Living in Society

RAGBRAI and Iowa Politics

From Trish Nelson at RAGBRAI
From Trish Nelson at RAGBRAI

Trish Nelson, regular editor of Blog for Iowa, posted this photo on the Internet, reminding us that there is a world outside the confines of what Al Gore described as “the worldwide digital communications, Internet, and computer revolutions (which) have led to the emergence of ‘the Global Mind,’ which links the thoughts and feelings of billions of people and connects intelligent machines, robots, ubiquitous sensors, and databases.” That is, outside blogs, Facebook, twitter, the World Wide Web and cable TV.

On the real world front, while Governor Branstad was participating in RAGBRAI, his staff was meeting behind closed doors with regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff regarding Iowa’s compliance with the Clean Water Act. Read the community organizing group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) article here.

Putting the best face on it, the governor is managing mandatory compliance with the EPA on a number of fronts, including the Clean Water Act. Elections matter, and Iowa chose Terry Branstad, along with his views on EPA compliance, in 2010. To put the Iowa CCI face on it, they recirculated their frequent meme, “…the Farm Bureau does not run this state,” and demanded transparency. Both points have some validity, and there is no surprise by any of this as both party’s positions regarding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are well known and have been.

Here’s the rub. In the May 31 letter from EPA staffer Karl Brooks to governor Branstad, Brooks wrote, “I respectfully suggest that those regulated parties with the most interest in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Clean Water Act permitting and evaluation should be invited to this conversation.” While some members of Iowa CCI may be “regulated parties,” the governor was under no obligation to hold public hearings on the matter and didn’t. The Iowa Farm Bureau response, with recommended revisions to the CAFO program work plan, was not only expected, it was, for the most part, the purpose of the meeting. The Iowa CCI response to the meeting was, like so many of their news releases, a red herring that gained some press coverage but diluted their effectiveness. I appreciate Iowa CCI making the information readily available, but there is no news here for anyone who follows water and air quality issues in Iowa. This meeting was predictable, and consistent with the Branstad administration outlook on EPA compliance.

For most Iowans who participate in RAGBRAI, it is a chance to get away from the daily grind for a while. The governor and thousands of others are participating in RAGBRAI, and for Branstad, as a politician, it was a photo opportunity. For Iowa CCI, RAGBRAI was a news hook to beat the drum on one of their core issues, one they know well. One of my groups, Veterans for Peace, uses RAGBRAI to publicize the true cost of our wars, as do a host of groups with their pet issues. All of it is good in what remains of our democracy.

The point is that involvement in a specific cause, regardless of how vocal one is, does not equate political change. There is a lot to hate about the Branstad’s approach to clean water, clean air and compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency. To effect political change means getting involved and working for political candidates, most of whom are subject to influence by moneyed interests like the Iowa Farm Bureau. Any candidate who dismisses as irrelevant the Farm Bureau, the livestock producers and row crop associations won’t be elected to statewide office in Iowa. It’s not going to happen in 2014.

Groups like Iowa CCI make political results more difficult when they throw out red meat as bait for their members and supporters, when most people are tuned out. For one, I’d like to see Iowa CCI less divisive and more involved with electing candidates that support progressive views, as many of their members are, and less focused on braggadocio after hammering the same nail once again.

RAGBRAI is happening, the summer weather has been unusually nice, and most people I know are unplugged from the global mind and living in the real world under Branstad until we can do better. For me, I prefer not to dip even a bicycle in the contaminated Mississippi River, long bike ride or not. Whether we as a state will do better on water quality and compliance with EPA depends a lot on whether people get together to elect a new governor in 2014. The work of doing so should begin now.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Social Commentary

Don’t Build the Danged Fence

The U.S. Congressman from Iowa’s fourth district made some comments about immigration recently. Actually, he’s made a lot of them over the years. We can’t let him frame the discussion or worse, re-distribute his memes. For why, read Mark Karlin’s interview with George Lakoff, “Progressives Need to Use Language That Reflects Moral Values.

The idea of building a fence around the U.S. border is as lame as a joke about corn at a 4-H meeting, funny though those jokes may be. Proponents of what Senator John McCain of Arizona called the “dang fence” across the southern U.S. border, don’t get the humor. In 2010, I wrote about immigration,

The author believes that as long as we maintain borders, we create a form of apartheid where the haves (in the U.S.) will use the have-nots (in Mexico, China, India and Africa) to do their menial work here or in their countries, largely without social justice. The borders serve to keep them out, when we should be letting them in. America will grow stronger with open borders, even if most Americans and some Arizonans don’t believe it.

Troll activity on Blog for Iowa was heavy after that post, mostly from organized groups who favored restricting immigration, illegal immigration particularly. The same folks who gave us Arizona’s SB 1070.

To deny the global reality of population growth is plain dumb. To think the U.S. can keep everything to ourselves reflects a lack of understanding about who we are as a people, and how we fit into the global village.

To deny the effects of our wars on the creation of conflict migration is to ignore the vast amount of U.S. blood and treasure invested in our endless wars.

To deny climate change is to lack an understanding that it will impact not only small island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives, but will result in tens of millions of people needing someplace to go.

To deny the economic reasons why undocumented people from Mexico, Guatemala, and other places in central America come north is evidence of a misunderstanding of the role U.S. policy and the North American Free Trade Agreement played in creating economic reasons for the migration.

There is nothing new in these denials and a lot to learn.

What we learned in grade school that applies is from the Great Wall of China. Our teachers taught us that while the wall may have been successful in keeping nomadic groups and warlike people out of China, the unintended consequence was that Chinese culture calcified during the period. Whether what our teachers taught us is historically accurate, I can’t say, but it makes sense. The United States will be the less for building a fence to keep people out.

So as we hear outrageous comments about immigration in the media, and in conversations in society, I urge you to refrain from repeating their memes. Instead, work toward solutions. There is no single resolution to the need for immigration reform in this country. But it begins with each of us, individually and collectively.

While you’re at it, and while I’m being a bit preachy, read Derrick Jensen’s article in Orion Magazine, “Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change,” and get involved in local politics.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Living in Society

A Dose of Citizens United Reality

Writing in The Nation, John Nichols put the best possible face on what he described in as, “the broad-based national campaign to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that ushered in a new era of big-money politics.” He was referring to the high court’s decision in Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission.

Public Citizen, Move to Amend and others have organized, launched petitions, and convinced legislators in 16 states, the District of Columbia, and about 500 municipalities to support overturning Citizens United. There is tangible evidence in the form of resolutions and referendum results. As Nichols indicated, 2013 has been a banner year for efforts to overturn Citizens United.

At the same time, virtually no one I encounter in rural Iowa knows of this movement specifically. People can agree on generalities: that money is property, that humans are people, that corporations have property, and despite Mitt Romney’s assertion at the Iowa State Fair, corporations are not people.

People also don’t know much about the Citizens United case. They don’t know that it was about a conservative group airing a film critical of Hillary Clinton on television. They don’t know that the McCain-Feingold Act (a.k.a. Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) prohibited airing the film within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries. They don’t know, and for the most part don’t care, that McCain-Feingold’s regulation of how corporations spend money in campaigns was found to be unconstitutional. What my neighbors do know is a lot of money is spent on politics, and they get sick of television advertisements when it gets close to elections and tune out.

Iowa Move to Amend has had an uphill climb, made more difficult by the departure of Marybeth Gardam, who left the state. Gardam was the grassroots organization’s leader and spark plug. As a grassroots organization, Iowa Move to Amend will proceed without her, but whatever activity there is in Iowa regarding Citizens United will be concentrated in the liberal urban areas, especially Iowa City and Des Moines. The statewide reach that Gardam strove for and could well have organized is on hold with her gone. The Iowa web page on the Move to Amend site hasn’t been updated since 2012.

Groups of citizens pursue the idea of amending the constitution, but saying it is one thing— doing it is a rarity. There have been 27 amendments to the constitution. The last one, related to when pay raises take effect for members of congress, was ratified in 1992— more than 200 years after it was introduced. With an electorate informed by a corporate media owned by a small number of corporations, gaining consensus among three fourths of the states to ratify a constitutional amendment seems improbable without the broad based, bipartisan support for which groups like Move to Amend strive.

Good people are involved with getting corporate money out of politics. Three and a half years after the Citizens United ruling, proponents of a constitutional amendment are less than half way there, which puts any real action beyond the 2016 general election, and maybe further. As Nichols indicated, the cup may be half full, and an amendment may be advanced. However, the political reality is that corporate money will remain in politics for the foreseeable future unless a fire is lit under the movement to amend the constitution. Based on what we see in Iowa, we are a long way from ignition.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa.

Social Commentary

Story of a Small Town Parade

SOLON— For the first time ever, I watched the entire Solon Beef Days Parade as a spectator. What struck me as different was how a parade tells the story of a community. In this brief photo gallery, I attempted to capture that story as I saw it.

The Legion Color Guard always goes first.
The Legion Color Guard always goes first.
There are shriners wearing peculiar hats...
There are shriners wearing peculiar hats…
... and playing patriotic music.
… and playing patriotic music.
Followed by Our Fire Trucks.
Followed by our fire trucks…
... and those of neighboring towns.
… and those of neighboring towns.
The boy scouts also have a color guard.
The boy scouts also have a color guard.
We show off our seniors of the year.
We show off our seniors of the year…
... our scholarship winners...
… our scholarship winners…
... our mayor...
… and our mayor.
There are green tractors,
There are green tractors,
blue tractors,
blue tractors,
red tractors...
red tractors…
... and don't forget that other green tractor.
… and don’t forget that other green tractor.
There were political groups, the Republicans came first...
There were political groups, the Republicans came first…
... the Democrats soon after.
… the Democrats soon after.
Both were friendly and interacted with the crowd.
Both were friendly and interacted with the crowd.
Congressman Dave Loebsack was there...
Congressman Dave Loebsack was there…
... as was my state senator,,,
… as was my state senator…
... and my state representative.
… and my state representative.
The Reyhons family had an entry...
The Reyhons family had an entry…
... as did Larkey Valley Cattle...
… as did Larkey Valley Cattle…
...and this family's grandpa rocks... literally.
…and this family’s grandpa rocks… literally.
Folks from Morse used sarcasm for their messages...
Folks from Morse used sarcasm for their messages…
...folks from Lisbon threw bags of sauerkraut at us...
…and tutu wearing women from Lisbon threw bags of sauerkraut at us.
Don't forget it's the Beef Days parade...
Don’t forget it’s the Beef Days parade…
... although Mexican cuisine was promoted as well.
… although Mexican cuisine was promoted as well.
The women's club dressed like pirates...
The women’s club dressed like pirates…
Kids wore the same T-shirt and straw hats...
… kids wore the same T-shirt and straw hats…
...and the snowmobile club wore short shorts.
…and the snowmobile club wore short shorts.
Did I mention the orange tractor?
Did I mention the orange tractor?
... or the purple one....
… or the purple one….
... or the pink one?
… or the pink one?
These guys were there...
These guys were there…

... and so was channel 9.
… and so was channel 9.
The equestrian entry came last and...
The equestrian entry came last and…
... they were friendly...
… they were friendly…
... and there were a lot of them to end the parade.
… and there were a lot of them to end the parade.

Social Commentary

Town Festival Weekend

President of Cattlemen's Association
Cattlemen’s Assn.

SOLON— Almost every small town or city has an annual festival and ours is going on this weekend. Solon Beef Days began in 1971 when the fire department, Optimists Club, Jaycees and American Legion got together to re-enact what they referred to as an “Old Time Celebration.” The Johnson County Cattlemen’s Association came in to cook steaks and this local meat product provided a name for the event. Later, the Pork Producers Association got involved and pork burgers are now served: steak dinner is $10; steak sandwich is $5, and pork burger is $3. A bargain for carnivores. Octogenarians walk to the festival to purchase the cheap food and carry it home on trays brought from their kitchens.

Pork Burger Assembly
Pork Burger Assembly

As a vegetarian and flexitarian household, the association with beef was a turn-off for us when we moved to the area. Nonetheless, we participated by taking our daughter to try the carnival rides when she was young. Later, I got involved in helping the public library serve sandwiches to festival goers. As time passed I came to enjoy being a small part of the festival.

For some, Solon Beef Days is the time of year to let loose, have a few beers in the beer tent and designate a driver to get them home. This year there was a booth to arrange for a ride home for the intoxicated. It wasn’t used much.

Sandwich Booth
Sandwich Booth

The town re-built the bandstand in the center of the old part of town, and there is live music both nights. The hay bale toss on Friday is popular, and the parade on Saturday attracts civic groups and winds its way through town. The parade crosses Highway One to go past the care center where wheel chairs with residents are lined up on the south side of the building. This was a later addition to the route to include everyone in town.

The legion has a food tent, bingo is called on Main Street, there is a street dance, and something for everyone. Whatever money is left after paying the bills is donated to community groups by the Beef Days Committee. I’ve never eaten the steak or pork at the festival, but enjoy socializing with friends, neighbors and people I don’t know on a warm summer evening. In the end, who wouldn’t?

Work Life

Dealing with Low Wages in Iowa

At Sunset
At Sunset

In adding my congratulations to Mike Owen for his promotion as executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, I also suggest readers check out his latest blog post titled, “We promise: We won’t cook burgers.” It is about the spurious advice of Visa® and McDonald’s®, that their lowly paid workers should become financially sustainable by working a second job. Iowa Policy Project is one of the few Iowa think tanks that has done substantial work studying living wage, low wages, and minimum wage. It is a subject close to my interests, and Mike and his team’s work at Iowa Policy Project have informed some of my thinking on low wage workers. It will be good to have Mike as executive director.

With regard to the Visa® and McDonald’s® suggestion of securing a second job, it seems a bit reactionary to me. Another low wage worker employer, Walmart, has been consistently hammered by progressive writers (see Thomas Stackpole at Mother Jones) for advising their employees on how to leverage the governmental social safety network of energy assistance, SNAP, Medicaid and other programs. The second job suggestion is an alternate version of the Walmart story: we won’t pay a living wage, so employees are on their own to sustain financial viability.

There is more to working a low wage job than pay. There has to be because the cost of living, including health care, transportation, food, shelter, and interest on debt, is more than low wage jobs pay, even two of them. Little would change if the minimum wage were raised to over $10 per hour as some propose. Low wage jobs fall short of a living wage, so people have to adapt, and one of the ways they do is to take advantage of governmental assistance programs. Beside government programs and working additional jobs, what else is there?

Another payday for low paying work is building a social network to help meet basic economic needs— one based in direct human contact, unfiltered by electronic media. A host of services are available because of work relationships in a low wage job. A tattoo artist offers his ink at a discount, people of means offer loans, and gardeners offered to exchange vegetables and baked goods. There is ride-sharing, child care and a network of discovery of ways to escape low paying work for something better. Human society in low wage work places is like a living coral reef, where everyone’s needs can be met at a certain level. These things have little to do with the progressive argument about wages, but they are every bit as important.

The tone deaf suggestions of Visa® and McDonald’s® demonstrate a lack of understanding of how people operate. Namely, if the company articulates the deceit, people may start believing it, maybe they will stay with the company a bit longer, and the cost of employee turnover can be reduced. A cynical view? Not really.

Working two jobs may be a necessity for many, but if we are on our own, as corporations want us to be, life becomes less about the job and more about who we know that can help us when we need a hand. Thanks for the suggestions and financial planning tools corporations, but no thanks, we can get by with a little help from our friends.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Living in Society

It’s a Gatsby Kind of Summer

Larry Hedlund
Larry Hedlund

The story about the termination of Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation won’t be going away soon. Ryan Foley of the Associated Press picked up the story, which is garnering some national attention. Read Foley’s story here.

The governor’s speeding around Iowa typifies the kind of reckless behavior present in his administration. Maybe Hedlund’s termination, and the governor’s flagrant disregard for public safety shouldn’t be the poster child.

With Director of the Iowa Development Authority Debi Durham’s poor negotiation of the Orascom fertilizer plant deal, her failing to connect the dots between China’s desire for self-sufficiency in corn and soybean production and sales of Iowa commodities to China, and her recent joke about the governor’s speeding while on a European trade mission, perhaps she should have been the one terminated for her negative and disrespectful comments.

On that German Autobahn trip, Governor Branstad and Ms. Durham remind one of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.” Fitzgerald wrote, “they were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money, or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Special Agent Hedlund appears to have been performing responsibly in this instance, and his wrongful termination lawsuit will be in the news. Taxpayers will likely pay for the administration’s defense.

While it is the state’s right to fire their employees, voters should take the reckless ones to task at the polls in November 2014, beginning with Governor Branstad. He has made his mark on Iowa. Isn’t that enough?

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Environment Home Life

Dealing with the Heat

Summer Day
Summer Day

LAKE MACBRIDE— During childhood, our home had no air conditioning. We had four mature trees, two pine and two maple, on the south and west sides of the house. There was an exhaust fan on the upper landing of the staircase that led to our bedrooms on the second floor. During the summer heat, we slept with windows open and the exhaust fan on. When temperatures cooled as night progressed to dawn, our parents turned the fan off. On good days, we woke to the sound of songbirds in the predawn hour. It wasn’t so bad.

During my military service I became a morning person, craving coffee and exercise when I woke. Some of the exercise was provided at 6 a.m. at our battalion commander’s direction. I would dress in my VOLAR (for volunteer army) sweatsuit, pile into my pickup truck and drive past the white asparagus fields and vineyards to the caserne for a several mile run. Ours was an infantry unit, so we worked in whatever weather presented itself— exercise being part of our work. The caserne had no air conditioner either.

We didn’t have central air conditioning in our home until we moved here from Indiana and sold the two window air conditioners we had accumulated. Central air was a luxury we have come to depend upon during the heat spells of Eastern Iowa.

Last summer’s drought was the worst. Continuing days of extreme heat had us penned up in the house, with the air conditioner hum drowning out the exterior world. I have learned to get outside more during the extreme heat, to tend our garden in the morning light, to work under shade trees grown mature from saplings, and to take a break when feeling overheated. Partly, this is adaptation to changing climate, and partly the behavior reflects a need to be useful in life. Both are important.

As the sky turns gray this morning, I’ll finish this post and have first breakfast. There are green beans to pick, garlic to check, and onions to dig, all while the temperature is in the 70s. After that, the perennial question of what to do with the remainder of my life, something wanting an answer despite best efforts to focus on this moment.

According to the weather forecast, there are about three hours before the temperature hits 80 degrees. It’s time to get on the gardening, after some locally prepared food for breakfast. The beginning of another day, presenting just as much opportunity as any day every did. A time for action to improve the sustainability of our life on the Iowa prairie. Part of that is dealing with the Iowa heat.

Work Life

An Iowa Temp Worker Bill of Rights?

Fairness for Temp WorkersLAKE MACBRIDE— In a strip mall in Cedar Rapids, a temp agency opens at 6 a.m., ready to place workers in temporary jobs. A registered applicant can enter the waiting room, sign in on a clipboard at the counter, and wait for placement in a job in construction, hospitality or warehouse work— often the same day. There is no talk about careers or perquisites, and some days a person gets placed, others not. Every time I entered, someone was waiting for a placement— there seemed to be no shortage of labor. In a society where people need paying work, this is one place they find it.

Managing the bottom line for a large or small company, the cost of human resources stands out as a high percentage of expense. Owners and executives seek to manage these expenses— their argument is they have to to remain viable in the marketplace. They will do what is legal and necessary to optimize the dollars spent on people. One of the ways they do this is to transfer the risk and expense of having employees to other entities, like the companies that employ temp workers.

We hear a lot about outsourcing and off-shoring, but until lately little attention has been paid to temp workers: that group of low-paid people that works in our community, doing office work, construction, hospitality, light manufacturing, property maintenance and more. Large corporations have become masters of outsourcing, and when we ask where have all the jobs gone, some of them went back into the community in the form of subcontractors that use temp workers, and take expense off the bottom line.

Mike Grabell wrote an article in ProPublica titled, “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed” which is worth reading. He wrote, “the people […] are not day laborers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They are regular employees of temp agencies working in the supply chain of many of America’s largest companies– Walmart, Macy’s, Nike, Frito-Lay. They make our frozen pizzas, sort the recycling from our trash, cut our vegetables and clean our imported fish. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves. They are as important to the global economy as shipping containers and Asian garment workers.”

Massachusetts passed a temporary workers right to know law that requires temporary staffing agencies to provide basic information about jobs offered to temporary workers. Essentially, it is a temp worker bill of rights.

Perhaps Iowa should consider a similar law, even if groups like the American Staffing Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council would be expected to fight it.

On the other hand, Iowa is a state where organized labor has struggled to pass any initiative in the legislature, notably the recently failed campaigns for fair share and choice of doctor. This when Democrats, the party that received substantial political contributions from organized labor, controlled both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Temp workers are here to stay in Iowa. The protections they have are the bare minimum provided by the law. Companies push the envelope of the law to keep their bottom line expense of workers very low. For progressives, helping protect temp workers in Iowa should be on our short list of priorities. The situation lies mostly below the radar and is calling for justice.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa.

Social Commentary

Reggie’s Weenies is Gone

Reggie's Weenies
Reggie’s Weenies

SOLON— Word is out that another Main Street restaurant is gone. Reggie’s Weenies of Solon shuttered their doors last week. I noticed the for lease sign, then it was taken down, then the lights were off during the breakfast service and people started talking. Telltale signs of the end in a small town.

Partly, the restaurant never took off. Every time I dined there, either mine was the only table with customers, or maybe one other. The menu may have been part of the problem. One morning while I was having breakfast, Reggie mentioned how popular biscuits and gravy are among the breakfast crowd. He had no wait staff but himself, and had to tend to the gravy, so he couldn’t elaborate.  He sold a lot of biscuits and gravy— but not enough.

While “weenies” is in the name of the place, and Reggie got his start selling Chicago-style hot dogs at Nile Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on game days, he expanded the menu beyond hot dogs and was a skilled chef. The dishes I tried were tasty and had plate appeal. Word about the menu didn’t get around town, despite Reggie’s marketing efforts.

Part of the problem may have been a dispute with one of his original business partners, which caused people to line up on sides. There was an informal boycott of the place for a while, but that wasn’t the reason for the problems.

When Smitty’s Bar and Grill closed before Reggie remodeled the space, the cook and wait staff moved to a new breakfast operation at the American Legion down Main Street. The legion became the place to have breakfast in Solon, leaving Reggie and his investment in the lurch.

Since we moved to the area, there have been at least six different restaurants in that space. Maybe the building has a restaurant curse on it. Reggie tried to make it, as entrepreneurs with an idea do. The new microbrewery opening this summer across the street, with chefs trained in culinary school, may have been the final straw. No one was at Reggie’s Weenies when I knocked.

Reggie was a friendly guy. I hope he lands someplace good. Good people usually do.