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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, July 5, 2015

Media headlines misled fracking study conclusions

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 2, 3 or 4

Talking about drugs’ side effects, the late comic Robin Williams said, “There’s a product called Olestra, which is a very strange thing. ‘Olestra? What is that?’ It's said on the little side of the chips: ‘May cause anal leakage.’ That's not a side effect … I'd say that's an EFFECT, really!”

This came to mind when newspaper headlines about an Environment Protection Agency report on side effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) were compared to its actual conclusions.

Here’s a sampling of headlines from June: “EPA: No widespread harm to drinking water from fracking” (Associated Press); "Fracking doesn't harm drinking water: EPA" (New York Post); "Fracking doesn't pollute drinking water, EPA says" (Newsweek); and "EPA: Fracking has no broad impact on drinking water" (USA Today).

The Peoria Journal Star said, “Fracking exonerated in EPA drinking-water study” above a news story by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, who actually wrote that the review “also warn[ed] of the potential for contamination from the controversial technique used in oil and gas drilling.”

Hardly an exoneration.

No, the EPA said fracking has been found to contaminate water, but media’s misleading characterization played down the danger.

True, the EPA said it "did not find evidence" of "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources." However, the 600-page study’s 28-page executive summary says, "There are above- and below-ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources," and identified "specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells."

That’s an EFFECT, really.

Fracking is the practice of drilling thousands of feet into rock, fracturing ancient formations, and injecting at high pressure sand, millions of gallons of water, and some 400,000 gallons of undisclosed chemical additives, from lubricants to solvents, to crack open pockets of oil and natural gas.

Pekin native Sandra Steingraber, a respected biologist and author (“Living Downstream”) said, “Shale gas extraction from fracking is an accident-prone, carcinogen-dependent enterprise that turns communities into industrial zones. The jobs that fracking provides are temporary, toxic and carry high rates of injury, [bringing] temporary riches for a few and risk permanent ruin for many.”

The EPA said, “Specific concerns have been raised by the public about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the quality and quantity of drinking water resources [because] millions of people live in areas where their drinking water resources are located near hydraulically fractured wells” and listed some problems: “Up to nine out of 36” wells examined in Pennsylvania “are impacted by stray gas (methane and ethane) associated with nearby hydraulic fracturing activities; two Texas water wells near fracking operations were affected by increased presence of brines; and drinking-water monitoring wells had “chemicals or brine” from a blowout that happened during fracking in North Dakota.

In Illinois, fracking rules were OK’d in 2013 by a vote of 109-9 in the House and 52-3 in the Senate, and thousands of leases reportedly have been signed along downstate’s New Albany shale formation.

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce once claimed that 47,000 new fracking jobs could result (while conceding that fracking is “unproven” and that its recommendation didn’t account for environmental impacts). Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich says jobs promised there haven’t happened.

In Washington, the EPA said its research was limited by insufficient data, a lack of long-term studies, and inaccessible information, which it said "preclude a determination of the frequency of [drinking water] impacts with any certainty."

The oil and gas industry blocked EPA access to fracking data, according to InterClimate News.

Geochemist Geoffrey Thyne, a member of an EPA Science Advisory Board – an independent group of scientists who reviewed the study’s plan – commented, “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, added, “The study released falls far short of the level of scrutiny and government oversight needed to protect and health and safety of the millions of American people affected by drilling and fracking for oil and gas. It is outrageous that the oil and gas industry refused to cooperate with the EPA. This reveals the undue influence the industry has over the government and shows that the industry is afraid to allow careful monitoring of their operations.”

Nevertheless, the study at least concedes that fracking has been found to contaminate water.

However, much misleading media coverage is providing cover for industry to foul the country’s drinking water.

That’s an effect, too.

[PICTURED: Cover page of EPA report's executive summary.]

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

You want justice? Demand it

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., June 29, 20 or July 1

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

That often-repeated quote from 19th century African-American abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass still resonates – especially given attacks on working people in general and the nation’s income inequality in particular. What’s usually omitted is the rest of Douglass’ comment: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue ’til they are resisted with either words or blows or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Isn’t it time for everyday Americans to make demands?

Do we tolerate a minimum wage that isn’t enough to lift a full-time worker out of poverty?

Some places are deciding they cannot endure that inequity.

Chicago, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose are some of the places that recently raised the minimum wage – as has tiny Emeryville, Calif., and even red-state Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Steven Beshear did it through executive action. Elsewhere, Connecticut, Kansas City, New York City, the state of Washington and Washington, D.C., all are considering it.

This is somewhat tied to the Fight For 15 movement that’s targeted fast-food companies and chronic low-wage employers, but there’s more. Despite the private sector adding 280,000 jobs in May, the overall economy still has a long way to go, says Robert Borosage of Campaign for America’s Future.

“The long-term unemployed remains 28.6 percent of the unemployed, near the highest pre-recession levels on record,” Borosage said. “Average hourly wages have risen only 2.3 percent over the last year. Workers are still struggling to share in the rewards of growth. Officially, the economy is in recovery but working families are not.”

Isn’t it time for everyday Americans to make demands?

Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average as this is written is 18,143.74, compared to 16,937.26 exactly a year earlier – a healthy 7.1 percent increase. Likewise, the S&P 500 today finished at 2,124.60, compared to 365 days before (1,962.61) – an 8.2 percent jump. So Wall Street prospers while the people who actually produce the goods and services that corporations sell endure a 2.3 percent wage increase.

The reasons range from the influence Big Money has on policymakers to the financial gimmicks corporate America uses to disguise its riches.

For example, the global human-resource film of Aon Hewitt has found a change in how corporate executives are paid.

“There is a quiet revolution in compensation,” said Ken Abosch, a partner at Aon Hewitt, which conducts annual surveys of more than 1,000 companies’ salaried employees’ pay.

Speaking to the New York Times, Abosch said, “There are not many things in the world of compensation that are all that radical, but this is a drastic shift.”

What’s happened, he shows, is that the share of payroll budgets going to salary increases last year was 2.9 percent while short-term rewards and bonuses (“variable compensation” ) was 12.7 percent – a record.

Again, that’s while regular working people got by with a 2.3 percent pay increase.

Isn’t it time for everyday Americans to make demands?

After all, fast-food workers and other low-wage employees did, taking a chance to demand compensation and recognition.

What are the options?

The Rev. Martin Luther King said there are a few ways to respond to oppression: surrender, violence, or nonviolent resistance.

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor,” King said. “It must be demanded by the oppressed.”

King aide Jesse Jackson sees hope at the grassroots, exemplified by fast-food workers, but gains won’t be realized without effort.

“Change will come,” the Rev. Jackson said, “but only when people demand it.”

Isn’t it time for everyday Americans to make demands?

We’ve done it before.

Attributed to anthropologist and women’s rights activist Margaret Mead, this inspiring statement applies to struggle, period: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

[PICTURED: Photo from fightbacknews.org.]

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Play ball on climate change: Pope Francis

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., June 25, 26 or 27

Those who dismiss Pope Francis’ recent appeal to address climate change must suspect some ulterior motive. But unlike some elected officials, the Pope has no campaign contributors to please, no lobbyists from industries to profit from a cleaner world. He has other concerns.

“Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years,” the Pope says in his encyclical, “Laudato Si” ("Praise be…”).

By renewing attention to the crisis, that “old news” is timely – despite some people preferring frivolous stories, like the St. Louis Cardinals’ apparent felonious cheating.

(The FBI is investigating unnamed Cardinals’ front-office staffers suspected of breaking into Houston Astros' computers containing possible trades, drafts and scouting assessments. The Redbirds claim they’re cooperating but seem to be setting up some patsies as scapegoats for Cardinal Nation, and most media adopted that C-Y-A response, adopting a “Nothing to see here, folks” mantra.)

In the REAL nation, there’s plenty to see in extreme weather tied to climate change, and 78-year-old Pope Francis, elected in 2013 by the REAL Cardinals, makes five main points in his 100-page essay: Climate change and inequality are linked; the global economy must protect Earth; everyone must divest from fossil fuels and invest in the future; powerful nations must accept their responsibilities; and it won’t be easy.

The Holy Father challenges all of us, especially the privileged, to appreciate the planet and reconsider how we perceive “success.”

“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” he writes. “It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.

“The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit,” the Pope adds, “without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.”

That echoes the week before, when he told the 39th U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization conference at the Vatican that the world must reduce food waste and deal with multinational corporations and financial speculators that buy farmland for economic gain from non-agricultural uses.

“Problems have been exacerbated by the fact that economic activity is currently measured solely in terms of Gross Domestic Product and therefore does not record the degradation of Earth that accompanies it,” concluded the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Most people agree about climate change, according to the Pew Research Center, which this month reported that 71 percent of U.S. Catholics believe Earth is getting warmer and 69 percent of adults say that global warming is either “very serious” or “somewhat serious.”

But House Republicans, and even Catholic Republicans, disregard the Pontiff.

Ex-Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania – one of about a dozen GOP candidates for president – scolded Pope Francis, saying he should "leave science to the scientists.”

(The Pope has a graduate degree in chemistry.)

Other GOP candidates who also are Catholic – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – sound more like the climate-denying Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who said, "The Pope ought to stay with his job, and we'll stay with ours."

(Then DO YOUR JOB!)

Republicans aside, “Laudito Si” may influence the United Nations’ fall climate change conference in Paris, where the Pope will attend. In September, he’s scheduled to accept an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), another Catholic, to speak to Congress and also is expected to address the UN General Assembly’s yearly conference of world leaders.

“He will not be condemning free enterprise, but an idolatrous mindset that makes us bow to profit, to adhere to ‘ideologies than defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace’ and not respect humans as the whole philosophical purpose of an economy,” said Father Donnell Kirchner, who taught for 39 years as a priest in Brazil. “He will appeal to the moral and ethical side, inspiring us to be better, to see farther, and to love more dearly.”

The Pope writes, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”

So: Let’s play ball!

[PICTURED: Top: Photo from Sojourners (sojo.net); above, editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press.]

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Are we in an economic Civil War? Or Reconstruction?

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., June 22, 23 or 24

Considering the fiscal chasm between the top and the rest of us – the 1/10th of 1 percent vs. most Americans – it’s not ridiculous to see financial disparities as an economic Civil War. But developments – ranging from the Strange Bedfellows from the Right and Left who tried to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership schemes and the Export-Import Bank, to the increasing realization by small businesses that they have more in common with their employees than with giant corporations – could point to reform, rebuilding an economy that works for all.

Maybe an economic Reconstruction.

Sure, battles remain.

States where Republicans took control by using wedge issues to persuade people to vote against their own economic interests are gutting labor rights, cutting pay through plots like Right To Work (for less) laws and the elimination of Prevailing Wage standards, and targeting no-fault workers compensation systems or civil lawsuits, which would hurt victims and plaintiffs juries agree with.

Such attempts are even happening in Illinois, where the Democratic legislature is resisting Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s anti-labor, pro-business “turnaround agenda.” But besides the first-term governor’s clumsy attempt to cater to his wealthy peers, the way things are already enriches the wealthy and powerful.

State-assisted schools are woefully underfunded. Local districts get state revenues based on local property values, so places with valuable real estate, like suburban Chicago, spend about three times what the Illinois State Board of Education sets as schools’ “foundation level,” $6,119 per student per year – which is less than what Districts receive anyway.

And Rauner wants to freeze property taxes that they and less-well-off schools rely on.

Further, property owners in rich areas benefit not only from well-funded schools; they also write off their property taxes. The wealthier they are, the more they don’t contribute.

And speaking of taxes, Illinois’ regressive, flat-rate 3.75 percent income tax means that billionaires, construction workers and window washers all pay the same rate. Also, Illinois corporations – which used to pay taxes based on the size of their work force and value of their property – now pay only on their net income from sales in Illinois, if anything. Various loopholes permit most Illinois corporations to pay no taxes, one reason the share of state receipts from corporations fell from more than 20 percent to about 15 percent.

From progressive taxation to safety regulations, lawmakers once passed measures to legislatively mediate between everyday folks and the 1%, who often care little beyond themselves, according to studies such as Berkeley professor Paul Piff’s “Wealth and the Inflated Self: Class, Entitlement and Narcissism.” That research shows that the affluent have a sense of entitlement, and it’s grown in recent years. Further, while reactionary politicians repeat the fallacy that many Americans are lazy and don’t want to work, the real malingerers are the super-rich, who use exemptions, subsidies, tax havens and other methods to avoid taxes, costing the nation more than $2 trillion a year – more than the cost of Social Security and Medicare combined – points out Paul Buchheit, author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities.”

Such unfairness is starting to dawn on people. For instance, Republican proposals to cut corporate tax rates have sparked a push-back by small businesses.

“Given the option – this or nothing – nothing is better for our members,” the director of legislative affairs at the GOP-leaning Associated Building Contractors, Liam Donovan, told Bloomberg News.

Why? It’s not in the interest of members of the National Federation of Independent Businesses and similar small-business advocates.

“Small businesses won’t benefit from such a tax deal because most are ‘S’ corporations and partnerships, known as ‘pass-throughs’ since business income flows through to them and appears on their owners’ individual tax returns,” said economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “It represents a split in Republican business ranks.”

Again, it’s a battle. Big Business’ priorities, unfortunately, remain stuck with selfishness and short-term profits rather than social responsibility and long-term consequences.

Last month, Chief Executive Magazine surveyed more than 500 CEOs asking them to rank “business-friendly” states, and six low-wage Southern states, plus five of the 11 with the highest poverty rates, were in the Top 10. First was Texas, the state with the highest percentage of residents poor enough to receive federal assistance despite being employed full-time. Therefore, business benefits while taxpayers foot the bill.

People are starting to object, organize and demand change. Some state legislatures, city councils and other responsive governments are raising wages, considering paid sick days, and adding benefits people need. And even Main Street Republicans (voters in conservative strongholds including Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota last year supported raising minimum wages) are starting to appreciate paying workers more so they can become the consumers the economy needs.

Reconstruction could be at hand.

[PICTURED: Illustration from ncnw.org -- the National Council of Negro Women.]

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Putting the ‘Mojo’ back over labor activist’s grave

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., June 18, 19 or 20

“The gentle rolling hills and the thickets of trees across central Illinois hid a land that has witnessed open warfare between coal miners and the operators,” wrote Simon Cordery in his book "Mother Jones: Raising Cain and Consciousness."

This Saturday (June 20) we’ll be reminded of that as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones’ burial plot will be rededicated at 10 a.m. at the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Ill., south of Springfield off Interstate 55.

Jones was born into poverty in County Cork in Ireland in 1830, according to her autobiography, and father moved to New York to escape the devastating Potato Famine. In 1841 he brought his family to Toronto, where Mary was trained as a teacher, working in Maine and Michigan before moving to Chicago to work as a seamstress.

Two years later, she moved to Memphis to teach and met George Jones, an ironworker who became active in the Iron Molders Union. By the end of the Civil War, the Joneses had four children and George was a full-time union organizer. Then a Yellow Fever outbreak killed George and all their children.

Mother Jones returned to Chicago to work as a seamstress, but lost everything in 1871’s Great Chicago Fire, after which she became active in the Knights of Labor, eventually becoming disillusioned with its timidity and striking out on her own. By 1890 she was organizing mostly with miners, and worked tirelessly for decades, dying in suburban Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30, 1930.

“From the beginning of her involvement in the union until she was almost 100 years old, Mother Jones was where the danger was the greatest,” recalled historian Natasha Gayle. “Crossing militia lines, spending weeks in damp prisons, unconcerned under the wrath of governors, presidents and coal operators, she helped organize the United Mine Workers with the only tools she ever used: confidence and a voice.”

Her Washington funeral at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church attracted crowds, including pastors, government officials and labor leaders. Her pallbearers were men from eight unions. Later, her casket was brought by train to St. Louis and then to Illinois, where her body lay in state for two days at Mount Olive’s Odd Fellows Hall.

The morning of her Mount Olive funeral at the Catholic Church of the Ascension was cold, but thousands came. Father J.W.R. McGuire presided, and Chicago radio station WCFL broadcast it live.

“Wealthy coal operators and capitalists throughout the United States are breathing sighs of relief while
toil-worn men and women are weeping tears of bitter grief,” McGuire said. “The reason for this contrast of relief and sorrow is apparent: Mother Jones is dead.

“She represented all that was finest in womanhood,” he continued. “Armed with only with the weapons of a burning mother’s love, a flaming tongue and indomitable spirit, she went forth to convince a cold, money-glutted world of justice, mercy and love.”

Afterward, carrying her casket through crowds to the burial plot were survivors of the infamous 1898 Virden (Ill.) Massacre – where seven miners were killed.

A modest marker was erected at the graveyard. In later years, the Department of Labor mounted a Mother Jones display in its lobby; a progressive magazine was named for her, and writers penned books, plays, poems and songs about her.

One, “The Death of Mother Jones,” was even recorded by Gene Autry in 1931: “The world today’s in mourning o’er the death of Mother Jones; gloom and sorrow hover around the miners’ homes. This grand old champion of labor was known in every land; she fought for right and justice, she took a noble stand. O’er the hills and through the valley in ev’ry mining town, Mother Jones was ready to help them, she never turned them down. In front with the striking miners she always could be found, and received a hearty welcome in ev’ry mining town. She was fearless of every danger. She hated that which was wrong. She never gave up fighting until her breath was gone. This noble leader of labor has gone to a better land while the hard-working miners, they miss her guiding hand. May the miners all work together to carry out her plan and bring back better conditions for every laboring man.”

The monument restoration started in 2013. Led by the Union Miners’ Cemetery Perpetual Care Association, the project involved the Illinois AFL-CIO, State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), the Illinois Labor History Society, and the United Mine Workers, and raised some $114,000.
“The historic landmark celebrates the courage of a woman who fought most of her life for the rights of others,” said the Illinois AFL-CIO. Saturday’s keynote speaker will be United Mine Workers International secretary-treasurer Dan Kane.

Fund raising continues to ensure the monument is maintained. Contributions are being accepted by the Mother Jones Monument Fund, Illinois AFL-CIO, 534 S. Second St., Springfield, Ill., 62701.

[PICTURED: Top, Mother Jones photo from the University of Pennsylvania's digital library; above, front page from an Oklahoma miners newspaper from imgkid.com.]

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Pac-Man: coming (back) soon to a theater near you

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., June 15, 16 or 16

Next month, a new motion picture – “Pixels” – will bring back an iconic character once beloved by arcade-game customers for years: Pac-Man.

And he’s “grown teeth.”

Last month, the classic game celebrated its 35th anniversary, and the years since have seen such an explosion of blood-splattering video games it’s almost appropriate that Packy is returning as a villain of sorts.

Directed by Chris Columbus, “Pixels” stars Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox and Jane Krakowski in a sort of light-hearted cross between “Independence Day” and “Ghostbusters.”

As a result of a 1980s NASA probe sent into space in an attempt to establish peaceful relations with any extraterrestrials that might receive the message’s slice of life about Earth, aliens misinterpret some of its imagery as an offensive declaration of war and retaliate, attacking by using Earth’s old video games as models for their assaults, including Pac-Man.

The U.S. President (James) calls on an old buddy, a former video-game champion (Sandler) to lead a team to deal with the invasion, and he recruits a former arcade arch-rival (Dinklage, whose character is based on real-life Billy Mitchell, who in 1999 achieved the first perfect Pac-Man game – surviving all 256 levels for a 3,333,360-point score).

Silliness ensues – and some goofy violence and property damage, which is odd considering Pac-Man’s origin and popularity.

A U.S. variation of a Japanese video game called Puck-Man, Pac-Man became a classic by stressing nonviolent action, humor and the “personality” of its main character, the yellow, dot-gobbling circle.

The original Puck-Man was developed by Toru Iwatani for the Japanese company Namco and released in Japan in 1979. Licensed for U.S. distribution by Bally’s Midway division, Pac-Man was released here on May 22, 1980, and quickly became popular.

In the game, Pac-Man has an insatiable hunger for dots and a fear of ghosts, the onscreen enemies Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde. Players controlled Pac-Man, navigating a maze while munching dots and avoiding ghosts. Pac-Man could also swallow “power pills” – which would temporarily enable him to eat the ghosts – and “fruits” were worth bonus points. When all the dots and power pills were consumed, players advanced to more difficult levels. When Pac-Man was introduced, most other arcade games involved either killing enemies or destroying objects with weapons – often in outer space. Pac-Man was different – essentially nonviolent. (Even when the title character ate a ghost, the ghost was not destroyed. Instead, its eyes would float back home, where it would then re-grow its body.)

By pioneering this new video-game concept, Pac-Man was able to appeal to both women and men, growing the arcade-game market. It sold more than 350,000 arcade units, dethroning leading games of the era, such as Space Invaders and Asteroids. It was able to endure through an industry slump in the middle of the decade. As the best-known arcade game, Pac-Man was first exported to many other video-game platforms, including home game consoles, handheld games, and personal computers. Pac-Man also spawned sequels, such as Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus, and Baby Pac­Man. (Although most weren’t successful, Ms. Pac-Man achieved a level of success and cultural recognition worthy of the original.)

Further, in a triumph of merchandising, the property expanded to include dozens of licensed spin-off, non­ video games. In addition to board, card and video games, licensed Pac-Man products included toys,
clothes, chalkboards, pillows, erasers, bubble pipes, costumes, shower curtains, pens, jewelry, lunchboxes, bumper stickers and books. The game also inspired a 1982 hit single (Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever”) and a Hanna-Barbera cartoon show, starring Marty Ingels as Pac-Man, which ran on ABC-TV from 1982 to 1984.

The popularity of the Pac-Man character also proved decisive in the video-game industry. Companies realiazed that iconic franchise characters – such as Donkey Kong, Mario brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog – were essential, not only for merchandising but also to drive sales of new games and systems.

But today – a time when violence in video games such as Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat is awfully gruesome – Pac-Man’s using humor and minimizing violence seems not just quaint, but charming – even if somewhat sensible.

Hopefully, “Pixels” will have more laughs than casualties.

[PICTURED: Top, left to right, are "Pixels" stars Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage; above, Marty Ingels starred as Pac-Man in the 1980s.]

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Millennials: Deal, don’t surrender!

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., June 11, 12 or 13

I first suspected indifference by Millennials in 2008, when the Millennial I’m closest to, my son, was casting his first ballot in a presidential election and texted me from the voting booth: “If I want to write in Chuck Norris, do I have to spell it out ‘Charles Norris’?”

I was reminded of this smooth smart-aleck after a recent League of Women Voters presentation, when I outlined the challenges in reversing the Supreme Court’s Money-Above-All “Citizens United” decision. A young woman said, “I agree it’s terrible, but nobody I know my age votes.”

However, I think if apathy is gripping Millennials – about 80 million Americans were born between 1981 and 1997 – it’s less about age than class.

As Millennials tried to move from adolescence into adulthood, they’ve been hammered with bills from the Iraq War the country was misled into waging, the Great Recession that saw few consequences for the Big Banks that caused it, skyrocketing student debt from trying to get ahead, and stagnating wages that make progress difficult, if not impossible. All that is in addition to a climate of media saturation that can be charitably called “over-share,” where social media and reality shows can be as bad as Fox News in polarizing us, or convincing us that elected officials are corrupt or incompetent, so why bother?

Public service, much less compromise, is for suckers since little ever changes, distrustful young cynics think.

Nevertheless, Millennials: no excuses. Things seem to suck, OK. But surrendering will only worsen the situation. Acquiescing to the inevitable lousiness of public affairs abdicates not just your responsibilities, but your influence. Accepting the status quo gives up the power to reject bad politicians or policies by means of voting, organizing or direct action.

In their new book, “Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics,” Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless write that the “political system will thrive only if a large number of people aspire one day to run for office. For that reason, our results ultimately paint a grim picture about the prospects for an engaged citizenry and a healthy democracy. Our brightest and most able young citizens are generally not open to seeking or holding positions of political power.”

Or even voting.

Only about one in five Millennials voted in November, so ideas to address income inequality, predatory college loans, energy independence, violence, voting rights, etc., are stalled, stymied by officials who pay more attention to campaign contributors, corporations and lobbyists than their constituents.

In contrast, older Americans vote, and while many agree that government isn’t effective, their displeasure can be exploited by the forces of fear. (Fox News’ audience has a median age of 70.) And as enjoyable, entertaining and informative as “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” are, they’re as inferior to traditional news operations as the exaggerations, propaganda and falsehoods on cable TV and talk radio.

Further, aside from a handful of organizations of mass constituencies, such as the Fight For 15 folks or the Young Invincibles group, there are too few places where young adults work on reforms.

One may be labor unions. Polls by Gallup and Pew show that about 60 percent of Millennials have favorable opinions of unions. But these young Americans must take the next step and join or form a union. In some ways, it’s a natural progression for a generation accustomed to working in groups and insisting on good communications. Collaborations and feedback should be key to effective unions (although labor hasn’t always held up such sensible standards), and Millennials have started using labor law to make a difference, notably in struggles to raise the minimum wage and to gain recognition as unions for grad-student or adjunct faculty or as collegiate athletes.

Such efforts are difficult, but worth doing.

Activism beats the alternative, which is detachment and a doom that permits injustice to continue.

It wasn’t a Millennial, but a Baby Boomer – Bruce Springsteen – who said it and sang it: “No retreat, baby. No surrender!”

Maybe catch a clue from Chuck Norris. After all, as it’s said, “If Chuck Norris were to run for President, he'd be his own running mate. And all other candidates would drop out.”

[PICTURED: Logos for two Millennial activist groups.]

Thursday, June 11, 2015

‘Shared sacrifice’: I’ll give up some - will the rich?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., June 8, 9 or 10

If we all take Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner at his word – increasingly difficult – what are you willing to give up?

The Republican governor in January said the state’s financial condition requires “shared sacrifice,” but thus far his ballyhooed “turnaround agenda” piles the sacrifices on everyday Illinoisans.

That pro-business, anti-union plan would create zones for “right to work” (for less), limit damages in successful civil lawsuits, freeze property taxes, let taxpayer-funded construction projects undercut workers by paying less than counties’ prevailing wages, weaken workers’ compensation, etc., all resulting in lowering wages, hurting local communities and school districts, and punishing the victims of job injuries or wrongdoing just to help corporations’ profits.

However, with a $3 billion budget hole, sacrifices may be needed.

So: who, what, when, where, why and how?

I’m willing to give up some income, specifically by means of a new tax on my fixed income. Illinois is one of 12 states that don’t tax retirement income, which reportedly costs Illinois about $2 billion a year. It could be changed by the legislature without a constitutional amendment or court fight.

I’m ready, if not eager, to share some of the burden. It would be costly and inconvenient, but it makes more sense than the harmful cutbacks to schools or municipalities, public safety or roads, or the disadvantaged among us.

But that’s what Rauner proposed last week.

Effective July 1 – unless the General Assembly approves his onerous agenda – Rauner wants impose new income limits on the Department of Aging's Community Care program (which enables seniors to get services in their homes instead of moving to nursing homes); suspend the State Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (helping 400,000 people with energy bills); institute “background checks” for family members providing child care to relatives; close five state museums to visitors; trim nursing-home reimbursements; close one or two juvenile corrections facilities, freeze admission to state-assisted child-care programs and hike parents’ co-pays, possibly shutting down some state agencies, plus other actions targeting the poor or politically weak.

“What he's done [to lawmakers] is he's put them in a headlock, put a gun to their head and said, ‘Hey, if I don't get these reforms that have nothing to do with the state budget, the kid gets it!’ That's not right,” said Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “These are things that should be offensive to many of us, not just in labor.”

Of course, regular people might be willing to sacrifice, or sacrifice more, if the “shared” part was evident, such as the “millionaires tax” voters endorsed in November, or with powerful businesses stepping up as much as ordinary working people, kids with autism, the elderly, prisoners, unions, the disabled, parents who need child care so they can work, the poor…

And what’s the true nature of the state’s financial situation? Is it a genuine emergency or is it a problem created by legislators and governors (Democrats and Republicans) who also could address the mess by raising taxes or closing loopholes or subsidies that benefit Big Business? (Further, Rauner has yet to even propose a budget beyond talking points from February, when he suggested cutting higher education, mass transit, Medicaid and local governments while relying on “savings” of $2 billion from the pension reform he conceded was unconstitutional, and by violating federal and state law, collective bargaining agreements and consent decrees. At least the General Assembly proposed a budget and suggested raising revenues through new fees, surcharges or taxes to make up the shortfall.)

“I find it absolutely stunning that we can talk in the same sentence about turning around a state in terms of our economy and pulling out from under working families one of the most important and essential work supports that they must have to do their jobs,” Illinois Action for Children CEO Maria Whelan told the Chicago Tribune, discussing cuts to child care.

So, again, what are you, personally, willing to contribute? Pay? Assistance? Safe streets – or bridges?

And what do you insist would be appropriate, reciprocal sacrifices by the rich and powerful?

I’ll go first: Tax my fixed income, and raise taxes on those easily able to pay more.

[PICTURED: Illustration from knowyourmeme.com.]