Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Addiction Affliction (Part 3)

As we know, convenience food and pharmaceutical industries are two of the most prolific advertisers of consumer products to which Americans have become addicted. Automobile manufacturers—whose products are as ubiquitous in American culture as Big Macs, telephones, TVs and computers—round out the top three.

Let's face it! We’re addicted to our cars. We need our cars so we can get to our jobs so we can earn the money to pay for the cars, for the insurance for the cars, for the licensing fees, maintenance costs, fuel, and highway tolls and taxes, all for the cars.

We need our cars so we can run down to the corner grocery to buy another six-pack, or to drive halfway across town to save a buck on a carton of cigarettes. We need our cars so we can get to the fast-food joint because the jobs we need to pay for the cars have stolen our time and sapped our strength and we don't have enough time or energy left over to cook a meal from scratch. We need our cars to make those routine trips to the discount drug store (you know, the one that drove your neighborhood pharmacy out of business) to pick up whatever pharmaceuticals we depend on to get us through another week. Finally, we need our cars for the ritual weekend getaway because we haven't yet learned how to live in, and enjoy, those outrageously expensive homes we work so hard to pay for.

Does all of this seem as crazy to you as it does to me?

Cars—and the cheap oil needed to run them—made possible the expansion of industries that might never have survived without them. Affordable, accessible transportation made it possible for the employees of many companies to live in neighborhoods far removed from the places where they worked, and for employers to draw from a workforce scattered over hundreds of square miles.

As car ownership proliferated into all areas of American society, the practice of travel as cheap entertainment became a cultural norm. It was no longer enough to have transportation to and from the workplace close at hand; once people realized that cars were synonymous with freedom and mobility and expanded access to recreational opportunities, multi-car families, traffic congestion and eventual gridlock became absolute certainties.

Not only does dad have a car, but mom does, too—as do each of their 2.4 children when they reach driving age. Forget “… a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” Now, it's a 10-piece bucket of KFC chicken, a car in the garage, two cars in the driveway, and two more parked on the street.

Our cars are status symbols; they reveal our personality, define our character, reflect our social standing in the community, afford mobility with a degree of anonymity, and ensure our independence and autonomy. Lacking an overriding incentive to break our car addiction, the addiction is certain to continue.

Being addicted to cars, Americans are also addicted to oil—or, rather, the cheap energy derived from oil. Because of those addictions, an addiction to war was inevitable; war is currently the preferred means of ensuring unfettered American access to foreign oil.

Cheap energy fueled an explosive growth of technology, to which we also became addicted. Our addiction to technology begot us an addiction to gadgetry of all kinds; cell phones, iPods and iPads, Blackberries, MP-3 players, Kindles and laptop computers accumulate on or about our persons. And if this weren't enough, throw in pagers and various remote-control devices—including TV controls, garage door openers and remote-controlled automobile door lock openers—to make the clutter complete.

We rely on cheap energy to heat our oversized homes (which we need to store all our stuff), power our oversized cars and SUVs, and to fuel our motor homes, cabin cruisers, motorcycles, jet skis, ATVs, snowmobiles, lawn and garden equipment, and all the other energy consuming, recreational and/or laborsaving devices to which we've become addicted.

We covet laborsaving devices such as electric shavers, electric can openers, electric carving knives, electric mixers, electric toothbrushes and electric nose-pickers because they make our lives easier, then gladly work our asses off, through overtime or a second job (overtime without overtime pay), to pay for them.

Stuff accumulates. We buy the latest doodads, gizmos and gadgets because they're cool, use them until the novelty wears off or the next iteration comes along, then consign them to garage sales or relegate them to storage in ever more crowded basements, closets, attics or garages.

It seems no convenience is too impractical for us. Lexus advertises a model with a windshield so sensitive that it reacts to a single raindrop by turning on the windshield wipers. But how many dry wipes across a dirty windshield does it take before the scars of abrasion render it opaque? Do we really need conveniences that do our thinking for us?

Power windows? Power seats? Power door locks? Hell, why not power everything, as long as we don't have to use any of our own muscle power to achieve the desired results? Besides, we need all these labor-saving conveniences so we can conserve our energy for the jobs we need in order to pay for them.

At some point, we're going to have to admit that our addictions are killing us. At some point, we're going to have to take whatever steps we need take to break those addictions. Soon, we must awaken from our blissful stupor and realize that survival of our species—of all species—is more important than individual comfort and ease, more important, even, than the acquisition of superfluous possessions.

Our addictions are symptomatic of the fatal flaws inherent in capitalist consumer culture, not the causes of them. Corporate advertisers push our buttons, and we respond accordingly. As humans, we’re wired to do unconsciously whatever it takes to feed our addictions—or create new ones. Still, we must realize that there are undesirable consequences to our incessant striving for material possessions and what we perceive to be comfortable lifestyles.

Unable to admit that ours is a broken society—and that the extent of our brokenness is driving us insane—we persist in the belief that trading long-term values for short-term conveniences makes sense. It’s increasingly clear that our failure to break the brutal cycles of our addictions bears a heavy price. What we stand to lose if we don’t change our ways is easily summed up in one word: Everything!

*This article is a rewrite of the original, which was published on April 3, 2006, in Issue #28 of Petey’s Pipeline E-zine.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Addiction Affliction (Part 2)*

We Americans depend on our addiction to conspicuous consumerism and consumption to appease our addiction to instant gratification, which we finance with our addiction to credit. An addiction to television begets addictions to convenience food and a plethora of over-the-counter and prescription drugs, which give us the illusion of good health and energy enough to pursue mind-numbing jobs that earn us the money to pay for our other addictions. And it seems there's no end to our other addictions.

Television (junk food for the mind) is the mouthpiece for crass commercialism. It's no accident that many large corporations, and more than a few small ones, spend the bulk of their advertising budget on television ads. TV is a popular medium, and it guarantees maximum product exposure to an audience that numbers in the millions.

Natural companions, snack food and television create mutually reinforcing positive feedback loops that entice people of all ages to engage in addictive, self-destructive behavior. A high percentage of TV commercial ads feature snack foods or convenience foods, which encourage people to eat while they watch TV. Nothing stimulates the appetite quite like seeing your favorite junk food rendered in mouth-watering, larger-than-life images. With 1/3 of Americans currently defined as clinically obese and another third described as merely overweight, we should all be thankful that ubiquitous smellevision is not yet a reality.

Junk food, fast food and convenience food—not that there's any distinction between them—provide comfort, satisfaction and pleasure to minds and bodies that crave instant gratification. We like the idea that fast foods save us time and effort, but we also like to indulge our appetite for guilty pleasures.

TV commercials depict svelte young women gorging on candy, pastries and other "comfort" foods. But how realistic is this? Were these bits of hype grounded in reality, they would show people who are dangerously overweight and flirting with diabetes, heart attack, or stroke.

Mesmerized, we sit in front of our big screen TVs, too wired to sleep, too tired to do anything else but watch the mindless entertainment of various "reality" shows. Fear Factor? Disgust Factor is more like it. There's nothing like trying to choke down a TV dinner while some pathetic loser on TV is trying to choke down a bucket of worms. What most people don't realize, though, is that it's probably healthier to eat the worms than it is to eat the TV dinner.

However, should we end up with acute indigestion or chronic insomnia it's likely we'll find the remedy in the next commercial. Collectively, pharmaceutical companies make up another big block of TV advertisers. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs promise relief from all that ails us. We're addicted to medications that put us to sleep, wake us up, calm us down, increase our energy, steady our nerves, cure our colds, treat our allergies, stimulate our libidos, or alleviate our pain. There's a medication to treat just about everything except stupidity.

Face it! Americans are the most drug-addicted people on Earth. We show great tolerance for addictions to legal drugs, but zero tolerance for even the most casual use of illegal ones. How hypocritical is that?

American consumers spend many billions annually on legal drug purchases, a few billions more on illegal drugs, and upwards of $40 billion to fight the war on (some) drugs. Never mind that a lucrative market for illegal drugs can only maintain in a climate of prohibition. We're not only addicted to drugs, we're addicted to failed drug policies, too.

Disclaimers and warnings of serious side effects always accompany prescription drug ads:

Uncle Festus' Hangnail Remover has been shown to cause headache, nausea, vomiting, bleeding ulcers, hair loss, loose teeth, diarrhea, rectal hemorrhaging, and bad breath. Some people may be at increased risk for heart attack, stroke, liver or kidney failure, athlete's foot or dementia. Deaths have been known to occur. Use only as directed. If symptoms persist or become worse, contact your doctor.

Thanks, but when the known side effects of treatment exceed, in number and severity, the symptoms of the original ailment, a prudent person will either suffer through the original ailment or seek out treatment alternatives.

We humans are versatile creatures and we owe much of our versatility to television. Thanks to our addiction to TV and our susceptibility to the influence it has over our lives, we've become portable disposal units for the fast food industry and mobile toxic waste disposal sites for the pharmaceuticals industry. We should probably aspire to something better, but until we see a suggestion for it in a TV commercial, we probably won’t.

*This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, on March 20, 2006, in Issue #27 of Petey’s Pipeline E-zine.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Addiction Affliction (Part 1)*

We Americans are habitual addicts. Indoctrinated into consumerism at an early age, most of us base every aspect of our lives on conspicuous consumption. Even when we work at producing something, it's all about being able to consume more. We're so enamored of self-indulgence that we've elevated addiction, per se, to a lifestyle.

Appetite, pleasure, well being, convenience and technology are the main ingredients of most addictions. Add varying amounts of greed, selfishness, indolence and flawed percepts and you have a winning formula for an addiction that's almost impossible to break.

In bygone eras, people worked hard, albeit at a slower pace, to grow, process, preserve and prepare their own food. The labors given over to such activities were part of making a living. Today, people work hard to earn money to buy inferior pre-packaged food that requires only a minimum of preparation. We no longer have the time or energy needed to make a home-cooked meal from scratch.

However, the object of the labor is the same. One must work in order to eat. The difference is that now our labor is co-opted by third parties to the betterment of third-party interests. In effect, we became the unwitting servants of a pervasive corporatocracy.

The same reasoning, the same logic, the same explanations can be applied to all of life's necessities. Houses, clothing, labor saving appliances—whatever it is we need—are all obtained in the same way. We exchange our labor for money, and then we exchange our money for that which we need or want.

Instead of working for a year or two to build a home out of materials that can be had at low cost or for free, we'll buy a pre-existing home and work for thirty years to pay off the mortgage. Credit becomes essential to our lives, and soon we're addicted to it.

Because the price of goods always rises faster than wages, we find ourselves in a classic dilemma. We work harder to increase our productivity, to make ourselves a more valuable commodity in the marketplace so we can earn more money. Often, we work more hours, further limiting the time and energy we have available to pursue personal goals. To free up more time and conserve more of our energy, we buy yet another labor saving device (on credit, of course), further increasing our indebtedness.

As the cost of living increases, we find ourselves lagging farther behind. At some point we discover that our life has become a racing, spinning, not so merry merry-go-round, and that the brass ring is always just beyond our reach. Each revolution of this vicious, whirling circle of insanity digs the rut a little deeper. Soon, the struggle to get ahead becomes a struggle to get caught up.

And so we become addicted to our job, addicted to the daily routine that having a job demands, addicted to the lifestyle we develop because of our job, addicted to our ability to accumulate possessions, addicted to our desire to keep up appearances. It's not just the job we're addicted to; every aspect of our job, everything that influences our job and everything that's influenced by it becomes a part of our addiction because it's a package deal.

Our job title, then, becomes an integral part of our identity. Whether doctor, lawyer, beggar, steelworker, stay-at-home mom, or blogger, we develop a behavior pattern specific to our identity, and we channel our thoughts and actions in ways that reinforce and protect our sense of self.

In essence, the identity we create for ourselves becomes an addiction, too.

*This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, on March 6, 2006, in Issue #26 of Petey’s Pipeline E-zine.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Universal Health Scare

There are enough “strikes” in the Health Care Reconciliation Bill to take the Major League, the Minor League, and all the Little Leagues through an entire season of baseball. With all the misdirection that is part and parcel of the legislative process, it’s no wonder that legislators find it so easy to deceive the American public into accepting something they shouldn’t.

Maureen was right:

“The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.” —Maureen Dowd

Without the original bill, the reconciliation bill is absolutely incomprehensible. But, hey, I’m willing to bet that the original bill is pretty much incomprehensible, too. It’s a simple strategy, really; if no one knows what they’re voting for, they won’t know what they’re getting—until they’ve already got it.

The health care bill is just another example, in a long list of examples, of politicians adhering to the old adage, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

It’s too much to expect that the people who already have health care should give a rat’s ass about the people who don’t.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jon Swift 1667—2010

Like the earlier Jonathan Swift, after whom the late writer/blogger Al Weisel named his blog (Jon Swift), the latter day version of the brilliant 18th-century satirist was himself a brilliant satirical writer. But Jon Swift was more than just the name of an excellent blog; it was a pseudonym, a nom de plume, a pen name, and—so I like to think—Al’s alter-ego. Unfortunately, I never met Al; sadly, any chance I might have had of ever meeting him ended abruptly, with his premature death, on February 27th.

But that’s not the end of my tribute to the blogger known throughout blogtopia* as Jon Swift, it’s only the beginning. However, from this point on, the story gets vastly more complicated and infinitely more convoluted. That’s just the way things are when everything is connected.

When Blogroll Amnesty Day rolled around in February of 2009, Frieddogleg was nearing two months old. At the time, most of the blogs on my blogroll were carryovers from an earlier blog (Petey’s Pipeline), including Chuck for…, a great lefty political blog, written by Chuck Butcher, that I’d been following for a year or two. Chuck gets the credit for introducing me to Jon Swift, who graciously added Frieddogleg to his blogroll; Jon gets the credit for turning me on to Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, who also blogrolled Frieddogleg; Skippy gets the credit for clueing me about Badtux the Snarky Penguin, ’Tux earns kudos for . . . well, you can see where this is going. Thus is everything connected.

Jon Swift also gets credit, either directly or indirectly, for my discovery of numerous other interesting blogs, including BLCKDGRD, The Barefoot Bum, MoltenMetalMama, We Move to Canada, Bad Attitudes, and Just an Earth-bound Misfit—all of whom reciprocal link to Frieddogleg, and all of whom I read whenever their respective authors post new content. Credit Jon, too, for many other blogs I’ve found (but with whom I haven’t yet found time to do the things necessary to complete a blogroll exchange). It was largely Jon’s generous spirit and liberal linking policies—not to mention the huge number of followers (relative to mine) he had—that convinced me that blogrolls have actual value, and that hugely popular blogs like Jon Swift are well worth emulating. No one knew better than Jon the importance of being connected.

With Blogroll Amnesty Day 2009 behind me (and a hugely expanded blogroll gracing the sidebar of my blog) I returned to blogging with new enthusiasm and a renewed sense of purpose. I looked forward to following Jon Swift because anything that puts a smile on my face or coaxes a laugh out of me before I’ve had my first mug of coffee—or before noon, whichever comes first—gets my nod of approval and all the support I can muster. I hoped that by interacting with Jon Swift some of Jon’s success would rub off on Frieddogleg so that it, too, could reap some of the benefits of being connected.

Jon Swift’s cutting edge satire prompted my sister to speculate that the blog was actually written by a writer—or team of writers—who wrote for Stephen Colbert. Apparently, a fair number of bloggers had similar thoughts. But things like that happen when everything is connected.

Jon posted what was to be his final entry on the Jon Swift blog on March 19, 2009. It was a short post (perhaps his shortest, ever), titled “Sometimes There Are No Words,” that brought to the attention of his many readers a sad personal tragedy that had befallen Chuck (of Chuck for…) earlier that day. The irony is that it was Chuck who, many months later, alerted me that Jon Swift had recently died. Interesting, the way things that go around eventually come around—when everything is connected.

Only the people who were closest to the blogger now known to the world as Al Weisel know the real reasons why he chose to hide his true identity from the legions of followers who provided, on a daily basis, quantifiable proof of Jon Swift’s success and popularity. Only they know for sure why Al suddenly and mysteriously stopped blogging for no apparent reason. The rest of us can only speculate.

To explain the identity thing, perhaps Al delighted in creating the aura of mystery that surrounded Jon Swift. That seems reasonable. The cessation of blogging as Jon Swift is a little more difficult to speculate away. I prefer to think that life simply intervened, perhaps threw at Al a project so large that no time for blogging remained. Throughout Al’s long hiatus I maintained a high degree of optimism that Jon Swift would one day return, and I waited patiently for that day to come. Mine was unfounded optimism, as it turned out; bloggers take time off, but Death never does, and Death had other plans for the man who kept his true identity cloaked in the mantle of Jon Swift.

In the matter of Al Weisel/Jon Swift, it’s fair to say that both blog and blogger were more than the sum of their individual parts; both were worthy of profound respect, and both had mine. R.I.P., Al Weisel.

R.I.P., Jon Swift.

*Yes, Skippy coined that term.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Place Your Bets, Take Your Chances. Or Not!

Insurance is like a casino game. The insured bets that the insurance company will pay off in the event of a loss or claim, and the insurer bets that it won’t. Even when the “house” loses, it can still cut its losses by arbitrarily and unilaterally adjusting the amount of its “bet” downward. Sometimes, it simply refuses to pay.

The problem with giving insurance companies any part in health care—or health care reform—is that for-profit corporations exist for one purpose only—to steal as much profit (c’mon, you didn’t expect me to say “earn,” did you?) as they can for their shareholders and to pay outrageous salaries and bonuses to their top executives. Terms like “conscience,” “honesty,” “aboveboard,” and “forthrightness” are not part of the corporate lexicon, especially where profits are concerned.

Because health insurance companies have broad powers to discriminate in regards to whom they will and won’t insure—not to mention that they deserve much of the blame for rising healthcare costs—the idea of giving them carte blanche privilege to be the sole providers of health insurance for the masses doesn’t even come close to passing the straight face test. In terms of serving most members of society, a strong public option is a better way to go; in terms of serving all members of society, a single payer plan is the only way to go.

Maybe it’s time for House and Senate Democrats to back down* and give obstructionist Republicans what they want: scrap Obama’s current healthcare plan and start over. Start by kicking the insurance companies to the curb. Replace them with a single payer universal healthcare plan based on the Social Security/Medicare models, which work just fine, thank you, when conservatives aren’t trying to subvert them out of existence.

A comprehensive single payer plan would give everyone access to medical care and healthcare services regardless of their income, economic status or station in life. No citizen could be denied medical services, and everyone could choose their own doctor. Everyone would get 100% coverage for medical, dental, vision and hearing. The government, contrary to popular belief, would not be in the business of dictating healthcare choices, so a wide range of medical alternatives, including chiropractic, holistic, acupuncture, physical therapy, dietary, and preventive medical disciplines would be available on patient demand.

Funding a single payer plan is simple in theory if not in practice. Start at 10% of income for individuals, regardless of the individual’s source of income, economic status, or station in life. If you’re a 12-year old with a paper route, 10% of your income goes to 100% healthcare. If you’re a homeless person making a living by returning discarded cans and bottles, 10% of your deposit refunds (collected at point of return) goes to 100% healthcare. If you’re a retiree living on Social Security, 10% of your Social Security amount goes to 100% healthcare. If you’re a CEO hauling down a $1 million a month, 10% of your income goes to 100% healthcare. The plan is all-inclusive, with no loopholes and no exemptions. If you have an income of any kind, in any amount, you pay 10% of it for 100% healthcare.

Such a plan would be advantageous for companies—both large and small—that now find it onerous, if not impossible, to provide health insurance for their employees, as they would be relieved of the moral and/or contractual obligation to provide insurance. Healthcare practitioners and service providers would find relief, too, if only through simplified billing procedures.

But . . . but . . . but what if it takes less than 10% of income to fund the plan?

Reduce the percentage across the board. The plan should not exist to make a profit, only to satisfy people’s healthcare needs.

But . . . but . . . but what if it takes more than 10% of income to fund the plan?

Before raising the percentage on individuals, assess corporations a percentage of their income to make up the shortfall. After all, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people, too, didn’t it? Besides, some corporations are already getting health care (AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and General Motors, to name a few); they’re just not paying for it. However, in this case, health care should be limited to the kind rendered by medical professionals for the benefit of living, breathing humans.

But . . . but . . . but I make obscene amounts money, so I’d have to pay an absurd amount of money for my healthcare. It’s just not fair.

Relative to your total income, you’ll pay the same rate as everyone else. If your health isn’t worth 10% of your income to you, I’m prepared to argue that your life is less valuable than you want everyone to think it is.

But . . . but . . . but this healthcare plan will put health insurance companies out of business.

Oh, boo-hoo!

*A euphemism for stand up.

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