Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nanny state? You betcha! -- Nov. 24, 2010 column


Before “don’t touch my junk” became the rallying cry for the anti-big government crowd, there was “don’t touch my junk food.”

A TV spot during the fall midterm campaigns featured a harried Everymom complaining as she wheeled her grocery cart:

“Feeding a family is difficult enough in today’s economy. Now some politicians want the government telling me how I should do it. They want to put new taxes on groceries I buy, like soft drinks, juices, even flavored waters – trying to control what we eat and drink with taxes.”

Then came the kicker: “The government is just getting too involved in our personal lives!” she declared.

The ad by Americans Against Food Taxes, a coalition of food and grocery industry groups, struck a chord with those who believe Americans have a God-given right to buy junk food at the cheapest possible prices, no matter the cost in obesity-related diseases and health care.

Voters in Washington state repealed a tax on soda, candy and bottled water Nov. 2 after the American Beverage Industry reportedly lavished more than $16 million on such ads.

The vote reflected a deep, if misguided, strain of resentment over “the nanny state.” The most recent episode is protests over intrusive pat-downs by the Transportation Security Administration. No matter that those who are howling the loudest about airport security measures also would be the most critical of President Obama if, heaven forbid, an act of terrorism occurred in the skies.

Perhaps no politician mines the vein of Big Brother discontent more effectively than Sarah Palin, who recently poked fun at the “nanny state run amok.”

Palin visited a Christian school in Pennsylvania and brought with her dozens of cookies. What prompted the glory of sugar was a news report that the Pennsylvania State Board of Education had decided to ban cookies at school parties. It hadn’t, but Palin rarely lets facts get in the way of a good media moment.

“I heard that there’s a debate going on in Pennsylvania over whether public schools were going to ban sweets,” she said. “I wanted these kids to bring home the idea to their parents for discussion. `Who should be deciding what I eat? Should it be government or should it be parents?’ It should be parents.”

Palin not only was mocking the Board of Education, she was also mocking Michelle Obama, who champions healthy eating and physical fitness for kids. Palin seems to be positioning herself for a presidential run as the un-Obama. When a grade schooler asked Palin her favorite animal, she shot back, “To eat?”

Palin’s “nanny state run amok” phrase does open the possibility of a good nanny state, one that could hum along helpfully, only occasionally running off track, but Palin doesn’t deal in nuance. “Nanny state run amok” was just another Palinism.

Perhaps those who believe in the power of government to encourage good behavior should claim nanny state as a positive phrase, not a put-down. It need not always be a pejorative, a clash of us (citizens, parents, fast food junkies) versus them (big, bad, meddling government).

That conflict played out even in San Francisco, the first major city to ban toys and other give-away items for children in fast food meals that exceed 600 calories or fail to include vegetables. The city’s board of supervisors overrode a veto by Mayor Gavin Newsom who had said parents, not the state, should decide what kids eat.

When Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell proposed recently to add a new state tax on soft drinks as a step in curbing the state’s obesity problem, critics lambasted – what else? -- the nanny state and food police.

People never like to be told what to do, of course, but paying a higher tax on certain items may be the nudge we need to make healthier decisions. We’ve gotten that nudge from the government about alcohol and cigarettes. After all, the forces urging us to choose fat and sugar are powerful.

Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity reported this month that the fast food industry spent $4.2 billion in 2009 alone on media ads. The average pre-schooler saw 2.8 TV ads for fast food every day last year. Children 6 to 11 saw 3.5 ads, and teens 4.7 ads. Every day last year.

“Young people must consume less of the calorie-dense, nutrition-poor foods served at fast food restaurants,” the center concludes in “Fast Food F.A.C.T.S.”

“Parents and schools can do more to teach children how to make healthy choices,” the report says.

It’s such a mild, sensible idea that even politicians should agree. But don’t hold your breath.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

EEOC poised to fight age bias in hiring -- Nov. 18, 2010 column


The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems poised to fight age discrimination in hiring. That’s good news for workers over 55, who have more trouble recovering from job losses than younger workers.

Unemployment for people 55 and older soared from 3 percent in November 2007 to 7.3 percent in August. While 7.3 percent may not sound bad when the national unemployment rate is stuck near 10 percent, the last 22 months have been the longest spell of high unemployment older workers as a group have experienced in 60 years.

William Spriggs of the Labor Department provided the statistics at an EEOC hearing Wednesday on the plight of older workers in the current economy. Workers over 55 spend far more time searching for work and are jobless far longer than younger workers, he said.

Joblessness hurts older people particularly because they often lose their employer-based health insurance. Their life savings and home values evaporated in the financial meltdown. The triple whammy means retirement isn’t an option for many. Plus, baby boomers are likely to live into their 80s and beyond. Many want to stay active, and that means working.

Federal law prohibits age discrimination in the workplace, but the Age Discrimination in Employment Act mostly has been used to protect workers from discrimination in terminations. The 1967 law was written for a different America. Many people worked for the same company until they retired with a pension. Few older people wanted or had to look for work. In the current economy, though, all that has changed, and the EEOC is weighing its role.

“Many employers and others don’t know discrimination against older workers is illegal,” said Stuart J. Ishimaru, the commissioner who arranged the hearing.

Mary Anne Sedey, an employment attorney in St. Louis, represents many clients who lost jobs in their 50s and 60s. In the “old” days of 10 or 15 years ago, she said, her clients who had lost jobs usually found employment of some kind after a serious job search.

“That’s simply not true anymore,” she said.

Most of the evidence of age discrimination is anecdotal. Sedey told the story of Mike, 63, a salesman with 30 years of experience. Mike prepared a resume that’s somewhat ambiguous about how long he has worked and applied for a job online. The company’s human resources officer called, said Mike sounded just like what they were looking for, and scheduled an interview.

Mike arrived early for his 3 p.m. appointment and, as instructed, waited in the lobby. The interviewer came out, did a double take and told Mike she’d be with him in a few minutes. At 3:50, her assistant came out and said the interviewer was “running behind” and wouldn’t be able to interview him that day. Mike asked when he could come back, and the assistant said they would call him.

The next week, Mike got a letter thanking him for “the interview” and saying someone with better credentials had been hired.

Mike’s experience isn’t unusual, Sedey said. Kathy, 55, an attorney, and Stan, 59, a union carpenter, like Mike, have been unemployed for well over a year. Each has applied for more than 100 jobs, and none has been interviewed for a single one, Sedey said.

Most employers understand that it’s illegal to make hiring and firing decisions based on race or gender – but age is another area entirely.

“I am honestly amazed at the extent to which people don’t think it’s such a big deal to make these decisions based on age,” Sedey said.

Although older workers often believe they have been discriminated against, they rarely go to court because they lack information about what happened to the jobs for which they applied. Applicants rarely know who else applied or the qualifications of the person hired. They can only guess.

Several commissioners said the EEOC must respond to changing times. For a first step, it could stop the use of online job application programs that require an applicant to provide his or her date of birth or graduation dates. These programs often won’t allow someone to continue unless the information is given.

Today, though, said commissioner Chai R. Feldblum, age discrimination “is out there – alive and well.”

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Still learning about the Civil War -- Nov. 11, 2010 column


In April 1961, the National Archives in Washington opened a major exhibition for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. It did not even mention slavery or emancipation.

That the Archives would gloss over the causes and consequences of the Civil War in telling its history seems incredible, but it reflects the tensions that ran high 50 years ago. The 100th anniversary commemoration of 1961 to 1965 coincided not only with the Cold War but also with the turbulent civil rights movement.

The centennial got off to a shaky start when some Southern states objected to the national commission that Congress and President Eisenhower authorized in 1957 to run the commemoration. It was called the Civil War Centennial Commission. Why, the Southerners asked, was it not the War Between the States?

In October 1960, the Civil War Centennial Commission’s chairman, Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the Union Army commander and U.S. president, proclaimed that the Civil War had not torn the country apart.

“The war did not divide us,” Grant wrote. “Rather, it united us, in spite of a long period of bitterness, and made us the greatest and most powerful nation the world had ever seen.”

Grant, who was 80 and a retired Army major general, also wrote in “This Week Magazine” that he had a “close feeling” for the Civil War. The article was titled “Here comes the greatest centennial in U.S. history!” Grant promised battle reenactments, “many on a huge scale,” along with “colorful ceremonies…exhibitions of war trophies and mementos…memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies.”

Historian Robert J. Cook quotes from the article in his 2007 book “Troubled Commemoration,” which meticulously chronicles what went wrong with the centennial. Civil War historian David W. Blight of Yale has described the official commemoration as nothing short of “a political and historical debacle.”

The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War so far seems on more solid ground.

For one thing, Congress has refrained from creating a national Civil War sesquicentennial commission. States and localities are organizing most commemorative activities.

On Wednesday, the National Archives opened a major Civil War sesquicentennial exhibition called “Discovering the Civil War” that not only covers slavery and emancipation but also makes clear that the nation was divided.

A description of the eve of the war says: “In 1859 the prospect that the United States would break apart and plunge into civil war seemed remote. Few Americans could have imagined a war that would last four years, destroy much of the South, kill 620,000 soldiers and sailors and free four million slaves. Yet just two years later, it happened.”

The exhibition invites visitors to take a fresh look at the conflict through stories that are little known and documents that are rarely seen. An excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition is a big help for reading the documents, some of which are hard to decipher in the dim light of the gallery.

The catalogue suggests that visitors examine the evidence, ask questions, listen to a wide variety of voices from the era “and make up your own mind about the struggle that almost tore apart these United States.” That’s open-ended enough not to get the Archives into trouble, even in these cranky times.

The Archives’ centennial exhibit took a top-own approach. It focused on the big names -- Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee -- and marched chronologically through the war from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.

The new exhibition takes a thematic approach. Part I, which was open April 30 to Sept. 6, was called “Beginnings.” Part II, which runs through April 17, is “Consequences” with sections devoted to Spies and Conspiracies, Invention and Enterprise, Prisoners and Casualties, Emancipations, and Endings and Beginnings. The exhibition is the most extensive display ever assembled from the Archives’ Civil War holdings.

The exhibition works hard to disabuse visitors of the notion that documents are just dull pieces of paper. It displays personal letters, photos, lists, posters, telegrams and diagrams -- many retrieved from dusty files since the centennial.

It contains a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln issued Jan. 1, 1863. The Archives also arranged for a rare showing of the fragile, original proclamation this week.

It also shows a sad letter from a slave in Maryland named Annie Davis. She wrote Lincoln on April 25, 1864, asking if she was free. No response has been found, but the exhibit notes that the answer to her question would have been no. Slavery continued in Maryland until Nov. 1, 1864.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lovers or fighters? GOP will decide -- Nov. 4, 2010 column


After their midterm victories, most Republican leaders sounded like boyfriends reunited with their sweeties after a bad breakup. They murmured sweet nothings about how this time they’ll really listen.

“A second chance, a golden opportunity,” likely House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on CBS. Senator-elect Marco Rubio, Republican from Florida, called the election “a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be, not so long ago.”

“What we got was a second chance,” former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., declared on National Public Radio. “Voters had thrown us out the last two times and they’re saying, ‘We’re going to give you a second chance,’ but we come into this on probation.”

And then there was Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The top Republican in the Senate said Republicans’ top priority the next two years must be to defeat President Barack Obama. After McConnell took some heat for his fighting tone, he went even further.

“The fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all of those things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things,” McConnell said in a speech Thursday to the Heritage Foundation.

“We can hope the president will start listening to the electorate,” he said. “But we can’t plan on that.”

It would be foolish, McConnell said, to expect Republicans to reverse actions of the last two years as long as a Democrat holds the veto pen.

You have to hand it to McConnell. He doesn’t mind exhibiting raw partisanship even when most of his colleagues are sugarcoating their intentions.

The 2012 campaign is already underway, and McConnell’s goal is to capture the Senate as well as the White House. Republicans expect to hold at least 47 seats going into 2012, when 23 Democrats but only 10 Republicans are up for re-election. The numbers are in Republicans’ favor, and McConnell sees no reason to mess with success.

Far from apologizing for the “party of no,” McConnell credits the midterm victories to Republicans sticking together in “principled opposition” to Obama’s policies. The election was a report card, and voters gave Obama an F, he said.

One way to continue distinguishing themselves from Obama, McConnell said, is for Republicans to force repeated votes on repealing the new health law. They won’t be able to kill it, but they can force Obama to “defend the indefensible” over and over, McConnell told the conservative think tank where his wife Elaine Chao, labor secretary to President George W. Bush, now works.

Obama, in his post-election news conference, warned it would be misreading the election results “if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years.” He did indicate some willingness to tinker with the law, however. Exit polls found voters evenly split between wanting to repeal the law and wanting to keep and expand it.

The president has invited Democratic and Republican leaders to the White House for a meeting Nov. 18. Unfortunately, when Republicans were blocking him at every turn early on, Obama waited 18 months to invite McConnell for a one-on-one meeting. McConnell finally sat down alone with the president in August.

Obama says he wants to work with Republicans, but he has shown little appetite yet for changing course, which McConnell and other Republicans say is necessary. Obama now says people wrongly believed his emergency attempts to fix the economy were part of his agenda for bigger government.

Republicans who are about to take control of the House have started talking about their own agendas, which they say reflect what they’ve heard from voters. Cantor put out a 22-page document of House reforms and spending cuts.

But here’s the thing. Voters rewarded the “party of no” in 2010. Next time, Republicans will be running on their own record. For years, some have pushed such ideas as partially privatizing Social Security and Medicare for workers under 55, two goals of the likely House Budget chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Voters “didn’t fall in love with Republicans. They fell out of love with Democrats,” McConnell said.

We’ll see whether voters fall in love with Republicans by 2012.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.