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Day: January 17, 2015

A stitch and time saves flags

Debbie Lockhart, deputy city recorder with the city of Keizer, looks over a city flag to repair. She has been doing such work for about three years. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)
Debbie Lockhart, deputy city recorder with the city of Keizer, looks over a city flag to repair. She has been doing such work for about three years. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)

By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes

Debbie Lockhart has a great view of her handiwork.

For the last few years, the deputy city recorder for Keizer has been volunteering her time to mend flags as needed at the Keizer Civic Center.

Three flags fly over the main entrance at 930 Chemawa Road North: United States, the state and the city. Since there are lights underneath, the flags can stay up 24 hours a day. Lockhart can see the flags out her window.

Given the variation in Oregon weather, that means the flags can be subject to a fair amount of rain and wind throughout the year.

When Dan Collingham started as the city’s facility maintenance worker about three years ago, Lockhart ran her idea to repair flags as needed by him. Collingham agreed; in the time since Lockhart estimates she has done 10 repair jobs. With flags costing an estimated $60 each, that means the longtime city employee has saved taxpayers approximately $600 so far.

“I like making things last,” said Lockhart, who started working for the city in 2002.

Related to that, Lockhart does the repairs on her 1962 sewing machine she was given in the seventh grade.

Needed repairs are brought to Lockhart’s attention by Collingham.

“I check the flags on a regular basis, especially after a hard rain,” he said. “I’ll take them down if it’s going to be really windy or wet. Otherwise we keep the flags up all the time.”

With the flags in hand, Lockhart goes home and gets to work.

“I take them home and lay them out on the floor,” she said. “I look to see how they are. Some of them get damaged on the whole edge, so I need to cut the whole edge off. If the corners go back a way, I might make it rounded or cut as far as the damage goes. I’ve tried several different ways.”

Experience has taught Lockhart that folding back material twice and sewing on new thread lasts the longest, though it is harder with American flags since two folds means 12 layers of fabric to sew through.

“If you only fold once, (damage) comes back too fast,” Lockhart said. “We’re getting heavier fabric American flags these days, with double the fabric thickness. They cost us about $10 more, but they don’t need the repairs as often because of the stronger fabric.”

Lockhart works on the flags at city hall – which she can see out of her window – as well as the flags at Keizer Focal Point (at the corner of Chemawa and River Road) and the flags at the Pfc. Ryan J. Hill Memorial Park at Keizer Station. She does not work on the flags at Keizer Heritage Center.

Once she has assessed the situation, it doesn’t take long for Lockhart to get the job done.

“I would say it takes maybe 30 minutes,” she said. “It’s my own time and material. It just takes thread. The thread lasts a long time.”

Just how long the thread lasts is hard to estimate.

“It really depends on the weather,” Lockhart said. “Weather is so hard on the flags.”

Collingham noted American flags have to be kept a certain minimum size, meaning they can’t be repaired as often. He also pointed out Oregon is the only state with a two-sided flag.

Collingham said the American flags at the civic center cost $77.50, while the state flags are $161 each.

Flags at the focal point are smaller in size and are thus cheaper.

Lockhart said no measurements are done with the city and state flags.

“When they start to look too short, we eyeball it,” she said. “With the Keizer one, I told Dan last time the whole logo isn’t showing up well. By that time, the fabric is getting old. If we keep taking a little bit off, the flag is at end of its life anyway.”

Keizer City Manager Chris Eppley learned about Lockhart’s work earlier this month and was impressed with her willingness to volunteer her time and ability.

“She’s able to extend the life span of a flag by about three to four times,” Eppley said. “She just does them because she doesn’t like for the city to spend more money than necessary. I never cease to be amazed at the caliber of people we have here.”

Lockhart figures she’s just doing her job.

“Our most responsible way to serve the taxpayers is everyone working hard,” she said. “There are a lot of smaller cities with more employees. What do they do? This is the best job I’ve ever had. Everyone is happy working here. Everyone is happy because we are all very busy. I’d more rather have that than think, ‘What will I do today?’”

Design of the divine?

By MICHAEL GERSON

The biographer Eric Metaxas recently made waves by arguing that modern science increasingly “makes the case for God.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he framed some rather weak arguments about planetary science, claiming that the parameters for the emergence of life are so precise and unlikely that they point to divine design. We don’t really know what physical processes drive the development and remarkable resilience of life — which somehow includes moss on Mount Everest and tube worms in deep-sea hydrothermal vents — but it strikes me as likely that science will eventually find an explanation. Further research may reveal how the deck is stacked in favor of life by impersonal, natural forces. God is probably not needed to fill this particular gap.

But Metaxas goes on to make a broader, sounder point about the “fine-tuning” of physical constants that allow an observable universe to exist in the first place. After centuries of inquiry, we have found that everything that is — the whole shebang — balances precariously on the head of a pin. If electrons were a little lighter, there could be no stable stars. If protons were slightly heavier, no atoms could form. If the weak nuclear force were weaker, there would be no hydrogen. If the electromagnetic force were stronger, carbon would decay away. If a variety of physical constants were off by even a smidgen, we would not exist to engage in science or argue about God. This, presumably, requires an explanation.

Metaxas’ column brought a predictable reaction from a certain type of atheist who sees no need for an explanation. The universe is because it is. If it were otherwise, we wouldn’t be observing it.

But the belief that our precisely balanced universe is a fluke is in tension with the scientific method. Physicist Max Tegmark, for example, points to dark energy as a dramatic example of fine-tuning. If dark energy had a larger density, no galaxies would have formed. If it had a negative density, the universe would have collapsed back on itself before life could emerge. Tegmark imagines the full range of densities for dark energy represented on a dial. In order to get a habitable universe, the dial needs to be rotated past the halfway point by a precise, vanishingly minuscule amount. “The fine-tuning appears extreme enough to be quite embarrassing,” Tegmark writes. “To me, an unexplained coincidence can be a telltale sign of a gap in our scientific understanding. Dismissing it by saying, ‘We got lucky — now stop looking for an explanation!’ is not only unsatisfactory, but also tantamount to ignoring a potentially crucial clue.”

Tegmark is a leading advocate of the theory of the “multiverse. “  He explains fine-tuning by postulating an infinite variety of other universes, in which physical constants have all possible values. We happen to be located in one of the habitable versions. The existence of an infinite number of universes has mind-bending implications. There would be one, for example, in which the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct. In which Hitler died in World War I, or won World War II. In which the column you are reading differed by one word, or two.

The multiverse allows for fine-tuning without a divine tuner. But it would change and lower our view of the scientific enterprise. Newton and Einstein sought to describe the universe in terms of simple, elegant, physical laws and mathematical equations. “If the multiverse idea is correct,” argued MIT physicist Alan Lightman in The Accidental Universe, “then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles — to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are — is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is simply because we are here.”

Believing in the multiverse also seems to involve a considerable amount of faith. “Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable,” says Lightman. “In addition, we must believe in the existences of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.”

There is, of course, another option that explains much but can’t be proved. About a quarter of scientists at elite American universities believe in God.

(Washington Post Writers Group)

How government helps the 1 percent

By E.J. DIONNE JR.

You may think that government takes a lot of money from the wealthy and gives it to poor people. You might also assume that the rich pay a lot to support government while the poor pay a pittance.

There is nothing wrong with you if you believe this. Our public discourse is dominated by these ideas, and you’d probably feel foolish challenging them. After Mitt Romney’s comments on the 47 percent blew up on him, conservatives have largely given up talking publicly about their “makers versus takers” distinction. But much of the right’s rhetoric and many of its policies are still based on such notions.

It is thus a public service that the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has issued a report showing that at the state and local level, government is, indeed, engaged in redistribution — but it’s redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy.

It’s entirely true that better-off people pay more in federal income taxes than the less well-to-do. But this leaves out not only Social Security taxes, but also what’s going on elsewhere.

The institute found that in 2015, the poorest fifth of Americans will pay, on average, 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes and the middle fifth will pay 9.4 percent. But the top 1 percent will pay states and localities only 5.4 percent of their incomes in taxes.

When you think about it, such figures should not come as a surprise. Most state and local governments rely on regressive taxes — particularly sales and excise levies. Poor and middle-class people pay more simply because they have to spend the bulk of their incomes just to cover their costs.

This gets to something else we don’t discuss much: Public policies in most other well-to-do countries push much harder against inequality than ours do. According to the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), the United States ranks 10th in income inequality before taxes and government transfers. By this measure, Ireland and Britain, and even Sweden and Norway, are more unequal than we are. But after government transfers are taken into account, the good old USA soars to first in inequality. Norway drops to sixth place and Sweden to 13th.

It’s not a matter about which we should be proud to shout, “We’re No. 1!”

Actually, things may be a bit worse for us even on pre-transfer incomes, said LIS Director Janet Gornick, because people in the other rich countries tend to draw their pensions earlier.

The overall story is that we are not very aggressive, with apologies to Joe the Plumber, in spreading the wealth around. “Our inequality is already high because of the low minimum wage, the weakness of unions and very high levels of private-sector compensation at the top,” Gornick, a professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, said in a telephone interview from Luxembourg. “But on top of that, we are redistributing less than other countries and also have lower taxes on the highest incomes, particularly income from capital.”

And at the state and local level, our governments are exacerbating inequality. The ITEP study concludes that “every single state and local tax system is regressive and even the states that do better than others have much room for improvement.” The five states with the most regressive systems are Washington, Florida, Texas, South Dakota and Illinois.

On its face, the property tax would seem progressive, because big houses are taxed more. But the study finds that on average, “poor homeowners and renters pay more of their incomes in property taxes than do any other income group — and the wealthiest taxpayers pay the least.”

There is also an unanticipated consequence of growing economic disparities: Because states and localities tax the wealthy less, “rising income inequality can make it more difficult for state tax systems to pay for needed services over time. The more income that goes to the wealthy, the slower a state’s revenue grows.”

Political debates are typically driven by cliches, but at the very least, we can expect our cliches to be true. We need to stop claiming that we have a massively redistributive government. We need to stop pretending that poor people are “takers” when they in fact kick in a lot to the common pot. And we need to replace arguments about “big” and “small” government with a debate over what governments at all levels are doing to make our society more just — or less.

(Washington Post Writers Group)