Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whistling past the bean field

      The 2004 film "Day Without a Mexican" conjured a moment when a mystery fog spirited away all of California's Latinos, and then imagined how the state would fare without that industrious labor force.

      Assessment: not well.

      Not so fast, asserted Megan Clyne in National Review, a publication whose mission is to comfort America's most comfortable.

      Though the movie focused on all Latinos, not just the undocumented kind, Clyne focused on the latter, of course. She asserted, for instance, that an illegal workforce prevents many producers of fruits and vegetables from modernizing and mechanizing, obviating the need for dirty brown hands.

       It's true that innovations continue to relieve producers of the need for labor. But crops that easily bruise, and the list is long — apples, asparagus, beans, blueberries, melons, grapes, oranges, sugar beets, tomatoes and more — need hands.

        This brings us to what Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert said before an ashen-faced congressional subcommittee last week. Basically, he said that one would have to be especially — even insanely — motivated to do what U.S. farm workers do.

         As for him, when he picked beans and corn for a brief spin as part of the United Farm Workers' "Take Our Jobs"  campaign, Colbert discovered to his consternation that "most soil is ground level," with the requisite stooping.

         What the UFW is seeking, and what Republicans on Capitol Hill are blocking, is passage of the AgJobs bill, which would grant temporary legal status to illegal immigrants working as farm hands, the status becoming permanent if they continue to work on farms for a specific period of time.

        The National Review crowd may cover its ears and hum real loud, but the truth is that an illegal workforce largely is the difference between fruits and vegetables getting to our plates and rotting in the ground.

         It also is, as Colbert pointed out, one thing that keeps production here that otherwise would move south of the border. Ah, but considering how amenable certain free-market types are to outsourcing jobs overseas, maybe this is not a concern.

         Americans will do these jobs, they say. Maybe. Then again, how many Americans do the producers need?

         An Associated Press analysis showed that in the first six months of this year, California farmers posted ads in unemployment offices for 1,160 farm worker positions exclusive to U.S. citizens and legal residents. So, how'd that go?

          Of 233 who inquired, only 36 ended up getting hired, or deigned to take the offer.

           It was unfortunate to see the blank faces when Colbert appeared with, in-character act aside, a very important and valid message. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, went on Fox News, naturally, to call it an "insult to the intelligence of the American people." Maybe he hasn't seen any of Glenn Beck's work lately.

           President Obama has been pushing for a sane and comprehensive immigration reform package that provides for a flexible approach to the nation's labor needs and makes it possible for more such industrious, productive individuals to find ways to reach citizenship.

         On a related front, Republicans are vowing to mount an effort to amend the Constitution to prevent citizenship for the children of illegal aliens. They want us to believe that this is an inducement that brings swarms of people from across our borders.

         You think? Princeton University demographer Douglas Massey disagrees vehemently. He told Associated Press that in 30 years studying Mexican immigration, he's never interviewed an immigrant who said he or she came to the United States to obtain citizenship for children-to-be.

         No, they come here to work: an odd reason to be demonized.

         Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:



Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Taking it right to anti-choice zealots

      Sure, I might have missed it. Since reality TV started chewing its way through the television schedule like a weevil in a cotton boll, what's to watch?

       Nonetheless, I'm confident I have seen something on TV rarely if ever tried by Democrats: A candidate is going right after his opponent's attempt to inject government into the private decisions of women.

      Commercials of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) assail his opponent, Ken Buck, for advocating a "fetal personhood" amendment to the state constitution. More pointedly, the commercials have women doing the assailing.

      Cumulative message: How dare (Buck) want government to interfere in my personal decisions?

      Here's how he dares. To win a Republican nomination anymore, a candidate must swear allegiance to the religious right and to hard-line anti-abortion positions. That includes opposing common forms of birth control, and of course blocking embryonic stem cell research.

      Ah, but now Buck, a Tea Party favorite who defeated the GOP establishment choice, is softening his stances as the nominee. He says that though he would prohibit abortion even in cases of rape and incest, he doesn't want to amend the state constitution.

     The "personhood" amendment he backed could prohibit more than prototypical abortion. It also could prohibit birth control like the IUD and the birth control pill, both of which can prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall.

      Buck's staff now says the candidate wants to focus on the economy. Interesting.

      Why run from this, Mr. Hard-Right Candidate?

      Better question: Why haven't progressives run to the studio to hammer on anti-choice zealots for these positions?

      The whole palette of issues plied by social conservatives gives the lie to the American right's rhetorical underpinnings. Tea Party "less government" placards aside, the hard right is not interested in a hands-off government. It wants an in-your-face government. It wants organized school prayer. It wants to censor the Internet. It wants government to side with Leviticus on sexual orientation.

     And don't be deceived. The Tea Party movement is a religious right movement. Right, Sarah Palin? Right, Christine O'Donnell?

     In Alaska, some say the GOP primary victory of Tea Party choice (and Christian right hard-liner) Joe Miller over U.S. Senate incumbent Lisa Murkowski was driven by economic issues. Actually, turnout for Miller was pumped up by an anti-abortion parental notification bill on the ballot. Murkowski lost by a razor-thin margin in large part for being one of the few pro-choice Republicans in the Senate.

     Well, that's what winning GOP nominations has come down to. What about winning general elections, something we're told Republicans will do in great numbers in November, the Sword of Yahweh cutting giant swaths?

     Interestingly, establishment Republicans are doing everything they can to tone down the whole social issues thing. This week when House Republicans issued campaign agenda, they deliberately edited out any references to red-meat social conservative issues, particularly abortion.

     Progressive candidates should not let them shove these matters aside. Why? Because these are mainstream concerns of centrist voters, particularly women in the case of abortion. Sure, these voters are concerned about jobs and GDP. They also are interested in fundamental matters of freedom, a word we are to assume the Tea Party has copyrighted.

      Let's talk, and force GOP candidates to talk, about the abortion issue, because it dramatically portrays a so-called "anti-government" movement with corrupt logic verging on fraud.

      It's time to go right after those who hide behind "pro-life," the weakest and weasle-iest label in American politics.

      To what extent are you "pro-life," Mr. or Mrs. Politician? Would you have government mandate a rape or incest victim to gestate to term? If, in moderation's sake, you want to leave a rape/incest loophole, how would you adjudicate whether either offense occurred? What about abortion out of medical necessity? What government entity would determine that, as the woman and doctor stood by?

     Every anti-choice politician should be challenged in just such a way. And why? Because it cuts to the core of the big-government authoritarianism peddled as "conservatism" today.

     Sorry, Tea Party, but Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan are not your patron saints. Your founders are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones. What drives you is what put them in fancy cars. You want government to run people's personal lives.

     The placards say "less government." That depends on what kind of government you want less of.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Making most of a hollow shell

     Looking back, I must have written 10,000 words about that old building on East Waco's Clifton Street. It was a decrepit nursing home at one time. Then McLennan County converted it into a makeshift juvenile detention center.

     In the '90s it got upgraded and expanded. That meant young detainees would have recreation and classroom opportunities, and wouldn't have to, among other things, relieve themselves in plastic jugs after hours. It was a disgrace.

     Ten years later, the county acknowledged that demand had outstripped the renovated building. It  built a new place where children in trouble could get some counseling and intervention this side of the Texas Youth Commission.

      For years, the old building sat vacant while some of us suggested ways to use it, like providing juvenile drug treatment.

     Then two years ago, good people — and I mean the best — found a use for a hollow shell: establish a triage and respite center for people with psychiatric emergencies.

      Long before this was possible, I had watched these people push the boulder up the hill, straining on behalf of a voiceless constituency. At last, they stood at the top of the hill, sweat-stained but rewarded.

      Now, in a case of mountaintop mining for budget dollars, the state of Texas is threatening to take the ground out from beneath their feet.

      It would happen if Gov. Rick Perry and state budget writers dynamite away 10 percent of spending from the Department of Human Services and subordinates like the Waco-based Heart of Texas Region Mental Health-Mental Retardation.

      Barb Tate, executive director of HOT MHMR, is the very last person from whom you will ever expect hyperbole. So when she uses "devastating" repeatedly to describe the proposed cuts — more than $1 million for her agency over the biennium — believe it.

     The first victim under her watch, she said, likely would be the psychiatric crisis center established in 2008 with a grant from the Legislature and much local collaboration. 

      This would be — yes, devastating, and costly. The on-site respite serves an average of 28 people a day, keeping them out of mental hospitals, and emergency rooms, and jails. Anyone who deals with any of those entities knows how much they cost all of us.

     The other function of the center is to do triage for people brought by police or family when someone is talking suicide or conversing with phantoms. The center handles six to 10 such cases daily. A person might need hospitalization. Or he might  just need to get back on his medication and then into a clean bed, maybe his own.

       The really scary thing about the proposed budget cuts, said Tate, is that in addition to $90 million that would be yanked from community mental health centers like hers, $44 million would be stripped from state hospitals, where beds routinely are at a premium.

       The sad thing about this is that most policymakers, and Texans, simply shrug their shoulders and say nothing else can be done. The economy, you know.

        That rationalization could not be more false.

        Texas is a state of great resources with pitifully little social spine. Its policies are captive of players like the Texas Business Association and the national Citizens for Tax Reform. If Rick Perry is a little less tan than normal when returning from an out-of-state jaunt, understand that he is fresh from another blood ritual with CTR's anti-tax high priest, Grover Norquist. Earning national street cred as an anti-tax crusader has been one of Perry's chief missions as governor.

         We are told that Texas faces a $21 billion budget deficit next biennium. Considering the state of the economy, none should be surprised. But critics have pointed out for years that the state operates with a structural deficit based on a regressive tax system that barely reflects its economy or taps its immense wealth. 

         A few years ago, under the guise of "school finance reform," the state managed to make things worse. Republicans pushed through a one-third property tax cut without sufficient ways to offset it. It was typical blue-sky policy by people who would never plan for a day when skies would turn unforgiving. In agriculture, such foolery is called eating the seed corn.

        We've seen the same thing in Washington. Politicians who borrowed to pay for two wars led us into a near-Depression. Now that the need for federal action at home is great, debt accumulated in the best of times prevents us from meeting crucial needs in bad times.

         In Waco, they did a magnificent job doing something with that hollow shell on Clifton Street. Now they are at the mercy of fiscal stewards who have sculpted a hollow shell of a tax system. If Texas had a social spine, it would finance good deeds that serve people in need and save money in the long run.

          Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail:


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fight hypertension: Ride the bus

   Back in my early 40s, my doctor presented me with a curious diagnosis: high blood pressure.

   This made no sense. I was healthy and active. My cholesterol was perfect, as was everything else save my hairline. The doctor said that lots of otherwise healthy people have the condition, and science has no ready explanation.

    Now I have an explanation: High blood pressure, and hair loss, are caused by one's brake foot.

    The discovery was made when I started riding the bus with increasing regularity to my new job as a college instructor. Riding a bus was not something I could do for many years in newspapers, because of the regular need to hop in a car and go to an interview or attend a meeting.

     I started riding the bus not just to save on gas and all it renders unto the environment, but because driving increasingly was a hassle. Where I live, particularly during warm months, nary an intersection is unadorned with barricades and orange barrels.

     Other considerations aside, I have a formula to tell you if you should be on a bus: It's if you spend more time braking than accelerating.

      Let's face it: That is true in most metro cities. Driving becomes idling — blowing exhaust into the face of the stationionary sucker stationed behind you — as opposed to having the breeze blowing through your hair. (Too often the breeze through your hair is another car's exhaust. No wonder mine fell out.)

    This is not to say I don't like to drive. I love it. I crave road trips. This is also not to say that I didn't first arrive at the bus depot without trepidation.

     The uninitiated might tend to view bus riders as the downcast, the losers, those going nowhere. I knew all along that was false, because I have a going-somewhere son who has used mass transit religiously while living in Austin.  Now that I'm riding the bus, I understand how false the stereotype of these commuters is. Many riders are simply smart consumers. They are smart not only about the dollars and cents they save when someone else drives, but are smart enough to use a low-cost system to their benefit.

     My son is smart. He doesn't drive, and has demonstrated in almost 10 years in Austin that he doesn't need a car. And I do believe that his reliance on mass transit makes him more mellow and better-connected to a city he loves.

     One key that can convince a person to start riding the bus is the realization that time spent driving is time wasted. For me, riding a bus means time to read the newspaper or a magazine, or to grade essays. I can do these when I let someone else ride the brake for me.

       True, you have to organize your coming and going a little better. You need to leave yourself a little more time. That can eat into a day. But if you utilize the time on the bus to your benefit, you've wasted none of it.

      The biggest discovery about riding a bus is that the stress I always imagined accompanying such commuters is not there. Getting to one's job through someone else's labor actually relaxes the body, starting with your overworked pedal foot.

      Not to get to technical, but your plantar bone is connected to your heel bone, which is connected to your shin bone, which is connected to your knee bone. And the muscles that keep each in a state of tension as a driver — grinding at a lifetime's supply of cartilage and tooth enamel — are connected indirectly to your neckbone and your cranial bone. All adds up to headaches, pulse rates that exceed speed limits, and the aforementioned high blood pressure.

       My doctor did not tell me this. My brake foot did.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Where the money went this time

    Oh, man, that fog of war. Sweat and smoke in your eyes. Not always sure what you're shooting at.

    One minute you try to nail the enemy — Barack Obama — as a Muslim who won't fess to it. Then your new commanding general, Glenn Beck, directs fire at him for liberation (Christian) theology.

    Obama, the enemy, is an inert job killer. Obama, the enemy, is a hyper-speed spender — and so what if a few jobs emanate?

    Well, guess what? A few jobs emanated — about  3 million — directly linked to the Recovery and Investment Act signed a year and a half ago.

    That's from an independent report in which one of the economists contributing, Mark Zandi (he backed John McCain in 2008), says the bill averted "Great Depression 2.0."

     Our jobless rate of 9.6 percent percent? It would be 11 percent otherwise, the report says, and 16.5 percent without the added rescue of banks.

      We switch you now to the nearest Tea Party rally, which wouldn't hear such a thing — couldn't hear it, anyway, with its bullhorns at jet-engine decibels.

     Ah, those anti-spending absolutists. I presume you heard the howls and screeches last week when another report came out: that more than 10 percent of the $50 billion spent on Iraqi reconstruction evaporated into desert dust. Our Tea Party types would not have stood for that. Right?

        Wrong. Most of these anti-spending sentinels were worse than silent in their red, white and blue vestments. They were patriotically pliant: on the off-budget funding of the Iraq incursion, on the Bush Pentagon's "cost-plus" approach for overpaying for just about everything contractors like Halliburton and KBR did in the Iraqi and Afghan theaters.

       No, from this volume-adjusted segment of society, not a peep was heard back then. Only when Barack Obama became the enemy did fiscal obscenities become — obscene.

       This is ironic, and odd. I mean, if our county is going to be extravagant with our money, you'd think most folks would want the extravagance to benefit our own children, our own highways, our own hospitals — rather than those of swarthy, sworn enemies.

        Well, Obama and majority Democrats set out to do the former, spend money on our needs, in a moment of dire economic peril and . . . behold, he became the enemy.

        The debt! The debt! So shout the aggrieved. You can't argue with the scope of the debt problem, except that if you are going to borrow, you at least ought to have a proper justification for it, and expect a payback — like 3 million jobs in not quite two years.

        At this point, we direct the assembled protesters to cup their ears and hum very loudly. Something else they don't want to hear is in the current Time magazine under the title, "How the stimulus is changing America."

         Where is all that money going?  Along with crucial domestic aims like highways, schools and hospitals (ours, not Iraq's), it's going to more innovation and far-sighted thinking than any American endeavor since the moon-shot mobilization. 

         The endgame of this innovation stands to be far more than a lunar footprint and a bag of moon rocks, however.

         In this case it's clean and more dependable energy: wind, solar, fuel cells. It's energy conservation, such as retrofitting three of four federal buildings (the U.S. government being the nation's largest energy consumer).

         Stimulus dollars are being poured into making the nation's electric grid more dynamic, making our electric meters smarter and increasing our means of storing and distributing wind and solar power.

         Oh, and while we're at it:

         Here's something else about where the money is going. As opposed to the no-bid contracts that by which Halliburton and Blackwater engorged themselves, the stimulus bill's allocations are based on real, honest-to-goodness, due-diligence competition among bidders. That form of fiscal responsibility, writes Time, is "the Recovery Act's deeper reform."

         Now, once again: It may bother you that we are spending anything at all, with a national debt exceeding $13 trillion. The bumper sticker says, "Don't tell Obama what comes after 'trillion.'"

       To those adorning their chrome with those words, let's try these words: Did ya see where those other trillions went?

       Former longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado.