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A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Bus tour for minimum-wage hike rolled through state

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., April 10, 11 or 12

Republicans in Washington may be blocking an increase in the minimum wage despite everyday Americans consistently supporting it, but working families and their allies continue to press for a raise and over the last two weeks went to local and state governments in a bus tour that swung through Illinois.

Called “Give America a Raise,” the tour started March 24 in Maine, traveled to nine other states including stops in Chicago and Springfield, and wound up at the U.S. Capitol last week, when demonstrators called for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016, which would increase pay for 28 million Americans.

The minimum wage is now $7.25; $8.25 in Illinois.

The rolling demonstration stopped in Chicago March 31 and got support from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and worker-rights activists, including members of Raise Illinois and Citizen Action-Illinois.

The U.S. minimum wage has stayed the same since 2009, while prices for groceries, gas, utilities and everything else have gone up, making it almost impossible to live anywhere in America on $7.25 an hour – $15,000 a year. President Obama said he wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, and the bus tour may have helped raise the stakes for the GOP.

Spearheaded by Americans United For Change (AUFC), the tour used a 45-foot, 16-ton “billboard on wheels” traveling to Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

“Raising the minimum wage would provide a needed boost not just for the millions of struggling low-wage American workers that can barely survive on $7.25, but for the U.S. economy as a whole,” said AUFC president Brad Woodhouse. “It will create jobs because it puts more money in the pockets of workers who will quickly inject it back into the economy. Businesses will need to hire more workers to meet the demand. Decades’ worth of research done after previous minimum wage increases shows nothing but net economic benefits as a result, which is why so many successful business leaders and over 600 economists, including seven Nobel Laureates, are calling on Congress to raise it again now.

At each stop on the tour, Republicans were confronted with stories from low-wage workers pressing the need to raise the minimum wage. In Springfield on April 1, minimum-wage earner Gale Hamilton – who works two jobs and goes to college – appealed to lawmakers, saying, “I strongly urge Congress to do what’s right for our families who put them there … stand up for our families and take the vote [to raise the minimum wage].”

Other stops featured high-profile speakers including U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“It’s been more than five years since these workers have gotten a raise – workers that include child-care providers, janitors and nursing assistants,” Woodhouse said. “All that stands in the way of stronger economy built from the middle out are Tea Party Republicans in Congress. But if these Republicans don’t care to support this effective policy towards creating jobs in their states, maybe they will care about keeping their own job.”

Durbin said he cannot remain silent.

“Shame on me if I run for the Senate and then don't even address the issues of the day," he said. "Am I supposed to stand there in mortal fear that [House Speaker] John Boehner will not consider my idea? No way.”

Backed by a progressive coalition – including the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, Service Employees, AFSCME, USAction, the National Employment Law Project, and Jobs with Justice – “Give America A Raise” focused on states where voters overwhelmingly support raising the minimum wage and say they would be much less likely to vote for legislators who stand in the way.

Elsewhere, Democratic governors in Connecticut and Maryland have endorsed state increases to $10.10, and rank-and-file workers are pushing for minimum-wage hike at state legislatures in Iowa and Missouri.

Opposition from groups such as the National Restaurant Association, which counts the big fast-food corporations as members, has so far blocked a hike in the federal minimum wage to an amount that would let millions of fast-food workers and other ordinary Americans more easily make ends meet.

It’s time to get on the bus.

[PICTURED: Photo of the bus, from New Hampshire Labor News.]

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Chavez biopic reminds us of leader’s impact

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., April 7, 8 or 9

Everyday people holding voter-registration drives, partnering with faith communities, boycotting, organizing corporate campaigns and fasting in protest all may be so familiar that their revival by Cesar Chavez a generation ago is overlooked. But such tactics worked – and helped inspire social-justice activists moved by the struggles of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and its skilled and charismatic leader to take their experienced to other areas of public service.

Now the film “Cesar Chavez, An American Hero,” which opened in limited release on March 28, reminds us how this unassuming but dynamic personality led nonviolent demonstrations, marches, strikes and unprecedented global boycotts to achieves gains for farm workers – especially thousands of them in California, many of them temporary Mexican workers permitted to live and work in the United States in agriculture, but required to leave here if they stopped working.

Starring Michael Peña as César Chavez, America Ferrera as Helen Chavez and Rosario Dawson as UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, the movie also features actors Gabriel Mann and John Malkovich as two villains. Mann, who plays an abusive landowner, told the Los Angeles Times that he took the role because he felt it was a timely story that spoke to what happens when workers lack union protections. Malkovich said he agreed to the role because he admired director Diego Luna's previous films and also wanted to take part in telling an important story about fairness.

Fairness was a goal for the temporary workers – “braceros” – who suffer from lousy working conditions plus racism and brutality at the hands of the employers and some locals, and the movie touches on several UFW campaigns: the Delano grape strike, the Salad Bowl strike, and the 1975 Modesto march.

The motion picture is “the first major motion picture about an icon for Latinos in the United States,” Luna said. “Yet by genuinely portraying Cesar Chavez as a hero for all Americans, it also tells a story every American should see.”

The movie is building an audience. Opening in just 664 U.S. theaters, “Cesar Chavez” reported $2.8 million over its three-day opening weekend, averaging $4,310 per screen, according to Deadline Hollywood’s box-office report. For comparison, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action film “Sabotage,” released to four times as many screens the same weekend, generated less than half as much box office receipts per screen – $2,121.

Chavez, who died in 1993, was a significant public figure. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, with the Catholic Church’s Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth") tribute, and the cover of Time magazine decades ago.

That significance also touched people who worked with him.

In downstate Illinois, State Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria) is one of many alumni from Chavez’ and the UFW movement. In the 1970s, Koehler was a recently ordained pastor working with the UFW in Arizona, Ohio, California and New York. Koehler – who moved to Illinois to be a community organizer for Peoria’s Friendship House, then a County Board member, City Councilman and director of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council until his 2006 election to the Statehouse – acknowledges the UFW.

“One thing I learned in my time with the Farm Workers, and still hold dear, is the ongoing spirit of ‘si se puede’,” he said.

Familiar now after having been appropriated by Barack Obama as a campaign slogan, “si se puede” was the UFW’s battle cry: “Yes, we can.”

Besides the movie, Chavez and his efforts are recounted in “Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, The UFW, and The Struggle for Justice in The 21st Century,” published by the University of California Press six years ago. Part history and part guide, the 347-page book by Randy Shaw tracks how from the UFW’s 1962 inception, individuals armed with energy, determination and savvy methods changed workers’ lives and also their own.

Innovation and openness helped – along with Chavez’ reinvigoration of labor’s small-D democratic roots and the branches fed by coalition-building. Chavez enlisted the aid of labor stalwarts such as United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther and International Longshoremen head James Herman to expand their presence from farm fields to supermarkets. (Dockworkers refused to unload goods affected by the UFW’s disputes with growers.)

UFW was a school for activists, mirroring what Civil Rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had done in the 1950s. Chavez and the group of idealists he marshaled against overwhelming odds still offer lessons and provide examples we can appreciate, in memory and conversation, on the printed page, and now on the big screen.

[PICTURED: Left to right: Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King and Dorothy Day at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in 1973. Photo by Chris Sheridan of Catholic News Service. Marquette University Archives.]

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Smile: The summer game’s returned

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., April 3, 4 or 5

It’s a bit chilly, but the summer game’s back, with some changes and much tradition.

Managers, umps and fans will deal with new rules to avoid home-plate collisions and new video-reply appeals; Reds speedster Billy Hamilton seems ready to steal like a Pink Panther international jewel thief and Tigers star Miguel Cabrera will approach corporate-CEO status, earning about $40,000 every time he comes to the plate; and the Chicago Cubs look to have more talent in the minors than at 100-year-old Wrigley Field.

But it’s still the National Pastime. (OK, NFL or NASCAR has as avid a fan base and maybe Americans have other pastimes. But who’d collect couch-potato trading cards or keep box scores on wars?)

Baseball connects with our best past, a time when Ted Williams gave up some of his most productive playing years to be a combat pilot for the Air Force during wartime.

“Baseball is sitting on the porch, drinking lemonade, listening to your father talk to his father or his brothers about the game,” wrote Orioles exec (and ex-pro footballer) Calvin Hill. “Baseball is a reminder of the ways things used to be before we became so transient, so mobile, so much in a hurry.”

Author Thomas Wolfe asked, “Is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than the smell of wooden bleachers in a small-town baseball park – that resinous, sultry and exciting smell of old, dry wood?”

Twenty years ago this week, some pals and I were at Wrigley for Opening Day, when Tuffy Rhodes hit three homers off Doc Gooden and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton threw out the first pitch and sang with Harry Caray. It seems like yesterday.

David Halberstam wrote that baseball, “is the sport that a foreigner is least likely to take to. You have to grow up playing it and believe that if the answer to the Mays-Snider-Mantle question is found, then the universe will be a simpler and more ordered place.”

Writer Art Hill added, “With those who don't give a damn about baseball, I can only sympathize. I do not resent them. I am even willing to concede that many of them are physically clean, good to their mothers and in favor of world peace. But while the game is on, I can't think of anything to say to them.”

Maybe there’s a gender difference. Humorist Dave Barry said, “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there are men on base.”

Civil-libertarian lawyer Clarence Darrow recalled his youth: “Baseball was the only perfect pleasure we ever knew.”

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Baseball, like life itself, has been and continues to be distorted by sin. Baseball is part of our fallen world. It seems that baseball, like Congress, is the mirror into which we must look if we are to see ourselves – a sobering thought.”

Poet Robert Frost said, “I am never more at home in America than at a baseball game in beautiful weather and my side winning.”

Galesburg native and three-time Pulitzer winner Carl Sandburg wrote, “I remember the Chillicothe ballplayers grappling the Rock Island ball players in a 16-inning game ended by darkness. And the shoulders of the Chillicothe players were a red smoke against the sundown and the shoulders of the Rock Island players were a yellow smoke against the sundown.”

Another Galesburg writer, George Fitch, who also wrote for Iowa and Peoria newspapers and the Saturday Evening Post, said, “Baseball is played by a grandstand full of maniacs assisted by 18 players in uniform, a national commission, a box full of sporting writers, a book of rules as thick as the California code, and a low-browed pirate called an umpire. The object of baseball is to win the game for the home team. To do this it is sometimes necessary for the spectators to yell continuously for three hours. This develops marvelous endurance.”

Or, as the late, great Macomb rock critic Rick Johnson wrote, “Life would be a lot more fun if you could hit a foul ball and still be up.”

This weekend, many of us “seamheads” will be channel-surfing between ballgames and TCM’s baseball movie gems “Field of Dreams,” “Angels in the Outfield” and “It Happens Every Spring,” once more uncovering something precious, as editor Kevin Kerrane summed up baseball: “After Vietnam, beyond football, in spite of Astroturf and designated hitters and megabucks, we keep finding the game again every time we lose it – rediscovering it not only in Major League parks, but in every corner of the country, on innumerable streets and playgrounds and sandlots, and in every corner of ourselves.”

[PICTURED: Knight at a Randy Hundley's Chicago Cubs fantasy camp. (Note mark on forehead from getting bonked by a line drive.)]

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Corporate personhood, rights and money as speech

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 31, April 1 or 2

In a pending case, the U.S. Supreme Court has another chance to further weaken the few surviving regulations on political contributions, and advocates for campaign finance limits are debating the best way to respond.

A decision in “McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission” could be announced any day, and a ruling could remove the cap on total candidate contributions and more.

Argued last October, the case has Alabama Republican Shaun McCutcheon challenging the combined, two-year limit on direct donations to parties or candidates. Today, people can only give $123,000 to candidates, Political Action Committees, and political parties over a two-year period. However, federal law also limits individuals to giving $2,600 to any one candidate during a single election, and the court could strike that down, too, essentially killing all campaign finance limits.

“McCutcheon” follows the controversial conclusion in 2010’s “Citizens United” case that corporations can spend as much as they want on political campaigns as long as they don’t give money directly to candidates because corporations have the right to free speech. “Citizens United” granted corporations all the rights that human beings have under the U.S. Constitution, a slim, 5-4 majority of the Court ruled.

The late Illinois author David Foster Wallace in “The Pale King” wrote, “Corporations aren’t citizens or neighbors or parents. They can’t vote or serve in combat. They don’t learn the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t have souls. They’re revenue machines. They’re not civic entities. With corporations, I have no problem with government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function.”

But: Is money the same as speech?

Journalist and TV writer David Simon has said that he’s troubled by money triumphing over democracy, but he disputes the solution.

“The chant from the Left became, ‘Corporations are people? Corporations are not people’,” he said. “Well, under the law, that’s the reason for corporations. They are, indeed, given the rights of individuals, and that’s why you form corporations and that’s how the law treats them.

“They’re sociopaths as people,” he added. “If all you care about is your profits and nothing else in human terms, you’re probably a sociopath. It was that speech is money that was [disturbing]. Money is in a fundamental regard the opposite of speech in many ways.”

Some perspective: The Koch brothers spent more money in the 2012 campaigns than the top 10 labor unions combined, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) – more than twice what unions spent. The Koch brothers’ publicly disclosed political contributions topped $4.9 million, but their “dark money” contributions – money paying for an election campaign not disclosed to voters beforehand, used on behalf of a candidate or to influence voting on a ballot question – was about $400 million. “Citizens United” let two rich brothers have more control over the U.S. political system than the millions of workers who unions represent.

In Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner during the recent primary election mostly benefited from his own wealth, but CRP and the Sunlight Foundation recently reported that two Illinois sources of campaign largesse are Ron Gidwitz and the couple Muneer Satter and Kristen Hertel.

Gidwitz, a former Illinois State Board of Education chair and gubernatorial candidate, and his New Prosperity Foundation, generally donated to the GOP and Republican candidates, bundling between $100,000 and $250,000 for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign the groups reported. Hertel and Satter, a director of Goldman Sachs until 2012, also mostly gave to Republicans, but also contributed to Democrat Rahm Emanuel in his campaign for Mayor of Chicago. The couple contributed $500,000 to the Super PAC Restore Our Future in support of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, Sunlight and the CRP said.

Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen and others advocate a Constitutional amendment regulating corporate “speech” in politics. Others say that’s too limited, that it should deny corporations rights meant for citizens. Their argument, bottom line, is that corporations are not people.

Again, however, it may not be corporations’ lack of humanity that’s the best argument, but that money is not speech.

“That to me was the nails in the coffin,” Simon said. “If you can’t fix the elections so that they actually resemble the popular will – if the combination of the monetization of the elections and gerrymandering create a bicameral legislature that doesn’t in any way reflect the will of the American people – you’ve reached the end game for democracy.”

[PICTURED: Photo from thepoliticalbouillon.com]

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Definition of ‘entitlement’ was hijacked

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 27, 28 or 29

Insurance policyholders who pay their premiums, people who work, and veterans who serve all are eligible for coverage, for wages and for benefits.

They earned it

They’re “entitled.”

Until the last few years, anyone with an entitlement was seen as having a legitimate, enforceable claim based on a contract or law. Now, however, Right Wing attacks ridicule entitlements and disparage anyone with a valid entitlement as a greedy slacker or worse, someone who should lose their rights and privileges, or else just thrown to the curb.

Such extremist manipulators of meanings and words try to connect recipients of something (that is, folks entitled to something) with idlers or dishonest parasites, and link that to veterans’ benefits, decent pay, Social Security, etc.

So pensioners are dismissed as freeloaders, working people as ungrateful, the jobless as lazy, and needy kids somehow wrong for being entitled to a modest breakfast.

Even conservative columnist Robert Samuelson conceded the double standard, writing, “Hypocritically, voters hate excessive spending and deficits, but scream if any political leader even suggests a cut to their own ‘entitlements’.”

Fueling the war on Social Security in particular are misleading assertions or misunderstandings about what Social Security has always been, how it’s used, and how it’s funded.

Social Security's actual title is Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI).

That last word helps people understand its purpose: It’s insurance – insurance that pays benefits when something happens that can cause financial hardship.

It’s insurance – like your car’s liability insurance, like health insurance, life insurance or the FDIC protecting your bank deposits, for goodness’ sake.

That’s correct. Social Security is insurance and was never set up to be a household savings plan or personal investment program. It’s insurance.

There may be sensible reforms to strengthen the popular and successful program. Maybe some sort of “means testing” would be fair, so all wealth would be used to gauge the amount of OASDI benefits a person would receive or the Medicare premium someone would pay. By the same token, those especially hurt by the Great Recession, a death in the family or a disabling condition should see Medicare premiums cut and Social Security benefits increased.

Many in Congress have long argued that Social Security’s “maximum taxable earnings” should be dropped, or at least drastically hiked. This year the maximum taxable earnings that contribute to Social Security was set at $117,000. Therefore, incomes of $117 million pay no more than the family paying on $117,000. That’s silly (except for the influence the 1% has to help keep their financial protections and loopholes in place).

Author Ellen Dannin, who wrote “Counting What Matters: Privatization, People with Disabilities, and the Cost of Low-Wage Work,” said, “The campaign against Social Security stems mainly from three misunderstandings about its funding and operation: that Social Security is going bankrupt; that Social Security is essentially the same as private pensions, IRAs and 401(k)s; and that Social Security is a tax on a par with personal and corporate income taxes. None of these beliefs is correct.”

And the unreasonable assault on Social Security-as-entitlement can be applied to other benefits to which you’re entitled: Your boss had you work an hour of overtime this week? You’re entitled to time-and-a-half pay for the extra hour’s work. You bought a ticket to a concert? You’re entitled to get in. You’ve passed a test for a driver’s license or college admission or a profession? You’re entitled to drive, go to school or practice that occupation.

As much as U.S. citizens are entitled to due process, equal protection under the law, or freedoms spelled out in the Bill of Rights, we are entitled to that which we’re qualified to have, from veterans benefits and pensions, to pay that’s somewhere between a minimum wage and an agreed-upon scale, to welfare and a FOID card. They’re all entitlements.

They’re not gifts.

And they must not be taken away.

[PICTURED: Graphic from zarcastic.com]

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A useful perspective on taxes

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 24, 25 or 26

Dissatisfaction in the area with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) continues as the income-tax deadline approaches (when we should expect the Tax Foundation’s annual misleading and ultimately meaningless exercise, “Tax Freedom Day”). That’s the gimmick that many media mindlessly report, dutifully repeating the assertion that Americans must work until such-and-such a day to make enough money to pay their share of the nation’s tax burden.

A more useful point of view might be to look at how taxes are spent. Many of the usual complaints are how much of our tax dollars go to “freeloaders” who get food stamps or welfare, Medicare or jobless benefits, or – shudder! – pensions for military service or government employment.

Too few look at how much of our hard-earned income is used by the Pentagon.

And almost no one examines how much of the taxes we have to pay goes to corporations.

For the average U.S. taxpayer, that’s $6,000 a year, according to a new report from Paul Buchheit, author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities,” published on commondreams.org.

“That's over and above our payments to the big companies for energy and food and housing and health care and all our tech devices,” Buchheit writes. “It's $6,000 that no family would have to pay if we truly lived in a competitive but well-regulated free-market economy.

“American families are paying an annual $6,000 subsidy to corporations that have doubled their profits and cut their taxes in half in 10 years while cutting 2.9 million jobs in the U.S. and adding almost as many jobs overseas,” he adds.

So: Let’s look at some of those earlier categories – those line items – for comparison. Figured on the basis of a married couple with one child earning $50,000 a year, here’s what the federal government concedes that taxes fund in a year (and the monthly breakdown):

FEMA $8.12 a year (67 cents a month)
Welfare $11.52 ($1)
Unemployment insurance $18.70 ($1.50)
Education [K-12 & vocational] $32.68 ($2.75)
Food stamps $73.40 ($6)
Retirement/disability to military and civilian government workers $84.06 ($7)
Medicare [technically, a separate tax] $725 ($60)
Defense programs $465.45 ($38)
Corporate subsidies [again, the average] $6,000 ($500)

Other recipients of that family’s tax payment include Medicaid and children’s health care ($178.32/year), veterans ($85.57), environmental protection/natural resources ($15.30), assistance to developing nations/humanitarian aid ($15.11), agriculture ($12.28), and energy supply and conservation programs ($9.63).

And the Tax Foundation – or Tea Party or knee-jerk foes of sharing the costs of programs, services, infrastructure, etc. that benefit us all – target old people or jobless workers or retired soldiers?

One probable reason that there aren’t enough resources to help every place victimized by natural disasters is that FEMA gets so little money compared to the interests with a lot of power, lobbyists and cash to contribute to campaigns.

As Buchheit details, corporations get direct subsidies and grants, incentives at local and state levels, interest-rate benefits for banks (three-fourths of them to Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo), fees charged to retirement funds, corporate tax subsidies and offshore tax havens, and overpriced medicine.

Economist Dean Baker has written that "government-granted patent monopolies raise the price of prescription drugs by close to $270 billion a year compared to the free-market price."

The use of the taxes we pay is much more enraging than the amount we contribute. It’s infuriating and insulting.

“It's a devastating attack on the livelihoods of tens of millions of American families,” Buchheit writes. “And Congress just lets it happen.”

Indirectly, perhaps, so do we.

[PICTURED: Author and teacher Paul Buchheit, from nationofchange.org.]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Herbicide-resistant weeds threaten farms, food

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 20, 21 or 22

Weeds are getting more resistant to common herbicides, and Illinois farmers must anticipate and battle the botanical intruders as they spread. These “super-weeds” are resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in many herbicides, according to scientists, and the worst may be the variety of pigweed called Palmer amaranth, which can grow more than six feet tall and produce hundreds of thousands of seeds.

There’s little question that Palmer amaranth will adapt to Illinois acreage, scientists say.

“Perhaps a more important question now is to define the damage niche of Palmer amaranth populations in Illinois agronomic cropping systems,” said Associate Professor Aaron Hager, a weed science specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

According to Hager, who’s studied the phenomenon for more than 20 years, Palmer amaranth has been shown to result in soybean yield losses of almost 80 percent and corn yield losses of more than 90 percent. With a fast growth rate, it’s very competitive with crops common to Illinois agriculture.

Glyphosate-resistant weeds were practically unknown before the introduction of Roundup Ready (RR) crops in 1996. It was considered a 1 in 100-year breakthrough in weed control when it became more widely used. The increasing use of RR seeds – which permit farmers to use that herbicide without killing the crop – led to an overreliance, and repeated applications contributed to weeds that can no longer be killed by glyphosate. Now, Roundup is becoming inefficient, as resistant Palmer amaranth, horseweed, giant ragweed, waterhemp and other weeds infest millions of acres of farmland. Since weeds compete for water, light and nutrients, and glyphosate is only one of several herbicides that have become less effective against many weeds, food production could be at risk.

“Skyrocketing herbicide use is news to the public at large, which still harbors the illusion, fed by misleading industry claims and advertising, that biotechnology crops are reducing pesticide use,” says Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Such a claim was valid for the first few years of commercial use of GE [genetically engineered] corn, soybeans and cotton. But it is no longer.”

It’s no longer financially beneficial either.

“Roundup Ready crops were a godsend; weed-control costs were approximately $20 per acre in the Roundup system. But now, we spend $50 to $60 per acre for residual herbicides in addition to our Roundup Ready program,” Jimmy Wilson, a North Carolina farmer, told Progressive Farmer magazine. “Resistant pigweed can take a farm in two years.”

GE seeds now dominate corn and soybean production, and herbicide use on GE acres has shot up.

Resistant weeds force producers to use more herbicides – and more toxic types, such as paraquat and 2,4-D.

“Growing reliance on older, higher-risk herbicides for management of resistant weeds on herbicide-tolerant crop acres is now inevitable and will deepen the environmental and public-health footprint of weed management,” said Dr. Charles Benbrook of the Organic Center. “This footprint will [also] grow more diverse, encompassing heightened risk of birth defects and other reproductive problems, more severe impacts on aquatic ecosystems, and much more frequent instances of herbicide-driven damage to nearby crops and plants.”

Not native to Illinois, Palmer amaranth evolved as a desert species in the U.S. southwest.

“It is likely that Palmer amaranth was introduced by seeds moved into Illinois from areas where Palmer amaranth has become the dominant pigweed species,” Hager said. “Palmer amaranth populations have been confirmed in 26 counties throughout the state, with some showing glyphosate-resistant populations.

“This certainly is a threat,” he added. “We’re really running out of options and can’t afford to be lulled into complacency.”

Successful, long-term management of Palmer amaranth here will likely require more than herbicides, he added.

“The greatest likelihood for successful management is with systems that employ multiple effective management tactics,” he said. “Palmer amaranth is perhaps the personification of a weed species that requires an integrated management approach.”

Hager suggests ways to fight the invasive weed:

* Fields with Palmer amaranth populations should be the last fields planted.

* Areas where Palmer amaranth has produced seed should be marked to use aggressive weed management plans to prevent future seed production.

* Fields in which Palmer amaranth seeds were produced should not be tilled. Leaving its seeds near the soil surface increases the chances that grain-eating species will consume them.

Other ideas include hand-weeding and cover crops, which shade the ground to prevent resistant weeds from emerging early.

“It’s not too early to begin planning an integrated Palmer amaranth management program,” Hager said. “An integrated herbicide program should include soil residual herbicides applied at full recommended use rates within two weeks of planting and followed by post-emergence herbicides applied before Palmer amaranth plants exceed three inches tall.”

[PICTURED: Hager, photo from University of Illinois.]

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bustos’ peculiar affiliation with the Blue Dogs

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 17, 18 or 19

Two popular TV series come to mind when musing about U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-East Moline) joining the Blue Dog caucus: “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards.”

However, her alliance with the conservative Democrats this winter is so confusing given that Illinois’ 17th Congressional District is reliably progressive and populist, her move stands those political intrigues on their heads.

Maybe Congress is a “House of Thrones” and Bustos’ odd affiliation just a “Game of Cards.”

Bustos – scheduled to appear for a roundtable discussion at Peoria’s Labor Temple at 8:30 Wednesday morning – may see this as joining right and left, but it sure seems like marrying right and wrong.

After all, regionally and nationally, progressive populist ranks are energized.

In November, Boston elected progressive Martin Walsh and New York elected progressive Bill de Blasio – both by landslides. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (without whom corporate-cozy centrist Larry Summers would be Fed chair) is an increasingly respected but fierce champion for working families and consumers. Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are still struggling to strengthen Social Security by protecting Cost of Living increases and dumping the cap for the rich, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley are gaining attention, admiration and momentum for whatever ambitions they choose.

Populism is a rather broad term that covers making Wall Street accountable, fighting for working-class and middle-class wages, and protecting the vulnerable, whether Social Security recipients, needy kids, minorities or women.

Richard Eskow, an ex-insurance executive now with the Campaign for America’s Future, said, “The classic definition of an ‘economic populist’ is a person who feels that wealth is unfairly distributed.”

Democratic Party activist and former union leader Andy Stern sees the trend as building, even as Bustos seems to be backing away.

“One of the biggest failures of the Democratic Party,” Stern said. “is that funders come from its traditional side of the economic spectrum and its voters come from a more populist, distributive side.

“The party tends to drift in the direction of its successful innovators,” he added.

But the Blue Dogs – obstructionists in important Democratic planks such as a public option in the Affordable Care Act or in stressing deficit reduction instead of the economic stimulus that was needed – are about as successful as reversing a hound’s spaying.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) once quipped, “Blue Dogs bark but never bite.”

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman dismissed Blue Dogs as lapdogs for the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations that contribute to their campaigns, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“They’re nothing but corporate tools,” Krugman said, “defending special interests.”

Maybe that’s why the Blue Dogs lost about two-thirds of their members in recent years, falling from 50-some members to fewer than 20.

So: Why? It’s not “civility” to become an opponent. If it were, a one-party state would be logical. Conversation and compromise are necessary, but not allegiance. If it were, the Tea Party would recruit Bernie Sanders.

Bustos may defend, rationalize or explain her Blue Dog association by claiming that voters needn’t worry because her votes show her true nature, or she needs to appeal to Republicans because GOP/Tea Party nominee Bobby Schilling is a real threat to reclaim the seat she won from him in 2012, or – hey – she’s preferable to Schilling.

Not a big hill to climb there.

Further, all such dissembling seems to show weakness, not determination; pretense, not principles.

According to a legislative scorecard compiled by ProgressivePunch.org, of 202 House Democrats, Bustos’ record has an underwhelming 181 rank. ProgressivePunch shows her record as the most progressive in civil liberties and human rights issues (but still 113th – in the lower half) and the worst in fighting for the middle class (189th!).

PollingReport.com surveys show that about one-third of Republican voters agree that wealth is unfairly distributed, as do two-thirds of independents and more than three-fourths of Democrats. So a progressive populist could appeal to a lot of non-Democrats – especially in the 17th District Congressional District. For 30 years it’s been dependably progressive, with Democratic candidates winning 22 of 26 federal elections – six times by double digits (1988, 1990, 1992, 2002, 2004 and 2008), and turnout is key – helped greatly by grassroots enthusiasm.

There’s an old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Would a corollary be, “The friend of my enemy is my enemy”?

[PICTURED: Photo from nolabels.org taken Jan. 24, shortly before Congresswoman adopted the label "Blue Dog Democrat."]