Monday, October 29, 2012

Women in jeopardy

Posted By on Mon, Oct 29, 2012 at 12:00 PM


The freedom of speech can be a wonderful thing. Except, that is, if you're a politician running for office.

Richard Mourdock tripped over his freedom of speech last week when he answered a debate question about his views on abortion by saying he believes life begins at conception and that, "I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something that God intended to happen."

In other words, as far as Richard Mourdock is concerned, if you become pregnant as the result of being raped, you are just going to have to learn to live with that "horrible situation" because, according to Mourdock, that must be God's plan.

Mourdock's been taking a lot of flak for this exercise of his First Amendment right. That's because even those Republican politicians who agree with him are afraid saying such things out loud could cost them votes, especially the votes of young women.

But I think Richard Mourdock deserves our thanks. If anyone was in doubt about what Republicans have in store for Indiana's women after the coming election, those doubts can now be set aside.

If you vote Republican, you will be voting against women. It's as simple as that.

Republican anti-woman bias starts at the top of the ticket, with Mitt Romney and includes the supposedly family-friendly Mike Pence.

It's old news that Republicans are practically required to be opposed to abortion rights. Many Democrats, including current U.S. Senate candidate Joe Donnelly, share that view.

Republicans have been demanding the repeal of Roe v. Wade — the Supreme Court decision allowing for a woman's right to an abortion until viability — since at least 1980. They've used the issue effectively to turn evangelical Christians, who once tended not to vote in elections, into a vociferous constituency.

The Roe v. Wade strategy has been so effective as a kind of perpetual thorn for prodding the party's base it can be tempting to think that Republicans would secretly prefer to let it stand.

This year's election, though, promises to be different. Romney has not only said he thinks the Supreme Court should overturn Roe, if elected, he will be in a position to appoint the new judges who will do it.

But abortion is just the beginning. Behind Republicans' objection to abortion rights is a deeper antipathy to the very idea of birth control. The overwhelming number of women in this country who use contraceptives — to prevent unwanted pregnancies, as well as for a variety of other health reasons — probably take their access to this form of medicine for granted.

Republicans aim to restrict this access. Romney supports the Blunt amendment, a bill intended to allow employers to deny health insurance that covers anything (like contraception) they find morally offensive. He has also promised to remove funding for Planned Parenthood.

In this, Romney is following in the footsteps of Pence, the Republican candidate for governor. Pence recently declared that the nuclear family was the cornerstone of a sound economy. Pence says some compelling things about the obstacles broken families, teenage pregnancies and single-parent households face in trying to attain anything like economic independence.

Yet this is the same Mike Pence who introduced bills to bar federal funding of family planning clinics in three consecutive legislative sessions. In 2011, Pence's fellow Republicans used Pence's "Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act" as a platform to launch an attack on funding, not just for abortion services, but contraception.

So what's going on here?

Today's current crop of Republicans are the latest in a long line of politicians who, even 50 years after the fact, still can't get over the 1960s. As far as these folks are concerned, the '60s were a frightening time when rules were broken, traditions insulted and authority questioned. At the heart of this anarchy was the new availability of contraception, in the form of The Pill.

The Pill changed everything. For the first time in human history, women on a mass scale were able to take control of their reproductive lives. They could plan their pregnancies, which meant that the previously male-dominated world of higher education and careers was now open to them — as were the pleasures of sexuality for its own sake.

When Pence talks about the importance of the family, you can bet he is also talking about regaining a kind of social order that The Pill helped discombobulate. That's why he and his fellow Republicans want to restrict access not just to abortion, but to contraception. And that's why in just the first three months of 2012, Republicans introduced as many as 944 bills restricting birth control and abortion in states across the country.

These laws are not just intended to protect the unborn. They aim to change the way women live. Republicans try to avoid talking openly about this. They don't want women to know that, in their scheme of things, a woman's life is not her own, but a kind of community property.

Sometimes, though, they can't help but say what they mean. That's what Richard Mourdock did last week. If you're a woman — or there are women in your life you care about — take him at his word.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

The 10 worst college majors

Posted By on Mon, Oct 22, 2012 at 4:00 AM


I was recently invited to serve on a committee. I am, as a rule, allergic to committees. While I realize their utility, I tend to agree with Groucho Marx, who once cracked that he didn't care to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

But this particular invitation came from my old alma mater, the college I attended back in those halcyon days when music was played on a stereo, term papers were pecked on typewriters — and practically everybody smoked.

The members of my class are having a reunion, and they've asked me to help plan it. I am still close to a number of my classmates. We did a lot of growing together while we were in school and, to the extent that some of us have stayed in touch over the years, this sharing of experience has continued through various and sundry breakups, the growth of children, loss of parents and our own, inevitable aging.

So I'm looking forward to meeting up and hanging out with these friends of mine. I've begun to wonder, though, to what extent this sojourn is going to feel like a visit to some reservation for endangered species, where the lot of us will seem like so many marooned sea turtles.

We went to a liberal arts college. Most of us graduated with degrees in things like English, anthropology, sociology, and history. It was great. We learned a lot, like how to read and see and listen, and then how to think and talk about what it all meant. Many of us liked doing these things so much we kept at it, going to graduate schools and getting advanced degrees.

Most of us did all right. Not that we haven't screwed up here and there. But we're working, often in jobs that provide us with a decent amount of satisfaction and community impact.

The trouble is we keep hearing that the kind of education that enabled us to have the lives we do is on the way out. A recent study in the journal Liberal Education finds that many liberal arts colleges are either changing their missions or disappearing altogether. "Although many one-time liberal arts colleges cling to that historical identity in their mission statements and promotional literature, our findings confirm a continuing drift away from the traditional arts and sciences-based model of a liberal arts education," wrote the study's three authors, one of whom, incidentally, works for the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

In an article in the journal Inside Higher Education, Victor E. Ferrall Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, commented that, "the number of Americans who see the great value a liberal arts education provides is dwindlingÉIn today's market, how is anyone going to get a job as an anthropologist or historian, let alone as a philosopher or expert in 19th-century English literature?"

As if on cue, Forbes magazine recently published a listing of the "10 Worst College Majors." The listing, calculated by the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University, provides discouraging news about what liberal arts majors can expect employment and moneywise. Anthropologists between the ages of 22 and 26 are suffering a 10.5 percent unemployment rate and, if they do land jobs, a median salary of $28,000. "Non-technical majors — the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent), social sciences (8.9 percent) and law and public policy (8.1 percent) — generally have higher unemployment rates," states the Forbes report. "Conversely, health care, business, and the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) have been more stable and higher paying for recent college graduates." Unemployment for nursing grads, according to Forbes, is just 4 percent; their median starting salary: $48,000.

"What society rewards in economic terms has moved away from the softer majors," says Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of Georgetown's CEW. "It's become about how much math you do."

I can easily imagine how a statement like this would have affected me when, as a high school sophomore, I was struggling to keep from flunking algebra. I would have sprinted down to shop class and splattered my math-intolerant brains all over the grease pit there with a tire iron. I'm sorry, but some — make that a lot — of us are not, nor will we ever be, equipped to build our lives around the ability to compute.

Besides, don't we have machines for that?

We Baby Boomers have been blamed for plenty of what's gone wrong with society over the past 40 years or so — from recreational sex to SUVs. But what I want to ask my compadres planning our college reunion is this: Why are we failing to preserve a way of education that enabled us to have the kinds of lives we enjoy today?

The liberal arts introduced us to timeless questions about who we humans are and how we live together. Then they provided the tools necessary to explore these things in ways that, if they haven't necessarily made us rich, have enriched us. When we found these traditions, they were vibrant and alive; we seem to have reduced them to columns in a cost-benefit analysis. You'd think we would have learned to pass along more than that.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Public art erased again

Posted By on Mon, Oct 15, 2012 at 4:00 AM


Even Chicago can get public art wrong. The City of Big Shoulders is known around the world for its truly dazzling array of monumental public sculptures. Picasso, Miro, Nevelson, Calder and Kapoor — the Loop amounts to a museum without walls.

A number of years ago, someone got the bright idea to install decorative cows up and down Michigan Avenue. Each cow was gussied up by a different artist and, given the city's Stock Yards roots, the idea made a kind of historic sense. The result was a kind of psychedelic stampede running up and down the Magnificent Mile. People loved 'em.

But those cows were never meant to be permanent. So, rather than take them down and celebrate a great popular success, the city decided to have themes; every year or so it seems there's some new icon that's been chosen for artists to embellish. This year, in honor of Chicago's hosting the international Ryder Cup golf tournament, there are golf balls.

These golf balls are about the size of the so-called medicine balls slapstick comedians like the Three Stooges used to knock each other down with in old-time movies. Every one is mounted on a stubby tee. They are neither large enough to command attention, nor small enough to completely ignore. Many have been amateurishly painted with boosterish slogans that seem more like something you'd find along the curb in a town with a population of 3,000 than a city of 3 million.

The golf balls aren't just awful, they're worse: they actually manage to trivialize the really great public art Chicago has managed to amass over the past few generations. If the city's cultural affairs department is smart, it'll dump them all in the river and call the result an exercise in conceptualism.

You win some, you lose some.

Here in Indianapolis, when it comes to public art, it seems we almost always lose. The latest example concerns a sculpture, "Rock Steady Gravity Sketch" by one of the city's most talented artists, Artur Silva. Silva was commissioned to do the piece for an apartment building called the Avenue by the building's developer, Buckingham Cos. Located near the intersection of West 10th Street and Indiana Avenue, near the IUPUI campus, Silva's piece was intended to evoke the arts associated with the neighborhood's historic African-American community with the contemporary vibe projected by the urban university.

The sculpture, depicting a breakdancer pivoting on his head, was installed outside the Avenue apartments in August. It had all the makings of becoming a neighborhood landmark.

Then, in September, a university freshman, Xavier Somerville, was at a party at the Avenue. Apparently things got rowdy, police arrived on the scene. Somerville tried to jump from one balcony to another and fell five floors to his death.

Two completely unrelated things — Silva's sculpture and Somerville's awful accident — might have remained that way except for an enterprising Fox59 reporter's decision to juxtapose them.

In the hands of an able artist, juxtaposition creates a leap that enables us to discover meaning that might not otherwise be apparent. Unfortunately, one person's art is another's twisted logic. Thanks to Fox59, "Rock Steady Gravity Sketch" was turned from a statement about defying gravity into a ghostly reminder of a fatal fall.

Then there was nothing. Instead of giving Silva's sculpture a chance to become part of the life of its neighborhood, the building owner, Buckingham, took it down, as if the sculpture was responsible for Somerville's death.

Indianapolis seems to be developing a talent for this sort of thing. It wasn't that long ago the Airport Authority decided to remove James Wille Faust's installation, "Chrysalis," from its mooring above the escalator on the way to baggage claim. It seems the space the artwork occupied was too valuable; art, in this case, was trumped by advertising (plus, in a rather sour bit of irony, a short video by Artur Silva).

And there was the case of Fred Wilson's "E Pluribus Unum." Wilson, an internationally known artist of African-American descent made the mistake of appropriating the image of a freed slave from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Local African-Americans were offended by such a public reference to slavery and, rather than give the work a chance, they succeeded in scuttling it.

When it comes to public art, it appears a lot of folks in Indianapolis prefer nothing to something. This betrays our lack of experience in this field. The fact is that, in many cases, new works of public art can be off-putting at first. It takes time to get used to a new face on the block. Chicago couldn't stand its Picasso when it was originally installed. In time it became the city's trademark, the stuff souvenir key chains and snow globes are made of.

It seems we in Indianapolis are just too sensitive to deal with the period of adjustment most public art requires. I guess there's a method to this madness: it keeps our streets clean. Perhaps it also means our city will never be festooned with kitsch, like painted golf balls. But I doubt it.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Mike's full of it: Hoosier nonsense

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 4:00 AM


Maybe you've seen Mike Pence's latest 30-second spot. It opens on Pence — or Mike, as he would have us call him (hell, it worked for Mitch!) — standing beside a red pickup truck, somewhere in Hoosierland.

"Hoosiers are blessed with a lot of common sense," says Pence. "Folks around here have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't."

This, of course, is what Indiana folk have been telling themselves since before the days when the state government was taken over by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1907, we were the first state to pass a law providing for the involuntary sterilization of "confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists." And before that, we tried building a system of canals — just as something called the railroad was catching on.

Figuring out what works and what doesn't can be kind of tricky, I guess.

Pence goes on to say: "To put us on the road to recovery, we need to be willing to say yes to Indiana and no to Washington, D.C. As your governor, I'll fight for the right of Hoosiers to run our own schools, choose our healthcare, and produce our energy the Indiana way."

OK, er, Mike. But what, exactly does this mean?

It sounds good, I know, to pit good old common sensical Indiana against the great beast of Washington, D.C. For a politician like Pence, this represents a nifty pirouette. Pence started out as a get-the-government-off-our-backs talk show host. This, however, didn't keep him from wanting to get a government job. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2001, where he set about trying to make the federal government seem as useless as he said it was. When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, Pence shrugged and said, "We must not let Katrina break the bank."

After awhile, though, common sense — even the Hoosier variety — might begin to wonder why someone so dead set against the federal government would continue wanting to be a part of something he found so dang-nabbed corrupt.

So Pence pivoted into state politics, where he can rail away at Washington, D.C., while continuing to cash taxpayers' checks. The only trouble with this approach is that it doesn't make sense — common or otherwise.

For starters, check out our outgoing senator, Richard Lugar's official website. There you'll see just what a pain Washington, D.C., has been to Indiana: $47,254,172,000. That's the amount of federal dollars brought into our state in a single year, 2007 — the last year for which figures like these are available.

That total includes $5 billion in family health and human services assistance, $1.8 billion for transportation and highways, $616 million for education, $343 million for housing and urban development, $451 million in agriculture grants.

Then there was the $6.8 billion for Medicare. The $797 million in unemployment compensation. The $677 million in food stamp payments.

Oh, and how about the $4.6 billion that went to Indiana defense contractors?

But maybe you're a purist about these things. Maybe you'd just as soon say yes to Indiana and no to Washington, D.C., so we Hoosiers can, as Pence says, "run our own schools, choose our healthcare, and produce our energy the Indiana way." I have a common sense question for you: How you gonna pay for it?

Indiana is a low-tax state. According to a Purdue study comparing tax rates across the country: "One index of Indiana's combined tax rates puts the state 40th in the nation — that is, in the bottom ten — in tax rates overall.This low-tax ranking comes from low taxes on households — low sales taxes and low individual income taxes, and somewhat lower residential property taxes."

And speaking of those property taxes — they've been capped. There's no wiggle room there. Not only that, while Mitch Daniels was able to get away with funding billions worth of highway projects by leasing the northwest Indiana Toll Road for 75 years to foreign investors, that windfall's been spent. The next governor will have to find new sources of cash to fund infrastructure improvements common sense tells us are way overdue.

Daniels actually made trying to get federal funds a priority of his administration. Here's a message he posted on the IN.Gov website: "I created the Office of Federal Grants and Procurement (OFGP) by Executive Order on my first day in office in order to increase significantly the amount of federal dollars coming to our state. Indiana ranks at or near the bottom among states in terms of our success in bringing federal funds back from Washington, and now the state is determined to move quickly to improve our performance and our ranking."

Pence says he wants to say no to Washington, D.C., and run education, healthcare, and energy "the Indiana way." But the Indiana way has been based on an awkward kind of math.We've used federal dollars to keep our state and local taxes low. There's a kind of Hoosier common sense in that: Why take the heat for raising state taxes when you can blame the IRS? If Mike gets his way — and it looks like he will — we'll find out just what saying no to Washington really costs.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Smartphones and sustainability

Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2012 at 4:00 AM


Sustainability is a word much in favor these days. Wikipedia defines it as "the capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible management of resource use."

Indianapolis has gone so far as to give Sustainability its own Office. SustainIndy is about "using best practices to create lasting environmental, economic and community vitality — enhancing our quality of life now and ensuring that future generations of Indianapolis residents have an equally good quality of life."

I found these definitions by Googling sustainability on my Apple smartphone. And before I did that, I used my phone to find out how many miles it is from Indianapolis to Louisville. My phone helped me get directions to a location in Fort Wayne where I was supposed to attend a meeting. I also checked my email and read a blog post about a rather forgettable espionage spoof from the 1960s, called Arabesque.

I am a relative newcomer to the world of smartphones, but I am thoroughly smitten. With each passing day, it gets harder to imagine life without it.

But here's the thing: Smartphones are unsustainable.

Smartphones are another part of the big lie we keep telling ourselves about the world we live in. That lie opposes what we pay for things with what they really cost. We tell ourselves, for example, that $4 for a gallon of gas is outrageous — that it should be cheaper. But if you tallied up all the hidden costs and cut the government subsidies, gas would probably cost almost $6 a gallon before taxes. The same goes for food. If supermarkets charged consumers the true cost for a pint of California strawberries, they wouldn't be cheaper than locally grown berries at the farmers' market; they might even cost more.

Last week, Reuters reported that about 2,000 employees of Foxconn, an iPhone assembly plant in Taiyuan, China, rioted, closing the plant for at least a day. The cause of the riot, which took place in a workers' dormitory, wasn't clear. Online posts indicated it might have been provoked by beatings workers received at the hands of factory guards. Police reported that about 40 people were hospitalized in the ensuing mayhem.

The Foxconn plant in Taiyuan employs 79,000 people. Entry-level jobs there pay $283 a month. Workers use this money to rent a bunk bed in a high-rise dormitory that typically sleeps seven to a room. They buy their food at a Foxconn canteen. To make up for these costs, workers try to work as much overtime as their managers will allow.

Foxconn, which employs over 1 million people at plants throughout China, assembles products for Apple, Samsung, Hewlett Packard and other electronics companies. Jobs at Foxconn are highly sought after. But Foxconn has also been the subject of a number of unflattering stories in the past year about harsh working conditions and worker suicides. Nets have been strung up around some dormitories to discourage jumpers.

Work reportedly gets particularly intense when a new product, like the iPhone 5, is about to launch. According to Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a Hong Kong-based watchdog group, workers may be on the line for 13 out of 14 days at a time. "It is sad to say that to some extent, workers also yearn for the peak season," reports SSACM, "because their base pay is insufficient to meet their basic needs, especially for those who have to support their dependents."

According to a CNET report by Jay Greene, as of June, Apple had $117 billion in cash on hand. That's more than the gross domestic product of Bangladesh. They sold 5 million iPhone 5s during that unit's launch weekend in September; 10 times that many are expected to move by the end of the year.

As I hope I made clear, I think the smartphone is an ingenious thing. It's been a game-changer in the way it has mobilized computing and almost effortlessly appropriated the functions of other tools, like cameras and video players. In a very short time, smartphones have become as much a part of our everyday identities as, say, the credit card.

But just as credit cards have contributed to a false sense of prosperity by making buying power available when wages and salaries are actually stagnant, smartphones have proliferated by creating an illusion of affordability.

Our society, of course, is practically unimaginable without smartphones and all the other forms of digital technology from which they've sprouted. We depend on these things to such an extent that we hardly think of them as things anymore; they are, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out about media, extensions of ourselves.

But try imagining what the world would be like if the person assembling your smartphone was paid more than $283 a month. If that person made all of $12,000 a year, what do you imagine your smartphone would cost? Would you even be able to buy one?

Which brings me back to that word, sustainability — the capacity to endure. The workers at Foxconn appear to be enduring quite a lot. I suppose that makes us lucky. But sustainable, it ain't.

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