Thursday, July 28, 2011

End of the Road

"This place ain't dead yet, but it's got about half a foot in the grave," said Bob Frees, 61, of Moundsville, W.Va., which now has a population of just over 9,000. "The big-money jobs are all gone. We used to have the big mills and the rolling plants and stuff like that, and you could walk out of high school when you were 16 or 17 and get a $15-an-hour job."

Rural US Disappearing? Population Share Hits Low, by Hope Yen (AP), 7/28/11

In the Spring of 1963, my father, having apparently exhausted limited opportunities in the foothill town of Sonora, Ca., migrated to the substantially smaller hamlet of Alleghany, Ca., pop. 150, elev. 4400 ft. 

James Kimball put about as much distance between him and his home state as the lower 48 would allow, but he clung to his Boston accent tenaciously; "pawf-the-coss" is what he might have said about the done thing he had rejected - par for the course - and an observer might have said the same of his migrations and career path. In a decade, he ran a small insurance business and a desultory gentleman farm in suburban Sacramento, sold cars in Sonora while moonlighting with an equally desultory attempt at a TV repair sideline, then tended bar in one of the watering holes on the main drag. The placement that came his way in Alleghany was the management of one of its two bars, Casey's Place, and the occasion was the retirement of the owner, Harold Casey, a former welterweight boxer. 

The town of Alleghany, well-embedded in the Tahoe National Forest, at the end of the paved road you would at that time only take to get there - unless "Jeeping" was your purpose - was well into a deep decline since its heyday early in the century. It was ringed with the gold mines that were the engine of that heyday, and when all the stamp mills operated in the twenties, it's fair to assume that the noise in the middle of town would be impressive. My father landed a 99-year lease on one of them, the Morning Glory, which was more or less fallow by that point, and in the years before 1963, the family made a few trips to stay at the cabin on the site, initially just corrugated metal on a minimal frame with an outhouse down a path. The road to the Morning Glory, a deeply rutted dirt road not for the faint of heart, passed on its way the mine that always dominated the area, the Sixteen to One, which still operates.

Even though only a couple of mines operated, there was still a point to the institutions that represented the town's social infrastructure: two bars, Casey's and the Golden Eagle Inn (lodgers possible though not likely); a general store, Alleghany Supply, with a post office and single-pump gas station; a library; and a twelve-grade school complete with a non-standard-sized gym. And further, there was even a point to the difference in the two bars, for even as the Golden Eagle was a cramped and narrow place, it had more of the snuggery feel, whereas Casey's was cavernous, the bar lining two walls, with a Rock-Ola occupying one opposing corner and a television the other, leaving abundant room for dancing or fighting.

(to be continued)

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Protocol: A Death Down by the River Part III

“My day starts like two Mondays previous. A man walks into the office and wants to kill himself...Kevin was awakened by the garbage truck collecting the contents of the cardboard recycling bin in which he’d spent the night. He popped out to the shock of the garbage man before he made the news. He didn’t make the news a few days earlier when he tried to kill himself by lying down in holiday traffic. Minneapolis Police brought him to [the Med Center]; General Assistance Medical Care bought him a night of housing and healthcare - but he returned to homelessness the next day…fighting raccoons in the woods for his belongings the next night. He knows he can’t be groggy and defend himself…so forget the medicine for his mental health… Leviticus states you don’t put a stumbling block in front of the blind or insult the deaf. I’d like to add a third. You don’t ask a suffering homeless man to fight off raccoons and manage his health care from a sleeping bag alone in the woods.”
Monica Nilsson, St. Stephens Human Services, “Fighting Raccoons While Sedated”

In the next few months, Tommy would return to Danny's on several occasions. Danny would be polite, but tell him that he was not going to give him music lessons, and to stay away. Though not violent, Tommy's responses were antagonistic. Fearing another attack, Danny contacted Ghost, a friend of his in the Hell's Angels. Ghost had a talk with Tommy - no rough stuff, but the threat of rough stuff if Tommy kept harassing Danny.

Tommy persisted. It didn't help that he had a friend a few doors down from Danny, another musician who they both knew, so he was in the area a couple of times a week. Ghost never made good on his threat; Danny couldn't bring himself to actually be the cause of bodily harm to anyone, even after what Tommy had done. It would have violated his Protocol. But Danny remained fearful.

In September, Danny made a decision. He'd hire a "caregiver/protector". In addition to needing help regarding Tommy, Danny was diabetic and could use help with his meals and meds. He had recently been mentoring an acquaintance named Mark Hernandez, who he nicknamed Marky Mark. Hernandez was on general assistance and Danny had suggested enrolling in a program at a local city college where Hernandez could study and receive a certificate to get a job in water treatment. Hernandez took Danny's advice and now Danny offered him a job: for room and board, Hernandez would fix Danny's meals, make sure he took his med, and help protect him, especially, if necessary, from Tommy. He told Mark that Tommy shouldn't be a problem if he knew there was another person in the house. Hernandez accepted and immediately moved in with Danny. Of course, there was one thing Hernandez had to understand and always observe, and that was The Protocol: treat other people the way you want to be treated, even Tommy. After all, Tommy had a daughter, and no matter what he had done, it just wasn't right to hurt someone else, especially someone who was supposedly providing for his kids. And equally important: never, ever, harm or disparage the homeless. Thought Danny didn't have much actual contact with them, he knew there were quite a few who lived very near him and he often saw them; he was compassionate about them and didn't want to be responsible for any harm coming to them. Marky Mark understood, and said he'd follow the rules.

After Hernandez moved in, things seemed to settle down. Tommy was periodically seen in the neighborhood, but he rarely came around Danny's, and when he did, he was fairly quiet and not antagonistic. Hernandez made a bedroom out of Danny's front room; it was the only room not cluttered with music equipment and other items collected from 40 years of performing. He had enrolled in the water treatment program and was doing well in school. Marky Mark and Danny struck up quite a friendship and Hernandez did well as a caregiver. The new year rolled in and there was a feeling of optimism in the house.

To Be Continued

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Social Tug of War

"The plan being drafted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada would lock in roughly $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years — a figure considerably smaller than Republican leaders or President Obama had been seeking."
- Lisa Mascaro, Chicago Tribune, today

The current wrangling over raising the debt ceiling, which has as its subtext the relative willingness to think about where the big social programs like Medicare and Social Security fit in the budget picture, made me wonder about the Social Security timeline in the context of its fiscal crisis:

  • January 29, 1932 The first State unemployment insurance law was enacted in Wisconsin
  • 1932 The American Federation of Labor endorsed social insurance.
  • May 18, 1933 The first significant use of the term "Social Security" came about when the American Association for Old-age Security became the American Association for Social Security.
  • June 29, 1934 The President created the Committee on Economic Security to study the problems relating to economic security and to make recommendations for a program of legislation. (This was Executive Order No. 6757.)
  • March 1, 1935 Congressman Frank Buck (Calif.) made the motion to change the name of the Economic Security Bill to the Social Security Bill. The motion was carried by a voice vote from the House Ways and Means Committee.
  • April 4, 1935 The Social Security Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives with a report. This bill (H.R. 7260) replaced the Economic Security Bill.
  • April 19, 1935 The Social Security Bill (H.R. 7260) was passed by the House of Representatives, 372 to 33 (25 not voting). Against were 13 Democrats, 18 Republicans and 2 Farm Labor.
  • May 13, 1935 The Social Security Bill (H.R. 7260) was reported out by the Senate Finance Committee with amendments, by a vote of 7 to 6. (Against, were 5 Republicans, 1 Democrat and there were 12 who did not vote.)
  • June 19, 1935 The Social Security Bill was passed in the Senate by a vote of 77 Yes, 6 No, and 12 Not Voting. 
  • August 17, 1936 An unemployed worker--Neils B. Ruud--in Madison, Wisconsin, received the first unemployment benefit check paid under a State law. The mount was $ chronology

So in four years we enacted a federal social welfare state, from the first local implementation to the first payout. The size of the act was not missed, despite the relative efficiency of its passage:

"One of FDR’s newspaper friends called the act 'a monumental achievement,' even as he 
complained that the benefit amounts were 'miserably inadequate.'”

And it appears there was a strategy in place to deal with a fractious Congress:

"In the end, we will see that FDR went around Congress, which was too unpredictable and 
whose review process might have foiled him." 

- (both quotes) The Revolution of 1935: The Secret History of Social Security 
By Gregory Bresiger

Contrast this timeline in the avoidance of what appears to be a profound economic risk, the defaulting on national debt:

  • 6/19 - "The closer America gets to Aug. 2 without resolving its debt deadlock, the more that bankers, investors, money managers, foreign governments and others will begin to think about the unthinkable." - The Kansas City Star
  • 7/6 - "Boehner said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “His administration has been burying our kids and grandkids in new debt and offered no plan to rein in spending. " - Felicia Sonmez, Roz Helderman and Lori Montgomery,Washington Post, Published: July 6
  • Today - "In a marked shift, Republicans are now willing to close some tax loopholes as part of a final deal to raise the nation’s legal borrowing limit, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday." -Lisa Mascaro, Chicago Tribune

As I consider all this, I wonder yet again about the business of social welfare structures. Republicans more than ever, in the classic American individualist tradition, ideologically oppose such things, though they recognize dealing with them is consistently political suicide; Democrats remain believers, but don't have a plan for how to deal with the imbalance in funding, simply refuse to consider adjustments like later coverage or lower rates.

Is there a point to imposing a survival structure on those who are most ill, or unwise, or unlucky? And I think in considering that question, it would make sense to leave aside for a moment the question of the morality of it, and focus solely on whether it is financially prudent, or even more efficient than the alternative. Considering, for instance, the "Hoovervilles" that dotted the Depression landscape of the America of the thirties - would things have worked better without these camps? It does seem like much of the point of what this debt default avoidance is involved with is social programs, or at least they gobble the majority of the money - on these terms, is it money well-spent?

This can seem like the the market proposition of any insurance writ large. People spend a certain amount of money on premiums to avoid having to spend all of the money to replace their house or their car, or get bankrupted by a health crisis. It appears that more people are willing to see to those insurance considerations than are willing to, effectively, arrange for insurance against running out of money in their dotage. There are wrinkles, to be sure:

"[Social Security] created the institution of mass retirement. Social Security, along with other 
modern welfare state programs, encouraged the concept of golden years in which individuals would stop working. "
(- Bresiger, above)

And of course the rapid migration of defined benefit pensions to 401K plans required that people figure out how the investment options worked - and most people were somewhat ill-equipped, it seems, given the profile of losses after 2000. And the result of that relative ineptitude was, among other things, to leave a lot of abandoned homes on the market, a lot of seriously ill people in hospitals and hospices, and a lot more people, well, in something like "Hoovervilles". That, however, is with Social Security and Medicare, which could not prevent these trends from occurring.

Some Republicans would angle for something like the block grants that led up to the formation of the SSA, ideologically in line with the States' Rights philosophy. And you would have to wonder how Mississippi and Oregon, for instance, might contrast a few years down that road. And you have to wonder how much the populace is likely to learn about foreseeing risks.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Protocol: A Death Down by the River, Part II

"When I was in elementary school I found a book in the library...about a boy and his pet raccoon, but it was also about the troubles that accompany childhood. I immediately related to the book and its protagonist. I was always looking for animals out in the woods and the cornfields of my hometown...and the book led to an intense interest on my part in raccoons...My cousins...kept one as a pet. The first time I saw their raccoon it was hiding behind the couch. And raccoons were always around my house...[P]art of me is guilty of the same desire to capture and own something wild and strange from the forest. I won't own a raccoon so I collect...photographs instead, as a way to connect to the animal that most reminds me of my childhood."
--Photographer/Musician Scott Daniel Ellison

Danny couldn't be sure why, but Tommy was becoming enraged. He'd been drinking beer and some whiskey throughout the drum lesson, which was more of a jam session than a structured tutorial. There were several instruments in addition to the drum set - an electric bass, a Roland keyboard, and Danny's favorite, a 1964 Guild acoustic guitar, a rare and valuable beauty that he played constantly.

The situation reached a breaking point, at least in Tommy's mind. He began yelling incoherently and then grabbed the Guild, swinging it multiple times at Danny, pummeling his head and upper torso. The force of the blows was causing the guitar to crack, but as Danny cried out, Tommy turned his attention to the drum kit, which he began to demolish with what was left of the guitar.

Across the street was the warehouse/art studio and home of Paul Ganne, a 65 year old artist who mainly worked with metal sculpture. Ganne was a bright, stocky, passionate man, a neighbor and friend of Danny's. Separating his warehouse and home was a walkway that had a gate on the street side. Danny's house and the warehouse across the street were the last buildings on Basler - beyond them was a dirt area and path that led up to the levee, beyond that was the bike trail, and beyond that was the river. Scattered throughout the area were quite a few homeless persons - they lived and camped where they could amidst the bushes, trees, and ravines.

Ganne would often peer thru the gate between his properties - he was pretty fed up with what he considered the fairly constant presence of homeless people trespassing, defecating and selling sex on and/or too near his property. On this particular afternoon, he heard a commotion across the street, and decided to check up on his friend. He crossed the street and walked thru the now unlocked chain link fence and up to Danny's front door. By the noise inside, he knew there was trouble, so he called out Danny's name and entered the house.

When Tommy saw him, he stopped his rampage. This wasn't a frail peacenik who entered the kitchen. Though twice Tommy's age, Ganne was well built and knew how to handle himself, a confidence that no one who saw him could doubt. Ganne spoke to Danny, asking how he was and trying to decide what needed to be done. As was his nature, Danny, thought upset, instructed Ganne not to harm Tommy - that would violate Danny's Protocol. So Ganne began talking to Tommy - calming him - slowly, but effectively. Forty-five minutes later, Tommy walked out the front door, got on his bicycle in the front yard, and rode away.

To Be Continued