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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How Far We Have Fallen

I was wrong. I thought Trump would have dropped out by now. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but it felt like intuition. I still have confidence he will quit, and his behavior recently confirms my belief that he is suffering from some mental defect, likely exacerbated by early onset dementia. A candidate who suggests his opponent's Secret Service protection be disarmed is not functioning well mentally.

That's still good enough for the many millions of undiscerning voters who support him. They are the "basket of deplorables" Hillary Clinton described. It may not be the wisest choice of words for a presidential candidate to make, but it is an accurate description. My disagreement with Hillary Clinton is in her arrogant tone, the "yeah, yeah, yeah" condescension that so many engage in these days.

She also underestimates the size of the basket. It is far bigger than half of Trump's supporters. Last week we learned that the quashed investigation of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker indicated that he was much more involved in coordinating dark money from a front organization that supported him in his 2012 recall election. And before. I have said many times that Walker is a criminal sociopath, and the entire "Republican" party in Wisconsin - and nationwide - has become a criminal organization. This is a verification.

In the week previous we found out that banking giant Wells Fargo fired 5300 employees for setting up 1.5 million in phony accounts for customers without their knowledge. The company was fined $185 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. No one faces criminal prosecution. The recently retired CEO was handed a $125 million bonus.

It's an endless story. Phone scams are so common these days they don't even bother to have a live person call you. I get recorded, live-seeming calls from well-spoken "representatives" offering "information on the back brace that you requested," a free cruise, life-alert of some kind, and an extension on my car warranty. The car warranty calls are from a live person, and the last time someone called I asked him who he represented. He replied that he was from the company that issued my current warranty. I asked him to name that company. He said "The Department." I asked "Department of what?" All he could say was "The Department," and hung up.

It's rampant. A program on Wisconsin Public Radio has a monthly segment where state consumer protection experts answer questions from callers about scams they have been exposed to. For an hour-and-a-half last Thursday people called in with a barrage of stories about attempted and successful ripoffs from contractors, phone scammers and the latest trend, gas pump skimmers.

NBC reported yesterday that scammers have found a way to bilk students who are having trouble paying their loans. The ruse is to promise struggling students that their monthly payments will be reduced, or even that their loans will be forgiven.

Pope Francis said on Sunday that corruption is as addictive as drugs. We can assume he was making an observation about humans worldwide, and not merely the U.S. It is the human condition in 2016, but what makes it worse here is that the "U.S." is the most complex and technologically sophisticated country on the planet.

I have fallen for a scam or two in my life. A few years ago I bought a one-year-old car, the first time ever from a dealer. The dealer in question is one of Madison's leading sellers of new and used cars, so I was trusting. I fell for the pitch of an extended warranty on engine and drive train, a $2000 addition to the loan I took out.

A few months later I had the oil changed at the same dealership - too soon, it turned out. The service agent tried to get me to have an alignment done, and told me I should get my brakes tuned up. There was nothing wrong with them, but just for preventive maintenance I should get it done.

I fell for it, for $90. I passed on the alignment. I had the car checked out by my long-time mechanic, and he said the alignment was fine. A friend advised me to go the the dealer's eastside location in the future. I did, and the next oil change went fine without any offers of needless repairs. Last December, though, I went back for another oil change and had the tires rotated and balanced. The service guy told me that they couldn't balance one of the tires, and that I should get a new one. I declined.

A month ago I went on a visit to the Chicago area, and checked the car's vitals before going. Everything was O.K., except the tire that the service rep wanted to replace was overinflated by eight pounds. This would be enough to make the tire wear out faster, and would be less safe over time. Next time I need an oil change or repairs I'll go back to my tried and true independent mechanic.

In recent years we have been hearing about the fraudulent for-profit higher education industry, such as in this episode of PBS's Frontline from 2010. I taught at one of them. It was only for one term, but I learned plenty about how these phony schools work. Madison has several local affiliates of various for-profit colleges and "universities," and I was hired by what is likely the worst, which for legal vulnerability reasons I will call Planet Earth University.

When I retired from my regular job in 2011 I soon realized that I needed to do something for some extra cash to make ends meet. I put an ad in Craigslist for proofreader, figuring my literacy skills would be useful to some publication or business that depends on the printed word. I got no response, for proofreader at least. I did receive an email, though, from the faculty dean at Planet Earth University. She wrote that Planet Earth was in need of an Economics instructor, and if I was interested I could send a resume.

I had left the field of Economics in disillusionment and disgust twice before, and wasn't keen on going back, but the money tempted me. I sent a resume, and was hired almost immediately. I should have taken this as an omen. The faculty dean was a pleasant enough person, and she told me that Planet Earth specializes in enrolling "the non-traditional student," by which she meant students who have failed everywhere else. As I quickly learned, they failed everywhere else for good reason. She also told me that their students had a sense of "entitlement," meaning they felt that since they were paying a lot of money for school that they deserved good grades, whether they learned anything or not.

I taught one class in Macro, the branch of Economics that focuses on whole economies, the big picture of GDP, consumption, interest rates, unemployment and inflation. I had to do some quick remedial study to catch up with changes in the discipline. It hadn't changed greatly, except when I was a budding economist the predominant measure of economic activity was Gross National Product (GNP), not Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A minor difference to outsiders, but within the Economics profession, a big difference. There were some other new things, but I managed to catch up without much difficulty.

My class was small, starting with seven students. This was typical of Planet Earth's classes. They charged enough for the classes that they made as much money as the public community college in Madison would with three times as many students. They also paid teachers one third as much as Madison Area Technical College, so they saved as much money as would have cost for another three classes.

This is how the for-profit education industry makes its huge margin of revenue over cost. All they need is students with money, which is conveniently provided by the student loan industry. It appears the money trough may not be replenished, though. ITT, a national for-profit chain, closed all its campuses this month, after the U.S. Department of Education imposed restrictions, especially on student loans. Here's a synopsis of ITT's crimes.

What I found most offensive about the University of Planet Earth was its misleading of students. Of all the attendees in my class, only one of them was a legitimate college student. Five people stayed to the end of the term. Three of them failed the course, one had a grade of D, and one earned a B. I was very generous in grading. One poor guy had no business being in a college classroom at all, and the school knew it. He would have been better off learning welding. It was heartbreaking, because the guy worked and worked, studied as hard as I have ever seen anyone apply himself. I conducted tutoring sessions for an hour before each class, and the guy showed up for every one of them. He learned almost nothing, couldn't figure out the simplest concepts, and Economics isn't replete with easy concepts.

Another guy, a large ex-Marine, made so many violent outbursts in class I finally told him if he kept it up I would have him removed. He barely opened a book the entire quarter (yes, Planet Earth uses the quarter system, which almost no one does anymore), and said he got his G.I. Bill money whether he passed or failed. He failed, but Planet Earth changed his grade to passing so he could be pushed through for his associate's degree in Criminal Justice. I learned he had this degree in the New York Times, which ran a story about how Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was preventing him from becoming a policeman. It turned out the guy has a felony conviction for battery, and Walker refused to pardon him, so no police force would hire him. In "leftist" lore, anything Walker does is fodder for criticism, so the nasty Walker is preventing a veteran from becoming a policeman.

When I read this I thought, hmm, the New York Times, all the news that's fit to print, the nation's newspaper of record. They could have asked around. They could have asked me. They certainly could have asked someone at the University of Planet Earth. The last thing a police force would want is this big, none-too-bright, violent ex-Marine with PTSD in its ranks. I'm not including they guy's name, as well as not including the name of the "university," but a little intrepid Googling would bring up all anyone would want to know.

So here we are, a nation of scammers. In such a condition is it any surprise that Donald Trump stands a very good chance of being elected president. Various news outlets are expressing shock and horror, exposing scam after scam in Trump's background, including his foray into for-profit higher education, Trump University. Though I don't think he will be "elected" (another questionable activity), the mere fact that Donald Trump could even be considered a legitimate candidate for the presidency shows how far we have fallen.
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There is cause for optimism in spite of all the painful news. Here's another account of Bronson Koenig's visit to the Standing Rock reservation.

Here's a song. Here's another. Here's Townes Van Zandt. Neil Young. The Dave Matthews Band.

R.I.P. Edward Albee.

R.I.P. W.P. Kinsella.
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Update, September 22:

Another scam to be aware of is phony home repair operations that go door-to-door after damaging storms.

This video is a must-see, the Trump basket on full display.
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Update, September 24:

The latest scam to be exposed is PacNet, a global money laundering operation. The U.S. Government is finally cracking down on this criminal operation, according to CNN.

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