Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It's better than you think -- Nov. 27, 2014 column


Nobody ever went broke telling Americans things are worse than they think.

A book about the dysfunctional Congress seems unlikely to hit the bestseller lists, but that’s what happened in 2012. The provocative title didn’t hurt.

“It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism” by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein placed the blame for the mess in Washington squarely at Republicans’ feet. Predictably, some readers were enraged, others energized.

And the race to warn people that things are worse than they think was on.

In the last year, pundits and think tanks have declared a wide range of problems “worse than you think”: Iraq, the federal budget outlook, wealth inequality, domestic spying, light pollution, the Home Depot security breach and the health of the homeless, to name a few.

Then there’s the “it’s bad and getting worse” department. Allergies, climate change and public housing are in that category, according to news reports.

But, in the spirit of the season, let’s consider the possibility that some things may be better than we think. For example, we hear a lot about rampant consumerism this time of year. Generosity -- not so much.  

And yet, as measured by our opening our wallets to charity, generosity in the United States has rebounded since the depths of the financial crisis.

Charitable giving rose 3 percent last year, the largest year-over-year increase since the Great Recession, according to Giving USA and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. It was the fourth straight year of increases, mostly fueled by individuals.  

Individuals, companies, foundations and bequests gave an estimated $335.2 billion last year, nearly as much as before the economic downturn. That figure comes from a study of itemized tax, household surveys and other sources.  

While middle and lower-income Americans give a larger share of their income to charity than wealthier people, the 1 percent is also engaged. Since Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett founded The Giving Pledge in 2010 to spur charitable giving by the richest of the rich, 127 billionaires in 12 countries have pledged to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations either during their lifetimes or in their wills. Check out the list and pledge profiles on givingpledge.org.

Among them is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who gave the federal Centers for Disease Control Foundation $25 million last month to help fight the Ebola crisis. He has made several eight- and nine-figure donations to education, health and community development groups, The New York Times reported, making him “one of the most generous entrepreneurs of his generation."

But you don’t have to be as rich as Zuckerberg to give.

This Tuesday, Dec. 2, all of us can go online and donate. Now in its third year, Giving Tuesday targets the Tuesday after the mega-shopping days of Black Friday and Cyber Monday as a global day to give back.
Last year, people pledged $19 million on Giving Tuesday, with an average gift of $142. That was nearly double the $10 million raised in 2012, when the average gift was $101, according to Blackbaud, a company that provides software and services to nonprofits.

Giving Tuesday encourages donors to tweet their gifts and to post “unselfies,” pictures of themselves making the donation.

Ten thousand nonprofits participated last year, up from 2,500 the first year. Groups are elbowing each other for support, and that’s prompted a bit of backlash.

The head of a charity in New York recently chastised other charities, saying they should stop begging on Giving Tuesday and start giving.

David Nocenti, executive director of the Union Settlement Association, the largest social service provider in East Harlem, wrote that on Giving Tuesday he and his staff will be “walking the streets of East Harlem, giving away hundreds of single-ride transit farecards to members of our community.

“We will then ask each recipient to give in some way to at least three other people, such as visiting someone who is lonely, bringing food to someone who is hungry or offering a helping hand to someone needing assistance. We’ll also ask them to tell us how they gave and to post their charitable action online.”

By focusing on giving instead of asking for gifts, “we aim to inspire hundreds of people to join in helping others,” he wrote on philanthropy.com, the website of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  

Generosity is back. Things are better than we thought.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thankfully, we finally agree on Thanksgiving -- Nov. 20, 2014 column

Thanksgiving, now deeply entrenched in modern American life, got off to a shaky start.
Yes, there were prayers of thanksgiving in Virginia and harvest feasting in Massachusetts in the 17th century. But the first Congress squabbled over even asking the president to issue a thanksgiving proclamation.
In September 1789, a representative from New Jersey proposed that a committee from the House and Senate visit President George Washington and ask him to recommend to the people a day giving thanks for the many favors of Almighty God, especially the “opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”
Two representatives from South Carolina objected -- one to the “mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings” and the other to interfering in matters beyond the proper scope of Congress, according to an account in The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia.
“Why should the president direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” asked Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina. “They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.”
Besides, said Tucker, Congress had no business getting involved in religion, and, he added, “If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several states.”
Despite the opposition, the resolution passed, and a committee did visit Washington, who issued a proclamation naming Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, a day to unite in “sincere and humble thanks.”
Citizens and churches took to the first Thanksgiving, but the observance wasn’t set in November. Washington later proclaimed Feb. 19, 1795, a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” 
The second president, John Adams, issued proclamations for May 9, 1798, and April 25, 1799, but they weren’t officially for thanksgiving. We’d never recognize our feast-football-shop extravaganza in Adams’ day of “solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer.”
But when Thomas Jefferson became president, the proclamations of prayer or thanksgiving ceased. For eight years, he refused to issue any on the ground that it would have infringed on the separation of church and state.
During the War of 1812, Congress asked President James Madison to declare a day of “public humiliation and fasting and prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States,” and he chose Jan. 12, 1815. A few months later, Madison named the second Thursday in April 1815 as a day of thanksgiving for the blessing of peace.

After that, no president until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States called for a day of fasting and humiliation in 1861 “in view of impending conflict,” and Lincoln proclaimed three days of thanksgiving for battle victories in 1862 and 1863.

For the national Thanksgiving holiday, we can thank Sarah Josepha Hale, an author and editor of Godey’s Lady Book magazine who campaigned tirelessly. By the 1850s, she had successfully lobbied more than 30 states and territories to put Thanksgiving on their calendars. Her goal, though, was a national holiday, which she believed would unify the country.

With the nation torn apart by Civil War, Hale wrote Lincoln on Sept. 28, 1863, asking him to use his executive authority to give Thanksgiving national recognition “to become permanently an American custom and institution.”

Days later, on Oct. 3, Lincoln signed a proclamation, actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, that the last Thursday of November would be “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

Thanksgiving became our holiday on the last Thursday of November, not by law but by tradition.  

But in 1939, when the last Thursday fell on Nov. 30, with just 24 days before Christmas, retailers begged Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week to lengthen the Christmas shopping season.

FDR proclaimed Thanksgiving to be on Nov. 23. His edict applied only to the District of Columbia and federal workers, but angry letters poured into the White House.

Sixteen states refused to accept the change. Two Thanksgivings were celebrated until 1941, when Congress stepped in.

A representative from Michigan declared that only Congress could change the date, “not the fancy or whim of any president.”

Congress set the federal holiday as the fourth Thursday in November. It may be one of the few things for which we all can be thankful.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On taking Christmas off the school calendar -- Nov. 13, 2014 column


A Maryland school board could hardly have angered residents more had it abolished Christmas.

The Montgomery County Board of Education outside Washington didn’t scrap Christmas but it did vote Tuesday to eliminate any mention of Christmas and other religious holidays from next year’s official school calendar. 

Schools in Maryland’s largest county will still be closed as usual around Christmas, Easter and the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but students will be on Winter Break, Spring Break or the awkward “no school for students and teachers.”

The reaction on social media was swift and intense. Infuriating almost everybody was the board’s insistence that it was not closing the schools to observe religious holidays, which it said would be illegal, but as a practical, operational matter because of the high absenteeism that would result if school were held on those days.

The illegality argument is debatable. The state requires schools to be closed at Christmas and Easter, and the county has been closing school on Jewish holidays since the 1970s. It’s disingenuous and ridiculous to pretend schools are not closed so families can observe religious holidays. But which families and which holidays?

For years, local Muslim leaders have asked Montgomery schools to close for at least one Muslim holiday. To bolster their case, they’ve urged Muslim parents to keep their students home on Eid al-Adha, also called the Feast of Sacrifice.

Montgomery says absenteeism runs about 5 percent that day, a little higher than usual, but not high enough to justify closing the schools. Absences are excused, but Muslim families say fairness demands that Muslim holidays be recognized.

Asked again to add a Muslim holiday, the school board opted out, deciding instead to scrub all mention of religious holidays from the calendar.

“It makes no sense,” Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state legislator and co-chair of the Eid Coalition wrote on Facebook.  

“By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,” he told The Washington Post.  

Board members said they meant no disrespect to any religion.

“No matter how well-intentioned we are, it comes off as insensitive” to Muslim families, said Michael A. Durso, the lone vote against the calendar change, the Post reported.

“Political correctness reaches a new level of absurdity,” one parent of former county students commented on Facebook. “Next thing you know they’ll change the name of Church Street in Rockville.”

This hullabaloo didn’t have to happen. Many school districts have already quit mentioning Christmas, Easter and the Jewish holidays on their official calendars – and it hasn’t caused a fuss. Baltimore city schools have Winter Holiday and Spring Break.

Montgomery County board members cited the example of Winter Break instead of Christmas Vacation in Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest school district. Fairfax’s Spring Break is March 30 through April 3 next year, and April 6 is a Student Holiday, a.k.a. elsewhere as Easter Monday.

The diverse Fairfax district also has an online combined calendar of religious events that teachers can consult in planning lessons. For example, Sikh Martyrdom Day is Nov. 24; Bodhi Day, a Buddhist celebration, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Church are Dec. 8.

A check of websites finds other Virginia districts that call their time off Winter and Spring Breaks include Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg. The school calendar in Bristol, Va., highlights Christmas programs, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but doesn’t formally name the December vacation; Easter is mentioned as part of Spring Break. 

In Atlanta, the December holidays are called Semester Break.

Most people understand that schools cannot and should not favor one religion over another, and calling holidays Winter Break and Spring Break may make religious minorities feel more accepted, a worthy goal. It’s not as if anyone needs a school calendar to remind that it’s Christmas.

At the same time, not all districts are silent about Christmas. Dothan City Schools in Alabama have Christmas Break and schools are closed for Good Friday. And some districts are putting Christmas back into December.  

In 2006, Falcon School District northeast of Colorado Springs, Colo., returned to Christmas Break after receiving a letter from a religious rights group. In Woodbury, Tenn., the Cannon County Board of Education agreed in October 2013 to again call the December days off Christmas Break. 

When the school committee in Marshfield, Mass., a coastal town near Boston, changed the December calendar to Holiday Break, residents started a petition drive, demanding that Christmas Vacation be restored. More than 2,000 names have been collected.

Conservatives often rage against a War on Christmas. That’s silly, given the country’s obsession with the holiday. But we live in an age of silly political fights. A War on Winter Break could be next.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

White Southern Democrats face extinction -- Nov. 6, 2014 column


Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at a joyous White House ceremony. That night, though, when presidential aide Bill Moyers stopped by the living quarters, he found the president melancholy.

“He looked at me morosely and said, in effect, `I think we just handed the South to the Republicans for the rest of my life and yours.’” Moyers recounted on PBS, adding, “And so we had.”

The 2014 midterm elections marked the demise of the white Southern Democrat. On Tuesday, voters fired the last one in the U.S. House from a state in the Deep South.

Democrats also lost Senate races in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina and nearly lost Virginia. A Dec. 6 run-off in Louisiana is a challenge for Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. All seven gubernatorial races in the South went to the GOP.  

Republicans ran the table across the country, not just in the South, but considering that Southern Democrats once ruled Congress – 103 of 105 House members from the South were Democrats in 1950 -- their disappearance is remarkable.

Dubbed “the loneliest man in Congress,” Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., had the distinction of being the last white Democrat in the House from the Deep South. Barrow, a conservative who had the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, had held his seat since 2004. He lost to Republican Rick Allen. And so ends an era.

In the next Congress, every one of the Democrats in the House from the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina will be black.

Virginia will have two white Democratic members in the U.S. House, both from Northern Virginia, and one black House member representing a majority-black district that stretches from Richmond to Hampton Roads.

An anti-President Obama fever felled Barrow and other Democrats. Southern voters weren’t just turning the page; they were tearing it up.

Even having a distinguished political pedigree couldn’t save the Southern Democrat. Also in Georgia, Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, and Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, lost their bids for governor and senator, respectively.

Nunn campaigned with her dad, promising to adopt his practice of working across the political aisle to get things done.

In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor, son of former Sen. David Pryor, lost his re-election bid to freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, an Iraq War veteran. Pryor has been a name in Arkansas politics since 1960 when David Pryor was first elected a state representative. He went on to be a congressman and governor before serving in the Senate from 1979 to 1997.

The South has evolved a two-party system deeply divided by race. White voters form the base of the Republican party and African Americans the base of the Democratic party.  

“The racial split remains one of the starkest divides in Georgia politics,” the Associated Press reported from early exit polls.

Republican Senate candidate David Perdue won about 70 percent of the white vote and Nunn took the overwhelming majority of the black vote, AP said. Nunn had hoped to win enough of the white vote to force Perdue into a run-off, but he won with 53 percent to her 45 percent.

Mark Pryor also won the black vote, exit polls reported, but he suffered a stinging loss to Cotton, 57 percent to 40 percent.

The Southern disaffection with Democrats is hardly new. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina switched parties and became a Republican three months after Johnson signed the Civil Rights law. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. of Virginia quit the party and became an independent in 1970, and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama became a Republican in 1994.

Ronald Reagan courted Southern voters in 1980 and enlisted support for his legislative agenda from the Conservative Democratic Forum, known as the boll weevils, many of whom were Southerners concerned about deficit spending.

The Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative House Democrats, founded by Southerners in 1995 in a last gasp to remain relevant, has been shrinking. In 2010, it had about 50 members and before the midterm was down to 19. Now it has lost its last white member from the Deep South.    

©2014 All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On STATELINE.ORG -- Nov. 4, 2014

Interstate Egg Fight Erupts Over Cramped Hen Cages

  • November 04, 2014 
  • By Marsha Mercer
Chickens huddle in their cages at an egg processing plant at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, California in September 2008, shortly before Californians approved a ballot initiative prohibiting farmers from confining hens in cramped cages. Six states are challenging California’s restrictions. (AP)
In a case that could affect farmers and consumers nationwide, six states are back in federal court to challenge a California ban on the sale of eggs from hens kept in cramped cages.
The governor of Iowa and the attorneys general of Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and Kentucky filed a notice Oct. 24 that they will appeal a U.S. district court’s dismissal of their case. They had argued that the law forces farmers in other states to make costly changes in their operations and violates the U.S. Constitution.
“We don’t want a trade war in America but we think that California is dead wrong on this,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. Iowa is the country’s top egg-producing state.
“In Alabama, consumers are free to make their own choice of which eggs to buy at their grocery stores, and it is preposterous and quite simply wrong for California to tell Alabama how we must produce eggs,” Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement. “If California can get away with this, it won’t be long before the environmentalists in California tell us how we must build cars, grow crops, and raise cattle, too.”
In 2008, California voters approved a ballot initiative prohibiting the state’s farmers from confining hens in a way that prevents them from turning around freely, lying down, standing up and fully extending their limbs. Two years later, California lawmakers banned the sale of eggs—from any state—that have been produced by hens in conventional or “battery” cages.
Battery cages provide each hen an average of only 67 square inches of floor space, smaller than an 8x10 sheet of paper. The 2010 law, which goes into effect Jan.1, cites the increased risk of salmonella from birds in large flocks in confined spaces.
About 95 percent of eggs in the U.S. are produced in battery cages. Farmers brought hens inside to battery cages in the 1950s as a way to reduce disease and produce a cleaner egg than those from barnyard chickens that pecked in filth. But animal welfare advocates, including the Humane Society of the United States, which pressed for Proposition 2, have long maintained that battery cages are cruel because hens are unable to behave naturally.
The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Production’s 2008 report, “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America” recommended the phaseout within 10 years of all intensive confinement systems, including battery cages. (Pew funds Stateline.)

Language from the U.K.

The language of California’s 2008 ballot measure echoed a 1965 United Kingdom report that advocated Five Freedoms for farm animals: to turn around, lie down, stand up, stretch and groom without restriction of movement. The European Union banned battery cages in 1999 with a phaseout period of 12 years.
“What farmers and ranchers need to recognize is that consumers are demanding higher animal welfare,” said Joe Maxwell, a farmer himself, former lieutenant governor of Missouri and a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Some consumers are willing to pay higher prices for such products, Maxwell said.
But Blake Hurst, a farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said he worries about people who may care about animal welfare but can’t afford to pay a higher price for eggs.  
“That’s the person who doesn’t get a voice,” he said.
Plus, said Hurst, it’s not hard to imagine other states taking protectionist steps. Missouri grows grapes without irrigation for wine, for example. It might decide to prohibit imports of wine from grapes grown with irrigation, as in California, he said.  

A Level Playing Field

In passing the 2010 law, California legislators wanted to protect California egg producers from being unfairly disadvantaged by out-of-state competition. It had become clear that complying with the 2008 requirements would cost California farmers more than out-of-state producers’ operations, so the law was extended to cover all eggs sold in the state, including those from other places.
Now Missouri farmers, who export one-third of their eggs to California, must decide whether to invest more than $120 million in new henhouses to conform to California’s law or stop selling to the largest egg market in the country, said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. The states filing the lawsuit claim California violated the commerce clause of the Constitution by requiring out-of-state farmers to meet production requirements.
U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller ruled Oct. 6 that the officials lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit, because the law affects only the subset of farmers who are not planning to comply with California’s law.

Other States Act

Meanwhile, some other states are following California’s lead. Three states—Michigan, Oregon and Washington—have passed laws mandating more space for hens, and Ohio has banned the construction of new battery cages. Lawmakers in New York and Massachusetts also have considered bills. A proposal for a national standard for laying-hen cages was dropped from the 2014 farm bill.
While the six-state appeal makes its way through the court, egg producers around the country are scrambling to meet California’s requirements by Jan. 1. The 2010 law did not specify what size or type of cage is acceptable, which has led to confusion. Many in the industry believe the EU standard of 116 square inches per hen is about right. That provides each hen space slightly smaller than a sheet of legal paper, which is 8.5x14 inches.
“We’re in new territory,” said Dermot Hayes, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, who estimates that 40 percent of the laying hens in Iowa will be killed to make room for the new henhouse space requirements for the California market by Jan. 1.
“Egg prices will go up everywhere – California, too, for a while,” Hayes predicted. Then, egg producers will build new barns and raise production and prices will settle down.
“It’s a sea change,” said Jill Benson, a fourth-generation egg farmer in Modesto, California, who started researching cages soon after Proposition 2 passed. Her family company, JS West & Companies, became the first in the country to choose “enriched colony” cages. These are the standard in the EU and are approved by the American Humane Association, a different group from the Humane Society of the United States.
About 150,000 of Benson’s 1.8 million hens live in enriched colony, also called furnished colony, cages. One cage typically houses 60 hens with each getting 116 square inches of space. The cages are outfitted with perches, a nesting box for laying eggs in private and space to stretch, perch and groom.
“We have been very pleased to see they can do all those behavioral things” listed in Proposition 2, she said. “We are compliant.” To show consumers how well the hens are treated, Benson has installed six video cameras in the henhouse that provide 24-hour Hens Live feeds online.

Is Cage Free Healthier?

Besides battery and enriched colony cages, some hens live in cage-free and free-range settings. Cage free typically means hens can move around the house and outside, if they wish. Free-range hens live mostly outside. The Humane Society is calling on California egg producers to go cage free.  
“What level of animal cruelty do we want to tolerate?” said Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society.
So is cage free best for hens? Again, there’s disagreement.
“Hen health is better in cages and worse in cage free,” said Joy Mench, professor of animal science at University of California Davis, who has done extensive research into hen housing. Enriched colony settings offer the protection of the cage from predators and give hens more opportunity to act like hens, she said.
The mortality rates for cage free are double those of conventional and enriched colony cages, in part because cage-free systems tend to house very large groups of hens, and that leads to cannibalistic behavior.
“I’ve seen some really awful cage-free systems that are without the things hens need,” she said, adding that amenities like perches, foraging areas and nesting boxes may be more important to hen welfare than cage size.
As for egg safety, both sides cite academic studies about cages and salmonella. The first federal study comparing hens in three commercial housing systems—cage free, conventional and enriched colony—found no difference in the rate of salmonella infection. 
“I can’t really tell them I have a silver bullet,” said Deana Jones, research food technologist in the Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, who led that study and others.