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.

Kitchen Garden

Loading the Truck

Pickup at the Farm
Pickup at the Farm

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP— Shares are ready at our community supported agriculture farm late Monday afternoon. When making my pickup, I also help load the truck for the Cedar Rapids distribution. It’s a half hour job and my work for food arrangement continues for another ten weeks or so. Loading coolers and crates full of cucumbers, squash, kale, potatoes, onions, basil, tomatoes and other vegetables is not physically demanding, but it is a two person job. It takes a community to get everything done at a CSA farm.

It rained last night, leaving wet spots on the driveway. When the sun rises we’ll see how much fell. This morning’s clear sky, bright with stars and moonlight was memorable for its predawn tranquility.

Before leaving the landscape illuminated by moonlight, I reached out to touch the sky with its shiny orbs twinkling through the atmosphere. Reaching is one thing, touching quite another. The airy vapors of predawn dew wetted my feet through the clogs, and captured my attention, leaving the moon forsaken. Grounded in this reality, I returned to the house to get on with a life on the Iowa prairie.


Zucchini Madness… Again


LAKE MACBRIDE— More has been written here about zucchini than any vegetable of late. In an effort to figure out more ways to prepare and preserve it, I posted a note on Facebook. It proved to be beneficial.

Not only did I receive good suggestions on how to prepare the vegetable, several ways to dispose of excess were identified. This is an inherent part of a local food system— social networking to resolve issues like an abundance of zucchini.

It’s not that I have been short of recipes, I haven’t. So far, I have prepared crudites, toppings for salads, soup, zucchini fries, baked zucchini, a squash casserole, zucchini lasagna, mandolin sliced zucchini pasta, and as soon as there is eggplant, the classic zucchini dish— ratatouille.

There were new ideas for cooking. A friend wrote, “Oh and re. Zucchini— they’re never to big to stuff!  That’s what we do.  Cut in half length wise, core out the seeds.  In the depression add your favorite things  For us that’s lots of walnuts, mushrooms, celery, rice? and what ever else you have laying around— almost anything can make for a fine stuffing. Use favorite spices.  Melt Cheese on Top.   Enjoy again, and again.”

Here are other preparation suggestions:

“Sausage stuffed zucchini boats & zucchini fries.”

“A friend had a pretty good recipe for “mock apple pie” that was made with zucchini and a lot of cinnamon.”

“Sliced in half with some olive oil and garlic salt, then grilled. We’re also big fans of zucchini bread.”

“I just shared a thing about oven baked zucchini chips. never heard of them done that way before myself, but could be worth a try.”

What else to do with excess? There were people that wanted some to eat. Also here are some comments:

“Chop them up and feed it to the chickens. They love zucchini.”

“right to the compost”

“Sounds like you have the basis for a cottage industry… upgrade the packaging and sell frozen zucchini for those of us who aren’t in a position to have any in our own freezers!”

“Contact the veterans shelter house in Cedar Rapids, … they have storage and will distribute green grocery items to their homeless veterans.”

…and there is my favorite, trade zucchini as chicken feed for farmer’s eggs.

As we savor the most recent pick of zucchini, we’re far from exhausting the possibilities. And thanks to social networking, we’re better together.


On Nuclear Defense

In Germany during the Cold War, we had nuclear weapons on our mind. It was expected that should the Soviet Army awaken from the vodka-induced hangover our intelligence reported among soldiers in their border units, they would use nuclear weapons to engage NATO forces at the Fulda Gap, in what we more specifically called the Hofbieber bowl. Those of us in a mechanized infantry unit in the Eighth Infantry Division hoped the balloon wouldn’t go up, and we’d arrive home safe and radiation-free.

Nuclear weapons were part of the tactics of infantry, armor and artillery units stationed in post World War II West Germany. Officers knew where nukes were stored, how they would be deployed, and pulled security missions to protect them. This wouldn’t have been the big bang as when the air force dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were smaller, so-called tactical nuclear weapons. None of us had actually seen one go off.

We received training in what to do if we spotted a mushroom cloud on the battlefield of people’s farms, towns and businesses. The short version was to avert our eyes, find a low spot on the ground and cover ourselves as best we could with our poncho to prevent the radioactive fallout from touching our skin and clothing. The idea was to avoid the shock wave as best we could, shake off the radioactive fallout, and continue fighting.

In retrospect, the idea we would go through with it— position and detonate nuclear weapons— could only have existed within a culture of nihilism… and blind following of commanders’ orders. The officers I knew, who were selected for the nuclear mission, would have gone through with it. I’m not sure I would have, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t picked for detonation duty.

When we consider our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it becomes clear that conventional weapons wreak enough havoc, that nuclear weapons are no longer needed. To cling to them now is a form of nostalgia the world can’t afford, if it ever could.

~ Written for the Nuclear Neighborhoods Project.

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

Kitchen Garden

Fermenting a Path

Bacteria at Work
Bacteria at Work

LAKE MACBRIDE— People are surprised that I’m making pickles without vinegar. Truth be told, until this summer, every pickle I have made was with vinegar, and the results were not optimal, with jars of sliced pickles lingering on in the refrigerator— I quit canning them years ago. Using the fermentation process, the results are so good, I may be fermenting a path to addiction. So what’s different?

It is the lactic acid created by bacteria action that preserves the cucumbers and provides their distinctive pickle flavor. This instead of the acetic acid of vinegar. Basically, waves of different bacteria become active in the salt brine and transform the cucumbers.

The process is so easy, and the results so good, I needed a bigger crock. If you want to try them, I used a celebrity chef recipe which readers can find here.

Time to skim the scum, if you know what I mean.

Environment Kitchen Garden

Iowa’s Culture of Climate Change

Harvesting Soybeans
Harvesting Soybeans

LAKE MACBRIDE— David Biello of Slate wrote an opinion piece in Newsday titled, “Why Don’t Farmers Believe in Climate Change,” on July 16. Link to the article here or here, but here’s a spoiler alert: it’s the Farm Bureau. I commented on the article, but my comment was removed because it violated Newsday’s conditions of use. It’s their world. What’s a blogger to do? If you’re reading this, you know the answer.

In the article, Biello wrote, “take, as an example of skepticism, Iowa corn farmer Dave Miller, whose day job is as an economist for the Iowa Farm Bureau. As Miller is happy to explain, it’s not that farmers in Iowa don’t think climate change is happening; it’s that they think it’s always been happening and therefore is unlikely to have much to do with whatever us humans get up to down at ground level. Or, as the National Farm Bureau’s spokesman Mace Thornton puts it: ‘we’re not convinced that the climate change we’re seeing is anthropogenic in origin. We don’t think the science is there to show that in a convincing way.'”

If there is a record drought like last year, large farmers will capitalize the loss over a period of years, plow the crop under and start over next season. For them, it’s just another aspect of dealing with farming as a business. This attitude is consistent with what I experienced when listening to row crop farmers in Iowa.

The idea,  “they think it’s always been happening and therefore is unlikely to have much to do with whatever us humans get up to down at ground level,” is ridiculous. Climate change doesn’t just happen— it happens for a reason. And today, the main reason is carbon pollution from dirty energy like coal, oil and natural gas.

I encourage you to read the article if you are interested in the interface between Iowa farmers, the Farm Bureau and the environment. There is a lot to learn before Iowa makes progress in protecting our environment. Some say the Iowa Farm Bureau runs the state of Iowa. I say it could only do so in a vacuum of action from people whose views are closer to the reality of climate change.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa