Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Our Real National Pastime – Tom Rossi

Here in the United States, whining about taxes is probably more popular than all of the major sports, combined. Forget about baseball – tax-whining is our true national pastime.

What’s amazing is that the distribution of whining, like so many things, is so illogical. In fact, tax-whining is positively correlated with a person’s or a corporation’s wealth. So, the more you have, the more you whine. It’s sort of like a team in Major League Baseball complaining that, in their run up to winning the World Series, too many strikes were called on their batters.

The favorite topic of tax-whiners is that the top income brackets pay all of the taxes while the bottom half of the so-called “middle class” (nobody want to be labelled “poor”) pays nothing. They love to go on about the 47% – the “takers.” That number was made up, by the way.

As justification, the tax-whiners always point to one statistic… the statistic that makes them look right. Here it is, in graph form:

Income_and_Tax_Shares_TPC_2010

But this is only part of the tax story. People pay taxes on much more than income. They pay taxes on property, gasoline, and sales tax on purchases of goods. The truth is that, when you add all those taxes up, the bottom 20% of earners pay about 17% of their incomes in taxes, while the top 20% of earners pay about 29%. That’s a significant difference, and I’m sure it frustrates those who live inside a calculator.

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But it’s nowhere near the claims that are made, usually by Republicans and Tea Party types. And we should pay close attention to the effect that these percentages have on people. For someone who makes $250,000 per year (for example) paying 29% in taxes means that they are left with $177,500 to live on.

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For someone earning 13,000 per year, paying 17% in taxes means that they are left with $10,790 to live on. That’s less per year than what the $250,000 earner has left per month. And, as I’ve argued before, the more money a person has, the more benefits he or she gets from taxes.

To the whiners, I say this: I realized that the prospect of paying an extra $500, or so, in taxes for a year might mean you have to put off buying a house for another month. Or it might mean that your kids actually have to go to public school. Or it might mean you have to buy the Lexus GS instead of the LS. But a difference of even $100 to a family on the receiving end of this shotgun economy might mean that their kids get “new” shoes (maybe from the Salvation Army) when their toes poke out through a hole. Or it might mean that they can afford to heat the house to above 55° in the winter. Or it might mean that they can pay the electric bill for another month or two.

These are two different worlds. What I’m talking about is called “Marginal Utility Theory,” and it’s a part of standard, old-fashioned, neo-classical economic theory. It just gets ignored because it is essentially an “inconvenient truth.” Without putting you to sleep, what this boils down to is that $1000 means nothing to the well-being of a millionaire, but it could mean the world to a poor person, or a poor person’s children.

President Obama and others are in the process of attempting to re-balance the tax code which has, in recent decades, come to favor the rich and the corporations. And now, we have an influx of veterans that often have an incredibly hard time finding a good job – or sometimes any job, for that matter. This is happening while government programs are being cut left and right.

If you really want to “support our troops,” if you are really “pro-life,” then realize that your tax dollars are helping people who really need it. And their health and well-being will come back to benefit you in ways you may not be able to imagine.

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-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Kicking The Oil Addiction

As an environmentalist who drives around in a car for 2-3 hours a day, I hold my hand up and admit my hypocrisy. My job requires a car and I can justify why my family lives in one place and I work in another with a big city in between. I have made it my space – audio book, coffee, snacks – between the intensity of work and the push to get the children’s homework finished, I have a little space just for myself.

We have discussed the electric car on this blog a few times and the conspiracy theory that it is big business and oil conglomerates that have kept us pumping oil into our cars instead of cheaper, more sustainable alternatives.

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Eyal Aronoff, co-founder of Fuel Freedom Foundation, fascinates me. An Israeli who is deeply committed to the US, a country that gave him everything, he is spurred by the tragic loss of two family members in the 9/11 attacks. He believes that it is not a question of technology, but politics  and it is a politics that makes the US globally vulnerable, the world choke on pollution, and keeps a small elite rich while the rest of us pay a heavy financial price.

“He finds that the lack of alternative energy sources to fuel our vehicles jeopardizes U.S. national security, bankrupts our economy and forces us to pay more at the pump. Alternative fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, natural gas and electricity, are the immediate solution to ending our nation’s oil dependency.”

“The Fuel Freedom vision seeks to reignite the American dream by encouraging competition and sparking innovation.” For more information, check out http://www.fuelfreedom.org/get-involved to understand more.

I am beginning to wonder whether it is an addiction issue. There are better models of life out there and yet many of us continue to smoke, drink, take drugs etc. Often, perfectly intelligent and functional people, make irrational decisions and build up a wall of excuses to justify it. Like the guy whose 2nd-hand smoke is killing his children and neighbors, our irrational addiction to oil is killing our planet, keeping many of us in poverty, and leading us into the next war.

It is time to kick the habit.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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A Family Fun Garden – Roger Ingalls

If you’re contemplating a garden and want the entire family involved, consider building an aquaponic garden.

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Aquaponics is a constructed ecosystem based on fish, plants and beneficial bacteria that harnesses nature’s propensity to create balanced growth while conserving resources (water, nutrients and energy). Essentially, one life form benefits the next in a re-circulating system. Beneficial bacteria create a probiotic environment where fish waste (poop and ammonia) is converted into nitrite and then nitrate which is a usable form of natural fertilizer for plants. In turn, the plants remove the nitrate from the water to fuel their growth leaving clean water for the fish. Other than a little water, the only input is food for the fish. Since fish are cold-blooded, they waste no energy regulating their body temperature making them efficient consumers of food. On average, two pounds of food adds one pound of weight to a fish compared to 16 pounds of cattle feed to produce one pound of beef. Another benefit of using fish waste for fertilizer is there’s no risk of E coli poisoning commonly attributed to waste from warm-blooded livestock.

Aquaponic Benefits:

1)      Up to 10 times more vegetables per given space relative to standard soil gardening.

2)      The plants grow twice as fast because nutrient packed water is supplied straight to the root.

3)      Since there is no soil, there’s no soil borne pests, no weeds so no pesticides or herbicides are needed.

4)      Aquaponics uses 95% less water than conventional farming or gardening.

5)       No daily watering is required since plants grow in a re-circulating water system.

6)      Both plants and fish are grown creating two sources of food (meat protein and vegetables).

7)      Overall, aquaponics uses 70% less energy than conventional farming.

8)       It’s all organic, no fossil fuel based fertilizers or pesticide.

9)      It can be replicated anywhere on Earth.

The most productive farm in the USA is in the middle of Milwaukee WI. This three acre urban farm, Growing Power, produces one million pounds of food per year.

Go to youtube.com, type in aquaponics and you’ll be hooked. There will be videos and plans to build a system perfect for any household. It can be as simple as a small goldfish bowl, one goldfish, a $5 air pump, plastic tubing and a basil starter from the local hardware store. The little fish will poop which fertilizes the basil plant and the plant will clean the water to keep the fish healthy. All you have to do is feed the goldfish and added a little water now and then. The whole family will enjoy the experience and the organic basil.

Seriously, go to youtube and check it out. You will be amazed by the rapid growth of this new farming method.

PTSD – The Children Suffer Too.

I have written a lot about PTSD and my own experiences. Unwanted Heroes, my latest novel, focuses on the struggle of a Asian-American war veteran. But, ironically, I have never given serious consideration to the impact on the children.

I once threw my then four-year-old child to the ground and jumped on top of him when firecrackers went off for a funeral in Chinatown. I remember how it took a while for him to begin crying ­– he just stared at me in disbelief that his father would do something violent to him.

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There are two chapters in Unwanted Heroes where our protagonist, Will, visits his boss’s children in an attempt to understand their father better. He meets two very different ways of dealing with their father’s illness.

One is galvanized to help him and advocates to help others suffering from PTSD. The result is an incredibly strained relationship which almost estranges them on numerous explosive occasions. The other builds a wall, similar to the one his father has, a tool of defense he deems necessarily to protect himself and his father. Ironically, this drawn line in the sand enables him to maintain contact with his deteriorating father whereas his sister cannot.

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It has never occurred to me that the traumas of the father (or mother) transfer in one way or another to the children. I realize it is obvious in retrospect, especially as my generation is the children of Holocaust survivors, and there are many studies, interviews and written accounts by the children.

On one occasion, my eldest (maybe 12 years old then) turned the lights off and jumped out to surprise me when I entered the house. My hand stopped inches from his throat in a move that, I absolutely know, would have damaged him severely. When I realized what had transpired, I screamed at him and he slunk off to his room. I calmed down and we talked. Boys are boys and they still often jump me. Sometimes it is fun and we roll around laughing on the bed or floor in tickling fights, sometimes I push them away and yell at them.

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My sons are lucky. Their father might be flawed but he is not broken. He works hard to ensure that they all remain a close and loving family.

The tickle fights are fun. I guess the rebuffs are worth it.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Welcome to Hell. Here’s Your Car Alarm. – Tom Rossi

My wife and I had lunch yesterday at an outdoor, patio-type restaurant. We were with some members of our family, including my in-laws, who had come all the way from Denmark just to visit us. The patio was on the street in a popular shopping district and we were enjoying the near-perfect weather.

Among the cars passing by on the street was one with sort of loud exhaust. It wasn’t really that bad, but we could sort of feel the vibration of the engine as it went by. But on the other side of the street, and unbeknownst to us as we were seated, a crime had been committed – a heinous crime. It was the dreaded overly sensitive car alarm… my arch-nemesis.

The alarm wasn’t one of those that goes off for a few seconds, either. It kept going for a few minutes. Then, when it finally stopped, everybody sighed in relief. But I knew that it would go off again when another, slightly loud car went by. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

Video: “If I had a rocket launcher…”

I don’t know how many times that alarm had gone off before we had arrived, but the last time that it did, the owner of the car actually came out and turned it off. How considerate!

I’ve written before about the way that individuals and corporations sometimes behave in ways that get them what they want, in essence profiting from their actions (whether in real or imagined ways) while forcing others to bear the costs. That’s basically why we have annoying things like laws and government. If everybody were to behave themselves and act in ways that were considerate of others, (and not just their friends, etc.) we wouldn’t need laws, or police, nor things like environmental protection agencies.

Video: One big noise, and then… peace.

But many people are not considerate of others. They are self-centered and self-focused. They either don’t know that they’re waking up (or whatever) the whole neighborhood or they just don’t care. So many times I’ve been walking past a person just leaving their car after parking, and they hit their little remote-control button, and their car honks it’s horn, loudly, to let them know that the alarm is set. That CAN be adjusted, you know!

As I’m always ready to admit, I’m far from perfect. I’m sure that I, at times, annoy people who really haven’t done anything to deserve it. But the alarm on my car doesn’t go off unless someone tries to jimmy the door open, or actually smacks the window with a knuckle or something. I think this makes me more considerate than those people who are either so paranoid that they want their alarm to go off if a hummingbird flies by, so incompetent that they can’t figure out how to adjust the sensitivity of their alarm to a reasonable level, or so lazy and indifferent to the nuisance they cause that they just never even consider doing anything about it.

Do people have the freedom to annoy others? Sure they do. But I would very much like to be “free” of the annoyances. I’m not asking people to give up their freedoms, just to give a thought to their neighbors, or the people in the general vicinity of wherever they happen to be. Then, we all might get some sleep, or be able to enjoy a nice meal.

Video: I hope this idea works…

And to those who think it’s a good thing that their stupid alarms get so much attention I say this: If your alarm is one of those that keeps annoying me and everyone in the neighborhood, and I see someone in the process of stealing your car, I will walk up to them and say, “The quickest way to the freeway is if you turn left a block up this street. Have a nice day… and thanks.”

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Poker Tomorrow Night? A Good Cause

Irwin Bear was a very special  man and a mentor for me. I wrote about him when he passed away. Beyond family and business  Irwin had a passion for San Francisco Hillel and the future of the Jewish people. He also loved poker.41646_1269166167_3876_n

If you knew Irwin, you would not be surprised to discover that he  found an interesting  way to fuse the two.He ensured that sitting around his regular poker table, in addition to longtime friends, were a number of younger, emerging Jewish leaders. They would play, talk, argue, discuss and play some more. The winnings went to a Jewish cause and a powerful legacy of social responsibility passed on to the next generation.

Three of these young poker players now sit on the SF Hillel Board of Directors, in part as a tribute to Irwin and his vision. Following in his philanthropic footsteps, they helped create an annual event that would honor his memory and help raise money for a good cause.

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Tomorrow night (Saturday) we will hold our 2nd annual Casino Night and Poker Tournament. The event is will be held at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center at 3200 California Street, San Francisco, 94118. I would love for you to join us. Doors open at 7pm, and the tournament starts at 7.30. There will be other casino tables too.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Grass – Roger Ingalls

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Grass must grow in my blood; it inexplicably and constantly waves through my mind. To be clear, I’m talking grasses and not lawns. The appalling manicured green carpets in front of our houses are a waste of valuable water and the chemical runoff is deadly to a balanced ecosystem. But grass, real grass, is the essence of life.

Rice, corn, wheat, rye and sugar cane are just a few grasses that feed humanity. Oats, prairie, tundra and hay are varieties for the rest of us animals. We should never underestimate the importance of grass; it’s the unsung hero of nature.

In Praise of Grass, published in the Kansas Journal just after the Civil War was written by John James Ingalls, a Senator and founder father of Kansas. Below is one of my favorite paragraphs from that essay. You can plow the grass under but it still geminates in the blood.

Grass is the forgiveness of nature — her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality, and emerges upon the first solicitation of spring. Sown by the winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place, and prevent its soluble components from washing into the wasting sea. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character, and destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal vigor and aggression. Banished from the thoroughfare and the field, it bides its time to return, and when vigilance is relaxed, or the dynasty has perished, it silently resumes the throne from which it has been expelled, but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry or bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.

Child Soldiers

Last week, I posted about Emmanuel Jal who was a child soldier in South Sudan and has become a famous hip-hop singer and tireless social activist. I also posted about an amazing British woman, Emma McCune, who rescued over 150 children being used as child soldiers.

This stimulated me to read up more about war children, or child soldiers. There is a stunning estimate of over 300,000 trained children fighting in over 50 conflicts around the world. Emmanuel Jal recounts his story in War Child – A Child Soldier’s Story and there is the more famous – A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. After watching Beah on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, we immediately bought his book, more to show recognition to a fine young man than a desire to read. I couldn’t find that interview, but this one is very good

There is an organization dedicated to abolish the use of children as soldiers. War Child International believes that “Children and young people have the right to grow up free from fear, violence, and to develop their full potential and contribute to a peaceful future for themselves and others.”

Their mission: War Child International exists to create the conditions that will fulfill the protection, development and survival rights for children and young people who are living with or recovering from the effects of armed conflict. We believe in the power of children and young people, and so will ensure they participate in decisions which affect their lives so that their voices will be heard and their contributions made to count.

This is a cause we do not see in the West unless some exceptional young person like Jal or Beah come to light. But it is an unacceptable phenomenon and has no place in a civilized world. It must stop now. 

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter

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