Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Behind Every Great Fortune Lies A Great Crime"

That pithy quote from Balzac should inform our opinion of top-tier tycoons, CEOs, Fearless Leaders, aristocrats and the untouchable oligarchy we now call the one percent.  But, as Edwin Lyngar demonstrated in a recent on-line article, most of us have an "overpowering need to behave like a middle-class sucker."  If you live a life of morality, modesty, honesty and fair dealing, you'll probably avoid jail, but your chances of becoming a Donald Trump are miniscule, since that's not how the elite got that way.

Living by the Calvinist moral framework a lot of us grew up with, is really, like faith and devotion to tradition, an easy excuse not to dig into things and think them through.  Mr. Lyngar found that, contrary to what we're told the rules for behavior/reward are, in fact his worst ethical lapse resulted in his biggest financial success (it involved a little fancy stepping during the short-sale of his home).  And that is how the elite got that way. 

I've never been clever enough to benefit greatly from a move like that, but I often think about something I felt I could not do that cost me.  In school, I would not read the "Cliff's Notes" guides because that would be cheating.  It seemed to me that everyone should approach new material in class on an equal basis, without coaching or preparation.  Of course, everyone else did who cared about their test results and grades, and there was no reward for trying to understand that book, play, poem, or theorem all on your own.  So Mr. Lyngar sidestepped strict ethics when presented with a problem, and came out ahead, while I plowed ahead with ethics intact and did not have enough right answers on exams about the intricacies of Shakespeare.  Also, resume padding by joining a raft of groups and activities that are pretty useless or you really didn't care about seemed dishonest to me, while it seems quite the opposite to college admissions committees.

When I first understood what business incorporation was, it seemed fishy.  "Incorporate" to avoid liability and financial responsibility while preserving your own assets?  Not paying your bills, hiding money overseas and slipping out of paying taxes is all right when someone could be sent to prison for twenty years for possessing a joint (and that happened, many times)?

Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries run today by son Charles in Wichita, set the family fortune skyrocketing by stealing the refining technology from another company early in the 20th century, which he sold it around the world.  Even to the Soviet Union, a little bit of a hypocritical move since Fred was one of the main John Birch Society members.  He countersued when challenged, and around 1950 actually was the one who got paid.  Judges don't really care if the bribes and campaign contributions come from businessmen or Al Capone, I guess.  Al rotted away in jail for being indiscreet, while Joe Kennedy got away with millions from Wall Street "pump and dump" cons, the Bush family banked gold for the Nazis, and The Donald's father refused to pay his contractors and sued them if they objected.

We all saw the movie about Facebook being quite successfully stolen by Mark Zuckerberg.  And they must be teaching more about winning than doing the right thing at Harvard, since one of his predecessors there, Bill Gates, sold the DOS operating system to IBM which was stolen goods already: Tim Paterson's QDOS was a copy of Gary Kildall's CP/M operating system.  Bill did pay Tim $50,000 before licensing it to IBM himself and making some real coin.

The Roman patricians became oligarchs by sending fellow citizens, farmers and tradesmen, off on wars and taking their land from the widows.  The winning formula was to go right for the gold (in Asia Minor, against the Celts, and by looting the Temple after the Jewish Revolt) using those soldiers, then working those stolen estates with the free labor of the enslaved populations brought back.  The later European aristocracies -- the Norman invasion is the best example of a long lasting ruling class based on murder and wholesale theft since the Romans -- and our own Southern one also thought labor should never be anything other than free.  All also believe, then to now, that they should be exempt from taxes.  "Middle class sucker" thinking seems be in agreement with that principle since the Reagan era.  Existence of a (now ludicrously low) minimum wage means, as Chris Rock said, only that they'd pay you a lot less if they could.


Monday, September 22, 2014

This Is My Stop and I Want to Get Off

Some things you see, you don't forget.  Those are often the things you can't really say anything about, either, because your thoughts don't agree with tradition or with just the way things are done.

What I saw was while we were installing some routine added telephone and computer lines at Frey Village in Middletown, PA -- a nursing home.  And still I can't, or won't, bring myself to describe the people we passed by slumping in their wheelchairs in a hallway, in their rooms, or in a social area with others but still as alone as possible.  In a hospital, professionals are buzzing around, there is important-looking equipment flashing numbers and beeping, so despite what you see, you can think there's going to be some things fixed for some of the patients, if not, surely, for all.  There could be no hope for any of these ancients in the nursing home; it was as harrowing as a war scene.

A recent report from the Institute of Medicine made the news last week, and it stated bluntly that aggressive care prolongs dying without improving the quality of life.  Exactly what I've been thinking; even for those I saw so many years ago, who were completely out of it, the standard is to intervene relentlessly to keep them alive; trips made by ambulance from home to doctors' offices and hospitals and back, over and over.  While my father underwent this for nine months, from hospital to rehab to nursing home, the word that came to mind over and over was:  torture.

When a bipartisan group from the House and Senate proposed (in 2009) that patients could be counseled by their doctors about end-of-life care and be paid for their time through insurance or Medicare, the right wing noise machine blew up and hit the headlines with the "death panels" scare before the public even knew about that provision in the bill that was being considered.  The real reason for that dishonest outrage, other than predictable opposition to anything helpful to the helpless, was that no part of the healthcare profit machine should ever be contained, no matter how useless or unreasonable.  Since the largest part of Medicare is spent on the last few years of patients' lives, the prospect of bankrupting it as boomers flood the nursing homes, if nothing is done about prolonging the dying process soon, must have delighted the wingnuts.

Mark Evanier has written stories of his parents' lives many times on his blog (www.newsfromme.com), but the latest is relevant to considering the absurdity of pointlessly prolonging human misery:

When someone close to you dies, you look for that silver lining, however thin and fragile it may be -- some way to 'spin' the death in a way that's more comforting to you.  I had no trouble doing that...when my mother died because she really wanted to go.  She was verging on blindness and a life which did not contain one single thing that brought her any joy.

Mark's father, many years earlier, had seemingly willed himself not to live on as an empty shell after his third heart attack.  He knew he was not going to

recover to the point where he could walk and go out and get into his car and drive somewhere and do something useful.

Despite his own express desires, and the presence of a carefully written living will and clear health directives, there was nothing we could do to stop the endless and fruitless medical interventions during those bedridden nine months my father endured. Only twice were people candid about what the situation was.  Early on during that period, I talked to the rehab hospital care coordinator when everyone else was out of the office and the door was closed, making it clear I wanted her honest assessment apart from the official script of false comfort (Plaza West in Florida is part of a giant corporation).  She said quietly, "he's not going home.  This is it."  And on the last admission to the hospital after being moved here, while Dad was still unconscious in the emergency room, a young doctor took us aside in a shadowy corner and asked what we wanted.  ...He said we were right, and at that point everything changed: he recommended that hospice begin as soon as possible and Dad be moved to a quiet private room. Within a half hour, all the tubes, needles and lines were removed except for an increasing morphine drip.

But a peaceful end could not be found much earlier despite there being no hope of recovery.  Does that make any sense?



Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lift the Veil, and...

...you just find another one.

Some things just become more ambiguous, not clearer, the more you look into them.  Mostly, to avoid these headaches, people either just accept things (like the frog who gets boiled without noticing that his future is changing for the worse as the heat under the pot is turned up very slowly), or they have beliefs that save them the trouble of thinking matters through.

So, recently Coca-Cola announced that they are going to go to a 100% bioplastic "plant bottle" which is made from plant materials instead of being petroleum-based.  Right now, their bottles are already 30% made from such renewable feed stock (petroleum being, for a fact, despite the claims of scientists such as S. Palin, both finite and non-renewable).  The other 70% is now PET plastic along with some chemicals for softening and flexibility. To make the project economically as painless as possible, they're partnering with a Wisconsin company, Virent, to refine the process of producing purer paraxylene from a byproduct of the biofuel production process.  Other large packagers are on board, such as Heinz and Proctor & Gamble, as well as Ford, which has already pioneered use of recycled PET plastic for interiors.  The Air Force is testing jet biofuel, and Honda and Shell Oil are in also.  Big corporate environmentalism?  Bring it on, since, let's face it, another article in the Sierra Club magine pushing the idea isn't going to move much on the global chessboard.

But then...using switch grass or plant leftovers sounds efficient and good, but what if the major source of plant feedstock for this new plastic turns out to be one of the major monocrops of industrial agriculture, such as corn?  The effects of expanding its production on our battered, eroding soils or creating square miles of new sugar cane fields by bulldozing the Amazon basin even more would be as hard on the world environment as the PET plastics already are.  That's more diesel fuel use, and more herbicides and pesticides, when we have far too much of that now.  And the plant-based plastic might well include the same dangerous additive chemicals for softening that are currently used.

Recycling problems will not go away.  The current rate with PET petroleum plastic bottles is only around 24% (except in states with refundable deposit laws, where it averages 70%), and the recycling industry is not set up to handle bioplastic.  Coca-Cola and other giants oppose deposit laws, since that system requires some effort from them.  In Europe, companies are being held accountable for accepting back their materials, even whole cars, but as long as one lobbyist draws breath in the USA, that won't happen here.

Dilemmas like this remind me of what Tony Soprano would say: "Well, whatcha gonna do?"