purchased is guaranteed to be one of a kind and makes more of a personal statement than the same French Cat poster that everyone displays (I admit I used to display it too).

25. Challenge yourself. It might be to do something easy like take a different route home from work, or it can be more difficult like quitting smoking or starting the novel you’ve always wanted to write. The key point here is to force yourself out of your comfort zone and do something that will surprise your friends, your family and ultimately yourself.  It really doesn’t matter if you succeed or not, only that you tried. And once you’ve quit smoking, taken that out of the way route home or written that novel, try something else. I’m teaching myself the mathematics behind quantum physics because I’ve reached a point where I feel I need to understand the math in order to understand the physics better. My goal is to someday touch the math describing the collapse of the wave function. That will be enough for me.

26. (For IT professionals). Learn New Programs/Tools Quickly. Every program or software tool has a unique logic to it. The only way to discover that logic is to use the program as much as possible. You can start by reading the manual, a Dummies book or similar guide, or even reviewing YouTube videos but nothing beats actually using the tool or program as much as you can. What I like to do when I pick up a new program is where the dragons be. These are the places where you’re guaranteed to break something. Learn whee it is then avoid that area. The more intrepid make a beeline for those places and claim they can learn a program or tool much faster by working on the edge. In my view this is selfish when dealing with a distributed tool on a network, so keep to the safe areas unless you are working on your own copy on your own machine. Not only will this skill enhance your earnings potential, but each tool you learn makes others that much easier to learn and the more tools and experience you have, the more important you become in your realm.

 

Life Lesson in 17 Minutes

A chat session between the Kid and me this morning.


8:32 am Kid: High school is in lockdown, teacher said this wasn’t planned. Probably just a drill though, don’t worry.


8:33 am Me: Are the doors locked?


8:37 am Kid: Yes


8:37 am Me: Are you near a window you can escape through?


8:39 am Kid: We’re in the corner but I can get out the window. I’m on the floor where the roof is right outside. I could get through the window and jump down to the patio area.


8:39 am Me: Ok, so you have an escape plan.  Good. Any unusual sounds?


8:41 am Kid: Drill sign hasn’t been given like it’s supposed to during a drill. And it’s been a bit long.


8:42 am Me: How is the teacher reacting?


8:44 am Kid: She’s actually pretty scared. I’m calm though. She said it could be a threatening parent in the office.


8:45 am Me: Does the door have a window in it? Is it possible to break the window and reach in to unlock the door?


8:49 am Kid: Door can be opened from the inside. All clear sign given. No one knew about this. Cops are here.


8:50 am Me: Good job keeping a cool head.


8:50 am Kid: They said it was a realistic drill. 5 cops with cars outside.


8:52 am Me: Always keep a cool head. First thing is to breath deeply to stay calm. Second thing is to figure out your escape route. You did both. Excellent job son.


9:01 am. Kid: Thanks dad.


What he doesn’t know is that at 8:45 I called the police department. No one answered. He also doesn’t know how close I was to heading to the school but I kept a cool head too.


I’m reminded of the Kipling poem, “If”


If…

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—-and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—-and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—-nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—-which is more—-you’ll be a Man, my son!
—Rudyard Kipling

The Entitlement Mindset

I normally ignore any headline with a number in it, but the following article is an exception. 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person should be required reading for everyone, especially those new to the workforce. Alec Baldwin is a world-class @sshat, and while I disagree with the article writer that it’s the greatest scene in movie history (better than Roy Batty’s speech in Blade Runner? The Wagnerian assault on the VietCong outpost in Apocalypse Now? Any scene from Casablanca?) it’s an amazing scene. Now I want to close some real estate…

Everyday my wife deals with extremely poor people on medicaid who feel entitled to everything. They’ve got thousands of dollars in tattoos covering their torsos but they can’t afford the $3 office visit copay. The local free clinic has gone bust, and the local non-profit hospital is circling the drain because people won’t pay their bills. Oh but they are poor, right?

I’ve seen poor. I’ve walked the streets of Dar es Salaam and seen beggar children missing limbs, victims of the civil war in Mozambique, who are moved around the city by their pimps. I’ve been in smoky mud huts that people have lived in their entire lives who scratch out just enough from the soil outside to survive. Medical care was a fantasy for them because they couldn’t make it to the towns where it was offered by the NGOs or government. Trust me on this: compared to what you’ll see in sub-Saharan African, there is no poverty in America.

When I came back to America from living abroad for 5 years I remember riding the train into Philadelphia through Chester PA and being shocked by the rubble that passed for the city. That’s not poverty, at least as defined by the lack of money. The citizens in Chester were rich compared to the street families in Dar, what they were suffering from was a poverty of ambition. They were stuck in a hell all right, but not the one that progressives and liberals believe. It’s one that money can’t solve – as proven by the trillions spent on the War on Poverty that has led only to a complete surrender. Money can’t fix attitude nor can it light a fire within that compels one to better one’s situation.

I currently live in one of the poorest areas of the country. We moved here at least partly due to a noble cause. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate, and I figured that we would do what we had done in Africa. Not only would the Wife treat the sick, but we’d plow our incomes back into the community. While conducting research in the Bush we expanded the research payroll with our personal funds, knowing that each person we hired would then be able to support their families. We hired anyone who could do anything. If you could wield a panga you could cut trails. If you could walk you could earn money simply by walking around the forest listening for the chimps. We paid young men to dig trenches around the research camp. For a year the people of the Kasiha village in the Mahale Mountains had some security in their lives, and they appreciated it. They were hard workers and protective of idiot Americans stumbling around in the Bush like myself. We left with $20 and no regrets.

Here in North Carolina I have had trouble finding people willing to cut my hay fields. I bought a hardwood stove but then had to take it back because I couldn’t find anyone willing to install it. After one of my dogs was killed along the road I asked a local carpenter to extend the fencing, a $3,000 job. He blew me off and never showed. Other property owners have the same trouble finding anyone willing to work. One said, “No one wants to work when the government pays them to sit at home.” Some have taken to hiring illegals, but I refuse to do that because I have a moral issue with it.

Yet these same people traipse into the Wife’s office and demand MRIs and expensive tests and procedures without knowing what they are asking for. When she refuses they question her judgment, as if they had gone through 4 years of undergraduate studies, 2 years of pre-med prep, 4 years of medical school, 3 years of residency and internship and 4 years of practicing as an attending. She brings 17 years of training into the exam room, yet these people disrespect her and her staff.

Disrespect. Dis as the verb. As the article above points out, respect is something earned by what you can do, not your intrinsic qualities. My Wife earns respect because she knows how to tell the difference between a harmless common cold and life-threatening pneumonia. 17 years of training has honed her clinical skills to the point where she now has instincts that have saved people’s lives. Seriously saved lives. I know of a handful of incidents including one where she had to battle an insurance company for a test that proved a cancer diagnosis. What have her patients made besides children, and it takes two of them to do that?

Anyone who demands respect doesn’t deserve it. If you are feeling dis’d it’s because you’ve done nothing worthy of respect. If you want to be respect, do something deserving of it.

2013 Posts That Went Nowhere

I decided to clean out my draft folder as part of my end-of-year housecleaning, a practice I picked up while living in Japan where housewives work hard to start the New Year with a clean house in contrast to the western practice of waiting until the end of Winter. Writing for this journal doesn’t follow any particular routine. Sometimes the words flow; other times each one comes out snarling and biting. Often I’ll start a post without knowing where it’s going, only finding in retrospect what my subconscious had planned. What follows are posts where I thought I knew where they were headed only to find myself stranded in a desert without a map or cell phone coverage. Here are the results.

The Clash of Western and Islamic Values – Part 2 – April 2013

The first part of this series is here.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This has come to be interpreted as the separation of Church and State put forth by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 in which Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Secular Christians can trace this doctrine back even further, to Jesus Christ’s answer to the Pharisees seeking to entrap him. “Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.” Matthew 22:15-22. This doctrine was later expanded upon by St. Augustine writing four centuries later noting  the differences between an “earthly city” and the “City of God.” Martin Luther took St. Augustine’s ideas even further in his Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms which postulated that God worked his will through secular institutions as well as through divine acts. Luther also promoted secularism in his book “On Secular Authority,” writing that a government could not force spiritual beliefs on someone because such beliefs would be held insincerely and would therefore be invalid in God’s eyes. Luther’s ideas would then be picked up by John Calvin and other Protestant reformers, and later James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the United States.

Even with a relatively clear and consistent philosophical lineage the United States has struggled with the concept of separation of Church and State almost since its inception. For the first hundred years of the Republic the First Amendment was viewed as applying specifically to the federal government; states were free establish official religions. Massachusetts supported Congregationalism until 1833. States continued supporting religion by enacting Blue Laws, abiding by religious holidays and providing other public concessions to religious groups. The Supreme Court finally began to weigh in on the issue, ruling in Reynolds v. United States (1878) that state laws prohibiting bigamy trumped religious laws (Mormonism in this case) that allowed it. It banned school prayer in public schools in its rulings in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). Since then the Supreme Court has delineated a distinct line between religion and secular society. Nevertheless that line continues to be defined by lawsuits challenging the legality of public religious displays and the wearing of religious head coverings on the job.

Islam is quite different…

Classic Parables Revisited: Teach A Man To Fish: April 2013

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie

Sir, why where did you get that fish? Do you have a fishing license? Sir. Turn around. TURN AROUND! HANDS ON YOUR HEAD! NOW ON YOUR KNEES! ON YOUR F***ING KNEES SIR!... You have the right to remain silent…

Give a man a fish, unless he’s a vegan in which case you might want to consider a protein substitute such as soy or seitan. I’m not sure about the rest of the parable though since both require extensive farming and production skills.

Give a man a fish? Sure go right ahead and pull a helpless animal out from its environment and murder it. How would you like it if a being plucked you out of your house, suffocated you and laid you on a plate, you speciesist!

Give a man a fish, but only after obtaining the necessary permits from the Interior Department and your state’s Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Since you will not be consuming this fish, you will therefore have to acquire permits for safe food handling and storage. Was the fish immediately refrigerated upon its catch? Can you guarantee that everyone who touched the fish did so with clean gloved hands? Has the fish itself been tested for toxins, particularly mercury which tends to accumulate in the food chain? As a food distributor you will also be subject to additional local, state and federal laws controlling the safe distribution of foodstuffs. Have your facilities been inspected by these relevant authorities and have the forms been filled out? Can you prove with 100% accuracy and certainty that all documentation of your seafood distribution service is on file with the appropriate state, local and federal authorities?

Give a man a fish just make sure both you and the man claim it on your taxes, otherwise he could be subject to penalties including fines and jail time for failure to report income.

Give a man a fish? How about a woman or those of undetermined gender? Would you have them starve – or do you relish your traditional role in a male-dominated hierarchy as provider?

Why I’m a Gun Owner and Member of the NRA - May 2013

I grew up in suburban St. Louis in a household that never owned guns. My father served in the Philippines in World War 2 and brought back a Japanese sword as a souvenir, which he sold for a pittance in 1972 because he was afraid I’d find it and hurt myself with it. During my teens it was probably a good thing that I didn’t have access to a gun because I suffered from depression after surviving several deaths in my family including that of my father. I was different, nerdy and bookish in a world before nerds became billionaires and elevated their social status. Dungeons and Dragons? I played it for nights on end. Science Fiction? Some of the best books I’ve ever read.

I attended college in San Diego. I worked part time at a video store in La Jolla, and was robbed at gunpoint for $500 and two videotapes while making $4.25/hour. I was so scared I couldn’t leave my apartment for three days and ended up quitting my job. I lived in a gay neighborhood in San Diego although not gay myself. As a social outcast I had like many found acquaintances with other social misfits and out-of-the-closet gays have always been a welcoming group for those who accept them for who they are. One summer a group of youths were attacking gay men with baseball bats, and killed an 18 year old boy a block away from my apartment. It was the first time in my life I ever considered owning a gun because just how is a single person going to fight off a gang of toughs? And they weren’t asking questions to verify their target was a homosexual, like “Can you name the bar where Liza Minelli’s character sings in Cabaret?” Or “Who is the Divine Miss M?” (Answers: Kit-Kat Klub, Bette Midler) I ended up attending a candle-light vigil in his memory soon after, and marched in a parade against gay bashing although the attacks continued. I left San Diego and the country soon afterward.

In Tanzania we lived in an extremely isolated research camp on Lake Tanganyika accessible only by a 6 hour trip by speedboat. The greatest threat we faced there was leopards. The Wife found a large male a few times on the trails, and I walked into a female with cubs on a path alone one day. She growled, and I froze before slowly edging backwards out of sight and running like hell back to camp. There were no guns where we were, even though we lived among wild chimpanzees and other African animals that place humans on the menu, with hippos being the greatest threat we faced while traveling the lake. About two years after our stay the camp was raided and researchers were held hostage by Congolese pirates, and since then researchers have had armed guards on site.

After returning to Delaware a friend of mine got me interested in target shooting, but I didn’t shoot or own a gun for years. During that time I came out of my bank and passed a black woman wearing a full burqa going into the neighboring bank. I learned later that she robbed it. I was also once behind a man at a local WaWa who had numerous Nazi and white power tattoos on his neck and face. My gut instincts were going wild; the guy was clearly such bad news and I half expected him to rob the store. He didn’t, was polite to the black cashier and left. I couldn’t get out of the store fast enough. A few days later three black women were attacked while on their way home from church in downstate Delaware. The suspect in custody was the tattooed Nazi at the Wawa.

I took up target shooting because of the challenge. That friend of mine told me with practice everyone can achieve 90% mastery of a firearm, but every point of that last 10% requires much more. It’s just you and the target, with the variable being you. The gun can be sighted and turned into a constant. Ditto the ammunition which is so precisely made that any two rounds in a box will fire with the same velocity. It is all about breathing, self-control, awareness – all very familiar to anyone who has studied Zen. When in the zone, there is nothing else but you and the target. The gun becomes just a means for you to place the hole you see in your mind on the paper target down range. A bystander would think it’s nuts to speak about Zen and mindfulness with guns, but you have to experience both to believe it for yourself and see that it’s really not as crazy as it seems. I just wish I was better at both. I indulged myself with a membership at an indoor range, and the Kid and I would go once or twice a week to try different guns.

I didn’t purchase my first firearm until just before we moved to rural North Carolina in 2009. It was a Marlin .22 bolt-action rifle with scope, a good beginning gun according to the salesman at the gun range. It proved to be a very good gun, easy to learn on and very easy to get acquainted with the responsibilities that come with gun ownership. Renting a gun at the range was easy compared to ownership. Owning a gun meant that I had to clean it, zero-in the sights, and most importantly keep it safely. That meant storing it unloaded at all times with a locked cable running through the action with the key on my person but not on my key ring to keep it hidden.

The .22 led to to a pump action shotgun, a New England Arms 20 gauge that introduced us to skeet shooting. Shooting a moving target is much more of a challenge than a stationary one, and the Kid excelled at it shooting much better than me. Later we traded that shotgun in for a 12 gauge over/under when he joined the shooting team at his high school.

The third gun was a S&W M&P 15-22. This gun looks like an M-16 to the uneducated eye and use a 25 round magazine. Technically this is an assault rifle, although it’s difficult for me to consider as such. It is best used for target practice at close range (50-100 yards) with iron sights.

I then purchased a Ruger Mini-14, my first large caliber (.223 or 5.56mm) rifle that could be considered a true assault rifle. It is a serious gun that I originally bought to set off exploding targets but then proved useful in the bit of drama that I can’t go into detail about. It was this event that brought home the seriousness of guns for self-protection. The time between the 911 call and the arrival of the police was too long and during that time we were in extreme danger. At the time I couldn’t determine whether the person I was helping was a threat or not, so I had to keep him outside where I could watch him as well as look out for the threat he had escaped from. I looked into the foggy darkness surrounding our home and I wanted the ability to if necessary throw up a curtain of lead. For that reason I purchased the Saiga 12 with extended magazine. The Saiga 12 is a Russia semi-automatic shotgun modeled on the AK-47. With a large cap magazine, it could done exactly what I needed that night where my targets would have been shapes moving through the dark fog. I purchased it soon after the incident and added a drum barrel that holds 20 rounds, a mix of slugs and 00 buck shot.

Another need the drama pointed out was a secondary weapon, a handgun. I am not a big fan of handguns because they are much more prone to accidents than a rifle. But the incident showed a need for something small that I could resort to if I became separated from my rifle. To that end I have become a serious fan of Glocks which are guaranteed not to fail when you need them the most.

What is almost impossible for anyone who is not familiar with guns to understand is that all guns are not equal. Just because you have a gun doesn’t mean you can protect yourself or your family. For example, the Marlin is a great gun for shooting paper targets but at close range its scope is a hindrance to aiming as is the small capacity magazine. The .22 round is five one hundredths of an inch larger than a pellet fired from a pellet gun, and although it has more force behind it than its air-powered cousin, it lacks stopping power. On adrenaline or meth chances are a bad guy is not going to feel the round unless it penetrates his skull or chest. Even the M&P15-22, an assault rifle in .22 caliber is best employed against a squirrel invasion. Against a group of armed attackers it would be pretty much useless…

Power Outage: June 2013

My son alerted me to the coming storm with a cell phone call. “Are you off the road?” I asked, and he replied that the rain and wind were so bad he had pulled off into a parking lot. I told him to stay put until the worst had passed and hung up. I was driving home and saw the heavy black clouds above the Blue Ridge mountains. There’s dark blue storm clouds and then there’s black, and I knew whatever was heading my way was bad. This was confirmed by two alert  on the cell phone, warning of severe storms and a tornado watch.  At least the Kid was safe, as was the Wife, so I raced home to beat the storm.

It came quicker than expected sweeping through and knocking out power as it did so. Almost as soon as it began it was over. There was little rain that came with the storm, and looking out my office window I didn’t see much, so I stepped outside. Damage was worse than I thought. The ground was littered with small branches and leaves. The gas grill had been blown from one side of the deck to another. Several small trees had snapped behind the house, opening up a gap into the forest behind it. I took the car down the drive and found that several trees had fallen blocking my exit to the road. I drove back to the shed, grabbed a chain saw and as the rain and wind picked up I began cutting up the toppled and snapped Virginia Pines and Pin Oaks. Lightning crackled in the clouds above me, but there’s something about feeling trapped on your own property that stills the fear it would normally cause. In its place was dread, though. These straight line winds are bad in this part of America, earning them their own name: derecho. If things were this bad in my area, I expected them to be worse elsewhere. And I was right. At its height over 120,000 people were without power in central North Carolina.

Power outages are no fun no matter where you are, but they are worse in rural areas simply because when the power goes out, so does access to clean water since most of us rely upon electrically powered well pumps. Suddenly all those little life tasks one takes for granted like brushing one’s teeth or showering after working up a sweat in the garden become problematic. After four years here I had stored a few cases of drinking water in the basement, so I brought them up, instinctively and futilely clicking the light switch as I headed down into the dark basement. I used the dim light from my phone to guide me through the labyrinth that the basement had become in darkness, and retrieved the water, small plastic 500 ml bottles that aren’t the easiest thing to use for anything other than drinking.

The first night showering was not a problem for anyone but me, so I drove the ATV down to the pond with a bar of soap and towel. The pond is fed by runoff and has all kinds of critters in it including large carp and the occasional copperhead and snapping turtle, all things that a man considers especially carefully when stripping down and jumping into the shallows. My feet sank deeply into the muck but the water was warm and the fading sky ablaze with sunset. I had taken similar baths when I was much younger for a complete year in Africa, and there was a certain satisfaction from bathing naked in one’s own pond on one’s own property shielded on all sides by one’s own woods and hills.

The night was spent fitfully even though the storm had brought cooler temperatures. The Kid was hanging outside with a buddy, fishing in the pond in the middle of the night, listening to music on the car stereo, and other things, each of which sent the outside dogs into a panic. Animals are especially sensitive to rhythms and the power outage had thrown everyone’s off. The teens messing around outside sent the dogs into frenzies at various points in the night. Even after the kids had settled down the dogs were hyper alert, barking at anything and everything. This kept me in a constant state of low-level awareness as I lay half-awake in bed, waiting for the air conditioner to kick in, the ceiling fan to whirl, and the phone to beep – all sings of a return to normality.

But those signs hadn’t come yet in the morning, and the world doesn’t stop for those who haven’t slept well or been able to shower with clean water. Another problem reared itself: toilet flushing. It didn’t take too many flushes to release all the residual pressure from the water pipes, presenting us with another challenge. I took the ATV down to the pond with several buckets and an empty trashcan, filled the latter and brought it back up to the house. I then dispensed full buckets of pond water to the bathrooms to be used for flushing. Hand washing was another matter, and the small water bottles weren’t particularly up to the task but sufficed.

Then there was work. I ended up going to the Wife’s office but was refused usage of the secure wi-fi and the public was down, as was power to half of the town. Reports rolled in of people losing entire freezers full of deer, beef, chicken and other meats. The local Wal-Mart lost it’s entire frozen and refrigerated food sections, a loss of tens of thousands of dollars. “It’s such a waste,” the Wife said about the lost food, but what choice did anyone have? At least her office had electricity, so I rigged up my cell phone as a wi-fi hotspot, boosting my Verizon bill by $20 but allowing me to connect to my laptop to the servers it needs in order for me to work.

After 24 hours things were starting to look pretty grim. No power had been restored anywhere in the nearby counties as work focused in the cities and suburbs of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Rural communities sent their linemen and trucks to help return service to those areas while their own homes and families remained in the dark. The power company said most service would be restored after 4 days but warned that some might be without power for longer. The hotels in the area, at least the ones with power, began filling up, but on a holiday weekend at the busiest time for weddings there weren’t many spare rooms to begin with.  Instead we sent the Kid off to spend the night at a friend’s, and the Wife and I hunkered down for another sleepless night in the dark on our property.

The next morning…

Stupid Things

The text message came soon after the Wife arrived at work. One of her patients, a 17 year old boy, was in the ICU of a large hospital in a nearby city. She would be late tonight since she was going to make the hour long trip into the city to visit him. Details were scant. He had been in a dirt bike accident with injuries severe enough to warrant being airlifted from his rural home to the city. He is a good kid, right around the age of our child who happens to own a dirt bike.

The typical reaction to such stories is to blame the victim for his (and it’s invariably a “he”) stupid actions that resulted in the accident. But who hasn’t done stupid things as a 17 year old? And whose 17 year old has never done stupid things? Stupid things are what our children do, and most of the time they get away with it.

But sometimes they don’t and when they don’t very bad consequences follow. Nightmarish consequences for us parents.

The dinner will be cold when the Wife returns, and that’s okay. Better for her to share some warmth with her patient and his parents right now. She’s a doctor; it’s what she does.
———————————
She arrived at the hospital to the clipped sounds of a helicopter arriving, and by the time she made it to the ICU only a minute remained for visiting hours. She explained she was the boy’s* doctor, and apologized for arriving so late. The nurse smiled and led her down the hall to his room. She explained that over the weekend there had been six motorcycle accidents, six mangled bodies that had arrived along with the boy’s. Only two others besides him remained alive. His prognosis, she asked?  Several surgeries ahead of him. Worst of all likely paralysis.

She walked into the room and the first thing she noticed was her name on boy’s vitals monitor as his primary care physician. Pasted on the monitor was a Fox sticker, a brand of popular off-road clothing and accessories. Then her eyes fell upon her patient, and the lump where his left leg should have laid under the covers was flat. The rest of his body was swathed in various casts with leads and tubes dropping from his body. From beneath it all he smiled and said, “Ah, it’s my doctor.”

His grandmother stood up and welcomed the Wife into the room. She was a stern, strong looking woman who like many men and women her age had been forced to raise not just one but two generations of children. She explained the accident. The boy’s father had given him the bike years ago as a Christmas present, and as he had gotten older he had begun taking it on the road. He knew that dirt bikes were not made for the road. The knobbed tires were made to grip the sides of muddy hills but provided little traction on asphalt. But he had done it so many times that he had lost the sense of danger, giving him a false sense of safety. Early on a foggy weekend morning he took the dirt bike on the road as he had done many times before. This being haying season, large tractors are often found on roads throughout the day, moving from farm to farm to cut, spread and bale the hay eaten by the livestock in the state. By the time Brian saw the tractor it was too late. The bike slid out from under him but caught his left leg, flipping several times before dragging him under the tractor. The shaken farmer called 911.

The wife made small talk with her patient. They talked about how things, and she asked him how much he knew about his condition. He knew it was bad but like a typical 17 year old he knew he would come of it okay. He talked about getting back to school, seeing his friends, who already had begun to appear at his bedside, making the long trip from town. He had a future, and he was going to meet it. She said she’d check in on him in a few days, and left his bedside to speak to his grandmother in the hallway.

The grandmother was not as confident about her grandson’s future. Unlike him she knew what lay ahead, and so did the Wife. She began to cry, and so did the Wife. She is a mother after all too.

She left to the sound of chopper blades landing on the building rising above her, bringing more broken people, mangled dreams, and tears. Would the boy overcome the consequences of his stupidity? She had seen it happen before and would likely see it again. She kept that thought with her as she made the long journey home.

 

*Names and other identifying features and events have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

“Multiculturalism turns out to be a disguised form of white supremacy.”

James Taranto writing in the online Wall Street Journal:

A more abstract form of this parochialism is the multiculturalists’ frequent insistence that “only white people can be racist.” In this view, racism is perhaps the greatest moral failing of which human beings are capable—but nonwhites are absolved of moral responsibility for their racial prejudices.

But moral responsibility is the essence of humanity. It is what sets Homo sapiens apart from other animals. Assigning moral responsibility to whites while denying it to nonwhites is therefore a way of dehumanizing the latter. Multiculturalism turns out to be a disguised form of white supremacy.

I’ve personally found multiculturalists to be incredibly intolerant while rural Southerners, pilloried by the media and intellectual elite, as much more laid back and accepting of all kinds of differences. I think it’s because the poorer rural people are forced by necessity to get along with those of different ethnic, religious and ideological backgrounds because they can’t afford to live in like-minded, monocultural enclaves like Cambridge MA where NPR reigns (Speaking of which: I would bet that NPR employs more minorities than actually listen to it. Ever catch the names during a public radio pledge drive? Not a Jackson, Patel or Dominguez among those donating cash for coffee mugs and tote bags.)

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who said ““The wise man shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits is as wide as nature. The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man,” except in this case, the multiculturalist prides him/herself as being more equal than others.

To The Father of The Girl I Drove Behind on a Rural Highway in the Rain

I was in the mood for stir-fry and decided to hit the local food market that seems to have everything you need even though the store itself is tiny, and I wasn’t going to let a heavy rain stop me from getting some fresh vegetables. On my way to the market I turned on a rural highway that runs quite straight between a secondary road and a small town where the market is. The rain was pretty steady, and even though I often take that straight-away at least twice a day and rarely drive the speed limit, the rain makes the road slick, and there is quite a bit of on-coming traffic because it is one of the main thoroughfares through the county.

Ahead of me the driver caught my eye because the road is straight yet the car weaved into the oncoming lane. At first I figured he or she was avoiding a puddle or a down tree branch, but then he did it again, and again. I’d come upon the wet tire tracks and they were clearly as much as half-way into the on-coming traffic lane.  The car was a late-90’s model Nissan, tan with a faded butterfly sticker in the center of the back window. I began to pay closer attention but I continued to make excuses. Perhaps she (because what man, at least in rural North Carolina drives with a butterfly sticker on his car) wasn’t paying attention because there was no on-coming traffic at the time, but that theory was blown when she stayed in the opposite lane while a black truck appeared at the top of the hill. I sped up and flashed my lights at her and the truck, hoping that either one of them would respond and avoid a collision. She swerved back into her lane a few instants before coming upon the truck, and I was pissed.

On this very rural two-lane highway my elderly neighbor lost her daughter in a head-on crash 15 years ago. Rural roads like this, two lane highways with only a double yellow line separating drivers moving 55-75 mph in opposite directions, are some of the most dangerous roads in America, and why rural driving is responsible for more fatalities than city or suburban driving. As the parent of a 16 year old in a rural area I am perhaps a bit more sensitive than others when it comes to the topic, but fear is only a problem when it’s unwarranted.

I sped up and hoped that I could at least get her license number, but I couldn’t safely catch up to her and see through the rain. As we approached the small town the speed limit drops in 10 mph increments until it’s 35 mph at the edge where a gas station and the food market sit, but she ignored the speed drops continuing on in the rain at 60+ mph, swerving several times along the way. The local police often hang out at the gas station, but of course today they didn’t, so her flying past it at 25 mph above the speed limit went on noticed by the Law. So much for also cornering her and confronting her personally if she pulled into the gas station or the market.

I debated calling 911. I’ve done so in the past but usually in places and at times when the police are more of a presence. Sunday afternoon in a small town in the rain with no license number nor a good description of the vehicle other than a butterfly sticker isn’t going to likely lead to her being pulled over. Thankfully someone pulled in front of her and at least made her slow down as she headed into the center of town, and so I pulled into the food market feeling frustrated and not very hungry anymore.

I don’t think she was drunk; drunk drivers usually don’t veer towards one particular side of a lane the way she did, but instead drift from side to side as likely to run onto the shoulder as cross the center line. She was too far ahead of me to see exactly what she was doing but I suspect that she was texting, looking down at her phone then looking up and jerking the wheel and over-steering. Even if I had confronted her in the parking lot I doubt I’d have done much good. I’m a middle-aged bald guy, making it impossible to leave any impression on people half my age or less. I’m pretty sure I’m invisible to them even if I am steaming mad.

So instead what I really wanted to do was talk to her dad, a man likely close to my age. On the way home with my bag of veggies I composed this to him.

I’m a complete stranger to you but there is something that binds you and me together. We both have a kid, and chances are you love your daughter almost as much as I love my son. What I saw today would have made your blood run cold because it sure scared me. The rain was heavy, the road slick, but your daughter was driving as if it were dry pavement seemingly more interested in something other than the 1 1/2 tons of plastic and sheet metal she was flying down a 35 mph road at 65 mph in.

Did you get her that car for her 16th birthday? Was it a graduation present? When you visited the car dealer and she was excitedly checking out the car that you would buy for her, did you imagine her lifeless body collapsed inside of it? Did you imagine me, a complete stranger pulling over and dialing 911 in a panic before running out and trying to pull her from the twisted wreckage?

Or how about the black truck she made a bee-line for at speed. What if she hadn’t looked up and corrected her driving? What if you not only learned that you had lost a daughter but that she had taken someone out with her, someone else’s child or a young family? You hear the local news; you know what goes around here. Things like this happen all the time. Those crosses and flowers along side our roads don’t get put there and tended for no reason.

But today you got lucky. Your daughter made it home and you’re none the wiser about what I witnessed this afternoon a few miles from my home where my teenage son is texting his friends about the cars he’s looking at. Ignorance isn’t bliss when every time that girl grabs the keys is a dice roll. For men like you and me the dice we throw have many more sides; the odds are in our favor. But those our children throw are much smaller with fewer sides, and the likelihood of our nightmare becoming real is much, much greater. Your daughter’s odds aren’t very good judging by what I saw today. I don’t know whether the failure is yours, or your wife’s or the state of North Carolina for handing that girl a license. But whomever is to blame the crushing pain that lays in your future will be yours alone to bear.

I can only hope – no pray and I don’t do that much given my beliefs – that you somehow see what I saw today for yourself, and get those keys away from that girl for her own sake, yours, and mine – because next time that may not be a black truck she heads for it might be my son’s, and in an instant we won’t be complete strangers anymore.

 

The Alarm System

The barking drifts into my dream where it’s incorporated into the plot, but as it lasts I know something in real life is wrong and I force myself to awaken. I come out of my sleep grudgingly, and check the time: 3:30am. The barking is louder now, almost frenzied, and I can tell the dogs are excited. I am no Doctor Doolittle, but spend time with your animals and pay enough attention to them and you’ll understand how they communicate. Whatever it is that has them riled up is new, but has them scared. I dress and grab a high-power flashlight and open the gun safe. Bears are known in these parts and one was sighted on the property next to mine, so I grab the .223. I have no intention of shooting a bear if I come upon one, but I choose the tool necessary in case I need to protect myself or the dogs.

The night is clear and moonless, and all the constellations in the sky are the ones I’ll be seeing next season at a more opportune viewing time. I click the flashlight and scan. “Blue” the pack coward, the one I rescued and intended to become the guard of the pack, is at the edge of the clearing leading into the woods barking wildly. She runs back towards me, obviously relieved to see me, then runs forward in a vain attempt to prove she’s fierce. She’s not but I love her anyway. I call to the dogs, and shine the light forward. The beagle appears, her eyes catching the light and glowing somewhat demonically. A demonic beagle. Not exactly the hellhound of ancient mythology, and I’d appreciate the irony if my heart wasn’t throbbing in my ears and I wasn’t scared to the point where each step became like trudging through sand. Hearing my arrival the frenzy of the pack reaches a crescendo. Now the dogs want to show their bravery and I’m worried that they are going to do something stupid and get hurt. A dog is no match for a bear’s claw which can gut it from nose to tail with a single swipe. I push through the underbrush, thorns catching my jeans and cutting my arms as I hold the flashlight in one hand and the rifle in the other. I begin to regret my choice of weapon. A .223 round has too much velocity and will pass through an animal and put me at risk of hitting one of my own dogs. Perhaps the .12 gauge with buckshot would have been the wiser choice. But what do I know about guns; I grew up in the suburbs and even at the age of 12 my mother forbade buying a toy gun from the local Ben Franklin that shot pea sized rubber balls a whole 5 yards for fear I’d hurt myself with it. I’m learning as I go along.

Self doubt mixes with fear as the barking grows louder, but at least the adrenaline dulls the pain from the thorny vines. I push forward and catch in the light the stray shepherd I feed but who will not let us touch. He’s perhaps the toughest dog of the pack, and by far the wiliest given that he freely roams the surrounding area. But he defers to the dog I believe is his sister, a shepherd chow mix I rescued at the nearby bridge, and the pack alpha, a lab/border collie mix who used to be too scared to go into our backyard to pee in the suburbs at night without the Wife or me being with her. They are dancing and barking around the base of a tree, leaping up in a vain attempt to catch what shelters in its limbs above them. I raise the light expecting to see a huge brown mass of fur.

And find a snarling mouth full of sharp teeth in a long grey snout followed by a loud cat-like hiss.

A possum. The dogs treed a possum. All this over a possum? Possums may not look particularly dangerous when they are squished on the side of the road, but when they are up close to your face, those sharp teeth and claws are pretty scary, so scary in fact that hillbillies in these parts are known to get drunk and catch them by hand for fun. I thought this was a myth until a mid-level told the Wife about finding her husband covered in scratches one night with a can of beer in one hand and a possum by the tail in the other, grinning proudly. Different strokes for different folks I suppose.

Well my pack isn’t exactly the smartest and they are still learning the woods, and honestly I’m too relieved and tired to care. I don’t have to shoot anything, and no one, including the possum, is going to get hurt this morning. I call to the dogs and convince them one by one to leave the tree, and follow me back into the house. Eventually there’s just the shepherd, and he’s got better things to do than mess with a possum, so he’s the last to follow me back to the house where he stops at the edge of the driveway.

It’s now 4:00am, and the dogs are still excited, running around inside the house and barking as if they had won a great battle. And perhaps they had in their own little doggie minds; I was too tired to convince them otherwise. I locked the gun back up, undressed and returned to bed, assured that something even as small as a possum would not escape notice by my pack. It’s not the best alarm system in the world, and heaven knows it’s not cheap given the cost of dog food and vet bills, but it works.

The Last Post of the Year

The household is in grief over the death of our alpha dog, a chihuahua we rescued almost six years ago. He was old and epileptic when we found him, but he packed a lot of personality in that little body of his. He was loyal to everyone but like most chi’s he devoted most of his time to a single individual, and for us that was the Wife, usually sleeping behind behind her knees. He was extremely active and playful, running with us as we walked the upper field in the cold air yesterday evening. He was fearless, and crept off into the night while we weren’t looking after dinner, traveling an eighth of a mile for reasons unknown in the cold and dark to the road where he was hit by a car. I found him laying beside the road, alive but severely injured. A hair-raising drive to the emergency vet was for naught, and we had to put him to sleep.

2012 was a year of brutality. It started for us with the execution style slaying of a man nearby, followed by the killing of a rescued dog that had somehow had slipped our protection and was leapt upon by some of my upper-ranking females and died at the vet. The Wife’s sister was found dead in a Las Vegas parking lot. And now this. Friends have also suffered similar tragedies this year with pets and loved ones. Then there’s the local tragedy where a woman moved into a home and ran a portable generator in the house, killing her two children and almost dying herself. Expanding outward there is Sandy Hook of course and Aurora, and abroad the horrors of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mali and Syria. The Buddha taught that Life means suffering, and for some reason 2012 demanded more suffering both great and small than most years. I am amazed, stunned, horrified, disappointed and disgusted with the world, and I only wish the New Age Doomers had been right about the Apocalypse last week.

With my last breath of the year I am left speechless except to say, “2012: F*** You.”

The Health Care Rebellion Begins

By the time most of you read this the outcome of tomorrow’s election will be known. Regardless of who wins America’s health care system is still a wreck and closer than ever to the river catching fire point of no return where revolutionary change is inevitable – and even welcomed by some including me.

Recently a local non-profit hospital announced changes to its health insurance plan as it has every fall for years. With each announcement its employees inevitably pay higher premiums for a higher deductible that covers less. It’s a situation that employees in the private sector are familiar with, at least those that work for companies that are large enough to provide access* to health insurance.

To set the stage of the current benefit situation requires a quick review of recent history. Earlier in the past decade the hospital underwent expansion, adding scores of beds and a complete revamping of the ER. It also went on spending spree, buying up private practices and recruiting doctors to the area to open new ones. I’m not sure what drove this expansion. The hospital sits in one of the poorest areas of North Carolina that has for decades suffered high unemployment and increased dependence on government programs such as Medicaid at a time when payments to providers by Medicaid have been cut. Word was that there was a generation of doctors planning to retire, and that may have influenced the hospital’s plans. But the declining stock market and insurance reimbursement cuts meant that many of those physicians are still practicing today because they can’t afford to retire. In addition, the hospital competes with other rural regional hospitals less than 30 minutes away, plus the cancer, pediatrics and state-of-the-art trauma centers at Wake Forest and Baptist in Winston-Salem less than an hour away. The result of this expansion is a massive overhang of debt, a tiny patient census, plus the massive drain caused by too many providers chasing a decreasing pool of privately insured patients.

The HR department had assembled some of the hospital staff for a benefits presentation. As the changes sunk in the audience turned hostile, shouting at the presenters and demanding that the plan be rescinded. The HR representative took the podium and reportedly said, “Y’all are lucky we provide health insurance at all.”

She had a point. Starting in 2014 the hospital could opt out of providing access to health insurance and pay a penalty for each employee. I’ve looked around to determine what that penalty is (it’s $2k for small business owners for 50 employees or less but I haven’t been able to find it for companies with more than 50 employees), but if the cost of providing access is less than that penalty the hospital could save money by paying the penalty rather than offering access to insurance. Paying the penalty would not only save it the costs of subsidizing  insurance, it would also reduce administration expenses because administering the payment of a variable health insurance payment every paycheck is a lot more expensive than simply paying a flat penalty once a year to the IRS. Knowing what I know about back-office operations of large companies, the cost of administering health care is likely a significant chunk of that $2000 penalty per employee, so such a fine would have to be double or perhaps triple the small business tax for it to deter ending health coverage and dumping employees into the public pool.** If I were the CEO of the hospital it’s an option I’d consider as many CEOs of companies are doing. Expect this number to rise over the coming months before the provisions go into effect in 2014.

In an economically depressed area the hospital, being the area’s largest employer has the economic upper hand when it comes to lower-skill staff. But the same is not true of its physician assistants, primary care doctors and highly trained specialists. These people are also employees and notice when their insurance premiums go up, but have a much more mobile, in-demand skill-set than medical assistants, orderlies and the like. Working in a rural setting isn’t very popular among these groups to begin with, which is why rural doctors are supposed to earn more than their urban and suburban peers. When that premium disappears, these highly-trained professionals will disappear too, voting with their feet and moving to more lucrative positions elsewhere. Doctors are human; they get sick and need treatment, and when their co-pays on medicine rise to $50 per prescription per month, they notice it. Rural charm only goes so far and unfortunately can’t be used to pay down $300k of student loans. Doctors aren’t happy with the current system as providers, and when they aren’t happy as patients either you know the system is screwed.

But people have been predicting the doom of the American health care system for at least 20 years since the HMOs appeared on the scene and were supposed to reign in costs, and we all know how well that worked. I have opposed Obamacare since its inception, but the more I examine the legislation the more I believe that it may in the end be “good” for the American economy in the longer term by bringing about the end of the American health system as we know it and allowing us to start from scratch.

The Paranoid wing of the Obamacare Opposition believes this is what Obama intended all along, that expanding Medicaid while cutting reimbursements to doctors and at the same time driving companies out of providing access to health insurance the President would wreck the system to the point where people would be clamoring for a federal government takeover of Medicine. It’s not a bad idea if it wasn’t for the fact that a) it requires a complex game-plan built using information that could only be predicted in retrospect (had Ted Kennedy not died chances are Obamacare would have been much more socialist), and b) the government is broke bailing out Obama’s well-connected friends the rest of the Economy that the only way to do it is it to kick Zimbabwe off their printing presses and print dollars like the North Korean Army on a methamphetamine binge. Far more likely that Obama handed the task to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid so that he could play golf and read glowing pieces on his greatness in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and that the Democrats made sausage out of their hopes and dreams distilled from liberal utopias in the states of New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and California. Since these states are all now circling the drain financially a federal government takeover of the health care system is impossible. It’s a shame because laissez-faire libertarian I may be, I have in the past argued for socialized medicine. The citizens of Japan paid for the birth of the Kid, and since they nearly shot my father dead in a foxhole in the Philippines during the War I’ll consider us even. The Dean’s World’s archives are scrambled so all traces of these arguments are wiped out, but I still believe that prior to the massive federal takeover of the economy caused by the financial meltdown in 2008-09 a sound argument could have been made for socialized medicine. Not so today, and definitely not by me.

Obamacare has forced us to the end of the American health care disaster. Employers will soon quit the insurance access business, forcing people to purchase insurance from the government. For the first time they will know how much they are being paid by their employers since their benefits package won’t contain more than a few worthless baubles and trinkets. Transparency is good. As a contract worker I know exactly what my skill-set is worth, something that a full time employee does not. I can then make decisions about my future that are grounded in reality. Obamacare will expand the rolls of Medicaid, forcing millions into a program that providers lose money on. At my dentist’s office I was paying my bill when the phone rang. The receptionist picked up the phone, listned then told the caller that the office no longer accepted Medicaid patients. There was another pause and the receptionist recommended the caller contact the county health department. The experience of the caller will not be atypical as health care providers “go John Galt” rather than lose money by treating Medicaid patients. This will increase the burden on the states who will then go cap-in-hand to the federal government which is $16 trillion in the hole. By 2014 when Obamacare goes completely into effect it will probably be closer to $24 trillion. Those printing plates at the Fed better be made of titanium because they’re going to be getting a workout. Maybe they can hire the North Koreans to help. Of course by then the Norks will have moved on to printing something of value, like yuan.

The collapse of the American health care system will be nasty, brutish and hopefully short, and we will have President Obama to thank for it. What comes afterward is anybody’s guess but whatever does it has to be better than this mess we are in. For that no matter what happens tomorrow, Obamacare opponents like me will owe President Obama a debt of gratitude as we man the barricades and hoist the flag of revolution over the land.

______

*Let’s get something straight: Hardly any employers provide free health insurance these days. What they provide is access to group plans which they subsidize to a degree, something that mystifies my European readership (all 3 of them). The tie between access to health care and employment puzzles me too. Why the tie? Why aren’t we tying car insurance or life insurance to employment too?

** It just dawned on me that the cost of the penalty to avoid providing insurance will factor into the benefits offered the employee. Having worked for businesses large and small, I know a thing or two about how jobs are created. When a company decides to hire, it sets a budget for hiring that employee. That budget will include salary and the cost of all benefits. So if a firm budgets $50k for a position, the highest offer it will make to the employee will be Salary + Penalty=$50k or for a small business, $48k + $2K=$50k. So in essence the employee pays the penalty by not receiving the full $50k s/he would if Obamacare not been enacted. Existing employees may also face the prospect of not only having their insurance dropped, but having to pay the resulting penalty themselves. Irony… Mmmm…

Rural Justice

Small towns have long memories. In the early morning hours of October 5, 1996 Jonesville Police Sgt. Gregory Martin pulled over a red pickup on Interstate 77 just south of highway 67. Moments later he radioed that he needed assistance. Minutes later a North Carolina highway patrolman arrived at the scene and found Martin dead of gunshot wounds to his head.

Jonesville isn’t the most picturesque American small towns. Like many it sprung up in the late 1800s as textile mills grew around the area. It was a gritty, working town dependent on the mills that never developed any of the charm the way the neighboring town Elkin across the Yadkin river did. So when the mills closed they left a void that Jonesville, like so many economically depressed rural small towns in America, has struggled to fill. Still it survives, and at times manages even to thrive. It’s location on I-77 has contributed to the development of hotels and restaurants, and it benefits from the growing tourist trade at the nearby vineyards in Yadkin, Wilkes and Surry counties. It has a long way to go before it becomes a tourist trap, but the locals are optimistic for the future.

Since his death newly printed wanted posters hang in establishments around the area, and the memory of that event 16 years ago is passed to newcomers like me who share in the town’s grief and determination to see justice done. But 16 years is a very long time when most murder cases are solved within the first two days, so I didn’t think the news crew from Winston-Salem 40 miles away standing outside police headquarters had anything to do with Sgt. Martin’s death when I drove by.

My mind was occupied by another local tragedy, the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning in Elkin. The mother had just rented a small A-frame across the street from the middle school, and the power had not been turned on yet. Evidently she fired up a gasoline generator in the kitchen to run the refrigerator on the first night of their stay in the house. Six hours later the children were found dead in their beds, their mother collapsed in a hallway. She was taken to the local hospital and then flown to Duke where she is likely to survive. I’m not sure I would want to if I was her, though. People in the town of 3,000 new her and the children, and people talked as they are prone to do. The woman’s lapse in judgement wasn’t her first, but it was by far her worst, and her children paid the price. When I passed by the home the next morning candles burned at a make-shift memorial on a porch littered with flowers and stuffed animals.

Three years living here has changed me in many ways, and one way has been my appreciation for Life. Granted I have always “felt” things more than is healthy; I believe my struggle with alcoholism was partly an attempt to medicate my oversensitivity to outside events for example. But when you live with a few thousand people, you find that when things happen it impacts you personally. If you don’t know the victims directly, you know someone who does. Gossip remains the CNN or FoxNews of rural life, providing details that you will never hear in a newscast or read in a newspaper. I came here in a self-imposed exile to escape some of the pain of the world, but have found it impossible; it hurts even more when you’ve driven by the house countless times where children have died and thought it always looked sad and ramshackle before this event. Now I just want to see it disappear.

So when the news arrives that the authorities may have caught Sgt. Martin’s killer, it brings relief and a little something else. Call it faith in the justice system or karma, whatever, but the fact that the Arm of the Law is long enough to reach across 16 years and nab a killer of a small town cop makes me smile. There is yet another unsolved murder that haunts the area, and the possible capture of Sgt. Martin’s killer gives me hope it too will someday be solved and the killers brought to justice.

Of Goats and Politics

Over the weekend I attended an open house at an organic farm specializing in making goat cheese. Since I live on a large inactive farm I’m interested in learning about all aspects of small scale farming, and having grown up in the St. Louis suburbs there’s much to study. As I have learned more about growing things, I’ve come to appreciate organic methods that minimize or eliminate chemicals and work with the forces present in nature in order to grow food. Don’t get me wrong: Mother Nature will starve you to death and dine on your bones if you let her, but there are strategies such as avoiding monoculture plantings and pesticides that whack beneficial insects as well as pests that are worth pursuing for a hobby farmer such as myself. Additionally I’m becoming more aware of the sourcing of my food, recognizing that we have completely lost the ability to eat what’s in season when at the local supermarket we can buy strawberries in November and whole ear corn in January. I live among farmers, and I have seen the gradual creep of large agribusiness and the depopulation of rural America. Neither are good omens for our nation’s future, and though they may be inevitable, I’ll be damned if I contribute to the process. So I’m gradually buying more locally, and the trip to the farm open house was a way to get some ideas on my new lifestyle.

When we arrived the place was hopping, with young men directing people to park on a newly-mowed hay field. We parked, and as I walked past the cars I automatically scanned the bumper stickers, a bit of a habit of mine. The first one I saw as expected was an Obama ‘08 sticker, but the next one I saw surprised me: a Gadsden flag of the Tea Party along with a sticker that read “God Bless Our Military, Especially Our Snipers.” North Carolina is much bluer than I expected when I moved down here, and I’ve learned that while I might live in a predominantly conservative part of the state it is full to the brim with people of all political philosophies and walks of life.

All were represented at the organic farm. There were gay couples and old hippies, as well as clean-cut military men and their families, their kids petting goats and chasing free range chickens. A man dressed in a checked shirt beneath blue overalls stood alongside a young woman with more piercings than a rural stop sign, listening to one of the founders of the farm talk about its history and how it has grown over the years. Hispanics mingled with blacks who in turn stood in line with monied white suburbanites and their kids to take a turn at the pottery wheel and throw their own pot. Smiles were everywhere, and the place seemed as alive as the show hive of bees that stood on saw horses in the middle of a vegetable patch.

I was an odd child growing up. Some of my first memories are not of clowns or birthdays but of political events. I watched Nixon’s visit to Beijing broadcast on network TV in 1972. Two years later I rushed home from school and flipped on the Watergate hearings instead of game shows or cartoons. I grew up living and loving politics, and had I been born with a more gregarious personality I would have pursued a career in it. Instead I was socially inept, perhaps even autistic, so politics could never be more than a spectator sport for me, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it.

But I’ve lost that joy. It has been years since I felt something other than doom and dread about politics, and the organic farm reminded me why.

We are divided, almost atomized these days. It has been years since we felt unity, the last time being the unity of grief by the 9-11 attacks. Since then our leaders have failed us. President Bush famously promised to be a “uniter not a divider”, but then went and did what he wanted to do in Iraq and in the biggest failure of his administration, presided over an explosion of government and spending. The Department of Homeland Security wasn’t a Clinton creation, it was a Bush one after all. While I agreed with his policies in Iraq at the time, Bush failed to support his actions at home against his critics. He just did what he wanted because he knew it was right, but didn’t even try to convince people otherwise.

Obama hasn’t even attempted to unite us. He took office reminding Republicans that he won and has governed accordingly, ramming through his signature health care legislation without a single Republican vote. A year later Americans clipped his power by taking away the House from the Democrats and ending their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but Obama didn’t miss a beat. Instead of moving to the center and working with the opposition to get legislation passed, he went to the extreme, and decided to wait things out to the next election, blaming the GOP and his Republican predecessor for the fruits of his own failure to lead.

Leadership in a democracy requires skills in the art of compromise. It’s hard to imagine but Ronald Reagan whom even Obama himself has claimed for his own never had a friendly majority in the House during his 8 years yet managed to pass budgets and legislation with bipartisan support with no less a political mastermind like Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. We have yet to have a single budget from the president even during the 2 years his own party held both the House and Senate.

In fairness to Obama he never was much of a leader. His career reflects the Peter Principle more than the exercising of leadership skills to make it to the top, always having a mentor in higher position who can push him further up the political ladder. Unfortunately Obama now finds himself at the top with no mentor other than his usual billionaire friends like George Judenrat Soros and Warren Buffet. While these men may support him with their financial acumen and deep pockets, there is no one above Obama that can protect him anymore so he must rely on his skills. The problem is that the process that led to his ascension to the highest office in the land avoided cultivating those skills.

George W. Bush had a similar rise through the ranks, although based on his name rather than mentors. Samuel P. Bush, George W’s great-grandfather, built a successful career as an industrialist and dabbled in politics during World War I. His son Prescott continued the path of mixing success in business with politics that lead to George Bush’s ascendance to the presidency in 1988. While George W. Bush showed the ability of a leader to make difficult decisions such as to attack Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, an upbringing where his name alone opened doors and convinced people made it unlikely that he would develop other leadership skills such as the ability to convince others and charm one’s opponents.

The last president that had such leadership skills? Bill Clinton. Clinton is a self-made man and rose through the political ranks solely on his wit and charm. During his 8 years in office Clinton was able to pass budgets and bipartisan legislation with die-hard partisans such as Newt Gingrich. Clinton understood how to work with Congress, and his domestic policy record proves it (on the other hand his foreign policy record was in retrospect a disaster, consciously ignoring the threat posed by al Qaeda even though numerous terrorist attacks occurred on his watch.)

We have gone 11 years with weak leadership and our nation has suffered. You can’t compromise with someone you call a racist. You can’t cut deals with a party you demonize as misogynistic and homophobic. Leadership doesn’t pit one group of people against another; it fuses them together in a shared purpose.

A true leader does more than call his opponents names and make grand promises in eloquently delivered speeches from teleprompters. He inspires but also delivers on his promises. He doesn’t hold grudges but also makes it clear that he will not be played the fool. He understands the responsibility that comes with his position and serves all the people, not just those who voted for him. Most importantly he appreciates and respects the ideals that bind us together as a people and a nation, recognizing that while we might disagree vehemently on issues big and small, we are all bound by the love of freedom and hope for a better future for our children and our country.

While it is clear that leader is not Obama, neither is it clear that it is Romney. But I do wish that both men could have taken a moment from their politicking to talk to the farmer selling hand raised beef, watched the Montagnard women weaving brightly colored fabrics, and tasted the red pepper goat cheese. Perhaps they would have understood that if we could put aside our differences at a goat farm founded by a woman driving around with two goats in the front seat of her Toyota looking for a farm in North Carolina, we are a people ready to be led, and who deserve a good leader.

Higher Education Bubble: Trades Under Pressure from Illegal Immigration

As a parent of a teenager and an intellectual who somehow managed to avoid Academia, I’ve  followed the higher education bubble stories carefully. Glenn Reynolds has written and linked extensively on the subject, and Virginia Postrel places the blame on federal student aid. While I completely agree with Reynolds that the trades have gotten ignored in favor of college and university educations, I’ve noticed that he and others working to improve the image of the trades in the minds of young people are ignoring one important issue: the impact of illegal immigration on blue collar jobs.

Having moved to the rural South I have spent the past two years renovating our home. This task has put me into contact with numerous plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, and handymen. All of them have been born and raised here, and none of them would recommend the trades to young people interested in making a living because of illegal immigration. I wrote about my early experiences with talking to these men here.

They are especially bitter when it comes to illegal immigration. Mexicans have flooded into North Carolina and driven down wages for skilled and semi-skilled workers. They are constantly underbid by contractors employing illegals at a fraction of the going hourly rate.

These men face the competition of teams of illegals everyday. They are locked out of larger jobs that hire a single contractor employing teams of illegals instead of American citizen subcontractors. When skilled Mexican tradesmen are paid minimum wage (or less), it’s difficult for those who hire sheetrock hangers and carpenters at the going rate ($15-$25/hr in these parts by my estimate) to compete. The success of these illegal teams has led to their usage on ever smaller jobs, the meat and potatoes of general contractors, leaving only the smallest jobs for the local contractors to compete against each other for. These usually have low margins and being small are difficult to make a living doing when traveling and buying supplies is included.

Long time readers will know that although conservative and free market oriented, I am no Ayn Rand disciple. The older I become the more I suspect that, as Neal Stephenson predicted in the cyberpunk classic Snow Crash, globalization has smeared things out into a worldwide layer of “what a Pakistani bricklayer would consider prosperity.” With New Economy industries employing fewer workers than the factory jobs they replace, those with college degrees are finding themselves without job security. Companies are offshoring everything they can, and it is only a matter of time before automation begins to nibble away at the creative jobs previously considered “safe” from either of these forces. It isn’t clear what jobs will replace them.

In a prior incarnation I actively fought offshoring and labor dumping by the government through its policies of lax immigration designed to flood the domestic market with cheap labor. I learned that the government uses technical visas like the H-1b and J-2 to allow skilled foreigners to lower the cost of labor and price out domestic white collar workers. Because these workers are compensated in part by the prospect of working in America – and in the case of the H-1b, with the potential reward of a green card three to seven years after their arrival – they could be paid a lower salary than equivalently skilled American workers. In effect the H-1b visa holders are subsidized by the American government: they receive a salary plus a visa that doesn’t cost the government anything but which they accept in lieu of cash. Their employers get cheaper labor that boosts their bottom-lines and grants them the flexibility of underbidding firms that only employ citizens or green card holders. This forces competing firms to either hire foreign labor or go out of business.

The case is the same with blue collar workers. Illegal immigrants come to the United States accept lower wages because they are receiving a government subsidy in the form of future citizenship. The likelihood of being found out or deported by the federal government is miniscule, especially at a time when the federal government is actively fighting efforts to tighten border controls and demands to increase arrests and deportations of illegal citizens. Again, this subsidy doesn’t cost the government anything, yet it provides a reward that is almost as good as cash to illegals who are paid under the table.

But there is a cost to this meddling by the federal government in the labor market: higher unemployment and the social costs that attend it such as increased criminality, alcohol and drug abuse, and the breakdown of the family. But these social costs don’t appear in the statistics – just as the illegal immigrants don’t either – and are ignored whenever talk turns to economics.

If white collar jobs are threatened by offshoring, the trades are threatened by illegal immigration and all jobs are threatened by automation, is the American worker and the economic system that is based on him or her doomed? Some believe that the changes over the next several decades could spell the end of work as we know it, as something that is viewed with dread and a sense of fatalistic duty changed into a system whereby each person pursues creative talents that will be in demand and that require imagination and perspective that computers and perhaps even foreigners won’t know how to do. One wag characterized it as everyone planning everyone else’s weddings – an updated and more positive prediction that we would all someday be slinging hamburgers to one another after manufacturing’s demise.

I’m not so sure. Perhaps such a future beckons, but in the meantime I would prefer that the government stop meddling in the labor market by increasing the porosity of America’s borders with the world. Sealing the border with Mexico would be a good place to start. A free market pool of labor is supposed to be a compromise between two competing forces: employers and employees. Labor dumping through lax immigration and “open border” policies undermine that compromise, allowing employers to dictate what they are willing to pay for a given skillset while being protected from a tight labor market by government policy. Employees have no redress other than to change jobs or if they are old enough, retire. If the government stopped interfering in the market to favor one side over the other, the domestic labor market would begin to function as a free market instead of an overly regulated, skewed one. If plumbers are in demand, their salaries will rise and people will start considering them (as Glenn Reynolds, Virginia Postrel and others suggest). Similarly, if java programmers are in demand, their salaries should rise to the point where colleges and IT bootcamps pump out java programmers to fill the demand. In both cases supply of workers would eventually overshoot demand (because companies by their very nature strive to become more efficient), and these salaries would stabilize and eventually decline.

Until that happens, white collar and blue collar workers, skilled and unskilled, educated and trained will have to always look over their shoulders afraid of the boss’s unexpected call for a personal meeting at the end of the day on Friday. Whether the boss’s collar is clean or dirty won’t matter as long as the government continues kicking up waves in the labor pool.

Update: The Financial Time reports on the difficulties employers have with finding skilled employees. This is a myth that is trotted out whenever employers want skilled workers but don’t want to pay what those skills demand. It also reflects laziness on the part of the employer. For example it begins quoting Drew Greenblatt from Marlin Steel Wire Products complaining about the inability to find three sheet metal setup operators for $80k in salary and overtime.

The article doesn’t say what the going rate is for sheet metal setup operators in the area. While $80k may sound like a reasonable salary to most people, Mr. Greenblatt obviously needs to pay more to fill the position. Either he is underpaying or the job is so esoteric and rare that no one does it so he will have to train someone. If the latter, why doesn’t he approach a sheet metal setup operator working for his competition and offer them a higher salary than they are making? That’s the way the free market is supposed to work.

The article offers support to this conclusion:

Without in-house training programmes, companies have often been left looking for staff with specific skills. “A generation ago, employers would hire and train employees. Now, they demand trained workers,” says Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school.

“The skills gap is largely a figment of companies’ imagination,” says Mr Cappelli. “They cannot find workers to do the very specific tasks they want done. That is different from not being able to find capable workers.”

The French Lady of the Mountains

It is an undeniable fact of life that mountains are always beautiful. Dr. Wife’s beeper had gone off at the Waffle House so she made a quick cell phone call. Instead of leisurely finishing off our breakfast served by a harried elderly waitress, we headed up the two lane state highway through the foothills and up the Blue Ridge mountains to the hamlet of Sparta where a woman’s death certificate waited to be signed.

She had been a woman in her early 60’s from France who had met a GI and returned with him to the county in North Carolina where he had been born. There she settled down to raise her children and later, her grandchildren. Her husband had passed away years ago, leaving her alone in her small cottage nestled in a mountain valley. After the decades spent living in the United States she had never managed to rid herself of her French accent, which, when added to the southern accent she naturally became accustomed to through the years, made her speak English with an Acadian or Cajun-sounding accent. Dr. Wife loved the way she spoke.

Dr. Wife met her patient for the first time in July after she came to her with back pain in her tailbone. While talking with the woman, Dr. Wife became suspicious that the pain was more than a bruise or muscle strain as had been diagnosed elsewhere. Such pain doesn’t linger or worsen over a period of months as the pain had for her patient, so she ordered a CT scan. At first the woman’s insurance company refused to cover the procedure, forcing Dr. Wife to justify the procedure in a lengthy phone call with the insurance company. It relented and the procedure was done.

The CT scan was clear: her body was filled with cancer. It cancer had begun in the lung and metastasized to the liver and later to the bottom of the spine. In fact it had eaten away a large hole in the woman’s coccyx, and the Wife was furious because the woman must have been in terrible pain. People in the mountains are different, she says; they don’t come to the doctor unless they are extremely sick and they never ask for medication even when they are in pain. Life in the mountains is beautiful, but it is far from easy, so the people that remain there are hardier than most. They are extremely tough mountain folk that have lived there for generations, and even though her patient had been born in Europe, she had arrived and over time gradually become one of them.

After signing the death certificate at the funeral home, we stopped by her home. A “Slow – Funeral” sign greeted us as we neared it, and a large cross made from white carnations hung on the porch. There a few weeks ago the woman had stood with the Wife, telling her “I am going to beat this.” But Dr. Wife knew that this cancer wasn’t beatable. I pulled up, parking alongside several other cars parked on the grass off the road. I stayed in the car with our dogs as the Wife went inside. Over the past few weeks she had grown close to the family, giving the eldest son our home phone number so that he could call with any question or concerns about his mother.

Bird feeders the woman had bought and filled hung empty of seed beneath trees losing their leaves. Little kitschy figurines of a smiling panda and fat frog stood in a garden that she had once tended, with the first weeds that had taken advantage of her weakness from chemo appearing in soil she would never touch again. Several wind chimes hung from the roof of the porch, motionless in the unusually still mountain air.

From diagnosis to death? 8 weeks.

Like many living in the mountains, she was a heavy smoker and it no doubt contributed to if not outright caused her cancer. Some might be tempted to blame the woman for her own death. After all she chose to smoke. But she didn’t choose to die. I often wonder if the excuses we make blaming the victims for their own deaths aren’t just emotional survival mechanisms to keep us from feeling. A woman is killed by her ex-husband? She should have divorced him sooner or gotten a restraining order. A cop is shot during a routine traffic stop? He knew the risks. I suppose it’s natural to develop this inner voice to keep Death at arms length and avoid being overwhelmed by emotions, but I question whether over time that distancing is healthy. Perhaps a little empathy in our lives isn’t a bad thing. If we feel we can motivate ourselves into action which in turn can lead to Death being cheated every once in a while.

With a hug from the eldest son, the Wife arrives back in the car. She raises a long strand of a wind chime with handmade brass chimes and carved wooden clappers. “She wanted me to have this,” she says, explaining that the woman knew we had once lived in Japan where the wind chime was made. It hangs on our front porch, and I hear it lightly singing in the wind that comes off the mountains the French woman called home.