Saturday, April 19, 2014

2 answers to high food costs

If you eat food, the news isn’t good. Beef prices are at an all time high. Last month’s increase in food prices was led by a 30% leap in the costs of hogs and 12.4% increase in poultry.

During Lent, my wife and I attempted to eat on a food stamp budget. The Department of Family Services, who administers the program, tells me that for the two of us, benefits would be $347 per month following recent federal budget cuts.

I use the word “attempted” because we didn’t quite make it. We ended the month spending just under $400 on food. There are a couple of reasons we didn’t succeed. One is that we didn’t really have to! Unlike millions who rely on food stamps to feed their families, we don’t. That difference led to the second reason.

When we take care of our grandchildren, and that occurs as often as their parents permit, we buy the extras they want. Doing so, we quickly realized how much of a dent those purchases put in our budget. More important, we realized how difficult it is for those who actually rely on food stamps to say “no” to children and grandchildren.

We became more price-aware than ever and painfully aware of what the economists are reporting. All of us are experiencing those huge increases in the cost of food. Before this exercise, I used to ask rhetorically, “How do poor people make it?”

Today I have a limited glimpse into what that actually means. The answer is, “with great difficulty.” I have even greater respect for the local food banks at Needs, Inc. and St. Joseph’s and for the churches and others donating food to them. (NOTE: Day of Giving is Friday May 9, the community’s chance to donate food and more.)

It would help if certain members of Congress, including the three from Wyoming, would declare a ceasefire in their war on the poor.

There’s another strategy as well. Couponing. During the month, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman who has trained perhaps a thousand Cheyenne families on the art…and it is indeed an art. Wendy Troutman is a jewel in “the Gem City,” i.e. Cheyenne.

Wendy got my attention when she told me plainly that when we toss the Wednesday grocery store ads in the trash, it’s like throwing away hundred dollar bills. After an hour with her, I agreed.

Looking at her three-ring binder, in which she catalogues coupons and listening to her describe a whole new approach to grocery shopping, I wondered aloud whether it’s worth it all. “Just how much would one expect to save if they did all this,” I asked her. The answer was attention getting.

Wendy assured me that if a person is only “moderately couponing,” he or she could expect to save no less than 50% on groceries. More intense strategies save her as much as 90%.

Teaching others how to achieve that kind of result is Wendy Troutman’s mission. She teaches classes at the library, WAFB, and community churches. She’s taught Climb Wyoming and Wyoming Family Home Ownership classes.

By the time we finished a cup of coffee, she had me convinced this is the one realistic alternative to eating less. Her major teaching is that couponing demands a new philosophy about grocery shopping. A couponer gradually becomes more price aware. They are sensitive to store and manufacturer polices such as which store doubles coupons, where to find coupons on-line and the best newspapers in which to search.

As I leafed through her binder full of coupons, Wendy said, “I’d give you my wallet before Id’ give you this binder.”

Face it. It is unlikely food prices are going to drop significantly enough to make much of a difference on anyone’s budget. Congress is not likely to do any more about this problem than any of the others that confront low-income families.

But Wendy Troutman has a real-life alternative. Look for her classes at the library.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cheney's Legacy? Torture

The Senate Intelligence Committee has voted 11-3 to allow the rest of us to read its report on the CIA's use of torture. This report will define Dick Cheney’s legacy. When issued, torture will become the focus for how the former Wyoming congressman is remembered.

Think about Lyndon Johnson who should have been remembered for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, the war on poverty, his leadership following President Kennedy’s assassination, as well as a senate career where many historians consider him to have been the most effective majority leader in history. Instead, his career is characterized by this question. “Other than Viet Nam, how’d your political career work out?”

When the public is finally able to read the facts amassed by Senate investigators, Dick Cheney’s name will be added to a long list of torturers going back to the dingy dungeons of the Middle Ages. History books will include his photo alongside that of the 15th Century “Grand Inquisitor” Tom├ís de Torquemada.

While that legacy is well earned, it’s also sad. Cheney’s pre-9/11 resume was exceptional. He was President Gerald Ford’s chief-of-staff. He returned to Wyoming, ran for congress, serving a decade as Wyoming’s congressman. He was appointed Defense Secretary in March 1989, leading the armed forces to a victory in the first Gulf War.

Cheney then made a fortune as Halliburton’s CEO. That’s when the ethical cracks began to appear. Halliburton shareholders filed a securities fraud lawsuit. Though Cheney was at Halliburton during part of the period at issue, he was by then vice-president and not named as a defendant.

Later Nigeria filed corruption charges against Cheney. Those charges were dismissed when Halliburton agreed to pay a quarter of a billion dollar settlement.

Sandwiched between the two cases were Cheney’s years as vice-president. Nine months after he was sworn into office, terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shocked the world. In the immediate aftermath, the vice-president made it clear the US would go to the “dark side” to avenge the attacks.

He discarded any notion that Americans had to wait for proof that someone was an actual threat before torturing or killing them. Cheney established what was called “the one-percent” doctrine, i.e. substantial evidence was unnecessary. If there was even a one-percent chance someone could harm Americans, they went on the hit list.

Torture was an integral part of Cheney’s game plan. We are perhaps only weeks away from learning the truth. Those who have read the report say the truth is uglier than even longtime Cheney-haters could have imagined. The Washington Post says, “The 6,300-page report includes what officials described as damning new disclosures about a sprawling network of secret detention facilities, or ‘black sites,’ that was dismantled by President Obama in 2009.”

It chronicles lies told by the CIA and Cheney among others to cover the brutality and severity of the torture as well as how little useful intelligence was gathered by casting aside the moral authority of our great country.

So what happened to the Dick Cheney many Wyoming people voted for and respected? Surely he knew as he was making those decisions that the torture program he unleashed would not remain a secret forever.

What happened was the infamous “Presidential Daily Briefing” Cheney-Bush received more than a month in advance of the attacks. Entitled “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States,” the memo provided prescient details of what happened on 9/11.

As he was moved to “secure, undisclosed locations” following the attacks, Cheney’s thoughts assuredly turned to that memo. He realized he and the President had missed its significance. For the remainder of his days as VP, Cheney endeavored to atone for that failure.

LBJ still has his loyal supporters as Dick Cheney will have his. But just as LBJ’s obituary was filled with references to Viet Nam so will Dick Cheney’s obituary be filled with references to torture. Torture is morally reprehensible and history will judge the torturers accordingly.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Parable of the Vineyard Workers
The Parable of “Occupy the Vineyard” - The Sagebrush Gospel Version

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 The struggles of the middle class began with vineyard workers in the time of Jesus. In those days a landowner didn’t have a steady workforce. He went early each morning to hire laborers. If he said, “I need all of you” they’d have enough leverage to negotiate higher wages. So, he took fewer workers than needed from those waiting for work, pitting hopefuls against one another.
After agreeing with a few laborers on wages slightly higher than Pharaoh paid his Hebrew slaves, he sent them into his vineyard. He returned about nine o’clock and saw other unemployed workers standing idle. This time there was no negotiation. The boss simply ordered, “You also go into the vineyard. I’ll pay you whatever is right.” So they went, not knowing what wage he thought was right. They needed the work. This might be their last opportunity that day.
He went out again about noon and about three o’clock, each time hiring fewer workers than needed, causing the unemployed workers to quarrel among themselves about who would work harder for less.
About five o’clock, near the end of the workday, he found others standing around. Although he knew they weren’t working because of his scheme to keep wages down, he mocked them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” as though their idleness was their fault. They said, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said, “Go into the vineyard.”
When evening came, the owner said, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock received the same wages offered those who’d been hired first, those first hired grumbled, “These last worked only one hour, and were paid the same as us who have borne the burden of the entire day and the scorching heat.”
The employer replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for this wage? Take what belongs to you and get lost; this is my business and you are a worker. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
Eventually, the workers formed unions and elected representatives to negotiate with landowners so they couldn’t pit one against the other. Soon they were paid fairer wages, benefits and safer working conditions.
This was unacceptable to the owners.
The owner of the vineyard turned to friendly politicians. Pharaoh’s heirs took campaign contributions from owners in exchange for passing laws they called “right-to-work.” These and other laws made it difficult for workers to band together. Owners were once again able to pit underemployed workers against one another.
Still the landowners were displeased with laws putting minimums on the wages they could pay workers and workplace regulations such as overtime pay, child labor limits, and worker safety among others.  He cried out, “I built this business (conveniently overlooking the significant contributions of his employees and his customers). Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
And so he globalized the marketplace. Instead of hiring workers among his own countrymen, he outsourced their jobs, pitting workers throughout the world against one another.
If workers in his country demanded minimum wages, he could find workers in other countries willing to work for whatever he wished to pay them. Workplace safety and child labor laws didn’t exist in other countries. Environmental responsibility was no longer an issue. The Pharaoh again assisted, negotiating international trade agreements assuring him he could sell products throughout the world.
Money that once went to worker salaries now went instead to shareholders. Technology reduced the need for workers. Competition for diminishing numbers of jobs motivated workers to produce more for smaller wages.
Alas, the owners found that the last…will be last, the first will be first, which is Biblical for “the rich will get richer and the poor…”well, you know!
That’s the Sagebrush Gospel version of the Parable of the Vineyard Workers in Matthew 20.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Food stamp abuse bigfoots"

When Stalin’s collectivization caused mass starvation in Ukraine, he used Orwellian explanations, putting blame on victims. Starving peasants, Stalin said, were a part of the anti-communist conspiracy.

Before becoming disillusioned with Communism, Hungarian journalist Arthur Koestler saw Communism as an alternative to capitalism. As the corpses of Russian peasants accumulated, Koestler defended Stalin. He said they were starving themselves, he said, because they were “enemies of the state who preferred begging to work.”

That sounds like what we hear today about people needing help. The denigration of the poor is rather untoward in a country many also believe to be a nation built on Judeo-Christian values.

Communism wasn’t an alternative to capitalism. But capitalism without a conscience poses its own problems. The US has always struggled to make certain our economic system doesn’t lose its conscience.

That’s why safety-net programs were created. The most effective is food stamps. The program started during the Depression as a way of feeding hungry Americans while selling surplus crops and propping up agriculture. It continues to serve those purposes admirably.

During Lent my wife and I are trying to live on a food stamp budget. After recent congressional cuts, that’s $11 per day for the two of us or about a buck 83 apiece for each meal.

We decided to do that for two reasons. One, we wanted to experience what it’s like for those whose life circumstances dictate they feed their family with food stamps. Second, our church started the “Lenten Fund,” a way for people to donate savings from whatever they may sacrifice during Lent. The fund will be used to help families in need.

We’ve blogged about the experience and chronicled some of it on Facebook. The feedback has been striking. Much of it comes from people who’ve actually been there and done that for real. They tell stories of times in their lives when food stamps were a necessity. For many it’s what enabled them to feed their children during tough times.

Equally striking are comments like this one, “At least people on food stamps get free food. I have to work for mine.” The sentiment comes in different forms but mostly reflects the anti-poor bias mythology surrounding the program. Comments often allude to Fox News stories singling out the most egregious uses of food stamps. The one gaining the most currency today is the Seattle surfer who proudly told Fox how he uses the stamps to buy lobster.

Critics turn anecdotes into data because the data proves them wrong.

In a recent program Jon Stewart hit the nail on the head. “Just because six different Fox News shows trotted out the same ‘food stamp abuse bigfoot’ doesn't mean one lobster-eating surfer represents millions of Americans on food assistance.”

Many hold tightly to stereotypes badly in need of updating. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. People tend to filter out facts inconsistent with their prejudices. False stereotypes persist because they confirm our biases.

With the Internet, accurate information is as easy to obtain as untruths. The facts are that 83% of all food stamp benefits go to households with young children or the elderly or disabled. The program imposes work requirements for able-bodied recipients. Many of those receiving assistance are working but at jobs paying so little they still qualify. The average food stamp household has a gross monthly income of $744.

Those who criticize food stamp recipients would do better to turn their unhappiness on politicians who refuse to raise the minimum wage. That would be the most effective means of reducing safety-net costs.

The times call for some empathy among citizens. At some time in our lives, most Americans will need public assistance. Jaron Lanier’s new book “Who Owns the Future” predicts “hyper-unemployment” when computer software replaces drivers of cars and trucks, when machines rather than humans mine coal, and robots provide nursing care.

If Lanier is correct, many of those now harboring resentments about helping others will find themselves in the food stamp line.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Good morning UKRAINE


This morning’s blog post is aimed for Ukrainian readers. I was pleasantly surprised by statistical reports that said last week 46 people logged onto my blog from Ukraine.

In this part of the US, many would like to hear from you. If you have logged on from Ukraine, please take time to respond in the “comment box” at the bottom.

I asked Facebook friends what they’d like to say to Ukrainians if given the chance.

From Australia, Marilyn J. Patton wrote, “I wish them many blessings and much love and hope they have courage to do what they think is best in the situation for them and their families.”

Terry A. Allen’s comment reflected many who would like to hear from real people in Ukraine rather than relying on the media to tell us what’s going on. “I hope your news coverage is better than our Yellow, Biased Propaganda BS.”

My reference to “the Ukraine” was corrected by Brenda Baker who wrote, “My grandson married a girl from Ukraine. She speaks three languages and grammatically correct English. Ukrainians prefer to say they're from Ukraine, not The Ukraine. Anne Costello Edmunds confirmed that and provided me this link to the story of how and why.

The essay found at teaches that dropping the article “the” was an integral part of claiming Ukrainian independence from the former Soviet Union. The writer says, “Today, the Ukraine is considered antiquated and insulting, and using it in well-informed company is a bad idea.” I won’t make that mistake again!
Several readers seconded the emotion expressed by Mike Moser who asked that I relay this. “That we wish them freedom. The freedom to start with nothing and accomplish much... to live your dreams. We whine a lot as Americans... about the press, the politicians, the economy, which are sometimes flawed, but we have the freedom to do so. Their neighbors... and invaders... to the north do not. I hope that the U.S. and E.U. stand with the good people of Ukraine so they can whine as freely as we do. We've always had freedom, so we tend to take it for granted. Godspeed, Ukraine... I pray that our politicians, and citizens, remember your future is also ours.”
Michael R ODonnell wrote, “Warm thoughts for the Ukrainians and may their hopes of self-determination continue and be real.” From Jane Ifland, “I wish you life, peace, and confidence in the future.”
Susan Kotowicz wondered if relatives she used to have in Ukraine were still there, “Hi relatives who used to be part of Poland, if any still exist there. We had some people in Kiev at one time! I wish you peace and freedom!”
From the state of Pennsylvania, Corbin Fowler wrote, “I wish Ukraine and Crimea peace and a happy future coexisting with one another.” And Janet Carol Whitehead said she admires “Ukrainian courage to fight for what we call freedom in spite of the overwhelming odds.”
Many others simply clicked on the “Like” button to signal agreement with many of the comments others posted.
There is a great deal of interest here in what is happening in Ukraine. News about Ukraine rivals the Malaysian airliner story for airtime. We hear hourly the barbs being traded between Presidents Obama and Putin. But we hear almost nothing from the real people who are living in the center of this storm.
Generations of Americans born after World War II are scurrying to learn the history of the Ukraine. Suddenly books like Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” are bestsellers. Snyder recounts the tragic history of ghastly violence perpetrated against Ukrainian people by Stalin and Hitler during the war years and those leading up to and those following WWII.
Knowing something about that history has given people in the United States a greater respect for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters and has heightened our concerns for what you are facing today.
You are in our thoughts and on our minds.