Thursday, July 16, 2015

Iranian Nuclear Deal

I caught a bit of President Obama's news conference regarding the recently signed nuclear deal with Iran.  I found it very interesting on a number of fronts.


First, I happened to catch a question asked by a general, don't recall his name.  His question, to paraphrase, was, Why are you content to let Iran hold 4 American hostages?  I am often amazed at the lack of respect this president has received, from questioning his birth straight through to claiming he hates America.  But here is a general, a man, I assume who may not demand his troops to like him but does demand their respect, publicly disrespecting his commander in chief.  Amazing.  To Obama's credit, he chastised the general telling him he should know better than to assume that the President of the United States is content with American hostages, then rephrased the general's question as, why did we not link the release of those hostages with this deal, a much more reasonable question, which the president then answered.


Anyway, before posting I googled pros and cons of the Iranian nuclear deal.  I found the following article, from a source that I generally find at odds with my own perspective.  See below.


http://www.cato.org/blog/pros-cons-iranian-nuclear-deal?gclid=CJLenbz538YCFYORHwodyboAQQ


Perhaps the question we should debate first is, why negotiate a deal with Iran at all?  One easy answer is that we negotiated with the "evil" Soviet Empire through both the SALT and START treaties.  In the name of mutual assured destruction we engaged in a decades long cold war that happily never ended in destruction.  Was it the treaties, some ratified, some not?  Was it the process of negotiation whereby the two sides came to know each other a bit better?  My point is that diplomacy is a far better way to get one up on your enemy than open warfare. 


The deal itself is full of compromises, no friend to the GOP presidential field, many of whom have already vowed to defeat or undo the deal before even knowing all the details.  The main points of the deal, as are understood currently, is that we have traded the relaxation of economic sanctions for the legal right to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities.  I thought it interesting that Obama emphasized the legal part of this deal, as it has always seemed his goal to get a signed treaty that can be used to justify future sanctions or other actions with legal backing, should Iran violate the treaty. 


The down side is that the inspections do not appear to be spontaneous, in that the inspectors can not show up without notification.  Also, by eventually relaxing economic sanctions, there may be more Iranian money to fund actions against United States interests, especially Israel.  From what I can gather, these are two of the more important details that opponents are unhappy about.


Curiously, I wondered what the viewpoint of the Iranian citizen was of this accord.  Of course, we have long ago labeled Iran as an enemy, but the fact is that before the revolution in the late 1970's, Iran was very westernized.  It had a vibrant middle class, with an emphasis on education and advanced degrees.  While this middle class has been hit hard by the policies of the various Ayatollahs, there are still millions of Iranians who would prefer a normalization of relations with the western world, especially in the areas of commerce.  My understanding is that they are for any treaty that presents Iran as a willing partner with the world in solving problems.


Unfortunately, Iran also has a large percentage of people who are hardliners.  Who hate America and consider her their enemy.  Like those in America who believe that only with force can we "control" Iran, there are those in Iran who believe that only with force can they fight to retain their sovereignty.
Considering that those extremists in Iran see some American politicians and pundits who blithely talk about "nuking" them, it is no wonder that we are not to be trusted.  And, of course, the GOP reps and senators who some time ago sent Iran's leader a letter telling them that Obama shouldn't be trusted, doesn't help. 


Trust.


Obama said this treaty isn't necessarily about trust, admitting that it is more of a hope that Iran will comply with its tenants while leaving America and its allies with a legal document against which to hold Iran accountable should they renege. 


But really, how far can we trust a country that we call our enemy, and they us?  From that respect then, perhaps the only basis for negotiation is to make sure that both sides get some of what they want.  Mutually assured satisfaction (MAS) if you will.  It seems to me that only when both sides have something to gain can a baseline agreement be reached.  After all, we wouldn't have signed a treaty that allowed for no inspections, why would we expect Iran to sign one that did not relieve sanctions? 


Now, I know that many people are against this treaty precisely because Obama is for it, but some truly do not like it on its face value.  That is fair, but why is it that they fail to admonish the old saying, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar?  Perhaps in the long run this is a good treaty, or at least a good start.


 










  

Monday, July 13, 2015

Pa State Budget

After Tom Corbett was elected governor, I wrote a post about his first budget.  That was 2011.  At the time, I was saddened by the deep cuts the first Corbett budget offered as a way to balance the state's income and revenue, but not surprised, as he ran on a campaign of no new taxes.  What surprised me was the general sense of outrage over that budget, and the next 3 budgets, that helped lead to the first incumbent governor to lose a reelection bid in PA history. 


I say surprised because he told us he wouldn't raise taxes, we foolishly believed that was the solution to our problems, then gnashed our teeth over the cuts that were passed.  Of course, since we seem to be stuck in a no win battle of raise taxes or cut benefits kind of thinking, no new solutions were offered either.  So, for 4 years we passed a balanced budget only to find ourselves towards the bottom of lists such as state revenue growth, job creations, and education funding. 


Now comes the 2015-16 budget battle between newly elected Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and the increased GOP majority in the House and Senate.  In some ways, I admire Pa voters for choosing a new leader while presenting him with a similar arrangement of house reps and senators.  Not sure if we meant to do that, not sure if we are actually thinking that when we vote, but by electing a DEM Gov and a GOP controlled legislature, we are saying to our public servants, Hey, we aren't sure what we want, but we expect you to work together to find common ground between our own schizophrenic needs and wants, and make the best choices possible for all of us.


So far, unfortunately, neither side has acted as adults.  Wolf's budget is unanimously voted down due to a clever politically motivated approach by the GOP, then the GOP budget is vetoed by Wolf.  One might say, score 1-1; or one might say score 0-2 where 0 represents the citizens of PA, and 2 represents the bullshit of PA politics.


Admittedly, Pennsylvania is a difficult nut.  A huge portion of our state population lives in or near a city, while a majority of state reps and senators come from counties that are rural.  The phrase Pennsyltucky has been used to describe this dichotomy.  It takes quite a balancing act to understand the opinions, perspectives and needs of such a diverse population.  One might even say it takes a lot of compromising so that each position gets a bit of what they want.  And, while compromise is an extremely dirty word in our national political debate, it is only a bit less dirty in our state debates.


As a tax payer, a parent with one child still in college and one a recent graduate with large college debt, and as a public employee with a job in the oft maligned PLCB, I believe I have a rather unique perspective.  Here are my thoughts.


Education funding should be our top priority.  When we continue to allow wave after wave of urban children leave school early, or graduate with inferior skill sets, we create future expenses that cost much more per individual whether it be through incarceration, public assistance, or reduced tax revenue.  Funding needs to be from stable sources and needs to be equitable in its dispersion.  There is a new formula recently proposed that, with a few tweaks, should be enacted so that so school systems with the least ability to generate revenue, get a bigger share of state aid.


Just as important, since less money is finding its way to the classroom, pension reform goes hand in hand with education funding.  The fact that it is through poor, past legislative decisions and the refusal by the state to always pay their legal obligations to the pension fund that has created this mess seems lost in the solutions.  That being said, there will need to be a reduction in the multiplier which is used to calculate pensions.  We can't continue to promise money that is not there.  Of course, those about to retire must not be affected, but for those decades away, a new formula needs to be enacted.  Perhaps even an option to take the money already invested, and opt out of future contributions and a future pension.  Personal choice.  And, however the details shake out, the state needs to recognize its debt to the pension fund and find a (hopefully) temporary revenue source to erase that debt.


There is also a huge need for transportation funding.  Literally billions of dollars are needed to fix our infrastructure.  Inevitably, higher taxes will be required.   A small increase in the base income tax rate, in addition to a sliding tax rate not unlike what many states have in place will help.  Also, while I have said many times before that the window to tax the Marcellus shale boom has closed somewhat, an extraction tax needs to be enacted.  For now it will not provide as much revenue as needed, but the cycle of high oil prices will certainly return again, and perhaps this tax will become a more productive source of revenue in the future.  I am not a big fan of applying the sales tax to more products and services as it tends to fall disproportionately on the lower income brackets, but there are luxury products and services that could be removed from the exempt list.  Perhaps even an increase in the liquor tax which began as the Johnstown Flood tax.  Clearly, the tax money no longer goes to anything related to Johnstown, but is a stable revenue source for the state.  Lets rename it what it is, an alcohol tax, increase it by 2%, and earmark the money for education or transportation or both.


Speaking of the PLCB, Pennsylvania is one of only two states that controls the sale of wine and spirits.  It is a system that was historically poorly run with little concern for customer service.  When I first was legally able to drink, the state stores were of the "conventional" model.  That meant you stood on one side of the counter, told the clerk what you wanted, and he picked your product for you then tallied up the total and collected the money.  Now, 30+ years later, wine and spirits shops are self service.  There is a website which provides information on store hours, product availability, an online store, monthly wine club subscriptions, and even advice on mixing drinks and hosting parties.


Even better, the PLCB generates millions of dollars in profits in addition to the taxes that are automatically collected.


Still, product availability is restricted to the 600 or so state run stores.  Legislation that will allow for direct wine purchases by Pennsylvanians from out of state wineries and vineyards while also offering separate liquor licenses to existing beer distributors and restaurants to allow their patrons to purchase wine and spirits will increase revenue while improving convenience.  Additional legislation that frees the PLCB to expand hours when and where necessary, vary profit margin by product, and other such common business practices will also improve customer satisfaction while increasing revenue.


If we want to allow beer and wine sales in grocery stores (I would not include spirits at first), then we need to make sure that this decision will create jobs, not just convenience. New items in convenience stores do not require new employees, but getting new product to those new outlets might.  That is why maintaining the PLCB's wholesale system is key.  This will force importers to find new ways to get their product to market, resulting in the need for sales, warehousing, and transportation positions.  As a PLCB manager, I am less concerned about losing our monopoly as I am about losing much needed state revenue.  A compromise approach (oops, there is that word again), that maintains the state presence in alcohol sales, while creating more outlets for the consumers seems the best of both worlds.  And, again, an increased revenue stream that can be earmarked for specific needs helps eliminate the yearly wrangling over what benefits to cut or what taxes to raise.


Also, what about more cooperation between the business sector and government?  It is so often presented as an adversarial relationship but the truth is that with cooperation both sides win.  Don't all business owners want our schools to produce smarter kids, don't they want safe roads to more their goods, don't they want a strong middle class to purchase their products and services?  And, don't politicians want successful businesses which means a bigger tax base along with less need for public assistance?  You would think that such intelligent, innovative people who can build businesses and win elections would also realize that we succeed, or fail together. 


Obviously, there are no easy answers.  But solutions come more readily, if priorities are set and referenced with each possible answer.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, sometimes sacrifice is required.  We can't eat our cake and have it too.  Sometimes we must decide to forego satisfying a need now, for a more complete satisfaction in the future.  I truly believe that most Pennsylvanians accept that philosophy, but don't often trust their public servants to use additional money (the sacrifice today) for a better tomorrow.  Frankly, the performance regarding the 2015-16 budget does nothing to alleviate that concern.  Let's hope that compromise becomes the buzz word in Harrisburg over the next few months, and that common sense, and common goals are the methods used to craft the 2015-16 state budget.   




  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Gandhi and Pluto

The July edition of National Geographic has, among others, two articles I found very interesting.  One concerns the legacy of Gandhi's teachings in India today, the other the long awaited fly by of Pluto by the New Horizon spaceship.


I am not sure if the connection that occurred in my mind between the two articles would have happened had I not read them consecutively, but a connection nevertheless sprang to me as I walked the dog.


Is it possible that other forms of life in the universe will only be discovered when mankind begins treating the forms of life on earth with respect and equality?


The Gandhi article recounted what many consider his penultimate action, the 1930 Salt March.  For those of you unfamiliar with this event, at the time, there was a tax on salt production, proceeds of that tax going to the coffers of Britain, as India was still part of its empire.  Gandhi's decision, in retrospect, to stage this march to the sea where he would illegally (not pay the tax) produce salt, is genius, but was not universally supported by those advocating for Indian independence.  As is so often the case with leaders who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, Gandhi understood that the way to reach the common people was to relate the need for freedom to their lives.  As Gandhi said, other than water and air, salt was the commodity most required by Indians considering the extremely hot weather of the country.  Noble concepts were one thing, salt was a part of everyday life.


What is so amazing about Gandhi was that his focus on salt, so basic yet so powerful, was just a part of his message.  During his walk, he stopped at some of the poorest villages in the area, and went out of his way to challenge the caste system by inviting the "untouchables", not only to be part of the walk, but as a symbol to those Indians who supported the caste system so they might understand that the meaning of freedom was not just freedom from British rule, but freedom from poverty and social injustice for all Indians.  To further that ideal, he encouraged spinning of cloth, not just, again, as a protest against Britain, but to encourage everyone to wear khadi, to look the same, as an analogy to his hope that by looking the same, everyone, high born or low, might be treated with similar fairness.


The thought that started the connection to Pluto, was Gandhi's belief that religions are not for separating men from one another, but to bind them.  He revered Jesus, could quote verses from the Bible and Koran, and was a devout Hindu, but he also knew that true independence needed to be founded on a democracy based on laws not religions.  Considering the misguided attempts by fundamentalists in many corners of the planet to fashion their governments from specific tracts of their religious tomes, Muslim and Christian, it is not surprising that Gandhi's dream is still illusive, both in India and in much of the world.


Perhaps, if we were to judge our religious leaders on their similarity to Gandhi, his lack of material possessions, his time spent among those with the least, his efforts to promote equal treatment of all people, we might find those leaders to be without moral high ground, and it might explain why too many of those leaders advocate messages of blame, isolation and hatred as opposed to unity, community and love.  It is far easier to get rich when your message promotes friction than it is when you advocate for tolerance and peace.


And, perhaps, despite our best efforts to find life in the universe, despite the myriad of vessels we have cruising through the solar system and beyond, despite the radio and TV signals that even now communicate how we live and how we die, we have not found life outside planet Earth because we haven't learned how to treat life on planet Earth.  Whether it be the animals that we slaughter for their skin or their bones, the sea creatures we poison via our dumping of trash in the oceans, the birds we kill by belching toxins into the air, or the people we dehumanize due to their skin color, gender, age, or any other trait that is deemed different, our lack of love for life on this tiny blue ball spinning anonymously in the cosmos, might be the reason for this lack of success.


There are those who worry what life from afar might do to us, but perhaps they have not come forth because they worry what we would do to them.  Based on what we do to each other, it would not be surprising.








       

Marriage Equality

For those of you who like numbers, my last post was the 250th of this blog.  Congrats to me??


After the historic Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, I sent letters to two local newspapers.  Neither was published so I thought I would include the longer version in this post.


To the Editor:

This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to read a pro and con opinion article in regards to the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.  I generally attempt to read both sides of an issue, when possible, as I believe it is important to read (or listen to) those with a different perspective on an issue.  This is especially true when considering the proliferation of extreme positions that seems to pass for rational discussion in today's media. 

In this particular instance, the person representing the negative perception regarding the gay marriage decision, Mr John Yoo, makes a salient point about the give and take between our three branches of government.  He emphasizes the desirability that big changes be made law through the voting booth, either directly by state referendum or in Congress through direct representation.  He rightfully states that decisions made in our courts should have a legal basis, not be founded on popular opinion or religious background.  Yoo's disagreement seems based on the fact that not all states have legalized gay marriage and that the current GOP controlled House of Representatives, an elected body, does not support this change.  He calls it a short circuiting of the political process.  Oddly, he does not reference the religious background of the four dissenting Supreme Court justices, nor the religion based opposition to gay marriage in his article. 

Did our founders not wish a separation between church and state?  It seems to me that laws preventing gay marriage are not based on legal reasons, but on social mores and religious teachings.  In this case, I would argue that a decision concerning an issue such as this is precisely the type of debate that should occur at the highest levels of the judicial system, so that the law, period, is considered, not reasons based on emotion and prejudice.

Noah Feldman, the person agreeing with the decision, states it very clear.  There is a guarantee for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness imbedded in our system of laws, and denying an American the option to marry the person he/she loves, runs contrary to that great principle.  When Feldman compares this decision with the high court's decision to rule against laws that prevented interracial marriage, it becomes a slam dunk. 

Hopefully, just as the sentiment against marriage between the races has evolved, so to the discriminatory bias against marriage between genders will fade, and those who purport to be defenders of God's view of marriage, will eventually embrace the spirit of their religion that emphasizes love above all else.







Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Eugenics

In the Philanthropy edition of the Lapham's Quarterly I am reading, there was a recreation of an essay from someone who criticized organized charities of her day for catering to "defectives, delinquents, and dependents".  She also advocated birth control, eugenics and restrictive immigration as methods to properly secure the future of "a greater American race".


In light of recent comments by The Donald concerning his opinion of Mexicans, and the negative undertone in the perception of foreigners among those of the far right that invades much of the debate about immigration, Muslims, and pretty much anyone not white, it may surprise you to know that the above quote emanated from Margaret Sanger.  For those unfamiliar with Sanger, in 1921 she founded an organization that later became Planned Parenthood.   


Eugenics is defined as a set of beliefs and practices which aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.  At its face value, it makes sense.   We use such practices to create better strains of grains which produce bigger harvests.  Or bigger beef cattle, faster race horses, purer bred show dogs.  All in the name of the enhancement of traits that best result in more useful, more bountiful progeny.


The idea of eugenics is said to date back to ancient Greece.  I imagine it is as old as man himself, as I am sure that the cave man of old sought out mates that appealed in some way to them, while the women, when they had choice, preferred men whose traits were most attractive to them.


Unfortunately, eugenics attained a bad reputation in the 20th century.  Rather than a method to improve genetic quality through the matching of those with desirable traits, practices were developed that purported to improve overall quality via negative processes, such as forced sterilizations of those with low IQ's.  Finally, these negative strategies found their apex in the eugenics of Nazi Germany which featured the attempted genocide of undesirable "types" of people. 


I say unfortunately, because as scientists became able to identify the nature of our DNA, and to manipulate this source code to possibly eliminate the causes of genetic disease, there was resistance to such attempts to "play God".  While the Nazis misuse of eugenics was horrific, the legacy of such attempts to improve the genetic quality of men, resulted in a misplace distrust of science and retarded the advancements of genetics to combat the diseases that continue to rip apart individuals and their families.


Which brings me back to Margaret Sanger.  Her statements, taken out of context, sound more like those in America who take the easy train by blaming our problems on those that are different, than like those who continue her work within organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  The reason is that Sanger was reacting to a time in America where the institutions of power used pregnancy as a weapon to harness women.  Sanger wanted to empower women to be the "absolute mistress of her own body", and as such advocated education as opposed to the dispersal of diapers.  She wanted a strong America driven by women who bore America's future as a result of informed choices and ability to properly raise those children, not merely because their religion or husbands demanded it of them.  One woman at a time, she sought the improvement of the human condition.


Eugenics continues to have a negative connotation today.   Still, its idea, to improve the genetic quality of man, is at work with every choice made to marry, and have children.  We want the world to be better, and that assumes improvement through our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. 


Hopefully, our methods to create such a world will reside in advancements of science to identify and eliminate DNA abnormalities, in continued improvements to access to information that allow us to make better reproductive choices, and by respecting every person, those similar and dissimilar, and not through messages of dehumanization and hate. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Time and a Word

Anyone who knew me in the late 70's and early 80's, knows that I was a huge fan of the progressive rock ban Yes.  For a number of years in a row, when Yes came to Philadelphia on tour, my friends and I saw at least one show, often two.  At the time, the big rock groups performed at the Spectrum, and in the case of Yes, they made full use of the venue by positioning the stage in the middle of the stadium, performing "in the round".  This design upgraded virtually every seat into a good seat.  Further, the stage rotated slowly so that you could see the members of the band full on with each circle they made.


Finally, unlike some bands with a high energy sound and a myriad of ways to make that sound, the members of Yes were talented enough to duplicate their albums in a live setting.  The entire experience was incredible, and seeing Yes live, solidified their standing as my all time favorite rock band.


Sadly, Chris Squire, one of the founding members of Yes and the bass guitarist, died a few days ago.  When I heard the news, I immediately remembered a Yes song that had touched me deeply when I first heard it.  I mistakenly thought that Squire had written the song, but when I did the research this morning I discovered that it was penned by Jon Anderson, the lead singer of Yes, and David Foster, a contributing musician on the album with the same name.


Hopefully then, Anderson and Foster will not object to my recreation of the words to Time and a Word below.  It is not a long song.  So many wonderful songs are short.  And the words repeat themselves, and not just in the chorus.  But as is so often with words, the right combination does not have to be verbose.  Finally, in light of the recent supreme court ruling on gay marriage, it seems appropriate. 




Time and a Word


In the morning when you rise,
Do you open up your eyes, see what I see?
Do you see the same things ev'ry day?
Do you think of a way to start the day
Getting things in proportion?

Spread the news and help the world go 'round.
Have you heard of a time that will help us get it together again?
Have you heard of the word that will stop us going wrong?
Well, the time is near and the word you'll hear
When you get things in perspective.
Spread the news and help the word go round.


There's a time and the time is now and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the time is now.
There's a word and the word is love and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the word is love.


Have you heard of a time that will help get it together again?
Have you heard of the word that will stop us going wrong?
Well, the time is near and the word you'll hear
When you get things in perspective.
Spread the news and help the word go round.


There's a time and the time is now and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the time is now.
There's a word and the word is love and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the word is love.
There's a time and the time is now and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the time is now.
There's a word and the word is love and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the word is love.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

More on Philanthropy

In my last post, I mentioned that I am reading the Summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly entitled Philanthropy which is separated into 3 sections, The Ask, The Gift, The Get.  I just finished the first section, The Ask, and was surprised to find just as many essays about the problems, even the evil of philanthropy, as about the positives of the concept.  Surprised, not because I was unaware of those that do not favor philanthropy as a way of improving humanity's condition, but because the logic of some of those against its use was solid.  While certainly there are those who abhor what they consider the giving away of hard-earned material gains to those whose only claim is their need, simply because they are selfish, arrogant, leeches who have little concern for anything not related to the gratification of their own egos, they are also those who have a well thought out understanding that there is a diminishing rate of return for giving and receiving that does not include some sort of responsibility for both parties to strive to end the cycle of need.


In other words, it is better to teach a man to fish, than to merely provide him with fish to eat.


If you google the above quote, you will find its origin attributed to many different sources.  One of the sources I found was Moses Maimonides, a scholar of Jewish law and philosophy who lived in the 12th century.  Among his many accomplishments, Maimonides (full name Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon) wrote the Mishneh Torah, a text still studied today for its advanced understanding of Jewish laws and ethics.  Oddly, although I say oddly in the context of the current vitriolic relationship between Jews and Muslims, Maimonides was influenced in his writing by both Jewish and Muslim philosophers, and was well regarded in both the Jewish and Islamic worlds of his time. 


In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides describes the ladder of charity in which he details eight degrees.
The first and highest degree is related to the fish quote above. In essence, the highest degree of charity is the act which places the receiver in a position where he can dispense with other people's aid.  It reminds me a bit of how parents should treat their children.  Provide them with the basics, shelter, food, morals, and confidence, then give them the opportunity to grow from this foundation, and to use their talents to become happy, healthy, productive adults.  A presence without hovering.
Comforts, but perhaps not luxuries.  Can anyone say roots and wings?


The second level of charity are acts in which the giver and receiver are unaware of each other.  In this scenario, the giver gives without the need for recognition; charity for its own sake.


One step lower he describes as an act where the giver knows to whom he gives, but the receiver does not know the origin of the charity.  The giver acknowledges the needs of others, but gives in a public setting so does not know specifically who is benefiting.


One step lower still is that in which the poor person knows the source of their succor, but the giver is unaware of how his donation is used.  Maimonides considers this form important in that the receivers can accept assistance without shame, a feeling that seems less prevalent in today's world.


One step below that is when the giver bestows the gift personally to the recipient.


Next lower is one who donates only when asked.  (This is important in that it sheds a new light on all the steps above, in that those who give at those levels do so without being asked.  They understand their role as humans; to help those with less).


Below that is one who gives less than is fitting, but is gracious in doing so.


Then finally, one who gives grudgingly, as if it pains him to help others.


Note again, the scrooges among us don't even make the list.  One might say that people who do not give at all are missing the main point of life, the actual meaning of life.  To help others.


So, how do we judge charity today?  Government assistance?  Non-profits?  Huge philanthropic organizations with their philanthropoids, people who act as gate keepers, monitoring the flow of money to those groups and individuals they deem deserving?  Our own giving?


The good news is that Americans are one of the most giving peoples on earth.  (A chart on the first few pages indicates that in 2013, 68% of Americans donated money, 44% donated time).  And, that chart aside, it may be said that we all donate via our tax money, as the United States, directly, and through organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, allocates billions of dollars to groups and nations in need.   


But the bad news is that much of our giving seems to land on the bottom of Maimonides' ladder.  We debate the amount of our assistance, domestic and foreign, frequently with malevolence, and often by describing those to whom we give in a not very flattering manner.  And when we do give anonymously, it is often through a religiously affiliated organization that uses heaven and hell as the reward or punishment for not giving.  Or when anonymous, there is still a splash on the internet about someone donating millions to charity X.  Even anonymous is not without acclaim.  (As a side note, if the IRS were to eliminate charitable donations as a tax incentive, how severely would donations tumble?  25%?  50%?  More?)


Still, by all means, be human.  Donate what resources or time you can.  And perhaps, every once in a while, don't take the deduction.  Who knows, perhaps there are eight degrees of heaven gauged according to our own level of charity.







 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Philanthropy

Received the Summer Lapham's Quarterly last week.  This edition is entitled Philanthropy and is broken into three sections; The Ask, The Gift, and The Get.  The contributors range from Cicero to Harry Belafonte, Karl Marx to Bill Gates.  So far, I've only read Lewis Lapham's traditional opening essay and a few others, but I am already excited about this quarterly, already have been thinking about the topic.




Or more precisely, am thinking about this topic again, as, four years ago I composed a letter which I had planned to send to a number of left leaning people of means in hopes of attracting their attention and their largesse.  Unfortunately, I had a hard time finding actual contact information, emails and such, for those I thought might respond, so I only sent a few requests, and received no responses.




The letter is as follows with my phone number starred out for privacy reasons.




Dear


Throughout history, it was common for artists, musicians, writers and philosophers to seek patrons among the wealthy and powerful.  This legacy continues today in the work of both famous and anonymous philanthropists and foundations.  To me, this tradition of selfless giving is one of the most important and critical human endeavor that exists and therefore bestows the highest esteem to one who can be called a philanthropist.


My name is Joe Pugnetti.  I am married, and my wife and I have two children.  We are middle class folks, living in a suburb of Philadelphia.  My oldest child, a boy, just completed his first year in college, and my second child, a girl, is just finishing her sophomore year in high school.  My wife works full time for a local pharmacy chain and teaches fencing (the sport) a few nights a week and on the weekend.  I work full time for the state of Pennsylvania and I deliver newspapers in the morning.


After an early adulthood of travel, journal entries, poems, stories and many, many letters, I have spent most of my adult life NOT writing.


On the first of January, 2010, I lost what was my full time job at the time.  Immediately, I began a blog about the ups, downs and everyday life events of my unemployment experience.  A few of these entries morphed into social and political commentary.  I also contributed a series of “letters to the editor” to my local, once-a-week newspaper.  Fortunately, I was able to upgrade my part time job with the state to full time status within 2 months, so I ended my “unemployment” blog and started anew focusing my writing on current events, opinion, and even a few stories. 


At this point, I now consider myself a writer, and, assuming that one can be called a writer regardless if one’s work is read, I will be writing for the remainder of my life.  I have no grand illusions of my talent but I do know that I have something to say, and that it needs to be said.


My problem is that my mind is filled with ideas, stories and opinions but my time is limited due to the 60+ hours a week required for me to spend on my two jobs.   While I blog about once a week, I know I have material enough in me to blog 2, 3, even 4 times a week.


Hence, this letter.  Would you consider sponsoring me in lieu of having to work my second job?  I am at your mercy in regards to the terms of your philanthropy but hope that it will focus on length, and/or frequency of my increased writing output as opposed to content.  Certainly, I am willing to discuss any requirements you might consider.


I am looking for $10,000 for the year which would replace the earnings of my second job, but I would certainly accept any amount short of that sum.


Please, feel free to peruse my blog so as to gauge both the direction and quality of my writing.  Here is a link for you to easily access it;   http://wurdsfromtheburbs.blogspot.com


Thank you so much for reading this letter to its end and considering my request.  If you wish to contact me in a more personal manner, my home phone is ***-***-****.


Respectfully,


Joe Pugnetti


------------------------------------

Since composing this letter, a number of things have changed.  My son has graduated college while my daughter just finished her 2nd year.  My wife now has a new job with a better salary.  While I no longer deliver newspapers every day, I still work a 2nd job, but now only work 48 hours a week instead of 60.  At this point, $5,000 per year would produce the extra time to blog, although at this point, my hope is that through my writings, an opportunity to "earn" the extra money will result as opposed to receiving money from a patron. 


More importantly, my view of philanthropy and philanthropists has changed since I wrote the above letter, partly from my research into the bureaucratic mentality that seems to control so many established philanthropic organizations, and especially this past week with the arrival of Lapham's Quarterly.  


In his opening essay, Lewis Lapham breaks down the na├»ve perspective of philanthropy that I expressed in the first paragraph of my letter, detailing the difference between those who give to advance the cause of humanity and those who give for their own glory.  It seems even more stark, when donations for political reasons are examined.  Of course, we donate to candidates that we agree with, but there seems ample evidence that too many of the donations that emanate from the super rich, are motivated to influence candidates, to support those candidates that will pass laws favorable to the interests of those donors, and, even worse, to legally slander those candidates that do not agree with the opinions of the donor, creating a negative opinion not easily countered, and too eagerly accepted by an electorate that spends very little time researching before voting.


Then too, there are innumerable organizations, created under the guise of a non-profit entity, that bestow lavish salaries on their creators or benefactors, yet direct a very small percentage of donations into actual work that most would consider the purview of a charitable organization.  Add to that the "experts" that some of these companies retain on their payroll to advance a cause through the appearance of facts and hard science, without either being present, and it becomes clear that philanthropy has been hijacked by some whose motives are anything but inspired to improve the human condition.


Hopefully, as I continue reading, I will find ample evidence that philanthropy, like all tools created for and by men, can be used for good and bad.  And that, as quoted from Nuruddin Farah, "Every gift has a personality - that of its giver".


 






 

Monday, June 8, 2015

God, guns, grins and crazies

My wife, daughter and I recently had dinner with good friends.  At one point, I engaged in a conversation about politics during which we touched on the ever growing crowd of candidates who are running for the GOP presidential nomination.  (I often refer to that group as reminiscent of a clown car at a circus; they just keep coming out!).  Anyway, my friend, who had been a registered Republican for a good portion of his voting career, agreed with my assertion that the GOP has moved too far right (hence his departure from the fold), and that there does not appear to be any moderate Republicans in the mix for the nomination.  What continues to baffle both of us, is that there seems to be room for a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate, there seems to be a significant percentage of the population that describes themselves as such, yet neither party seems to be interested in presenting a candidate with those credentials.  Perhaps this lack of a viable candidate that represents the middle slice of the electorate, partially explains the dismal voting percentages that mark elections in America today. 


My friend disagreed with me when I posited that, since poll after poll demonstrates that Americans are far more liberal on social issues than the GOP platform, if more people voted, more Democrats would win.  The recent elections of a Democratic president (where 50+ percent of registered voters turnout),  compared to the increase of Republican candidates who win state and national representative elections (and where frequently 1 out of 3 people vote) seemed proof for my assertion.  But he countered with the concept that too large a percentage of voters do not vote based on their self interest, or on facts, or even on familiarity with the candidates and their positions.  As it was said to him by a colleague from the deep south, "Even though I know I would be better off, I just can't bring myself to vote for a Democrat".  His point being, more voters just might result in more of the same; poor logic and decision making.  His opinion was that we need a generation of new Americans, immigrants and the young, who appreciate their right to vote, invest time and energy in understanding the candidates and their positions and understand the critical importance of choosing wisely.  In his viewpoint, it has been the continual flow of immigrants into the United States that created our great country.  From the mid 1700's when people sought freedom in the "new" world, through the early 1900's, when people flocked to our shores looking for opportunity and freedom to today when oppressed people throughout the world continue to risk life and limb for the American dream.  The constant mix of the old and new, all jumbled together to create the United States of America.


Returning to the GOP field again, my friend just shook his head.  Is it really going to be Bush vs Clinton, I pondered?  Have we reached such a place that we can only look backwards to past names that served for our future leaders?  This is not to say that Jeb Bush or Hilary Clinton aren't fine people, but are there no other families in America with fine people? 


In his recent book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, Mike Huckabee makes the point that there are two Americas, the one that he believes he represents, those that live in the heartland of America, in small towns and on family farms, and the one that encompasses the east and west coast.  His world, filled with people who fear God, believe in the 2nd amendment, and eat meat and potatoes, is far different from the world of Washington DC, New York City, and Hollywood where they believe in secular humanism, gun control and eat weeds.  While I can't say I have read his book (I saw Huckabee on Bill Maher talking about it), I would agree that he does have a point; the melting pot that is America includes a wide variety of perspectives, people and positions.  To expect that our leaders would represent such a diaspora of viewpoints, and then work together to improve the condition of all Americans, when that condition varies so greatly, is a lot to expect.  The problem, and I am guilty of this as well, is that if we continue to focus on our differences like Huckabee does in his book, then we will never find the common ground that we need to address our joint problems.  As long as both sides act like children in grade school with their lines drawn in the sand, it will be very difficult for our leaders to make the decisions that need to be made.


Now, I don't know if Mike Huckabee actually quotes the bible when linking God with guns.  Frankly, I prefer the example of Jesus, who generally preached understanding, compassion and forgiveness to those that disagreed with us or injured us.  But, I do like steak and potatoes much more than tofu.  Is two out of four enough for Mike?  Is there room in his tent for people who eat "real food" but also think that more guns equal more violence, and that the fire and brimstone God of the old testament should be replaced by the love your neighbor Jesus of the new?  


Conversely, am I willing to sit down with people who believe that dinosaurs and man walked the earth 6000 years ago, and discuss the topics of the day towards finding solutions that we both can live with?


Or is that the rub?  Common ground requires common purpose.  When a significant percentage of the population believes, and yearns for, the rapture, is there any chance in agreement of where to go from here?


In the end, my hope is that the one commonality that we all share (Stannis Baratheon aside), the desire for our children's' lives to be better than our own, will enable us to sit at the same table, talk through our differences and find those areas of agreement that will result in all of our children living in an America that is even better than the one we have today.







Friday, May 29, 2015

Minimum Wage, Retirement Income

I recently received an email from an acquaintance of mine which included a petition to push our Pennsylvania legislators to consider raising the minimum wage.  As of today, the PA minimum wage, like approximately 30 other states, is the same as the federal minimum wage.  The good news is that a number of states have already raised their minimum wage, while there are still a few states with no minimum wage.  In the meantime, average pay for the top earning CEO's in America continues to rise by percentages ranging from double to 12 times to 900 times, depending on the source of the data and the time frame studied. 


In researching the above data, I also read an article from Forbes by someone claiming that CEO pay increases are exaggerated.  The article reminds us that statistics can be used to prove anything one wishes to prove, which means that perhaps the 900 times number detailed above emanates from a source trying to push the income inequality issue, while the source of increases only double in size , may be the result of a person or group trying to defend high CEO pay or show that it hasn't grown as much as is reported in the mainstream media.


So, who to believe?


One interesting fact that I uncovered in more than one place is that using all sorts of gauges and indexes, it is believed that the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968, in terms of its buying power.
I saw that statement repeated a few times, then found a chart which detailed the minimum wage every year from 1938 to 2012, then gave its worth in 2012 dollars.  Here is a link to that chart.


http://www.dol.gov/minwage/chart1.htm


A quick glance at the chart, seems to say it all.  Soon after WW2, buying power for those making the lowest wage, increased steadily within the bands of that particular increase.  In other words, minimum wage increases, even after multiple years of that same rate, increased buying power with each consecutive minimum wage increase.  To put a number on it, in 2012 dollars, those making the minimum wage earned the equivalent of a rate above $8 from 1961 (peaking in 1968 at $10.34) through 1982 when the equivalent buying power fell below $8 for the first time in 2 decades.  Since then, it has never reached $8 again, falling as low as $5.91 in 2006, and averaging just below $7 in those 3 decades.  Yes, in today's dollars, our minimum wage is more than $1 an hour less than those making minimum wage in 1961; over $3 an hour less than in 1968.  Can you imagine the reaction of CEO's if they were making less money (in real dollars) now than then?  What would the Forbes author have to say about that?  Is it any wonder why retail and fast food workers are upset?


And, it is any wonder why the middle class grew by such leaps and bounds during the three decades between 1950 and 1970, because remember, this data only reflects those making minimum wage.  Those making above it realized an even bigger increase in buying power.


Personally, I do not think it a coincidence that 1980 marked the election of Ronald Reagan, and, at least in this area, the beginning of the decline of earning power of the middle class.  To those who bow their heads when mentioning President Reagan, I would remind them that the minimum wage stayed the same from 1981 through 1989, (NINE years) at $3.35.  Even more remarkably, during the great decline of the minimum wage, during the dominance of the trickle down theory of economics that permeated Reagan's terms, Bush 1, and Bush 2, in 25 years from 1981 to 2006, the minimum wage increased only 4 times, in 1990, 1991, 1996, and 1997, (all but one under Clinton) for a total of $1.80! 


What boggles me is that the business community, always first in line to protest mandatory vacations, paid sick time, paid maternity leave, and higher minimum wages, don't see that when the American consumer has less money to spend, less products and services will be purchased.  In the long run, a strong middle class makes the economy go, while conversely, a middle class struggling to make their money last to the end of the month, makes the economy stall.


Why isn't the minimum wage indexed to inflation?  Take the rate out of the hands of politicians and big business campaign donations, and make it a reflection of the needs of people to live.  And, don't forget, the definition of minimum is the least amount of a thing necessary.  Shouldn't virtually all Americans working full time earn more than the least amount?   


Perhaps some day, those with the most resources will understand that our economy is only as strong as its weakest link, and that too much money in too few hands makes America weak and vulnerable.


Speaking of vulnerable, I saw an alarming article about retirement income and the, perhaps, false belief that IRA's can replace social security and pensions.  The article suggested that for reasons linked to the declining earning power of the American worker, the amount of money necessary to invest in IRA's etc, so that one can retire with the same or similar living standard is far beyond the means of the average Joe to put aside.  Which means that for the next few generations at least, social security must still exist, and must be solvent, and that should those advocating for the privatization of social security become successful in their endeavor, it will result in millions of people running out of money far sooner than they plan because they will never be able to invest enough money, even with the additional money they would get if they did not have social security deductions.  This is not to say that a privatization of social security won't benefit many people, it is saying that it will leave far too many without a safety net.  Add to that the additional out of pocket medical costs that turning Medicare into a voucher system will create, and there is a more than a fair chance that those just entering the workforce today may not only not live as well as their parents, but may not live in retirement as well either.


Finally, of course, everyone thinks they deserve more money.  Or, at least, are OK with their salary, but think person X or person Y makes too much money.  If I were king, I would put a ceiling on salaries, perhaps creating a matrix that limits salaries within categories, industries, companies.  In other words, a CEO can earn as much as she wants, as long as her salary is no more than 30 times that of the lowest paid worker in that company.  Or, a sports star can make all the money he can get from a sponsor, but only 5 times more than the minimum salary in that sport.  Or an entertainer can make as much money on tour as they can, as long as the ticket price for a show never exceeds 5 times the average hourly salary of the town where the show is playing.  Frankly, I would prefer that people realize the necessity of this idea on their own, without laws or edicts.  But, as long as selfishness remains a more powerful force that selflessness, we might need such governors to help us maintain the core strength of our economy and our country.