I Thought This Was America! | Volume 3: Education

James Sasso, Associate Editor

DISCLAIMER:

For those of you who are familiar with South Park (especially you religious watchers like me who can quote many of the show’s lines from its 14 seasons), the title of this editorial series, concerning the numerous hypocrisies of American politics, should be familiar. For those who don’t get the reference, don’t worry. Just take it as is; read, and you will understand.

In this hotly contested election year, one would think that education–a major pillar of governmental responsibility–would be one of the main focal points of potential politicians and incumbents alike who strive to win on November 2, but education reform has not received much attention. Only with the release of the documentary Waiting for Superman did the longstanding, and long unsolved, debate about how to fix America’s failing schools finally fully enter political discussion.

America has always prided itself as being the most innovative country in the world. We are its leaders, its developers, its pioneers, its scientists and its refuge for the brightest minds in the world, yet at the same time America has consistently maintained an anti-intellectual attitude that has prevented it from accurately pursuing a system of public education that would allow America to retain its place at the forefront of the world in every regard. There is arguably nothing as important, as education in the development of the new generation of Americans, except perhaps parenting, which is out of the control of the government. Since every American politician, and hopeful politician, proclaims his or her desire to improve America’s status in the world and preserve its deteriorating premier status in the world, it would seem appropriate that they all would want to improve education in America. Largely, this is true. Most politicians genuinely want to improve education. The problem, though, is that none of them are willing to work together, even though improving education is a bipartisan issue, which can stall much well-minded reform in its tracks. Even an issue that should increase bipartisanship has seemed to decrease it.


Perhaps America should only hire teachers of his caliber

Arguably the most important of Obama’s reforms in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the new initiative to invest heavily into the education of America’s youth, has gone largely unnoticed.  The most significant aspect of this reform was Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s decision to institute a “race to the top” where states competed to receive an extra five billion dollars in federal aid for the state that shows the best educational system. The race to the top encourages a system where teachers are held accountable for their students and even could receive bonuses for their students’ collective improvement. While this sounds like an intelligent initiative to motivate teachers to improve their methods and, hopefully, to weed out the scores of ineffective teachers in America, there still lies a glaring problem in the reform of the Obama Administration: they still rely mainly on standardized test scores to identify the best and worst teachers and schools.

This reliance on test scores, in tandem with a teacher payment system geared to the success of these test scores, does not, and cannot, lead to an effective reform and improvement of America’s education debacle. In recent months there have been stories where administrators altered test scores of their students in order to receive more funding, such as in Atlanta, or stories, such as in New York, where scores went up, but standards were lowered deplorably, meaning that little real progress in student achievement was reached. In either case the problem lies mostly in schools’ desperate attempts to appear successful and, therefore, to receive much needed federal aid. In both cases the tests were created by the state, regulated by the state and proctored by the state. The federal government, though asking for all of these reforms, provides little federal oversight of how its money is spent, giving states the leeway to lower standards and make tests easier in order to pass more students. The object of education systems has changed from educating its students to receiving money in aid.

Obama, when attempting to pass his education reform in March, felt that he needed to include Republicans, who want as little government oversight as possible. As such, he laid out an education reform that satisfies the liberal demands for a new system while allowing conservative calls for state independence to remain fixed. This contradiction cannot last. If the Federal Government continues to fund states’ education systems (and it will), then it has come time for Washington to step in and establish national standards for tests and other benchmarks that decide how much funding is provided to each state. States cannot be relied upon to regulate themselves when there is a mass of federal money enticing them to  raise scores artificially. If tests remain the benchmark sign of how well a school is performing, then the national government needs to develop a national testing system that accurately tests the intelligence and education of America’s students. Likely an alternative yardstick for performance should be developed that does not entirely rely on test scores.

This reliance on test scores puts teachers between a rock and a hard place. They, most of them at least, want to teach well, but they know that their students must do well on these standardized tests. As such, much education time is wasted “teaching to the test” instead of providing a quality education to their students. At the same time, most of the time the performance of students on test scores has little to do with the teachers. It can be unfair to determine a teacher’s value on only these scores.

Students labor over exams

This is not to say that teachers are free from blame. They certainly are not, and it is laudable that the Obama Administration has publicly encouraged the firing of poor teachers and the revamping of failing schools. Too many sub-par teachers are protected by powerful teachers’ unions, which sometimes prevent even the worst of teachers to be fired. Washington’s attempt to shock the system of education into functionality by jolting its worst members and installing a system of pay-for-performance deserves praise for its attempt to improve the quality of the teachers who play a large role in structuring the development of the next generation of American leaders. Unfortunately, though, there is no simple answer to the education question.

America’s failing education system cannot be blamed on one entity, but one thing is certain: the system needs to be fixed. This is not a topic over which politicians should quarrel; it should be one over which they unite. Politicians have no problem signing billions of tax money over to the army, but it takes a true struggle even to agree to provide emergency funding to school systems so that they can retain enough teachers to stay functional.

Providing proper education for America’s youth is arguably the most important function of government. How can it be that America fails so horribly at doing it? There certainly are cultural factors contributing to failing schools and students, but the truth is that for too many years America’s government has not done enough to establish the magnificent public education system of which it is capable. The states have too much power to regulate themselves and the funding provided by Washington is mismanaged. How can America claim to be the most modern country in the world, yet have one of the worst public education systems out of the modernized countries?  I don’t mean to complain, but I’m sorry, I thought this was America.

Meet Aaron Schock, a Modern Early Riser

James Di Palma-Grisi, Columnist

If there ever were a modern early riser, Aaron Schock equals or surpasses the archetype. Elected at the age of barely 27, having won the primary at 26 and having served as a school board president at 23, Schock also served as a state representative for Illinois (also at 23, tied for the youngest).

In the span of four years (only two of which saw him eligible for Congress), Schock became a national representative for the people of his district, which includes Peoria, the famous “middle-of-America” cultural exemplar. While Schock’s views may represent what Peoria has become, his personal story diverges considerably. Schock tried to graduate high school early, and when he was prevented he ran for the school board. When he was prevented from appearing on the ballot, he created and managed a write-in candidate campaign and won a seat on the board.

“I think I’ll bring a much different perspective than someone who’s two-or-three times my age. I think our country would look different, and certainly our government and its programs would look different, if more people were here that were in their 20s and 30s,” he said.

Whatever the relevance of the representative’s age, Schock has taken his personal perspective to Washington, receiving special permission to serve on multiple committees. Echoing several articles on Generation Y in the workplace, Schock has little use for seniority and “the way things are done,” preferring instead to make his own path through Congress. In this respect Gen Y will change the workplace—through its own special cases like Schock.

Although Gen Y is seen typically as distrustful of both parties, Schock has taken a decidedly partisan path, becoming a party whip for the Republicans. “I’m not only getting to do the job that I ran for office to do, but I think I’m also getting to participate in the new D.C., if you will.” It seems Schock still possesses that generational naiveté, believing he is part of a uniquely positioned “pulley group” that can drag society alongside it by pulling on a single mental and verbal rope.

Indeed, the Heritage Foundation describes Schock as a “staunch conservative,” but interestingly enough, in the same article he appears to possess fairly liberal positions filtered through conservative ones. This may appear nonsensical, but bear with me. Schock represents Gen Y by taking a liberationist view of government and politics, rather than the stodgy, fuddy-duddy republicanism of the past 100 or so years. When asked his idea of “earthly happiness,” instead of replying in a spacey, vague, David Brooks-style mode, Schock replies simply “the freedom to do whatever it is I want”. Simplistic though this explanation may be, it represents an ideological break from…ideology.

Schock does not escape the generational strainer unscathed. With an eye towards the future, he replies that his greatest achievement “hopefully…hasn’t happened yet.”

So what will Schock do? If he has his druthers, taxes on new renewable energy technologies will be eliminated, which will force two things to happen: companies will innovate, and companies will match those innovations to what consumers are currently or will probably enjoy consuming. He finds this superior to university funding, though it is unclear how comprehensive the tax cuts will prove—for instance, if the basic research is needed, which companies will be able to afford the research even if they aren’t taxed on it?

But, that doesn’t mean he won’t push for the issue, among others. In the Illinois State House Schock recounted: “I have one of the most conservative voting records in the state house. I’ve got a 100 percent pro-life, pro-family, 100 percent with the Second Amendment.” Despite these credentials, and in spite of his posited “new Washington,” he takes the same talking points as his predecessors—on his first Meet the Press appearance, Schock takes credit for a stimulus project in the ARA, while simultaneously (although not necessarily in the same breath) makes it clear he did not vote for the project. This much is politics as usual–playing fast and loose with the facts in the hopes that those listening cannot follow.

Schock may have been taken in by the ways of Washington already, but one instance cannot draw our opinions one way or another. However, it can inform them of a working hypothesis.

Meet David Kralle: Philadelphia’s Jack of All Trades

Malik Neal, Columnist

A small, late model, green Toyota arrives at the parking lot of the 8th Police District on Academy Road in far Northeast Philadelphia on Thursday, October 7, 2010. The driver, not a State Representative but 25-year-old David Kralle, a staff aide to Representative Denny O’Brien, exits the vehicle to present the Officer of the Month, a  community service award, to Police Officer Ruben. Officer Ruben was responsible for the apprehension of an arm robbery suspect who preyed upon a local Dunkin Donuts. It’s all part of a day’s work for Mr. Kralle, but a vital relationship he values with the constituents of the district he serves.

Officially, David Kralle  is Special Assistant to State Representative and former Speaker of Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Dennis O’ Brien. The 169th district of which Rep. O’ Brien represents is made up of mostly of Democrats; yet, Rep. O’Brien has managed to hold on to the seat since 1982 because of his bipartisan bent and his excellent community-based constituent services, for which recently Mr. Kralle is responsible.

“It’s really hard to describe what exactly I do, said Kralle, I’m a jack of all trades.” Kralle is now the de-facto Chief of Staff for Rep. O’ Brien, a job he has held since 2009 when he graduated from Temple University. The position entails, among other things, handling the day-to-day operations in the office and substituting for O’Brien when scheduling prohibits the Representative himself from appearing. Kralle also established the outreach agenda for the Representative. He coordinated “Bringing Government to Your Door” and Youth Expo, an outreach event dedicated educate youth in the district about state government.

Kralle’s deep affection for the district is the motivating force behind the work he does. In addition to serving under Rep. O’Brien, Kralle is also a Republican committeeman in 66th Ward, 24th Division. As a committeeman, Kralle is responsible for electing the ward leader, getting out the vote on election day, and more importantly, serving as the liaison between the people and the their elected officials in the division. “People in the community need assistance and essentially I’m a conduit for the people,  helping them get their concerns addressed,” said Kralle. Kralle’s activism, however, does not end there. He is also treasurer of  his local Town Watch, where  he oversees the funds and occasionally “tours the neighborhood to make sure everything is safe.”

Kralle’s involvement in politics began at a young age. Along with a friend, he started SEPTARS (Southeastern Pennsylvania Teenage Republicans), a group dedicated to promoting Republican activism among youth. His stepfather was a Judge and his grandfather was a Republican committeeman like Kralle. One day, Kralle’s grandfather was in Rep. O’ Brien’s district office and O’Brien told him about a Page Program, a program for young people to do clerical work—filing papers, making copies and answering phone calls. Kralle’s grandfather thought this would a great opportunity for his grandson, so Kralle became a page, and the rest is history.

Before serving in his current job, Kralle volunteered in Rep. O’Brien’s district office and worked on his re- election campaign. This eventually led to a job offer:

“While at my freshman orientation for college, I received a call from Denny’s (as he calls him) office asking for my Social Security Number. I thought this information was kind of personal,  I nevertheless gave it to them. Within a few weeks, I was offered a job as a legislative aide.”

At college, however, Kralle tried to avoid politics. As he stated, “I just wanted to get out.” He originally majored in Biology at Temple, pushing the political sphere of his life in the background. However, it did not remain that way for long. He eventually majored in Political Science and got involved in politics once more because he believes politics has the ability to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives. He is continuing his formal education by pursuing a Masters degree in Government Administration at Fels School of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel satisfied by the smiles I see on constituents’ faces. Whether it’s fighting against insurance companies on behalf of constituents or helping with potholes, those small things make a big difference.”

In addition, Kralle believes young people, the oft-labeled Generation Y, can make a big difference as well. “Every issue has a public component,” said Kralle. He tells young people: “It doesn’t matter what you’re party affiliation is, find an issue and just get involved.” He urges others to “get constructive” by getting involved with the political process.

When asked about how he felt about being called an up and coming star in politics, Kralle, with humility, answered:

“It’s really an honor. I don’t expect it. I blush every time I receive compliments about my work. The biggest compliment, however, anyone can give me is that I help make a difference in the district.”

Much remains, however, to be done: constituent services, outreach programs, community support, elderly services, youth services, public safety, job promotion and economic development—all important, and all on his crowded agenda begging for attention. They are the everyday grist for the political mill which just keeps on grinding. This is the reality of politics working at the grassroots level, where it has the most direct impact on people’s everyday lives.

Kralle is living proof of Aristotle’s comment that “man is a political animal,” meaning quite simply that people brand together in social groups to promote their common good and individual welfare. This process is guided, nurtured and slowly perfected by Kralle everyday in his district.

Green Energy Progress, Democratic Regression

James Sasso, Associate Editor

In the past week there have been more instances of real “green-energy” progress in America, where changes actually occur instead of only existing in the mythical realm of political rhetoric, than in the past several years combined. Certainly the past couple of years, especially under Obama, have shown politicians generally in favor of cleaning up the environment (except for when politicians need to be elected from fossil fuel producing states), but there has been little actual action in those years. Instead, failures such as the Copenhagen Climate Council and several failed initiatives in the American Congress, have inhibited the absolutely necessary change from polluting fuels to renewable ones. About 68 percent of Generation Y believes that environmental problems need to be attended to, which means that once again, Washington has failed to address an issue of concern to America’s youth.

Yes politicians claim to desire change to our archaic environmental policies, but few actually attempt any real progress. As such, it comes as no surprise that the recent slate of environmental progress comes from powers that have no “Congress” (read: ineffective leadership) to whom to answer. The most minor of initiatives, though with perhaps the largest reaching social effects, was the Obama’s announcement that the White House would soon become outfitted with solar panels to heat water and provide electricity to the building.

While Obama’s declaration only improves the environmental impact of one building, the social ramifications of his decision could be enormous. The President is, arguably, the most important person in the world. His choices and beliefs not only impact those of leaders across the world, but of the people who live in America. We, as people, look up to the president, at least in the abstract. His supporters view him as a role model whose model of energy conservation is worth following, and hopefully they will follow his lead along with other world leaders, thus creating a system of individuals contributing to the larger cause of ending the human impact on our environment, which, if left unchanged, will incur major catastrophes onto human society.

In the same breath of significant but not world changing events in the green-energy world, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave final approval to the first ever large solar plants to be built on federal land: those in the California desert. The two projects alone could produce enough energy to power 556,00 homes. These approvals will not be the last, according to Salazar, and hopefully this will lead to increased construction of green-energy plants that can help lead this world away from the devastating polluting ways of past generations.

Still, these plants alone are not enough. There needs to be a nationwide revamping of our energy system so that it could handle the new energy without being excessively wasteful. Also, green energies themselves need to be improved upon to where they do not inhibit the lives of ordinary citizens, as some claim windmills do. Though, if you ask me, clean, safe, reliable, cheap energy is a fair trade off for a bit of excess noise.

The last, and likely most realistically important, announcement in the field of green energy came from a source that one usually would  label as conservative and, therefore, likely opposed to any sort of green-energy initiative: the military. Using fossil fuels to power its armies, ultimately, is a bad idea. Fossil fuel transports are easy targets for militants. Perhaps even worse, these fuels, which cost the military one dollar per gallon at wholesale, can cost up to 400 dollars per gallon to transport because of the inherent risk in transporting literal moving bombs across hostile territory. The military has decided that to save costs and increase security (they no longer will  have to deal as much with enemy countries to purchase fuel), they will initiate a program to move away from fossil fuels and explore the possibility of using renewable fuels, such as solar paneled tents and on-site-grown algae fuels, to replace carbon based power.

This can be seen as the most significant green-energy advancement because the military is generally far ahead of civilian society when it comes to technology. For example, the laser, the microwave, modern computers and many other household technologies find their origins in military uses. Perhaps green-energy will be the next big everyday technology to emerge from the military. Maybe their mass use of it will drive down the cost for the average family, making it all the more appealing. If green-energy technology succeeds in the military, one can guarantee that it will take off in the civilian setting.

Besides the obvious environmental significance of these announcements, one can see why Generation Y has become disengaged with modern politics. Of the major sources promoting these innovative and necessary changes to the use of fossil fuels, none were of a true democratic power. The president, though elected, simply stated that his residency will have solar power, a declaration not requiring any democratic process. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar did not have to consult Congress to approve companies to build solar plants on federal land. And, finally, the military, which obviously operates under laws differing from the Constitution, simply decided that green-technologies should be instated. None of these had to be funneled through Congress.

What does it say about our leaders and about our government, who generally promise to Generation Y that they will help fix a problem affecting America’s youth, that they cannot so much as pass a climate act while individual powers such as the military and companies are taking huge steps towards this green movement?

Perhaps Congress should look past their petty squabbling and narcissistic desires to do what is best for the country and what is best for the next generation of leaders. Perhaps Congress should learn from China, private companies and our own military who are rapidly investing in and developing green technologies. Does this not say that it is the wave of the future, that our country could perhaps benefit both environmentally and economically from an increased interest in renewable energies?  Sometimes our democracy functions so well…

The Pot Vote

Matt McDermott, Columnist

Yes, this article is about marijuana. Never in a million years did I expect, or likewise hope, I’d ever write a politically motivated article thematically based on the psychological effects of marijuana, but here it could not seem more appropriate. While it seems the “use” of the drug probably would be more appropriate to calm Democrats of their impending electoral losses come November, some strategists honestly are considering its legalization for boosting turnout.

I’m talking about Proposition 19 in California, effectively legalizing most forms of marijuana-related activities and allowing the government to regulate and tax its usage. If passed, the law would allow persons over the age of 21 to possess one ounce of marijuana for personal consumption and allow its use in non-public places.

Great, California tries to pass socially liberal, outside the box ballot initiatives all the time—what makes this special? Well this year, as no shock to any political enthusiasts, California is home to contentious Senate and Gubernatorial races. The idea of using voter initiatives as a Get Out The Vote mechanism is rather straightforward and not unique to Democrats. In fact, one could say this move is based off the 2004 Republican ballot drives to  ban gay marriage constitutionally in nearly a dozen states. Socially contentious issues draw voters to the polls, and while the turnout effects of ballot initiatives remain debated, the trend certainly is apparent.

But it can’t be that easy to get youth to the polls—can it? Especially in this Midterm Election, during which youth enthusiasm has shrunk and Democrats reasonably are concerned their base will stay home on Election Day.

Amazingly, youth voters really may help save Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat and wash Jerry Brown into the Governor’s mansion. In the latest SurveyUSA poll taken earlier this week, voters were in favor of approving Prop 19 by a 48-41 percent margin.  Among, 18-34 year-olds, those numbers exploded to a 61-30 percent advantage.  And per SurveyUSA’s proportions, this younger demographic is expected to make up 18 percent or so of the electorate, on par with those over the age of 65.  In a midterm election in which the Democratic base is expected to find itself enthusiastically challenged by the right, it seems California is bucking the trend.  Youth voters seem unusually engaged and ready to vote—and to vote Democratic.  In the same poll addressed above, both Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown have a nearly 10-point advantage over their challengers.

Similarly in a PPIC poll released last week, 52 percent of California voters approve of Prop 19, with strong backing from both Democrats and Independents. Among 18-34 year-olds, an astounding 70 percent of voters plan to vote yes on the ballot initiative. And perhaps most interesting, half of voters consider the outcome of the vote on Proposition 19 to be “very important.”  It seems, as Public Policy Polling pointed out recently, that the initiative might very well “stifle the enthusiasm gap Democrats are dealing with in most other states, particularly when it comes to intended turnout from young voters.”  PPP notes that voter turnout in California will be around 11 percent for those under 30, three to four percent higher than other battleground states this year.

As absurd as such a GOTV technique would seem, the surprise within the Democratic Party has already made it into the pages of the Wall Street Journal.  Analysts are noting a “coattail effect” with the measure, boosting Democrats in the state as enthusiasm for Prop 19 grows. It notes:

Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, conducted a survey in late August to test the effect of the California measure on voter turnout. In her poll, a quarter of Democrats said they were “extremely interested” in voting in this year’s elections for governor and senator. When told about the marijuana measure, the number jumped to 38%, she said. She found no effect on Republican turnout.

Indeed it seems that there could be practical implications for such a ballot initiative in other states during future election years. With most contested races this year coming down to sheer voter outreach and GOTV strategies, energizing an additional 2-4 percent of youth voters to the polls may be enough to tip scales for Democrats; this year in California, and elsewhere down the line.

UC Berkeley Students Educate California: Don’t Get Meg’d

Jesse-Justin Cuevas, Editor in Chief

In early September, Klein Lieu, Nik Dixit and their team of six other UC Berkeley undergraduates came together to launch Don’t Get Meg’d, a grassroots effort to educate voters about Meg Whitman’s campaign for Governor of California. The activist organization is multi-dimensional and iGenerational; Don’t Get Meg’d utilizes social media to its maximum potential, featuring a website, a YouTube channel, a Twitter account and a Facebook page to educate followers.

Don’t Get Meg’d’s goal is to inform young voters of the dangers of electing Meg Whitman, the former Chief Executive Officer and President of eBay. But more importantly, the message is a democratic one: the American Government is not for sale.

Today, less than one month until November 2nd, the Midterm Elections are on everybody’s mind. But this year’s Midterms are particularly significant, in light of January’s landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. On January 21st, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held that corporate funding during elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment.

Lieu and Dixit feel that Don’t Get Meg’d is especially pertinent now, given the timing of Citizens United and the 2010 Midterms.

“Here’s a woman who didn’t vote until very recently, and now all of a sudden…[she] woke up and decided she wanted to be governor,” Dixit said with conviction. But isn’t that what American democracy is all about—being able to wake up one morning and run for office if you are so inspired? Didn’t Kennedy get criticized for his lack of experience? Didn’t Obama?

While the people behind Don’t Get Meg’d absolutely oppose Whitman’s political platform, Lieu made a distinction between Don’t Get Meg’d’s concern for Whitman’s political experience, her politics on their own and the message her election would send.

“The sole fact is,” Lieu clarified, “she’s put 114 million dollars [into her campaign]. If Whitman wins, what does that mean for California and the nation? That anybody who has money can win the election. This isn’t eBay, she can’t just ‘Buy it Now.’”

Young people themselves, the team of eight is targeting Generation Y in hopes of keeping voter turnout high after the 2008 Presidential Election. Don’t Get Meg’d followers and subscribers receive updates about Whitman’s political process and her position on youth issues—the economy, education, the environment, marriage equality and immigration—on a near-daily basis. While the grassroots team hasn’t set up daily emails just yet, Don’t Get Meg’d is innovative in differentiating its cause from other advocacy groups and keeping people amped through social media.

“Our generation is very different from the generation of the 1960s. In the 60s, there were a few hardcore activists cashing in. Today, the Internet allows us to reach out to ordinary folks. Pamphleting was popular in the 60s. ‘Suggesting to friends’ is like passing out literature,” Dixit told me.

But for better or for worse, the Internet is noninvasive. While the politically inclined person may be swamped with Facebook/Twitter/Reddit tags and posts directing them to articles and pages he actually will explore, the less politically inclined social media user may take note of a headline but never click the link. Lieu and Dixit recognize that there are both advantages and disadvantages to using the web as an organizing tool.

“[The Internet] is the starting point for action; it’s not the end,” they said, “We can talk as much as we want, but at the end of the day we have to go out there and vote.”

And how exactly does Don’t Get Meg’d take their activism beyond the computer? Well, for starters, the team works hard to make sure that its daily updates stand out. “We make sure we’re not repeating somebody else’s talking points and that we’re speaking to young people in a language they understand,” Lieu said. Don’t Get Meg’d takes note of the Millenials’ particularly short attention spans and taps into Gen Y’s sense of humor to send a message. The team consists of videographers and graphic artists to create diverse ads and “cartoons that capture the essence of [Don’t Get Meg’d’s] campaign in 500 pixels.”

Though Lieu and Dixit are confident in the transition from virtual activism to physical participation, Don’t Get Meg’d is taking further steps to enhance interaction between the organization’s campaign and its supporters. In line with his group’s generational attunement, Lieu sardonically posted some items on eBay. Up for auction include the Governorship of California, the California Public Education System and the state’s environment. The idea behind the eBay prank is to drive home the fact that Whitman plans to buy her election and that as a democracy, the people of California cannot let her. The team also recently launched a video contest that begs not only for political action but for political research and education as well (the submission deadline is October 20th, so get in your videos soon!).

“Students all across California mobilize like wildfire, and it is a mistake for people in the media to write us off,” Dixit said. Lieu added, “Young people can be a force.”

Judging by the work of Don’t Get Meg’d, we certainly are.

I Thought This Was America! | Volume 2, Food (continued)

James Sasso, Associate Editor

Part 3: Politics

How could such a horrid system of mass farming, pollution, torture and low quality food be allowed to continue without much change in America? I thought that America was the land of the healthy: the land with the best doctors, the best gyms, the best trainers, the best dietitians and the best scientists. How have they allowed a system, a fundamental system to the survival and well being of our country, to continue its ferocious path of slowly killing America? Where were the politicians, those elected to protect us and serve is, to be found when the horrors of this system were discovered? Well, they were in Congress.
One of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country is the one for farms. The farm lobby has always been strong because, simply put, people need to eat. It makes sense that Congress would be willing to subsidize food in order to make it more affordable for the general public. In this regard, Congress appears actually to fulfill their duties to the general public by improving the lives of its population.
But read between the lines and one finds an entirely different and improper set of subsidies for farming and raising livestock. It would be logical for the government to subsidize all farming if it were to provide said subsidy. Doing so would be the most fair to the system and to nature because people need a varied diet to live healthfully. Instead, Congress repeatedly has bowed to the wishes of the biggest farm companies, those who own the most profitable crops and livestock such as corn, soy and cow, who insist that only certain foods receive the most generous subsidies. Low and behold that the 10 most heavily subsidized crops and livestock are grown and raised by massive “industrial” farms owned by some of the nation’s, and perhaps the world’s, biggest food companies such as Conagra, ADM and Monsanto.
These subsidies help keep the prices on these crops stable enough and cheap enough that they can be used in all sorts of processed foods and industrial products. With costs so low and subsidies so high these massive companies are able to minimize production costs while reaping the benefits of massive sales. They then are able to buy more land, lobby harder, receive further subsidization and increase their incredibly damaging farming and breeding practices. Since subsidies come from taxes, the American people, essentially are paying companies to do us (and the world) massive trauma.
One would think, though, that not every farmer in America is part of the industrial system, and that person obviously would be correct. Unfortunately, these companies produce, and/or control the production of, most food that hits American tables. Small and intermediate sized farmers have difficulty competing against the strength of the big businesses. It’s like if a small drugstore tried to compete against Wal-Mart. But America does subsidize farms, and since our government purports to fully support small business, it would make perfectly logical sense for them to prop up the smaller farms with subsidies against the big companies. A quick glance at the distribution of subsidies to the farms of America reveals the flaws of our system.

In an evaluation of the USDA’s subsidy program one finds that:

“over the last decade, increasing economies of scale and greater commodity demand generated by legislative…mandates have led to increased farm size and further crop specialization.”

(http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/farmincome/govtpaybyfarmtype.htm)

This has (1) increased the size of farms and (2) further limited the diversification of crops grown in America. Many previously intermediate sized farms have become “industrial,” becoming those megafarms that generally do so much damage to our environment and quality of food. Also, even though the profit per acre for these commercial farms averaged $133 in 2008 and only seven dollars per acre for rural farms, commercial farms received 76 percent of commodity program payments (a specific type of subsidy) while rural farms only found themselves the beneficiaries of eight percent of the same subsidy. Even worse, the commercial farms generated sales of $849,500 per farm while the rural farms could only manage $23,300 per farm in 2008.

Why then do these large commercial farms continue to be the recipients of such a disproportionate amount of American aid? Would it not seem that the small rural farmers, who are attempting to produce higher quality products, should gain more help from Washington? Aren’t politicians constantly lamenting the death of small businesses and the plight of independent entrepreneurs against the march of big business? Why, then, would they allow the majority of payments to go the largest producers, and therefore biggest profiteers and those who need the subsidies the least?

The answer, simply, lies in the power of the farm lobby–a farm lobby that does not protect the interests of farmers in general but only the interests of the biggest, industrial farms that can afford, with the help of American subsidies, to pour millions of dollars into their lobbying campaigns(http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/agriculture/subsidies). The farm lobby has always been strong, but now it is made up of the few who work for profit instead of the American population’s benefit. These subsidies, on a fairly small swath (such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, dairy, peantus and sugar, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy#United_States) hobble the ability of farmers to innovate and diversify their use of land. It leads to farmers all growing corn instead of one growing corn while the other grows spinach because the subsidy system inevitably makes corn more profitable for the farmer. The big companies encourage this because they control a vast majority of these subsidized fields and breeding houses, reducing their costs and increasing their profits, giving them more money to lobby and thus only continuing the waste of subsidy money poured into their pockets. The money of the taxpayer goes directly into the hands of a few extremely large corporations which are in almost no sense of the world farmers ((http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/agriculture/subsidies).
I thought the politicians wanted to protect the people against the powers of the rich? Do the politicians not have a responsibility to improve our lives, not detract from them? Are they not directly encouraging the degradation of the quality of our food and the pollution of our environment? Shouldn’t they instead encourage the return of small farms which can employ more workers and fewer machines?

Unfortunately this is another instance where the politicians follow the money instead of what is best for the country, something that is all too common in modern politics. If government is truly for the people, not the corporations, it should end this cycle of misused subsidies. Our generation, a generation of foodies, needs to bring this cycle to an end. We need to elect politicians who will serve our better good because in America our politicians are elected to try to improve our lives, not their pockets, and honestly, I thought this was America.

Part 4: Solutions

At this point it should be fairly obvious how disgusting the American food system has become. It pollutes the earth, produces low-quality, bad tasting, unhealthy food and is driven by a political machine tucked safely away in the pockets of giant “agricultural” companies. The system is so corrupted that one might argue it’s lost for good. How could we possibly begin to dismantle the behemoth wreaking havoc on our lives and nature? Unfortunately there is no single solution, and whatever the answer, Generation Y likely will have to adopt its behavior.

First and perhaps foremost we need to lower our meat addiction. The artificially low cost of mass produced meat in this country has been permitted by the ridiculous subsidy system that pays industrial meat farmers and packers to behave so irresponsibly. There is absolutely no reason that a hamburger, or any meat, should be less expensive than a salad or fresh vegetables and fruits. This unbalance, where heavily processed foods that use primarily subsidized ingredients are cheaper than their fresh healthy counterparts, contributes an enormous amount to the high obesity rate of Generation Y. People simply are able to get more food for their money when they buy McDonalds or potato chips instead of going to a market to buy vegetables for dinner. It’s simple economics; the meat makes more monetary sense.

The cheap subsidized, hyper-processed products of America has made us addicted to meat. We eat more meat per person than any other country and have it almost every day, if not with every meal. Meat has never before in history been an everyday experience. It used to be reserved for the rich or for the special occasion. Meat was eaten in small amounts and acted almost as an accompaniment to the starches, legumes, vegetables and fruits of the dish. It is not healthy to eat meat every day. It has been linked consistently to the rise of heart disease, obesity and cancer problems in American youth. It’s neither healthy for us or the environment.

As a foodie and former chef I can say with authority that meat is not necessary at every meal, and when it is present it certainly should not dwarf the other components of the meal unless it is a special occasion. Instead, it ought to work as a flavoring to lentils or rice. The plate should have a proportionate amount of what we call side dishes to the actual meat. If more families were to follow this method than the insane one steak per person rule, then more people could afford to buy higher quality, natural meat. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that meat is a requirement for a meal. Meat is a privilege and should be treated as such.

There is no reason for meat to be less expensive than vegetables. I have always marveled at American restaurants that charge eight dollars for a salad and five for a chicken sandwich. In a similar light, vegetables at the grocery store should not cost more per pound than ground beef (to be honest you should not even consider eating mass produced ground beef, but that is another story). Yes eating less meat or higher quality meat will be more expensive and will drive up the cost of meat, but this is a necessary side effect of a healthy food system. Meat must be more expensive than vegetables.

As mentioned previously, much of the reason for the low cost of meat and processed foods that use the subsidized crops, such as corn or soy, is the political power of the massive companies who control these agricultural products. These companies are able to  lobby the government successfully to avoid oversight while reaping the benefits of an unfair subsidy system. The lack of oversight allows these companies to operate in an industrial manner while having the limited government oversight of an agricultural company.

With the lack of oversight the companies can skirt environmental and animal rights concerns. They stack animal upon animal in indoor cages where they can barely move, let alone live a happy life. This keeps the cost of production down because it minimizes land use and saves the time of herding and watching the animals. These veritable meat plants are disease and waste ridden, yet there is little governmental oversight as to how this vile waste is disposed. The massive quantities of animal feces, and the exorbitant amount of chemicals used to grow crops, spill into our water systems and rivers causing untold environmental damage. The animal waste, at the same time, contributes massively to the amount of methane in the air, which has been proven to increase Global Warming. The government needs to stop pretending these industrial plants are in any normal sense agricultural and put them under the same scrutiny as they would a nuclear plant.

In the same political breath, the subsidy system needs to be obliterated. How can a system that favors the large and already rich farms over the smaller, less profitable ones make any sort of sense? Food subsidies should surely exist but in a more universal manner so that all foods are subsidized and only the farms who need subsidization receive it.

Just as American politics need to move away from the support of megafarms so do the American people. Support your local farms. Go to the farmer’s markets. Eat locally as often as possible. The more people demand local, natural food, the more economically feasible it will become. There is little reason that America could not harness a system of small, family farms to feed the population as happens in Europe. The only problem, conceivably, is the size of America, where our populations are heavily concentrated in coastal cities. We need the middle states to produce enough food for all, which might lead one to assume large farms are the only answer, but there might be alternatives.

If high speed rail were to be developed sufficiently so that one could travel from Nebraska to the coast in a matter of hours, more small farmers would have the ability to work where there is plenty of land and still sell their high quality products on the coasts.

Another solution could be rooftop gardens in cities. These could provide fresh fruits and vegetables to city residents who might have trouble otherwise finding such staples to the human diet. These are certainly not perfect solutions, nor are they the only ones, but what is certain is that the power of the megafarms either needs to be diminished or radically altered.

Generation Y, we are supposed to be the progressive generation. We recognize the dangerous state of our environment, and we strive to be healthier than any other generation. We are self-defined foodies who pay attention to our food and have vaulted the chef to celebrity status. If food is so important to us, then we should act like it and give our crumbling food system a renaissance. Food is what keeps us alive, is it not? Are we not a country obsessed with food? Should we not, therefore, pay scrupulous attention to where our food comes from and how it is handled? I’m sorry for this rant, but I thought this was America.

Protect America’s Tolerant Society

Eric Waters, Columnist

Muslims are not America’s enemies. Not all of them desire to bring down all that America represents. The vast majority of them are peaceful and want a better tomorrow for everyone.

That being said, I find that we increasingly live in a world where Muslim extremists can dictate political, and in some cases even personal, decisions made in this country. Think about that for a second. Are we really free to do what we want? Or does the threat of terrorism so pervasively invade our minds that we must consider it before making any choices?

While it would be completely deplorable to burn a Qur’an, the Bible or the American flag, we, as American citizens, are entitled to a sacred right of free speech that allows us to express ourselves perhaps at the cost of the comfort of others. Florida pastor, Terry Jones, eventually canceled a Qur’an burning event due to this hovering threat. Even though the burning was his own protest to the mosque at Ground Zero, Jones had to call of his program for fear of the extremists’ retaliation against people half-way across the world (not to mention the potential threat against his own life). I am in no way supporting or condoning what he proposed, and it was no doubt a provocative and emotionally charged idea, but I’ll be damned if it is not within his right to protest in this way. It was the proper decision to abandon the event, not because of the threat of retaliation or how offensive the act may have been to some, but simply because it was the right thing to do. In short, America is a country that remains tolerant of certain behaviors it does not actually support.

These types of threats cannot escape even the comic, pop-culture world. In an episode of the animated Comedy Central show South Park, an attempt to include a depiction of Muhammad sparked outrage and uproar. The creators of the show, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, take on all types of controversial issues, a cartoon depiction of Muhammad being no exception. However, when the episode was set to air, Comedy Central edited it and removed all mentions of Muhammad. This edit happened for fear of retaliation, as one extremist group threatened that Stone and Parker would suffer the same fate as Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered for his depiction of Muhammad.

This is not the first time that there has been controversy surrounding a Muhammad depiction. A Seattle Weekly cartoonist, Molly Norris, went into post-assassination-threats hiding just weeks after drawing a satirical cartoon calling for a “Draw Muhammad Day.” There also were murder plots against Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, whose depiction of Muhammad with a ticking bomb in his turban essentially began the cartoon controversies. Again, we see societies that normally would be tolerant of such actions caving to the threats of Muslim extremists.

The line is drawn. Will we live in a world of tolerance or will we live in a world where simply drawing a cartoon can come with calls for your life? Is this the kind of threatening environment in which we want to live? The evidence is overwhelming to support the notion that our freedom of speech and democratic beliefs are under attack.

And where does this end? It is well known that the Muslim extremists disagree with almost every aspect of the American way of life. So, what do we do when they decide to start threatening Americans for something in which more of us may be involved, when voting or attending a church or synagogue will spark calls for retaliation?

Will we forfeit those rights as well and fold to their threats of violence? So, how do we confront Muslim extremism in an area where they have clearly succeeded? The answer is not simple.

I’ll start by drawing a distinction between confrontation in the theater of war and confrontation in the theater of ideas. The United States is currently involved in several military campaigns to confront Muslim extremism, but militaries have boundaries–physical or otherwise. (I want to clarify that I am in no way belittling the work and sacrifice of so many of our service men and women, I agree with much that has been done militarily. My point, instead, is that this fight is two-pronged.) There is another front in this fight that resides in the theater of ideas, and it starts right at home with you!

Ideas do not have boundaries. We must show the Muslim world that the idea of tolerant societies leads to more freedom and success, that the idea of tolerance and understanding leads to less confrontation not more. This is how we ultimately crush a Muslim extremism based on fear and brutal enforcement of their own twisted ideology.

Generation Y, we are growing up in a dangerous world and we have two choices: We can bow to the demands of these Muslim extremists and voluntarily surrender our rights one by one until we have none left, or we can stand up to the intimidation. Our country’s defiant saying has always been “don’t tread on me.” Why start allowing anyone to do so now?