Sunday, December 30, 2012

Year End 2012

Has it been a good year for the greatest nation on earth? Well, maybe for Wall Street. Maybe not for many of the rest of us. We are ending our year with some big problems in the USA. I am more interested in ongoing big problems than in listing the top news stories of the year, although problems and news about them are related.

The economy. It’s about the unequal distribution of wealth, real estate still in trouble, meaningful jobs in short supply, and the role of government in taxation priorities. The US has the greatest income inequality in the world; one to two percent of Americans receive at least a quarter of the income generated. Money buys political power.  Corporate CEOs have huge salaries while the have-nots are struggling and the middle class is disappearing. Wall Street seems to being doing well even though we are in what is called the Great Recession. Greed wins.

The government could establish some policies that would help the majority of our people if it had the will to do it. It isn’t socialism; it’s good practice to love one’s neighbor at the policy level.

The medical scene. It’s not health care; it’s medical procedures. I think it is atrocious that people’s medical service is delivered for profit. We have a system that is dominated by drug companies and insurance companies, and both are enriched by operating for profit. It’s profit first, addressing disease  second, at whatever prices they set. Government policy has cooperated with them. The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is part of that system rather than being a reform of it. Chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease are costing huge amounts of money. High-tech procedures are very expensive and reportedly over-used, although they can be life savers. Many doctors prescribe drugs when natural solutions can be used. Drug companies encourage and advertise this. Why? They exist for profit. Natural remedies don’t make profits. Insurance companies decide what to cover and what to refuse. Their rates for coverage are becoming unaffordable, whether they are paid for by government, employers or individual payers.

Government had the opportunity to turn this around with the Affordable Care Act but didn’t do it. Medicare is forbidden by law to negotiate drug costs. Medicare pays huge medical expenses even when they are unjustified. We can have better health with lower costs. Our medical system costs more than that of any other nation on earth and we are nowhere near the top in outcomes.

Violence. Ours is a violent society. We have been hearing about mass shootings recently in addition to individual murders. A black teenager was shot in Florida, and his killer’s defense was a legal Stand Your Ground law. Many children were shot in an elementary school in Connecticut very recently. The National Rifle Association suggested that teachers in schools be armed. The conversation goes on and on about whether to ban assault weapons. The second amendment to the constitution is interpreted to justify individual people having guns. As I remember it, the second amendment existed originally for protection of Americans against the British army, as a guarantee for a militia. I don’t know of anyone who needs an assault weapon to shoot a deer. I don’t know of anyone who needs an assault weapon for anything except a gun collection or mass murder.  I believe that our government should regulate weapons in this country. Deer hunting, yes. Mass murder, no.

Education. I believe that universal education is a public good. I’m not sure everyone does.  I am seeing a movement that produces two tiers, private schools for people who can afford them and public schools for everyone else. Many school systems in our large cities are reportedly falling behind in achievement. Business has gotten behind school improvements, apparently using business models. Teachers’ unions are being criticized. Charter schools are proposed, although their track record is not universally wonderful.  As long as this dialog continues and the proponents of changes do not have constructive dialog together, and if education continues to be underfunded in many places, good education is not likely to happen. For example, why do we have to have charter schools with only non-union, lower paid teachers? Here in Madison we have some non-traditional schools (not charter schools) within the district. My granddaughter attended one and was able to graduate.

The cost for a college degree has become prohibitive; if our government is in favor of higher education, it should fund it at the level it did fifty years ago when my tuition at the University of Wisconsin was ninety-five dollars per semester. The high cost of a university education is crippling people with debt.

I do not think it was in the best interest of students of any age for our governor to cut education in Wisconsin by 2.5 million dollars. Any model of education should be adequate for the whole population. New ideas, yes. Egalitarian funding, too, yes.

War. What is the good of war unless we are genuinely attacked? Our nation has been on the empire track for quite a number of years. The Bush administration pushed pre-emptive war after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Bush wasn’t the first to promote pre-emptive war; we did it to the Native Americans as part of expansion of our nation in its early years. We love being an empire. It has been reported that the US spends more on our military establishment than all other nations combined. We have no reason that I know of to have military bases in many countries in the world, and we are fighting an ongoing war in Afghanistan for no reason that I know of other than the so-called terrorist threat. It has been reported that the US is not well liked for its arrogant military action. Our military budget is huge. We don’t need this. I would like to have our military actions and killing end.

Maybe we would be the greatest nation on earth if we would stop imposing ourselves on everyone else. I think we need to have the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu as our generals. Save the military money; give it to the struggling economy at home.

The environment.  Corporate interests are killing our planet.  Now we are fracking. It takes large amounts of water and imported sand to produce natural gas to fire our insatiable appetite for power, heat, transportation, and the economy in general. That is one example. We blow up mountains to harvest coal. We have a transportation system that encourages the automobile with its pollution, while some countries continue to use mass transit and fewer cars. In the USA, it’s profit first, good environmental practices second.

Related to our misuse of our resources is climate change. Are we surprised at our weather extremes? Do we notice that the ice cap in Greenland is shrinking? Is it too late? Conservation is needed. Regulation is needed.

And the news…  I think the three biggest news stories of the year were the presidential election, hurricane Sandy, and the recall elections in Wisconsin.  The two deaths that I cared about were in the arts: Maurice Sendak, writer/illustrator of children’s books, and Dave Brubeck, great jazz musician.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas and Cookies

The Christmas season reminds me of family, and that reminds me of cookies. My grandmothers were the champions of cookies. My mother was perpetually fighting the battle against weight gain, so I have few memories of her making cookies at any time. She specialized in other dishes.

My maternal grandmother, whom we called Sweetie Pie, made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, and she had a batch ready almost every time we went to see her when she lived in Chicago. Late in her life she tried to give us cookies made from grocery store cookie dough, but we immediately noticed the difference and let her know about it. After she realized that we weren’t fooled, she went back to the originals.

My paternal grandmother, known as Grandma, produced many cookies for us, but the ones I remember best were pinwheel cookies. Pinwheel cookies are small cookies with chocolate and vanilla spirals. They melt in your mouth. It was impossible to eat just one. I learned to make them after Grandma became old and stopped making them. Now my daughter Libby makes them every Christmas and brings them to the family gathering.

Pinwheel cookies are easy to make. Just find a refrigerator cookie recipe in your big fat cookbook. You say your big fat cookbook doesn’t tell you how to make refrigerator cookies?  It seems to me that some of the best concoctions get forgotten by cookbook writers. That’s why we have public libraries and the Internet. But don’t despair. Here is my recipe, revised from my old Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, 1953 edition:

Pinwheel Cookies

½ cup shortening or butter
½ cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons milk
1- 1 ounce square unsweetened chocolate, melted

Cream shortening and sugar. Add egg yolk, milk and vanilla. Mix flour, baking powder and salt; add to shortening/sugar mixture and mix. Divide the dough in half. To one half add chocolate; mix thoroughly. Chill both halves. Roll each half into a long rectangle 1/8 inch thick on waxed paper. Turn the white half onto the chocolate half. Let chocolate extend a half inch beyond the white part on the edge toward which you roll. Remove paper and roll as for jelly roll, into a long tube. The size of the cookies will depend on the shape of the rectangles you roll together. Wrap in waxed paper. Chill for several hours or overnight. Cut the tubes into thin slices, about ¼ inch thick. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet at 375 degrees about ten minutes. Makes about 4 dozen small cookies.